Vote Your Conscience

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Prescott Regional Airport in Arizona, October 19, 2020. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)
A few thoughts on next week, the previous four years, and the future

At the 2016 Republican convention, Senator Ted Cruz spoke a controversial phrase: “vote your conscience.” I think about this phrase, this idea, fairly often. I’m not one to give advice on voting (or much else). But when asked for advice, I usually say, “Vote your conscience.”

Sweet conscience! One of the most precious gifts we have.

My mind has traveled back to 2016 in recent days. Travel with me for a minute, if you want.

I left the GOP the night of May 3, when Donald Trump clinched the nomination for president. I explained why in a piece for National Review, “The Shock of Disaffiliation: On leaving the Republican party.” It was a helluva shock. I had been the most hard-bitten Republican you ever saw. In fact, I once wrote a piece titled “A Hopeless ‘R.’”

Let me excerpt a couple of sentences from my “Shock of Disaffiliation” piece:

In my view, Trump is grossly unfit to be president, in both mind and character — especially the latter. Even if I agreed with him on the issues — even if I thought his worldview sound — I would balk at supporting him, owing to the issue of character.

Yup. Since 2015, there has been one central question, as I see it: “Is Donald Trump fit to be president? Fit in mind and character? Mentally and morally?” Some say yes, or hell, yes; some say no, or hell, no. Between those two points of view, there is a gulf. Unbridgeable, in my estimation.

Two weeks after that fateful night of May 3, 2016 — fateful for me, at least — I met a prominent Republican at an event. She said, “How are you?” I said, “Unsettled, frankly. I’ve left the Republican Party. Can you believe it?” She fixed me with a look and said, “You didn’t leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left you.”

This was an adaptation of Ronald Reagan’s famous remark about the Democrats. (He had been a Democrat for as long as I had been a Republican: about 30 years.) I very much appreciated the woman’s remark.

Two months later, she was speaking at the Republican convention, and in the bosom of TrumpWorld.

At some point, I got a text from a fellow whose boss had come out for Trump. Aghast and repulsed, the fellow didn’t want to work for his boss anymore. Did I know of any jobs? Less than half a year later, this fellow was working in the White House.

C’est la vie, especially la vie politique.

During the summer of 2016, a famous and influential conservative wrote to me with a friendly warning: “You’re marginalizing yourself” (by not “jumping on the Trump train”). I replied that I had spent much of my life on the margins. Besides, what could one do, given long-established views?

To be politically homeless is no fun, at least for me. (George Will feels differently, as he said in a podcast with me last week.) Reagan had a party to jump to, seamlessly. Indeed, he would eventually lead his adoptive party! Worked out for him . . .

Obviously, there are natural Trumpers, people who have always been Trumpers, even if the name didn’t exist. Think of the “Buchanan brigades.” (I’m speaking of Pat, not James: either the president or the economist.) Then there are converts: people who have genuinely changed their minds about economics, foreign policy, etc.

I know people who, once upon a time — during Bill Clinton’s presidency, for example — made a great deal of character in office. “Character is destiny” and all that. Almost overnight, they took to chastising people for “moral preening” and “virtue-signaling.”

There are Trumpers of convenience: people who simply “got with the program,” for professional, social, or other reasons. “Git on the Trump train or git crushed,” went the expression. They didn’t want to be crushed.

A person’s circumstances mean a great deal, don’t you think? I have conservative friends who work on college campuses. They’re pretty quiet about their politics. They’re surrounded by left-wing aggressiveness and nonsense all day long. They see Trump as a great big orange middle finger to their aggravators.

I understand completely. If I were on campus — if I took a job or something (can you imagine an administration hiring me?) — I’d probably want to jam on a red hat by Day Three. I might not last three days, actually: I’d use the wrong pronoun or something, and that’d be it.

Let me say a brief word about the anti-anti-Trumpers — who make up a large camp. I get where they’re coming from (as we used to say in the ’70s). But I often find the anti-anti-Trumpers exasperating. I didn’t care much for the anti-anti-Communists: people who rarely criticized Brezhnev, Castro, or Honecker, but spent a lot of time on Reagan, Buckley, and Kirkpatrick.

