We are now in the 12th hour of the conservatism’s life in this election cycle, which means it is as good a time as any to revisit the question of how I plan to proceed through American political life over the next four months.
For those who don’t want to read further, it is hard to find a more succinct or accurate distillation of the development of my thought than that offered by Ben Sasse’s spokesman after the Senator met with Trump this week: “Mr. Sasse continues to believe that our country is in a bad place and, with these two candidates, this election remains a dumpster fire. Nothing has changed.” I heartily agree.
There are no conditions at this point under which I could possibly vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
The Problems with Hillary
Let me address, very briefly, my disposition toward our former Secretary of State.
Perhaps I can distill my assessment of her fitness for office by confessing that the day James Comey announced there would be no indictment I was briefly tempted to join the Burn It Down movement and vote for Trump. Trey Gowdy’s exchange with Comey is as damning a piece of political theatre as I can remember in my lifetime.
I mean, it is not often in our political life that lifelong Democrat lawyers feel obliged to write 7500 word defenses of the criminality of their party’s nominee. Seriously, read through that link. Every word. And then tell me that the failure to indict is not a gross miscarriage of justice.
From my standpoint, Hillary’s systematic lying through this process *alone* would disqualify her from the office. But that her emails are almost certainly in the hands of America’s enemies would seriously compromise her ability to negotiate on matters of foreign policy. And I haven’t even mentioned her record as Secretary of State, or her position on abortion. With all due respect to my friends in the party, Democrats should be congratulated on nominating the one person that could cause otherwise sensible people to look favorably upon Donald Trump.
The Problems with the Donald
So, no, I won’t be voting for Hillary. Trump, then? No, not him either.
I have heard every argument defending voting for him over the past six months. I remain as convinced as I ever have been that there are no grounds on which it is permissible or morally licit for a conservative Christian to lend their support to Trump by voting for him.
In fact, I think it is obvious that no one should vote for the Contemporary Falstaff. However sophisticated the rationalizations for Trump become, they do not overcome the single, basic fact that he has done nothing in his personal life nor his professional career to demonstrate that he is fit for the highest office in the land. I take it as a given that nominating an unfit person to such an office would be a grave danger to American security and interests.
So there is no world where I will think that the political calculus and rationalizations add up to making voting for Trump permissible, save the world where Jesus appears in the flesh and tells me it is. And that is not this world, despite the earnestness with which many Trump supporters have assured me it is.
Of course, it is very hard to prove obvious truths to those who doubt them. But I have given it a sporting go over the past six months. Among the various reasons I have set forth I would include his manifest lack of integrity, his overt courtship of racists, his instability, his braggadocious sexual licentiousness, his authoritarian impulses, the fact he never seems to have read the Constitution, the fact that he would deliberately work with small contractors to steal from them, and so on. Let’s just say it’s a really long list, ermkay?
The Dumb and Dumber Case for Trump
And yet, here we are. The pro-life movement is signing up with The Donald. Why? The main reason, as best I can tell, is what I have dubbed the ‘Dumb and Dumber’ argument. Voting for Donald Trump on the chance that he will elect conservative justices to the Supreme Court is perhaps the most prominent way pro-lifers have justified their capitulation to Trump. As the argument goes, Trump’s interest in placating his conservative base, in winning a second term, in working with Congress, and so on justify the conclusion that there is a chance he will appoint better justices than Hillary Clinton. When set within this comparative context, conservatives are justified in voting for Trump.
There are a variety of reasons I think such claims are wrong. I have critiqued it at various points, and I will not rehearse those arguments in full here.
Instead, I’d note that the argument invariably reduces to a blind assertion of faith that such a chance exists. Any evidence or arguments that purport to show the odds of Trump appointing conservative justices are miniscule are met with a shrug. We know, it is said, what Hillary will do. Trump is at least a wild-card. (Hence my name for this line of reasoning.)
There are good reasons to think that the odds of getting conservative justices are, well, not very good: Trump won’t even say he’s interested in actually being President if he wins a first term, much less commit to a second. So it is highly unlikely that he’ll govern with that aim. The logic and rationale of his candidacy — Burn Everything Down — gives Trump a convenient excuse to not work at all with Republicans, and then to blame whatever failure he faces on their recalcitrance. That is how he ran as a candidate; we can presume that is how he would govern as a President.
