Published September 11, 2016
The strongest case to make for conservatives supporting Donald Trump is a modest one. It goes like this: He is a deeply flawed man who is running against someone who is even more deeply flawed. Hillary Clinton is a person with liberal instincts who has been pulled further to the left in this campaign. She is also an ethical wreck whose career is laced with ineptitude, from HillaryCare to her handling of the Libyan fiasco, the Russian “re-set,” the Syrian civil war and spreading disorder in the world. So while Trump may be imperfect, the odds of him doing some good, on some issues, are better than in the case of Clinton. He is problematic; she is worse. And so, given the choice between two massively imperfect candidates for president, we are obligated to support the one who will do the least amount of damage and perhaps, if we’re lucky, a bit of good here and there.
This is a point of view held by some intelligent and well-intentioned people. It deserves a serious response from those of us who will not vote for Trump for president. Here’s mine.
Trump’s Cynical Flip-Flops
Perhaps the place to begin is to recall what one of the chief selling points of Donald Trump was, which was that he’s not a typical politician. He “tells it like it is” and says what he means. He has the guts to do what weak, incompetent and unprincipled politicians won’t. Yet it turns out that he’s far worse on this score than the typical politician. He is much more cynical than most, and the half-life of his promises are shorter than those of any politician in memory.
Trump has flipped his view on mass deportation, visas for high-skilled workers, the Iraq War, the Libya intervention, deposing Hosni Mubarak, Syrian refugees, fighting ISIS, NATO, nuclear proliferation, banning all Muslims, abortion, the minimum wage, Obamacare mandates, gun control, taxing the wealthy, releasing his tax returns, his party affiliation, his views on Ronald Reagan (from a “con man” to the president he admires most), Bill Clinton (from his sexual predatory habits being “totally unimportant” to him being “the worst abuser of women in history of politics”), Hillary Clinton (from “probably above and beyond everybody else” as secretary of state to “the worst secretary of state in the history of the United States”), and Barack Obama (from “doing great” as president to being “probably the worst president in the history of our country”). And this is only a partial list.
In just the last few weeks, Trump jettisoned what had been a core campaign commitment: The forced deportation of all illegal immigrants in the United States. He won the Republican primary in large part because he separated himself from other candidates on illegal immigration, and he was the one who repeatedly spoke about how he, and he alone, had the guts to deport 11 million illegal immigrants. He spoke proudly of his “deportation force” idea. It was central to his appeal. Yet he tossed it aside like it meant nothing to him, before (partially) reversing himself again. His latest position is that what he does with illegal immigrants is to be determined. Keep in mind, too, that in 2012 Trump lacerated Mitt Romney for being too tough on illegal immigration (“He had a crazy policy of self-deportation, which was maniacal” is how Trump put it on November 26, 2012. “It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote.”) So he’s been all over the map on this issue, like he has on so many others.
Limited Government, Obamacare and ISIS
Prominent conservatives have said, in an attempt to allay concerns about Trump, that he is solidly conservative on matters like the size of government and reducing the debt; repealing and replacing Obamacare; and defeating ISIS. But none of these claims withstands scrutiny.
Trump has shown no commitment to limited government. He has repeatedly stated he’s against entitlement reform, a basic requirement of those wishing to re-limit and rein in the costs of government. His plan to cut the deficit consists of cutting “waste, fraud and abuse,” the ultimate fiscal dodge. He also said he would “at least double” Hillary Clinton’s plan to spend on infrastructure – at an estimated cost of $500 billion. (Remember, too, that Trump was praising President Obama’s stimulus package in Obama’s first term when virtually every Republican, including Republican members of Congress, was criticizing it.)
