Many conservatives like myself find ourselves on the horns of a terrible trilemma. We are being asked to choose among three unpalatable choices: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and sitting it out (by staying home or casting a protest vote). As a Republican #NeverTrumper, to those who have chosen to support Trump, I have nothing to say but goodbye. And to the growing number who are supporting Clinton, as I myself have decided to do, I say welcome.
Then there is the third group — prominent politicians, commentators and intellectuals, led by Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush — who are both #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary and are vowing not to get their hands dirty with either one. What should I say to them?
What I would really like to do is grab them by the shoulders, shake them hard, and yell “What is wrong with you?” But these individuals — some of them good friends — are also some of the most thoughtful and learned students of American politics that I know. Shaking them and berating them would have little effect, except to lower their opinion of me.
Reasoning with them would seem to be a far better course. But I am inhibited. To me it is obvious and irrefutable that Trump is a deranged, ignorant, bigoted, impulsive demagogue, who must never be handed the powers of the American presidency. And it is just as obvious that however terrible one thinks Clinton, one must do everything conceivable, including voting for terrible Hillary, to check the progress of a clear and present danger to the country.
But the #NeverTrump #NeverHillary conservatives see things quite differently. To them, as their leading theoretician, Matthew Franck of the Witherspoon Institute has put it, we are confronted with roughly equivalent evils. We are being asked to choose between two “ludicrously unacceptable presidential candidates,” both lacking a “single redeeming characteristic that recommends him or her to the presidency of the United States.”
Franck has no illusions about Trump, finding him utterly repellent: “Was there ever a candidate,” he asks, “more obviously unqualified for high public office, as measured by his dearth of relevant knowledge and experience, his willfulness and self-absorption, his compulsive lying and inconsistency, his manipulative using of other people, his smash-mouth rhetoric and low character?”
But Franck weighs Trump’s character against Hillary’s and finds them equally balanced: her “much vaunted ‘experience,’” he writes, “is a career record of ghastly misjudgments in foreign policy, paired with a consistently authoritarian and illiberal ‘progressivism’ in domestic policy, seemingly intent on unraveling the social fabric that makes a decent society.”
I think some (though not all) of Franck’s indictment is overblown. But for the sake of argument, I’m prepared to accept every damning accusation he levels. Even so, Franck’s charge sheet makes no dent in my determination to work for Clinton’s election. Whatever foul lies and unprincipled avarice reside in her character and past, whatever abominable liberal policies she supports, whatever her borderline-criminal blunders with emails, and whatever undeniable damage her judicial appointments will do to the Supreme Court, she is part and parcel of the American liberal mainstream, with all its hideous carbuncles and warts. We conservatives have been fighting it — peacefully — for decades.
Trump swims in his own river of political dioxin. He neither cares for nor knows a whit about the Constitution. Asked for his views of congressional power as set forth in Article I of the Constitution, Trump responded: “I want to protect Article I, Article II,Article XII.” The Constitution has only seven articles. Bottomless ignorance.
Freedom of speech and press are our country’s priceless jewels. Trump would toss them into the trash. “One of the things I’m going to do if I win,” he promises, “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when [newspapers] write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” Farewell to freedom of religion, too: a religious test for entry into the country would spell the end of our regime of tolerance.
Following the Democratic convention, Trump threatened those who spoke about his character: “I was going to hit a number of those speakers so hard their heads would spin, they’d never recover!” Armed with the awesome powers of the American presidency, what monstrous consequences might flow from a man who displays such dark and violent impulses without inhibition? Asked what he would say to the grieving parents of Humayun Khan, the Muslim U.S. Army captain who perished fighting for our country in Iraq, Trump replied, “I would say we had a lot of problems with radical Islamic terrorism.” The lack of empathy — and arrestingly, the lack even of any sense that it would be politically expedient to display empathy — is the mark of a sociopath.
The conservatives I hold in esteem revere the Constitution. With Clinton in the Oval Office, we conservatives would no doubt suffer grievous setbacks in our battles over the Constitution and the future of the country. But the battles would go on. Under a President Trump that is by no means guaranteed. More likely, he would damage or perhaps even destroy our constitutional structure and diminish our treasured rights.
There are issues of conscience, like abortion, that — understandably — will keep some #NeverTrump-#NeverHillary conservatives from voting for either candidate. But at a moment when the election outcome hangs in the balance, for politicians and thinkers who enjoy respect in the public’s eye to tell voters that we are confronted with two equivalent evils is a historic mistake, with consequences that could prove graver for the future of the country than anything since the events that sparked the outbreak of civil war.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are not moral or political equivalents. Clinton may be discredited and discreditable and much else bad. Trump is disqualified and unqualified, and presents a danger without parallel in our modern history. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” wrote George Orwell. To see the distinction between Clinton and Trump should not require any struggle at all. The fate of the Constitution and the country are on the line.