The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
In my last post, I explained how the Republican Party can still keep Donald Trump from winning its nomination. But, realistically, it is unlikely that party leaders have the will do it. If so, we are going to have an election where the major party nominees are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I am, to understate the point, no fan of Hillary Clinton. Still, for people who care about individual liberty and limiting government power, she is a lesser evil than Trump.
I. Where Hillary is YUGELY Better.
Unlike Trump, Hillary Clinton probably will not try to deport millions of immigrants, including hundreds of thousands of children who have never known any other home. Immigrants will not be the only victims of such draconian policies. The liberties of native-born Americans will be undermined as well. Unlike Trump, she will not build a wall on the Mexican border that threatens the freedom of migrants and the property rights of large numbers of Americans.
Unlike Trump, she will not engage in massive discrimination on the basis of religion. Unlike Trump, she does not plan to order US troops to massacre innocent civilians, a proposal that is not only evil in itself, but could cause a dangerous crisis in civil-military relations. Unlike Trump, she probably won't adopt a foreign policy that will earn praise from the regime of Ex-KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin.
Free trade is another relative strength for Hillary. Her record here is admittedly inconsistent. On the campaign trail, she has tilted toward protectionism. But, when in power as First Lady and Secretary of State, she has generally supported free trade. The latter is probably a better guide to her intentions than the former, as was also true of Barack Obama, who advocated protectionism during the 2008 campaign but then generally supported free trade while in office.
By contrast, Trump has made protectionism a central theme of his campaign, which will make it tougher for him to change course. At the very least, Clinton is far less likely than Trump to seriously damage the economy by starting a huge trade war with our major trading partners, as Trump says he will do.
Hillary Clinton is also preferable to Trump on issues of freedom of speech. Unlike the Donald, she is not likely to try to use bogus libel suits and FCC harassment to suppress her critics. She also does not encourage her supporters to beat up protestors. Hillary Clinton is no paragon of free speech virtue. She wants to overrule the Citizens United decision and impose harsh new campaign finance regulations that threaten political speech by people who use the corporate form. But, sadly, so does Trump, who says he "love[s] the idea of campaign finance reform."
Like any president, Trump probably could not fully implement his agenda. But if he wins the election at all, overcoming his current severe unpopularity, it would probably be as part of a wave of support that enables the GOP to hold onto their congressional majorities. And members of Congress generally cooperate with the agenda of presidents of their own party—often, as the George W. Bush era shows—even when that agenda runs counter to some of their previous ideological commitments.
II. Does Trump have any Compensating Advantages?
Some conservatives and libertarians hold out hope that Trump would appoint judges who will protect important constitutional rights by enforcing the original meaning of the Constitution. But, given Trump's longstanding hostility to freedom of speech and constitutional property rights, that is highly unlikely.
There are, most likely, a few issues where Trump really would protect liberty more than Clinton. For example, she supports greatly expanded gun control, while Trump opposes it. But this is an issue that Democrats have had little success with even when Obama was at the height of his power; he had to limit himself to enacting mostly insignificant executive orders. There is little reason to expect that Hillary Clinton would have much greater success. Neither this issue, or any other remotely plausible edge for Trump can possibly outweigh the massive harm Trump is likely to cause with his immigration and trade policies alone, to say nothing of censorship and murdering civilians.
Some of my libertarian friends fear Hillary Clinton because of her relative hawkishness on foreign policy. This is an issue where I disagree with many other libertarians, being less dovish than they are. I do, however, believe that Hillary Clinton deserves severe criticism for her role in instigating the ill-conceived and unconstitutional Libya intervention. But that war enjoyed widespread bipartisan support when it happened, including that of a certain real estate developer/reality TV star. That in no way excuses Hillary Clinton. But it does undercut the notion that Trump would handle a similar situation any better.
More generally, there is no reason to believe that Trump is averse to reckless military interventions. He has, for example, long advocated seizing the oil fields of Iraq and Libya, and keeping them for ourselves. The difference between him and Clinton in this field is not a lesser willingness to use force, but a lesser willingness to be constrained by liberal or humanitarian values in the process. Moreover, Trump's impulsiveness, authoritarian instincts and manifest ignorance make it more likely that he would stumble into a dangerous conflict, perhaps out of a desire to demonstrate the macho "strength" he is constantly boasting about. This is not a man who can be trusted with control over the world's most powerful military, including its nuclear weapons.
III. Preventing the Emergence of American Neo-Fascism.
Over and above specific issues, Trump is a greater menace to freedom than Hillary Clinton because his ascendancy threatens to Europeanize American politics by transforming the GOP into a a US version of neo-Fascist European parties, such as France's National Front, whose policies are very similar to Trumpism. Like Trump's agenda, they combine big government welfare statism with protectionism and xenophobia. If Trump is elected president on such a platform, that ideological transformation is likely to proceed apace. Parties tend to rally around the policies of their president. That means the GOP is unlikely to ever be a force for limited government for a long time to come. We might then be faced with a political system where the only major-party options are left-liberal statism and the neo-fascist kind.
By contrast, if Trump is defeated—especially if it is by a large margin—that will help discredit his platform and make the National Front scenario less likely. Republicans would then work to oppose many of Hillary Clinton's statist initiatives, just as the Tea Party arose to challenge Obama's. On the other hand, a Clinton victory is unlikely to work any major ideological transformation in the Democratic Party. It will be badly flawed, but not significantly worse than it would be otherwise.
It would be silly to suppose that the National Front tendencies in the GOP will simply disappear if Trump loses and is forced to leave the political scene. He would never have gotten so far in the first place were there not already widespread rot in the party. In particular, many conservatives badly need to rethink their often xenophobic approach to immigration, which was one of the main causes of Trump's success.
But, in the event of a Trump defeat, there is at least a chance that the GOP will recapture some of its limited-government roots. The fact that younger Republicans tend to be more pro-immigration and generally more libertarian than older ones offers some hope. But such hopes are unlikely to bear fruit any time soon unless Trump is kept out of the White House.
I can understand that some libertarians and pro-limited government conservatives cannot bring themselves to support Hillary Clinton, no matter what (though I am not squeamish about voting for a lesser evil myself). Being less awful than Trump is hardly an impressive achievement. But, at the very least, it should eliminate any reluctance to take actions that make a Clinton victory more likely—whether it be to support the Libertarian Party candidate, organize a new third party effort, or simply not support any presidential candidate at all. #NeverTrump is a house of many mansions, each infinitely classier than any Trump Tower. Together, they may yet help make America great again.