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Trump and Prudence: A Reply to Decius

By: William Voegeli
September 19, 2016

f conservatives in 2016 are like airline passengers hijacked by terrorists on a suicide mission, then reckless, desperate actions to thwart them are decidedly preferable to meekly accepting certain death.

OK…but only if. If not, then such actions are just reckless, desperate…and indefensible. Storming the cockpit to take control of the plane, in the hope that one of the passengers can somehow land it safely, is a catastrophic mistake if the pilot isn’t a terrorist, just a bad aviator headed to a destination many on board dislike.

Furthermore, if it’s far from clear whether suicidal terrorists have in fact seized control of the plane, then conservatives who oppose taking it over and running the attendant risks are not beaten dogs or defeatists. They aren’t the Washington Generals of American politics, pathetically amenable to showing up, suffering one lopsided defeat after another, and collecting their paychecks. They, too, want to live, and for their party and country to live. They’re just people who have arrived at an assessment of the situation quite different from the one held by those certain the clock is ticking toward catastrophe.

As always, shrewd, discerning judgments about where we are, and whither we are tending, are necessary to judge what to do, and how to do it. If we face an imminent cataclysm, then fierce spiritedness is indispensable in a situation that provides little scope for prudence. But, again, only if.

Thus, if there’s even a reasonable possibility that conservatism’s situation in 2016 is not so dire that there’s nothing to be lost and only glory to gain, then prudent assessments of the situation and best way forward remain valuable and necessary. To that end:

1) The conservative prospect is, in many ways, grim, but that state of affairs is the rule, not the exception. No one joins Team Conservative in the belief it’s an easy path to foreordained victory. Those who designate themselves “conservatives” strongly imply by that choice an abiding sense of precariousness and difficulty, of the need to defend legacies unlikely to prevail or endure without constant support.

But the situation, like nearly every situation, is not simple. Nor do the facts all point in one direction, justifying one and only one conclusion. There are good reasons to think that conservatives in 2016 have quite a lot to lose, rather than nothing. The proportion of GOP state legislators is the highest in over 80 years. Likewise, the U.S. House of Representatives has more Republican members than at any time since the New Deal. Republicans have held House majorities for 18 of the 22 years since 1994, and Senate majorities for just over half that period. The modest conservative accomplishments secured by these majorities result more from a lack of skill than a lack of will. In many cases, such as ill-judged, counterproductive government shutdowns, the defect is too much rather than too little zeal. These problems won’t be fixed easily…but they won’t be fixed at all by a strategic miscalculation that consigns the GOP to the minority status it endured on Capitol Hill for the six decades before 1994.

Nor is it clear that present political trends compel conservatives to make now-or-never choices. The co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002) has come to see an “emerging Republican advantage.” Not only are whites with college degrees—a large, important swing group—increasingly likely to vote Republican, but demographic extrapolations that assume a less white America must become a more liberal one are anything but sure bets. As another Democratic analyst recently cautioned, it’s possible over coming decades that “as Latinos assimilate and intermarry, they will move from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, following a trail blazed in the past by many ‘white ethnic’ voters of European descent, including Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans.”

In short, there’s no compelling reason to stop making the normal judgments about how many votes are likely to be gained or lost by a particular candidate or proposal. The usual imperatives remain: to make the best determinations about incomplete, ambiguous facts; to consider short-term and long-term concerns; to weigh rewards against risks.

2) And the risks to conservatism posed by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign are considerable, especially if he wins in November. As Ross Douthat argued in response to “The Flight 93 Election,” a failed, unpopular president can harm his party in ways beyond the capacities of its most determined political opponents. Chances are, there will be a United States of America for some time after the 2016 elections, and there will still be elections for conservatives to wage and win in 2018, 2020, and beyond. And chances are that President Trump will be as volatile and vindictive, as lightly informed and unjustifiably self-assured, as the novice politician we have marveled and cringed at during the past year. The scenario makes policy and political defeats more likely than victories. “What’ve you got to lose?” is always put forward as a rhetorical question, but often turns out to be a real one, with specific, serious answers.

3) Meanwhile, Trump’s offsetting benefits to conservatism are uncertain. Decius offers a long, plausible list of the republic’s afflictions. America suffers from declining “virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, [and] character,” the breakdown of “societal norms and public order,” the loss of “initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift.” Our people are beset by “paternalistic Big Government.” We confront “inanities like 32 ‘genders,’ elective bathrooms, single-payer, Iran sycophancy, ‘Islamophobia,’ and Black Lives Matter.”

Stipulating all that for the sake of the argument does nothing to clarify how a Trump presidency remedies the afflictions catalogued in this sprawling diagnosis. Indeed, since many items on the list are social trends or crackpot ideas, it’s not clear how any president can reverse the damage being done. “How small, of all that human hearts endure,” wrote Oliver Goldsmith, “that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” Conservatives invoke this axiom to rebuke liberal social planners, but it also calls into question whether political activity can effect moral and social regeneration. And to whatever extent Americans still look to presidents to lead and inspire through word and deed, Trump’s capacity to advance such causes as virtue, morality, religious faith, and stability is exceptionally doubtful.

4) Connecting Trump’s emergence to adverse social trends does, however, inadvertently clarify this political year’s remarkable trajectory. The long campaign became a vehicle for expressing dissatisfactions neither presidential nor even governmental. In particular, there is a noteworthy symmetry between the Black Lives Matter movement, which succeeded in cowing Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the Democratic contest, and Trump populism, which fueled an intra-Republican coup d’état. Explicit in the former, implicit in the latter, has been the emphatic rejection of “respectability politics.”