In short: Donald Trump does not seem to care about whether the Republican Party is behind him. His self-described “movement” means he has all the leverage. Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders may be able to frustrate his aims (if R’s win the House and Senate, that is). But I suspect he would find enough Democrats willing to pass what will almost certainly be much more moderate, if not fully progressive, proposals than those he has offered to his base. He has shown such a disinterest in becoming the Republican nominee that prominent conservatives are openly endorsing the idea that he is, in fact, a Democratic plant. That sort of logic just reinforces that if he wins, he won’t need the Party: The Party will need him, and bow accordingly.
Never mind. Evidence for what Trump might or might not do does not matter at all to the Dumb and Dumber case. The only claim that matters is that however miniscule it is, we have better odds of getting conservative justices from Trump than we do from Hillary. It is an article of faith, impervious and impenetrable to rational assessment.
But it is wrong.
For one, the argument treats treats gaining conservative justices as so important that they trump to any other end or goal. The reasons for this judicial myopia are deep and important within the pro-life world. No pro-lifer can say that Supreme Court opinions simply do not matter, for reasons that are obvious. But ironically, shouting “The Judges!” as a political clincher deepens the very doctrine of judicial supremacy that Roe and other similarly bad rulings have exacerbated. Pro-lifers should play a role in deflating the Supreme Court’s singular power over American political life: The use of such power to enact social change has exacerbated tensions in American society, and undermined the conditions for long-term stability and peace.
But the claim also rests upon a highly contentious and narrowly selective account of the consequences of getting the justices we want.
What do I mean? Let us think for a moment about the effects of a Trump/pro-life alliance beyond the Courts. For one, supporting Trump means that every Republican candidate going forward need only offer the thinnest of overtures to pro-lifers to win their support, and that there will be nothing conservatives can do if such candidates do not deliver. If Trump were to be nominated and fail to appoint conservative justices, the logic of the “Dumb and Dumber” argument would mean that there could be no reprisals. The idea that there is a chance the Republican nominee elects better justices because he says he will do so is impervious to any kind of falsification, and as such, eliminates any kind of meaningful political reprisal against the party that fails in its pro-life duties.
To put the point differently, it is reasonable in our political system for minority factions to offer their support only in exchange for meaningful attention to their interests and concerns. By supporting Trump, pro-lifers make it astoundingly clear what kind of price the party has to pay to win their votes. The value of the pro-life vote has plummeted, given that Trump’s nominal outreach efforts seem to have worked. But the only way to raise that price and extract more meaningful concessions from Republicans in the future is by refusing to do business with them. If pro-lifers really believe that the Republican party is the only vehicle that they have in American political life to reach their ends — which is what the “Dumb and Dumber” argument rests upon — then they should absolutely refuse to support this candidate on the grounds that abstention is the only way of keeping the value of their vote up in every subsequent election.
On one level, I really get it: Having deep and abiding moral commitments to the cause of life might mean an irrational, utterly foolish willingness to continue to be abused in such manner by the only party who will at least invite you to their cocktail parties and fundraisers. But pro-lifers lose every ounce of their future leverage over the party by accepting Trump.
In normal conditions, I could easily see pro-lifers voting for non-optimal candidates on the basis of the likelihood of political pressures making them more pro-life than their instincts might otherwise lead them to be. This was, for what it’s worth, a huge part of my argument for supporting Mitt Romney in the general election last time around. There were many questions about the depths of his pro-life commitments: I defended him on the basis that, even if he himself had intuitions that I disagreed with, he clearly wanted to be a two-term President and needed pro-lifers desperately.
But Romney also was (and is) clearly an incredible family man. His early pro-choice policies were worse than his own personal life. And the importance of that cannot be understated: Romney gave pro-lifers the chance of justices and the rest of it in a package that fundamentally endorsed the cultural conditions which we think are essential for minimizing abortions, namely, stable families.
Trump’s life demonstrates his lack of commitment to the pro-life cause.
