That Moment When 2016 Hits You ‘I felt a wave of sadness,’ said one friend. This year’s politics have that effect on a lot of Americans.

Have you had your 2016 Moment? I think you probably have, or will.

The Moment is that sliver of time in which you fully realize something epochal is happening in politics, that there has never been a presidential year like 2016, and suddenly you are aware of it in a new, true and personal way. It tends to involve a poignant sense of dislocation, a knowledge that our politics have changed and won’t be going back.

We’ve had a lot to absorb—the breaking of a party, the rise of an outlandish outsider; a lurch to the left in the other party, the popular rise of a socialist. Alongside that, the enduring power of a candidate even her most ardent supporters accept as corrupt. Add the lowering of standards, the feeling of no options, the coarsening, and all the new estrangements.

The Moment is when it got to you, or when it fully came through.

My friend Lloyd, a Manhattan lawyer and GOP campaign veteran, had two Moments. The first came when he took his 12-year-old on a father-son trip to New Hampshire to see the primary. They saw Ted Cruz speak at a restaurant, and Bernie Sanders in a boisterous rally. “It was great and wonderful,” Lloyd said.

Which way?Then it happened. “The Monday night before the voting we were at a Donald Trump rally. A woman in the audience screamed out the P-word to refer to a rival candidate. Trump repeated it from the podium, and my kid heard it and looked at me.” Lloyd was mortified. Welcome to the splendor of democracy, son. “I thought, ‘So we have come to this.’ ”

It didn’t end there. Lloyd’s second Moment came a month later, the morning after the raucous GOP debate that featured references to hand size. Lloyd was in the car with his son, listening to the original Broadway cast recording of “Hamilton.” “I blurted out, ‘How exactly has America managed to travel from that to this?’ ” American history is fiercely imperfect and made by humans. “Yet in the rearview mirror it appears ennobling and grand. And now it feels jagged, and the fabric is worn.”

A friend I’ll call Bill, a political veteran from the 1980s and ’90s, also had his Moment with his child, a 14-year-old daughter who is a budding history buff. He had never taken her to the Reagan Library, so last month they went. As she stood watching a video of Reagan speaking, he thought of Reagan and FDR, of JFK and Martin Luther King. His daughter, he realized, would probably never see political leaders of such stature and grace, though she deserved to. Her first, indelible political memories were of lower, grubbier folk. “Leaders with Reaganesque potential no longer go into politics—and why would they, with all the posturing and plasticity that it requires?”

He added: “I felt a wave of sadness.”

Another political veteran, my friend John, also had his Moment during the New Hampshire primary. Out door-knocking for Jeb Bush, “I was struck as I walked along a neighborhood using the app that described the voters in each house. So many multigenerational families of odd collections of ages in houses with missing roof shingles or shutters askew or paint peeling. Cars needing repair.”

What was the story inside those houses? Unemployment, he thought, elder care, divorce, custody battles. “It was easy to see a collective loss of hope in a once-thriving town.” He sensed “years of neglect and sadness. Something is brewing.”

My Moment came a month ago. I’d recently told a friend my emotions felt too close to the surface—for months history had been going through me and I felt like a vibrating fork. I had not been laughing at the splintering of a great political party but mourning it. Something of me had gone into it. Party elites seemed to have no idea why it was shattering, which meant they wouldn’t be able to repair it, whatever happens with Mr. Trump.

I was offended that those curiously quick to write essays about who broke the party were usually those who’d backed the policies that broke it. Lately conservative thinkers and journalists had taken to making clear their disdain for the white working class. I had actually not known they looked down on them. I deeply resented it and it pained me. If you’re a writer lucky enough to have thoughts and be paid to express them and there are Americans on the ground struggling, suffering—some of them making mistakes, some unlucky—you don’t owe them your airy, well-put contempt, you owe them your loyalty. They too have given a portion of their love to this great project, and they are in trouble.

A few nights earlier, I’d moderated a panel in New York, on, yes, the ironic soundtrack of election year 2016, “Hamilton.” At one point I quoted a line. It is when Eliza sings, just as war has come and things are bleak: “How lucky we are to be alive right now.” As I quoted it my voice caught. I asked a friend later if he’d noticed. Yes, he said, quizzically, comfortingly, we did.

The following day I spoke at a school in Florida, awoke the next morning spent, got coffee, fired up the iPad, put on cable news. I read an email thread from a group of conservative women—very bright, all ages, all decorous and dignified. But tempers were high, and they were courteously tearing each other apart over Mr. Trump and the GOP.

Then to my own email, full of notes from people pro- and anti- Trump, but all seemed marked by some kind of grieving. I looked up and saw Hillary Clinton yelling on TV and switched channels. Breaking news, said the crawl. A caravan of Trump supporters driving to an outdoor rally in Fountain Hills, Ariz., had been blocked by demonstrators. The helicopter shot showed a highway backed up for miles. No one seemed to be in charge, as is often the case in America. It was like an unmovable force against an unmovable object.

I watched dumbly, tiredly. Then for no reason—this is true, it just doesn’t sound it—I thought of an old Paul Simon song that had been crossing my mind, “The Boy in the Bubble.” I muted the TV, found the song on YouTube, and listened as I stared at the soundless mile of cars and the soundless demonstrators. As the lyrics came—“The way we look to a distant constellation / That’s dying in a corner of the sky / . . . Don’t cry baby / Don’t cry”—my eyes filled with tears. And a sob welled up and I literally put my hands to my face and sobbed, silently, for I suppose a minute.

Because my country is in trouble.

Because I felt anguish at all the estrangements.

Because some things that shouldn’t have changed have changed.

Because too much is being lost. Because the great choice in a nation of 320 million may come down to Crazy Man versus Criminal.

And yes, I know this is all personal, and not column-ish.

But that was my Moment.

You’ll feel better the next day, I promise, but you won’t be able to tell yourself that this is history as usual anymore. This is big, what we’re living through.

New York’s Vote Matters for a Change Trump tries to recover from his Wisconsin deflation, while Sanders finally gets aggressive.

In Wisconsin and in the weeks leading up to it Donald Trump got wounded. Big animals get wounded and come back. The question is whether he’s a big animal or something smaller that skittered around the forest and finally picked the wrong fight.

Wisconsin almost certainly foreclosed his chance to walk into Cleveland with enough delegates to win on the first ballot. The convention will be open, and contested.

There’s nothing easy about Mr. Trump. He leaves his supporters’ hearts in their mouths. He leaves his enemies happy then self-doubting, triumphant then fatalistic. But what we have witnessed the past few weeks is his deflation, a real one, and the worst kind: It was all his fault. It wasn’t the anti-Trump forces and it wasn’t Ted Cruz, it was his lax, louche indiscipline.