As for the debt: Trump has gone from promising to eliminate it in eight years to wanting creditors to accept lower payments than they are owed, to printing more money to stave off default. His tax plan, as currently constructed, would drain trillions from the Treasury. So simply based on what we know, based on what Trump has said, there’s no chance he will reduce the size of government but will rather expand it; and it’s quite likely the debt will grow worse under Trump than it would under Clinton. Even on executive orders, he has said that he has no qualms about using this power much like Obama has done — only his will be “better.” AsIan Tuttle put it, “Trump’s dismissiveness toward the Constitution is in excess of anything Barack Obama displayed in 2008 or 2012.”
On repealing and replacing Obamacare: This, too, is a meaningless promise. During this campaign Trump has also spoken favorably about a single-payer health care system. He has praised the Obamacare mandates. He has said he believes in universal health care coverage and that the federal government ought to provide it. Many of his views, then, have been somewhat to the left of Obama’s. (Even Obama has denied he wants a single-payer health care system.)
On ISIS: Trump talks about destroying the Islamic State. But as recently as last fall, when it was territorially at its most dominant, Trump was saying ISIS was not ours to take on – it was “not our fight” – and we should “let Russia fight it.” That is hardly taking the battle to the enemy. Trump now says he would declare war on ISIS, but he would wage it with very few to no troops. Trump’s plan to defeat the Islamic State is purely rhetorical, not real.
These are just three policy areas – I could list many others — and they demonstrate why Trump saying something one day isn’t anything we can rely on the next day. He is as unprincipled as any major presidential candidate in the history of America.
The Supreme Court “Trump Card”
Now let me turn to the matter of the Supreme Court, which is often invoked by Trump supporters as dispositive when it comes to the case for voting for Trump over Hillary Clinton.
I will concede that the chances of Trump appointing a better Supreme Court justice than Clinton are better, but just barely. Trump’s promise to nominate a conservative on the court is as meaningful to me as his pile of other (broken) promises. He put out a list of fine judges – none of whom he probably knows anything about. It was a list prepared for him in order to pacify conservatives.
Now add to that the fact that Trump has said his liberal, pro-choice sister would be a “phenomenal” Supreme Court justice; that he has not shown the slightest bit of interest in or knowledge about judicial philosophy; and that he believes judges “sign laws” (they don’t). The idea that Trump would fight for a conservative nominee, especially if Democrats regain control of the Senate – that he would expend political capital for a Scalia-like nominee – is fanciful. He would almost surely opt for the Art of the Deal with the likes of Sen. Chuck Schumer.
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Now one could concede every point I’ve made and share every concern I’ve laid out but still argue that a gamble on Trump is better that the sure liberal bet on Clinton. I agree, if that were all there was to it. But there’s a great deal more one has to take into account on the matter of Trump, and when one does the case shifts dramatically against him.
Conspiracy Theories and Crazed Staff
Start with Trump peddling crazy conspiracy theories. It was, in fact, a conspiracy theory that elevated his profile five years ago, when Trump asserted President Obama was not born in the United States and that he could prove it. That was a lie, yet Trump continued to promote it, including misleading us when he spoke about all the evidence his investigators were gathering to prove his case. Since then, Trump has implied that Obama is a secret Muslim and claimed he is the “founder of ISIS.” (Trump later claimed he was being sarcastic. As this interview demonstrates, he was not.)
Trump has also suggested Ted Cruz’s father was implicated in the assassination of President Kennedy; that Vince Foster was murdered (five separate investigations found this claim to be utterly false); and that doctors are hiding evidence that vaccinations cause autism (a conspiracy theory that, if enough people believed it, would have devastating health effects). Repeated ventures into the fever swamps is evidence of a troubled mind, something one might want to take into account when considering a prospective president.