The term, always wielded scornfully, repudiates being on one’s best behavior as a precondition for full participation in social and political life. In this view, disruptive, confrontational, and “transgressive” postures are worthwhile in themselves, even if such conduct is unconnected to any policy agenda, does nothing to advance one, or actually weakens the prospects for enacting one. Malcolm X, the guiding spirit of Black Lives Matter, did not become a hero due to any seven-point policy proposals, but because his rhetoric and bearing validated defiant indifference to whites’ expectations of blacks, and whites’ assumptions that they’re entitled to impose such expectations.

The Trump populists, in the same way, had no objection to their candidate’s hazy, half-baked, sometimes contradictory policy proposals. What mattered was that he was the walking antithesis of the most recent Republican presidential nominee, the ultra-respectable Mitt Romney, and of a conservatism reluctant to incur liberals’ disapproval. The Trump populists understood that the self-appointed arbiters of respectability, our century’s reigning Legion of Decency, was running a scam. Before the 2012 election, for example, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman described Romney as a “charlatan” who was “completely amoral,” a “dangerous fool,” and “ignorant as well as uncaring.” In June 2016, three months after writing that Trump was no worse, really, than such GOP opponents as Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, Krugman complained that Republicans were rallying around Donald Trump “just as if he were a normal candidate.” Only now, when liberals have run out of thesaurus entries that would convey, “No, this time we really mean it,” has a Democratic operative who worked on the 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign regretted formerly castigating Republicans with language that was “hyperbolic and inappropriate and cheap.”

In short, liberals’ operative understanding of “respectable conservatism” is that it either means nothing, being a contradiction in terms, or means something…namely, a political disposition indistinguishable from liberalism. Such blatant, self-serving inconsistency is of a piece with the larger character of our era’s liberalism: activists and intellectuals’ tender consciences are so lacerated by social wrongs that they stay up night after night, devising the necessary sacrifices and atonements to be discharged by other people.

This morally bankrupt fusion of the self-righteous and the self-serving finds its consummate avatar in Hillary Clinton, who gets up “every single day” to fight for working people. Somedays these fights require giving a speech at Goldman Sachs for $225,000. Other times they involve learning about the problems of working people from her daughter Chelsea, whose prodigious journalistic accomplishments and skills landed her a $600,000-a-year, part-time job at NBC News.

5) The search for a non-heroic, merely prudent argument to vote for Donald Trump this November comes, then, to the inevitable destination: Hillary Clinton. More specifically, it comes to the realization that: a) Mrs. Clinton is likely to be the next president, despite her resourceful, determined efforts to lose a race said to be hers to lose; and b) she is even likelier, if elected, to be a very bad president.

There’s no prudential requirement to disregard Donald Trump’s shortcomings (or deny his strengths). The statesmanship incumbent upon a republic’s citizens calls for choosing, even—especially—when the choices are between bad and worse. Elections, in other words, are not occasions for refining and publicizing one’s moral hygiene.

Some “NeverTrump” conservatives have forthrightly endorsed Hillary Clinton as the less bad alternative. Others, however, are dodgier. Peter Wehner recently offered a long essay responding to conservatives who believe Trump is less “deeply flawed” than Clinton. What ensued was a “Comprehensive Case Against Donald Trump” that exhaustively catalogued the reasons he’s “manifestly unfit to be president.” But Wehner’s cryptic, parenthetical coda to his “overwhelming case” against Trump is that there’s also an overwhelming case against Clinton, “who is an ethical wreck, untrustworthy and a woman of the left who has amassed a record of failure over her career.” If both nominees are manifestly unfit, the question—left unanswered—is which overwhelming case is more overwhelming.

6) Prudence compels reflection on an additional consideration: your vote isn’t going to decide this year’s contest, and neither is mine. 131 million Americans cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election, and 129 million did in 2012. Donald Trump’s defeat, or victory, will unfold regardless of how many people read this article, or those by Decius, or any of the thousands of other assessments and rants offered by the conservative opinion industry.

The realization of our small powers in this big country is deflating, perhaps, but also liberating. None of us has any reason to be tormented by the thought that our votes, words, or donations of time and money will make us responsible for a manifestly unfit occupant in the Oval Office. The pertinent question is not about which nominee would be the better or worse president, a collective decision beyond any of our powers to alter, but about the faint message conveyed by our solitary voice and vote.

Expecting a Clinton victory, I’ll vote for her opponent in the hope that placing my grain of sand on his dune rather than hers will, however slightly, chasten rather than incite her administration. For this purpose, Trump’s unpleasantness is actually advantageous: narrowly defeating a reviled alternative is more humiliating than winning by the same margin against a respected one.

In the unlikely but not incomprehensible event that Trump wins the presidency, I’ll take comfort from the knowledge that my blame for any attendant unpleasantness over the ensuing four years will be infinitesimal compared to hers. Any and all of President Trump’s scandals and blunders will remind Americans that the Democrats of 2016 saw fit to nominate the one politician so false, abrasive, and inept that she could lose a general election to that opponent.

Finally, despite the wide applicability of Raymond Aron’s rule—“What passes for optimism is most often the effect of an intellectual error”—it is also possible that President Trump’s successes will outnumber his failures. My crystal ball about what he might actually do in office is as opaque as the next fortune-teller’s, but the shock of his election could have some salutary effects on the nation’s angry but stagnant debates. Conservatives will know things about their coalition that, as recently as 2015, they did not. A conservative brief concerned less with “makers and takers” and more with “the protected and the unprotected” could herald moral, intellectual, and political progress. Liberals, by the same token, might interpret the success Trump achieved as a fierce detractor of political correctness to be a strong hint that the country is completely sick of leftist sanctimony and hectoring. Should both developments occur, Trump’s election will deliver some of what Barack Obama’s promised but couldn’t: a United States of America that transcends and envelopes a red America and a blue America.