I have to quibble with Ross Douthat’s “shoe on the other foot” analysis of why it’s tough for conservative Trump critics to get off the Trump train. But I do think the game is worth playing. So let me try it.
First of all, come up with an appropriate Republican analog of Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is a thoroughly mainstream and highly experienced politician who has held numerous public offices. Her foreign policy views put her on the right edge of the Democratic party. She’s got a history of relative centrism on a host of domestic and economic issues, including some social issues, but is running in this election, per Douthat, as an extremist on the issues that matter most to the social right, and to the left of her historic positions across the board.
The Republican analog to that description is someone with Colin Powell’s experience and views on foreign policy, John Kasich’s experience and views on domestic and economic policy, and Mike Huckabee’s views on social issues, running on a platform substantially written by Paul Ryan. Of course, Clinton is also viewed as deeply untrustworthy and corrupt, so let’s say that the Republican analog in question has Richard Nixon’s reputation for probity and transparency.
I can’t think of any single Republican who looks anything like that description. Santorum is an absolute hysteric; Cruz is an across-the-board extremist with virtually no experience; and Newt Gingrich is a highly volatile mess of a man both personally and ideologically. Mitt Romney is actually not a terrible analog in some ways, if one imagines a version of Mitt Romney who could plausibly be charged with being personally corrupt and not just tin-eared and blatantly ambitious. Clinton, after all, isn’t really a liberal version of Mike Huckabee on social issues — she’s just running as one this time around.
Second, pick a fair Democratic analog to Donald Trump. It has to be somebody not merely utterly unfit for high office, but also completely untrustworthy on those same social issues on which our imaginary Republican is extreme. Let’s imagine that well-known conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone somehow became the Democratic nominee, and let’s say he had a history of saying that abortion was murder and that homosexuality is a disease, but that during the campaign he made half-hearted gestures toward promising to appoint liberal judges. Meanwhile, he’s got to be unreliable on a host of other important issues as well — occasionally suggesting that he’d privatize Medicare, say, or calling for a Balanced Budget Amendment.
But: our hypothetical Oliver Stone nominee has staked out an extreme and unwavering position on an issue dear to the hearts of part of the Democratic coalition, a part that feels like it just can’t make itself heard. He’s called for a complete and permanent withdrawal of all American forces from the Middle East; an end to support for Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states; the immediate closure of Guantanamo Bay and the release of all prisoners back to their home countries; to rip up the Patriot Act, ban drone warfare — basically, an end to the War on Terror in all its forms, the whole nine yards, with no equivocation or qualification.
That, I would venture to say, is a fair analogy. Am I confident that hordes of Democrats would turn to “sleazy Romney” if the other choice were Oliver Stone? No — but I don’t think it’s an incredibly big ask. Frankly, I think it would be a no-brainer for just about anybody, with the possible exception of people who thought ending the War on Terror in all its forms was the overwhelmingly most important issue, one that justified a complete break with normalcy, even including the election of someone manifestly unsuited to the office.
Is Clinton making a huge ask of Republican-leaning voters? It depends which voters. Clinton is making obvious overtures to foreign policy neoconservatives. She’s also reached out to Chamber of Commerce conservatives to come aboard. She’s making asks in each case — but hardly extraordinary ones. She is making no similar overtures to religious conservatives, or to conservatives who care about Trump’s signature issues of immigration and political correctness — instead, she is drawing a strong contrast with Trump. In other words, Douthat’s problem isn’t that Clinton is making too big of an ask generally — it’s that she’s making a big ask of him specifically, because he is not only a religious conservative, but is also sympathetic to much of Trump’s critique of the domestic and foreign policy consensus, while recognizing that Trump himself is a walking catastrophe. That’s a tough spot to be in — but as Douthat realizes, it’s entirely the GOP’s fault for putting him there.
Meanwhile, for those who can’t stand either candidate, there’s always Gary Johnson. He’s a perfectly normal candidate in a host of ways, to the point where libertarians are legitimately annoyed that he’s more of a Republican than a libertarian. If you’re a conservative appalled by Trump but unable to stomach a vote for Clinton, why not vote for him? It cannot be because Johnson is socially liberal and won’t reliably appoint conservative judges, because to say that is to imply that Trump would be reliable on these matters, a view for which there is no evidence whatsoever. And if you really, really can’t vote for anybody with whom you don’t agree on these conservative shibboleths, there’s always Darrell Castle. No, to rule out these kinds of protest votes, you have to argue not merely that you can’t stomach voting for Clinton, but that Clinton is so bad that you should vote for Trump specifically in order to stop her from winning. And I just don’t think there’s any way Ross Douthat believes that. Which means he knows Clinton is right about who he needs to root for, regardless of who he will vote for, and he just wishes she’d make it easier.
Finally, I have to ask a serious question of folks like Rod Dreher who are seriously considering voting for Donald Trump because of judges. If you really believe that traditional Christian conservatives are on the brink of suffering real and substantial persecution, and you believe that electing Donald Trump so that he’ll appoint some right-leaning judges will prevent that from happening, then it seems to me you believe two contradictory things.
This country has had Democratic and Republican Presidents in recent memory. The pendulum swings this way and that. Each side periodically gets to pick a bunch of judges, and some of those judges vote more or less the way you want them to on some of your pet issues. Meanwhile, the country continues to change — and the judges often change their views along with it. Frankly, in the face of a real popular movement to stifle traditional Christian witness, a handful of additional judges would prove largely impotent. And if a handful of judges really could sway things, then how much more so could a real and substantial movement of public engagement, civil disobedience, etc.
If the political tide is running strongly against you, that’s not a reason for apocalypticism. It’s a reason to rethink your political strategy — which is the exact opposite of what a vote for Trump would represent.
After all, Donald Trump’s primary victory is the final proof that even the religiously conservative base of the GOP doesn’t really care about things like abortion and gay rights, because Trump manifestly didn’t care about these questions or was actively on the other side from religious conservatives, and yet he won plenty of evangelical Christian votes in the primaries. So voting for Trump out of religious conservative conviction sends a clear-as-day message that Republicans need do absolutely nothing on those issues in order to win religious conservative votes. It is a statement of abject surrender.
Look: there is nobody running in this election in whom religious conservatives should put the slightest sliver of hope with regard to their issues. If you really care overwhelmingly about those issues, you have a practical obligation not to vote for President. Large scale abstentions by religious conservatives would make it abundantly clear that attention must be paid to their concerns, in a way that voting for Trump never could do.
Or, if issues like abortion are just one of a complex of issues that have to be weighed in any election, then vote for the person who you think is best on balance, and fight for those other issues on another front. Maybe that means voting for Trump — in which case you’ll still need to be doing that fighting on other fronts, because trust me, Trump is not going to have your back. Regardless, don’t kid yourself that a vote for Trump will advance the cause of religious conservatism one iota. You know full well it won’t.