Donald Trump needs a unified Republican party in the homestretch if he is to have any chance left of catching Hillary Clinton — along with winning higher percentages of the college-educated and women than currently support him. But even before the latest revelations from an eleven-year-old Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump crudely talked about women, he had long ago in the primaries gratuitously insulted his more moderate rivals and their supporters. He bragged about his lone-wolf candidacy and claimed that his polls were — and would be — always tremendous — contrary to his present deprecation of them. Is it all that surprising that some in his party and some independents, who felt offended, swear that they will not stoop to vote for him when in extremis he now needs them? Or that party stalwarts protest that they no longer wish to be associated with a malodorous albatross hung around their neck?
What has always been missing to end the long public career of Hillary Clinton is a four- or five-percentage-point boost from a mélange of the so-called Never Trump Republicans, as well as women and suburban, college-educated independents. Winning back some of these critics could translate into a one- or two-point lead over Clinton in critical swing states.
Those who are soured on Trump certainly can cite lots of understandable reasons for their distaste — well beyond his sometimes grating reality-television personality. In over-dramatic fashion, some Against Trumpers invoke William F. Buckley Jr.’s ostracism of John Birchers from conservative circles as a model for dealing with perceived Trump vulgarity. He is damned as an opportunistic chameleon, not a true conservative. Trump’s personal and professional life has been lurid — as, again, we were reminded by the media-inspired release of a hot-mic tape of past Trump crude sexual braggadocio. The long campaigning has confirmed Trump as often uncouth — insensitive to women and minorities. He has never held office. His ignorance of politics often embarrasses those in foreign- and domestic-policy circles. Trump’s temperament is mercurial, especially in its ego-driven obsessions with slights to his business ethics and acumen. He wins back supporters by temporary bouts of steadiness as his polls surge, only to alienate them again with crazy nocturnal tweets and off-topic rants — as his popularity then again dips. He seems to battle as much with GOP stalwarts as Clintonites, often, to be fair, in retaliation rather than in preemptory fashion.
All these flaws earned Trump nemesis in his disastrous first debate, which was followed by marked dips in his polls. He seemed not to have prepared for the contest, convinced that he could wing it with his accustomed superlative adjectives and repetitive make-America-great generalities. He so obsessed over Clinton’s baited traps and contrived slights about his commercial reputation and his temperament that he allowed her to denigrate his character with impunity — even as he missed multiple opportunities to chronicle her spiraling scandals and contrast his mostly conservative agenda with her boilerplate, Obama 2.0, “you didn’t build that” neo-socialism. Trump’s second debate performance was far stronger, and stanched his hemorrhaging after the Access Hollywood revelations, but it was not the blow-out needed to recapture the lost momentum of mid September — nor will it yet win over Never Trump Republicans and independent women.
The counterarguments for voting Trump are by now also well known. The daily news — riot, terrorism, scandals, enemies on the move abroad, sluggish growth, and record debt — demands a candidate of change. The vote is not for purity of conservative thought, but for the candidate who is preferable to the alternative — and is also a somewhat rough form of adherence to the pragmatic Buckley dictate to prefer the most conservative candidate who can win. The issue, then, at this late date is not necessarily Trump per se, but the fact that he will bring into power far more conservatives than would Hillary Clinton. No one has made a successful argument to challenge that reality.
Nor is the election a choice even between four more years of liberalism and a return of conservatism; it’s an effort to halt the fundamental transformation of the country. A likely two-term Clinton presidency would complete a 16-year institutionalization of serial progressive abuse of the Constitution, outdoing even the twelve years of the imperial Roosevelt administration. The WikiLeaks revelations suggest an emboldened Hillary Clinton, who feels that a 2016 victory will reify her utopian dreams of a new intercontinental America of open borders and open markets, from Chile to Alaska, in the manner of the European Union expanse from the Aegean to the Baltic.
Conservatives who sit out the election de facto vote for Clinton, in the manner that Sanders’s liberal supporters, should they stay home, become votes for Trump. Oddly, renegade Democrats seem more eager to return to their fold than do their louder Republican counterparts. The idealist Bernie Sanders is not nearly as bothered by WikiLeaks and other hacked revelations of how Hillary Clinton sabotaged his campaign, cozied up to big banks, and admitted to talking progressively while in reality serving Wall Street, as are Republicans by Trump’s potty mouth. Yet in a veritable two-person race, the idea of expressing positive neutrality, to paraphrase the Indian statesman V. K. Krishna Menon, is to suppose that tigers can be vegetarians.