But now we cut to New York. We are about to witness something of a Trump reinflation.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

The other night he drew some 10,000 people to a rally in Bethpage, Long Island, which the Daily News called “riotous” and Newsday called “rousing.” I lived in Long Island from age 5 to 16 and go there often. My friends and their children are a generation or two from Brooklyn and Queens, and Brooklyn and Queens were one or two generations from the old country. Long Islanders carry within them, still and more than they know, a love for America tinged by family lore of the immigrant experience—an old and patriotic sense that gets mixed up, in the current way, with a nationalistic sense. Republicans who were amusing themselves on social media the night of the rally—as word spread of turnout they were sending out pictures of Joey Buttafuoco—look down on those rally-goers at their peril. They will be part of the base of whatever takes the place of the current Republican Party.

Mr. Trump, in the video I saw, was masterly. “We don’t win anymore,” he said. “We don’t fight like people from Long Island. We don’t fight like people from New York.” He laid into Mr. Cruz: “Remember when he started lecturing me on ‘New York values’ like we’re no good?” That was the authentic sound of working New York: “Like we’re no good.”

And it felt fresh, because no one really campaigns for the presidency in New York anymore. Its primaries are in April, usually after everything’s been settled. In the general election New York’s in the bag for the Democrats, so why should they expend the energy or Republicans the time?

Candidates for president only come here for major media interviews and for money. They pick Manhattan up and shake it like a big pink piggy bank—$60K at the downtown breakfast, $600K at the uptown cocktail party. They enter the homes of the great and powerful—the spacious rooms, high ceilings, plump sofas, shiny floors, important art, views of Central Park—and they think: “Boy, they sure got it good. Maybe the economy isn’t so bad!”

The rich of New York thus hold an outsize place in the Republican and Democratic imagination. But the not-rich—the middle, the hanging-on and the poor—have no place at all.

Republicans especially, the past 20 or so years, have no sense of them. They know the hedge-funders and the rooms with the Rothkos. Their vision of everything else comes from old movies like “Dog Day Afternoon.” They’re surprised we’re not all running around in the streets shouting “Attica! Attica!”

What Republicans especially fail to appreciate is that New York more than ever is full of legal immigrants. If you sit on the side of a street fair in non-hipster Brooklyn—in Bay Ridge, for instance—you’ll see all the world passing by: people from China, Ireland, Lebanon, Poland, South and Central America, Asia, Africa, Arabia. They are young. They’re expending all their energy doing what people do to establish themselves—finding the job, keeping it, paying the rent, finding someone to love, making a family, making it all work.

So far they have no time for politics—but they will. They’re not aligned—but they will be. They are open to persuasion. They will consider your argument. All you have to do is be there and talk to them. If the Republican Party were thinking long-term, it would. Maybe when the party is reconstituting itself—trying to rebuild a damaged or destroyed party, or inventing a new one—they’ll recognize these people too as a potential part of their base.

In any case Mr. Trump is expected to win big. He’s 31 points ahead in the polls. Is there any chance he can discipline himself and sustain the discipline, create a real campaign, professionalize his operation? Would it make a difference? Or are his reputation and his mess set so firmly in concrete nothing can change his outcome?

On the Democratic side Bernie Sanders has turned tough. He seems to have come face to face with the fact that he really wants to win. He said Hillary Clinton is not “qualified” to be president because of her support for the Iraq war, “disastrous” trade policies, and taking Wall Street money. His campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, upped the ante by saying if Mrs. Clinton hits back unfairly, “they’re going to see how a real New Yorker fights back.”

God bless New York for stripping the passive from the passive-aggressive campaign they were waging against each other until this week.

I saw Mrs. Clinton at Harlem’s Apollo Theater last week. The audience was appropriately enthusiastic but not wild. Soon after, I watched the Sanders rally in the Bronx—a crowd of at least 15,000 that was wild. A Hillary supporter I spoke to at the Apollo confessed she was there to reignite her excitement. In her life she was surrounded by Bernie supporters. It leaves you feeling defensive.

If he dings her bad or wins in New York it will be a real setback for Mrs. Clinton, and an embarrassment.

Everything on both sides is still so in play.

Washington Republicans continue their fantasy of the white knight who comes to Cleveland and saves the day—the magical unifying figure who electrifies the convention and wins on the fourth ballot. But how would the large majority of Republicans who’ve voted for Mr. Trump or Mr. Cruz feel about that? Not good!

Again, if Mr. Trump wins, a significant part of the party splits off. If he doesn’t, a significant part of the party likely isn’t there in November. I was asked this week if Trump always intended to break the party. I don’t think so; I think he set out to win. But whether he wins or not he has succeeded in demonstrating to the party that it is and was broken. He made the information unavoidable.

A friend with whom I’d been discussing the convention, a former Romney bundler, this week sent me a gift: handsome two-inch heels, heavily padded on the sole so if there is trouble you could run in them. The outside fabric is rough camouflage, the kind a soldier would wear in the field.

That’s a fellow whose fantasy of what the convention will be like is probably closer to the mark.

Trump’s Mess Has Become His Message His supporters are getting embarrassed by his sheer dumb grossness.

This is almost always true:

A woman who aborts a child is operating within an emotional and spiritual context of fear, disappointment, confusion and sadness. If she receives an illegal abortion she should not be “punished” by the law. This is in line with long human tradition and is based on the simple wisdom that she has already been gravely and tragically penalized: She has lost her child, someone who was very likely going to love her, someone she very likely would have loved. The doctor who performs such an abortion on the other hand is not in turmoil, he is in business. He breaks the law and ends the life of the child with full consciousness, and for profit. He should be “punished.” He should be in jail.

That we even have to discuss this is absurd. It also feels very 1970s, when the subject to so many was new. I guess it’s still new to Donald Trump, and so unexamined, un-thought-through. Yes, he walked back or clarified his stand on punishment, and yes, Chris Matthews badgered and browbeat him on MSNBC. But presidential hopefuls, especially Republican ones, are routinely badgered and browbeaten. You have to deal with it. It’s part of how you earn the big job.

But I feel like we’re missing something in this latest.

Donald TrumpMr. Trump is hurting himself, in real time and for the first time. We will likely see it, and soon, in the polls. Already his numbers in next week’s Wisconsin primary have fallen, and as for women—well, with women nationally Mr. Trump is currently more popular than cholera, but not by much.

We’re missing what’s happening because we’re blocked by clichés. The first great Trump cliché, which began seven or eight months ago, was that he’d quickly do himself in with some outrageous comment. So everyone waited. His insults to John McCain, Megyn Kelly—that would do it. But it didn’t. The more outrageous he was the stronger he got.

So a new cliché was born, the still-reigning one: Whatever Mr. Trump says it won’t hurt him, people will just love him more.

But that’s not right. It was always a mistake to think one explosive statement would blow his candidacy up. What could damage him, and is damaging him, is the aggregate—a growing pile of statements and attitudes that becomes a mood, a warning sign, a barrier.

It’s been going on for four or five weeks, and you can take your pick as to the tipping point. Maybe it was when he threatened to “spill the beans” on another candidate’s wife, or when he retweeted the jeering pictures of her and his own wife. Maybe it was his inability to clearly, promptly denounce the KKK; maybe it was when he hinted at riots if he’s cheated out of the nomination. Maybe it was Corey Lewandowski’s alleged battery of reporter Michelle Fields. Maybe it was when Mr. Trump referred in debate to his genitals, a true national first.

