The greatest of three evils

Take your pick?

Agellius writes in response to my previous post on the Republican Party’s embrace of racism:

I don’t think it follows that anyone who is a Republican, or even who votes for Trump, endorses racism. I think the majority consider this election a choice between two evils. Personally I live in California, so my vote won’t count (i.e. it’s a foregone conclusion that Clinton will win California). Consequently I can vote for neither Trump nor Clinton with a clear conscience, that is, without feeling like I failed to do my part to defeat either evil. But those who vote for Trump, or endorse him, may be doing so not as an endorsement of racism but as a vote against what they perceive to be the greater evils likely to result from a Clinton presidency.

I appreciate your comment. Even if you’re not making it for yourself, you outline a common argument, and it merits an in-depth response.

Not every single registered or self-identified Republican is necessarily a racist. We agree on this. A number of pundits and office-holders have made it very clear that they do not support Trump. The party, though, as embodied by its leadership, its media proxies, and a majority of its base, has either voted for or endorsed voting for someone who, by all appearances, will govern according to racist sentiment. That is, de facto, an endorsement of racism.

Given his aversion to specificity on most policy issues throughout the primary process, Trump persistently redirected attention to his own attitude and rhetorical style. To put it more bluntly: Trump’s core appeal is his bigoted bullying. Classify a vote for Clinton however you like. A vote for Trump, whatever else it may be, is quintessentially a vote for a bigoted bully.

And as you say, many will justify to themselves voting for a racist because they perceive the racist to be the “lesser of two evils.” There are only two morally tenable options available to Republicans who cannot bring themselves to vote for Clinton, though. Those options are: voting third party (either by write-in or throwing in with an alternative national party like the Greens, Libertarians, Socialists, etc.) or abstaining from the presidential vote and focusing on downticket races.

To vote Trump in November is to consign anything resembling a moral conscience to the dustbin of partisanship. To vote any other way is to withhold support from a candidate who has based his appeal primarily on xenophobia (“They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”), religious bigotry (calling for a ban on non-native Muslims entering the country), misogyny (“blood coming out of her wherever”), criminality (promising to kill the families of terrorists), and racism (as previously stated). These are not bugs, but features, of his campaign.

Put another way, it lies within every Republican’s power not to be a racist. To make that choice, though, would entail great political risk. The common Republican voter would have to make peace with the fact that voting against Trump would likely mean a victory for Clinton. And party officials could work with delegates to rewrite the convention rules to deny Trump the nomination. This would be undemocratic. It would also demonstrate that they have the moral backbone to tell a plurality of their base that it was wrong to vote for a racist bully. While the party would certainly be roundly criticized for being undemocratic, Republicans would also be able to claim, in the future, a semblance of moral credibility.

What kind of precedent does it set for one’s political morality if a vote for a bigoted bully can be justified on the basis that his opponent is somehow worse? What will voters be persuaded to tolerate in the next election cycle for the sake of defeating someone who’s the “greater evil”? If Donald Trump’s candidacy is not beyond the pale, what is? If David Duke vowed to appoint pro-life supreme court justices, or perhaps to address illegal immigration more stridently, would that be sufficient to earn him a vote? What if he simply offered to “moderate” his rhetoric? Would that do it?  If Alex Jones were to promise to slash income taxes and deregulate environmental protection, would that be enough to overlook the (ahem) quirkier aspects of his political philosophy? Given that Donald Trump is now the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, these are not, as they might have been a year ago, silly or idle questions. I seriously want to know: what does it take to get Republican voters and the party leadership to drum someone out of the party? Does a candidate literally, as Trump himself offered as a crass hypothetical, have to shoot someone? (Or would that just be a bonus for those who vote based on candidates’ expressed interpretations of the Second Amendment?)

A lot of my friends and family are self-identified Republicans. I don’t classify them all as racist by virtue of them being Republican, even now. They have my love no matter what, and they currently have the benefit of the doubt that they are not, by their party affiliation, bigots. If they tell me they’re voting for Trump, they will correct my misperception of their moral priorities, and I will simply reclassify them as bigots—or as people who are okay with bigotry being enacted at the highest levels of government, which feels like a mere semantic distinction to me.

I loathe and reject the premise that an election is a binary choice between the lesser of two evils. It’s little different from the premise that states, “I’m not voting for this guy, I’m voting against the other guy.” The latter is precisely the argument put forth by Ryan: that the presidential election is not about Trump, but about defeating Clinton.[1] Ryan’s wrong. Everyone who has ever argued that “we live in a two-party system” (and you know who they are) is wrong. We don’t live in a two-party system. We live in a constitutional republic. Elections are not about choosing between two evils. Elections have never actually been about that. They’re about the freedom to use the franchise to enact one’s political will as an expression of one’s conscience.

