S.E. Cupp: Exit ramp rolling out for Republicans to dump Trump

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The advent of Donald Trump is no unique American phenomenon but the latest symptom of a global retreat from modern values of an interconnected world, columnist Neil Steinberg writes. | AP Photo

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Rep. Richard Hanna of New York became the first Republican congressman to say he will vote for Hillary Clinton instead of the Republican nominee, Donald Trump.

“I think Trump is a national embarrassment,” he said, citing Trump’s undignified and despicable war of words with the Gold Star Khan family.

While many Republican leaders have begrudgingly offered their endorsements to Trump, and some have simply stated they will “support the nominee,” Hanna’s outright defection is somewhat significant, considering he’s retiring this year. This isn’t about getting reelected in a moderate upstate New York district. For him, this is personal.

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One of Jeb Bush’s top advisers, Sally Bradshaw, struck a similar chord in a new interview with CNN. “As much as I don’t want another four years of Obama’s policies,” she said, “I can’t look my children in the eye and tell them I voted for Donald Trump.” If the race in Florida is close, she said, she’ll vote for Hillary Clinton.

Other figureheads who have either aligned with Republicans in years past or are respected among many Republicans, including Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Mark Cuban, Henry Paulson, Richard Armitage and Brent Scowcroft, have said publicly they, too, will vote for Clinton.

Frankly, that there haven’t been more high-profile Republican defectors this election is surprising and disappointing. Even if most are backing Trump under the guise of “party unity,” Trump has proven time and again he cares little for unity and even less for the party. I think it’s safe to say that history will be kind to those who had the courage to denounce the nativist, reckless, uninformed and ugly candidacy of Donald Trump.

Given how angry and hardened our politics have become, it’s easy to assume none of these defections will have any impact on the race.

Not so; they could tip the balance.

Breaking ranks is hard, and few places is herd mentality more prevalent than in politics. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “A bad conscience is easier to cope with than a bad reputation.”

So when it happens, publicly, it can be impactful. Just ask President Obama.

In 2008, Obama’s campaign strategist, David Axelrod, had to mobilize voters who might not otherwise be comfortable voting for a black president. And he did so largely through third-party authentication, or endorsements from influential leaders that appealed to those voters, from Colin Powell to Ted and Caroline Kennedy. This approach was called a “permission structure,” a term you’ll likely hear resurrected.

How it works: Imagine you’re a middle-aged, educated Midwestern white guy who usually votes Republican. You might be turned off by Trump’s rhetoric and knowledge base. But how can you tell your Republican neighbors you’re voting for “crooked Hillary”? Someone like Buffett or Bloomberg — guys your neighbors respect for their business acumen, guys your wife admires, guys your kids aren’t embarrassed by — might give you that license to vote for Clinton.

To be clear, the strategy is a tough sell this year. In 2008, Obama wasn’t one of the most reviled and unpopular figures in American politics, nor had he been the poster child for conservative animus for decades, as has Clinton. Giving permission to a Republican to vote for Hillary Clinton is no small ask, and for many it’s a nonstarter.

Conservatives like me, for example, see no moral daylight between the contemptible corruption, rank dishonesty and serial unaccountability of Clinton and the bigotry, megalomania and hypocrisy of Trump. One may know considerably more about politics, but that doesn’t make her any more trustworthy. For us, neither will get our vote.

But I’ve talked to countless other Republicans who whisper to me that while Clinton is despicable, she won’t “burn the country down.” When I ask if they can vote for her, they look around, make sure no one else is watching, and reluctantly nod yes.

For the same reason, Trump organizers believe the polls don’t accurately show his lead — because people are embarrassed to admit they are supporting him — Clinton organizers are now wondering if there are enough Republican voters who are embarrassed to admit they will vote for her.

If there were ever an exit ramp for Republicans to abandon Trump, it may just be now, as he attacks the grieving parents of a fallen U.S. soldier. And with some public defections to lead the way, more may soon follow.

Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com.

This column originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

Follow S.E. Cupp on Twitter: @secupp

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