This case is clearly different. Trump is a walking-anecdote for the various cultural ideologies and trajectories that the pro-life movement opposes. Specifically, by voting for Trump, they endorse someone who in his personal life has not merely lived in, but reveled in the moral atmosphere and commitments that stand beneath our abortion culture.
If abortions happen because of the breakdown of marriage, then there is nothing ‘pro-life’ about electing someone who is at best a serial monogamist. If the abortion culture has anything to do with the wider degradation of our society’s sex and morals — as pro-lifers have argued it does for as long as I have been alive — then there is nothing pro-life in endorsing a candidate who has bragged about the number of his sexual partners. It matters that Trump is unwilling to answer whether he personally has funded abortions. It matters a great deal.
Let me be as explicit as possible about what pro-lifers supporting Trump means: It means lending their aid to someone who (with Bill Clinton) was friends with Jeffrey Epstein who was eventually convicted of pedophilia. And Trump knew of it and commended Epstein. I mean, look at this glowing endorsement: “I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”
Think about that for a second: Conservative evangelicals and other pro-lifers have rushed to find any justification they can think of to vote for a fellow who almost certainly knew of pedophilia occurring, and, for all we do know of him, did nothing to prevent it. At the very least, he was not the one who went to the police about it. That pro-lifers have been reduced to this beguiles the mind, to put it gently.
And now Trump himself has been named in a second lawsuit alleging that he engaged in rape of a minor. This one claims to have a witness. That would be incredible for such a case, but would also not be unlikely given the nature of Jeffrey Epstein’s parties. I have no position on whether Trump is in fact guilty of such charges: I only know that if we vote for him because “there’s a chance” he’ll give the world conservative justices, then we should also include in our political calculation that “there’s a chance” such unspeakably wicked events happened. In this instance, pro-lifers do not have time to await the justice system to act: We face a vote, both next week at the Republican convention, and in November. We must instead assess whether the strength or weakness of the purported victim’s claims justifies the risk of throwing our support behind someone who has been accused of such horrendous acts.
I will confess at this point that it is hard for me to get beyond a raging anger at the fact that pro-lifers are throwing their support behind someone for whom such allegations cannot be treated as naked, political attempts to destroy an otherwise good person’s character. Think of it: if it turned out that such allegations are true, would anyone be that surprised given Donald Trump’s life and what we know of how sexual immorality works (namely, that it breeds more immorality, not less)?
Again: I am not saying anything about whether these allegations are true. In the court of law, there is a presumption of innocence. But in the assessment of a person’s character…past performance leads to future results. Pro-lifers who support Trump can dismiss these allegations as entirely baseless: But on what grounds? Certainly not because of Trump’s life history. Or they will have to consider such allegations in assessing Trump’s fitness for office, and tell a complicated story about suspending judgment while the judicial process does its thing. I am not the brightest of bulbs, but it sure seems that when explanations are complicated, things are not going well.
Once again: I am not assessing the guilt or innocence of Trump: I am suggesting that the fact that it cannot be instantly dismissed as an unreasonable possibility is itself damning for any political movement that pretends to care a single iota about sexual mores, as the pro-life movement must. Even if Trump is exonerated of these charges, or wins on legal technicalities, their plausibility says as much as anyone needs to know about what kind of baggage supporting Trump might bring upon the pro-life movement.
The pro-life movement must accept a degradation of itself as a movement in order to support Trump.
Having to treat these sorts of questions as real possibilities is the kind of cultural corrosion that the pro-life movement must accept in exchange for voting for Trump. The moral gap between Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump is smaller than one might think: If Trump does not explicitly approve of Epstein’s actions, he also clearly did not object to the point of turning Epstein over to the police. But it is hard to hear Trump’s comment about Epstein as anything other than an astonishingly cavalier acceptance of Epstein’s ‘preferences’. (No, Trump does not use that word. But that seems to be his position.) Accepting such a nominee’s character as a permissible side-effect of the chance of getting pro-life judges eliminates any interest in anything besides the law from the pro-life movement’s political reasoning. It indicates that pro-lifers are willing to accept personal and cultural decay of our leaders for the sake of conservative judges and legal opinions.
