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Former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell.Pablo Martinez Monsivais

At this time a year ago, many Republican politicians were so sure Donald J. Trump’s candidacy for the Republican nomination would fizzle on its own that they chose not to take the political risk of opposing him. Reluctant to enrage Trump’s supporters, they made a political calculation to bite their tongues.

Now many Republican politicians are so sure that Trump's general election campaign will fizzle on its own that they've chosen not to take the political risk of opposing him. Reluctant to enrage Trump's supporters, they've made a political calculation to bite their tongues.

What could possibly go wrong?

The sane members of the Republican Party — we're looking at you, John McCain — must not allow recent history to repeat itself. It's the time of reckoning for Republicans. As hard as it may be even indirectly to support Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, it would be an awful risk not to leave everything on the field in the fight to keep Trump out of the White House. Republicans need to deprive Trump of the donations, logistical help, experienced staffers, and public expressions of support that he needs. After the presidential debates, no Republican elected officials should show up in the "spin room" to defend Trump.

The expedient course for men like McCain and Paul Ryan — not to mention endangered Republican lawmakers like Kelly Ayotte — is to do nothing while formally supporting their party's nominee. They want Trump's supporters to turn out in November and vote for other Republicans. Their hope — unstated, but widely telegraphed — has been that Trump will lose, sparing the country the disaster of a Trump presidency, but that enough of his voters would turn out to push GOP senators and representatives over the top.

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An especially vivid illustration of the behind-closed-doors Republican consensus emerged in Washington this week from hacked e-mails by Colin Powell, who privately referred to Trump as a "national disgrace" and world pariah, using language much stronger than he had used publicly. How many other Republicans have written similar messages or whispered similar thoughts off the record?

But when even Powell, now a private citizen, chooses not to speak plainly about the threat posed by Trump, it gives the GOP nominee the leeway to continue to pose as a remotely acceptable presidential candidate. He has capitalized on the reticence of the Republican establishment once before, when he snatched the nomination while the party fussed and fiddled. Nobody should be under the illusion that it couldn't happen again, or that GOP figures who know better are powerless to stop him.

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There are some honorable exceptions. The Republicans for Clinton group has attracted a roster of serious members of the party. Mitt Romney has hinted he's considering an endorsement for the Libertarian Party nominee. They seem to understand it's not enough just to say Clinton is responsible for winning her own election and that history will judge them based on their actions this fall.

It is undoubtedly true that Republicans who break with Trump risk a backlash from his core supporters. And abandoning Trump would amount to a tacit admission that the party's traditional scaremongering about Hillary Clinton was always silly and overwrought. But this is not a drill, and those are risks that the national interest requires Republicans who care about their country's future to take.