In the first few weeks after the Republican and Democratic National Conventions this summer, it appeared as if the anti-Trump wings of the conservative movement and the GOP would be granted an all-purpose exemption from their main civic duty this November.
Until about one week ago, Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump was forbidding enough that for all practical purposes, the question was whether Trump would lose badly or in a historic landslide. Under the circumstances, #NeverTrump Republicans, in a mournful I told you so timbre, beseeched the party to cut Trump loose and shore up down ballot races. The question of which presidential candidate they would vote for in the event of a close race seemed largely irrelevant.
Clinton’s lead is still real, but it has shrunk, and worryingly enough that Trump-skeptical conservatives who have played coy about their true preferences thus far can’t responsibly continue to do so. Clinton’s lead may widen again on its own. But continued ambivalence, with polls narrowing, is tantamount to suggesting Clinton and Donald Trump represent comparable risks. For those who know deep-down that Clinton is a conventional politician and an experienced bureaucrat, whereas Trump is a reckless maniac, the time to speak up has arrived.
Back in May, I argued that the face-value logic of #NeverTrump pointed to doing whatever’s necessary to prevent him from winning the presidency by accident. At the time, anti-Trump conservatives were flirting with ideas like recruiting a high-profile third-party candidate, and endorsing the Libertarian Party ticket. But at bottom, to mean anything, #NeverTrump had to prepare itself to grapple with the fact that their activism and decision-making would deny Republicans the presidency and hand it to Clinton. That while relinquishing the White House for four or eight years more years would foreclose a conservative policymaking glut, they’d have admit to themselves that she, not he, can be trusted with the presidency, and be prepared to defend their determination publicly.
At the time, the best above-board response to that point was basically a punt. A lot can happen in five months. The conventions hadn’t happened yet. Perhaps #NeverTrump would have nothing of value to add to the election.
We’re down to two months now. And while many high-profile conservatives (some of whom spoke at the Democratic National Convention) have endorsed Clinton, or stated their preference that she defeat Trump, plenty of others continue to behave as if there’s still a whiff of similarity between the two.
“Like many Americans, I’m struggling with this choice,” Alberto Gonzales, an attorney general under George W. Bush, said Wednesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “We have two flawed candidates. I’m a lifelong Republican. I believe in many of the values of the Republican Party. But there are some things about this candidate that trouble me. On the other hand, when I look at the qualifications of someone in the oval office, integrity is one of the most important—there are very few vocations where integrity matters more. And I have some serious issues with the integrity of the Democratic nominee. So I’m still wrestling with this; we’ve got some debates that are coming up, and I think I’m going to see them standing side by side answering questions and we’ll see whether or not all of us become more informed about their qualifications.”
Prizing integrity is a new look for Gonzales, who is best remembered for resigning from the Justice Department in disgrace. But shamelessness is not. He is most recently remembered for kind of, sort of defending Trump after the Republican nominee led a racist campaign of incitement against federal judge Gonzalo Curiel.
In this case, the shamelessness resides in the idea that Gonzales, a close observer of American politics, needs to see Trump and Clinton debate one another before he can determine who ought to win. Joe Schmo gets swayed by debates; lifelong-Republican superlawyers like Gonzales generally do not.
If it weren’t for Gonzales’s sterling reputation for telling blunt truths, it might stand to reason that he was uniquely reluctant to admit his genuine leanings this election cycle. But Gonzales isn’t alone. On the same day, House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry, Republican of Texas, echoed Gonzales “concerns” about both candidates, which can only be allayed by seeing them on stage side by side. Speaking to Politico before Wednesday night’s candidate forum on NBC, he said “that’s part of the reason that tonight is important, and the next two months is important as we listen to what they would do as far as our position in the world.”
This would be a reasonable thing to say in Canada, where the entire campaign season lasts about two months. But Clinton announced her candidacy nearly 17 months ago, and Trump did the same two months later. Any American who pays attention to politics—as sitting congressmen and former attorneys general do, and an untold number of other conservatives—ought to know everything there is to know about the candidates.
It is remarkable that this acute bout of political naiveté, this mysterious failure of the faculties required to choose a preferred candidate, has afflicted members of only one major party, and at such a critical moment. After all, if Trump is going to pull off an upset, he needs skeptics to fall in line now; likewise, if Trump-skeptics are privately terrified of what a Trump presidency might portend, they are being extremely reckless by allowing him to narrow the gap with Clinton without saying a word.
Of course, elected officials like Thornberry and other Trump-skeptics in the GOP have elections to win and internal party politics to consider. Saying what they know to be true is uniquely difficult for them. But the #NeverTrump ranks extend well beyond Capitol Hill. They include former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney; Jeb Bush; George W. Bush; George H.W. Bush; elite conservative writers at magazines like National Review. Three months ago, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said there’d be “plenty of time” to address the question of how these influencers should vote. What the hell are you waiting for? Time is running short, and you don’t need anyone’s permission.