Like Ted Cruz, millions of conservatives who have every reason to reject Donald Trump will vote for the Republican nominee in November. Cruz is just the most recent high-profile Republican to make the case that key differences between the two candidates—particularly on likely Supreme Court nominees—make Trump the better choice.
But Cruz’s and others’ reasoning is short-sighted. While it’s true that Trump’s known policy preferences are more conservative than Clinton’s, and while it’s likely enough that Trump will stick to these preferences, voting for him is still a bad bet for conservatives, and especially for religious conservatives.
Here are two reasons.
The first is that Trump as Republican president will come to represent conservatism. If we vote for him, then he’s in the club, whether we like it or not. And it’s unavoidable that the extent to which he represents conservatism is the extent to which he can corrupt it.
The second reason is that voting for a bad candidate only makes sense on a four-year time horizon.
In all likelihood, a vote for Trump is a vote for four Trump years and 4-8 years of the Democrat lucky enough to run against him in 2020. If Trump does become president, he will quickly become a historically unpopular one. Without popularity, and without the outsider’s appeal he has had this time around, he’ll be easily beaten by almost any Democrat not named Hillary Clinton in 2020. This includes any Democrat who chooses to run on a Sanders-esque platform of full-throated progressivism.
On the other hand, a vote for Hillary is effectively a vote for a 4-year term, followed by 4 to 8 years of a (non-Trump) Republican president. Already unpopular, Clinton would have a very difficult time asking Democrat-weary voters for a fourth consecutive Democratic term in the White House, making 2020 a golden opportunity for conservatives.
In other words, a Clinton win in 2016 probably means more total Republican years in the White House between now and 2029. Choosing a bad Democrat over a bad Republican this year allows the possibility of a successful conservative candidate in the next few elections, while the second all but rules it out.
As for the Supreme Court itself (admittedly this is where the Trump temptation has the greatest pull), these four years are not uniquely crucial when the two alternatives are considered.
The thought of Hillary Clinton nominating two or three justices stings. In all likelihood her one-term presidency would end with only three conservatives on the court: Thomas, Roberts and Alito. Her (probably Republican) successor would have limited opportunities to increase that number by replacing liberals. But it becomes clear, taking a twelve-year look, that there are no good options for conservatives now that a damaged candidate has won the nomination.
Trump’s Democratic successor would likely replace Thomas and Alito and possibly Roberts between 2021 and 2029, pushing the court again toward a 5-4, 6-3, or even 7-2 liberal majority (Trump would at very best get the count of conservatives on the court up to 6, as no liberal justice would voluntarily step down during his presidency). Unless we think a Trump presidency would usher in a Republican dynasty in the White House, there’s no good reason to think it would leave the court in better shape a decade from now than a Clinton presidency.
There are some reasonable objections here as to the urgency of the situation. Isn’t it true that we can’t afford four years of Hillary right now? Won’t she irreparably damage the country? Isn’t this election a historic turning point?
Probably not. Every election feels that way. I say this as a Christian who suspects that, in the coming decades, religious institutions will be severely marginalized and believers forced to make painful choices between their faith and major aspects of public life. We know what persecution looks like, and we’re not there yet. Having a conservative president will be almost certainly be more important in 2026 than in 2018.
Bottom line: strategic religious conservatives should not, by voting, sabotage their own movement—particularly when the option remains to sabotage the other side. Let them have four years of Hillary. Don’t let us be stuck with Trump.