Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he has never lied to the families of dead servicemen. He has not committed himself to appointing to the Supreme Court left-wing justices who would protect a right to abortion found nowhere in the Constitution. He is not promising to raise taxes, or endorsing President Obama’s unconstitutional amnesty and pledging to expand it.
And say what you will about Hillary Clinton, but she has never mocked someone’s disability, or tried to link a political rival to the JFK assassination, or encouraged political violence. She has not promised to launch a trade war. She has not said she would order troops to commit war crimes against innocent people.
Trump vs. Clinton is a dismal set of election choices for Americans and especially for conservatives. So it is not surprising that conservatives are divided about what to do. Most are backing Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee. Others — especially among conservative writers, activists, and think-tankers — say they will never vote for him. This minority is further divided: Some say that they will vote for the candidate of a third party (maybe the Libertarians, or a new party), and some even say they will vote for Clinton.
This debate splits people who have heretofore been friends with similar views on almost all issues, and who on each side have reasonable arguments to hand. It is therefore being conducted in a spirit of mutual rage, bitterness, and contempt. Trump supporters cannot believe that some conservatives would rather see Clinton in office than support the Republican nominee — and that they deny that their lack of support for him amounts to effective support for her, and all her prospective works. These supporters admit, many of them, that Trump has serious flaws. But their uncertainty about what he would do in any given situation translates into a certainty that he would do better than she.
They allow that Trump’s promise to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court cannot be wholly trusted. Getting them confirmed would take a fight, and he has shown very little interest in the issues, from the protection of religious liberty to the restoration of democratic authority over abortion, that it would involve.
But any Clinton nominees, they note, are guaranteed to be left-wing activists. Anti-Trump conservatives, on the other hand, argue that a President Trump would do more profound and long-lasting damage to conservatism than a President Clinton would. Her liberal initiatives would elicit nearly uniform opposition from Republicans; his would split them. He would make the Republican party less conservative while simultaneously discrediting conservatism with large portions of the public, possibly for many years.
For many of Trump’s critics, though, these concerns are not the decisive ones. If they merely disagreed with him on trade and entitlement reform, they would still strongly favor him over Clinton. But they think his morals and personality make him not merely flawed but unfit for the presidency. He is cruel, impulsive, petty, and insecure; he admires dictators; he undermines standards against political violence and bigotry. Some conservatives who work in foreign policy have already declared a preference for Clinton. In part that is because Trump sometimes makes Buchananite noises. But even people who disagree with Pat Buchanan on foreign policy have to admit that he has given some serious attention to the topic, as has Clinton. Trump acts as though bluster is all a president needs.
For many conservatives, then, the choice of which candidate to put in the Oval Office — Trump or Clinton — is a difficult and painful one. What might make it easier is that individual voters are not really in the position of having to make that decision. When John Bolton endorsed Trump, he said that the election presented voters with a “binary choice.” That may be true for them collectively.
Barring a strong third-party run, which is not showing any sign of happening, the next president will be either Trump or Clinton. But from the standpoint of an individual, conservative or otherwise, the choice in the ballot booth is not nearly so fraught. Arguments over whom you should vote for usually ask you to picture yourself as the deciding vote: to imagine that your vote will swing your state and the election. It is a useful exercise of the imagination insofar as it encourages you to take your vote seriously. But the imagined picture is obviously false: The probability that your vote will determine the winner cannot meaningfully be distinguished from zero. (And that probability diminishes still further if any candidate has a wide lead going into the election.) Political theorists have had a hard time coming up with convincing explanations for why people should vote given that fact.
Any explanation has to start with the idea that voting is, first and foremost, an expressive act. It expresses what the voter values and prioritizes; what he wills for his country. The fact that individual voters have almost no effect on the outcome of an election should make anti-Trump conservatives feel less pressure to vote for Clinton, and anti-Clinton conservatives less pressure to vote for Trump. They may accept that one of them will be president.
But in the special, and, let’s hope, not to be repeated circumstances of this year, they may reasonably decide that they will not join their will to either outcome: that if either one of them will be president, they at least will not be formally complicit in elevating one of them.
No voter is under any moral obligation to judge whether Trump or Clinton is the lesser evil. Refusing to vote for either one of them — by writing someone in, voting third party, or voting only for other offices — need not be an evasion of reality or a shirking of civic duty. It may be the right choice, at least if it is combined with tolerance for conservatives who make different judgments in this dismal year.