[Note: If you’re looking at this post’s length and saying “yeah, I’m not investing the time to read a book when I came here looking for a blog post” then here is the TL;DR version: assume for the sake of argument that I, a conservative Trump critic, vote for Biden in November — not because I support Biden’s leftist policies, but as a rejection of Trump and Trumpism. (In reality I’m more likely to cast a protest vote; this is a hypothetical.) If you’re a Trump voter, you don’t get to blame me for the bad policy things Biden does, like bad judges … unless I get to blame YOU, right here and right now, for every stupid tweet Donald Trump has ever written. If that’s not provocative enough to get you to read the post, then have a lovely Saturday — but do me a favor and don’t comment below unless you have read the whole thing. People who make arguments I have already addressed in the post are going to get the back of my hand and they will deserve it.]
Chances are, when I ask a question like that posed in the headline, you picture a concrete situation in your head and answer accordingly. “Of course a Biden voter will have to take responsibility for the judges he appoints” or “I voted for Trump but that doesn’t mean I’m responsible for his stupid tweets.” Having surveyed the apparent contradiction between the two statements I just made, the person who wants to say both things might say: “Well, a voter takes responsibility for his candidate’s policies but not his personal behavior. He’s voting for the former, not the latter.”
Put a pin in that while I go on what might seem like a digression (warning: a long one), but in reality isn’t.
I have been thinking a lot about the defense many Trump voters offer to justify their vote for Trump: “I think he’s a ridiculous person and needs to get off Twitter but I love what he has done.” I’m going to call these people the Pragmatic Trump Voters, and I have never criticized them for this stance, ever. Not once. You can check. I criticize the people who praise or minimize or dissemble about Trump’s moral failings, but you have never seen me criticize the people who frankly acknowledge Trump’s moral failings, but vote for him due to a greater concern about policy.
Their view doesn’t work for me personally because, for one thing, there’s too much of Trump’s policy I don’t like. I like a couple of things he has done (some immigration initiatives, some regulatory loosening, and most of his judges being the primary example) but I dislike a lot of what he has done (impose ruinous tariffs; alienate friends and embolden dictators; attack, undermine, and ultimately corrupt law enforcement and the Department of Justice; contribute to a culture of ugliness, dishonesty, and contempt for rules and norms; set a standard that personal corruption is no big deal and indeed to be defended) as well as what he has failed to do (such as make any effort to rein in federal spending; or make a genuine effort to repeal ObamaCare). Based on my numerous policy disagreements with the man, I cannot personally defend — at least in this instance — the notion of voting for a fundamentally bad man on the basis of policy, because there’s too much of his policy that I disagree with.
So there’s that phrase: “in this instance.” That caused me to ask myself: “How would I feel if I had a president who actually carried out each and every one of my policy goals but was as wretched as Trump is on a personal level?” In other words, what if I were as happy as the Pragmatic Trump Voters I speak with about a particular politician’s policies? Could I bring myself to vote for someone who carried out my favored policies, but was as big an ass as Trump is on a personal level?
And this is going to seem like a cop-out, but it’s my genuine attempt at an answer: I don’t think such a scenario is possible. Because the things I care about — which (as has become very clear to me) are not the things most Republican voters care about — are things that require a moral person in office to accomplish.
I care deeply about having someone in office who is not corrupt. Someone who puts country first and their own pocketbook and, in important situations, even their own political fortunes second. I still disagree with Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon, and I know that’s an unpopular view these days, but I respect Ford for making that decision. Because I believe he did it because he truly believed that it was the best move for the country, even though he knew it might cost him the election. Donald Trump is the complete opposite of this ethic in every way. He cares only about himself, period, and never puts anything or anyone ahead of his own interests.
This, fundamentally, is the problem. I could go on about other ways that someone of Trumpian morals cannot possibly accomplish the policy goals I desire in terms of issues such as building trust in federal law enforcement and DoJ; proper relations with foreign leaders; and a host of other issues. But at rock bottom, it all comes down to whether the president is going to put himself first or his country first. And someone who always and everywhere puts himself first is not someone who can realistically accomplish what I want accomplished by a president.
That’s a hell of a digression. Remember: my opening question was: does a voter bear responsibility for everything his candidate does? The point of the digression was to address the argument that one bears responsibility only for the policy choices of your candidate and not their personal shortcomings. For me, it has become apparent that one cannot separate the two. The presidency is a singular role: an entire branch of government embodied in a single person, with primary responsibility for foreign relations and a host of domestic responsibilities, including many that have been delegated by Congress — either formally, as in the tariff or immigration areas, or informally, through a systematic congressional failure to assert its own authority in countless areas of policy. You can’t validly make a personal/policy distinction — or even a words/action distinction of the sort Trump supporters often urge (“look at what he does and not what he says!”) because the personal matters, and the words matter.
