What do conservatives do when there is no conservative candidate?
I watched Donald Trump serially blast apart all my preferred candidates — Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz — as if for sport they were sent up in succession as clay pigeons. And now the November Rubicon — vote for Donald Trump, or stay home and de facto vote for Hillary Clinton — is uncomfortably close. Most of the arguments pro and con have been aired ad nauseam.
The choice is difficult for principled conservatives, because no sooner should they decide to vote for Trump than Trump will surely say something outrageous, cruel, or crude that would ostensibly now have their imprimatur on it. And note, this matters to conservatives much more than it does to liberals. Few Obama supporters at Harvard or the Ford Foundation or the New York Times worried much in 2008 that their candidate had dismissed his own generous grandmother as a “typical white person” or that he tried to get away with airbrushing out the obscene Reverend Wright and mythologized his close friendships with reprobates like Bill Ayers and Father Michael Pfleger.
Aside from his dubious political loyalties, Trump persists in being mean-spirited. He seems uninformed on many of the issues, especially those in foreign policy; he changes positions, contradicts himself within a single speech, and uses little more than three adjectives (tremendous, great, and huge). But the problem with many of these complaints is that they apply equally to both the current president and the other would-be next president. When Hillary Clinton, playing to the green vote, bragged that she would put miners out of work, and then, when confronted with an out-of-work miner, backtracked and lied about her earlier boast, we had a refined version of Trump’s storytelling. The Clinton Foundation’s skullduggery and Hillary’s e-mail shenanigans seem to trump the Trump University con — and involve greater harm to the nation. Her combination of greedy Wall Street, for-profit schmoozing and paint-by-the-numbers progressivism is repulsive.
Trump’s cluelessness about the nuclear triad is a lowbrow version of Barack Obama’s ignorance, whether seeking to Hispanicize the Falklands into the Maldives (wrong exotic-sounding, politically correct foreign archipelago, Mr. President), or mispronouncing “corpsman,” or riffing about those Austrian-speaking Austrians; or perhaps of Hillary Clinton’s flat-out lie about the causes of Benghazi, hours after she had learned the truth. I don’t think reset, Libya, Benghazi, red lines to Assad, step-over lines to Putin, and deadlines to Iran attest to Clinton’s foreign-policy savvy. It is easy to be appalled by crude ignorance, but in some ways it is more appalling to hear ignorance layered and veneered with liberal pieties and snobbery. The choice in 2016 is not just between Trump, the supposed foreign-policy dunce, and an untruthful former secretary of state, but is also a matter of how you prefer your obtuseness — raw or cooked? Who has done the greater damage to the nation: would-be novelist and Obama insider Ben Rhodes, who boasted about out-conning the “Blob” D.C. establishment, or bare-knuckles Trumpster Corey Lewandowski?
Neither Jefferson, Lincoln, nor Reagan is on this year’s ballot. So voters must deal with realities as well as principles. Note as well that so-called Republican elites really did help to create Trump: On matters of illegal immigration, offshoring and outsourcing, huge deficits, trade, and political correctness, many conservative pundits, handlers, and politicians sounded about the same as their liberal counterparts. When they debated on TV, it was like listening to two divorce lawyers; in the green room, would they sip bottled water and swap stories about their crazy clients? I recently watched Fox’s star anchor Megyn Kelly, in fawning fashion, interview firebrand Michael Moore as if he were a genuine documentarian. Moore praised Kelly to the skies, and engaged in jocular buddy joshing about her post-Fox career plans, before he waxed on in magnanimous style about how he had felt poor George W. Bush was simply incompetent rather than malicious. His disingenuous mush went unquestioned. Yet Moore remains a reprobate who after 9/11 thundered: “If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who did not vote for him. Boston, New York, D.C., and the planes’ destination of California — these were the places that voted against Bush.” Of the American dead in Iraq, he once gloated, “I’m sorry, but the majority of Americans supported this war once it began and, sadly, that majority must now sacrifice their children until enough blood has been let that maybe — just maybe — God and the Iraqi people will forgive us in the end.” Michael Moore cuddles on Fox the way Al Sharpton goes to the Oval Office. What is the difference?
In the last five years, I have attended perhaps a dozen lectures by various establishment politicians and pundits (who supposedly believe in the “rule of law”) in which they pompously lectured down to their conservative audience that illegal immigration was a minor problem for the rube wing of the Republican party but for the enlightened was mostly an opportunity to win pro-family new voters. These are politicians and pundits whose children go to private schools, who live in apartheid communities, and whose experience with illegal aliens, to the degree it exists, is via a housecleaner or landscaper.
Another dilemma hinges not on the omnipresence of crudity but on how one prefers to have it presented — delivered in a chartreuse monster truck, or by Tesla? One is the gutter sort — besmirching John McCain’s war record, or fibbing about releasing tax returns, or bragging about rank adultery; the other is dressed up with sonorous cadences about why you must be the first presidential candidate to reject campaign-financing-reform rules in the general election, when you vowed you would be the most transparent candidate in history (as you hid both your medical records and your university transcripts and became Wall Street’s most endowed cash recipient).