None of this is shocking, given the type of people Trump has surrounded himself with. Recall that one of the early arguments Trump supporters made is that he would surround himself with the “best” people. But Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson has reminded us of the kind of people Trump has attracted: Corey Lewandowski, who manhandled a female reporter and whose demeaning style resulted in a staff revolt; Paul Manafort, who was paid lucrative consulting fees by oppressive governments and who resigned after reports that investigators in Ukraine were looking into millions of dollars in alleged payments to him; longtime adviser Roger Stone, a rather unhinged fellow who, among other things, has claimed Bill and Hillary Clinton are “plausibly responsible” for the deaths of roughly 40 people; and now Steve Bannon, the CEO of the campaign, who has run a website, Breitbart, that is sympathetic to white nationalism and, by Bannon’s own admission, has provided a home to the noxious “alt-right” movement.
Affinity for Dictators and Slandering America
There are a host of other concerns about Trump, including his admiration for dictators. They include:
- Vladimir Putin, of whom Trump said, “It is always a great honor, to be so nicely complimented by a man [Putin] so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”
- Kim Jong-un, of whom Trump said, “And you have to give him credit. How many young guys — he was like 26 or 25 when his father died — take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden — you know, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it. How does he do that? Even though it is a culture and it’s a cultural thing, he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It’s incredible.”
- The butchers of Tiananmen Square, of whom Trump said, “They were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”
- Saddam Hussein, of whom Trump said, “Saddam Hussein throws a little [chemical] gas, everyone goes crazy, ‘oh he’s using gas!'”
Trump also has the habit of slandering America. For example, when MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said Putin “kills journalists, political opponents and invades countries,” Trump replied, “At least he’s a leader.” Besides, Trump asserted, “I think our country does plenty of killing also.” And when asked if President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was exploiting the recent coup attempt to purge his political enemies, Trump did not call for him to observe the rule of law or standards of justice. Instead he turned on the United States. “When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger,” he said. “I don’t think we have a right to lecture,” Trump said in an interview. “Look at what is happening in our country. How are we going to lecture when people are shooting policemen in cold blood?” That’s the kind of moral equivalence conservatives once criticized liberals for. (Remember Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Blame America First” speech?)
On the matter of public policy, hardly incidental for a person running for president, Donald Trump is breathtakingly ignorant, and has shown almost no interest in overcoming his ignorance.
The examples one can cite are nearly endless, but they would include not knowing what the nuclear triad is or what judges do, confusing the Kurds and the Quds Force, and his contradictory views on minimum wage (wages are too high and then too low; he’s for it and then against; he favors enforcement by the federal government and then wants states to take the lead). Trump has shown he’s not capable of talking intelligently and coherently about the debt (see above), health care policy (his solution is to “eliminate lines across the states”), the main reasons for lost blue-collar jobs (it’s not because of free-trade agreements), abortion (arguing that women who have abortions should be “punished” even as he was praising Planned Parenthood), changes he would make to NAFTA (utterly incomprehensible), Putin’s aggressions against Ukraine (he wasn’t aware that any such thing had occurred until ABC’s George Stephanopoulos pointed it out to him), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (he promised to be “neutral” on it before reversing course) and forcing the military to commit war crimes (first yes, then no).
Redefining the GOP
In addition, Trump, if he were to become president, would fundamentally redefine the Republican Party in ways that are in many respects antithetical to conservatism. If he were to be elected it would mean the GOP will no longer be the home of conservatism.
Trump plays identity politics like a man of the left, and in a way that conservatives have always criticized (e.g., his comments on the Mexican heritage of Judge Gonzalo Curiel). Trump is a fierce protectionist, further even to the left on trade than Bernie Sanders is, and his policies would be catastrophic for the world economy and America’s, too. He is completely at odds with what most every serious free-market economist of the last two centuries has believed on free trade. He has repeatedly defended eminent domain. And he has a certain contempt for the First Amendment, promising to “open up” libel laws.
Trump has also shown he has neo-isolationist impulses. Sometimes in this campaign his arguments have echoed George McGovern’s “Come Home, America” rallying cry. (Trump’s comments on the uselessness of NATO and his unwillingness to honor our commitments by coming to the defense of our NATO allies were utterly foolish, given Russia’s aggressive intentions, and required him to finally walk them back.) He called for the impeachment of President George W. Bush and falsely accused him of lying about WMD leading up to the Iraq War. Trump was a registered Democrat for most of the 2000s, has given money to the most liberal Democrats (Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi among them) while they were attacking the conservative agenda; and he gave six-figure contributions to the Clinton Foundation.