Last month, Jonah Goldberg wrote this, with deadly accuracy, in my opinion:

The central assumption of anti-anti-Trumpism is that Trump should be exempt from the standards everyone else should follow because it’s absurd and somehow unreasonable to expect him to behave. Trump is Trump — “he’s a disruptor!” — and you’re the weird one if you make a big deal out of it.

(For the complete piece, go here.)

There are people who contend that anti-Trump conservatives object merely to superficial things about the man: his Queens accent, for example. As I have long said, the accent is one of the things I like about Trump. I liked the way he said his second wife’s name: “Mawla” (for “Marla”).

The last several years have been a miserable time on the right. Alliances have been strained or broken. Friendships have been strained or broken. There has even been pressure on marriages, and not just the famous marriage of Kellyanne and George, but other ones, believe me.

America has had Trump on the brain. There has been almost a national mesmerism, or fixation. Trumpers have Trump on the brain, and anti-Trumpers have Trump on the brain. (Yes, anti-anti’s and the rest, too.)

Before the pandemic, I sometimes went to gatherings. (Seems like a century ago!) Prior to one of them, I vowed not to be drawn in by Trump. I was about ten yards from the door when an old friend greeted me with, “Still not on the Trump train? I am.” Before I could answer, she walked on, with a haughty, contemptuous air.

Another time, I managed to get through the door. The first person I saw was an old friend who said, “[So-and-so] tells me you’re still not with Trump.”

It was inescapable. It is inescapable. And the pull of the tribe is very, very strong.

From any Republican administration, great good can come — from the point of view of a conservative. It comes almost automatically. Think of deregulation.

Think of all the bad things you can block, too. All the initiatives — Democratic ones — you can keep from happening.

But back to the positive (not that blocking bad things is negative). I loved the presence of Jim Mattis and Betsy DeVos in the cabinet. One of them is gone now, and sharply critical of Trump, but even so. I loved the conscience protections for health-care workers. The moving of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (West Jerusalem, as many of us had long advocated). And the FedSoc judges, of course.

These things, and others, mean a great deal.

How about the other side of the coin? The derisive, childish nicknames. “The enemy of the people.” “Lock ’er up,” “Lock ’im up.” The constant, reflexive lying.

Trump is the kind of guy — the kind of president — who accuses his media critics of murder. We’re supposed to shrug that off, evidently, because “that’s Trump being Trump,” and don’t we know that he’s a “fighter”?

Honestly, some of us doubt that Trump is “a very stable genius,” no matter what he says about himself.

Intelligence briefers are reluctant to bring up Russia, for fear of upsetting the president. How can we have such a person in the Oval Office? It ought to tell people something — especially conservatives — that John Bolton can’t support the president for reelection.

Think of the Ukraine shakedown (over which Trump was impeached). That alone is disqualifying, in my book, as so many other things, alone, are disqualifying.

I think of that lineup whom Trump & Co. trashed: Marie Yovanovitch, Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill, and the rest. These are the kind of people I admire, and think we ought to have in government. “She’s going to go through some things,” Trump said. He was speaking of Yovanovitch.

Permit me to excerpt something I wrote, in November 2019:

Last week, as Marie Yovanovitch was testifying before Congress, President Trump tweeted, “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?”

Somalia was indeed one of her first posts, in the mid-1980s, when she was in her twenties. She had recently joined the Foreign Service. She was not responsible for Somalia. She was a very junior officer. Plus, the United States is not responsible for Somalia.

That country has long been wretched, afflicted by war and epidemic rape.

Yovanovitch has served mainly in very difficult posts. She has been ambassador in three countries, all of them former republics of the Soviet Union. She has been appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents. She grew up speaking Russian.

Her father was a refugee from the Soviet Union. Her mother’s parents were refugees from the Soviet Union too, and she — the ambassador’s mother — grew up in Nazi Germany. That required another flight, i.e., another fleeing.

In my piece today, I am only taking drops from a deep well of grossness.

About ten days before the midterm elections of 2018, Trump launched a military operation, to protect our southwestern border from the “caravan.” Remember that one? I thought this operation was fishy. It smelled like an abuse of our military, for political purposes. Some military men thought that, too.

Then there was the name: “Operation Faithful Patriot.” It was a name, I thought, for true patriots to gag on.

