Editor’s Note: If you would like to read more pros and cons on voting for President Trump, further essays, each from a different perspective, can be found here, here, here, here, here and here. These articles and the one below reflect the views of the individual authors, not of the National Review editorial board as a whole.
I’m a lifelong conservative Republican. I voted for Evan McMullin in 2016. I’ve been debating for a long time whether I could, or should, vote to reelect Donald Trump in 2020. At the risk of writing a column that is somewhat self-reflective, let me walk you through my decision-making process. If you are still struggling with this decision, I hope it will help you work through your own, even if you come to a different conclusion. If you already know where you stand, perhaps it will help you better understand those who are thinking differently about the question. In 2016, I defended those who reached a different conclusion than I did about whether or not to back Trump, and I will again.
This is not an easy decision, and it requires an unblinking examination of the costs of each alternative. National Review’s editorial on the stakes in the election strongly endorsed returning a Republican Senate majority, but did not endorse a vote in the presidential race. Many of my National Review colleagues and contributors have weighed in already on voting Trump: Andy McCarthy (Yes), Conrad Black (Hell, Yes), Victor Davis Hanson (also a yes), Jack Fowler (Biden, Never) Charlie Cooke (Maybe), Jay Nordlinger (Vote Your Conscience), Ramesh Ponnuru (No), and Kevin Williamson (Hell, No). Most of these share the same basic starting point as my 2016 piece: Trump is individually bad, the Democrats are institutionally bad. None makes a case for voting for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. How to decide?
The Duties of a Columnist and a Citizen
Start with the duty of a columnist. There are those who argue that journalists — even those of us who openly advocate particular points of view — should not disclose whom they vote for, partly because some readers may then boil down everything you say to “I’m with this guy,” and partly because there is a natural tendency to defend a decision, having made it in public. There is something to this, but ultimately, much of the job of a political columnist is to make essentially moral arguments about who should win elections, nominations, legislative battles, court cases, and the like. If my job has any value besides entertainment, I owe it to readers to say who I think should win the election.
I also owe you a decision unencumbered by past commitments. I was publicly “Never Trump” from the primaries forward in 2016. What I meant then was straightforward: I had enough information to decide against voting for Trump in November 2016 against Hillary Clinton. I stuck to that to the end, and voted McMullin. But four years later, we have a lot of new information that was unavailable then — four years of Trump’s record in office, four years of his personnel choices in the executive and judicial branches, four years of national and world events, a different opponent — and it would be irresponsible to be Never Trump in 2020 solely because I was in 2016. It is important to stick to the same principles today, but they must be applied afresh to a new set of facts. It would also be boring and uninformative to keep writing the same column for four years straight about “why the stance I took in 2016 should be unchanging forever.”
What about the duties of a citizen and a voter? There are two guiding principles. One is that American elections really are binary choices. Absent the very rare exceptions in which a third-party candidate has a realistic shot, we expect one of the two major-party candidates to win. If you believe that one candidate is better than the other — that one candidate’s election will be better for the country than the other — you should vote for that candidate, and vote as if your vote matters, even if (like mine) it does not. I have, as a Republican in New York, voted for many dismal candidates for this reason: Even when they were terrible on issues or personal characteristics in ways that were important to me, they were still, on balance, better than the alternative. I took the unusual step of casting a protest vote in 2016, however, because I genuinely concluded that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were equally bad choices. Not equally bad in every way, to be sure, but each was sufficiently bad that the downsides balanced out.
On the other hand, we also have a duty as citizens not to elevate genuinely unfit characters to high office. Character and competence matter in public office, and they matter more in offices that have a lot of power and a lot of discretion. That is never truer than in the presidency. In 2016, I concluded that Donald Trump was manifestly unfit for the office because of his bad public and private character and his ignorance and inability to perform the basic duties of the job. Nothing in the past four years has changed that conclusion.
It is uniquely the burden of conservatives and Republicans that we value character and competence to the point where we debate whether we could support a candidate who might advance our policy agenda. If you have spent any time reading the Democrats’ pundit class, you know that (outside of a few fringe socialist Naderites and Chomskyites) it is simply unthinkable for them to consider telling their readers not to support the Democrat in a contested general election for a major office. But it is precisely because we are the only ones who actually care about these things that we ought to weigh them with great seriousness.
So, what to do, if I conclude that an unfit character is a distinctly better choice?
Looking Back at Never Trump 2016
There were five basic reasons why I concluded in 2016 that a Trump win would be as bad as a Hillary win. First, as noted, was his unfitness to do the job. Second, as I will discuss more below, I thought and continue to think that Trump is morally bad for the country to have as its leader. Third was not about winning: I believed Trump was going to drag down Republicans to a terrible defeat, and did not want to add a vote to his column. That did not prove true, although Republicans lost the House and multiple statehouses in 2018, and may yet go down to a wider catastrophe this time because of Trump. But none of us will know that until we have already voted.
