Donald Trump’s conquest of the Republican Party has placed the civic health of the country under enormous strain in many obvious ways.
Hate crimes against Muslims have soared over the past year; Trump protesters have been attacked viciously, and with impunity, in public spaces; immigrants have spent the campaign in fear of what will become of their families and their safety in the event that Trump somehow wins. Last week, arsonists torched a black church in Greenville, Mississippi, after spraying “Vote Trump” on one of its exterior walls.
There are other, less obvious but just as troubling symptoms of this national tension. For instance, there is a very high probability that we will wake up Wednesday to find that president-elect Hillary Clinton will serve her first term without control over either chamber of Congress. In that event, it’ll be easy to imagine that Antonin Scalia’s vacant Supreme Court seat will remain empty for four additional years. If an elderly liberal justice departs the Court in that time, conservatives would reestablish control over it, effectively nullifying the voters’ will.
It is commonly said that the scenario facing us is unprecedented, but that isn’t quite so. There have been two times in the nearly 200 years since Congress set the number of seats on the Court at nine when our political system became so dysfunctional that the size of the Court came into question. The first was in 1866 when, as the legal scholar John Orth has written, “an ill-conceived and short-lived judiciary act reduced the number of justices … to seven,” to void President Andrew Johnson’s appointment power. The next was in 1937, at the end of the Lochner Era, when President Franklin Roosevelt proposed adding seats to a Supreme Court that was so ideologically hostile to economic regulation that it crippled his ability to respond to the Great Depression.
This kind of procedural extremism, in other words, seems to be the byproduct of a threadbare civic fabric. If we’re experiencing a crisis of civic wellbeing that rivals either the immediate aftermath of the Civil War or the nadir of the Great Depression—when the American way of life was beset on both sides by fascism and communism—it goes without saying we’re in some trouble.
Trump has frayed bonds of trust we depend upon to hold our communities and our entire political culture together. No small share of Trump’s supporters are reluctant—mortified by his behavior, aware of the toxic effect he’s had on our society. It is essential in the closing days of this election that they grapple with the ways their votes are contributing to the damage Trump is doing.
Last week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a final plea to fellow conservatives, religious conservatives in particular, not to succumb to the temptation to vote for Trump—not to think about voting for Trump as an unfortunate evil needed to thwart the liberalization of America.
I wasn’t the target audience. His argument was directed at reluctant Trump voters, from one conservative to others, all of whom share premises I find mistaken. But the right thing for anti-Trump conservatives to do at this point is to convince shy Trump voters that they’re making a huge mistake, and this was an excellent attempt.
It is a hard thing to accept that some elections should be lost, especially in a country as divided over basic moral premises as our own.... [T]oday’s conservatism has far more to gain from the defeat of Donald Trump, and the chance to oppose Clintonian progressivism unencumbered by his authoritarianism, bigotry, misogyny and incompetence, than it does from answering the progressive drift toward Caesarism with a populist Elagabalus.
Not because it is guaranteed long-term victory in that scenario or any other. But because the deepest conservative insight is that justice depends on order as much as order depends on justice. So when Loki or the Joker or some still-darker Person promises the righting of some grave wrong, the defeat of your hated enemies, if you will only take a chance on chaos and misrule, the wise and courageous response is to tell them to go to hell.
This got me thinking about what a parallel, liberal plea to these same voters would look like, and if such a plea could possibly break through a quickly thickening barrier of distrust between liberals and conservatives. What could an urbanite liberal possibly say to convince committed Republicans that this election is worth losing?
Maybe nothing. But it’s worth noting that as thick as that barrier now is, it is based on a number of inaccurate or irrelevant assumptions conservatives make about liberals, and vice versa. It can still be crossed. The one thing that would make it fully impenetrable is for people who understand that Trump is a dangerous man, and a stain on the country, to fail to empathize with people who will be harmed by his presidency, and vote for him anyhow.