It has all added up into a large blob of sheer dumb grossness. He is now seriously misjudging the room. The room is still America.

I speak to Trump supporters a lot, and they are getting embarrassed. Their feeling was perfectly encapsulated by what Ann Coulter said on a podcast after the retweeting of the wives’ photos: “Do you realize our candidate is mental?” She said of having to defend his mad statements and tweets: “It’s like constantly having to bail out your 16-year-old son from prison.”

It has left me thinking about the political theory of The Mess. The Mess is something a candidate occasionally brings with him that voters can tell is going to cause trouble down the road. The Mess is a warning sign; it tells potential supporters to slow down, think twice. The Mess might be a pattern of scrapes with the law, a series of love affairs or other scandals. Voters will accept normal, flawed human beings but they don’t like patterns of bad behavior. They don’t like when they see a Mess, because they don’t want to elect trouble to high office. Donald Trump’s Mess is his mouth, his indiscipline, his refusal to be . . . serious.

At the same time Mr. Trump doesn’t even seem to be trying to do the one big thing he has to do now. He is the front-runner for the nomination. At this point it is his job to keep the support he has and persuade those who don’t like him to give him a second or third look. To do that he only has to be more thoughtful, stable and mature in his approach—show he may be irrepressible and fun and surprising, even shocking, but at bottom he has within him a plausible president.

Instead, he is stuck at nutty. Rather than attempt to win over, he doubles down. In the process he shows that what occupies his mind isn’t big issues, significant questions or the position of the little guy, but subjects that are small, petty, unworthy.

Instead of reassuring potential or reluctant supporters, he has given them pause. Instead of gathering in, he is repelling. This is political malpractice on a grand scale.

It was always Mr. Trump who was the only one big enough to take down Mr. Trump. He may be doing it. In the process he does a great favor to his current and potential opponents. One of the things Mr. Trump does is make everyone else look normal. His outrageousness cancels out theirs. Once Hillary Clinton was too corrupt to be elected, had too many negatives, too much bad history from her early days in Arkansas to the Clinton Foundation, Benghazi, the emails. She brought and brings quite a mess.

But his mess cancels out her mess.

The sheer force of Donald Trump’s weird, outsized strangeness has made her look normal. It’s made Ted Cruz look normal too, like a nice, sincere fella right in the middle of the political bell curve.

There are people who used to dismiss Trump supporters, and who later self-corrected to show compassion from great heights: “My God, they’re suffering in America.” They have now taken a newly jaundiced eye—his supporters are his enablers.

My thought is different. Maybe the sadness here is that Mr. Trump’s supporters are earnest and full of concern for America and he isn’t worthy of them. Maybe he only harnessed their legitimate anger but can’t do anything with it because he’s not as serious as so many of them are, but a flake, a dope with poor impulse control.

What happens to Trumpism—his stands on illegal immigration, trade, entitlements—when Mr. Trump is gone? Does he have any sense of responsibility for what he leads?

And the immediate question: Is it possible he can change and be worthy of the moment? I don’t know but doubt it, because in my observation people at the end of middle age don’t usually change, they just become more so. In any case it’s getting late. So far Donald Trump has conquered all expectations, half-conquered the American political system, and almost conquered one of our two great political parties. It is sad he can’t conquer himself.

Unite to Defeat Radical Jihadism It will require Western elites to form an alliance with the citizens they’ve long disrespected.

These things are obvious after the Brussels bombings:

In striking at the political heart of Europe, home of the European Union, the ISIS jihadists were delivering a message: They will not be stopped.

What we are seeing now is not radical jihadist Islam versus the West but, increasingly, radical jihadist Islam versus the world. They are on the move in Africa, parts of Asia and of course throughout the Mideast.

Radical jihadism is not going to go away, not for a long time, probably decades. For 15 years it has in significant ways shaped our lives, and it will shape our children’s too. They will have to win the war.

It will not be effectively fought with guilt, ambivalence or double-mindedness. That, in the West, will have to change.

The jihadists’ weapons and means will get worse. Right now it’s guns and suicide vests. In the nature of things their future weapons will be more sophisticated and deadly.

At a vigil in London’s Trafalgar Square following the March 24 terror attacks in Brussels.

At a vigil in London’s Trafalgar Square following the March 24 terror attacks in Brussels.

The usual glib talk of politicians—calls for unity, vows that we will not give in to fear—will produce in the future what they’ve produced in the past: nothing. “The thoughts and the prayers of the American people are with the people of Belgium,” said the president, vigorously refusing to dodge clichés. “We must unite and be together, regardless of nationality, race or faith, in fighting against the scourge of terrorism.” It is not an “existential threat,” he noted, as he does. But if you were at San Bernardino or Fort Hood, the Paris concert hall or the Brussels subway, it would feel pretty existential to you.

There are many books, magazine long-reads and online symposia on the subject of violent Islam. I have written of my admiration for “What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood, published a year ago in the Atlantic. ISIS supporters have tried hard to make their project knowable and understood, Mr. Wood reported: “We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change . . . and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.” ISIS is essentially “medieval” in its religious nature, and “committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people.” They intend to eliminate the infidel and raise up the caliphate—one like the Ottoman empire, which peaked in the 16th century and then began its decline.

When I think of the future I find myself going back to what I freely admit is a child’s math, a simple 10% rule.
Opinion Journal Video
American Islamic Forum for Democracy Founder and President Dr. Zuhdi Jasser on the ideological war against radical Islam in Europe. Photo credit: Getty Images.

There are said to be 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Most are and have been peaceful and peaceable, living their lives and, especially in America, taking an admirable role in the life of the nation.

But this is a tense, fraught moment within the world of Islam, marked by disagreements on what Islam is and what its texts mean. With that context, the child’s math: Let’s say only 10% of the 1.6 billion harbor feelings of grievance toward “the West,” or desire to expunge the infidel, or hope to re-establish the caliphate. That 10% is 160 million people. Let’s say of that group only 10% would be inclined toward jihad. That’s 16 million. Assume that of that group only 10% really means it—would really become jihadis or give them aid and sustenance. That’s 1.6 million. That is a lot of ferociousness in an age of increasingly available weapons, including the chemical, biological and nuclear sort.

My math tells me it will be a long, hard fight. We will not be able to contain them, we will have to beat them.

We must absorb that central fact, as Ronald Reagan once did with a different threat. Asked by his new national security adviser to state his exact strategic goals vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, Reagan: “We win, they lose.”

That’s where we are now. The “they” is radical Islamic jihadism.

Normal people have seen that a long time, but the leaders of the West—its political class, media powers and opinion shapers—have had a hard time coming to terms. I continue to believe part of the reason is that religion isn’t very important to many of them, so they have trouble taking it seriously as a motivation of others. An ardent Catholic, evangelical Christian or devout Jew would be able to take the religious aspect seriously when discussing ISIS. An essentially agnostic U.S. or European political class is less able. Thus they cast about—if only we give young Islamist men jobs programs or social integration schemes, we can stop this trouble. But jihadists don’t want to be integrated. They want trouble.

