It’s come to this: Hillary Clinton is the one person standing between America and the abyss.
To her left stands Bernie Sanders, whose kamikaze strategy seems designed less to pull Clinton to the left than it does to weaken her so much that she actually loses to Donald Trump. An ideological purist who joined the Democratic Party out of convenience, Sanders has become the Ralph Nader of 2016, willing to risk the country’s future in a point of pique. In the deluded imaginings of many of Sanders’ supporters—by no means discouraged by the candidate himself—an election victory for the Donald would fulfill the Leninist dictum of “heightening the contradictions” of capitalism, bringing America closer to the brink of disaster and bettering the chances of the Vermont socialist’s hoped-for “revolution.”
To Clinton’s right stands Trump, a brashly authoritarian populist who calls for violence against protestors at his campaign events, venerates foreign dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin, sees something admirable in the Chinese Communist regime’s crackdown on student protests at Tiananmen Square, and assures us that, under his rule as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. soldiers will murder the families of terrorists.
In the center remains Hillary Clinton, who, whatever her manifold faults, is the only candidate promising some form of economic, social and political continuity with the present. Thus, not only is Clinton the obvious choice for those who don’t want to see our country degenerate into a banana republic, she’s the clear conservative choice as well.
Having endured for a quarter century the slings and arrows of what she once memorably termed “the vast right-wing conspiracy,” Clinton seems a strange champion of the conservative cause. But this is a strange campaign. That Clinton is the conservative option owes less to her beliefs (which are mostly progressive) than it does to the fact that the presumptive nominee of the ostensibly conservative party has no interest in conserving anything at all.
The originator of modern conservatism is Edmund Burke, the English parliamentarian whose Reflections on the Revolution in France remains, some 250 years later, the movement’s urtext. Watching in horror as revolutionaries across the English Channel violently overthrew the monarchy and laid waste to the institutions that had sustained French society, Burke offered timeless observations on the fickleness of human nature and the desirability of slow, considered, prudent change.
Burke was by no means a mindless reactionary. He enthusiastically supported the cause of American independence from his own king, acknowledging that the colonists had a stronger intellectual and moral claim to rebel against an unjust foreign order than the French did to depose, with no clear alternative, their monarchy. At the heart of Burke’s philosophy, which remains relevant, is a belief that man is not perfectible, that his accomplishments are worth preserving, and that the accumulated wisdom of the human experience ought be considered before engaging in systematic change.
Can anybody seriously dispute that, set against this definition, Clinton is more conservative than Trump? What ultimately makes this so, more than any particular set of policy positions, is one characteristic: predictability. While we know how Clinton would govern as president, no one, not even his supporters, can tell us how Trump might behave once in office. And even when it comes to quotidian policy matters, Clinton has better conservative credentials. Trump proposes—among other radical changes—undoing the global security architecture that has ensured unprecedented peace and prosperity since World War II, engaging in trade wars with various countries, and vowing to act beyond the constitutional bounds of the presidency—bounds that are set by precedent and traditionally accepted by the officeholder in tacit respect for the limits of the office.
Needless to say, respect for “precedent” and “limits,” two crucial elements of the conservative temperament, are not characteristics that Donald Trump possesses.
A frequent charge levelled at the current administration by conservatives, and not without reason, is that President Obama frequently overstepped these bounds, doing more than any of his predecessors to empower the executive branch at the expense of the congress and judiciary. Rather than remain philosophically consistent, however, many Republican politicians and so-called conservative “intellectuals” are now defending a candidate who openly disdains the rule of law. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan decried “the Beltway intelligentsia” (presumably excluding herself from it, somehow) for admonishing Trump. We #nevertrumpers, Noonan scolds, fail to see that his racist and paranoid demagoguery is actually a sympathetic channeling of middle American angst. Rebuking those of us who challenge Trump’s conservative credentials, Noonan writes that “Voters have their own ideas of what conservatism is.”
With all due respect to Noonan and the Trump backers she validates: there are many words one could use to describe the presumptive Republican nominee and his putative political ideology, but “conservative” is not one of them. Just ask Trump himself, who’s pointedly emphasized that the party he’s the presumed presidential candidate of “is called the Republican Party, it’s not called the Conservative Party.”
Shamefully, conservatives are allowing this charlatan, a gruesome amalgamation of the Monopoly Man and Elmer Gantry, to transform the Republican Party into an ethno-nationalist populist movement. And as he does to everyone who eventually succumbs to his power, Trump will disappoint the conservative intellectuals who have twisted themselves into knots defending him. Indeed, he long ago preemptively humiliated any purported “intellectual” supporter when he declared his “love” for “the poorly educated” voters flocking to his campaign, the kind of thing tin-pot dictators believe but don’t say for fear of offending their base. Trump, though, correctly realizes that his supporters are too stupid or self-pitying to care about his open contempt for them.
Michael Oakeshott, one of Burke’s most erudite intellectual heirs, defines the conservative disposition as one that “prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite” ones and “favors a slow rather than a rapid pace, and pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments.” Irrespective of the candidates’ views on the actual issues (to the extent that those views can even be discerned), Clinton is the candidate of the status quo, something that conservatives, by definition, are supposed to uphold.
As egregious as the dealings of the Clinton Foundation may be, as much as her use of a private email server indicates a disturbing lack of regard for the rules, Hillary Clinton ultimately operates within the normal remit of an American political leader. Trump, meanwhile, is what the American historian Walter Russell Meade calls the “control alt delete candidate,” one who, like a Khmer Rouge revolutionary, wishes to erase everything and start all over again at Year Zero.
Conservatives insisting that Hillary Clinton is just as bad as Donald Trump are deluding themselves. Clinton has never threatened a judge nor insisted that his ability to decide a case is impaired by ethnic background, as Trump has done with Gonzalo Paul Curiel, the highly-respected federal jurist deciding the Trump University fraud case. Hillary Clinton does not believe that NATO, the most successful military alliance in world history and a guarantor of peace and security on a continent marred by war, is obsolete; Trump does. Hillary Clinton does not call for the proliferation of nuclear weapons, thereby upending a bipartisan foreign policy consensus in place since the administration of Harry Truman; Trump does. Finally, no one seriously worries that Hillary Clinton will encourage her supporters to carry out violent acts.
The case for Hillary Clinton is that she’s not Donald Trump. The fate of the Republic hangs upon his defeat.