At CPAC, Trump hugged the American flag, literally. And then kissed it. Someone said that he “slow-danced” with the flag. I also think of that stunt with the Bible, outside St. John’s Church.

This is me, mind you — some of the things I dislike, or gag on. I’m not speaking for you or anyone else. This is all very personal. We have our own principles, values, tastes, etc.

About Trump’s relations with dictators, I wrote at length last week (here). Some of us care about this subject a lot. Again, this is personal.

A statement by Trump in May 2019 shocked me. It made me almost physically ill — in part because I have studied North Korea a fair amount, and met with many escapees. Trump tweeted,

North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me. I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me, & also smiled when he called Swampman Joe Bidan a low IQ individual, & worse. Perhaps that’s sending me a signal?

The North Korean missile launches may have seemed trivial to Trump, but they seemed a lot less so to South Koreans and Japanese, understandably. Also, Trump’s advisers were rightly “disturbed.”

And the “Swampman Joe Bidan” business? Biden had called Kim Jong-un a “dictator” and a “tyrant.” That’s the least you can say about Kim. In response, Kim called Biden a “fool of low IQ” and an “imbecile bereft of elementary quality as a human being.”

Then Trump weighed in, chortling with “Chairman Kim” over the IQ of the “Swampman.”

Look, I myself have been against Biden since the mid-1980s, when I was in college, and he had been in the Senate about ten years. I was against Biden before many of my colleagues were born. But I don’t think an American president should be chortling with a monstrous Communist dictator — a monstrous, murderous, anti-American Communist dictator — over the IQ of an American former vice president.

Patriotism is a lot more than hugging and kissing a flag.

To Bob Woodward, Trump described his rapport with Kim Jong-un: “You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it’s going to happen. It doesn’t take you ten minutes, and it doesn’t take you six weeks. It’s like, ‘Whoa. Okay.’ You know? It takes somewhat less than a second.”

This sickens people like me. We simply can’t help it.

One more thing, before I move on. There is a theory, derived from QAnon, apparently, that President Obama and Vice President Biden conspired with Iran to fake the death of Osama bin Laden. Then Biden, specifically, had members of SEAL Team Six killed, in order to cover up the conspiracy.

This theory was promoted by a tweeter calling himself “Oscar the Midnight Rider 1111.” Naturally, President Trump retweeted Oscar the Midnight Rider 1111.

Asked about this during a televised “townhall,” Trump said, “I know nothing about it. That was a retweet. That was an opinion of somebody, and that was a retweet. I put it out there. People can decide for themselves. I don’t take a position.”

Is this acceptable in a president? Would Republicans accept it in a Democrat? I wouldn’t.

Some of my friends like to “call balls and strikes.” They like to ump Trump. He does good things and bad things. What you do is, you call balls and strikes. But I have to ask: How do you ump Trump’s promotion of the SEAL Team Six theory, to his 87 million Twitter followers? A little outside? Caught the inside corner?

How do you ump it? Some things, in my view, are un-umpable. They just illustrate a basic unfitness.

Let me tell you a story. Many years ago, there were reports that a prominent politician had engaged in bad behavior — behavior of a “personal” nature. The reports were true. I had admired this politician a great deal. I confessed, to a group of colleagues, that I now thought less of the man, and that I was pained by the whole thing.

One of my colleagues mocked me, saying that I was a square, essentially, and how could I let “personal” behavior influence my view of a politician? Either I liked the man’s politics or I didn’t.

I did not argue with my colleague. There is, in fact, no arguing. I just said, “We all get to pick what we value.” (To his credit, my colleague quickly agreed.) We all get to pick what we admire and what we disdain; what matters to us and what doesn’t, or matters less to us. I don’t get to decide for you, and you don’t get to decide for me.

We all get to pick what we value.

Lately, people have taken to saying, “Your mileage may vary.” They’re not talking about cars. They’re talking about how you think and what you feel.

Yes. Vive la différence, too.

Some Trumpers and some anti-anti-Trumpers think I don’t understand them. Oh, I do, I swear. Sometimes I even agree with them. Talk about mileage that varies.