Our own president still won’t call radical Islam what it is, thinking apparently that if we name them clearly they’ll only hate us more, and Americans on the ground, being racist ignoramuses, will be incited by candor to attack their peaceful Muslim neighbors.

All this for days has had me thinking of Gordon Brown, which is something I bet you can’t say. On April 28, 2010, in Rochdale, England, Britain’s then prime minister accidentally performed a great public service by revealing what liberal Western leaders think of their people.

At a campaign stop a 65-year-old woman named Gillian Duffy approached him and shared her concerns regarding crime, taxes and immigration. Mr. Brown made a great show of friendliness and appreciation. Then, still wearing a live mic, he got into his Jaguar, complained to his aides about “that woman” and said, “She’s just a sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour.”

That was the authentic sound of the Western elite. Labour lost the election. But the elites have for a long time enjoyed nothing more than sneering at the anger and “racism” of their own people. They do not have the wisdom to understand that if they convincingly attempted to protect the people and respected their anxieties, the people would feel far less rage.

I end with a point about the sheer power of pride right now in Western public life. Republican operatives and elected officials in the U.S. don’t want to change their stand on illegal immigration, and a key reason is pride. They’re stiff-necked, convinced of their own higher moral thinking, and they will have open borders—which they do not call “open borders” but “comprehensive immigration reform,” which includes border-control mechanisms. But they’ll never get to the mechanisms. They see the rise of Donald Trump and know it has something to do with immigration, but—they can’t bow. Some months ago I spoke to an admirable conservative group and said the leaders of the GOP should change their stand. I saw one of their leaders wince, as if I had made a faux pas. Which, I understood, I had. I understood too that terrorism is only making the border issue worse, and something’s got to give.

But I doubt they can change. It would be like . . . respecting Gillian Duffy.

Though maybe European leaders can grow to respect her, after Brussels. Maybe the blasts there have shaken their pride.

Will the GOP Break Apart or Evolve? A bigger tent, Donald Trump as ringmaster—and an animal unlike the old elephant.

Super Tuesday II didn’t so much yield results as reveal continuing trends. Donald Trump up, Hillary Clinton up.

This is what I hear from Washington’s Republican political leaders and operatives: Wait and see. There’s still time for Mr. Trump to self-destruct, for voters to start to see through him. In the meantime, get all the delegate-selection rules, all the names and contact points for every delegate picked so far. If we have to fight it on the floor, we fight it on the floor. Or, more delightfully for sentimentalists, in smoke-filled rooms. But he must be stopped.

From those Republicans who don’t want Mr. Trump yet recognize and to a degree respect Trump supporters’ critique of the GOP establishment—“You have failed”—there are warnings that cheating him out of the nomination, beating him not through fair cleverness but through chicanery, would break the party and ensure 2016 defeat. They look at those who say they’ll set up their own, new GOP, and think: Any jackass can knock down a barn, but it takes a man to build one. Your venture will go nowhere good. You’ll help produce a second Clinton presidency.

Here I quote a handsome, accomplished woman normally full of spiky political observations, whom I saw at Nancy Reagan’s funeral. I asked how she feels about what’s happening. She said with a shrug that she was newly modest: “I know I don’t understand politics anymore. I know I don’t understand what’s happening.”

Mad ElephantTrump supporters do not comprehend the degree to which establishment figures have been concussed, and personally humbled, by his rise. They’ll sneer at this, many of them, but they should see humility as opportunity.

From those Republicans who are Never Trump, I hear an unchanged refrain: I can’t back a man who’s essentially an improv act, who has no qualifications for the office, who’s in it from some mad sense of personal destiny. He knows what will play with the crowd but has no idea what he believes, because he believes in nothing and calculates everything. He knows “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” He is at least potentially fascist and probably racist.

And everyone means it.

A side story that may be the central one: It is possible there is some big, unforetold evolution going on within the Republican Party, and more suddenly than anyone would have expected. Mr. Trump is bringing Democrats in. They don’t want to be Democrats anymore, or continue their role as members of always-Democratic families, and they don’t want to vote for Hillary. They’re considering coming fully into the GOP tent. But their presence in the tent, with Mr. Trump as ringmaster means—if the party holds—the GOP transmogrifies into some wholly new jumble of political impulses. Some new issue sets, some new stands that imply a wholly new approach to what conservatism means and is.

Readers of this column know much of this will not be unwelcome. It would be good to end illegal, as opposed to legal, immigration—and that, Mr. Trump says, is his plan. It will be good if Republicans absorb the information that no reordering of entitlement spending will be possible until Washington leaders embark on some confidence-building measures that will allow people to trust them to move fairly and realistically.

But right now for the party it’s breakage or evolution. The latter would yield an animal that won’t look like the old elephant.

It should probably be said again that everything had to fail for Mr. Trump to rise. You know all the failures, but since we seem to be quoting Uber drivers this cycle, I’ll offer the thoughts of one I talked to in Providence, R.I., a month ago.

She’s for Mr. Trump. Started out against him: Who is this guy, he’s a TV star. But she listened and thought: Yeah, I agree. She knows he has an unusual biography for a president. She said most of her friends have experienced the same arc from skepticism to support. She told me her reasons, the usual, but then said something poignant. This is from memory, not notes, but I’ll put it in quotes for easy reading: “Every four years we’re serious, we try to get it right, we do our best to choose the right guy. And nothing we do works! Bush, no, Romney, no, Obama’s a disaster. But we did our best! And now we’re thinking ‘Nothing worked. Take a chance.’ And if he’s no good we’ll fire him in four years.”

I looked at the other passenger, and our eyes locked. We’d just heard the heart of it, the bottom-line mood.

I end with certain Trump questions that nine months in are not answered.

I don’t know Donald Trump’s heart, not to mention his head. I am not sure he knows his heart and head. That’s part of what last summer made him captivating. I’ll never forget a veteran liberal journalist saying to me, in wonder: “I can’t stop listening to him.”

I said, “Me too.” You never knew what he’d say next. There was a sense he didn’t know what he’d say next.

But does he know the difference between a man who’s attempting to be a political leader and a man who is a mere commentator? Does he understand the former carries deep and particular responsibilities? Just this past week, when asked what would happen if he has most of the delegates needed and the party moves to deny him the nomination at the convention, he blithely responded: “I think you’d have riots.” Coming from a pundit or columnist that would be just another opinion. Coming from a political leader it sounded like a threat. Nice little convention you have here, shame if someone put a match to it.

Why does he speak so carelessly and irresponsibly about things such as violence and protests at his rallies? Does he not understand American politics is always potentially a powder keg?

He has enough imagination to have invented Donald Trump. Why doesn’t he have enough to understand the potential impact of a leader’s remarks? Does he understand the power he would have if he were a person of normal comportment?

