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Donald Trump Jr. released emails suggesting ‘incriminating information” about his father’s Democratic campaign rival, Hillary Clinton.
USA TODAY

As the lies unravel, mainstream Republicans and conservative intellectuals are loath to admit how badly they’ve soiled themselves.

By releasing a damning email exchange from last year revealing his own eagerness to take help from the Russian government to elect his father, Donald Trump Jr. has brought us to a watershed moment. One of the dikes blocking public understanding of the story line of potential collusion has given way. A flood of further incriminating evidence is now almost certain to follow.

President Trump is in a bind. Even if he were a model of rationality (which he is not), and even if he had retained the finest Washington attorneys to advise him (which he has not), he is confronted by impossible choices. After all, to state the obvious, Donald Jr. is his son. Jared Kushner, also tangled in the web, is his son-in-law. Even if the president himself is not implicated in the Russia trap, would he throw them under the bus? And if he is implicated, he cannot throw them there without getting crushed himself.

Caught in this predicament, Trump could lash out and sack the special counsel Robert Mueller, sparking a major crisis. Perhaps, recalling the applause he garnered by launching cruise missiles at Syria, he will start a diversionary conflict somewhere abroad. It is impossible to predict Trump’s future direction or gauge how long his damaged presidency might linger on.

But what about the rest of his circus?

To begin with the Republican Party, corrupt is hardly an adequate description of an organization that so readily jettisoned its core principles for their antitheses. Degenerate is perhaps a more appropriate word. A party that a mere two years ago stood for economic and personal liberty and saw itself as a defender of the Constitution followed a demagogue down the path toward protectionism, nativism, ethnic and religious bigotry and much else that is anti-Constitutional and on the dark side of American life.

Much of the impetus for this shift came from the ideological far right, with Breitbart News and its former proprietor Steve Bannon among its leading lights. But what is far more significant is how eagerly mainstream Republicans followed suit. Figures like Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer, cogs in the White House machinery who today seamlessly defend Trump and his lies, did not come to Trump World from the fever swamps of Breitbart News. They are from the heart of the GOP apparatus, the Republican National Committee, where only yesterday — in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat — they were preaching moderation and inclusiveness.

Employing their skills to rationalize Trump’s fabrications, his misogyny, his debasement of discourse and language, and his strange admiration for and acquiescence to Vladimir Putin, these apparatchiks have compromised themselves even more than Trump’s band of true believers. There is no going back. The latter — figures like Jeffrey Lord, Kayleigh McEnany,and Katrina Pierson — have come to resemble a cult of unswerving loyalty to Trump and the Trump line..

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Although some of them are less familiar to the broader public, the conservative intellectuals who puffed Trump up into something he is not will also have to make their choices. William J. Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues, shows no signs of withdrawing his support from a president who is depraved. Fervent Trump backer David Gelernter of Yale has yet to retract his breathtaking discovery of virtue in Trump’s vulgarity: “Nothing can stop Mr. Trump from shooting off his mouth,” Gelernter writes, “but that’s all right, I want America’s enemies off-balance and guessing.” Roger Kimball, editor of the highbrow journal The New Criterion, opined this very week that our sub-literate president is an orator on a par with Pericles of Athens.

As the Russian collusion story enters a new and perhaps decisive phase, it would not be surprising to see these intellectuals, along with the political operatives and politicians, stick with Trump to the bitter end. Having wandered into the muck, they are loath to admit how badly they’ve soiled themselves, let alone turn back. Their dilemma is quite similar to the one their hero now faces as the lies unravel and the truth comes to light. They have no good choices. The rest of us can take satisfaction that the ship of fools has run aground.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law, was a senior adviser to the 2012 Romney for President campaign. Follow him on Twitter: @gabeschoenfeld

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