Such a stand bifurcates the pro-life movement into two, allowing technical, legal rationality to come apart from the broader cultural conditions pro-lifers are trying to establish to end abortion. Such a bifurcation represents a kind of legal triumphalism that views the law as the paradigmatic and final means of social change. I think the law changes things: you’ll hear no platitudes about “hearts and minds” from these quarters. But if such opinions are not minimally reflective of the broader moral fabric of a society, they will not have the effect intended.
Additionally, setting forth such laws without the cultural conditions necessary to support them might even engender a backlash, and undermine the fragile gains pro-lifers have already made. This is one of the lessons from Roe, which was not at all reflective of our broader cultural mores at the time. It created incredible social divisions and galvanized the pro-life movement. Disconnecting the legal from the cultural allows the pro-life movement to do the same, except in reverse. But if the recent history of morals legislation in this country is any indication, such a strategy does not work well over the long term. Judicial myopia leads to, in this case, cutting off the pro-life movements cultural nose on the slimmest of hopes of saving its political face.
Suggesting that the thin hope of conservative justices on the courts justifies accepting such cultural consequences also seems to rest on either naivety or hubris. It is hard to know which. Pro-lifers will not be able to distance themselves from Trump’s shenanigans, though they will try: if he is their candidate, they will be made to own everything he does if he is elected President. Political action has a symbolic character: it sets a narrative, and that narrative matters as much for the long-term future of a particular movement as do the judicial opinions that result from it. In this case, it is a ludicrously easy story to tell: Pro-lifers are willing to accept misogyny, divorce, racism, and so so on for their political ends.
Pro-lifers will protest that voting for Donald Trump does not mean endorsing everything Trump does. And they would be right. Yet I say it’s either ‘naivity’ or ‘hubris,’ because the pro-life movement hasn’t exactly been stellar at framing its own identity. The cultural and media headwinds they face go a long ways toward explaining the struggle. But in this case, they add to those the fact that their critics will have a serious and legitimate point. Voting for Trump means treating everything else he does as acceptable *on the condition* that he also promises — merely promises, mind you — conservative justices. The pro-life movement can justify supporting Trump only by viewing his character, his known sexual vices, his unrepentant history of supporting abortion, etc. as acceptable side-effects that, in this case, are the cost of their hope for conservative justices.
Note that I say ‘the hope’: Accepting such side-effects if we know that Trump will appoint conservative justices is one matter. I still think it’s obviously bad to do so. But if conservatives don’t even know whether the good they are aiming at will come to pass, but are gaming their acceptance on the brute grounds that ‘there’s a chance’ it will, their position looks even worse.
What other consequences come with supporting Trump?
If we want to assess voting for Trump on the consequences for the pro-life movement, we cannot simply ignore the symbolic, social, and cultural effects. Such consequences are doubtlessly ‘softer’ than the sharp-edged, definitive nature of Supreme Court opinions. But if we want such opinions to save lives, they need a society that will welcome and support them. I am not proposing that pro-lifers simply wait to pursue legal strategies until that society exists. I am instead proposing that, in their prioritization of such legal efforts, they not endorse candidates who have flagrantly and grossly acted in ways *contrary* to that society and the morals it needs to flourish. If justices really worth *any* cost to the pro-life movement, now is the moment we will find out.
Let us reflect for a moment, in this light, upon what I take to be among the hardest questions our society: What sort of injustices are we are willing to allow in the short term for the sake of long-term social stability, peace, and well-being? In attempting to defund Planned Parenthood, pro-lifers ask others to shoulder a serious and grave social cost for the sake of eliminating a gross and systemic injustice. And I think it is permissible for them to do so.
But a similar argument can be run against the pro-life defense of Trump: The democratic character of American political life might simply require that they accept ongoing injustices for the sake of longer-term goods. Paying for conservative justices means being saddled with and further mainstreaming Trump’s moral corrosiveness. (What happens if he pulls a version of the ‘Claire Underwood’ and admits while President that he paid for an abortion, and that he doesn’t regret doing so?) Repudiating such cultural degradation by not supporting its political representative might mean more abortions in the near term: But even if Roe were to be repealed in the next President’s term, where will people turn for political guidance if pro-lifers have deemed Trump’s decadence as acceptable? Dividing the political and cultural logics of the pro-life movement by treating Trump’s character as an acceptable side-effect undermines the integrity of the movement and will eviscerate its ability to speak with power on cultural matters for long into the future.
