This essay is part of our collection on the 2016 election. Read related articles here.
“As president, Hillary Clinton would be really, really bad. Trump, though a terrible candidate and a terrible person, would be better. Therefore, conservatives must vote for Trump.”
Anyone who has followed the 2016 election has seen some variant of this argument countless times. For those opponents of Trump who worry about the composition of the Supreme Court and the lasting damage Clinton might inflict upon it, it has been the argument to beat. After all, voting for a candidate never requires one to share his or her evil intentions. If it did, then votes for almost all candidates in all years would be morally ineligible, since no politicians are perfect.
It is often thought that the decision of how to vote therefore falls to a “balancing” of the intended good consequences against the unintended bad ones. I have argued recently that voters have a decisive reason not to vote for either Clinton or Trump even if they think one is really better than the other, and on top of that, I follow the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in holding that this “balancing” approach rests on a very general confusion about morals.
But in this essay, I grant for the sake of argument that one’s approach to voting should be essentially “utilitarian.” I grant, that is, that one’s vote should ultimately rest on a consideration of what leads to the “best” overall consequences. The recent release of audio in which a 2005 Donald Trump lewdly describes forcing himself on a married woman undermines this utilitarian argument for voting for and supporting Donald Trump. Conservatives should dump Trump; they should not vote for him, and they should publicly renounce support for him.
Qualifying the Utilitarian Argument
Many conservatives, then, have been making what we can call the utilitarian argument for Trump. They argue that those who appreciate how bad a liberal majority on the Supreme Court would be should recognize that Trump, for all his faults, would be less bad than Clinton, so they ought to vote for Trump.
Stated in these terms, this argument has always been too simple and too fast. A vote has lots of effects, only one of which is increasing the probability of a particular candidate’s victory. In particular, all else being equal, the more votes Trump receives, the more people will think that his platform is one that deserves a place in American politics and that his style of politics is worth emulating; it encourages the Republican Party to adopt his views and manner. A Republican vote for Trump will, generally, be taken as a Republican condoning of Trump.
For some people, this is a good thing. Trump is focusing on what really matters, they reason, and his abrasive and controversial style is what’s needed to challenge the stranglehold of the media and political elite.
Others acknowledge that there have always been costs associated with supporting Trump—even if they think that doing so is, all things considered, the best thing to do. He has debased political discourse and crafted a right-wing identity politics. Support for Trump may be taxing, in future years; social conservatives, for instance, will have to explain how they could support a man with a history of infidelity, and Christians will have to explain how they could support a man whose first reaction to criticism is often unhinged mockery.
Trump neither cares for nor understands issues such as abortion, marriage, or religious liberty. When he defends them, it is always clear that it is because he feels, or has been told, that he has to. His defenses of issues that social conservatives care about merely consist in a kind of Christian identity politics, as he insisted at the Value Voters Summit last month:
A Trump administration, our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended, like you’ve never seen before. Believe me. I believe it. And you believe it. And you know it. You know it. And that includes religious liberty—remember, remember.
Social conservatives who support Trump contribute to the impression that their votes are cheap. They will accept a candidate who does not speak their language as long as he throws them a few bones; a candidate whose concern for their interests is halfhearted can still earn their votes.
It seems uncontroversial that support for Trump has always had these liabilities. But how serious have they been? While I’ve found them serious, I have spoken with Trump supporters who have disagreed. They have thought that those consequences are small enough to be worth accepting, given that it may be possible to prevent Hillary Clinton’s presidency in 2016.
Undermining the Utilitarian Argument
In the audio recently released, Trump describes, in lewd and vulgar terms, his advances on a married woman. “And when you’re a star,” Trump can be heard saying, “you can do anything.”
In consequence, a number of prominent Republican politicians who have supported Trump, such as Paul Ryan, Kelly Ayotte, Reince Priebus, Mitch McConnell, and Shelley Moore Capito, have condemned the remarks. Some have withdrawn support; some have also called for Trump to withdraw from the race and allow Mike Pence to take the head of the ticket. (The New York Times, among other news sources, has maintained a comprehensive list.)
There are two points worth noting here. First, what seems obvious: Trump’s chances at beating Clinton now seem to be even worse than they were before. His Sunday night debate performance doesn’t change that reality.
