Election Reflection III: Spencer Case

Today’s post by Spencer Case (University of Colorado, Boulder) is the third of a six-part series, each featuring invited reflections from a number of right-of-center philosophers. These philosophers are otherwise not associated with Rightly Considered and should not be assumed to hold views expressed by anyone else on this blog.

Case is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a 2012-13 Fulbright grant recipient to Egypt, and a former Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute. He writes for National Review.

Donald Trump’s presidential victory dealt an unexpected blow to progressive confidence, shattered the ambitions of Hillary Clinton, and restored Republican dominance just as many were declaring that party’s imminent demise. What’s not for a conservative to love about this outcome? Unfortunately, I think, quite a lot.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, commenting on the Mexican-American War, famously said, “Mexico will poison us.” He meant that although the United States had the military power to conquer Mexico, the victory, which predictably led to an expansion of slavery, would in the long run be morally corrosive to the nation. A Republican may similarly worry that this electoral victory will, in the fullness of time, be deleterious to the conservative values that the Republican Party is supposed to promote.

The man who will soon occupy this nation’s highest office, and lead one of the nation’s two major political parties, is devoid of conservative – and perhaps any – principles. He’s essentially an id with a mouth. Whatever else is wrong with Clinton, she cannot threaten the Republican Party from within as Trump can. Now that Trump is the leader of the Republican Party – which, for all its imperfections, is the only vehicle for advancing a conservative political agenda nationally – he is in a position to radically transform it for the worse.

This transformation may already be underway. Trump is orienting the party away from free trade and limited government and toward a kind of statist neo-mercantilism that Adam Smith would abhor. And, though he is by no means the only guilty party, Trump is lowering the party’s – and the nation’s – standards of civil discourse. To take one of uncountably many examples: Trump likened former Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson to “a child molester, a sick puppy” and insinuated that he should be castrated.

Perhaps most disturbing is Trump’s flirtation with the so-called “alt-right,” a shadowy, mostly online cultural movement that punishes critics with loathsome trolling tactics. The alt-right urges white people to engage in exactly the kind of racial identity politics of the kind that conservatives have consistently opposed. The idea that “white racial consciousness” is a thing that we must cultivate has an unlovely past. It is unlikely bring anything but strife, sorrow, and – quite possibly – horror in the future. The alt-right’s anti-Semitism, which includes a tendency to make light of the holocaust, is also appalling. One popular alt-right podcast is called “The Daily Shoah” (Shoah means “holocaust” in Hebrew and French).

The alt-rightists are ostensibly opposed to political correctness. That doesn’t make them friends of conservatives any more than the jihadists fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan were friends of the United States. They are at best allies of convenience – “frienemies,” as Benjamin Netanyahu once characterized America’s ambivalent relationship with Saudi Arabia. I doubt that they are even that. If an energized alt-right movement manages to metastasize and gain a significant foothold in the Republican Party, the prognosis for conservatives, and for the country at large, will be grim.

Conservatives should therefore see a victory with Donald Trump as a poisoned victory. Is that better than defeat? Thoughtful conservatives can disagree on good faith. Although I find the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency odious, I remain unconvinced by the arguments that are supposed to show that a Trump presidency is all-things-considered preferable. Many are persuaded by the logic that while a Hillary Clinton presidency will assuredly be awful, Trump is a wildcard, so there’s at least some hope. This viewpoint was (somewhat notoriously) articulated in a pseudonymous article for the Claremont Review of Books called “The Flight 93 Election.” It begins thus:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

“Publius Decius Mus” goes on to lambast the Republican establishment who are not whole-heartedly backing Trump for their supposed death wish.  The argument we can tease out of this melodrama appears self-defeating to me. If the nation is currently so enervated that it could not survive a Hillary Clinton presidency, then it’s probably beyond saving, irredeemable by any mortal leader. If the analogy is apt, there’s probably no point in voting for Trump, anyway. Furthermore, how can anyone prognosticate with certainty that a Clinton presidency would mean doom? 2016 is the year of Brexit and the Trump victory. Who knows what surprising events might have obtained under a Clinton presidency.

