Think of the Donald Trump campaign as an orange-toupeed battle elephant lumbering forward amidst volleys of arrows. The latest and perhaps most powerful projectile to date was that video showing Trump making abominable comments about sexual assault back in 2005, and while it hasn’t felled the behemoth, the pace of advance has been slowed even further. The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll gives Hillary Clinton an 11-point lead, Trump’s weakest showing to date.
The video has triggered a Republican diaspora away from Trump, with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan refusing to campaign and dozens more dropping their endorsements. This is farcical: Trump has made dozens of psychotic statements while the GOP stood stolidly by, yet only now do they come down with the vapors? I would have been more surprised if Trump, the amoral goon, hadn’t joked about sexual assault, which is why I’ve been #NeverTrump since his immigrant-constructed elevator first crash-landed in this race.
But better late than never. To Republicans who are coming around, I say: welcome. First round’s on me.
Those who remain aboard the Trump Train harrumph that, while Trump might have used some coarse words over a decade ago, those of us who condemn him for it are at greater fault because we’re engaged in moral preening. And because this is a binary choice, that makes us de facto cheerleaders for Hillary Clinton, the most blackhearted homo sapien ever to trod this earth, whose election will plunge us into tribulations that even John of Patmos couldn’t fathom.
To which I respond: yes and no. Yes to the part about how we’re making moral arguments. It can be difficult to remember after 18 months of Trumpian pollution, but we conservatives used to be a rather moralizing bunch. We believed America’s elected offices were privileged positions that should be reserved for the virtuous, not just as a tenet of civic religion, but because immoral and capricious lawmakers are more likely to abuse their power and threaten liberty. On this, we were reinforced by tradition: Federalist 68 warns that “talents for low intrigue” aren’t compatible with the presidency, and George Washington once declared: “Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
Presumably, that rules out mocking a woman journalist’s menstrual cycle, superintending a fraudulent online university, and stiffing the illegal immigrants who built your skyscraper. If calling such behavior unpresidential makes me a prig, then let me strap on my bonnet.
As for the charge that we’re somehow electing Hillary Clinton, no. Pro-Trump Republicans did that by nominating a comically unqualified bottled water merchant for the presidency. Voters aren’t obligated to back anyone; it’s incumbent on political parties to present them with candidates who they’ll find palatable. Were Republicans to offer up a malfunctioning lawnmower as their presidential nominee, they couldn’t then petulantly blame voters for not backing the sputtering device on grounds that the Democrat was corrupt. They would own that failure. The Trump supporters own theirs.
Voting, like governing, is a moral act, your little slice of power over your fellow countrymen, to be exercised wisely lest it wreak havoc on others. It is also an affirmative action rather than a negative one: the boxes on your ballot paper are blank and you assent to one because you support him or her. The entails a responsibility on your part not to attach your name to a candidate who you think will be destructive for the country—one who’s fond of Vladimir Putin, say, and has a chilling fascination with nuclear weapons—even if it means voting third-party or abstaining entirely.
Trump’s Republican defenders have been driven so batty by Hillary Clinton that in order to bar her from the White House they’re willing to barter away everything: their policies (not supported by Trump), their positions (repeatedly waffled upon by Trump), their virtue (“grab her by the p–sy”), ultimately their souls. Perhaps this Faustian bargain can still propel their pachyderm into the White House, but if that happens the GOP for the next four years will be refashioned as the Party of Trump, grafted to him and vitiated by him, until it stands, as he does, for nothing more than what’s necessary to strike a deal.
America will endure its second President Clinton, as terrible as she’ll be. But the American right may very well not survive a President Trump. The stakes are clear and they are moral.