The political class doesn’t excel at long-term thinking and anticipation of contingencies. Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton has been an obvious possibility for months now, yet its sudden shift toward inevitably this week prompted reactions typically reserved for truly unforeseeable events. These responses, short-sighted themselves, are plainly unsustainable for the six-month slog to come.
Republican senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire sprinted from the gate with plans to support Trump—but not endorse him. Such a bizarre formulation wouldn’t survive a 15-second cocktail conversation, let alone months of media scrutiny. Similar myopias will soon produce comparable ridiculousness from many a communications director.
The choices aren’t complicated: support Trump, support Clinton, support someone else with the understanding that you’re likely leaving the choice of winner to those supporting either Trump or Clinton, or declare yourself undecided while the race ripens. The complicated part is the first-order question, unique to a party so deeply divided over its own nominee: how many of these choices should be acceptable on the right, both morally and politically? Or, when isn’t it despicable to support someone you find despicable?
Within hours of Senator Ted Cruz’s withdrawal from the presidential race, National Review’s David French declared it “disgraceful” and “shame[ful]” to fall in line behind Trump. A few hours later, frequent National Review contributor Mark Krikorian declared voting for Clinton dishonorable. Meanwhile, Ben Howe, contributing editor at RedState, was tweeting “#ImWithHer” and foreswearing any future political support for Bobby Jindal, because the Louisiana governor has endorsed Trump.
Such views are shared by countless others now rushing to their respective ramparts. But as should be obvious to anyone who thinks ahead—even a couple of days ahead, let alone all the way to November—holding on to any of these positions for the long-term is untenable. Many intelligent and well-meaning conservatives are about to conclude that Donald Trump, no matter how much they dislike him, is better for America than Hillary Clinton. Others are about to conclude the opposite. They will reach different judgments about the candidates’ respective character traits. They will make different assumptions about which policies each candidate will pursue (and could implement) in office and which would be most disastrous. Some will place greatest priority on keeping a man like Trump away from power at all costs. Others will worry more about four or eight additional years of left-leaning Supreme Court nominations and executive actions, perhaps backed by an agreeable Congress. Can anyone say for sure which candidate will leave the America of 2024 in worse shape?
Some say that the conservative movement is best served by holding together the GOP in its current form. Others say that putting party over principle undermines everything conservatives should stand for. Some will try to engage with the Trump campaign, hoping to shape its platform and coach its principal. Others will feel obligated to withhold that support. Regardless of which candidate one judges the lesser of two evils, the third-party option will demand further judgment still—the latest round in a timeless debate over the meaning and obligations of a vote. Some will choose to back their preferred candidate regardless of the implications for the election’s outcome. Some will hold their nose and vote Trump to stop Clinton, or vice-versa.
If everyone must choose between two evils, we should hesitate to declare others evil simply for making a choice. Each person must draw his own red lines. But classifying an issue as one on which reasonable people cannot disagree—shifting to the rhetoric of moral judgment—is hard to reverse. At the outset of a campaign where so many reasonable people are poised to disagree, it seems unwise.
Play forward these next six months through the lens of a media thirsty for blood. Are you prepared to condemn anyone who reaches a different conclusion than your own in this election? Will you also condemn anyone who is undecided, because the implication that one could make the wrong choice is bad enough? What will you do when your boss, your friend, or your coauthor speaks in favor of the candidate you have declared verboten? What will you do when, four years from now, someone on the other side of the fence becomes your otherwise-preferred presidential candidate?
Can you ever again support Ayotte or Jindal, given that they are Trump supporters? If not, how about someone who does support them—how far does toxicity spread? And if you declare support for Trump not just incorrect but wrong, then aren’t the protestors shutting down his rallies on the side of justice? If supporting Clinton is wrong, are you prepared to go to bat for The Donald no matter what he says about her?
Disagreement is healthy. It sharpens and strengthens and teaches. Condemnation we should use only with extreme care. By all means, condemn the candidates; they are accountable for themselves. But spare those forced to grapple with the same terrible choice as you. For some, the balance tilts another way.
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