Mr. Trump acts surprised and wounded when people suggest he is bigoted. But anyone on social media can see that there is a portion, a quadrant, of his supporters who are rough and wild—anti-Semitic, racist. Maybe, to be charitable, a lot of them are 14-year-old boys acting out on Mom’s computer while she works her second shift. But plenty are actual adults.

Someone once said of Franklin D. Roosevelt that he’s like the Staten Island Ferry, pulling all the garbage in his wake. FDR’s Democratic coalition did contain some garbage, from KKK-supporting Southern Democrats to New York communists. That was some wake! It was also 80 years ago.

America is an imperfect country populated by imperfect people, but there would be a reason Mr. Trump draws the particular kind of garbage he draws. What is it?

And the central unanswered question: Is Donald Trump just a nut carried along by forces he himself doesn’t understand? Or is he something more than that, and more confounding?

Farewell to Nancy Reagan, a Friend and Patriot She was both steely and mystical—and there would have been no him without her.

The door has closed forever, said a friend, on a particular part of the past. Or to be more precise, first-person access to the Reagan era through one of its two most important figures has now, with the death of Nancy Reagan, ended. The era itself will never end—it is part of the history of our nation and yielded up its last unambiguously successful president. The spirit of that age: exuberant, expansive. “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Here we could do comparisons to the current moment, but let’s not. Instead, a mere and affectionate remembrance of the lady we lost.

Stipulated: There was no him without her. He couldn’t have launched or sustained his great project if she hadn’t made him her project. He was thinking about the failure of the latest Soviet five-year plan, and making note of the new statistics on HUD spending. She was thinking about people and their agendas. If you served him well you were in; if not don’t let the door hit you. She was protective. Or, as she would put it, she was looking after her man. Her protectiveness was a patriotic act.

The late First Lady Nancy Reagan

The late First Lady Nancy Reagan

As first lady she was glamorous, meticulous. Everything had to be just so. There was a touching, old-fashioned sense that she wanted whichever visiting king or potentate to see America knows how to do it up right. She believed in fun, too. In the Reagan White House you could smoke, drink and dance, after the more subdued, abstemious Carter years. It was no place for puritans.

Her personality was wry, teasing, loyal, warm and fun. She was my darling friend.

In her last five or so years I visited her at the house on St. Cloud Road, in Bel Air, with her beloved longtime friend Robert Higdon. We would sit with her in her sunny bedroom with the peach-colored headboard and the exercise bicycle and the bed tables full of silver framed pictures—she and Ronnie dancing at the state dinner, Ronnie in his last years kissing her on the cheek.

We’d talk about nothing, everything. She had a big laugh, a soft chuckle and a gift for listening. She really heard you, picked up nuance, noted what was unsaid. She took a great and protective interest in the lives of her friends and family, noticed when things seemed off, didn’t avoid troublesome areas but brought them up. That was part of how she showed her care, “bringing it up.”

Gore Vidal said of John F. Kennedy that when he died a whole world of gossip went with him. Nancy loved gossip too, though we didn’t call it gossip but History of Humans. I would save up things going on in New York—who was seeing whom, who was on top of the world, who looked great, who needed a call. Half the time, she’d nod and say, “I heard that”—she had some network—and tell me more than I knew. The other half she’d say: “Really? I think we need to hear more.”

She wasn’t judging or prissy but amused and fascinated. She thought personal disasters a part of life, triumphs welcome good news, human mischief to be expected. She had come of age in a Hollywood where everyone was kind of a big colorful mess. They were rich and famous, sure, but at the end of the day everyone was making it through on a smile and a shoeshine. She liked the comedy of it all.

In her later years she spent a lot of time remembering the past, and sharing it. She watched cable news and was nothing if not current, and her observations of political figures were acute and occasionally piercing. But she took increasing enjoyment in thinking back to the time so-and-so came to the White House, the time they went to Geneva . . .

Afterward I thought: She’s telling herself that it really happened.

No one is the same size as history, no one’s that big. For a half-century history washed over her, and I think when it was over she looked back, or saw the pictures on the bedside—“There we were, dancing at the state dinner”—and thought of those days, “My God. A king was on line one. Ronnie was meeting with the Soviet premier down the hall. . . . That all happened. It couldn’t have happened, it is too big. But it happened.” I think she was, as she looked back, awed by her own life. And of course she had reason to be awed.

Here are two stories, one of steely Nancy and one of Nancy the somewhat mystical.

Steely Nancy: Some years ago we were talking about a Washington friend who was going through a crisis. Some of her struggles had become public, which only compounded her woes. Nancy Reagan got a steely look. You can’t be embarrassed, she said. Everyone in Washington has lost something, everyone’s been embarrassed by a story in the press or humiliated by a public firing or loss of stature. “It is a city of the humiliated,” she said. And she told me to give our friend some advice that was also an order: Get up off the mat.

Nancy the mystic, if that is the right word: In the house on St. Cloud Road you could feel Ronald Reagan all around you. The knickknacks, the pictures, the big Norman Rockwell portrait as you came in—it was a house about him. His office still had his desk and his things on it.

She wanted it that way. The love affair that became the great marriage that became the great partnership was never far from her thoughts. She missed him till the day she died.

One day at dusk in November 2013 we were talking quietly as I held her hand at her bedside. She began to talk about Ronnie and how even now he was ever-present to her. Then: “I didn’t believe in the afterlife. I never believed in it, but things have happened since Ronnie died. He visits me.”

“You mean you dream of him,” I said.

She got a quizzical look.

“I don’t know if it is dreams or what. It sounds funny or crazy, sometimes I wake up at night and he’s in bed next to me and I see him.” Once, she said, she woke in the middle of the night and looked over at the big beige stuffed chair at the bottom of the bed to the left. “You look cold,” she said to him, and went to the closet for a blanket. She draped it over him and went back to bed. The next morning she awoke and looked over at the chair. The blanket, she said, was still there, but moved to the side as if someone had pushed it when he left.

She could not, she said, explain this. Whatever it was, love, she felt, did not just disappear.

“I now believe in the afterlife,” she said.

Rest in peace Nancy Davis Reagan, darling girl, elegant lady, tough little patriot.

The Republican Party Is Shattering Stop Trump? Unite behind him? No matter the outcome, nothing will ever be the same.

I’m interested in where we are. I think we are seeing a great political party shatter before our eyes. I’m not sure I see a way around or through. I said so on TV the other night and got a lot of responses on social media. They said: Good. They said, “They are corrupt,” and “I am through.” Good riddance to bad rubbish. Next.

I am not experiencing it that way. For me the Republican Party was always the vehicle of a philosophy, conservative political thought—no more, no less. I have the past 10 years been its critic on wars and immigration, on the establishment’s self-seeking and failures of imagination. And yet at the prospect of the party’s shattering I feel somewhat shattered too. So many lives, so much effort went into its making. “I am more faithful than I intended to be.”

Dump TrumpI knew Tuesday night I was witnessing something grave, something bigger than 1976, that traumatic year when a Republican insurgent almost toppled the incumbent Republican president. Bigger too than 1964, when Goldwater conservatism swept the primaries and convention and lost the country. What is happening now is bigger and less remediable in part because the battles in the past were over conservatism, an actual political philosophy.