Fourth, even assuming that Trump had some chance to win, I believed that Trump in office would be toxic to the Republican Party and conservatism by association. I continue to believe that it will take a long time to live down that association with Trump with a lot of younger voters, and that a Trump defeat will hasten the road back. On the other hand, this is mostly a sunk cost: Win or lose, Trump has already been a Republican president, and so there is not that much to be gained by dumping him now. Most of the damage is already done. If anything, a Trump reelection would force some people to reckon with the possibility that half the country has a point, and that coexisting peaceably with Trump voters is a species of civic duty to democracy.
Fifth, balanced against the costs, I believed that the benefit of electing Trump would be minimal, because nothing in Trump’s life or record suggested a man who would govern as a conservative or, critically, appoint conservatives to the bench. Sure, he made promises, but when in his life had Trump ever kept promises or done anything at all for conservative causes? I was unwilling to incur the weighty costs of a Trump presidency for promises backed by pure wind. But four years later, Trump has a record — and for all its ups and downs, it is mostly a conservative one. The costs of rejecting him now would be much higher.
The Trump-Pence Record and the Biden-Harris Agenda
There are some very good and very bad things in the Trump-Pence record of the past four years, and they should inform our choices — especially when compared to the Biden-Harris alternative. I emphasize the vice-presidential candidates for a reason. As Andy McCarthy writes, “In modern government, presidencies are more than ever administrations, not just the chief executive elected to lead them.” And with an easily distracted 74-year-old leading the Republican administration and a visibly slowed 78-year-old leading the Democratic administration, power is particularly likely to devolve on the vice president, or to be formally transferred. Certainly, in particular with the judiciary and the Trump administration’s record on life and religious-liberty issues, the stamp of Mike Pence is plain to see. If Trump versus Biden is a vexed choice, Pence versus Harris is a no-brainer.
The largest highlight of the Trump-Pence record is judges: three excellent Supreme Court justices, and 217 more conservative judges across the federal appellate and trial benches. The difference between Trump’s judges and the kinds of judges appointed by Democrats is enormous, and it is not just a matter of politics. It is a fundamental matter of legitimacy. Simply put, Trump has stocked the bench with constitutionalists: people who take seriously the words and meaning of the Constitution and federal laws. Originalist and textualist methodologies may not be a perfect guarantee against fallible judges and the temptations of politics on the bench, but at least they take as a starting point that laws written down by the people’s representatives are supreme. Democrat-appointed judges, for the most part, do not. This is a fundamental divide about the legitimacy of popular sovereignty and individual rights that runs far deeper than passing questions of policy, and dates back to Woodrow Wilson’s innovation of a “living constitution.” Every presidential and Senate election now places constitutional government itself on the ballot. Any vote for Democrats, at this point, is a vote against the Constitution.
The divergence is even more striking now that Democrats are openly flirting with Court-packing, a step so drastic that House and Senate Democrats not only rejected it resoundingly when proposed by their own party in 1937, but released a report warning that no free people should ever again be presented with such a proposal. As I have explained before at some length, Court-packing is a Rubicon: cross that line, and the whole American experiment with democratic, liberal, constitutional rule-of-law government begins to unravel quickly. It’s banana-republic stuff. It is, by far, a greater threat to the American system than anything Trump has done. And it is a live proposal, urged loudly by the Democrats’ pundit and activist class.
Joe Biden knows full well what a menace Court-packing is: In the past, he has described it as a corrupt, dangerous power grab, and he opposed it as recently as 2019. As with many things on the Biden-Harris agenda, a Republican Senate could stop it, and so might a 50-50 Senate or one that has yet to abolish the filibuster. It is likely a battle Republicans can win, given that Court-packing is deeply unpopular, and multiple Democrats in the Senate (or campaigning for it) have been on the record against it. But we must cast our presidential votes without knowing whether Biden will face any checks in Congress. As I have noted, Biden kicking the can six months down the road makes Court-packing unlikelier; so does the fact that the Supreme Court is very unlikely to throw out Obamacare. Then again, if the presidency shifts to Harris, who backed Court-packing in the primary — a very real possibility, given Biden’s age — all bets are off. Court-packing may be less than a 50-50 proposition if Biden is elected, but it is by no means safe to discount entirely. And that is deeply alarming.
The other elephant in the room is the long twilight struggle — now nearing the end of its fifth decade — against legal abortion. I am not a single-issue abortion voter, nor entirely a purist; here in New York, I have often voted for pro-choice and pro-abortion Republicans, when their opponents were as bad or worse on the issue. But it remains by far the largest problem in America, the modern equivalent to the long and often seemingly hopeless crusade to limit and then abolish slavery. The party alignment is the same now as it was then.