Trump supporters are quick to forgive him for those actions, as they are for so much else, in this case saying he was simply acting as a businessman. That explanation is itself problematic, but the evidence suggests he was saying what he believed – and if any other Republican had done a fraction of what Trump had, he would have been consigned to outer darkness. After four years of a Trump presidency, the Republican Party would be twisted beyond recognition, and in a way that would trouble any authentic conservative.
Now to what may be the most important issue of all: presidential temperament. Trump defenders dismiss this concern, as if it’s simply a matter of Trump critics having delicate sensibilities, that the only problem with the former reality television star is that he is “indecorous” and says some things “awkwardly.” We just have to get over the fact that he’s a bit too “boorish,” to use a word employed by Trump supporter Eric Metaxas.
That is absurd.
Trump’s cruel and heartless comments have been well documented, including mocking a reporter with a physical disability, the grieving mother of a war hero killed in action and ridiculing John McCain’s POW years. He has also likened Ben Carson’s “pathology” to that of a child molester and engaged in sexist attacks against Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina and other women. These qualify as more than “indecorous” and “awkward.” What many Trump supporters are uncomfortable admitting is that while they may not be attracted to his nativism, misogyny and dehumanization of others, they are fully prepared to accept those things and, by constantly mischaracterizing and watering down his comments, defend them.
But set Trump’s rhetorical assaults aside if you want. He is also a pathological liar.“The man lies all the time,” according to Thomas Wells, Trump’s former lawyer. Tony Schwartz, the co-writer of “The Art of the Deal,” says that “lying is second nature to him.” The record supports that conclusion.
In addition, corruption has followed Trump his entire career, including his bankruptcies; his refusal to pay contractors who have done work for him; the scams (e.g., Trump University, the Trump Institute and the Trump Network); his history of being charged with housing discrimination/tenant intimidation; his use of hundreds of undocumented Polish workers and much more. (For details, see this story in The Atlantic and this Washington Post story, which concludes “you’d have to work incredibly hard to find a politician who has the kind of history of corruption, double-dealing, and fraud that Donald Trump has.”) Trump is also a crony capitalist, a corrupter of our political system, par excellence.
Trump’s combination of character weaknesses – both private and public – would normally be quite relevant to conservatives. Yet some of those who have spent a career articulating the important of character, including in our public leaders, are now dismissive of those concerns.
The core issue here has to do with the most important qualities we should look for in a president – habits of mind and heart, emotional and psychological stability, equanimity and disposition. These matters are even more important than where a person checks the policy boxes. And in this respect, Trump is a genuine threat to the well-being of America. He has shown himself to be erratic, inconsistent, unstable, unprincipled, vindictive, and narcissistic. He lacks empathy and has a grandiose self-image. He is obsessive and manipulative. His former ghostwriter, Mr. Schwartz, describes him as pathologically impulsive and self-centered. This is a very dangerous combination of characteristics to have in a president; it would not end well at all for Trump, or for our nation.
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I’ve gone at length on these matters precisely because too often, Trump supporters glide over his faults, downplaying them or ignoring them, often misrepresenting the case against him. It’s always easier to battle strawmen than it is to confront actual arguments.
This is an effort to present actual arguments based on real-world facts. The cumulative case against the Republican nominee for president is, for many of us, overwhelming. (So, for different reasons, is the case against Hillary Clinton, who is an ethical wreck, untrustworthy and a woman of the left who has amassed a record of failure over her career.)
The Trump oeuvre – what he has said, and done, and shown over the course of his life and this campaign — leads to an unfortunate but inescapable conclusion: Donald J. Trump is manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations and is a New York Times contributing opinion writer.