National Review founder William F. Buckley long argued conservatives should support the most conservative electable candidate. Unless the underdog delegate revolt at the Republican National Convention is successful, the only two electable candidates for president this year will be Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
One suspects Buckley would have found neither of these particularly attractive. Yet according to his pragmatic criterion, he would have to choose one or the other. Neither may be considered a conservative in any absolute sense, but clearly, since they do differ in many respects, one must be the more conservative of the two.
So who is the most conservative electable candidate: Hillary or Trump? To answer this question properly, it is necessary to focus on the most important issues. The preamble to the Constitution mentions preserving the union, establishing justice, providing for national defense, promoting economic prosperity, and preserving liberty as the central purposes of the U.S. government. To these primary areas I would add fiscal competence as a central area of concern, as unless the government is financially sound, it will not be able to discharge its responsibilities regarding any of its other identified purposes.
Neither candidate has a problem with preserving the union, so in that respect, they are both equally acceptable. Regarding national defense and the economy, the case is rather different.
Key Elements of the Postwar World
The postwar peace and prosperity that the United States and the West more generally have enjoyed since the end of World War II occurred because a very serious and smart group of men realized that, if the fruits of the hard-won victory were not to turn rotten again, the flaws in the world system that had led to the global conflagration needed to be corrected.
So they created two critical institutions. The first was the Western alliance, later formalized as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to provide for collective security of the democratic world and thereby decisively deter any future totalitarian aggression. The second was a system of international free trade, formalized as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, later renamed the World Trade Organization), to enable global economic recovery and prosperity, thereby ensuring the continued stability and growing strength of the democracies themselves.
The creators of the postwar order built on the basis of hard-won knowledge. Free trade is necessary for economic prosperity for the same reason that long-distance transport is. By blocking trade, tariffs do as much harm to the world economy as would be done by sinking most of the world’s merchant ships. Thus it was the trade war, initiated by the U.S. Smoot-Hawley tariff bill and similar measures foreign governments took that made the Great Depression great.
The creators learned from this. Similarly, they also learned from the debacle of the 1930s what happens when democracies abandon their collective security arrangements and allow tyrants to start picking off weaker members one at a time. So they put in place something called the Free World, within which enterprise and trade could prosper, without fear of either excessive intergovernmental interference or external attack.
The result was the greatest period of economic growth the world has ever seen. America was transformed from poverty-riddled depression America to suburbia America, with a vast middle class owning homes, cars, and televisions and sending their children to college. Europe and Japan were completely rebuilt, with South Korea, Taiwan, and numerous other previously undeveloped countries lifting themselves out of hunger and desperation. Furthermore, despite the continued existence of two very dangerous totalitarian potential adversaries, the general peace was preserved.
Both Hate Liberty, But Hillary Is More Stable
As a result of this profound success, whatever the differences between the two major parties may have been on other issues, these two fundamental bedrock principles underlying the creation and continuation of the post-1945 world order have remained uncontroversial among serious political leaders for the seven decades ever since.
While deviating a bit from support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which in fact she wrote) to deal with the Sanders insurgency in the Democratic primaries, there is little question that in general Clinton supports the postwar consensus on both international trade and the Western alliance. In sharp contrast, Trump has been a sharp critic of both. Indeed, support for protectionist trade war is a central plank of the Trump campaign, while his readiness to gut NATO and America’s Asian alliances has earned Trump the enthusiastic endorsement of the Kremlin and the North Korean government.
With respect to preserving liberty, both candidates are severely defective. The Democratic platform includes support for politically prosecuting those denying the party line on climate change. In addition to being an attack on political freedom, this is also an assault on science, whose progress requires settling debate with reason, rather than force. Trump, on the other hand, advocates a change in law to allow government officials to sue the press or other members of the public who speak ill of them. Such a proposal would effectively end freedom of speech and of the press in the United States.
So, on the issue of liberty, they are both terrible, but Trump is worse, as his policy would end freedom of speech with respect to all controversial political issues, whereas Hillary would only destroy it regarding one. Furthermore, while Hillary is unquestionably an advocate of big government, Trump appears to support a concept of unlimited government, unconstrained in its reach, arbitrary in its discretion, and, under the sole authority of the White House, able to act independently of the Constitution and statute law.
We Can Do Better
As to the establishment of justice, neither candidate is particularly attractive. Rather, they both have repeatedly engaged in activities that would almost certainly have landed less influential individuals in prison for a very long time. However, there is a difference. While both have cheated, Trump has publicly attacked and made threats against the judge in the class-action law suit launched against him by thousands of Americans whose life savings he allegedly bilked. This is an assault on the legal system itself.
Trump has also expressed admiration for foreign dictators convicted of war crimes, and has promised that as president, he would adopt similar methods, and impose punishments of U.S. military personnel who refused to engage in criminal activity at his behest. Furthermore, Trump has used demagoguery to assemble a large group of agitated supporters whom he has encouraged to engage in extralegal actions including boycotts of corporations, physical violence against left-wingers, and threats of violence against Republican opponents. Such techniques for achieving political objectives are not compatible with the rule of law.
Finally, according to experts who have examined the proposed budgets of both candidates, by the end of their second terms, Clinton’s program would increase the national debt of $250 billion, whereas Trump would nearly double it by adding another $10 trillion to the nation’s debt burden. In short, on a basis of a comparison of these two candidates regarding their handling of defense, the economy, the defense of liberty, the maintenance of justice, and the nation’s treasury, as incredible as it may seem, William F. Buckley would have no choice but to vote for Clinton.
Surely we can do better. Currently there is an effort to free the delegates to the Republican National Convention so they can have the opportunity to nominate a candidate more worthy than Trump. Let’s hope they succeed. America deserves a better choice.