There have been some 60 million unborn Americans killed by abortion since Roe v. Wade was decided 47 years ago — more than the death toll of all of America’s wars put together, plus all the executions in American history back to colonial times, plus 9/11 and all other terrorist attacks on Americans, plus all the deaths from this pandemic, plus all the deaths from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. In 2019, abortions dropped to 862,000 — the lowest figure in decades, but still four times the death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic here so far, and more in each year than the death toll of the entire American Civil War. The fight against Roe alone has required sustained action for almost 50 years of presidential and Senate races, and we are not there yet.
Moreover, not only does Roe present an issue of life and death vastly outstripping any other in scale, it is also a fight for the fundamental legitimacy of American law. The Roe opinion swept away the essentially unanimous consensus of state and federal law nationwide dating back over a century, and did so without any basis whatsoever in the Constitution’s text or history. The effort to defend that has warped the interpretation of our Constitution ever since.
Is Donald Trump a sincere pro-lifer? I remain doubtful. But he has, in office, been a consistent friend to the pro-life movement in both word and deed. Whether that is a belated conversion, the doing of Pence, or a recognition of the political importance of pro-lifers to Trump’s support is beside the point. From a strictly transactional perspective, a Trump-Pence administration will (if reelected) be a reliable defender of the right to life. On the other hand, the stakes of the battle against Roe are lower now: With six Republican appointees on the Supreme Court, it seems increasingly likely that there is finally an anti-Roe majority, and even Chief Justice Roberts may join an opinion against Roe if it would not be 5–4.
On life, the polar opposite is true of Biden-Harris. Biden spent decades fighting to keep anti-Roe justices off the Supreme Court, and repeatedly urged changes in norms for the confirmation of justices to this precise end. He reportedly wept tears of joy when the Court rejected a challenge to Roe by the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania in 1992.
Worse, Roe can, with a certain amount of moral denial, be described as “pro-choice,” but Biden-Harris would simply be pro-abortion. Both Biden and Harris advocate repealing the Hyde amendment, which since 1976 has prohibited federal funding for abortion. Choosing to affirmatively subsidize abortion with taxpayer dollars would both endorse and increase it, costing many thousands of lives annually in perpetuity. In Biden’s case, he knows this is wrong: He supported the Hyde amendment for over four decades, but caved overnight in the Democratic primary, and now pledges to restore more federal funding to abortion mill Planned Parenthood. Harris is even more radical: She wants to empower the federal government, with no basis whatsoever in the Constitution, to require states to “pre-clear” changes to their abortion laws through the federal executive branch. It is possible to justify voting Biden-Harris, or being indifferent between Biden-Harris and Trump-Pence, but no conscience can avoid the fact that this means choosing the death of many thousand innocents.
What sins of a pro-life candidate would it take for pro-lifers to support a candidate who opposes the Hyde amendment and supports Roe? That’s the same question as asking abolitionists in the 1850s what sins it would take to support a candidate who backs the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Dred Scott over one who opposes them. This is not a hypothetical parallel. In 1848, the Democrats nominated Lewis Cass, who ran on a “popular sovereignty” platform that would expand slavery westward. The Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor, a large-scale Louisiana slaveholder who would not campaign against slavery. Charles Sumner and other “Conscience Whigs” refused to support Taylor. Abraham Lincoln, however, stumped for Taylor, accepting him as the lesser evil. Lincoln’s wisdom is always worth considering.
More broadly, there is the question of how Americans are governed, and whether we follow longstanding norms and constitutional rules. Will legislation be enacted by executive fiat? Will the president run interference in federal investigations of him and his friends and family? Will the free press, and political critics and enemies of the party in power, face the machinery of the state? Will free speech be suppressed in the name of “fairness” or “reform” or by self-appointed arbiters of truth? Will people of faith be free to practice, or sued or hounded by the government to conform? Will the independence of the judicial branch be threatened? Will administrative agencies grow ever more insulated from democratic accountability? Will the filibuster be abolished, stripping the Senate of a traditional sobriety check on permanent legislation? Will the portions of the federal budget that spend money on autopilot crowd out the parts that are approved annually by Congress? Will new states be admitted, and mischief made with the electoral process, to entrench the party in power? Will due process for the accused, the right to bear arms, and other expressly guaranteed civil liberties be respected?
