With Donald Trump flailing in the polls just under two weeks from the presidential election, an open conflict has broken out between many of those Republicans voting for Trump and those who see him as a moral and political bridge too far for the Republican party.
For most, that conflict is not based on disagreements about principle. Most Never Trumpers despise Hillary Clinton and will not vote for her; most Never Trumpers even feel significant sympathy for the “vote for Trump to stop Hillary” argument. They believe that Trump fails to meet the most basic standard of morality and conservatism and that supporting him damages Republicans politically now and in the future. So they will vote for neither candidate.
By contrast, most Trump voters despise Hillary Clinton and will vote against her. Most Trump voters are voting for Trump as the lesser of two evils, not because they support his agenda on trade or trust him as a thoughtful foreign-policy sage. Most Trump voters aren’t Laura Ingraham or Bill Mitchell or Sean Hannity. That’s been true since May. Most Trump voters will vote for Trump because they believe that the overriding priority is to stop Hillary from entering the White House, and to that end, they are willing to overlook Trump’s myriad flaws.
So, why are the two sides of this debate at each other’s throat? Because they’ve projected bad motives onto the other side.
On the one hand, some Never Trumpers have accused Trump voters of high-handedness.
The most vocal Trump supporters have spent nearly the entirety of this general-election cycle focused not on helping Trump win but on blaming Never Trumpers if he loses. They stated first that Never Trumpers were unimportant to the debate because they’re so few and far between; then they stated that Never Trumpers were the only thing standing between Trump and the White House. They’ve argued that all Never Trumpers secretly want Hillary to be president (absurd) or don’t care about her corruption (idiotic) or are in the pay of nefarious forces (ridiculous — the only people who have benefitted monetarily from this election are those who have boosted their careers through their pro-Trump sycophancy). These vocal Trump supporters have engaged in the most crass moral preening: Those who disagree about Trump are pure evil, saboteurs, and sell-outs.
Some Never Trumpers have made the mistake of attributing the rhetoric and feelings of the people who make these disingenuous, scurrilous arguments — the ardent base of Trump support — to those who are voting for Trump reluctantly. Feeling assaulted, many Never Trumpers fail to hear the distinction between intelligent conservatives voting Trump as a last resort, to stop Hillary, and Trump cheerleaders who want Trump to be a bludgeon against the “cuckservative establishment.”
Meanwhile, on the other hand, many reluctant Trump supporters have accused Never Trumpers of high-handedness. They believe that Never Trumpers are sneering down at them, riding their high horses. They refuse to acknowledge decent rationales, either moral or political, for not voting Trump. They don’t say that Never Trumpers are in the pay of international bankers or secretly pray at Hillary shrines, but they claim that Never Trumpers are whiners who won’t get their hands dirty and simply want to virtue-signal by refusing to vote for Trump.
This misattribution of motives on both sides is far more likely to spell the death of the Republican party than Trumpism is.
After the election, which Trump is almost sure to lose, most Republicans will grieve. Never Trumpers will grieve at the lost opportunity to stop Hillary Clinton and at paving her way by nominating a man eminently unfit and pathologically incapable of running even a half-decent campaign; they’ll lament the damage done to the party by spending months snorting at sexual-assault allegations and shrugging at playing footsie with the despicable alt-right. Reluctant Trump voters will grieve at the Trump loss generally — they’ll lament both his win in the primaries and his loss in the general but will generally acknowledge that he failed his supporters.
This will provide the opportunity for a healing — so long as each side recognizes the genuineness of the other side’s grief. Never Trumpers must acknowledge that reluctant Trump voters felt that they had to do what they did and that they do not bear the stain of his sins for taking a lesser-of-two-evils path, even if Never Trumpers believe that was wrong. Reluctant Trump voters must acknowledge that Never Trumpers felt they had to do what they did not out of a misguided attempt to show their moral superiority but out of a real belief that the only way to preserve conservatism and the Republican party was to dissociate from the political electrical fire Trump represented. No conservative or Republican of decency will be celebrating on November 9. Both Never Trumpers and reluctant Trump voters should recognize this.
The only way to rebuild a Republican party based on conservative principle is to acknowledge the good motivations of those who disagree about Trump.
The only way to rebuild a Republican party based on conservative principle is to acknowledge the good motives of those who disagree about Trump.
But there’s a real possibility that such a rapprochement won’t happen. That’s because Trump and his campaign deeply desire a civil war. They want reluctant Trump voters to fight with Never Trumpers. They want to excise the conservatives who wouldn’t back Trump, and they want to co-opt the conservatives who would. That’s why in the waning days of the campaign, Trump spends his time ripping Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — a Trump endorser! — and blaming other Republicans for his own failures. Trump’s team, including political arsonists such as former-and-future Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon, want the Right to burn itself out, making way for a resurgent nationalist populism that dispenses with constitutional conservatism altogether. Trump has an active rooting interest in initiating a civil war, for both financial and political gain. He’s planning and promoting that civil war now. To that end, Trump himself stokes the absolute lie that Republicans who won’t vote for him are traitors to conservatism who are hell-bent on belittling those who vote Trump.
The only way to rebuild a Republican party based on conservative principle is to acknowledge the good motives of those who disagree about Trump. We all want to stop Hillary Clinton and her vile agenda. We all want to reverse decades of Democratic policy on immigration and government growth, on social leftism and leftist race-baiting. If Trump loses, we’ll have to get over our differences about him to do that. We all had sincere positions on Trump. It wasn’t just preening. It wasn’t unearned moral superiority. We had serious disagreements, but we agree on basic principles. If we can agree on all of that, there’s a future for conservatism.
If Trump succeeds, however, in his post-election plan to divide conservatives between those who were loyal to him and those who were not, he’ll have told his biggest lie and, on the basis of that, won his greatest victory. And the conservative movement’s collapse will be the final step in the political Armageddon he and his advisers so desire.