As I see it, the choice pro-lifers face is whether they are willing to sacrifice their political lives in order to save their cultural and moral soul. I wish I had more confidence that they would choose wisely.
This is a gratuitous link to a sketch that came to mind at this point in the essay: Make of that intrusion what you will. Enjoy it. Laugh! It is funny! Good times.
Hope for Chaos at the Convention.
But we are here at the twelfth hour! Must we not vote for one of them? No. Absolutely, unequivocally, unhesitatingly no. First, we should hope and pray for total, unmitigated chaos at the Republican Party’s convention.
The odds of Trump being elected are incredibly high. But, well, am I saying there’s a chance? I am, I am indeed. Angering Trump’s supporters, many of whom do not care about pro-life positions, will happen if the party nominates someone else. But given that Trump simply is not fit for the office, alienating such voters seems like the unhappy cost of doing the right thing. For a major political party to nominate someone who at least half of its constituents do not trust with the nuclear codes would be a palpable failure.
So, we should hope for a rules committee that releases all the delegates, for floor protests if they do not, for delegates voting with their consciences even if it breaks every rule and gets them kicked out of the party. We should hope for decent men and women who have served the party to examine their consciences and determine whether they really, genuinely believe this man can be trusted with the highest office in the land.
We should even hope for Ted Cruz going off script and announcing in the strongest possible terms that no one should ever vote for Donald Trump. I’m no fan of Senator Cruz. But I would write him in for President in a heartbeat if he did that.We should hope for a Republican party that, at the last hour, saves itself the humiliation of nominating the only person in the country who might not be able to beat Hillary Clinton.
Do I have any confidence that Republicans will do the right thing? No! None whatsoever! Not a shred! I have as much confidence in that as I do that Trump will nominate a conservative justice. I mean, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that we are talking about a party that mocked Obama for being dependent upon a teleprompter, and that now praises their candidate because he manages to follow one. It’s a cruel and hilarious irony, really. They have become a parody of their past criticisms.
In recent years, Republicans have been more than willing to engage in political entertainment at the cost of acting responsibly for the common good. Which means Trump really is a creature of their own dysfunctions. So, no, I don’t have any confidence that the party will remember their courage and nominate a President we can trust with the nuclear codes. (We clearly can’t trust Hillary: She’d probably store them on a private server somewhere.)
I only have hope. Delusional hope. I cannot but help believe that there are yet ten righteous men and women within the city who could prevent the judgment that is upon us. I am prepared to be sorely disappointed. That is precisely what hope means: an unabiding commitment to the right when the situation is hopeless. (Thanks, Gilbert.)
And if the Republican Party nominates Trump?More mischief.But first, lest you be teetering on edge of despair, I present as an interlude David Brown, the chief of Dallas’s police department. Seriously, watch that. Do you have hope for our country again? I certainly do. Watch that and tell me again that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the best we can do. There’s a theory of democracy in there, a deep understanding of the limits of police work, a palpable sense of courage. If he did not have other important work to do, I would write his name in for President in a heartbeat. I still might.
Okay. Is there any path besides the write-in candidate?
No, probably not, but let’s consider one anyway. We should hope that within 24 hours of Trump’s Teleprompter-Reading Masterpiece, Mitt Romney finally listens to his children and announces a third-party bid. Or if not Mitt Romney, someone else with some name recognition who might steal a state or two. I don’t know who this group of #nevertrumpers has found to put on the ballots, but if they have a pulse and can plausibly claim to be pro-life, I’ll almost certainly vote for them.
(As to Gary Johnson…If the Libertarian Party had wanted to be anything other than useless in this cycle, they should have nominated a pro-life candidate. It was the most obvious thing they could have done to be a genuine threat to overturning the two-party apple cart. I would have sung their praises and signed up in a heartbeat. As it is, they are something of a joke, and given that our society’s treatment of babies in the womb doesn’t exactly put me in a laughing mood, I’ll pass, thank you very much.)
