“If Trump and Clinton are the nominees on Election Day, right and wrong will become meaningless, blood will run like a river through the streets until the eventual victor is seated on a throne of skulls, and all atrocities will be moral, because life will be utterly without meaning.
“So I think I’ll finally go see Gods of Egypt.”
–Me, three months ago, on Facebook, when asked what I would do if Trump won.
Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee of the Republican party.
Last night, we discussed how this happened. Today, we have to decide: what are we going to do about it?
This is the second part of a three-part series. The first part deals with the fight from here to the convention. The second part deals with the 2016 election. The third part looks beyond 2016 to a new conservative future.
July 18th – November 8th: The Election From Hell
“What in the heck am I going to do this fall?” That’s the question everyone’s asking me. Heck, that’s a question I’m asking me.
On the one hand, Trump.
On the other hand, the Democrats have nominated Hillary Clinton.
Because of their slow-building proportional allocation system, Clinton has not technically clinched the nomination yet, but her delegate lead is nigh-insurmountable. It is not mathematically impossible for Sanders to come back and win the nomination, but, let me put it this way: I’d bet on Cruz winning the Republican nomination before I’d bet on Sanders winning the Democratic one… and Cruz just dropped out! Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee.
When making tough voting decisiosn, I always look first to Faithful Citizenship, the Catholic bishops’ document on wise voting. It is a document written by a religious body, addressed to Catholics specifically, but I have always found its principles eminently reasonable, even if you are an atheist. Here is the relevant portion for conservatives left homeless by the Trump nomination:
34. Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act… if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.
35. There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.
36. When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.
37. In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue.
In any normal election, I believe (with good reason) that these principles compel both Catholics and all people of good conscience to support the candidate who is most inclined to assert the human dignity of the most persecuted minority in our society — the unborn — and advance legal and social protections for them. In other words, in a normal election, I think you have to vote Republican or not at all. (Third-party falls under “not at all.”)
But this is a very queer election, because Candidate Trump has no interest at all in asserting the rights of the unborn. It’s not just that he can’t get his story straight on abortion; to this day, he has never renounced his support for first-trimester abortion-on-demand. Trump calls himself “pro-life” in his rhetoric, but his actual position is pro-choice — the same as Harry Reid (who also calls himself pro-life). Hillary, of course, supports infanticide.
One of the candidates is a constantly-lying corrupt criminal fraudster thug eager to use state power to suppress disfavored speech. The other candidate is the exactly the same, but worse. (Which is which is a Rorschach Blot; I honestly think you can make the argument either way.) We are left now with two major-party candidates with characters utterly unfit for the White House, who totally fail on the singular question of our day, abortion, and who each share in more than a small smattering of support for other intrinsic evils, from Trump’s support of torture and war crimes to Hillary’s support for coercing nuns to pay for abortions. This leaves us firmly ensconced in paragraph 36:
When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act… The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or… may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.
Unlike past elections, I am not convinced that there is a single, simple right answer here. Let’s quickly walk through our options. We have months to explore these further… and we will! There’s still a lot we don’t know about what form the anti-Trump backlash will take, so these options are, by necessity, just quick sketches, not detailed position papers. For the time being, I suggest you take them all under consideration, and keep at least a few options open until we know more.
Don’t Vote for President
This is simple: we have two disgusting major-party candidates. As Faithful Citizenship makes clear, a citizen of a democracy normally has a moral duty to vote, but extraordinary circumstances can make it impossible to carry out that duty in good conscience. A Trump-Clinton general election certainly qualifies as “extraordinary circumstances.”
If you decide not to vote for President, you still have a moral duty to show up and vote for any other offices on the ballot, such as Senator, Governor, and Congressman. Indeed, if you are horrified by the possibility of either a Trump or Clinton presidency, one of the most important things you can do is help ensure that there is still a conservative majority in the House and Senate to block whatever shenanigans the eventual president tries to pull. But if you just can’t bring yourself to pull the lever for Trump or Clinton, and consider voting for a minor-party candidate pointless or otherwise objectionable, just leaving the President part of your ballot blank is an agonizing but morally justifiable decision.
