Barton Swaim is author of “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics” and a contributing columnist for The Post.
Those of us on the right who oppose Donald Trump’s candidacy are, in one sense, to be pitied. The choice between clownish and vitriolic populism, on the one hand, and Clintonian knavery, on the other, is not one we ever wanted to make. We are bewildered and, for this election year at least, emotionally detached.
But there is something enviable in the state of detachment. Enviable because political contests — certainly this is true of the most intensely fought and consequential ones — debase emotions and sanctify dishonesty. They turn capable writers into hacks and intelligent citizens into social media bores and anonymous Internet goblins. Many bright and otherwise fair-minded people find themselves defending a favored candidate for reasons they would find silly or tendentious if that candidate weren’t running for high office. If Trump had never joined the contest, would prominent Republican leaders spend any time defending his quasi-fraudulent business practices or his bigoted remarks or his vicious use of eminent domain? Of course not. If Hillary Clinton had decided to sit out 2016, similarly, the mention of her history of mendacity would strike most of those now supporting her as uncontroversial. But both are running for president, and so indefensible conduct becomes defensible and statements of the obvious provoke ferocious counterblasts. Decent people besmirch themselves with stupid arguments and outright falsehoods and excuse it all with vague references to “what’s at stake.”
I don’t want to be too high-minded about this — I’m sure if I plumbed my conscience, which I’m not inclined to do, I too would have to admit past guilt in this regard. In any case, it all leads me to think that 2016 may be an unusual opportunity for reflection on the part of conservatives with no horse in the race. The same may be said of the (rather less populous, I suspect) “Bernie or Bust” movement, those supporters of Bernie Sanders who, despite the senator’s endorsement of Clinton, still refuse to back the Democratic Party’s nominee. Both these confederations, whether they’re right on political and philosophical grounds, find themselves in a position to reflect on the nature of electoral politics in ways they probably never have before.
In the case of anti-Trump conservatives, we’ve spent the past several months watching heretofore principled conservative politicians, in some cases reluctantly but in every case decisively, endorse a man they know full well isn’t qualified to be president. Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence: These and many others were faced with an admittedly difficult situation in which they had to choose between principle and career preservation; they chose the latter. Rubio, for instance, just a few months ago called Trump a “con artist” and an “erratic individual” to whom the “nuclear codes of the United States” should not be entrusted: comments he has not disavowed even as he has endorsed that same erratic individual on the grounds that his opponent is worse. Even the uber-principled Ted Cruz spent much of last year studiously refusing to distance himself from Trump, and his decision to withhold an endorsement seems to have had far less to do with principle than with the painful memory that Trump once made nasty insinuations about his wife.
Perhaps it’s a good time for some of us to reassess the hope and confidence we’re often inclined to place in politicians. We would never admit to placing hope and confidence in them, of course; we’re sophisticated people, after all, and take a knowingly dim view of politicians and their motives. Well, of “politicians” in the abstract anyway. Most are vain careerists whose convictions, though frequently genuine, are also frequently temporary — we know this. Or do we? How often have I read a feature article or watched an interview with some bright young “rising star” and concluded: There’s one with integrity. There’s one with intellect and foresight and the capacity to lead.
And yet — here we are.
An effective politician, let’s remember, is someone who has found success at convincing large numbers of people that he or she, rather than someone else, possesses sufficient sagacity and strength of character to solve some complicated set of problems. Give me power, the politician says to us, because I am honest and compassionate and capable. Without ever making it so crassly explicit, that is what it takes to win elections.
Which ought to make us ask ourselves: What sort of person would do that? And why on Earth would I trust him with more power or put her name on my bumper? If this year’s all-around atrociousness prompts us to ask those questions of ourselves and one another, maybe we can redeem it after all.