I can’t have contempt for Trump supporters as a group. Some — Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich, for example — are contemptible, but they were that way when Trump was just a game-show host. I know and respect many Trump supporters in my personal life, and I know several of the authors in the Scholars and Writers for Trump group. I think that they are mistaken, but also that they are genuinely public-spirited. They overrate Trump and underrate the risks of a Trump presidency, but, whoever wins the presidency, the fates of Trump’s principled conservative supporters and of his principled opponents are intertwined — and the sooner both sides recognize this, the better.
One divide between Trump opponents and some of the pro-Trump writers is how they see the man. Ken Masugi argues that Trump is standing up for “the elementary principles of American government.” It isn’t clear that Trump has the slightest interest in the principles of American government — whether it is his desire to “open up” libel laws so that he can legally persecute his critics or his offhand suggestion that he would implement national stop-and-frisk policing despite a total lack of presidential authority to do any such thing. Trump’s only consistent principle is to do and say whatever is best for Trump in the moment. He is a demagogue.
Except that Trump is not on our side. Trump is on Trump’s side. When Trump was asked what foreign leader he most respected, he answered Angela Merkel — except for “the whole thing on immigration.” After a campaign based on nationalism and immigration restriction, Trump said he most respected a leader who sought to impose virtually open borders not only on her own country but on all of Europe. A nationalist and immigration restrictionist saying he most respects Merkel is like a libertarian saying he most respects Kim Jong-un — except for the totalitarianism thing.
The risk of disappointment by Trump is higher than for most politicians. There are many ways to be let down by an officeholder. Sometimes politicians go astray because of misplaced idealism — like George W. Bush hoping to use American power to democratize the Middle East. Sometimes politicians go astray because of opportunism — like Marco Rubio thinking he could flip-flop on immigration in order to impress the media and the donors without paying a price with the party’s voters.
That still leaves the argument that, even if Trump is a demagogue, and is unreliable, he is still better than Clinton. This is a strong argument. Her Supreme Court choices would be disastrous and tip the balance of the Court in a liberal direction that would leave conservatives entirely horrified and would probably dismay even many of her voters — but by then it would be too late. The illegality, irresponsibility, and hostile dishonesty revealed in her e-mail scandal indicates that, as president, she would be reckless and dangerous. Bill Clinton seemed to relish talking his way out of ethical troubles. Clinton seems annoyed that she should have to answer questions. Aside from questions of her ideology, within a party whose activists have become ever-more radical in recent years, Clinton’s temperament is unsuited to the presidency, but this this has been masked by Trump’s more operatic personality flaws.
This leaves some conservatives making a version of Pascal’s wager. Clinton is sure to be a disaster, Trump might prove to be incompetent or a betrayer, but that still leaves us no worse off than we would be with Clinton. What is the worst than could happen? Amnesty and liberal judges?
That understates the downside risks of a Trump win. If Clinton wins, her center-right opponents will be united in opposition, and will be able to continue (begin?) the contentious process of building an alternative message and agenda. Clinton will begin her presidency as an unpopular and distrusted figure who takes office more than seven years into a recovery that has most people feeling dissatisfied. Clinton will be able to do a great deal of harm in four years, but there will exist the potential for a speedy conservative recovery that could undo some of that harm. (I would suggest that it starts with ending the filibuster and increasing the number of Supreme Court justices, but that is an argument for another time.)
If we are reduced to a choice between two demagogues, each contemptuous of the rule of law, it might make sense to pick the one that is on our side. Except that Trump is not on our side.
Some Trump supporters argue that, because of demographic change, this is our “last chance” to stop the Left, but they are mistaken. If taken at their word, that means that Trump’s victory would be not our last chance, but our last hurrah. Demographic change, with or without amnesty, is baked into the 2020 cake. Any conservative recovery would require a coalition that combines the mass of Trump voters with non-whites whose answers to survey questions places them on the center-right but who vote for Democrats in elections. If Trump had never been born, we would face the same problem on the same schedule.
What happens if Trump wins and — as I think would be likely — makes fabulous deals with incoming Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer on judges and immigration? I expect that Trump’s principled supporters will join us Never Trumpers to stand up against him (even though their leverage will be minimal to nonexistent and they will draw Trump’s hate). But the opportunists and the party apparatchiks will stick with President Mister Trump and tell us that we are traitors, and that we will get even worse judges, amnesties, and guest-worker programs with the Democrats. There are also the inevitable disasters that will arise from Trump’s erratic personality.
The result of all this will be civil war in which all sides will lose. As Ross Douthat wrote, in the event of a failed Trump presidency, the general public will not distinguish between conservative factions. They will not distinguish the false conservatism of a traitorous Trump from the hard-edged tea party-politics of Ted Cruz or the pro-middle-class constitutionalism of Mike Lee. In the short term, all will be smashed. By 2020, any voter under 40 will be able to remember only two Republican presidencies — both failures.
The downside risk of Trump is not just that we get the worst of Trump. It is that we get the worst of Trump followed by a president from a radicalizing Democratic party — and probably another overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. Then, you shall see national transformation.
Even after such a succession of disasters, we conservatives (Trump supporters and Trump opponents) will still have the responsibility to work together to build a better politics. The hour will be later and the ruin will be more complete, but we would still have the duty to redeem what we can of the situation.
That responsibility is what endures. Most conservatives will vote for Trump. Some will not. I will write in someone’s name. But if Trump wins, his principled critics and his principled supporters should work together to help him when he is right and oppose him when he is wrong. If Trump loses, those same groups should work together to build a post-Trump Right that addresses the concerns of Trump’s working-class supporters and earns the votes of persuadable Americans who could not be persuaded to vote for Trump. Whatever happens, we should recognize one another as friends divided by prudential differences in difficult circumstances. Whatever happens, we should reconcile on the basis of our shared principles — because whatever happens, we will share the same fate.
— Peter Spiliakos is a columnist for the online version of First Things.