And I find myself receiving with some anger, even though I understand, those—especially on the top of the party—who are so blithely declaring the end of things. Do they understand what they’re ending? Did they ever? It started in 1860. It’s first great figure was a man called Lincoln. We’ll start a new party and call it Fred, they tweet. We’ll be the party in exile. Implicitly: And I and my friends will run it. Like little boys knocking over building blocks. And they say Donald Trump is careless.

But we are witnessing history. Something important is ending. It is hard to believe what replaces it will be better.

No one knows where this goes. The top of the party and the bottom have split. They disagree on the essentials.

Donald Trump won big Tuesday night, carrying seven states. As others have noted, if it were someone else he’d be called unassailable, the victor—“time to get in line.”

If trends continue—and political trends tend to—Mr. Trump will win or come very close to winning by the convention in July. If party forces succeed in finagling him out of the nomination his supporters will bolt, which will break the party. And it’s hard to see what kind of special sauce, what enduring loyalty would make them come back in the future.

If, on the other hand, Mr. Trump is given the crown in Cleveland, party political figures, operatives, loyalists, journalists and intellectuals, not to mention sophisticated suburbanites and, God knows, donors will themselves bolt. That is a smaller but not insignificant group. And again it’s hard to imagine the special sauce—the shared interests, the basic worldview—that would allow them to reconcile with Trump supporters down the road.

It’s no longer clear what shared principles endure. Everything got stretched to the breaking point the past 15 years.

Party leaders and thinkers should take note: It’s easier for a base to hire or develop a flashy new establishment than it is for an establishment to find itself a new base.

Even if the party stays together with a Trump win, what will it be? It will have been reconstituted. Yes, it will be a formal and proactive foe of illegal immigration, and it will rethink its approach to entitlements, but it will also be other things. What?

We are in uncharted territory. But the point is fissures and tensions simmering and growing for 15 years burst through, erupted.

The establishment was slow to see what was happening, slow to see Mr. Trump coming, in full denial as he continued to win. Their denial is self-indicting. They couldn’t see his appeal because they had no idea how their own people were experiencing America. I have been thinking a lot about establishments and elites. A central purpose of both, a prime responsibility, is to understand those who are not establishment and elite and look out for them, take care of them. Not in a government-from-on-high way, not with an air of noblesse oblige, but in a way that is respectfully attentive to the facts of their lives. You have a responsibility when you lead not to offend needlessly, not to impose realities you yourself can buy your way out of. You don’t privately make fun of people as knuckle-draggers, victims of teachers-union educations, low-information voters.

We had a low-information elite.

This column has been pretty devoted the past nine months to everything that gave rise to this moment, to Mr. Trump. His supporters disrespect the system—fair enough, it’s earned disrespect. They see Washington dysfunction and want to break through it—fair enough. In a world of thugs, they say, he will be our thug. Politics is a freak show? He’s our freak. They know they’re lowering standards by giving the top political job in America to a man who never held office. But they feel Washington lowered all standards first. They hate political correctness—there is no one in the country the past quarter-century who has not been embarrassed or humiliated for using the wrong word or concept or having the wrong thought—and see his rudeness as proof he hates PC too.

“He can think outside the box.” Can he ever.

He is a one-man wrecking crew of all political comportment, and a carrier of that virus. Yet his appeal is not only his outrageousness.

He is a divider of the Republican Party and yet an enlarger of the tent. His candidacy is contributing to record turnouts in primary after primary, and surely bringing in Democrats and independents. But it should concern his supporters that his brain appears to be a grab bag of impulses, and although he has many views and opinions he doesn’t seem to know anything about public policy or the way the White House or the government actually works.

He is unpredictable, which his supporters see as an advantage. But in a harrowing, hair-trigger world it matters that the leaders of other nations be able to calculate with some reasonable certainty what another leader would do under a given set of circumstances.

“He goes with his gut.” Yes. But George W. Bush was a gut player too, and it wasn’t pretty when his gut began to fail.

The GOP elite is about to spend a lot of money and hire a lot of talent, quickly, to try to kill Trump off the next two weeks. There will be speeches, ads—an onslaught. It will no doubt do Mr. Trump some damage, but not much.

It will prove to Trump supporters that what they think is true—their guy is the only one who will stand up to the establishment, so naturally the establishment is trying to kill him. And Trump supporters don’t seem to have that many illusions about various aspects of his essential character. One of them told me he’s “a junkyard dog.”

They think his character is equal to the moment.

Trump and the Rise of the Unprotected Why political professionals are struggling to make sense of the world they created.

We’re in a funny moment. Those who do politics for a living, some of them quite brilliant, are struggling to comprehend the central fact of the Republican primary race, while regular people have already absorbed what has happened and is happening. Journalists and politicos have been sharing schemes for how Marco parlays a victory out of winning nowhere, or Ted roars back, or Kasich has to finish second in Ohio. But in my experience any nonpolitical person on the street, when asked who will win, not only knows but gets a look as if you’re teasing him. Trump, they say.

I had such a conversation again Tuesday with a friend who repairs shoes in a shop on Lexington Avenue. Jimmy asked me, conversationally, what was going to happen. I deflected and asked who he thinks is going to win. “Troomp!” He’s a very nice man, an elderly, old-school Italian-American, but I saw impatience flick across his face: Aren’t you supposed to know these things?

The UnprotectedIn America now only normal people are capable of seeing the obvious.

But actually that’s been true for a while, and is how we got in the position we’re in.

Last October I wrote of the five stages of Trump, based on the Kübler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Most of the professionals I know are stuck somewhere between four and five.

But I keep thinking of how Donald Trump got to be the very likely Republican nominee. There are many answers and reasons, but my thoughts keep revolving around the idea of protection. It is a theme that has been something of a preoccupation in this space over the years, but I think I am seeing it now grow into an overall political dynamic throughout the West.

There are the protected and the unprotected. The protected make public policy. The unprotected live in it. The unprotected are starting to push back, powerfully.

The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful—those who have power or access to it. They are protected from much of the roughness of the world. More to the point, they are protected from the world they have created. Again, they make public policy and have for some time.

I want to call them the elite to load the rhetorical dice, but let’s stick with the protected.

They are figures in government, politics and media. They live in nice neighborhoods, safe ones. Their families function, their kids go to good schools, they’ve got some money. All of these things tend to isolate them, or provide buffers. Some of them—in Washington it is important officials in the executive branch or on the Hill; in Brussels, significant figures in the European Union—literally have their own security details.

Because they are protected they feel they can do pretty much anything, impose any reality. They’re insulated from many of the effects of their own decisions.

One issue obviously roiling the U.S. and Western Europe is immigration. It is the issue of the moment, a real and concrete one but also a symbolic one: It stands for all the distance between governments and their citizens.

It is of course the issue that made Donald Trump.