Much of the doom-mongering about the right’s long-term prospects proceeds from the assumption that currently Democratic voting blocs will remain Democratic. But political ideology is not genetically transmitted. Republicans lost the black vote after Barry Goldwater opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A similar misstep by the Democrats could conceivably lead to a mass exodus of Asian, black or Hispanic voters. Our confidence that such a tectonic event won’t occur doesn’t approximate our confidence that putting an automatic weapon to your temple and pulling the trigger results in death.

The idea that voters in 2016 were faced with a “Flight 93 election” suggests that in voting for Trump you have nothing to lose (this is especially brought out in the Roulette analogy). There is a wide range of possibilities for how either Trump or Clinton might perform as president. Are we to believe that, among the many possibilities, there is no plausible scenario in which a Trump presidency could be worse than a Clinton presidency? To the person who says he cannot imagine this, I say: Your partisanship constrains your imagination.

Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy track record is hardly inspiring. She showed miserable judgment in June of 2012 when she implicitly endorsed Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidate for the Egyptian presidency. She was also, I believe, responsible for the inadequate security at the Benghazi compound the night of the September 11, 2012 attack, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Trump is only now being granted the opportunity to make such mistakes. Imagine that India and Pakistan come to the brink of nuclear exchange. Are you sure that the brash, undiplomatic reality TV star with no political experience would handle the potentially world-ending crisis better than a President Hillary Clinton? I am not – Benghazi notwithstanding.

For conservatives, this election was a painful one. I reiterate my opinion that an intelligent conservative could in good conscience have voted for either Trump or Clinton. I voted for Gary Johnson hoping for the improbable outcome that neither Clinton nor Trump would achieve the 270 electoral votes needed to become president, and that the American people would have a chance of getting a leader worthy of them. Because this outcome was so very unlikely, my vote was effectively an abstention. But the die is now cast. Let us hope that Republicans can make the most of their poisoned victory.

Natural Lawyer

Natural Lawyer is the lead editor of Rightly Considered. He teaches philosophy somewhere in the southwestern United States.

View All Posts


  1. “The alt-right urges white people to engage in exactly the kind of racial identity politics of the kind that conservatives have consistently opposed. ”

    You mean a group of mostly useless wonks whose “movement” dates back to somewhere around the 1970s (because before that a lot of them opposed the “civil rights” legislation, desegregation, etc.) Those “conservatives”? Yes, a venerable movement indeed. One should be wary of disagreeing with such a tradition of wisdom.

    “Republicans lost the black vote after Barry Goldwater opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A similar misstep by the Democrats could conceivably lead to a mass exodus of Asian, black or Hispanic voters.”

    Yes, if we just pander enough to them at enormous costs to white people, maybe we can get their votes! Sounds like a great “conservative” path to victory.

    • Dear Criticus,

      You write,

      “Yes, if we just pander enough to them at enormous costs to white people, maybe we can get their votes! Sounds like a great “conservative” path to victory.”

      This is a straw man. I said only that the Democrats shouldn’t assume that all of these groups will always consistently vote the way that they want. I suggested that, for all we know, the Democrats might do something so odious as to drive these groups away. Do you think that’s not possible?

    • The question isn’t whether it’s possible. It’s whether it’s remotely likely; and, more relevantly, whether it was remotely possible under the open borders scheme for which Hillary was pushing. And the answer is obviously: no. Her plan would have (intentionally) flooded the country with millions more low-skilled immigrants and, through insane anchor baby and family reunification policies, given citizenship to millions more who overwhelmingly vote for socialistic policies.

    • The question is whether it’s possible if the argument for Trump is that Hillary Clinton means certain doom, but with Trump there’s at least some hope. That’s the argument that I keep hearing. If there were no comparable risks on the other side then what you said would be a pretty compelling argument in favor of voting for whomever opposes Hillary. But I don’t think that’s the case.

  2. I suppose maybe Case couldn’t have been expected to write anything other than this and retain his employment.

    A pretty uninspiring and weakly reasoned hatchet job in my opinion, and I say this as someone who finds Trump to be basically heinous.

    I’m just hopeful that the Donald surrounds himself with solid people who will do good for America. I would not have any cause for such hope under Clinton, which for me at least made Trump the clear choice.

  3. “The idea that ‘white racial consciousness’ is a thing that we must cultivate has an unlovely past.”

    It’s also true that Christianity and politics and democracy and science “has an unlovely past”. It’s also true that white racial consciousness was an essential part of American history and western civilization until very recently.

