Sunday morning, as I sat in my church’s cafe enjoying a pre-service coffee, a friend and fellow believer took the seat beside me and offered a mischievous smile. He took a moment to frame his words, then launched into politics.
“Did you see my response to your Facebook post this morning?”
I knew immediately which post he was referring to. I had shared an article from The New York Times relating how Republican leaders seek to distance down-ballot candidates from Donald Trump. I had noted that any effort to that effect now was too little too late. You don’t get moral credit for taking a stand when there’s nothing to lose, I wrote.
“I think you might be a little too dogmatic,” my friend offered gently. I invited him to continue.
“Don’t you think that, by being consistently anti-Trump, you might draw attention away from the greater threat to the American people?” He cited claims that recent mysterious deaths had ties to the Clinton campaign, intimating that Hillary might actually kill people. He asked, in essence, why I would oppose Trump if the Republican nominee stands as the only viable alternative. This is, of course, the perpetual question directed at #NeverTrump. Shouldn’t Clinton be opposed at all costs?
A couple different premises lurk unspoken in that question, and in the particular way my friend phrased it. The first premise is that #NeverTrump means anti-Trump. It doesn’t.
If I were anti-Trump, then I would oppose him no matter what he said or did. Certainly, it proves easier to dismiss the #NeverTrump conviction if you regard it that way. But you would be hard pressed to find anyone who meets that description. In truth, the #NeverTrump conviction emerges from an adherence to certain principles, values, and standards. Were Trump to experience a conversion on the proverbial road to Damascus, were he to suddenly yet sincerely strike a completely different tone, were he to become contrite and respectful and embrace real conservative values, his support would instantly skyrocket. I would be first on my feet to applaud him. #NeverTrump is not about opposing the man. It’s about refusing to endorse his conduct and rhetoric. It’s about upholding certain principles, values, and standards. That’s number one.
The second premise involves Clinton herself. She’s a horrible candidate who ought to be opposed, the logic goes. She is horrible, and she should be opposed. But that does not require one to support Donald Trump. An individual’s regard for either candidate should be independent of his regard for the other. I oppose virtually everything that both of these candidates stand for. So why would I support either of them? The onus isn’t upon me, as an individual voter, to distort and shoehorn my values into tepid support for the lesser of two evils. The onus was on the Republican Party to select as its nominee a candidate who could effectively rally support and overwhelm the Clinton machine. The party’s failure to do so places no burden upon me to vote for their candidate anyway. That’s not how this works. You don’t get automatic votes, ever.
In the final analysis, that’s the lesson we need to take away from the Trump train wreck. For years, much faith has been placed in partisan loyalty. You must vote Republican, the argument goes, because the alternative is worse. While there may be some merit to that argument, it’s marginal at best. To make that calculation, the candidate you end up supporting must at least be someone you’re comfortable with. I had major problems with Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, and others. Yet I could support them, because my overall assessment regarded them as decent men whose values broadly aligned with my own. I can’t do that with Trump, and no one gets to tell me that I must. No one gets to tell anyone that they must. Political victory in a free society comes through persuasion, not guilt or coercion. That’s something many Republicans seem to have forgotten.