Britain will probably leave the European Union over it. In truth immigration is one front in that battle, but it is the most salient because of the European refugee crisis and the failure of the protected class to address it realistically and in a way that offers safety to the unprotected.

If you are an unprotected American—one with limited resources and negligible access to power—you have absorbed some lessons from the past 20 years’ experience of illegal immigration. You know the Democrats won’t protect you and the Republicans won’t help you. Both parties refused to control the border. The Republicans were afraid of being called illiberal, racist, of losing a demographic for a generation. The Democrats wanted to keep the issue alive to use it as a wedge against the Republicans and to establish themselves as owners of the Hispanic vote.

Many Americans suffered from illegal immigration—its impact on labor markets, financial costs, crime, the sense that the rule of law was collapsing. But the protected did fine—more workers at lower wages. No effect of illegal immigration was likely to hurt them personally.

It was good for the protected. But the unprotected watched and saw. They realized the protected were not looking out for them, and they inferred that they were not looking out for the country, either.

The unprotected came to think they owed the establishment—another word for the protected—nothing, no particular loyalty, no old allegiance.

Mr. Trump came from that.

Similarly in Europe, citizens on the ground in member nations came to see the EU apparatus as a racket—an elite that operated in splendid isolation, looking after its own while looking down on the people.

In Germany the incident that tipped public opinion against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy happened on New Year’s Eve in the public square of Cologne. Packs of men said to be recent migrants groped and molested groups of young women. It was called a clash of cultures, and it was that, but it was also wholly predictable if any policy maker had cared to think about it. And it was not the protected who were the victims—not a daughter of EU officials or members of the Bundestag. It was middle- and working-class girls—the unprotected, who didn’t even immediately protest what had happened to them. They must have understood that in the general scheme of things they’re nobodies.

What marks this political moment, in Europe and the U.S., is the rise of the unprotected. It is the rise of people who don’t have all that much against those who’ve been given many blessings and seem to believe they have them not because they’re fortunate but because they’re better.

You see the dynamic in many spheres. In Hollywood, as we still call it, where they make our rough culture, they are careful to protect their own children from its ill effects. In places with failing schools, they choose not to help them through the school liberation movement—charter schools, choice, etc.—because they fear to go up against the most reactionary professional group in America, the teachers unions. They let the public schools flounder. But their children go to the best private schools.

This is a terrible feature of our age—that we are governed by protected people who don’t seem to care that much about their unprotected fellow citizens.

And a country really can’t continue this way.

In wise governments the top is attentive to the realities of the lives of normal people, and careful about their anxieties. That’s more or less how America used to be. There didn’t seem to be so much distance between the top and the bottom.

Now is seems the attitude of the top half is: You’re on your own. Get with the program, little racist.

Social philosophers are always saying the underclass must re-moralize. Maybe it is the overclass that must re-moralize.

I don’t know if the protected see how serious this moment is, or their role in it.

Trump, Sanders and the American Rebellion As institutions lose respect, voters think: Let’s take a chance.

What is happening in American politics?

We’re in the midst of a rebellion. The bottom and middle are pushing against the top. It’s a throwing off of old claims and it’s been going on for a while, but we’re seeing it more sharply after New Hampshire. This is not politics as usual, which by its nature is full of surprise. There’s something deep, suggestive, even epochal about what’s happening now.

I have thought for some time that there’s a kind of soft French Revolution going on in America, with the angry and blocked beginning to push hard against an oblivious elite. It is not only political. Yes, it is about the Democratic National Committee, that house of hacks, and about a Republican establishment owned by the donor class. But establishment journalism, which for eight months has been simultaneously at Donald Trump’s feet (“Of course you can call us on your cell from the bathtub for your Sunday show interview!”) and at his throat (“Trump supporters, many of whom are nativists and nationalists . . .”) is being rebelled against too. Their old standing as guides and gatekeepers? Gone, and not only because of multiplying platforms. Gloria Steinem thought she owned feminism, thought she was feminism. She doesn’t and isn’t. The Clintons thought they owned the party—they don’t. Hedge-funders thought they owned the GOP. Too bad they forgot to buy the base!

Liberté, Egalité, Trumpité, Liberté, Egalité, Bernité, All this goes hand in hand with the general decline of America’s faith in its institutions. We feel less respect for almost all of them—the church, the professions, the presidency, the Supreme Court. The only formal national institution that continues to score high in terms of public respect (72% in the most recent Gallup poll) is the military.

A few years ago I gave a lecture to a class at West Point, the text of which was: You are entering the only U.S. institution left standing. Your prime responsibility throughout your careers will be to keep it respected. I then told them about the Dreyfus case. They had not heard of it. I explained how that scandal rocked public faith in a previously exalted institution, the French army, doing it and France lasting damage. And so your personal integrity is of the utmost importance, I said, as day by day that integrity creates the integrity of the military. The cadets actually listened to that part.

I mention this to say we are in a precarious position in the U.S. with so many of our institutions going down. Many of those pushing against the system have no idea how precarious it is or what they will be destroying. Those defending it don’t know how precarious its position is or even what they’re defending, or why. But people lose respect for a reason.

To New Hampshire: The rejection of the establishment’s preferred candidates in both major parties is a big moment. It is also understandable, the result of 15 years of failed presidencies. It is a gesture of rebuke toward the political class—move aside.

It’s said this is the year of anger but there’s a kind of grim practicality to Trump and Sanders supporters. They’re thinking: Let’s take a chance. Washington is incapable of reform or progress; it’s time to reach outside. Let’s take a chance on an old Brooklyn socialist. Let’s take a chance on the casino developer who talks on TV.

In doing so, they accept a decline in traditional political standards. You don’t have to have a history of political effectiveness anymore; you don’t even have to have run for office! “You’re so weirdly outside the system, you may be what the system needs.”

They are pouring their hope into uncertain vessels, and surely know it. Bernie Sanders is an actual radical: He would fundamentally change an economic system that imperfectly but for two centuries made America the wealthiest country in the history of the world. In the young his support is understandable: They have never been taught anything good about capitalism and in their lifetimes have seen it do nothing—nothing—to protect its own reputation.

It is middle-aged Sanders supporters who are more interesting. They know what they’re turning their backs on. They know they’re throwing in the towel. My guess is they’re thinking something like: Don’t aim for great now, aim for safe. Terrorism, a world turning upside down, my kids won’t have it better—let’s just try to be safe, more communal.

A shrewdness in Sanders and Trump backers: They share one faith in Washington, and that is in its ability to wear anything down. They think it will moderate Bernie, take the edges off Trump. For thus reason they don’t see their choices as so radical.

As for Mr. Trump, it is not without meaning that his supporters have had eight months to measure the cost of satisfying their anger by voting for him. In New Hampshire, 35% of the electorate decided that for all his drama and uncertainty they would back him.

The mainstream journalistic mantra is that the GOP is succumbing to nativism, nationalism and the culture of celebrity. That allows them to avoid taking seriously Mr. Trump’s issues: illegal immigration and Washington’s 15-year, bipartisan refusal to stop it; political correctness and how it is strangling a free people; and trade policies that have left the American working class displaced, adrift and denigrated. Mr. Trump’s popularity is propelled by those issues and enabled by his celebrity.

