by Mitch Croom
In the final days of Election 2016, Hillary Clinton looks poised to win the presidency by a comfortable margin. The only poll that matters will be taken on Nov. 8, and attempts to call the election a week beforehand can only be hubris, but to the extent that we can tell anything from polling, we can tell that Clinton is ahead. By a lot.
Usually at this point in the campaign, both candidates are within the margin of error, and the focus shifts to state-level polling in an attempt to determine the Electoral College winner. Yet in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape and a predictably incompetent third debate performance from Donald Trump, poll after poll puts Clinton in a high-single-digit or low-double-digit lead over her opponent. Any single poll could be entirely wrong, but polling aggregators like Real Clear Politics draw on numerous polls to increase their collective reliability. They all tell the same story: Clinton is winning both the popular and Electoral votes by a substantial amount.
Certainly, Trump’s incoherence on a debate stage and the fact that he sexually assaulted women with frequency and impunity are playing a major role in his campaign’s implosion, as is his tendency to tweet petulantly at 3am.
But at the heart of many of his personal and professional failings lies the deepest fault of all: despite being the nominee of the Republican Party, he’s not a conservative.
On SNL last week, Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the nation had a clear choice on Election Day: whether to vote for a Republican, or to vote for Donald Trump. Of course, the implication that Clinton, long viewed as one of the more liberal Democrats, is a conservative is little more than mudslinging from the fringe left. But the joke hit home because Donald Trump has left a vacuum in the Republican ticket that Clinton has tried to fill by running toward the center. Her campaign has focused on inclusion, patriotism, experience, and the idea that Americans are all “Stronger Together.”
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Despite having truckloads of policy proposals, her campaign has actually shied away from putting policy specifics front and center. The strategy is simple and effective: keep the conversation on issues where Americans broadly agree, make everyone feel as good as possible about voting for Clinton, and stay away from any particular policy issues that could alienate people. Trump has taken the opposite approach, campaigning on a few key policy issues (deporting illegal immigrants, building a wall, “making better deals,”) that are sharply divisive and hoping he excites enough turnout among his base to make up for losing the center. It’s a strategy that worked for George W Bush twice, and to a lesser extent for Barack Obama in 2008.
However, the base won’t believe whatever a candidate wants them to. They’re more loyal to a party’s nominee than most, but they have their limits, and on many feel-good GOP base issues – traditional marriage, welfare cuts, overturning Roe v. Wade – Trump has ranged from apathetic to antagonistic. Since the nomination, he’s put on airs for the religious right, but few are buying it. Those social conservatives who are voting for Trump frequently justify it on the grounds that “Hillary is worse,” which from their perspective is certainly true. But the “lesser of two evils” rarely gets out the vote in droves.
Trump’s approach is more than a strategic failure, it’s an abdication of his role as the leader of conservatism in America.
The two “big tent” major parties are supposed to adopt policies representative of the center-left and center-right. Candidates can pick and choose their specifics, but in 21st century America the parties have clear ideological positions. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats aren’t really present in American political life anymore. As the GOP nominee, Trump was expected to carry the torch of conservatism.
Yet Trump has failed to champion many stock conservative issues. He certainly doesn’t embody the ideal Republican, as past candidates have. John McCain is a war hero and dedicated public servant, Mitt Romney is probably the most morally “upright” guy you’ll ever meet, and Trump…well, listen to the Access Hollywood tape for yourself, as well as his comments on McCain’s war hero status. There is a reason that neither McCain, nor Romney, nor George W Bush has endorsed him. Based on the testimony of friends, we know that George H W Bush is voting for Clinton, the wife of the man who beat him for a second term in 1992. In any other election, that news would be stunning. In 2016, it seems like the only sensible choice for the most moderate Republican president in recent history.
Ironically, while Trump is an extremist, he’s not a real conservative. His extremism isn’t about conservatism, it’s about right-wing populism and authoritarianism.