The Trump-Pence record on these questions is quite good on some points, bad on others, muddled on still others. Trump is instinctively hostile to press critics and independent judges, but has taken them on mainly with empty words. He was quite modest about executive governance while his party held the House, but in 2020 has been increasingly profligate with imperial White House dictates. The Trump-Pence team has stood strong for the Bill of Rights’ guarantees for American citizens (from Betsy DeVos’s due-process protections to protecting religious liberty), but on immigration policy, has sought avenues to exclude Muslims and, when challenged on that, sold out Syrian Christian refugees. Trump has repeatedly meddled in the criminal process to pardon friends, but he also stepped back from the brink on efforts to stop the Mueller investigation, and his Justice Department has left Hillary Clinton alone while going after many of the people around the president. Trump seems unable or unwilling to accept that his vast foreign-policy and law-enforcement powers are not the tools of a family business, to be used for the personal benefit of the boss.
The Biden-Harris record on these issues would be awful on virtually every point. Biden was once an institutionalist, but he is too old and weak to stop his party’s drive to torch everything that stands in its way and exercise the woke urge for intolerance of dissent. Harris has laughed openly at the idea that a president’s power is constrained by the Constitution, spent her years as attorney general abusing power to harass conservative donors and try to jail an investigative reporter, and spent her presidential campaign pledging one executive fiat after another. Both adhere to the liberal/progressive enthusiasm for expanding the administrative and entitlement state at the expense of rule by a biennially elected legislature. Biden wants to resume suing the Little Sisters of the Poor. And as I noted in a lengthier review of Biden and particularly Harris, “Our nation has a strong immune system against threats of the sort Trump presents. It has a very weak immune system against threats of the sort Harris presents. Virtually every abuse of power she champions would have [the mainstream media, the universities, and a constellation of other powerful American] institutions lining up to support her.”
On economic policy, taxes, regulations, and federal spending, Trump-Pence has done more good than harm, but not without reservations. The big Republican tax bill was not perfect, but it cut a lot of taxes and was the one big legislative victory of the past four years. Business tax cuts made American enterprises more globally competitive, aiding the long boom that was ongoing when the pandemic hit. The individual mandate and the medical-device tax were the only parts of Obamacare actually repealed, and with Democrats likely to hold the House as long as Trump is president, there is no prospect of positive reform, nor any consensus Republican plan on offer. I’ve come around to the view that a trade confrontation with China was needed, but Trump has scattered tariffs hither and yon — those are still taxes paid by consumers, remember — and accomplished little in his talks with Xi Jinping. The Trump administration has had more success resisting overregulation, but has not even bothered trying to cut spending or trim new spending bills. Entitlement reform? Forget it, even though no marginally responsible administration could let another four years pass without restraining entitlement spending.
Biden-Harris, of course, wants to supercharge entitlement spending, raise $3.8 trillion in new taxes, and add $7 trillion in additional spending, most of it permanent, including a $2 trillion “accelerated investment” in a “clean energy future,” just as a first step to a “Green New Deal” in all but name. This would exceed anything the Trump-Pence team has added to the budget by many orders of magnitude. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of new tax, spending, and regulatory plans — picture Elizabeth Warren running the Treasury. Or consider Biden’s pledge to end the American oil industry that has finally given us energy independence and changed the game with the oil-producing tyrannies. Pro-Biden progressives have been quite open about what they expect: spending, regulation, and remaking of American society as far as the eye can see. And if Trump has delivered mixed messages and few results dealing with Xi, Biden would simply be a doormat for the Chinese dictator.
The Trump-Pence administration has frequently been as good, and as bad, as its personnel. The administration has hired many of the sorts of people one would want and expect in a Republican administration: solid conservatives, military and business professionals, party loyalists. It began with quite a few appointees, as well, from the clown-car Bannonite wing of right-wing populist misfits. Many of the latter have washed out by now, though they left behind them a trail of incompetence and legal and public relations defeats. Stephen Miller, the smartest of the bunch, has endured, and continues to have enough power to push ill-considered immigration policies from which the administration invariably has to retreat when they collide with the outside world.
The low point of the Trump-Pence record was the family-separation crisis, a Miller-and-company initiative which ended with Trump caving to good sense when congressional Republicans made clear to him that they would not back the administration, and some (such as Ted Cruz) were willing to push legislative fixes. Family separation was not a Trump invention: The Obama-Biden administration also separated families and put children in cages, and a longstanding court order made it more difficult to keep families together when the parents were detained on charges. Trump also did not create the crisis at the border. But the Trump administration made a deliberate choice to impose a “zero-tolerance” policy of mass arrests that knowingly escalated the number of family separations, overwhelming the system in ways that leave hundreds of families still not reunited over two years later. This was done in good part to purposely create controversy and outrage, in order to deter people from coming to the border. In those terms, it was successful, but it was also a shameful and immoral choice. No Christian, pro-family, pro-life government should act in this fashion. Trump is well within his rights — legally, as a matter of duty to the country, as a matter of keeping faith with his voters — to insist on enforcement of immigration law. A Biden-Harris administration is likely to simply give up on that task. But the risk that Miller and his ilk will talk Trump into something like the family-separation policy again in a second term (especially if there is no realistic prospect for domestic-policy advances) is significant.
