Moral obligations in the 2016 presidential election

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s recent statements that the presidential election is rigged against him and his supporters’ suggestions that his opponent be either assassinated or locked up for purely political reasons, I find it impossible to refrain from comment. Mr. Trump has done nothing but encourage his supporters’ intrinsically unpatriotic sentiments, tantamount to support for illegal and unquestionably immoral action against the legislative process inherent to American republican democracy. Furthering the crisis while sullying the name of their storied party, Republican leaders damn themselves with faint criticism of Mr. Trump’s actions. His racist rhetoric and boasts of sexual assault demanded withdrawal of any endorsement of his candidacy; his patently seditious assertions of late generate unconditional rejection as a requirement for maintenance of any semblance of decency. Mr. Trump’s supporters and Republican leaders have a moral obligation to disavow the entirety of his candidacy.

When this presidential election cycle first began, Mr. Trump was considered by many to be solely a showman, a technicolor apparition who would fade into obscurity as citizens ceased indulging in puerile humor and set to work selecting the next leader of the United States. Yet Republican primary voters chose a different course. Fanatically distrustful of most institutions of American political life—Congress, the Supreme Court, media and nonprofit organizations, and especially the Presidency—they embraced with enthusiasm the gilded figurehead of almost everything they claimed to despise: globalization, financial wastefulness, corruption, and proximity to special interests. The campaign since is already historic; there is no sense in recounting it here. But the events of the past days have placed a grotesque capstone on the entire affair: the Republican candidate for President of the United States is openly promising unconstitutional actions—imprisoning the Democratic candidate for political reasons, for example—should he win. His supporters, many of whom claim to adhere closely to an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, are in forceful agreement with his views and thus directly in conflict with the most integral parts of the document they so feverishly claim to represent.

It has become popular to excuse the radical behavior of Mr. Trump’s supporters by implying that many of their concerns are legitimate, and thus that their support of Mr. Trump is understandable as a method of showing their displeasure with the establishment. I decline to do this. Certainly many of these concerns are legitimate in intent, and should be recognized as such despite possible skepticism of their validity by economists or policy analysts. But they do not excuse supporting a proto-fascist whose intent, as can be inferred by his actions, is to discard political decency entirely. Change, in American politics, comes through reasoned discourse and social evolution, not declaration of policy by fiat, regardless of what we believe to be the correct course of action; my critique of Mr. Trump is, in spirit, identical to my critique of contemporary progressive political movements. But progressive politics in the United States do not threaten constitutionally-guaranteed rights to the extent that Mr. Trump’s proposed actions do. Mr. Trump’s supporters, while maintaining their honestly-held beliefs, should recognize the moral low ground their candidate is treading and either decline to vote in the current election or vote for a candidate who satisfies their political convictions while not undermining the intra- and international legitimacy of the United States’s political process. There must be room in a democracy for wide and deep disagreement over issues of policy, but there must be no normalization of a post-truth politics, which leads inexorably into either complete political disorder or consolidation of power in the form of autocracy—see, for example, Venezuela or Russia respectively for contemporary examples.

It stretches the imagination further to find an excuse for Republican leaders who still show support for Mr. Trump. Not only has he espoused views that run counter to the pro-enterprise, free trade, and national defense themes that unify the Republican party—and that is a not inconsiderable only—but he has repeatedly demonstrated a flagrant disregard for the rule of law, which is the fundamental reason for this nation’s status as the world’s oldest modern democracy. The Republican Party of which I desperately want to be a member is the party of law and order, not of locking people up for their political beliefs. It is the party of support for oppressed peoples around the world, not of rapprochement with dictators. It is the party, most fundamentally, of reason, substantive argument, and respect for history and tradition—all ideals the antithesis of which Mr. Trump is the embodiment. I echo the past sentiments of men for whom I used to have nothing but respect: Speaker Paul Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner, for example. Their continued support for Mr. Trump, even as his supporters roar in favor of his apparent quest for destruction of our political system, reveals their preference for preserving some ghost of the Republican party over disavowing immoral and anti-American rhetoric and actions. The economic incentives for choosing this course of action are unmistakable; if, due to Majority Leader McConnell’s or Speaker Ryan’s inaction, the Republicans lose the Senate or House, they will almost certainly be ousted from their seats. Is this not a sacrifice—a job for the sanctity of the nation—worth making?

Written on October 16, 2016