Last week the Rules Committee for the Republican Convention killed the last miniscule chance to stop Trump from becoming the nominee, and without even the grace to agree to concessions to the Trump-opposing conservatives with respect to the 2020 primaries. Thanks, Priebus and company!
(Now Mr. Priebus, I agree with what our Pete said below, that this was probably the best your kind could do given their own untrustworthiness with an alternative pick. So don’t start telling yourself, or us, that it was an instance of a principled stand for democratic say. The illegal immigration issue is Exhibit A for why y’al aren’t exactly known for such stands.)
But back to my fellow conservatives. Now that we know with finality that questions like “Is Trump Republican?” and “Can He Possibly Win?” and “Which Candidate Instead of Him?” are no longer relevant, we can more clearly consider the question being asked by many genuine conservatives these days: How should we vote in this presidential election?
I’ve decided to show up to cast votes for other offices, but to refrain from voting for anyone for president. I can, however, have some respect for the indecision of many others on this, given that there’s been a lot of publicity given to slogan-istic substitutes for and careless stabs at reasoning about this. But let’s try some real reasoning.
There is one pretty minor question, and two major ones that should frame our discussion.
The minor question is whether the act of voting for neither Hillary nor Trump by a conservative is actually and only a de facto vote for Hillary. I think the answer is strictly speaking no, for reasons I can explain if requested, and which to some degree will become plain in what follows. But nothing decisive rides on this question. For everyone should admit that the imaginative exercise of considering one’s vote as if it would wind up being the deciding one is a perfectly natural and fair one to talk about given the pending choice.
The first major question is: Which candidate is the lesser evil? Those who love Trump for who he is and those who believe in Trump for being “our bastard” are already behind him. The only conservative votes he has left to gain are among those who regard him as a very bad choice to begin with. But obviously, if it can be shown that while he would be an evil to America, he will be a much lesser one than Hillary, that seems to demand that all conservatives should vote for him.
A second major question, however, remains in play also. It is this: Is there is a floor of unethical behavior and shamelessness on the part of a candidate for major office below which no genuine conservative can support the candidate? I went into this argument more fully in “Never Trump Fundamentals.” (As indicated there, due exception to the rule implicit in this question is made for in situations of absolute emergency.)
So the burden on the conservatives who want their fellows to now resolve to vote for Trump is two-fold.
First, they have to show us that Trump is the lesser evil. And they have to show us this in the spirit of comprehensive evil-weighing, which means not just mentioning one or two factors like SCOTUS and terror attacks, but seeking to weigh all the most relevant areas of policy and likelihood, and with near-future events like the elections of 2018 and 2020 also factored in.
Second, they have to show us either that Trump is not below the floor of minimal ethical acceptability, which I think is nearly impossible, or they have to show us why a finding that he is below it ought to itself get balanced against the lesser-evil judgment.
It’s a very demanding double-burden. But you shouldn’t chalk the difficulty up to any cleverness of mine—rather, it simply reflects the fundamental choice situation.
My guess is that those conservatives who remain troubled about their vote are so because they have a) accepted that Trump is the lesser evil (by relying upon an incomplete weighing of the lesser-of-two-evils question, as I will show soon), and yet b) still take what I call the “ethical-floor argument” seriously. So to them, Hillary Clinton is the greater evil by far, and yet, something like her recent ad about the effect upon our children of electing a man as ethically shameless as Trump makes a truly legitimate point—and that is only one such point among many in the overall argument about his being ethically unacceptable.
What I say to such conservatives is that they are obliged to consider how they balance their estimation of the significance of the “ethical floor” argument about Trump with their judgment that he is the lesser evil. It is a basic error to assume that the lesser-of-two-evils argument decides everything. For the lesser evil might still be more evil than a responsible democratic citizen can accept in a presidential candidate. And it is not a meaningless act to stand up for that principle. If enough conservative voters refrain from voting for either presidential candidate, that will be reported, and it will have some effect. Moreover, God sees, and at the very least our conscience sees, what we do even if no-one else takes much note of it. Again, if someone can explain why the lesser-evil judgment ought to outweigh the principle of ethical unacceptability in this situation, I am prepared to seriously consider their argument.
But what I also say is that such wrestling with the logic involved in ethical choice is unnecessary, because we can know as well as we can know anything about the political future, that four years of Trump as president would be a substantially greater evil than four years of Hillary. I’ll spell that out soon.