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.
- Left-Leaning Bias in Ethics Textbooks - April 13, 2017
- I Value Guns because I Value Life - February 10, 2017
- Gun Rights are not God-Given - December 7, 2016
- Election Reflection VI: Daniel von Wachter - November 27, 2016
- Election Reflection V: Philippe Lemoine - November 26, 2016
- Election Reflection IV: Harold Fine - November 23, 2016
- Election Reflection III: Spencer Case - November 22, 2016
- Election Reflection II: John Kekes - November 21, 2016
- Election Reflection I: William F. Vallicella - November 20, 2016
- Congratulations, Donald J. Trump - November 9, 2016