Foreign and national-security policy are the area in which Trump’s erratic disregard for informed advice is most worrisome, but also the area in which that disregard has occasionally served him well, such as withdrawing from the Iran Deal and the Paris Accords and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Trump is justly proud of being the first American president in decades to start no new foreign war, yet his overall record has not been one of the Michael Moore blame-America mindset he displayed regularly during the 2016 campaign. His Middle East and Israel policy has been mostly wildly successful: A series of deals with Arab and Muslim states recognizing Israel, the destruction of the ISIS state, the killing of ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and of Qasem Soleimani, the longtime leader of Iran’s war against America. He brokered a Serbia–Kosovo deal, and has largely strengthened our crucial alliance with India. Trump has brought a renewed focus to the China threat, and his Russia policy has been much better than his rhetoric. He has worked closely with Marco Rubio on a strong line against the regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.
On the downside, Trump has spent four years trying to surrender to the Taliban in Afghanistan. His North Korea policy has been even worse than George W. Bush’s, and every bit as disastrous as the North Korea policies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump has personally sucked up verbally to the worst dictators and villains (most notably Xi, Kim, Putin, and Erdogan), and been scandalously careless with American intelligence. He has undermined the NATO alliance; while that alliance may need rethinking, Trump’s approach will get nowhere. Trump has degraded American leadership on the freedom of subject peoples and the moral inequivalence of regimes.
How would Joe Biden be different? Biden is more in line, at least superficially, with the national-security professionals’ view of America’s role in the world. Yet, for anyone who remembers American foreign policy between 1972 and 2015, there were a great many areas of disagreement — and Joe Biden was almost always on the wrong side, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. He frequently opposed the policies of presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the Bushes. He blasted Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech (Reagan scribbled a diary entry calling him “pure demagog[ue]”), and opposed Reagan’s defense buildup and missile-defense plans that brought the Soviet Union to its knees. Biden opposed the Gulf War, incorrectly predicting a bloodbath for American troops; after supporting the Iraq War, he opposed the 2007 “surge,” proposing instead a plan to partition Iraq into three squabbling states that would have been rapidly swallowed by hostile neighbors. Biden has been wrong longer than many of his voters have been alive.
The signature of Biden’s foreign-policy record, as with so much of his record and character, is lack of courage. Fear of the political risks seems to have motivated him in unwisely advising Barack Obama against the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, putting Biden on the wrong side of the best moment of the Obama presidency. He was also against Trump taking out Soleimani, and again, his predictions of doom went unfulfilled.
I could go on, of course; there are many other areas of importance, including culture-war issues, law enforcement, education, even dueling views of American history. Trump-Pence has spoken up for school choice, but not taken particularly aggressive action. Biden-Harris would undoubtedly bring more federal power to bear on behalf of the teachers’ unions and against students and choice. Culturally, there is dual irony here in the whole debate over wokeness and disorder in the streets. Joe Biden himself is a very traditional American figure at heart, but a Biden-Harris administration will doubtless be staffed with left-wing culture warriors against whom Biden lacks the guts to stand. Trump-Pence will continue to stand up for traditional American values, but their very association with Donald Trump and his baggage has accelerated the corporate and academic worlds’ march into wokeness and the suppression of dissent.
Then, there is the pandemic. On the whole, the American response has not been good, although this has been broadly true of much of the Western world and the Western Hemisphere. Many of those countries share many of our traits: an open and mobile society, a temperate climate, air conditioning, nursing homes (countries too poor to keep old, feeble people alive have had fewer COVID deaths), and little recent experience with viral pandemics emanating from China. Many were not only caught unprepared, but have endured subsequent spikes and surges after the initial wave. Moreover, there remains the broad fact that we not only had sketchy information at the beginning (due in part to lies by China and the World Health Organization), but that even today, we vastly overestimate what we know and how much difference government action could make against a viral pandemic of this nature.
American pandemic response involves three elements: the performance of parts of the state and federal governments outside of presidential control; the performance of parts of the federal government under presidential control; and presidential leadership. The first has frequently been awful, but that is not Trump’s fault. It was not Trump who made Andrew Cuomo and Phil Murphy send COVID patients back to nursing homes, with catastrophic consequences. It was, for that matter, not Trump’s fault that the deep bureaucracy within the FDA and CDC delayed and muffed our testing capabilities so badly early on, kept private companies sidelined, and put out false information to deter people from wearing masks. The performance of elements of the government under more direct Trump-Pence control has, by contrast, been mixed, but often far better than the public or press have credited (see here for one example). And there is little reason to think that a standard Democrat-run administration, under Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, would have done any better. Democrats in and out of power, from Biden to Cuomo to Bill de Blasio, have had their own blind spots, choosing for ideological reasons to downplay transmission risks early, reflexively oppose travel restrictions, and celebrate mass gatherings for favored political protests, while pushing lockdowns that have sometimes been pointlessly overzealous and discriminatory. There is still no alternative plan.
