In the matter of Donald Trump: A response to the responders

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally last week in Charlotte. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

It is becoming increasingly difficult to have a civil conversation across the electoral battle lines, and the events of the past week have hardly made things any easier. But I meant it when I said, in my earlier posting ("An open letter to Volokh Conspiracy readers who are Trump supporters"), that I was hoping to engage readers who are Donald Trump supporters in something resembling a civil conversation. And insofar as a conversation is necessarily a two-way street, I thought it incumbent upon me to give some sort of response/reaction to the comments I received.

The posting generated more comments than is the norm here for the Volokh Conspiracy—718 comments at last count, more than anything I've written in the past—but I did read them (though I admit that toward the end I was skipping the replies, and the replies to the replies), and I did try to get at least a sense of what Trump supporters are thinking.

Here's my takeaway. I asked two questions: In light of Trump's shall-we-say "erratic" behavior (I originally called it "unstable"), what gives you any confidence that he will behave responsibly when he is in command of U.S. armed forces and the U.S. nuclear arsenal? And second, even if you have satisfied yourself on that score, what makes you think, given his rather long history of conning people, that he's not conning you now, that he won't be both unwilling and unable to deliver on any of the things he is promising?

I found the responses on Question 1 to be most interesting. Many commenters disagreed with my characterization of Trump as "unstable." Not much one can say about that; we may just have different definitions of instability. (The discussion online took place before Trump's revolting—even by the relaxed standards one applies to "locker-room talk"—conversation with Billy Bush was made public. Perhaps some of the commenters who defended Trump's stability have revised their position on this question by now.]

Many other commenters responded with some variant of the "lesser of two evils" position: "Sure, Trump's behavior is at times odd, maybe even unstable; but Hillary [Clinton] would be so much worse." (One commenter—I hope in jest—said he'd vote for Satan in a hypothetical Satan-Clinton matchup. Satan!) As one commenter put it: "I am not voting 'for Trump'—I am casting a vote for Trump because the other alternative is clearly worse to me than Donald Trump would be."

I certainly understand the notion that sometimes (perhaps often) one ends up voting for the "lesser of two evils." I also understand that, for any number of reasons, many people genuinely and deeply dislike and distrust Clinton and think that Trump, for all of his flaws, would make a better president than she would. Fine; let's just agree to disagree about that.

But as I said in the earlier posting, Question 1 wasn't about Clinton's qualifications, nor did it invite a comparison between Trump and any other candidate. Whether or not the Clinton-bashing is justified, what's the point of it? Why is it relevant to my question? In response to my request for reasons that I shouldn't be terrified of placing our armed forces and our nuclear arsenal in Trump's hands, you say "Clinton is a monster"?? I don't get it.

Yale computer scientist David Gelernter has, for months, been issuing a spirited defense of Trump along these lines. [See, e.g., here and here.] Trump, he admits, is "Mr. Nauseating," with "all the class and cool of a misbegotten 12-year-old boy," and an "infantile vulgarian." There are "important objections" to his candidacy: "Trump would be dangerous. He would further endanger our national security and world position. He might start unnecessary wars. He might even push the nuclear button."

But, Gelernter continues, Clinton would be so much worse. "There is only one way to take part in protecting this nation from Hillary Clinton, and that is to vote for Donald Trump"—for Mr. Nauseating. And not to worry about that nuclear button thing: "Ordinary politics says that Mr. Trump will not do crazy things or go off half-cocked, because Republicans in Congress will be eager to impeach him and put Mike Pence in charge. … Impeachment is Trump-voters' ace in the hole."

In an election year featuring some very peculiar arguments, this is probably the most peculiar of all: Vote for Trump, because he will be impeached.

Maybe the source of my confusion here is that I have been assuming—incorrectly, perhaps—that others approach the decision about whom to vote for in a presidential election the way I do. As I see it, pulling that lever is a pretty solemn act. The president of the United States has awesome power—quite literally, the power to blow us all to smithereens. There are, at the threshold of the decision-making process, some minimum criteria that a candidate has to meet before I can pull the lever for him/her, some complicated combination of competence, stability, integrity, knowledge, judgment, etc.

I get it that everyone has his/her own criteria and that we may apply them very differently to actual people. But I have been assuming that we all have some such criteria and that we apply them at the threshold, before we even begin to think about "better v. worse."

So I can put together a long list of people who don't meet my own personal idiosyncratic threshold test, and I assume that you could do the same. My list looks like this: Ryan Lochte, Kanye West, Hulk Hogan, Lindsay Lohan, Al Sharpton, Bobby Knight, Sarah Palin, Bashir al-Assad, Tim Tebow, Mr. Ed, Sean Hannity. I would not vote for any of these people NO MATTER WHO ELSE WAS RUNNING because I do not think any one of them is remotely capable of wielding presidential power in a responsible way.

I get it that your list might have names on it that are very different from mine; I have no problem with that. And I get it that Clinton, though she is not on my list, might well appear on yours. Fine—that explains why you won't vote for her.

But I didn't ask you to explain why you weren't voting for her; I asked you to explain why you were planning to vote for Trump, and how you get past the threshold question about his fitness to serve. Clinton's failings don't (and can't) get you past that threshold.

I can try to put myself in your shoes, by imagining that Trump were running against, say, Vladimir Putin. I grant you: In that race, Trump is the better choice, the lesser of two evils. But I'd never reach the question "who would make a better president?," because neither meets my threshold criteria. What would I do? That's an easy one; I'd either vote for Gary Johnson, who does (though not by much) meet my own personal test of fitness to be president, or I'd stay home and pray—hard—for the future of my country.