Let me confess something, a thing I have confessed before: I loved Reagan, yes. But, even more, possibly, I hated his enemies: the professors, the media, the celebrities — the whole lot. I defended Reagan during the Bitburg debacle, during the Iran-contra scandal, during anything and everything. I was unbudgeable.

And every insult directed at him — even every criticism — I felt personally. His critics were my critics. His enemies were my enemies. Everything Reagan did, I put in the best possible light. Everything his opponents did, I put in the worst possible light.

In my defense, Reagan was great, his opponents were lousy, and I was very young.

I’d like to return to the question I started with: the question of voting your conscience. As you may know, anti-Trump conservatives have been having a debate. They agree on the president (the undesirability of). But their debate goes as follows: Should you vote against the Republican Party across the board? In other words, should you “burn it down”? Or should you vote for GOP House and Senate candidates, in an effort to “save” the party?

I took up this subject in a column last summer. My prescription (maybe no surprise): Vote your conscience. That goes for the presidential race too, needless to say.

A secret ballot is a sweet, sweet thing. You close the curtain behind you — or whatever you do when you vote — and you pull the lever (or whatever) for the candidate you want, for any reason at all (or no reason, clearly defined). Moreover, you don’t have to tell a soul. Not even your wife or husband, or mama or daddy.

There are closeted anti-Trumpers. They work or live in Trumpy environments, and they keep their mouths shut. There are also closeted Trumpers, of course. They work or live in left-wing environments, and they keep their mouths shut.

People of both types have “come out” to me. (I’m a safe zone. I don’t “carry tales,” as my grandmother would say. To borrow two phrases from journalism: Talking to me is like talking to a bank vault, or talking to a tomb.)

Recently, Bret Stephens had a column titled “Meet a Secret Trump Voter: ‘Being a lesbian who’s voting for Trump is like coming out of the closet again.’”

I think it’s a shame that people feel unable to express their political views freely. This ought not to be, in a democracy such as ours — “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” But it’s so.

The pull of the crowd — any crowd — can be terribly strong. The weight of the crowd can be unbearable. Family, friends, co-workers, co-religionists. Facebook, Twitter, Slack, the comments section. Tribe. Groupthink kicks in, a hive is formed. Everyone buzzes around in it, and if you venture outside, you get stung.

“Come out from the world and be separate,” is the Biblical admonition, and it sounds good, but many people find it awfully hard to do. And yet, you are entitled to conscience — sweet conscience — and to that sweet secret ballot.

Also, you’re entitled to a future election. I mean, another crack at it. Another bite at the electoral apple.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton beat President Bush (the first one), I thought it was the end of the world. (I’m still not 100 percent sure it wasn’t.) And when Mitt Romney lost in 2012 — it was the end of the world again. (Was it?)

Go back to 1964. I know a lady, an American, who was traveling in Europe at the time of the election. “When I heard that Johnson had beaten Goldwater, I didn’t want to come home.”

A week after the 2016 election, I was sitting with a table of conservative friends. They all agreed that, if Hillary Clinton had won the election, America would have been “over.” That’s the word they used, each one of them: “over.” They were not exaggerating. They meant it.

One woman, to her credit, said under her breath — I was sitting next to her — “Well, maybe in 40 years.” What she meant was, it might have taken 40 years or so after the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016 for America to be over.

Someday, it will be over. Because everything is over. Quick, where was Carthage? Been to Greece lately? But let me give you a story from 2008.

In January, I was sitting with George P. Shultz, the former secretary of state (and other things). I was a Nervous Nellie about the election ten months off. “Will a Democratic victory in November badly damage the American position in the world?” I asked. Shultz chuckled, sort of indulgently, and said, “I don’t know. I’m not a person who sees catastrophe. Our country’s pretty good and stable.”

Then he quoted Milton Friedman, his late friend and “hero,” he said. Friedman, adapting Adam Smith, would say, “There’s a lot of ruin in the United States of America.”

God bless America — all of it: “red states,” “blue states,” big cities, farms, the coasts, the heartland, Trumpers, anti-Trumpers, anti-anti’s . . .

Maybe I should just quote Irving Berlin (one of our countless sterling immigrants): “God bless America, land that I love. / Stand beside her and guide her / Through the night with the light from above.”

And to end: “God bless America, my home sweet home.” Yup.


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