Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for the 2016 presidential election. Having already explained why this is a calamity for Catholics, and for all people of goodwill, I will not repeat those arguments here. Instead, I would make a different point. Those of us who recognize this disaster for what it is need to stay on the same team, even though our voting decisions are likely to diverge in the coming months.
First and most importantly: faithful Catholics must all plan to vote. If you cannot support Donald Trump for president, write someone in, or vote for a third-party candidate. Don’t let your disgust keep you away from the polls. If Clinton wins the White House, but is stymied by a Republican-led Congress, that will be non-trivial checks on the damage she can do to the pro-life movement and the Church. On the other hand, if demoralized conservatives stay home and allow the Democrats to sweep the down-ticket contests, Clinton will be empowered to advance the progressive agenda in leaps and bounds. It is imperative that we not allow this to happen.
What of the presidential contest? There are likely no good outcomes at this point, but people are sure to disagree on which are the worst. In weighing these questions, we should be careful not to oversimplify ethical questions in pursuit of a false sense of clarity. A vote for a third party is not really a vote for Clinton. A vote for Trump remains, first and foremost, a vote for Trump, with all that that entails. On the other hand, if many conservatives refuse to vote for Trump, a Clinton presidency is that much more likely. This is genuinely a hard situation, and there is no easy escape.
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It could be that Trump’s campaign will effectively be moribund long before November, in which case there is no compelling reason to vote for him. That of course means bracing ourselves for four years of Democratic control. As a silver lining, it would at least make matters easier among faithful Catholics and their allies. A sizable group of people loathes Trump, but will nevertheless consider voting for him in the event that he might forestall a Clinton presidency. Insofar as that cause is lost, we can band together to bury him in a morally-disapproving landslide.
That may well happen. Many Democrats and media sources that carried Trump’s water for the past year are presumably now preparing to turn on him. He should be appearing in court this coming summer to deal with fraud charges relating to “Trump University.” His own party is badly fractured, with numerous influential conservatives declaring that they cannot support him no matter what happens. If even a sizable minority of these stick to their resolution, Trump will have very little chance of capturing the White House. As a candidate who may turn even Utah into a battleground state, Trump’s odds are very long, and some have questioned whether he even wants to be president.
We live in an age of miracles and wonders, however. It could be that Clinton’s own weaknesses and legal entanglements will keep the election close, or that some unforeseen event (such as a major domestic terrorist attack) will give Trump an unexpected hot wind, as the San Bernadino attacks did last winter. In that event, at least some Catholics (primarily those living in battleground states) will need to decide whether to vote for Trump despite his vicious character, his ethically problematic positions, and his lengthy history of supporting the advance of progressivism. This will be a hard choice.
A serious case can be made for voting for Trump under those circumstances. A serious case can be made for refusing to vote for him. Serious moral deliberation will be required, and we should do our best to respect different choices among morally serious Catholics.
The best argument for Trump is that he may appoint better Supreme Court justices than Clinton (and it’s unlikely he could do worse). This is a significant consideration that, regrettably, makes voters easy to manipulate. With multiple justices aging, the next president may well have the opportunity to radically shift the profile of the nation’s highest court. Given that judicial activism is now regularly used as a means of advancing progressive social agendas, this is a serious threat.
Trump has suggested that he would appoint judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas. As an established liar, we clearly can’t trust him to follow through on these promises, but he might. Catholics who vote for Trump for that reason should make clear that their endorsement is heavily qualified, offered in extremis in light of the few and terrible options. We might think of this position as akin to, for instance, Catholics who supported Francisco Franco in fascist Spain for the sake of protecting the Church from murderous Bolsheviks. As a dictator and an ally of Hitler and Mussolini, Franco was extremely bad. No doubt some of his Catholic supporters were morally compromised through the association. Nevertheless, some who fought for the fascists in defense of the Church are remembered as heroes and martyrs. In extreme circumstances, it is sometimes necessary to support even very bad leaders. It could be argued that this is such a moment.
On the other hand, it may not be. Whatever our motivations, we cannot get past the reality that a vote for Trump really is a vote for Trump, not merely a vote for not-Hillary. If we help elect him, we will have anointed him as the leader of the Republican Party and of our nation. Reforming conservatism under the auspices of such a leader may well be impossible, and American voters will presumably hold us accountable if (as seems likely) he turns out to be a terrible president. In general, a conservative movement needs some level of moral authority in order to appeal successfully to voters. It’s difficult to see how conservatism could retain that after supporting the presidential bid of a man as vicious as Trump.
A major objective of the Never Trump movement has been to preserve some corner of conservatism from the poisonous taint of association with Trump. That may prove even more important in the long run than protecting the Supreme Court, though both objectives are clearly critical.
This is a dark hour for our nation. Our major political parties have nominated two heinously unsuitable candidates for our highest political office, and it is unclear whether there will be a real political outlet in the foreseeable future for those who have a proper respect for tradition and natural law. At such a time, we must all strive to be discerning and morally serious. Let us take heart in the realization that all earthly events are held in the Providence of God. Our Lord has promised us that, whatever else happens, even the gates of Hell will not prevail against our Mother the Church.