    After decades of propaganda and lies meant to create an entirely negative racial identity for whites, and whites alone, yes we do need to cultivate a more healthy and positive racial identity. In this time and place, telling white people not to be conscious of their racial identity (or not to cultivate it) just means that they will end up being _hyper_ conscious of the false and evil racial identity that has been constructed for them. It means they’ll go and see hate-filled anti-white racial propaganda in the movies and accept the false guilt that Hollywood wants them to feel. It means their children will absorb years of anti-white racist propaganda and come out thinking their race is uniquely guilty and evil. And it means that, as a result, whites will continue to be the only race that does nothing to protect itself or advance its interests.

    • Christianity and science and politics have mixed histories, which is the most you can expect from human endeavors. White supremacy has a negative history, as is true with all forms of racism What has it brought us that competes with the successes of science? What outweighs the evils of slavery, genocide, etc.? Being skeptical of left wing notions of progress doesn’t mean holding on to all of the past.

    • Hi Spencer. I think that what is now called “white supremacy” was common sense throughout most of western civilization. Lincoln and Jefferson were “white supremacists” by today’s standards and would not have thought or acted as they did if thet hadn’t been. So either “white supremacy” also has a mixed past, not a purely negative one, or else the western civilization conservatives such as you claim to uphold is also a very dark and ugly thing that should be rejected.

      It could be argued that white racial consciousness was an essential aspect of science, western art and philosophy, the creation of European forms of government and culture in North America, etc. So the comparison you’re making may be less clear than yiu think.

      In any case, you seem to be changing the subject. You wrote of white racial consciousness, or the wish to cultivate it; now you’re critiquing notions of white supremacy. These are very different things. I am a racially conscious white person, with a pro-white rather than anti-white perspective. Why does that make me a supremacist? Maybe you could explain what the term means to you.

    • The US surely could not have been anything like the historic society or nation that it was if its population had not been majority white. And it wouldn’t have been majority white had its leaders and citizens not been conscious of their racial identity. (E.g., restricting immigration and citizenship on racial grounds.) Therefore white racial consciousness played an essential role in the creation of the historic society and nation you wish to conserve.

    • Lincoln and Jefferson accomplished great things despite their white supremacism not because of it. How would their contributions be diminished if they were not racists? I recognize the conceptual distinction between separatism an supremacy. But usually the supremacy is part of the explanation for why the separatists are separatists. And I don’t believe that either white supremacy or separatism has anything to do with the successes of science, for goodness sake.

    • “And I don’t believe that either white supremacy or separatism has anything to do with the successes of science”

      So, you think that you could just plug in any racial groups to, say, Renaissance Europe, and you’d see the same cultural and scientific achievements?

    • “How would their contributions be diminished if they were not racists?”

      One example: In many states voting was restricted to property owning white men. Jefferson was in favor of this, right? It’s very plausible that the USA could never have become a great nation, for a time, without such “racist” policies. For example, we can see all around us what happens when low IQ uneducated populations who contribute nothing to society get the vote. And it’s very plausible that (positive) white racial consciousness played a role in the thinking and customs that enabled such policies, and that Jefferson’s “contributions” to his country and society were at least partly based on such consciousness.

    • “And I don’t believe that either white supremacy or separatism has anything to do with the successes of science, for goodness sake.”

      If you agree that a good part of Western Civilization
      derives from the Greeks, it is pretty unlikely that Greek art, philosophy, science and mathematics could have flowered as it did without slavery which allowed an elite leisure class to flourish. It was not race based, but it was certainly ethno-supremacist. And many of the wars of Athens were conducted to obtain more slaves from passive non-Greek populations. Most historians think at least half of the Greek population consisted of slaves. Separating acheivements from supremacism seems like a difficult proposition.

  4. I, for one, appreciate Case’s comments. I disagree, although I can’t really give a good counter-argument myself. I do find the point about the SCOTUS made by many others as a good argument. Any chance Case could respond to this?

  5. Billy,

    I agree that the Supreme Court is one reason for a conservative to vote Trump. I’m just not convinced that it outweighs all the countervailing reasons. A conservative Supreme Court and a non-conservative leader unmaking the GOP from within doesn’t seem like an obvious net gain to me. Like I said, I think reasonable people can disagree.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Weekend Reading – The Ordeal of Consciousness

Leave a Reply (Be sure to read our comment disclaimer)