When Obama later was forced to admit that his autobiographical memoir was mostly fiction, or when Bill Clinton was revealed to have jetted around with convicted sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein, or when Obama invites as an honored White House guest a rapper whose latest album cover glorifies homies on the White House lawn gloating over the corpse of a white judge at their feet, I think we long ago eroded any notion of presidential decorum. The honest and quite legitimate argument against Trump on this count is the one we never hear: that instead of offering a corrective to the present crudity, he might continue to erode the dignity of the office in the manner of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Even Trump, however, could hardly do more damage with the Iranians than did Obama’s in-house wannabe novelist, Ben Rhodes, who, in the twilight of his one and only policy career, now brags how he misled the Congress and the public by easily salting the media field with phony nuggets of expertise and punditry. The point is that we are worried about Armageddon on the Trump horizon while we are living amid the Apocalypse.
No one today much worries that in the 2008 campaign Obama smeared the working classes of Pennsylvania, revved up his supporters in Philadelphia (“folks in Philly like a good brawl”) to bring their guns to a knife fight, and urged others to “get in their face,” and quite unapologetically lied about his supposedly sporadic presence in front of Reverend Wright’s racist and anti-Semitic pulpit — after earlier bragging in a Chicago newspaper interview about his perfect attendance. Few cared about the felon Tony Rezko’s sweetheart discounted sale of backyard real estate to the Obamas — an academic’s downscaled version of something like Trump Steaks. If anyone knows of another case of an obscure underdog Senate candidate suddenly surging ahead of, first, his favored primary opponent and, later, his favored general-election opponent — after both had the details of their sealed divorce and custody records mysteriously leaked — please cite a parallel.
Trump is, of course, spring-loaded; he has no safety and can go off at any time. But whether he is amnestied like Obama or Biden will depend on his ability to limit his insanity to weekly rather than daily outbursts or to dress up his gaffes and blunders in nasal tones in the style of liberal grandees. No one knows how to square the Trump circle of cleaning up his act without ruining it — only that the circle has to be squared.
So, the issue for conservatives in November is twofold: One, would a Trump presidency represent a new ethical and cultural low; that is, would he say and do things far beyond what we have come to contextualize and excuse from the Clintons or Barack Obama? In this regard, I grant that how one expresses one’s cruelty — coarsely or with double-entendres and snark — matters in our shallow and media-driven culture. Whether a plagiarist or fabulist ends up wrist-slapped like Fareed Zakaria, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Maureen Dowd or fades like Jason Blair and Stephen Glass, or whether a bad racist joke about CP (“colored people”) is repulsive or merely out there, depends entirely on your buzz and what you represent — and whether you are Hillary Clinton or not.
Two, would Trump’s convention-stamped agenda be more or less conservative than that of Hillary Clinton? Trump is certainly no conservative, and he has moved the Republican party leftward in some areas; Hillary’s latest progressive personification is beyond liberal, and has moved the Democratic party much further leftward in all areas. Or, to put it another way, whose most recent opportunistic incarnation now seems the more conservative on matters of illegal immigration, budgeting, defense, domestic spending, and foreign affairs? Not voting for Trump is not just like voting for Hillary Clinton in 2008 but rather like voting for a 12- or 16-year continuation of Obamism.
There is also a 30–70 chance that Trump might recalibrate his candidacy in the next six months. It may be easy to continue with the Never Trump movement as long as he daily spins his conspiracy theories and tall tales. But what happens to conservative resistance if by August he has reinvented himself into a more sober Trump and announced that if elected he’d like to appoint Ted Cruz to the Supreme Court, John Bolton as secretary of state, Larry Arnn as secretary of education, and General Jack Keane as secretary of defense? Will we say that it is just a ploy to get our votes, or confess that it is a shameless, naked ploy that is still preferable to the likely Clinton alternative?
And what happens if even his more outrageous promises are reified with not-so-outrageous details: Making Mexico pay for the wall could easily be accomplished by slapping a 10 percent federal surcharge on all remittances sent out of the country by those who cannot document legal residence; rejecting the Iran treaty could be couched in terms of reviewing how Ben Rhodes deceived both the public and the media in unconstitutionally rerouting the treaty around Congress.
There are six long months to go in what has already become a reckless, grueling, and unpredictable campaign between two iffy candidates. By the time of the election, Hillary Clinton will be 69, she has health problems, and she is mired in a host of scandals, from the shakedowns of the Clinton Foundation to a possible federal reprimand or indictment over her reckless use of her private e-mail server for State Department business; Donald Trump is a year older, with a trail of business controversies, and he is capable of saying anything at any time.
Amid that dilemma, my suggestion is to curb the hysteria about “Never Trump,” while watching him closely over the rest of the spring and early summer, in the context of assessing, not whether he is a humane and principled conservative, but whether he is, as alleged by some conservatives, really less conservative and less humane than Hillary Clinton.
The Reagan horse left the 2016 conservative barn many months ago, and it is coming to be time to pause and assess whether we are really left with only two bad choices — or with a bad Trump and a far, far worse Clinton.
If it is the latter, then it is an easy choice in November.