Election 2020

Why Did Karl Rove Refuse to Say Donald Trump's Name at a GOP Event?

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A funny thing happened at an Ohio Republican event this past weekend. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee (it’s a done deal, to hear Reince Priebus tell it), was not mentioned at the Summit County Republican Lincoln Day dinner on Saturday. We’re less than six months away from the general election and at an event you’d expect would be a “let’s unite around the candidate” pep rally, attendees never heard the words “Donald Trump” uttered from the dais—not by a sitting congressman, not by the county GOP chairman, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, not by keynote speaker Karl Rove.

Rove, a Fox News contributor and former senior advisor to President George W. Bush, was at the event to plug his book, The Courage of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters. He spoke to the crowd of several thousand GOP loyalists for nearly 40 minutes, mostly about William McKinley, the Ohio native who became a war hero and later a successful president. Rove talked about how beloved McKinley was by the American people, and described the widespread (and very public) national mourning in the wake of his assassination. He shared a few anecdotes from previous elections and also spoke briefly about how important it will be for Republicans to get involved in the upcoming election—going door-to-door, making calls, volunteering at the headquarters. And yet the activism Rove was urging seemed several steps removed from the presidential election. Indeed, the Summit County Republican Party had taken great pains to introduce dozens of candidates for office—from judges, to state lawmakers, to school board members—who were worthy of and in need of support, and it was those candidates for whom Rove seemed to be soliciting assistance (and, of course, cash donations, because…well…he’s Karl Rove).

Congressman Jim Renacci, who introduced Rove, also steered clear of mentioning Trump, as did Chairman Bryan Williams, who told PJ Media that he chose not to speak about Trump and “party unity” at the event. “I made that decision because I was concerned it would come across as a lecture and I did not feel the guests came to be lectured about party unity,” Williams said in an email. “I prefer it happen organically. By that I mean we should let Trump get to Cleveland, name a VP, benefit from the week-long activities that build any nominee and begin the foot race to November.”

Williams wanted to make it clear, however, that he has reached out to the Trump campaign “to offer them the support of the Summit County Republican Party and to let him know his open invitation includes helping organize an event should he want to campaign in Ohio.”

He said that the Trump campaign doesn’t need to peak too early. “We will do better to allow conservatives to spend the next two months getting used to Trump and digesting the reality that he is the only alternative to Clinton/Sanders. My lecturing conservatives at their Lincoln Day Dinner celebration just jumps the gun and feeds a democrat narrative that there is something wrong with Trump.”

It’s an interesting approach, to say the least, and quite a contrast to Reince Priebus, who has been traveling the country on his “support-Trump-or-you’ll-be-blamed-for-Hillary” lecture tour in recent weeks.

Both Williams and Rove reminded attendees of the importance of Ohio in the upcoming presidential election, which puts a lot of Ohio Republicans in very difficult positions. Potentially career-destroying positions.

Robert Kagan explained it well in a Washington Post article last week, positing that every political figure now confronts a stark choice: “Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over.” According to Kagan, political figures are going to fall into several categories. First, “There are those whose ambition leads them to jump on the bandwagon. They praise the leader’s incoherent speeches as the beginning of wisdom, hoping he will reward them with a plum post in the new order” (pretty sure he’s lookin’ at you, Ben Carson, Chris Christie). Kagan continues: “There are those who merely hope to survive. Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway.” (This is every last Republican who “reluctantly” endorses Trump and lectures the rest of us [with a straight face] about how much worse Hillary will be than an actual fascist.) Finally, Kagan says, “A great number will simply kid themselves, refusing to admit that something very different from the usual politics is afoot. Let the storm pass, they insist, and then we can pick up the pieces, rebuild and get back to normal. Meanwhile, don’t alienate the leader’s mass following. After all, they are voters and will need to be brought back into the fold. As for Trump himself, let’s shape him, advise him, steer him in the right direction and, not incidentally, save our political skins.” (Ah Reince et al., we do admire your eternal optimism and faux logic that defies all reason!) 

Kagan concludes, “What these people do not or will not see is that, once in power, Trump will owe them and their party nothing. He will have ridden to power despite the party, catapulted into the White House by a mass following devoted only to him.” He adds, “And is a man like Trump, with infinitely greater power in his hands, likely to become more humble, more judicious, more generous, less vengeful than he is today, than he has been his whole life? Does vast power un-corrupt?”

The answer is, of course, no. History teaches us otherwise. I suspect that Mr. Rove sees exactly what is going on. For all his wrong (and misguided) predictions over the years, the man is no dummy. He sees the mob destroying the party of Lincoln and I don’t blame him one bit for not wanting to speak the name of the man who will likely go down in history as the one who drove the final nail into its coffin.

Prior to Karl Rove’s speech, a little girl at the event recited Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” While we’re not (yet) engaged in “a great civil war” of the kind Lincoln was referring to when he penned those words, the Republican Party is certainly in the throes of a great tearing asunder. Whether or not the GOP can “long endure” remains to be seen. I suspect it will not survive this election. When the name of the presumptive Republican nominee cannot even be uttered in polite company at the most polite of all polite Republican events, the handwriting is on the wall. The party of Trump is certainly not my party. Next to nothing that comes out of the man’s mouth represents my views. Why would I want to be a member of a party led by him and driven by his bizarre values? I know many fellow Republicans who feel the same way. The party has left us and no one has much hope that it’s ever coming back. Perhaps it wasn’t coincidental that Rove made reference to the now-extinct Whig party. Perhaps that was his way of mentioning Trump without actually speaking his name.