Presidential leadership, however, has been badly lacking and counterproductive, and that is all on Trump. He has not spoken to the nation from the Oval Office since mid March. His daily press briefings, often at their best when letting Pence or the scientific experts speak, frequently went badly off the rails the longer Trump was onstage. He instinctively grasped two big truths early — that travel from China was a problem, and that the American people wanted to get back to work and school as soon as possible — but lacked utterly the discipline or cool to stick to those or any other message. He was cavalier about the example he was setting and the safety of those around him. He created needless and stupid political fights over hydroxychloroquine and injecting bleach. Americans desperately needed and wanted a leader of steadiness, sobriety, gravity, empathy, constancy, and cool, informed, authoritative competence to guide them in such a time. Even a leader such as Andrew Cuomo, who could take to the airwaves daily with a facsimile of these qualities, emerged with high approval ratings despite thousands of gallons of blood on his hands. Trump was unequal to the task.
He was unequal because of fundamental flaws in his character. Yuval Levin warned for years (see here, from 2019), that the real risk of Trump’s character flaws would be revealed if he was ever called upon to respond to a major crisis on his watch. He was tested this year on public leadership, and he failed miserably.
Character and the Two Old Men and Their Governments
Character is indispensable in the presidency. In retrospect, it matters a lot less than accomplishment, but it still matters: For good and ill, we view presidents as national exemplars of a sort, and they produce imitation in politics and society. In looking forward, character and competence matter enormously in judging what a president will or may do.
Trump’s character, and his moral effect on the country, is truly deplorable, and it has played out in many and varied ways. Yes, he is vulgar, and yes, he tweets irresponsibly — even his most diehard admirers concede this. And these are not small things. Communication is a major part of the presidency, in terms of both its moral and political effect. Trump’s communication is frequently erratic, unserious, self-absorbed, and worse. But it goes much wider and deeper. Biden has grave flaws as well, but they should not blind us to the collective problem of Trump.
Begin with truth. Joe Biden is a notorious fabulist, having torched his 1988 presidential campaign with a battery of lies that include appropriating another man’s life and family stories as his own, and has apparently learned nothing from the experience. Biden would be the most notorious liar in American political history, were it not for Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. And Biden’s lies are not all harmless; he spent years slandering the driver in his wife’s fatal auto accident, claiming the man had been drunk, a hounding Biden stopped only after that driver was in the grave.
But Trump’s total lack of interest in the truth or falsehood of anything he says is proverbial, and badly destructive to public discourse. The sheer velocity of Trump’s creation of divisive public controversies, many of them of no benefit to anyone but himself personally, has been demonstrably bad for the psyche of the nation. We are ragged and at each other’s throats as never before, at least not since the 1850s. And we were so for three years of peace and prosperity before 2020.
Then there’s race — yet, ironically, Trump at this writing seems likely to do better with non-white voters than any Republican since at least 2004. Rather than engage in definitional debates over “racism,” it is hard to deny that Trump has repeatedly engaged in racially inflammatory rhetoric toward Mexican immigrants, Muslim refugees, and black protestors, while getting badly tongue-tied when discussing white nationalists. At best, Trump is utterly at sea when put on the defensive — his affirmative statements on Charlottesville were fine, for example, but he stumbled terribly in responding to hostile questions, and it wasn’t just politically bad; he undercut the moral message against bigotry.
Biden, for his part, has a long and ugly record of consorting with unrepentant old-school segregationists, an ex-Klansman, and the guy who raised the Confederate flag over the South Carolina statehouse; these were his friends and his leader in the Senate, and he has had nothing but good words for them even on repeated occasions in 2019 and 2020. He tried to compare himself multiple times to George Wallace and once bragged about getting an award from Wallace (another fabrication, as it happens). More recently, Biden has been close with Al Sharpton, the most toxic figure in American public life, consulting him on his vice-presidential pick (who conveniently ended up being a good friend of Sharpton’s). In 2012, Biden notoriously told an audience of black voters that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, of all people, were “going to put y’all back in chains.” In 2020, Biden turned a blind eye while his campaign staff and his running mate bailed out rioters, while Biden carefully avoided naming any of the perpetrators of left-wing street violence for condemnation. Whether any of these stances reflect Biden’s own beliefs or changes in his thinking over time is beside the point; he has always been willing to pander to the resentments of whichever group he needs, and has never had the courage to do otherwise.
