Andy Schmookler: What should a morally responsible Republican do now?
This is not addressed to those Republicans who think Donald Trump is an appropriate kind of person to be president of the United States. If you like what you see, go ahead and vote for him.
It is addressed rather, to those Republicans who have regarded Mr. Trump unfavorably because they saw him as lacking the character and temperament necessary for our nation’s highest office. (Reports indicated not so long ago that quite a few Republicans felt that way.)
I would like to ask those Republicans: Given what you saw about your party’s nominee, can you now vote for him?
Three reasons occur to me why you might.
1. As you’ve seen more of Trump, you’ve changed your mind about what kind of person he is.
This would surprise me, as his conduct has been rather consistent. Although some expected Trump would shift toward acting “presidential” once he had the nomination sown up, he has done nothing of the sort. So why would anyone change their mind?
2. Supporting your party’s nominee is a matter of party loyalty.
Loyalty is surely a virtue, and I recognize that it is one especially emphasized among Republicans. But isn’t loyalty to country a greater virtue than loyalty to party? If you judge your party’s standard bearer as potentially threatening the well-being of America, does it make moral sense to put allegiance to party first?
Back in the dark days of Watergate, among the heroes of that time was the Republican senator from Tennessee, Howard Baker. What gave Baker lasting luster – years later he was brought in to be Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff – was that he put nation ahead of party. For the good of his country, Baker pursued the question about his own party’s leader, President Nixon: “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
Should not voters who see the dangers to the nation of a Donald Trump in the Oval Office act on the same priority: “country first”?
For Republican office-holders, the dilemma is more complex than for voters. For them, protecting the nation would be at the expense not only of party loyalty but also, at least potentially, of their own personal ambitions. If they reject the nominee of their party, will they be punished by their partisan supporters?
For moral guidance on such choices, one can turn to another Republican hero from those troubled times of Watergate: Elliot Richardson.
Richardson was attorney general when his president, Richard Nixon, ordered him to fire the special prosecutor (Archibald Cox) who was closing in on Nixon’s crimes and abuses of power. Rather than subvert our national ideals of the rule of law, Richardson resigned. It was Richardson’s willingness to sacrifice his own power and ambition to honor what is best about our nation that makes him a hero.
Should not all Republican office-holders who see Trump as someone who would degrade our political heritage be willing, if necessary, to make such a sacrifice?
3. Finally, you might support Trump because withholding your support would indirectly support his opponent, and you hate Hillary Clinton.
However valid or invalid your reasons for hating Hillary may be, there’s one point I would assert: the nation would emerge from four years of a Hillary Clinton presidency entirely recognizable as the nation we have known. With Trump, there is no such assurance.
Hillary is clearly a centrist. Her ideas are entirely mainstream. Her approach is “incrementalist” – slow progress a step at a time. American politics as usual.
As for what Trump might leave behind, consider this: How much, and in what ways, did Trump’s presence affect the tone and quality of the Republican presidential contest? (Do you imagine that Marco Rubio imagined, when he decided to run, that he’d end up casting aspersions on the side of his opponent’s genitals?)
How would you like it if Trump had the same effect on our entire national discourse for some years? And how readily could such damage be undone? Add to that the question of the possible consequences of having our armed forces and nuclear arsenal commanded by a man who likes to pick fights, to insult opponents, and at all costs to come out on top.
In the face of such risks, would it not be morally more responsible to accept, for a short time, what you find distasteful than to support what you know might do lasting damage to America?
Andrew Bard Schmookler – the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012 – is the author of “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World–and How We Can Defeat It.”