Never do today what you can do as well tomorrow … [S]omething may occur to make you regret your premature action. – Aaron Burr
Conservatives who pride themselves on understanding tradeoffs and having a realistic view of life should know that politics punishes loyalty with neglect, and rewards coquettishness with attention. However flattering it may be to think that we still give a damn for oaths and pledges during elections, our moral advantage on this front has been outweighed by the naïve and foolhardy way we’ve made our promises of late.
By tying our reputations to either pro- or anti-Trump stances before such things became necessary, almost everyone on the Right not only saddled the Republican Party with a dangerous and undisciplined candidate, they threw away what little power they had to influence his behavior.
It All Started With the GOP’s Pledge
The trouble began with the August 2015 pledge the GOP candidates were asked to take, affirming that they would endorse the party’s eventual nominee. With the exception of Trump, they all readily assented, partially as a show of unity, but largely to make it difficult for Trump to mount a spoiler candidacy. Ultimately, it failed spectacularly at the first objective and played a significant role in bringing about Trump’s nomination.
To be clear, the candidates who took the pledge are morally obliged to keep it. Its language was simple and contained no conditions on the conduct of the nominee. If they had objections, there was ample opportunity to make them, as Trump did:
I have to respect the person that, if it’s not me, the person that wins, if I do win, and I’m leading by quite a bit, that’s what I want to do. I can totally make that pledge. If I’m the nominee, I will pledge I will not run as an independent. But—and I am discussing it with everybody, but I’m, you know, talking about a lot of leverage.
If you push past the word-salad and the narcissism, Trump has a point about leverage, a topic he discusses at length in “The Art of the Deal.” The Republican Party is, at best, a vessel for conservatism. Principled conservatives should not take oaths that elevate party loyalty over values—at least, not without first extracting some assurances.
What if one of the other candidates had said that it would be inappropriate to pledge support without first examining candidates’ characters and experiences? After all, that was precisely what the American people were being asked to do. That candidate would decline to take the pledge for the time being, asking that the other candidates not be required to support him unless he had earned their endorsement first.
Would Trump have lost the nomination? Possibly, though it would have depended on who said it and how others reacted. But even if Trump prevailed, it would have distracted debate from the subject of his personality and narcissism, a good thing from any perspective. Moreover, it would have undercut the idea that the system was “rigged” against Trump from the beginning. Even if only at the margins, it would have made the race less about personal slights and more about ideas, policy, and the dangers posed by the Left in general and Hillary Clinton in particular.
And even if Trump failed to improve, the other candidates would have been free to withhold their endorsements as long as they deemed necessary—perhaps even through the election. Better yet, they could have done so while sparing us the unnecessary on-again-off-again drama of the last few weeks.
The NeverTrump Movement Adopted a Terrible Strategy
Just as the Republican candidates should have been more discriminating and cautious in their declarations, most conservatives committed too quickly (and too strongly) either for or against Trump. The most obvious error in judgement came from the NeverTrump movement—among whose members I count myself—which made a serious error in swearing never to endorse Trump under any circumstances.
As a practical matter, the strategy was an abject failure. It persuaded too few Republicans to deny Trump the nomination. Additionally, the movement’s habit of offering opposition without alternative made it seem stubborn and childish on the one hand, while its elite nature—at least, in its early stages—gave it the air of a frustrated parent falling back on a because-I-said-so defense.
As with the pledge, this early over-commitment should have been seen for the foolishness it was. Coalition politics rewards those whose support can—at least in theory—be earned in exchange for the right concession. Or to put it in Trumpian terms, “leverage matters.” So long as the movement identified opposition to Trump itself as a principle, Trump had no incentive to bother with NeverTrumpers or their ideas. They, effectively, walked out of the negotiation room, locked the door, and threw away the key.
