Seven months after announcing his candidacy, and three weeks before the first voters go to the polls, the possibility that Donald Trump could become the presidential nominee of the Republican party is no longer farfetched. For conservatives a crisis of conscience is looming, says Ethics and Public Policy Center fellow Peter Wehner. “Many Republicans will find themselves in a situation they once thought unimaginable,” writes Wehner in Thursday’s New York Times: “refusing to support the nominee of their party because it is the best thing that they can do for their party and their country.” Wehner is among the troubled Republican his piece describes; the title of his important, carefully considered op-ed is “Why I Will Never Vote for Donald Trump.”
Wehner lays out many criticisms of the Republican front-runner, and I cannot but agree with them. “He would be the most unqualified president in American history,” he says. Indeed. Compared with Trump, Barack Obama was a political veteran when he was elected to the presidency. “He has repeatedly revealed his ignorance on basic matters of national interest” — a list that includes American immigration policy, the issue by which Trump has distinguished himself — and he has demonstrated “no desire to acquaint himself with the issues.” About Trump’s temperament Wehner correctly observes that “he is erratic, inconsistent and unprincipled” and possessed of “a streak of crudity and cruelty.” I would not even demur from Wehner’s prediction that a Trump presidency “could very well lead to national catastrophe.”
But if he is the Republican nominee, I might — with my nose pinched tight and on my lips a miserere nobis (have mercy on me) — still vote for Donald Trump. Because the alternative would be Hillary Clinton, and that could be still worse.
Wehner disagrees. He’d opt to vote for a third party or not at all if Trump helmed the GOP. But his thoughtful assessment of the quandary is worth quoting at length:
[Trump’s] nomination would pose a profound threat to the Republican Party and conservatism, in ways that Hillary Clinton never could. For while Mrs. Clinton could inflict a defeat on the Republican Party, she could not redefine it. But Mr. Trump, if he were the Republican nominee, would. . . . The nominee, after all, is the leader of the party; he gives it shape and definition. If Mr. Trump heads the Republican Party, it will no longer be a conservative party; it will be an angry, bigoted, populist one. Mr. Trump would represent a dramatic break with and a fundamental assault on the party’s best traditions.
There is much to be said for this position. The Republican party is the party of Abraham Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan, men of sober judgment, careful administration, and high ideals who elevated not only their party but also the country. What party could reasonably lay claim to both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump? Similarly, the coalition of free-thinking men and women that formed the conservative movement in the mid 1950s, that made possible a President Reagan, and that continues to constitute a political movement more staunch in its support for free markets, a limited government, and the sanctity of human life than any other in American history could hardly include Donald Trump in its litany of heroes. What definition of “conservative” could encompass Bill Buckley and Donald Trump?
The country has been well served by the presence of a competent conservative alternative to the liberalism that, since at least Franklin Roosevelt, has been the default position of the American political class. The United States would look much more like Europe had Jimmy Carter won a second term, had Newt Gingrich and his Republican wave not forced Bill Clinton to the center halfway through his first term, had there been no Tea Party to rebuff the Obama administration’s strident agenda. The ascendancy of Donald Trump threatens that equilibrium. The collapse of the country’s conservative party — and rhetoric aside, the Republican party is a conservative party — would ensure a long period of liberal hegemony. Think Presidents Warren, Castro, Gillibrand, etc.
Hillary Clinton has promised to be more lenient than President Obama on immigration enforcement. She has voiced her support for the president’s nuclear deal with Iran. She has offered no strategic details about how she would defeat the Islamic State, even in a speech in December explicitly devoted to the topic. On every issue, she is pivoting leftward to accommodate a wing of her party that is outspokenly socialist and anti-military to an extent not seen since the Vietnam War. The danger of a Clinton administration is that it would entrench Barack Obama’s precedents — and almost surely expand them.
And so the question is: At what point can we no longer change course?
Trump and his supporters like to talk in sweeping and apocalyptic terms, and I’ve no inclination to do the same. The United States does not face any “existential” threats, there will be no Norman landing, no Mongol invasion. But it would be naïve to dismiss as bigotry or anxiety what so many voters feel deeply — that the country is in the middle of a profound and perhaps negative transformation. At some point, our debts do become unpayable. At some point, immigration does alter the traditional suite of American virtues. At some point, the terrorists do threaten our security. And consider: If the Islamic State were to conduct a major attack on American soil during a Hillary Clinton presidency, would the electorate turn to Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio? Or would the ranks of Trump-style partisans swell, and 2020 end up as a race dominated by a candidate who is not a buffoon but a nasty demagogue in a much older European mold?
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If Trump is where Republican primary voters choose to go, the best thing for the country might be not to defeat him, but to push him into office and temper him there.
First, there is the possibility that Trump might — might — do one or two of the things he has discussed. If a President Trump were actually to enforce the tenets of our immigration law, or were to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran and reauthorize a sanctions regime, or were to deploy serious military force against the Islamic State, these would be positive things for the country.
I do not want Donald Trump to become president. His election would be bad for conservatism, for the Republican party, and for the country.
But even if he did nothing helpful, it’s possible we could keep him from doing abject harm. If Trump wants to win, he will have to balance his ticket, at least a bit — Rush Limbaugh is not a viable vice-presidential pick. A President Trump would probably have to select his Cabinet from among Republican officeholders, and they would still have to be confirmed by the Senate. Every member of Congress would be far more jealous of his constitutional authority under a Trump administration. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have refused to impede the usurpations of authority by a president from their own party, but Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell wouldn’t. Likewise, the massive complex of Washington bureaucrats, which raced to carry out President Obama’s tasks, would surely drag (if not dig in) its heels. And Republican governors, too — reliable conservatives such as Scott Walker, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pence — would not bend to Trump simply because of his party affiliation.None of the same would happen under a Clinton presidency. Advisers familiar from the last two Democratic administrations would aggressively push forward an Obama-style agenda. Democrats in Congress, who have already demonstrated their preference for power over constitutional process, would assist, as would the Supreme Court, whose next justice, perhaps two justices, would be Hillary-appointed. (Say goodbye to Heller and Citizens United and a whole lot else.) Meanwhile, La Raza and CAIR would continue to hold sway, and Iran would find another ear easily beguiled by its charm offensive.
I do not want Donald Trump to become president. His election would be bad for conservatism, for the Republican party, and for the country. But we do not know the contours of a Trump presidency; they may still be able to be shaped by more sober minds. We know well, though, the likely contours of a Clinton presidency — and there is reason to think that it would prove worse. Weighed against Hillary Clinton now, and against the demagogues who could arise if things continue down the current path, Republicans’ best course might be to support Donald Trump.
But I hope it doesn’t come to that.
— Ian Tuttle is a National Review Institute Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.