Trump’s longstanding crudeness on women and sex is morally corrosive. Like Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy — the sorts of men who were always my models for the moral bankruptcy of social liberalism — Trump has a long record of treating women as disposable sex objects. And worse, which is why he has bled Republican support so badly among educationally and financially upscale women. Both Trump and Biden have been plausibly accused of rape. I say “plausibly” because this is effectively the standard progressives espoused against Brett Kavanaugh. After a long examination, I found Tara Reade’s claims against Biden stronger than those against Kavanaugh, but unproven. Without rehashing the details, I’d come to the same conclusion about E. Jean Carroll’s plausible but questionable claims against Trump. The lesser charges, however, stick — and they are worse against Trump. Both men have repeatedly been gropey and invasive toward women, and Trump combines it with crude, disrespectful language and a much longer trail of complainants.
Trump has long treated both his foreign-policy and law-enforcement powers as extensions of his personal interests. This may be a fair way to run a closed, family-run business, but it is no way to be commander in chief. I argued during the impeachment that it was imprudent to remove a duly elected president when the public was evenly divided on the question, but Trump plainly abused his presidential power in leveraging the influence of the United States to persuade a foreign state to deliver politically useful information to the president’s personal attorney for the president’s strictly political benefit. This is merely the tip of the iceberg of ways in which Trump has failed to understand or abide by important norms of behavior crucial to public trust. Then there are the myriad ways in which Trump has crossed his family’s business interests with public business, to his own enrichment, leading to serious conflicts of interest regarding his business empire’s work in China, Turkey, Russia, and the Philippines. Biden is, again, no model in this area, yet also not as shameless as Trump. We would know more than we already do, with a decent press corps, about the profiteering of Biden’s son Hunter and brother Jim off Biden’s influence in Ukraine and China.
Nothing Trump has done has been as directly dangerous to the American system of government as the Democrats’ sustained, institutional assault on constitutionalism, their wink-nod at street violence, or their inability, which is longstanding, to accept the outcomes of democratic elections. But at a moment when Republicans and conservatives should speak with a united voice against all these things, Trump dilutes the message. He warns that America may not have free and fair elections, and flirts with encouraging his own street corps, however outnumbered it may be. America needs someone to be the adult in the room; Democrats will never do it, and more Trump means allowing more people to talk themselves into thinking nobody believes in any of that stuff about decency, order, or accepting that the system itself is valuable. Trump increasingly convinces his own supporters that all of this — rules, decency, respect — is a mug’s game. Will four more years of this leave us with only a right-wing mirror-image of the Democrats? Must we tell the voters that this is good, that this is the best we can do?
Trump’s competence is a second problem. He came into office as a political rookie, and he has never put in the work to master the job. He makes embarrassing errors over and over, in speech and action. At 74, he is incapable of learning; he doesn’t care what he doesn’t know. As for Biden, he at least has been around government forever, but he remains a gaffe machine, and has frequently been confused about his own proposals. Everything he actually ran during the Obama administration was a fiasco — remember how we could trust that “shovel-ready projects” would get done quickly and cleanly because “nobody messes with Joe?” He will be 80 years old halfway through his term, and he is getting worse.
Coalitions and the Right Time to Lose
Losing to this Democratic Party would be very bad. But: We live in a two-party system, and its natural equilibrium is an alternation of power. Moreover, a rise in presidential power for one party tends to produce an immediate reaction in the rest of the system for the other. That is even truer since people stopped electing presidents with divided government in the first place. We saw this under Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump. It is possible that Trump is the end times for Republicans, but it is unlikely. In other words: Democrats have to win sooner or later, and we will again have to live with it, and we will again get our turn after that.
I could not in good conscience vote to make that happen, but what if Trump is really the worst possible Republican president? What if Biden is, by virtue of his age, the least likely Democratic president to get reelected on the strength of incumbency? What if a 6–3 Republican-appointed Supreme Court, with the oldest Republican appointee (Clarence Thomas) being 72, and only one Democratic appointee likely to step down in the next four years, is the safest of times for the nation to go blue? What if the 2022 Senate map looks not so bad under a President Biden, but ghastly under a second Trump term? What if it really is true that it was good that Trump won in 2016, but is also good that the next four Republican years not be his? What if a Trump win will make the worst people and ideas in the Republican Party stronger, at the expense of the best? What if a Biden loss will make the worst people and ideas in the Democratic Party stronger, at the expense of the least-bad — as seems sure to happen? What if we still have a strong case, even with a narrow Democrat majority in the Senate, for stopping Court-packing and other insanity now? What if Trump is the only thing holding together an incoherent Democratic coalition, which needs the White House before it can tear itself to ribbons over an agenda Biden never really ran on? What if that coalition would only grow otherwise, so that the 2024 election after eight years of Trump is likely to give Democrats a much wider majority and mandate?