It should come as little surprise, then, that Trump looked for votes elsewhere, often in terms that conservatives found offensive (e.g., his call for federally-mandated maternity leave). This was wholly rational on Trump’s part: There is nothing to be gained from negotiating with those who are pledged to oppose you on principle. However much a fool Trump may be in other regards, he’s acutely intelligent here.
NeverTrump Should Not Have Said ‘Never’
The smarter—though, more difficult—move for Trump opponents would have been to state that they could not support Donald Trump under current circumstances, and to offer a brief explanation of how they could be persuaded to change their minds.
It needn’t have been likely that Trump would meet these conditions, so long as it were possible. Nor would it have required critics to pull their punches. “I will never support Donald Trump for president,” and “I cannot support Donald Trump for president now because of reason x,” are dissimilar only insofar as one’s future standards or Donald Trump’s behavior are likely to change. If the former is secure, then offering an incentive for good behavior would only have been to NeverTrumpers’ advantage.
Even if Trump met some of these conditions—but still too few to earn critics’ votes—that would still have given ReluctantTrump voters a better candidate, and they’d have Trump critics to thank for it. And if Trump refused to move in a salutary direction, then the fault would more clearly lay with his inability to close a deal, rather than his opponents’ stubbornness and unwillingness to change.
How Conservatives Were Captured By Their Nominee
The sad truth about politics is that the more a candidate can take your vote for granted, the more he can ignore your concerns with impunity. African Americans on the Left are beginning to realize this, as have Evangelical Christians on the Right. For ReluctantTrump voters who have openly and repeatedly proclaimed that—in the name of defeating Hillary Clinton—it’s all but impossible for Donald Trump to lose their votes, it’s apparently a new thought.
Finding excuses for a candidate’s flaws and apostasies is hardly a new phenomenon. It happens every four years. But 2016 has been exceptional in the degree to which conservatives have been captured by their nominee.
Dennis Prager provides a striking example. As documented by the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf (disclosure: a personal friend), Prager’s pre-2016 opus featured several columns explaining why someone like Donald Trump—and, in one instance, Donald Trump by name—is morally and temperamentally unsuited to the presidency. But in the actual event of Trump’s nomination, Prager subordinated these concerns to Hillary Clinton’s defeat, writing:
I am not interested in moral purity. I am interested in defeating the left and its party, the Democratic Party … I just don’t understand how anyone who understands the threat the left and the Democrats pose on America will refuse to vote for the only person who can stop them.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Prager’s judgement that, given the stakes, it’s best to vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. But by signaling—as he does above, and has done repeatedly—that Clinton’s awfulness obliges one to vote for Trump removes any possibility of influence over the candidate. Though Prager has continued to criticize Trump regularly, it should come as little surprise that the candidate has taken so little heed; if NeverTrumpers have locked themselves out of negotiations, Prager and those like him have locked themselves in.
We Should Be Careful What Oaths We Make
In some ways, a more distressing example has been the National Rifle Association. The organization endorsed Trump nearly half a year earlier into this cycle than they had Romney or McCain in years past. For years, the NRA had expressly opposed using either the Terror Watch or No-Fly lists as an unconstitutional abridgment of citizens’ rights to bear arms and due process.
But when Trump declared himself in favor of using the lists to fight terrorism, the NRA subtly changed its position, releasing a new position that said selling firearms to anyone on these lists should be delayed (indefinitely) until the FBI has investigated the matter to its satisfaction. Given that the alternative was to humiliate themselves and Trump by publicly rescinding their endorsement, it’s hardly surprising that they resorted to surreptitious legalism.
Our culture rightly praises those who keep their word while, at least in theory, castigating those who break their oaths. But just as it’s possible to live a blameless—indeed, an exemplary—moral life without ever making an oath, one’s word is hardly a guarantor against wickedness or folly.
The lesson of this past year isn’t that we should swear-off oaths completely, but that we should be more circumspect, discriminating, and strategic in how we make them and to whom. Our problem wasn’t that we were too noble, but that many of us were careless with our honor and forgot how to wield it to effect.