Dear Republican politician who is on the ballot in November 2016: I feel your pain. Really I do. Let’s talk about your problem.
Elected Republicans come in all types, so there could be any number of reasons why you went into politics in the first place. Maybe you grew up listening to Reagan and believed in his conservative message. Maybe you were minding your own business as an entrepreneur — and got tired of the red tape. Maybe you’re a devoted Christian who couldn’t take the assaults on a moral society anymore. Maybe you cut your teeth in the Army or as a prosecutor, fighting the bad guys. Maybe your dad was a Republican politician. Maybe you just wanted to be famous and powerful. Whatever drove you to get into this business, you know one thing: You don’t want to get out of it by losing an election.
If you’re like most Republicans who are on the ballot this year, you didn’t ask for Donald Trump to be the party’s presidential nominee. Maybe you endorsed somebody else in the primary; maybe you kept your head down. Maybe you agree with Trump on some things, and maybe at times you’ve enjoyed the Trump Show. But most likely, you not only disagree with him on a fair number of issues (you’re a Republican, after all) but also have often heard him express things that you personally would never say. (I’m assuming you’d never say them, because anyone but Trump who said half the things Trump says would never get nominated for any office.)
So here are your problems. Problem No. 1 is turnout. A lot of Republicans are deeply distressed and dispirited — or outraged — by Trump as the nominee, and the national party may be overstretched trying to help you, especially if you are, say, running a House race in what is normally a somewhat safe district. Old friends and allies might be sitting this one out. On the other hand, 30 to 40 percent or in some cases 50 percent of the primary voters in your district may have voted for Trump, and you can’t just write them off. Meanwhile, the other side’s nominee might not be that inspiring, but every time Trump opens his mouth, she gets another gift to help rally her base.
Problem No. 2 is that your Democratic opponent is going to have ads cut by the national Democratic apparatus that bury you in the endless opposition research that exists on Trump. People might forgive Trump a certain amount of this stuff because he has the celebrity and swagger and ego to pull it off, but you don’t. And it might not be easy defending Trump’s inconsistencies and gaffes on issues where you, yourself, have a record that’s much easier to defend.
What you do and say now will be remembered the rest of your career.
Problem No. 3 is posterity. This is partly a matter of integrity: Can you look yourself in the mirror if you support Trump? Can you forgive yourself if you cross party lines to support Hillary? Can you be proud to tell your children this is what you’re doing? But it’s more than that, because Trump will probably be gone from the scene after 2016, but what you do and say now will be remembered the rest of your career. People who bought the Trump con may demand you pay fealty now, but later on they might want to know why you didn’t stop him from losing so badly. Others could prefer to blame his defeat on anyone but themselves, and they’ll focus their ire instead on politicians who abandoned him.
Think of 1964. Today, every Republican and conservative wants to say he would have been one of the Republicans (there were many) who supported the Civil Rights Act — more Republicans did than Democrats, as people versed in GOP historical apologetics often note. Yet every conservative Republican also wants to say that he would have had the foresight to support the principled conservative Goldwater . . . who opposed the Civil Rights Act. Squaring that circle was challenging then, as it is now, but while Goldwater’s principles and record on civil rights allowed him to escape some historical obloquy for his stance, others who lacked those credentials were haunted ever since. When in doubt, do the right thing.
Or think of David Duke and his runs for the Senate and for governor of Louisiana in 1990-91 and his presidential campaign in 1992. It was not easy for a lot of Louisiana Republicans to say no to a guy who had some real support in what was then a Democratic state. But people who opposed Duke didn’t regret it. You still see video circulate of a young Scott Walker, then a fairly minor official in the Wisconsin GOP, debating Duke over keeping him off the Wisconsin ballot. By contrast, Steve Scalise had to endure a coordinated effort to kick him out of House leadership in 2014 just for having tried to win over Duke’s supporters.
Either way, anyone who takes seriously his role as a principled leader or his odds of seeking office again should be thinking about what he wants to be able to say ten or 20 years from now when people look back on the madness of the Trump campaign. At the very least, you want to be able to say you weren’t part of the problem. But you’ll also want to be able to live with yourself.
So what to do?
One: Don’t go to Cleveland if you don’t have to. The party convention will be — must be — a festival of Trump promotion, Trump protests that could turn violent or at least ugly, and a national media feeding frenzy. If you’re a delegate, you need to be there. If not, stay far away. The imagery of that convention will make it very hard to come home unscathed, and believe me, you will need every day you can spare this summer to campaign back home, even if your state or district is less than an hour’s drive from Cleveland.