In winning, Donald Trump threw over the GOP donor class. Political professionals don’t fully appreciate that, but normal Americans see it. They get that the guy with money just slapped silly the guys with money. Every hedge-fund billionaire donor should be blinking in pain. Some investment!

This leads me to Citizens United. Conservatives applauded that Supreme Court decision because it allowed Republicans to counter the effect of union money that goes to Democrats. But Citizens United gave the rich too much sway in the GOP. The party was better off when it relied on Main Street. It meant they had to talk to Main Street.

Mr. Trump is a clever man with his finger on the pulse, but his political future depends on two big questions. The first is: Is he at all a good man? Underneath the foul mouthed flamboyance is he in it for America? The second: Is he fully stable? He acts like a nut, calling people bimbos, flying off the handle with grievances. Is he mature, reliable? Is he at all a steady hand?

Political professionals think these are side questions. “Let’s accuse him of not being conservative!” But they are the issue. Because America doesn’t deliberately elect people it thinks base, not to mention crazy.

Anyway, we are in some kind of moment. Congratulations to the establishments of both parties for getting us here. They are the authors of the rebellion; they are a prime thing being rebelled against.

Connected to that, something I’ve noticed. In Washington there used to be a widespread cliché: “God protects drunks, children and the United States of America.” I’m in Washington a lot, and I’ve noticed no one says that anymore. They stopped 10 or 15 years ago. I wonder what that means.

The Court, Like the Country, Needs Balance It would be wise for the president to change his mind on a nomination to replace Justice Scalia.

The president has every right to nominate a successor to Justice Antonin Scalia. He shouldn’t, but he has the right by law and precedent.

The reasons he shouldn’t spring from facts particular to the moment and having to do with what Justice Scalia symbolized.

In a 50/50 country, one that suffers deep ideological divisions and is constantly at its own throat, Justice Scalia stood, for that half of the country that is more or less conservative, for wisdom, permanence, enduring structures and understandings. That he was brilliant, witty and penetrating in his thought goes without saying. He was also brave, with that exhausting kind of courage that has to do with swimming each day against the tide. Here is Justice Scalia as prophet, dissenting in 1992’s sweeping abortion decision, Planned Parenthood v Casey: “Its length, and what might be called its epic tone, suggest that its authors believe they are bringing to an end a troublesome era in the history of our Nation and of our Court. . . . [But] by foreclosing all democratic outlet for the deep passions this issue arouses, by banishing the issue from the political forum that gives all participants, even the losers, the satisfaction of a fair hearing and an honest fight, by continuing the imposition of a rigid national rule instead of allowing for regional differences, the Court merely prolongs and intensifies the anguish.”

It did; it has.

The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

Here is the end of his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision on same-sex marriage: “Hubris is sometimes defined as o’erweening pride; and pride, we know, goeth before a fall. . . . With each decision of ours that takes from the People a question properly left to them—with each decision that is unabashedly based not on law, but on the ‘reasoned judgment’ of a bare majority of this Court—we move one step closer to being reminded of our impotence.”

By “we” he meant the people, not the court.

Conservatives—again, half the country, maybe more—took succor from his bracing 30-year presence on the bench. The country, and the court too, benefited: With his fierce dissents Scalia helped people accept decisions with which they disagreed. At least our view was spoken. At least it’s respected by someone!

Our divided country has been stumbling along for decades with a split court. We have grown used to the phrase, “In a 5-4 decision.” Half the country probably thinks high-court decisions are by definition 5-4.

The court in our time has both expanded its role and loosened its intellectual standards. It pronounces now on every facet of life in America—on our religious life, on abortion and marriage, on guns and immigration. At the same time members of the court have grown used to approaching issues based on their personal vision of what is desirable public policy. Scalia famously didn’t think his preferences were the issue; what the law says is the issue.

Justice is supposed to be blind, impartial. It is not supposed to be about politics and brute power. But we all know that is what it is now about. As Hugh Hewitt wrote this week in the Washington Examiner, the court “has assumed power never intended it by the Framers, but it is what it is and there is no going back.”

Which is why the issue of Scalia’s replacement is so consequential.

When the court is roughly balanced, 5-4, the public is allowed to assume some rough approximation of justice will occur—that something that looks like justice will be handed down. There will be chafing and disappointments. ObamaCare will be upheld. Yay! Boo! Gay marriage will be instituted across the land. Yay! Boo!

The closeness of the vote suggests both sides got heard. The closeness contributes to an air of credibility. That credibility helps people accept the court’s rulings.

When the balance of the court tips too much one way, it invites people to see injustice and bully politics. It invites unease and protest.

That in turn will produce another crack in the system—and in public respect for the system. This divided nation does not need more cracks and strains.

What to do? The closest you can come to public peace in resolving the question of Scalia’s replacement is to take a step wholly unusual, even unprecedented, and let the American people make the decision themselves, this year, with their 2016 presidential vote.

Maybe that election will produce a progressive Democratic president. That president will choose as progressive a nominee as the Senate will accept.

Maybe that election will produce a conservative Republican president. That president will choose as conservative a nominee as the Senate will accept.

Either way half the country will be half happy, half unhappy, but the country will have chosen. That they made the decision will allow people to accept the outcome more easily—either a real change in the ideological makeup of the court, or a court whose rough and not always predictable balance has been preserved.

We take a swerve or stay where we are. But it will be the people who swerved or stayed.

For President Obama to leave the Scalia replacement to the next president would be an act of prudence and democratic courtesy. He of course says he will put a nominee forward. What a thing it would be if he changed his mind.

The Republican Senate has every right by law and precedent to block his nominee. They moved quickly after Scalia’s death, and with startling unanimity, to announce they would do so. This had the virtue of clarity and the defect of aggression. Still, their ultimate stand is right.

It should be noted there’s no reason to believe leaving it to the people will guarantee conservative outcomes.

I close with a thought about an aspect of modern leftism that is part of the context here.

There is something increasingly unappeasable in the left. This is something conservatives and others have come to fear, that progressives now accept no limits. We can’t just have court-ordered legalized abortion across the land, we have to have it up to the point of birth, and taxpayers have to pay for it. It’s not enough to win same-sex marriage, you’ve got to personally approve of it and if you publicly resist you’ll be ruined. It’s not enough that we have publicly funded contraceptives, the nuns have to provide them.

This unappeasable spirit always turns to the courts to have its way.

If progressives were wise they would step back, accept their victories, take a breath and turn to the idea of solidifying gains, of heroic patience, of being peaceable.

Don’t make them bake the cake. Don’t make them accept the progressive replacement for Scalia. Leave the nuns alone.

Progressives have no idea how fragile it all is. That’s why they feel free to be unappeasable. They don’t know what they’re grinding down.

They think America has endless give. But America is composed of humans, and they do not have endless give.

Isn’t that what we’re seeing this year in the political realm? That they don’t have endless give? And we’ll be seeing more of it.