I include this item for completeness, as I still find it extremely difficult to justify. However, it may be possible in 2016 — for the first time in decades — to construct a plausible argument for why the Democrat is “less likely to advance” intrinsically evil policies than the Republican. I don’t have that argument handy, and I remain skeptical that a genuinely sound one exists, but, for the first time in a long time, I do not think I can say that someone who, in prudence, decides to vote for the Democrat is flat-out wrong (or a sinner). We face a horrifying choice either way.
…and here’s the other side of that horrifying choice. It’s still relatively easy to make the argument that Trump would be, in the eyes of Faithful Citizenship, the lesser of two evils and therefore the better choice. In this race, Clinton consistently and quite honestly promises to do very bad things (especially regarding the key issues of abortion, religious liberty, and marriage). Indeed, her promises on these essential social issues are just about the only promises Hillary Clinton consistently keeps! On the other hand, Trump inconsistently and dishonestly promises to do good things (especially on those key issues), flip-flopping as politically convenient to him. Take one major political problem the next president will have to deal with: the Supreme Court.
With Justice Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court still vacant, the entire American Experiment hangs in the balance: if Scalia is replaced by another Kagan/Ginsburg-style judge, the Court will swing from a 4-1-4 progressive-moderate-conservative deadlock to a 5-1-3 progressive majority. This would be apocalyptic — even worse than the 2016 election itself. A progressive majority would quite readily overturn every single modest restriction ever placed on abortion, from 24-hour waiting periods to the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, replacing existing precedents that allow some restrictions on abortion with extreme precedents that would prevent any restriction of any kind up to (and perhaps past) the moment of birth. We know this would happen because the progressive faction on the Court already consistently votes in lockstep to do exactly this. A progressive dawn for the Court would also spell the end of religious liberty (the nuns will be forced to pay for abortions; the cake-makers will all be forced to facilitate same-sex marriages), free speech (remember that time the Obama Administration argued it could prevent the publication of political books? Pepperidge Farm remembers), and the rule of law itself (which is already on the ropes).
With President Clinton, you have a 100% chance of a world-ending progressive Supreme Court nominee. With President Trump, you have no idea what he’ll do — and neither do I. I don’t like those odds, but I like them a lot better than the 0% Clinton gives me.
The idea of voting for Trump is rightly horrifying. It may also be the best of a bunch of horrifyingly bad options.
That said, I don’t know that I could bring myself to do it, even if I did rationally conclude it was the best prudential choice for the country.
(UPDATE: Apparently it needs to be said: even if you decide to vote for Trump, that doesn’t mean you need to praise him in any way. Don’t sully your integrity that way. All that needs be said is that he’s the lesser of two great evils.)
Vote Minor Party / Write-In
There are a number of little utopian parties out there beyond the main two tickets — the Greens, the Constitution Party, the Pirate Party. One or more of these parties may be running a morally acceptable candidate, who will, of course, lose, because none of these parties have the flexible big-tent mentality necessary to attract so much as a single electoral college vote. You can also write in a name, in most states, which is almost by definition an uncoordinated protest against the system (if the effort were coordinated, your guy would be on the ballot) with absolutely no chance at winning.
This option is therefore a lot like the first one — “don’t vote for president” — except that you will, technically, be voting for president, and more particularly for somebody you would actually like to see become president. You will have discharged your moral duty to vote without directly compromising your conscience, so I like this one a lot better than not voting for president at all.
However, this is no panacea. Under the U.S.’s first-past-the-post electoral system, your decision not to vote for a viable candidate still has real-world practical consequences; it does make it easier for someone else to get elected, and that someone else is almost never the person you want. So even minor-party voters don’t get off scot-free, conscience-wise: your decision is of no less moment, and ultimately has no less horrifying consequences, than the decision to vote for one of the awful major-party guys. Many of you out there may still decide this is the best option — I can understand why, and it’s certainly consistent with Faithful Citizenship — but even this doesn’t give you an get-out-of-horrifying-election-choice-free card. There is no such card this time…
…at least, probably not.