The tu quoque argument suggests that Trump’s rhetorical excesses — media obsessions aside — are unfortunately not all that different from those of Obama and Hillary about the “clingers” and the “deplorables.” Name a Trump cruelty or idiocy — unfamiliarity with the political discourse, ethnic insensitivity, cluelessness about the world abroad — and parallels abound, from Obama’s mispronunciation of “corpsman” as “corpse-man,” his mocking of the Special Olympics, and his remark about “punish[ing] our enemies” to Hillary’s statement that believing David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker required a “suspension of disbelief,” her “what difference does it make?” glibness about the Benghazi attack, and her past pandering to “white Americans.” And these Democrats’ frauds — from the Tony Rezko sweetheart lot deal with Obama to Hillary’s $100,000 profiteering in cattle futures — are even more banal grifting than Trump steaks and Trump vodka.
Had anyone else in government set up a private e-mail server, sent and received classified information on it, deleted over 30,000 e-mails, ordered subordinates to circumvent court and congressional orders to produce documents, and serially and publicly lied to the American people about the scandal, that person would surely be in jail. The Clinton Foundation is like no other president-sponsored nonprofit enterprise in recent memory — offering a clearing house for Clinton-family jet travel and sinecures for Clintonite operatives between Clinton elections. Hillary Clinton allotted chunks of her time as secretary of state to the largest Clinton Foundation donors. Almost every assistant whom she has suborned has taken the Fifth Amendment, in Lois Lerner fashion. The problems with Trump University are dwarfed by for-profit Laureate University, whose “Chancellor,” Bill Clinton, garnered $17.6 million in fees from the college and its affiliates over five years — often by cementing the often financially troubled international enterprise’s relationship with Hillary Clinton’s State Department. Collate what Hillary Clinton in the past has said about victims of Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual assaults, or reread some of the racier sections of Dreams From My Father, and it is hard to argue that Trump is beyond the pale in terms of contemporary culture.
Trump’s defeat would translate into continued political subversion of once disinterested federal agencies, from the FBI and Justice Department to the IRS and the EPA. It would ensure a liberal Supreme Court for the next 20 years — or more. Republicans would be lucky to hold the Senate. Obama’s unconstitutional executive overreach would be the model for Hillary’s second wave of pen-and-phone executive orders. If, in Obama fashion, the debt doubled again in eight years, we would be in hock $40 trillion after paying for Hillary’s even more grandiose entitlements of free college tuition, student-loan debt relief, and open borders. She has already talked of upping income and estate taxes on those far less wealthy than the Clintons and of putting coal miners out of work (“We are going to put a whole lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”) while promising more Solyndra-like ventures in failed crony capitalism.
We worry about what Citizen Trump did in the past in the private sector and fret more over what he might do as commander-in-chief. But these legitimate anxieties remain in the subjunctive mood; they are not facts in the indicative gleaned from Clinton’s long public record. As voters, we can only compare the respective Clinton and Trump published agendas on illegal immigration, taxes, regulation, defense spending, the Affordable Care Act, abortion, and other social issues to conclude that Trump’s platform is the far more conservative — and a rebuke of the last eight years. There is a reason the politicized media — from biased debate moderators to New York Times reporters who seek to pass muster in the Clinton team’s eyes before publishing their puff pieces — have gone haywire over Trump.
Contrary to popular anger against them, Never Trump conservative op-ed writers and wayward Republican insiders do not have much direct influence in keeping Trump’s party support down. Indeed, even after the latest gaffes, it creeps back up even as he is alienating women and the suburbs. The problem is more nuanced. Never Trump conservative grandees help flesh out the Clinton narrative of a toxic Trump that is then translated through ads, quotes, and sound bites to more numerous fence-sitting independents and women: Why should they vote for a purported extremist whom even the notables of the conservative movement and Republican party cannot stomach?
