Several people have asked me what to tell their friends who don’t like Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump and are thinking about voting third party. The answer, I think, is different if you’re talking to conservatives or moderates rather than disaffected progressives or Bernie voters. I’ll write a piece about progressives and Bernie voters another time, but here’s my argument to conservatives and moderates.
Dear moderate and conservative friends who hate Trump but also don’t like Clinton:
I don’t envy you. I’m sorry you’re in this craptastic political position. As someone who is left of center but prides myself on respecting disagreement and approaching issues from a position of reasonable analysis and empathy, I know how rough it would be for me to have to vote for a George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan to keep Donald Trump out of office. I know I would consider voting for a third party candidate who more closely aligned with my views.
But because I’ve wanted to put myself in your shoes, I’ve been thinking about this conundrum since Donald Trump won the Republican primary, and at this point I am almost positive that I would vote for Bush, Reagan, Romney, Rubio, or pretty much any other conservative if the only other realistic option was Trump. It would be genuinely painful for me, but I would do it — and at some point in the future, if there is a totally unhinged left-wing candidate running against a sane conservative who I don’t like, I want you to hold me to it.
Here’s the bottom line for me: The only thing worse than an unstable authoritarian running a country is an unstable authoritarian running a country that has the largest military in the world.
Authoritarianism can take many forms: There is left-wing authoritarianism, like in Cuba or Venezuela, and right-wing authoritarianism, like in Italy and Germany in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The best case scenario for authoritarian government is usually economic collapse. The worst case scenario is people getting rounded up and put in camps, along with massive war.
Trump doesn’t seem like Hitler because he has a better sense of humor, but he’s also incredibly impulsive and quick to anger, and even by the description of people who know him and like him, he doesn’t think through the consequences of his actions and statements more than a move or two in advance. He is also obsessed with dominance and appearing strong. Those personality issues combine to have very serious real world consequences.
You never know who someone is until he or she has real power, and Trump has already abused every little piece of power that he's been given.
It’s one thing when you’re a presidential candidate to say that you’d have ordered the U.S. Navy to open fire on an Iranian boat because they were (non-violently) taunting Americans, and even to defend this ridiculous overreaction when called out on it during a presidential debate by saying “It wouldn’t cause a war.”
But you don’t need to be a fucking admiral to know that it absolutely WOULD cause a war and to know that, if the president ordered it, the military would ultimately do it. Military officers can refuse orders, but if and when that happens their replacements generally carry the orders out. And people who know Trump — including those who like him — say that if he’s challenged on a decision, he will often not turn back on it because he doesn’t like to admit that he’s wrong.
There’s a reason why the guy with whom Trump wrote “The Art of the Deal” believes that a Trump presidency could literally be a risk to human civilization, saying, “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.” Indeed, multiple reports from inside Trump’s campaign have said that the idea of using nukes doesn’t faze him.
Meanwhile, at home, if he were president, it’s not at all hard to imagine him going off on a rant against Muslims that inspires mob violence, or that he rounds people up and puts them in camps. He’s already said that internment camps might not be a terrible idea.
The only way Trump can win the presidency is if the opposition to him splits. If enough people vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, Trump can win with a very low percentage of the vote. Hitler was elected with 32 percent, and lots of smart people at the time thought he was a joke who “can’t be THAT bad.” But you never know who someone is until he or she has real power, and Trump has already abused every little piece of power that he’s been given. What happens when you give him the US Military is a real roll of the dice.
Hillary Clinton has many faults, but she is sane. She is capable of thinking through a problem rationally, and maintaining impulse control. She will make decisions that you and I disagree with, but she will make them in a careful and reasoned way. The worst-case scenario of her presidency is not nuclear war or internment camps; it’s higher marginal tax rates and the kind of basic political favor trading that our republic has endured for hundreds of years. She may not be great in your estimation, but she will maintain the country, and in the face the serious threat embodied by Trump, that’s enough.
Deep down, I think you know that even if she isn’t a good option for you, she is a better option than he is.
I recognize that it is likely a huge ideological sacrifice for you to vote for Clinton, and I respect that. Again, I don’t envy you. But considering the profound threat the country faces from having an unstable authoritarian in charge, the unpleasantness that you would experience by voting for Clinton (or that I would experience by voting for Reagan, Bush, Rubio, etc if our roles were reversed) would represent a sacrifice that you are making for your country. Sacrifice is, by its very definition, unpleasant, but in the scheme of the sacrifices that have been made by generations before us — from the fields of Gettysburg to the shores of Normandy — it could be a lot worse.