All shy Trump voters will have their reasons. For many religious conservatives it will be the belief that Trump will restore conservative dominance of the judiciary. For supply siders, the expectation that Trump will sign Paul Ryan’s tax and spending bills. For suburban whites, perhaps, a Blue Lives Matter–inspired camaraderie with Trump and police, against an imagined plague of inner-city lawlessness.
Liberals disagree with all of these motivations, but can empathize with them to varying degrees. That empathy helps hold families and entire communities, riven by ideological differences, together at trying times. Most liberals don’t share Republican militarism, but many serve in the armed forces, or have friends and family who do. My great-grandparents fled here from Berlin to escape Nazis after their family members disappeared; they supported their adopted country’s decision to go to war with their native one. My grandfather, of the forgotten generation, was drafted as an officer into the Army during the Korean war. My first boss was a marine who served in Desert Storm; close friends of mine fought in Iraq and Afghanistan—some of their friends were killed. Many members of my family haven’t voted for Democrats in decades. They support lower taxes and take a dim view of welfare. They instinctively trust police and are ripe targets for Trump’s depiction of urban life.
These are ultimately the same views that motivated them and millions of people to vote for Mitt Romney, and when that election day arrived, it was taken for granted they would vote for the Republican nominee. Their votes didn’t suggest that their conception of citizenship had been corrupted. Nobody was under the illusion in 2013 that conservatives would stop fighting for their particular moral conception of government—and liberals were prepared to engage in that familiar fight, in good faith, all over again.
Whether Trump would be a reliable exponent of conservative ends or not, it can’t be said that tax reform or higher military spending would be the hallmarks of his administration.
Trump has already made his core supporters feel as if casual acts of racism are permissible; under his umbrella of protection, they menace members of the media with threats and anti-Semitic chants, in front of children and indifferent adults. Under Trump it is all too easy to imagine not just mass expulsion of illegal immigrants and heightened law enforcement scrutiny of Muslim communities, but a culture of impunity in which Mexicans and Muslims are subjected to violence and other routine violations of their constitutional rights and civil liberties.
Voting for Trump despite knowing all this about him, accepting it as collateral damage for others to cope with, is like crossing a civic Rubicon. It makes the notion of restoring any sense of community with liberals or ethnic minorities or women very difficult to entertain. There remains a basis for conservatives and liberals to see each other as less alien than we often do, but what’s left can be easily squandered.
And once it’s gone, there will be left no foundation of trust, however thin, for working through the impasses that will confront us politically and culturally, starting the day after the election. That’s why loose talk about leaving Supreme Court vacancies unfilled is so disconcerting. The GOP’s decision not to fill the open seat will be transformed from a partisan power grab to an irreversible statement of contempt for the majority of the country. Should Trump win with the help of conservatives who have extraordinary misgivings about him, he will fill the vacancy, and liberals will view the Court’s ensuing decisions as illegitimate or ill-gotten for years.
Republican resistance to the Obama agenda was extraordinary, but for a time at least Republicans benefitted from the assumption that their obstruction stemmed from serious ideological commitments. That assumption will not hold in a Clinton presidency, when the people making the moral and ideological arguments against her agenda just tried to get Trump elected. It’s unclear whether Republicans will even bother seeking the benefit of the doubt, or if they’ll instead reject the legitimacy of her election openly.
Much of this acrimony is already baked into our near-term political future, but each vote for Trump will deepen it further. The closer he gets to the presidency, the more alienated people on different sides of the election will feel from one another. Just as it will be impossible to take official Republican appeals to Christian moralism or liberty seriously, liberals will be left wondering if the Trump voters in their midsts decided to vote for him because they share his bigotries, or because they viewed those bigotries and his recklessness as acceptable burdens others should bear for whatever they claim really defines their conservatism.
Those who are struggling to convince themselves that a vote for Trump is justifiable should imagine what their decision will communicate about them to the Trump opponents in their lives. The harm will be lasting.