When Donald Trump took the stage in Cleveland on Thursday night and said the words that sealed the deal—“I humbly and gratefully accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States”—I like to imagine that the Republicans in the room who endorsed him out of expedience experienced a familiar sense of dread. It’s the sense of dread Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, must have felt when he realized Melania Trump’s keynote address was plagiarized. Or, on a more appropriate scale, the dread must have overcome pro-war Democrats last decade, when they realized that they’d tainted themselves forever with the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history.
This particular kind of dread is familiar to every elementary school child. It’s defined by the realization not just that you’ve made a huge mistake, but that you knew you were making a mistake all along, and suppressed your courage or your conscience.
Whether that dread crept up on Republicans at that moment, or at any point during Trump’s meandering, grisly, hour-long acceptance speech, it will catch up with them eventually. Whether they know it or not, this is what has happened to them.
An analogy to Iraq is useful for two reasons. The Iraq war was a terrible idea on the merits, but what made it a career-defining political blunder for its supporters is that plenty of people—members of Congress and regular voters alike—knew and said it was a bad idea, tried to stop it, and were ignored.
Perhaps there is a degree of collective absolution in universal error. If everyone makes the same mistake, they can all legitimately claim nobody was around to lead them down the righteous path. But that didn’t happen during the Iraq war debate, and it didn’t happen in the lead up to the Republican National Convention.
There’s a whole movement called #NeverTrump; there are members of Congress who are part of that movement; just 24 hours ago, the runner up in the Republican primary stood before the delegates, and 20 million TV viewers, and told them “vote your conscience.”
When Trump loses the election badly, after normalizing white ethnonationalism, leaving a destroyed Republican Party in his wake; or when he wins, and proceeds to damage the country in one of the many ways he’s intimated (by abandoning allies, or defaulting on the debt, or expelling a significant percentage of the workforce), not only will repairing the damage be a long and painful process, but for his enablers there will be political hell to pay.
Nobody understands what awaits them better than the Democratic Party’s nominee. But for her Iraq war vote, Hillary Clinton might well be winding down the second term of her presidency. But like many others in her party, she tarnished herself with poor judgment and cowardice, and it derailed her plans. Like #NeverTrump conservatives now, Barack Obama was there back then, to remind her and Democratic voters that not everybody had made such a grave blunder, and voters punished her for it.
If there’s solace for Republicans like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio in this analogy, it’s that many election cycles later, Clinton is again very well positioned to win the presidency. Perhaps they, too, will be offered redemption years down the line. But that will depend on how much damage they’ve just inflicted, in their moral laziness, on their party, the country, or the world. We don’t know the answer to that yet. But we’re about to find out.