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Why Republican despondence over Trump matters

Top Republican officials will vote for Trump, and remain his official endorsers, but it matters when they want no part of defending him.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
Every time Republican officials believe Donald Trump might finally pivot, shake the Etch a Sketch, and become a credible general-election candidate, the presumptive GOP nominee moves in the opposite direction. The only difference between Primary-Phase Trump and General-Election Trump is the specific target of his ire. The overall message, however, remains the same.
MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin reported from Capitol Hill yesterday, where Democratic leaders challenged Republicans to come up with some kind of defense for Trump's reaction to the mass-shooting in Orlando. "Few," Sarlin noted, "took up the call."

Instead, GOP lawmakers in Washington jumped, ducked and crawled through yet another obstacle course laid by Trump as reporters peppered them with questions about the candidate's proposed ban on Muslim travel, his suggestions that President Obama sympathizes with radical Islamists and should resign and his threat of "big consequences" for Muslim communities in America who he says are harboring terrorists. [...] [Some Republicans] looked like they would rather be anywhere else doing anything but taking a question on Trump.... Senator Tim Scott, R-S.C., paused a moment after being asked by NBC News whether he had any thoughts on Trump's response to Orlando. "You know ... hmm," he said. Then without another word, he walked onto the Senate floor.

The Tim Scott reaction was striking, but quotes like these were extremely common yesterday. Sarlin's report is filled with quotes from Republican officials in the House and Senate -- some Trump supporters, some not -- nearly all of whom did their best to say as little as possible about the GOP presidential candidate who's left them feeling despondent.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) went so far as to say, "We do not have a nominee until after the convention." I'm not entirely sure what he meant, but they're not the words of an influential Republican insider who's feeling pride in his party's presumptive nominee.
The Washington Post published a similar report last night. So did Politico. So did Reuters. So did Bloomberg Politics. GOP officials are neither pleased nor confident, they're struggling to pretend otherwise, and everyone is noticing.
The question, of course, is why this matters.
The fact remains that a grand total of one Republican official -- Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) -- has announced a switch in his 2016 posture, dropping his Trump endorsement in light of the candidate's antics. Every other GOP lawmaker who's announced his or her backing for the presidential hopeful continues to be, officially, a Trump supporter.
The "Never Trump" contingent has made literally no progress of late, and its membership list of Republicans elected to public office is still quite tiny.
So is the despondence irrelevant so long as nothing's really changed? Almost, but not quite.
Watching President Obama and Hillary Clinton tag-team Trump yesterday with similar and effective criticisms served as a timely reminder: Trump sure could use some impressive and influential allies, who are willing to go to bat for him, right about now, but these folks don't exist.
For their part, Democrats have their A list in place -- President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, et al -- and soon, Bernie Sanders will likely follow through on his promises and get to work undermining Trump's candidacy, too.
Many high-profile Republicans, meanwhile, would rather bury their heads in their hands than say Trump's name out loud. The GOP leaders who help sway the public discourse, and shape the public's understanding of current events, are the same Republicans who can't think of a defense for Trump, so they're avoiding the questions.
Even the RNC yesterday issued a press statement condemning Obama and Clinton on national security, but the party made literally no mention of their own presumptive presidential nominee.
It may be easy to overstate the nature of Republican divisions, because when push comes to shove, folks like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and others will vote for Trump and remain loyal partisan soldiers. But when Trump's under fire, how eager will they be to defend him, back up his ridiculous claims, offer him cover, and lend him their credibility?
At least for now, the answer is not eager in the slightest. When Trump is flailing, he flails alone.