I do not, as a rule, believe in winning by losing. But we do have to lose eventually. A good football coach knows when to punt and get the ball back in better field position. Everything good about a second Trump administration would be better under a subsequent Republican, with less risk of a truly permanent defeat for conservatism. Indeed, it is likely that Trump will accomplish almost nothing in the second term besides more judges, and he may not even get that if Republicans lose the Senate. And much of what is bad about a Biden administration will likely be worse in what would come in 2024. When I look at my ballot and consider a third-party protest vote, I can at least tell myself: This is America. It is never over. We can make a better case tomorrow, with a better leader.
Then again, there is also this: Those of us who find Trump repellent and want a better Republican coalition must grapple with the reality that there are a lot of people in the party who support Trump now, a good chunk of whom actually wanted him heading the party. We will, sooner or later, need to call on those people to support a different Republican. Trump is uniquely bad, but to people who cannot see that, they will always ask us: Why should I back your guy, if you would never back mine? Still, this is never quite decisive, when the issue is electing a man wholly unfit for the job. Recall the famous colloquy from Man for All Seasons:
The Duke of Norfolk: Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!
Sir Thomas More: And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
Making the Choice
We come to this: Trump is a bad man who is bad at his job. He does not deserve reelection, and reelecting him lowers the bar for what it takes to stay in office. He is also the only option standing for many good and important things. His administration has done many of those things and can be expected to continue doing them.
Joe Biden is at best a mediocre man, well past his prime, whose ideas are bad, without the courage or strength of character to stand up to a party chock-full of far worse people with far worse ideas and a pitiless contempt for constitutional limitations or elementary respect for their fellow Americans in implementing them. A 55-year-old Joe Biden, for all his faults, would be a different story. The worst candidate in the Democratic field, the one I swore to friends would push me to vote Trump, was Kamala Harris. A visibly declining almost-octogenarian is the only thing standing between us and a Harris presidency.
If I’m honest with myself, if I take this simply at the gut level, here is the dilemma: When I watch Trump, I just want to be done with him. I’ve had it. I’m sick of what he does to our politics and national discourse, and even to our brains and our friendships and neighborhoods. I’m sick of having to explain to fellow conservatives why the things he says and does are so corrosive, when we all knew this for decades of watching Democrats excuse sexual predators and corruption, delegitimize election results, exploit racial division for fun and profit, and trash constitutional rules. I’m sick of feeling obligated to defend a guy I never wanted, and clean up messes after him when he does something bad or stupid — but a truthful defense of conservatism requires this when the Left falsely makes things out to be a thousand times worse in order to club other Republicans.
I’m also really not sure I can look at myself in a mirror after voting for Trump. It is one thing to walk with Trump, on a transactional basis, thanking him when he does right, criticizing him when he does wrong, and hoping and trying to make him the best servant of the public we can get while he serves the term to which the voters have elected him. We can all do that with a clean conscience; it is a civic duty. We can do it again, if he is reelected. But it is another thing entirely to voluntarily choose four more years of this. Somebody has to stand up for the things we always said we believed; it should fall to those of us who still, publicly, believe those things.
On the other hand, when I watch the two sides together, I must admit as well: I still want Trump to beat Biden, because I truly believe that a Biden-Harris administration would do things on almost every front that would be worse for the country than a second Trump-Pence administration, and at the cost of many innocent lives. Maybe, if I was alone in a voting booth without the need to justify my vote rationally, without the need to stand for something, without having to ask what my vote means to the things I stand for, I might be able to pull that lever. I see the grave consequences of a Biden-Harris victory. I see the many good and dedicated people, some of them friends, fighting the good fight and doing things in this administration that make me proud to be an American. I do not wish to see them replaced by people who despise everything I believe in, and are coldly serious about using power to get what they want. I cannot regard a Biden administration with indifference; I cannot regard a Harris administration with anything but horror. She put the icing on the cake Sunday by tweeting out a video demanding “equity,” explicitly defined in the clip to mean equal outcomes in life. We all know where this sort of thinking leads, and it is not America. Could I ever forgive myself if we get President Harris, and Court-packing, and I did not do everything I could to stop them?
So, my principles demand that I stand with Trump-Pence against Biden-Harris. My principles also demand that I stand against reelecting Donald Trump. One thing is easy: I will not vote for Joe Biden. So is this: It is urgent that Republicans hold the Senate, to check Biden or ensure that Trump can continue to appoint constitutionalist judges. But in the end, we all must choose. The choice between Trump and another protest vote is a hard one, and my conscience recoils at either option. And yet, in the end, thinking about what it means to affirmatively choose Trump, I can’t do it. It is, after all of it, my vote. Trump is unfit for the job by every measure, and I know it. All the political teamwork in the world cannot change that. I cannot convince myself that this is something we should accept. I cannot make it my choice to keep him there. I will continue to respectfully dissent.