Don’t get me wrong: I might still vote for a candidate who doesn’t have a chance of winning the nomination. If it’s not the Better for America candidate, I’ll consider the Constitution Party. Or if not them, I’ll write in Ben Sasse or David Brown. Or my mom. She keeps unruly highschoolers in line, which is more than Donald Trump has ever done.
But, really, we should hope for Romney. And then we should hope that Bernie Sanders sticks a fork in the Democratic Party’s eye and takes up the Green Party’s invitation to run as their candidate. Why? Because it seems plausible that if Romney and Sanders played their cards strategically, they could between the two of them pick off just enough states to keep both Donald and Hillary below the 270 electoral college threshold.
Yes, that’s right. This possibility has not been spoken of nearly enough in this cycle, not for my liking.I haven’t crunched all the numbers to figure out exactly which states Romney, or Romney and Sanders together, would need to win to keep Hillary and Trump below 270, because no one is paying me to write this essay. But someone needs to put together this kind of map, and quickly. It would be an easy way to fame, and it would contribute to the narrative that ‘Trump or Clinton’ is not our inevitable future.
At that point, the House of Representatives would choose the nominee. My understanding is that tradition indicates they would choose from the top three candidates. Suppose Romney is in the mix: Is there anyone in the House who would rather have Donald Trump be President than Mitt Romney? I bet there might be a small contingent of Democrats who would support Romney over Hillary for the sake of the rule of law. Even if Democrats win the House.
See, I can have nice thoughts about Democrats sometimes. I am large; I contain multitudes.
Those are my hopes for the next month, at least.
You don’t have to vote for either of these candidates.
And if none of that comes to pass? I will happily write in the person I think most fit for the office (probably Romney, Sasse, or David Brown) and revel in my moral purity for the next four years. Oh, will I revel. I will be positively insufferable, I assure you. It is a dangerous thing, standing on principle. It goes to one’s head, which is why it is occasionally worth doing. It clears the air, and reminds one of which way is up.
And you can join me, too. You don’t have to vote for either of our two candidates. There is no political calculus that adds up to supporting either one. It is almost certainly false that America deserves better: She deserves the major party candidates she has. But that does not mean clear-headed people should accept them. The grace of living in a democracy is that the only judgment we receive from our leaders is the one we bring down upon our own heads. But there is no rule or line of reasoning that requires Christians to vote for the Barbarians because everyone on our block is.
Trump could also simply resign the nomination, too, if he wins it. And Christians should pray for that to happen. The argument for doing so has its own twisted logic: He could be the single most powerful person in American politics for the next twenty years without ever having to face the gut-wrenching decision of whether to send American lives into battle. By being President, he risks his brand and his fortune: Whether Americans die because of his action or inaction will have a considerably more profound effect on his legacy than if his casinos go bankrupt. Maybe Trump will follow his native Falstaff all the way, and imperil the lives of real human beings. But maybe he’ll look at the risk as a businessman, and think that it does not add up.
If that happens, well, we will have our chaos. We like to think his base would be incredibly angry. But basically everyone has been wrong so far about what would hurt him with his constituency, so who knows whether they would care if he voluntarily stepped down? They seem to treating the whole business as a highly entertaining but ultimately inconsequential show. That would be a fine twist for ratings and the inevitable launch of the Trump Political Media Network.
I do not know what the next four months of America’s political life holds. However, I am rooting for turmoil and intrigue. Were one of our contemporary novelists writing this story, they would throw in a sharp set of twists that no one could see coming. That is precisely what I am eagerly hoping for. And if it is November 11th and Hillary and Trump are still our own major candidates, then I want to see men and women of principle everywhere make their opposition to our two major candidates known far and wide by throwing their vote away on candidates who deserve our support, even if they’ll never win.
The only rule of this election is that almost no one saw it coming: I get why we are all now expecting things to follow their normal course of events, but the predictive powers of our Opinion Leaders don’t exactly inspire confidence these days. I am cheerfully prepared to drink the cup of chaos to the last possible drop. It is going to be a terribly exciting road ahead, whatever happens. Here’s hoping America survives.
Feature image via https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/24394211100