In steadfastly refusing to criticize the Pragmatic Trump Voters, I have essentially taken the position that, no, a voter does not bear moral responsibility for the bad qualities or policies of his preferred candidate — as long as 1) he can articulate a sensible alternate criterion upon which he based his vote; and 2) he fully acknowledges the bad qualities of his preferred candidate and never minimizes, ignores, or justifies them. A voter confronted with two candidates, each of whom is a mixture of good and bad qualities, cannot be held morally responsible for everything bad that their preferred candidate does — unless those bad things are the reason for their vote, or unless they pretend those bad aspects of their preferred candidate don’t exist. Similarly, the voter cannot be held morally responsible for the inability of their non-preferred candidate to do the good things that candidate would have done if elected — as long as the same conditions hold true.
Why do I say “moral” responsibility? Because, sure, there’s some level of responsibility to the extent that you were aware of the bad qualities and chose to vote as you did regardless. You can’t claim to be shocked that, say, Trump acts like an asshole as president, or that Biden nominated bad judges. It’s all, as Trump minimizers love to say, baked into the cake. To me, the distinction is similar to that of the person who chooses to walk in a bad area of town by themselves late at night and is robbed. Can they claim to be shocked that they were victimized? No, but in my view they nevertheless bear no moral responsibility for having been victimized. Same goes for the voter who votes for an imperfect candidate (*whispered*: they are all imperfect). That voter cannot plausibly be assigned moral responsibility for all the bad stuff his candidate does, unless the voter a) voted for the candidate for that reason and/or b) pretended that the bad stuff doesn’t exist or isn’t that bad.
To get back to the italicized provocation that opened this post: the reason I am expounding on this at some length is because I have been thinking about what happens to the GOP if Trump loses in 2020. (If he wins, which he might, the analysis is simpler: more of the same but on steroids.) That will be a separate post, but for the first two years at least there is going to be a very nasty and very tiresome blame game. Trump fans will blame Never Trumpers for all the bad stuff Biden does — “look! we’re losing control of the Supreme Court! and look! he’s doing awful thing x, y, and z!” — and Never Trumpers will respond with some variant of “well maybe if you hadn’t spent so much time and energy rationalizing the actions of a narcissistic corrupt criminal dipshit, you wouldn’t have alienated the whole country.” It will be endless and repetitive and very very ugly. It will be followed by something else — but during that two years or so, it will seem like the same argument will repeat itself for all eternity.
In that argument, the pro-Trump faction will be composed (as it always is) of Trump superfans and Pragmatic Trump Voters. (It’s an oversimplification but a useful one.) I could not give less of a shit about the Trump superfans. I find those people repugnant and utterly untrustworthy. They can all go to hell. I’m addressing myself to the Pragmatic Trump Voters here. And again, I have never criticized y’all for being Pragmatic Trump Voters.
And what I’m saying here is: if you think it would have been unfair for me to blame y’all for Trump’s stupid tweets or his corruption — and I do — then it’s equally unfair for you to tell me, when Biden does something awful, “well, Patterico, you asked for this.” When he nominates an ideologue for the Supreme Court, don’t tell me it’s my fault. (Again: I’m assuming here for the sake of argument that I vote for Biden; in reality I will probably cast a protest vote. Even then, you’ll still blame me for not voting for Trump, and for having criticized him all the time, so it’s not really that hypothetical that I’ll be blamed.) If you do say it’s my fault, then I get to blame you for every damned fool idiot or corrupt thing Trump ever said or did. And I didn’t do that to you before. Again, you can check. So don’t do it to me.
This is a plea from the perspective of a Trump critic. (I have never called myself a “Never Trumper” because that seems like a cohesive group and I’m not much of a joiner and don’t want to be tarred with stupid opinions members of my “group” utter.) If Trump loses, a period of ugliness is coming. Frankly, I don’t think “Never Trump” conservatives are that large a faction, so it’s hard to see how the “human scum” could truly swing the election — but such will be the desire for blame that their influence will take on an outsized role in the minds of the pro-Trump faction. There will be recriminations, and they will be bitter.
Don’t contribute to it by blaming protest voters for Biden’s leftism. It’s not fair, unless you are taking ownership of Trump’s Twitter account — and what sane person would? If we are indeed headed for the period of ugliness I described, let’s please look for ways to minimize it.
Have a great Saturday!