Second, and consequently, these Republican politicians and pundits have been put in a difficult position and forced to make a difficult decision. Doubling down on support for Trump—insisting that Trump’s words were just “locker room talk” in which “all men” at times engage, or even just acknowledging that Trump’s character was never his appeal—may be very politically expensive. Suppose that Trump loses by a substantial margin. In two or four years, Republicans like Ryan will face reelection, and then—while attempting to defend the value of socially conservative approaches to culture and marriage—they will be accused of hypocrisy. They will have to spend the rest of their careers defending accusations that they never really cared about social conservatism, that their “values” were always merely a cover for misogyny and homophobia. Continued support for Trump now carries substantial political risks in the long term—not just for the careers of individual politicians but for the conservative movement.
Some, like Scott Adams, have denied that the release of this recording will hurt Trump’s odds of winning. “Before you make assumptions about how this changes the election,” Adams suggests, “see if anyone you know changes their vote because of it.” But it has changed the views of even some Republican politicians and pundits who were publicly supporting Trump. It seems as though the revelation could only have a greater effect on voters who were previously undecided.
That said, time will tell how much this hurts Trump’s polling. For the present, we can say the following. Trump’s odds were already bad. If this revelation has substantially damaged them even further—and if additional recordings and revelations wait in the wings—then clearly the best thing for conservative supporters of Trump to do is to cut their losses and jump ship. Someone who thinks lots of influential Republicans should continue supporting Trump will need to argue that Trump’s odds of winning are still high enough to justify accepting the probable damage to conservativism in the long run. That argument always had to be made, but it is far less plausible now than it was last week.
But What Has Changed?
Adams, and many others, ask why the release of this audio should influence the election. Who, really, is surprised that this recording exists? Didn’t Republicans already know that Trump was a slob disdainful of women—and support him anyway? And isn’t he no worse than Hillary Clinton, for whom the Democrats are still voting?
Those who think this recording changes nothing might be inclined to raise a dilemma. Either supporters of Trump were already hypocrites deserving of harsh criticism—for they’ve already weathered and sometimes defended Trump’s crudeness and indecency—or else they would be no more hypocrites for continuing to support Trump now than they were before.
I happen to think there is something right about this reply. Namely, the existence of scandalous audio like that unveiled by the Washington Post really is not surprising. For me, though, that is more of an indicator that Trump has always been undeserving of the presidency and unworthy of conservatives’ votes, that nominating him was among the greatest of political blunders.
In another way, though, this reply misses the point. The problem here is not the soundness of the charge of hypocrisy; it is the appearance of hypocrisy. From the utilitarian standpoint—which, again, I think is mistaken but which is presupposed by those who justify voting for Trump in this way—it doesn’t matter whether what Trump said wasn’t “really” so bad, or whether we all expected that he had said stuff like this in his private life anyway, or whether it was hypocritical for someone like Ryan to endorse him before. All that matters here, if one takes a utilitarian approach to voting, is whether this revelation hurts his chances of winning and whether Republicans will look bad in the future for digging in their heels and continuing to support him.
There are also moral hazards of continued support for Trump. It is one thing to insist that one can vote for Trump without “formally cooperating” with his evil intentions. It is another to rationalize looking askance at his sexual abuse and casual vulgarity. That is surely why Paul Ryan, without retracting his endorsement, has said that he won’t “defend” Trump—he realizes that he couldn’t, without compromising his honesty. Perhaps some people really, non-culpably believe that Trump’s words were just “locker room talk” and that, while it is somewhat indecent, there is nothing seriously wrong with it.
I personally cannot imagine believing that, and I think it totally wrong to say that all men talk like that. Trump’s behavior should not be excused as trifling, and those who do so excuse it are courting vice in their souls, a willingness to defend evil because they fear certain political consequences. In kind, that is nothing new for this campaign season, in which Republicans have reached this stage by way of a number of cowardly and selfish steps. But with the release of this audio, the moral danger has reached new heights.
As I have noted before, this is part of what is insidious about 2016. The stakes—the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency—have made Republicans willing to accept anything, however base, from their own candidate. The political process should not be open to such unaccountability; a voter ought to place limits on what he will tolerate.
If we hadn’t crossed that threshold before, I think there is not much reasonable doubt that we have crossed it now. If his odds of winning have been destroyed anyway, and the costs for continued support have been heightened, then it is high time to dump Trump.