Donald Trump is the GOP nominee, and with no significant third party candidate running, the choice Americans will face in November appears to be between him and Hillary Clinton. While many voters are content with one of these options, others — particularly conservative evangelicals — find themselves in an unprecedented position. Americans have long described presidential elections as voting for the “lesser of two evils,” but this choice is something entirely new.
Since many others have already thoroughly outlined the problems with Donald Trump, I won’t repeat them here. Suffice to say, whatever qualms the religious right had with Mitt Romney seem comical compared to the SNL caricature of conservative juvenile authoritarianism found in Trump. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has been seen as the exemplar of the most corrupt, anti-life liberalism since Bill Clinton’s first presidency.
If they’re our two choices, what are we supposed to do? Not voting dishonors those who fought and died for our freedoms, and not voting for Trump is the same as voting for Clinton. Therefore, aren’t we conservatives obligated to hold our nose, vote for Trump, and work to keep him committed to conservative values? What’s a conservative supposed to do in an election that’s stacked against them?The moral pragmatism which says that we must vote for Trump because anything else is a vote for the completely unacceptable Clinton is a false choice.
In light of the serious problems represented by both Trump and Clinton’s presidencies, it would be wise for conservative evangelicals to vote for a third party candidate, write in a name, or vote for no presidential candidate at all.
Many conservatives are uncomfortable with these options because they believe them all to be equivalent to voting for Clinton — a candidate who will almost certainly work to harm the unborn and curtail our freedoms. This is mistaken, however. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton want to coerce you into choosing between them but we have other options.
The defining feature of Trump’s candidacy has been his ability to coerce his opponents on the right into submission, be they politicians, pundits, or regular voters. Trump’s success in the primaries was largely (though not wholly) the result of appealing to the largest demographic in an extremely divided field of candidates. His very high disapproval ratings reveal that he was never really the choice of a majority (or even close to a majority) of conservatives. But the inability of the field to coalesce around a stronger candidate allowed Trump’s devotees to win the day. And as others slowly dropped out, he’s been able to press many of them (e.g., Christie, Carson, and now Rubio) into his service.
Even though most conservatives are repulsed by the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, there’s little we can do about it, so we might as well learn to accept it or we’ll get stuck with the even worse Clinton — or so the thinking goes. Trump knows this and he understands that he doesn’t have to be “conservative” — he doesn’t have to be a good candidate or please conservative voters. All he has to do at this point is not be worse than Clinton in the eyes of most voters.
In this position, Trump can do what he does best: bully. What are you going to do if you don’t like him? Nothing, because you’re too afraid of Clinton — and Trump knows it. After eight years of right-wing media telling us that Obama is literally trying to destroy America, Christians, and freedom, many on the right are ready to vote for anyone with an “R” next to their name. This is exactly why Trump is terrified of a third party run by Ben Sasse or Mitt Romney. They give people an option.
The most distressing aspect of Trump’s bullying has been the way Christians and conservative pundits — pundits who once made their name denouncing the Democrats’ lack of character — have now become Trump’s unofficial stormtroopers, going house to house condemning anyone who refuses to vote for Trump. These followers, themselves having been bullied into support, have turned on their neighbors, warning them of the spiritual and moral obligation to vote, and specifically to vote for Trump.
The moral pragmatism which says that we must vote for Trump because anything else is a vote for the completely unacceptable Clinton is a false choice. Most of us did not choose either of these candidates. That choice was taken out of our hands. And we have no obligation to kowtow to either corrupt, inept, dangerous candidate. Furthermore, we forget that the president is not the only political voice we have; we each also have tremendous power to shape our communities and the nation through congressional, state, and local politics.
But if we submit to this false choice and support Trump, we’ll lose the power to keep him in check in Congress. If Trump knows that he can act this way before he has been elected, why on earth should we imagine that he’ll become wise and just after he’s given more power? Resistance now, in force and united and unrelenting, would lay the groundwork for a principled and effective opposition to a Trump or Clinton presidency. Submission to Trump out of fear of a Clinton presidency will deeply damage our ability to prophetically challenge either of them.
If either one of them is elected, then the goal must be to restrain their overreach through Congress and state governments. Granted, this will be easier to do if Hillary Clinton is the president because there will be no cross pressure to simply fall in line. We’ve already seen how Donald Trump has used the GOP machine to force otherwise level-headed politicians to support him; it’s politically costly to challenge your own party’s leadership. While it’s certainly possible for politicians to offer internal opposition within their party, it’s harder because they have incentives to support the party leader. Conversely, if Clinton is elected, the GOP will be able to easily unite to oppose her when it becomes necessary.
In addition, opposing Trump will set the party up for a healthy future, so long as we clearly articulate an alternative political vision. It will allow us to support GOP politicians who can challenge Trump or Hillary and will position us better for the next election, when voters will be looking for a robust alternative. However, if we support Trump and he wins, we will see (and have already seen) other Republican politicians adopting his policies and rhetoric. To some extent, Trump’s success will initiate a movement in the party towards nationalism, vacuous policies, right-wing identity politics, ambivalence or opposition to social conservatism, and authoritarianism — a move that could effectively kill the party within a decade.
The future of the party are minorities and the young, two groups that tend to have a very deep disgust for Trump’s persona and policies. He is openly antagonistic towards minorities and their political concerns, and his misogyny and arrogance are offensive to most young evangelicals (at least those who have not bought into right-wing identity politics and victimhood). Handing the GOP to Trump will alienate the very people who will be its future. And in that way, a short-term GOP “victory” would lead to a long-term GOP collapse. Strategically, then, if you desire to see the GOP continue long-term as a conservative party, you must not vote for Donald Trump.
There still remains a moral objection: By not voting for Donald Trump, I am effectively voting for Hillary Clinton. This argument is mistaken, however. Not voting for a presidential candidate does not mean you are not voting. You are voting, but just for the offices who have candidates you can support in good conscience. And it will be these offices that can help restrain evil, regardless of who becomes president. To abstain from voting for president in this situation does not mean that you’re aiding the other side. Through the division of powers, you’re still working to prevent evil and injustice in our government; you’re just choosing to do so in a way that does not directly aid that evil and injustice. You’re still fulfilling a civic and moral duty to your neighbor without capitulating to the coercive influence of unjust rulers.
The best option for conservative evangelicals is still to push for a third party candidate and support congressmen and women and governors who will offer a more responsible, just, and hopeful vision of conservatism.
Specifically, we need leaders who will not oppose liberals merely for the sake of signaling their opposition. They must oppose what is unjust and wrong while supporting the true and good, regardless of party. They must be committed to principled pluralism, creating space in the public square for secular and religious citizens to flourish with the minimum of conflicts. In other words, rather than see the cultural war as a battle, they should see it as a negotiation that’s trying to answer the question, “How may we live at peace?” They must listen to and advocate for minorities in our country and defend the sanctity of all life. And they should advocate and support efforts to strengthen local communities as the essential unit of democracy.
This vision of conservatism has the great potential to win over young people and minorities, but more importantly, it will help our country heal. Voting for Donald Trump just to prevent Hillary Clinton from being president will hand over the party to a movement that is toxic to democracy, antithetical to conservatism, and will ultimately do more harm than not voting for president at all. Regrouping, standing firm, and speaking prophetically against Trumpism is not only morally right; it will be the more meaningful victory.