Frame the premise positively (“two party system”) or negatively (“lesser of two evils”). It doesn’t matter. The net result is that if enough people buy into this premise, then one party, driven by the zero-sum game of snapping up every available vote lest the other party get it, will find it expedient to make itself hospitable to certain prejudices. Part of cultivating a “base” is catering to a variety of worldviews, some of which may be extreme. To ensure the base’s support, then, means appealing to those worldviews in some way, whether by affirming certain beliefs or by warning that those beliefs are threatened with cultural erosion. (Short version: fearmongering.) Sure, there’s a positive message out there (“Our guy is better than theirs!”), but anybody could make that argument, especially those pesky “third parties” that show up every once in a while to “spoil” elections.[2]

The “lesser of two evils” premise is not only false and pernicious, but it often blinds us to what else is going on. The fact of the matter, as is abundantly clear now, is that the political machine stoking the Republican base — that is, a majority of the conservative punditry — has somehow cultivated racism, xenophobia, and other kinds of bigoted prejudice as part of its political coalition of interests. Whether it did so intentionally is up for debate.

If the Republicans do not excise the naked bigotry in their ranks now — now that such bigotry has been so thoroughly exposed, and even after one of its racist aspect has been explicitly identified by their own Speaker of the House — then they are effectively owning that bigotry as one of the pillars that upholds their entire edifice. That’s their prerogative, of course. Just as it is the prerogative of every other citizen to identify it for what it is, denounce it, and make them pay a political price for it. That’s how communities committed to democratic principles work, for better or worse. Voters who exercise the franchise have a responsibility to their political institutions and to each other. While it is legal to exercise the franchise in an irresponsible way, it is also immoral.

Just because many Republicans may be too ignorant to consider what a vote for Trump does to the nature of their party and the future of our constitutional republic does not absolve them of that responsibility. And especially for voters who are perfectly aware that they have other choices, and that they are, in fact, morally duty-bound to make those choices — I don’t know what more to say. If they vote for Trump with eyes wide open, bigotry and all, they are actively rending the fabric of the republic and propelling a known bully to the head of the most powerful institution on earth. To justify doing so by saying that they’re voting for the lesser of two evils is beyond cynical. It’s the greatest of three evils.


[1] Actually, Ryan’s argument is more specifically about the legislative agenda that he believes Republicans can enact if a Republican president is elected. In terms of realpolitik, eh, sure. The way he reframes the argument is more like this: “Don’t vote for Donald Trump — vote for a Republican Congress against Hillary Clinton’s presidency.” There are a number of logical flaws in this framework, but I’ll focus on a principle rather than a logical flaw. The executive and legislative branches (along with the judicial) are part of a system of checks and balances against one person or party running the table on the exercise of political power. That’s a theory, anyway.
Ryan’s argument is premised on the notion that Republicans should continue to support Trump in order that Republicans can do whatever the hell they want for at least 2017-19, with no practical Democrat opposition. (That argument is entirely in keeping with the authoritarianism that some say Trump is playing upon.) Ryan’s argument is not unique to Republicans. Both parties tell their bases that the government requires uniformity of party in both legislative and executive branches in order to function properly. And that logic only fuels the feedback loop of polarization.
Voting for a presidential candidate on that candidate’s merits—and not on the felicity the candidate’s party would enjoy as a result of his election—ensures that the person judged by the electorate to be most qualified for a job should be the person to hold that office. Partisans have, of course, worked persistently to hijack this process. Which is all the more reason to reject such arguments when they’re put forth. One may believe that Paul Ryan’s legislative agenda would greatly benefit the United States. A president, however, is not a legislator. He or she is an executive. The presidency is not meant to be a mere rubber stamp for an undivided Congress.
Let me also add this. Donald Trump has repeatedly defied and bullied the Republicans every time anyone tried to stand up to him on the basis of common decency or ideological principle. Ryan denounced the man’s “textbook” racism, and then he proceeded to insist on supporting this bigot for president of the United States. What exactly does anyone think would happen if Trump were to abuse the executive authority of the presidency? Would a Republican Senate impeach him? Does anyone think that Trump would not use every resource at his disposal to circumvent Congressional oversight? George W. Bush and Barack Obama got away with torture and assassination of American citizens, respectively, and neither of their parties reined them in. What do you think Donald J. Trump will try to get away with? Paul Ryan’s entire premise is that checks and balances are a hindrance to the accomplishment of the Republican agenda. If that’s the argument he’s making now, in the context of Trump’s “textbook” racism, imagine how Congressional Republicans will respond to Trump’s executive actions.
[2] Even the term, “spoil,” implies that the inviolable integrity of the election cycle is somehow damaged by the intrusion of a foreign, harmful object that has no business being there. The fact that both Republicans and Democrats, if they agree on nothing else, tend to agree that third parties “spoil” elections ought to tell you everything you need to know about the two major parties’ Faustian arrangement. One can imagine a pair of seven-year-olds screaming at the somewhat gawky, bespectacled girl who lives next door, “GOD! WHY DO YOU RUIN EVERYTHING?” and storming out of the playhouse when she has merely committed the cardinal sin of asking if she could play, too.

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