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In an election with flawed candidates, balance is a legitimate question: Why didn’t The New Republic or the Huffington Post run an “Against Clinton” special issue? Certainly, she was dishonest enough to warrant such opprobrium from among a few of her own — given her prior treatment of Bill Clinton’s likely victims of sexual assault. Her endangerment of national security through use of her private server, the utter corruption of the Clinton Foundation and indeed the office of secretary of state, and her serial lies, from claiming to have braved sniper fire in Bosnia to misleading the families of the Benghazi fallen amid the caskets of their dead, make her unfit for the presidency.
In this low-bar presidential race, why do conservative establishmentarians and past foreign-policy officials feel a need to publish their support for the Democratic candidate, when their liberal counterparts feel no such urge to distance themselves from their own nominee? Is what Clinton actually did, in leaving Iraq abruptly, or lying about Benghazi, or violating federal security laws, so much less alarming than what Trump might do in shaking up NATO or “bombing the hell out of ISIS”?
Trump’s platform is the far more conservative — and a rebuke of the last eight years.
Have such conservative self-auditing and Marquess of Queensberry restraint paid dividends in the past? Would it have been worth it for John McCain to go after Obama’s personal mentor and pastor, the racist, anti-American, and anti-Semitic Reverend Jeremiah Wright, in 2008, to preempt an agenda that led to the passage of the Affordable Care Act? Or, in the second presidential debate of 2012, should Romney have, in Reaganesque fashion, grabbed the hijacked mic back from the moderator and “fact-checker” Candy Crowley, if that dramatic act might have meant his election would have warded off the looming Iran deal? Was losing nobly in 2008 and 2012 preferable to winning ugly with Lee Atwater in 1988?
All the Republican primary candidates, in fear of a third-party Trump bid, swore an oath to support the nominee. When Jeb Bush or Carly Fiorina, even if for understandable reasons, broke that promise, they reinforced the unspoken admission that the Republican field — despite impressive résumés — operated on politics-as-usual principles. Trump won not only fair and square but also with a larger aggregate vote than any prior Republican nominee. Moreover, the Trump constituencies for the most part loyally voted in 2008 and 2012 for Republican moderates who they presciently feared were malleable on many conservative issues and who they rightly guessed would probably lose.
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Trumpism was no fluke. During the primaries, a solid conservative governor, Scott Walker, at times seemed a deer in the headlights on illegal immigration. A charismatic Marco Rubio fell into robotic recitations of boilerplate. A decent Jeb Bush’s characterization of illegal immigration as “an act of love” was no gaffe but seemed a window into his own privilege. Multi-talented Ted Cruz convinced few that he was the elder Cato. Rand Paul reminded us why we would not vote for Ron Paul. Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry demonstrated how successful governors might not inspire the country. Chris Christie played the bully boy one too many times. The inspired outsiders, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, never quite got beyond being inspired outsiders. Campaigning is like war: It often involves a tragic correction to early mistaken appraisals of relative strength and weakness formed in calmer times. Casualties pile up to prove what should have been known but went unrecognized before blows fell: in this case, that in his energetic harnessing of popular anger, Trump, my own least favorite in the field, was the more effective candidate in gauging the mood of the times.
These are all valid rejoinders to those who say that recalcitrant conservatives, independents, and women should not hold their nose and vote for Trump. But they are not the chief considerations in his favor.
Something has gone terribly wrong with the Republican party, and it has nothing to do with the flaws of Donald Trump. Something like his tone and message would have to be invented if he did not exist. None of the other 16 primary candidates — the great majority of whom had far greater political expertise, more even temperaments, and more knowledge of issues than did Trump — shared Trump’s sense of outrage — or his ability to convey it — over what was wrong: The lives and concerns of the Republican establishment in the media and government no longer resembled those of half their supporters.
The Beltway establishment grew more concerned about their sinecures in government and the media than about showing urgency in stopping Obamaism. When the Voz de Aztlan and the Wall Street Journal often share the same position on illegal immigration, or when Republicans of the Gang of Eight are as likely as their left-wing associates to disparage those who want federal immigration law enforced, the proverbial conservative masses feel they have lost their representation. How, under a supposedly obstructive, conservative-controlled House and Senate, did we reach $20 trillion in debt, institutionalize sanctuary cities, and put ourselves on track to a Navy of World War I size? Compared with all that, “making Mexico pay” for the wall does not seem all that radical. Under a Trump presidency the owner of Univision would not be stealthily writing, as he did to Team Clinton, to press harder for open borders — and thus the continuance of a permanent and profitable viewership of non-English speakers.