It’s a cult of personality mixed with white working-class resentment. It has nothing to do with real conservatism, unless we want to call the warped ramblings of the alt-right and conspiracy theorists “conservatism.”
Members of my family who have never voted Democratic in their lives are voting for Hillary. Republicans who attend my college, who are usually bulwarks of moderate conservatism in the face of a liberal onslaught from the vast majority of their classmates and friends, switched sides almost the minute Donald got the nomination. He is anathema to centrism, but more importantly to conservatism. Many of these individuals would have voted (more or less) happily for Ted Cruz, himself a radical right-winger who believes in any number of things that I would lump into a basket of deplorables. But he is undeniably a conservative.
Donald Trump is not a politician (or at least he wasn’t when he started this race over a year ago). He will tell you that proudly. It’s what built his early campaign, and what inspires many to vote for him today. But the price he pays for being a political outsider is his ignorance. He doesn’t understand policy, politics, or how to speak for twenty minutes at a time without offending a major American demographic group. And he doesn’t understand what the members of his own party want. He clearly isn’t a true conservative, and his ignorance renders him unable to even pretend for the sake of campaigning.
My conservative friends and neighbors deserve better.
They deserve a standard-bearer who doesn’t repulse them (and most of America). They deserve a leader who can craft a conservative vision that appeals to the people. They deserve someone who can speak on their behalf and give their ideas the best possible shot at becoming law. Let me be clear: I would fight wholeheartedly against those ideas. I am a liberal, and sometimes not even that moderate of one. But winning elections by default, because your opponent is a creepy, misogynistic, racist, babbling serial liar is not only unrewarding and unsportsmanlike, it’s bad for American democracy.
The whole point of majority rule is that issues get a fair airing by both sides, people consider both sides of the issue, and the people make their choice. In this election, a lot of people are voting for Clinton not because they agree with her policies, but because they see Trump as unfit, unstable, and a threat to the Republic. Even if she wins in a landslide, Clinton won’t be able to believably claim a mandate for her boldest ideas. She will likely win by default, because her opponent was so staggeringly unqualified that an independent Republican challenger in Utah has caused the state’s popular vote to become a three-way tie. Evan McMullin, who is only on the ballot in eleven states, who would lose the presidency even if he won all eleven of those states, may win Utah, the first time a third-party candidate has won a state since George Wallace in 1968. McMullin is a registered Republican running on the Republican platform. The difference between him and Trump is that McMullin is an actual conservative, and the people of Utah seem to care a great deal about that distinction. The latest polling in Utah has Clinton, Trump, and McMullin all within the margin of error of each other.
Without a leader to champion their ideals, conservatives have taken desperate measures. Some support an independent McMullin with no chance of winning the White House. Some support Gary Johnson, who (as I discussed previously) is also totally unfit to be president. And some have sold out to the Trump ticket, rationalizing their endorsement as the “lesser of two evils” or predicating their support on the idea that Speaker Ryan will keep Trump in check. We need only look at Ryan and Trump’s ongoing feud to dispel the myth of a controllable, reasonable Trump.
American conservatives lack a viable candidate in this election, and that helps no one. Us liberals should never seek to win by shutting down our opponents. We should encourage them to speak so that we can speak back. We should win on the merits of our positions, not because the GOP primary chose a lunatic to carry their flag. When the American presidential election is reduced from a campaign of grand ideas to its current state, it does a disservice to all Americans. As a staunch liberal, I hope the right can rise from the ashes in time for 2020. Not only is it no fun winning like this; it’s not really winning at all.
Mitch Croom is a joint BA/MPP student at the College of William & Mary, where he studies international security, American politics, and civil rights. He is the current Senior Research Fellow at the Project on International Peace and Security, the only undergraduate think tank in the world. Also at W&M, he serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Monitor Journal of International Studies, the Chair of Student Life in the William & Mary Student Assembly, and the President of the Graduate Policy Association.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.