There has been talk for months of a conservative breakaway movement that would nominate a third-party anti-Trump candidate. Personally, I am skeptical: the anti-Trump movement has singularly failed to unify behind a candidate even when all our options were good Republicans with a decent shot at winning. A third-party candidacy faces far higher barriers in terms of ballot access, which means strong 50-state organization and loads of money. That’s not the #NeverTrump movement I know!
Even if it does happen, it seems unlikely that the candidate will be viable; nearly all the #NeverTrump candidates discussed so far have been either solid conservatives like Sen. Tom Cotton (who would merely split the anti-Hillary vote and end up with no more viable shot at the presidency than the Constitution Party candidate) or total blank slates like Gen. James Mattis (who is, well, a total blank slate, which makes voting for him not much less of a crapshoot than voting for Trump).
But #NeverTrump might just get its act together, and provide a viable, acceptable, independent conservative option. That would be great! That would actually give us a good option! A get-out-of-horrifying-election-choice-free card!
Even if the #NeverTrump candidate isn’t viable, many may vote for him or her as a protest vote, in which case it’s essentially no different from voting for any other minor party, in which case see the entry above.
I think this is the most interesting possibility, but we won’t know for quite some time how good an option it really is.
The Libertarian Party is an odd duck. They are a minor party, like those discussed above, but they have a broad vision, a big tent, good draw from both “sides” of the conservative/progressive divide, and they constantly seem like they’re on the verge of breaking through to become a major party. They’ve got the infrastructure for it, and their candidate quality has been pretty high for a third party: their last guy was Gary Johnson, an ex-Governor of purple-state New Mexico, Bob Barr (a once-and-future GOP Congressman) ran for them in 2008, and, of course, they famously incubated Ron Paul, who ran on their ticket in 1988 against G.H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot.
In seeking the restraint of the federal government, the libertarian movement often finds common cause with conservatism. At other times, in other interpretations, the libertarian movement finds itself exactly at odds with conservatism. For example, what does a libertarian think about abortion? It depends: if you’re a libertarian who believes the fetus is a human person with rights, you are absolutely opposed to abortion in virtually all instances as a dire infringement on the sovereign rights of the person killed by abortion. But if you’re a libertarian who believes the fetus is not a human person with rights, then you are absolutely supportive of abortion in virtually all instances as a free exercise of a woman’s sovereign rights over her own body. Rinse and repeat for marriage, religious liberty, and more. The Libertarian Party tries to be flexible about these things, which is one of its great electoral strengths. But it also makes conservative refugees rightly cautious: the libertarian camp contains some of conservatism’s greatest allies and some of its greatest enemies.
We don’t know yet who will emerge from the Libertarian Party nominating process this year. Their national convention is on May 26th – 28th, and their nominee is not yet clear: it could be Gary Johnson once again (that’s my bet), or it could be a young man named Austin Petersen.
Johnson has a very significant problem for conservative refugees: he is pro-abortion rights. However, he wants to overturn Roe and return the issue of abortion to the states, and he would nominate judges to bring that about. This is broadly compatible with current pro-life strategy, and would be a major victory if it were to happen. His positions on other issues, beyond abortion, are broadly (not universally) amenable to now-homeless conservatives.
Austin Petersen is a young man about whom I know nothing except that his issue stances are extremely close to mine according to the iSideWith.com quiz. (Seriously, he scored better than any Republican except Ted Cruz.) He’s pro-life down the line, loves the Constitution, and his campaign motto is “Taking Over Government To Leave Everyone Else Alone”. Color me interested! But I don’t know his resume or his rhetoric. Maybe he’s terrible! I don’t know. I intend to learn more soon.
If the Libertarians nominate someone broadly acceptable to both Republicans and anti-Hillary Democrats, this could plausibly be the year the Libertarians break through to major-party status, and become competitive in the fall elections. They can’t be a long-term home for conservatives, at least not in their current form, but, as a shelter for the storm of 2016, they may be very helpful, and we should be grateful to them for letting us come in out of the rain. I’ll be following the Libertarian Party nominating process very closely from here on out, and will keep you posted.
In the end — no matter how much we may want to prevent it! — somebody is going to be elected President this year.
But Election Day 2016 is hardly the end of the post-Trump shockwave. It’s really only the beginning. We look to the future in Part 3.