If the presidential election comes down to a contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as it likely will, then conservatives in the GOP have a particularly galling choice to make: vote for a demagogue and statist whose major policy positions are moderately liberal at best and dangerously authoritarian at worst, or vote for Clinton.
Voting for Clinton, or passively acquiescing to her victory by refusing to vote for Trump, is not something most conservatives ever thought we would have to consider. Yet here we are. Trump and Clinton are two sides of the same terrifying coin. They’re both pathologically dishonest, unprincipled, hypocritical, and self-serving. Neither of them care one whit about conservative principles or policies, and both would expand the size and scope of government in ways that erode liberty and entrench a corrupt and unaccountable administrative state.
In this context, conservatives need to consider the long game: what would be gained by supporting Trump over Hillary, and what would be lost by passively supporting Hillary over Trump? The disheartening conclusion is that conservatives would be better off spending the next four or eight years in principled opposition to Clinton than in collusion with Trump.
Colluding With Trump Isn’t Worth It
I say “conservatives” instead of Republicans because we know now they aren’t the same thing. Conservatives are but one constituency of the GOP—and a smaller one than many of us had previously thought. Now that Trump has all but secured the nomination, who knows what will become of the Republican Party? Maybe it will survive, maybe not.
But conservatives’ first duty is not to their party; it is to their principles. If they collude with Trump, they forfeit the ability to defend the things that drew them into the GOP in the first place: limited government, federalism, free speech, and free markets. None of these principles will likely survive a Trump-led GOP, no matter what Republican Party leaders say about molding Trump into a conservative.
Some “establishment” Republicans seem to realize this. Indeed, no living former GOP nominee or president will publically support Trump. Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain, and both president Bushes have all said they will not endorse Trump. House Speaker Paul Ryan also said last week he doesn’t currently support Trump, that he’s “not there yet,” holding out the possibility that he might support the presumptive nominee, but only if Trump can “unify the party.”
What would that mean, to unify the party? Unify it around what? Trump’s positions on policy, even putatively conservative positions, are notoriously unreliable. In an interview that aired Sunday on NBC, Trump said his tax plan, the most conservative policy on any issue he’s put forward to date, is a “floor,” and that in contrast to the plan itself, taxes for the wealthy need to “go up.” This is a plan Trump claims to have written himself, yet he’s already indicating he’s prepared to negotiate a tax increase on the wealthy to mollify Democrats in Congress.
It’s the same with a host of other issues. Sen. Ted Cruz was exactly right when he said last week that “Trump will betray his supporters on every issue.” Indeed, as Caleb Howe noted at RedState, in a period of less than 48 hours last week Trump reversed his positions on four major issues. In addition to renouncing his own tax plan, he said he’s now open to raising the minimum wage and that he was no longer self-funding his campaign (a point he constantly bragged about in the primary debates). To lead his fundraising efforts, Trump hired Steve Mnuchin, a longtime donor to Democrats (including Clinton) and former employee of left-wing hedge fund mogul George Soros.
Hillary Is No Better Than Trump
For all the reasons not to support Trump, there’s also not much reason to support Clinton. Like Trump, Clinton will say whatever she thinks her party’s base wants to hear. In her hard-fought primary contest with Sen. Bernie Sanders, she’s been quick to change her long-held views on a host of policies, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact to mass incarceration. This isn’t surprising, since Clinton has a history of changing her opinions when it’s politically convenient, like she did on the Iraq War, gay marriage, immigration, and gun control.
Still, Clinton would be better for conservatives than Trump. The difference is that conservatives wouldn’t have to defend Clinton’s positions—or justify her flip-flopping. In opposition, conservatives would have no obligation to party solidarity and would be free to support Clinton when her policies aligned with theirs, and free to oppose her when they don’t. Clinton says she now opposes the TPP, a trade pact she spent years touting as secretary of State. If, once in office, she decides she supports it again, fine. At least she’s not opposed to the idea of free trade deals.
A similar logic applies to foreign policy. Is Clinton’s foreign policy record horrible? Yes. Will she abandon our allies and dismantle NATO at the behest of Russia, as Trump has indicated he would do? No, she wouldn’t. For all her incompetence in foreign policy, at least Clinton doesn’t subscribe to the “America first” view that the United States is just one nation among many. At least she believes, unlike Trump, that the post-Cold War international order should be preserved and that America has a unique responsibility to preserve it.
Trump Will Rightly Send the GOP Into Exile
Some conservatives will no doubt object: what about Republicans in down-ballot races? Won’t abandoning Trump in the general election hurt GOP candidates across the board?
Probably, but whether you vote for Clinton, Trump, or abstain, without a third-party candidate for down-ballot Republicans to coalesce around, they will likely be hurt by Trump’s nomination. As my colleague David Harsanyi has argued, the best way for down-ballot Republicans to avoid being lumped in with Trump is to coalesce around a write-in or third-party candidate. Short of that, Republicans risk losing not just the contest for the White House but also losing their majorities in Congress.
But maybe that’s a risk we have to take—and it might not be as damaging to conservatism as it would appear. A Clinton victory that swept Republicans out of power in the Senate would send a powerful message to future Republican voters: when you turn your back on conservatives, you lose elections. A down-ballot defeat of GOP candidates would show how unpalatable and unpopular Trump’s views are to the American people at large.
After all, if Republicans ever hope to win the White House, they’ll have to win a majority of voters nationwide. So far, Trump has been successful only among a minority of a minority: he won less than half of GOP primary voters, who themselves are less than half of GOP voters in a general election. Trump supporters will grouse that their man has won a record number of primary votes, but gloss over the fact that thus far in the primaries, record numbers of GOP primary voters have voted for candidates other than Trump.
In the end, it might not matter who conservatives support. Most polls show Trump losing the general election by a far greater margin than Romney lost to Obama in 2012. The crucial thing for conservatives is to ensure their cause doesn’t go down on Trump’s ship. A crushing Trump defeat in the general election would lay to rest the notion that he speaks for conservatives, or that his brand of politics is something Americans at large will ever buy. If that means the GOP will spend another term or two in exile, so be it.