Trump’s outrageousness was not really new; it was more a 360-degree mirror of an already outrageous politics as usual.
One does not need lectures about conservatism from Edmund Burke when, at the neighborhood school, English becomes a second language, or when one is rammed by a hit-and-run driver illegally in the United States who flees the scene of the accident. Do our elites ever enter their offices to find their opinion-journalism jobs outsourced at half the cost to writers in India? Are congressional staffers told to move to Alabama, where it is cheaper to telecommunicate their business? Trump’s outrageousness was not really new; it was more a 360-degree mirror of an already outrageous politics as usual.
John Boehner and Mitch McConnell did make a good case that they had stopped some of the Obama agenda and could not have halted more, given that Republicans did not have the White House and Obama often exceeded his constitutional mandates. But they hardly provided emotional energy and vehement opposition — the thumos that galvanizes others to do things deemed improbable. Tea-party rallying cries to stop Obamacare, to stop piling up trillions in new debt, to stop slashing the military, and to stop disparaging working-class Americans mostly in favor of preferred racial, class, or gender groups were not inspired by the Republican elite. The WikiLeaks peek into the Clinton-Obama media Borg reveals an insidious corruption in which it is hard to distinguish between campaign officials, network-journalist grandees, and top-level bureaucrats. Colin Powell’s pathetic hacked e-mails might suggest that such insidiousness is not just confined to liberals and progressives.
“Creative destruction” and “job mobility” are favorite — and often correct — nostrums for the unfortunate downsides of otherwise wealth-creating, unfettered trade. The more foreign products undercut our own, in theory, the more we are forced to tone up, put the right workers into the right places for the right reasons, and become ever more productive and competitive.
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The problem, however, is that a displaced real person, unemployed and living with his 80-year-old grandmother in a financially underwater and unsellable home, cannot easily move to the North Dakota fracking fields, any more than the destruction of an 80-acre small-farming operation owing to foreign agricultural subsidies is in any way “creative.” What we needed from our conservative elites and moderates was not necessarily less free-market economics, but fair in addition to free trade — and at least some compassion and sensitivity in recognizing that their bromides usually applied to others rather than to themselves and the political class of both parties.
When Trump shoots off his blunderbuss, is it always proof of laziness and ignorance, or is it sometimes generally aimed in the right direction to prompt anxiety and eventual necessary reconsideration? Questioning NATO’s pro forma way of doing business led to furor, but also to renewed promises from NATO allies to fight terror, pony up defense funds, and coordinate more effectively. Deploring unfair trade deals suddenly made Hillary Clinton renounce her prior zealous support of the “gold standard” Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.
Wondering whether some of our Asian allies might someday build nuclear weapons galvanized Japan and South Korea to step up and warn North Korea against further aggressive acts, in a new fashion. In Europe, Trump is said to be unpredictable and volatile. But since when are predictability and serenity always advantages in global poker?A President Trump might shake up U.S. foreign policy in controversial and not always polite ways. In far calmer fashion, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton already has revolutionized America’s role overseas — from the Iraq pullout to the foundations of the Iran deal to lead-from-behind Libyan bombing to tiptoeing around “violent extremism” and “workplace violence” to empowering Chinese expansionism to increasing distance from allies and proximity to enemies. Obama reminded us that approval from abroad is usually synonymous with thanks for weakening America and making us more like them than them us. Should we be more terrified that the socialist and largely pacifist European Union is afraid of Trump, or that it welcomes even more of Barack Obama’s type of leadership? Is not the present course of projecting weakness while insulting Vladimir Putin — the Russian reset of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — the inverse of speaking softly while carrying a big stick?
The ancient idea of tragic irony can sometimes be described as an outcome unfortunately contrary to what should have been expected. Many of us did not vote in the primaries for Trump, because we did not believe that he was sufficiently conservative or, given his polarizing demeanor, that he could win the presidency even if he were.
The irony is now upon us that Trump may have been the most conservative Republican candidate who still could beat Hillary Clinton — and that if he were to win, he might usher in the most conservative Congress, presidency, and Supreme Court in nearly a century.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]. A Version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2016, issue of National Review.
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