Two: It’s okay to keep your vote secret or undecided. Elections are binary and polarizing, and it might not be the model of courage to say, “I haven’t decided who I’m voting for” or “I’ll decide in the voting booth” or “Trump will have to persuade me, and I’m keeping an open mind.” For those of us who admire the guts of someone such as Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, for his bitter-end #NeverTrump stance, we also understand that Ben Sasse is in a deep-red state and won’t face the voters for four more years, when perspective has set in. Casting yourself as not yet persuaded by any candidate is a way to signal to voters that you share their dissatisfaction with the available choices.
Three: Follow Trump if you must, but don’t lead. Every Republican voter has to make a hard choice this fall. Many will end up resigning themselves to Trump as the alternative to Hillary. Some will end up resigning themselves to Hillary as the alternative to Trump. Many who end up in either camp will hate themselves, at least a little, for doing so.
Any time Trump is in town, make sure to be somewhere else. You will never regret it.
But if your answer is merely “I guess Trump is the lesser of two evils” or “my constituents voted for him, I’m not going to second-guess them,” you might be able to defend that later by pointing to the Hillary administration. What you won’t be able to defend is interviews flacking for Trump or excusing his latest outrage, or appearing in ads for Trump, or standing on the same stage with Trump. Any time he’s in town, make sure to be somewhere else. You will never regret it, and there will be too many Republicans pursuing that strategy for you to face a lot of reprisals for it. And whatever you do, do not attempt to explain what Trump was saying the last time he put his foot in his mouth; it’s fine to just laugh and say, “Well, that’s what Donald Trump does.”
And the same goes twice for supporting Hillary, which even in the bluest districts is not going to endear you to the GOP voters you need. Especially since Hillary might well be the president when this is all over, and, if so, you will find yourself in the frequent position of opposing her.
Four: Triangulate. Even the most partisan voters like to think of themselves and the people they vote for as independent-minded, judicious, and not like those other people, who are knee-jerk ideologues or cogs in a political machine. There will be scores of ways large and small, verbal and visual, to distinguish yourself from Trump (his liberal positions, his tendency toward intolerance); you’ll also find ways associate yourself with more-conservative stances taken by Bill and Hillary Clinton back in the day. The more often you can do this, the more you reinforce “I’m my own man/woman” and remind people you’re no Trump. And don’t be afraid to run explicitly on “whoever wins this election, you want me in Congress/the statehouse to keep him honest and stand up for your cause that he doesn’t care about.”
Five: Jujitsu. Trump has taken a lot of liberal positions and donated to a lot of Democratic politicians and causes: Use it! Your opponent might get uncomfortable being linked to Trump as well, and might weary of you saying, “Unlike Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I . . . ” Yes, some of your voters probably picked Trump, but let your opponent be the one to make fun of the voters.
Six: Explain your dissent. If you do have the courage to stand up and oppose Trump, be straightforward about why. “He’s going to lose” could be part of your real reason, but foregrounding that is not leadership. People do, at least sometimes, respect leadership.
Seven: Suffer fools gladly. You have to have some skill at this anyway if you expect to win elections, but this year will test you more than most. If you aren’t all aboard the Trump Train, you are sooner or later going to face some irate constituents wondering why you’re on the other side. Be patient, listen. It will require all your reserves of forbearance.
Eight: Learn. Trump won the nomination for a reason. Lots of people are angry and insecure about their finances, their job, and the future of their community. Ask yourself what else you can be doing to show the voters that you share those concerns and are part of the solution. If that means presenting a more palatable version of Trump’s economic populism, or imitating some of the more successful ways Bernie Sanders has drawn blood from Hillary Clinton, it might help you get through 2016. But don’t use their names — stick to the issues.
Nine: Stay true to yourself. A little dash of Trump/Sanders might be in order, but don’t go overboard — remember who you were before 2016. Trumpism is as much about Trump as it is any issue. Sixty percent of GOP primary voters voted for someone other than Trump, and even in the states where Trump won handily, his voters were almost invariably comfortable voting down-ticket in the primaries for conventional GOP incumbents, none of whom have been unseated by primary challengers thus far. The party has some serious soul-searching ahead of it, but the reality is that Trump is more a one-man celebrity phenomenon who made people forget about the issues than he is a leader realigning voters around a new agenda.
Ten: Don’t get complacent. Trump has put you in an impossible position. But it’s six months to Election Day. Have a plan! Decide now, not later, how to handle every question that might come up, every problem Trump will create with voter turnout and campaign messages and fundraising. Don’t find yourself surprised in October that you have a race on your hands.
The Trump nomination is a test of your courage and integrity. Politicians, even ones of basic good will, are not known for these things, and in the short run, the voters don’t always reward them. Life isn’t fair. If you were wise, you went on record against Trump in the primary, and you can always point to that later. But if you don’t feel free to stand loudly and proudly with #NeverTrump, now that the end result of a Trump loss is apt to be a Hillary Clinton victory, you can at least keep your distance and your dignity and live to fight another day.