While the conservative movement has fallen short of the outright civil war that’s often talked about in the media, there are multiple flashpoints that are creating general paralysis in the movement as the various factions of conservative thought try to find a way forward. Even the small and, up until recently, mostly cohesive remnant of conservatives who’ve chosen to stand athwart the nationalist and populist trends in the broader conservative movement are losing themselves in internal squabbles over what to do next.
As a member of that remnant, I have begun pondering many of the major flashpoints of contention. Today, I want to consider the question of putting “prudence over principle” or “prioritizing the important principles” as some have phrased it. This is the choice of whether or not to vote for politicians you don’t much care for or who fail to reflect key aspects of your values in order to oppose those you are very much against.
In 2016, most conservatives were faced with choices they didn’t like. While many conservatives eventually made their peace with Donald Trump’s influence in the movement, the fact that he only received 44.9% of Republican votes in the primary tells us he was not the first choice of a significant majority of the party. But in the general election, he was running against Hillary Clinton.
Additionally, several key issues, such as Supreme Court nominations, softened the initial #NeverTrump impulse that washed over what, at the time, remained a significant portion of the party. By the time November 8th rolled around, most Republicans and conservatives had fully embraced a “lesser of two evils” approach to the election.
As I said earlier, I’m part of a remnant of conservatives that opted out of this “lesser of two evils” thinking. My stance was not only #NeverHillary, not only #NeverTrump, but #NeverTyranny as I was faced with a decision that, I felt, led to an expansion of federal power and intrusion into our liberties no matter who I voted for.
My stance on “prudence over principle” or “prioritizing the important principles” remains the same now as it was back then. I value prudence, but there are limits at which prudence becomes carelessness. Elections are among the most emotional and formational experiences in modern politics. There is no such thing as passive support for a candidate nor a qualified vote in the ballot box, at least not in a functional, meaningful way.
As we have seen with Donald Trump, the election experience and euphoria of victory transforms “lesser evils” into “greater goods.” Passive 2016 support became full-throated 2020 support. Qualified 2016 votes became blank check votes in 2020. Plugged-nosed votes for Trump in 2016 in the name of supporting the values of the Republican platform became a 2020 election effort that was absent a party platform altogether.
So, while prudence suggests there is no such thing as a perfect candidate and that it is wise to make our peace with candidates who do not represent all of our values in order to keep candidates who reflect none of our values out of office, that prudence can easily slip into dangerous imprudence if we compromise too many of our core ideals.
As much as members of the human race like to think of themselves as intellectually consistent, we’re not. We are social creatures subject to the forces of tribalism and conformity as a matter of hardcoded DNA. Things that may seem absurd or crazy when one person does it alone become second nature and compulsory when engaged in by a crowd.
Each one of us is a human being with ingrained impulses that can have us staring in consternation and uncomfortable observation of one person acting alone only to sprint to engage in what was bizarre and silly just moments before as a person becomes a pair, a pair becomes a group, and a group swells to a crowd.
In politics especially, a marginal element of political activists can have all the reason and rational arguments in the world, and people will remain rooted in their place and blissfully separated from “those people” who they will ridicule and mock. But those same people [who deride the lonely but reasoned stand] will sprint to associate themselves with a popular element even if it stands for unhinged, disjointed, and vague ideas and they will staunchly defend “our movement” from even the most well-intentioned and reasoned naysayers.
This is the great danger of negative partisanship that sets aside core principles. When the impetus becomes absolute and unqualified opposition to whoever we deem as our political enemies, when we proceed with an unquestioning view that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” we put ourselves at the mercy of forces, crowds, and ideas that will unmoor us from even our most deeply held principles, values, and beliefs. And often, this will occur without even realizing just how far we've drifted from where we thought we stood.
The word principle comes from the Latin principium meaning a beginning or a foundation. For something to be a principle it must be the starting place of our consideration and the foundation upon which our values and beliefs are built. If the place we begin our political considerations is negative partisanship, then the journey and the destination become entirely different. If the foundations we have built upon get shifted to accommodate calculated adjustments of which principles matter when and why, then all our values and beliefs built upon that foundation will collapse.
Principium is further derived from another Latin word: princeps. Princeps means simply “first.” So, if a principle is not placed first in our decisions, deliberations, and actions, it isn’t a principle. If they are placed second, third, fourth, or fifth, they become preferences, inclinations, or sensibilities, still able to be important aspects of our thought process for sure, but far from notions that guide us and moor us.
The importance of having principles and holding to them is that they allow us to counter our human nature. Through calm deliberation and careful thought, the development of principles allows us to decide for ourselves what we believe and what we will stand for. Having principles creates a firewall against the inclinations and impulses of peer pressure, of popular movements, and of our ingrained tribalism.
By setting down our principles, however noble the reasons seem, we are setting ourselves adrift on a sea of human discontent and we will be carried away on whatever tides of populism we place ourselves at the mercy of.
So, what happens after that point?
As I mentioned at the beginning, I belong to a small remnant of conservatives who resisted the impulses of tribalism and tried to stick to their principles in 2016. But I also belong to an even smaller subset of that remnant who recognized that what happened in 2016 wasn’t just the result of some particular failure on the political Right. It was simple human weakness and, in the face of unhinged populism, serially weak political institutions, and general political decay, it has come to pervade the Right, the Left, and the Center.
In the face of Donald Trump’s presidency, many who stood athwart the “lesser of two evils” determination in 2016 changed their political calculus in 2020. They arrived at a conclusion that Donald Trump had come to be an existential threat to democracy in America, and they reasoned that above everything else, they should support, campaign for, and vote for the side that “stood for Democracy” (Democrats) in opposition to the side that “threatened democracy” (Republicans) even if, in so doing, they helped put a party and a movement in power that stood against every other conservative principle. They concluded that Trump and Trumpism were not a typical political “evil” and that the Democrats, and their presidential candidate, weren’t just lesser evils but, indeed, greater goods in the face of the threat that Donald Trump represented.
But, living in a very conservative state and having seen this same thought process play out in 2016, where so many conservatives surveyed Barack Obama’s presidency and Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and arrived at a similar conclusion that another four years of Democratic governance was an existential threat to the Republic (a thought process that turned Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency from a lesser evil to a greater good), I once again chose to stand athwart what I surmised to be another “lesser of two evils” determination and “Flight 93 Election” justification.
I offered a warning that there was no guarantee Joe Biden would be the moderate “holdover” candidate he campaigned as and that recent political history had demonstrated that both parties had a propensity for claiming sweeping mandates from even the narrowest of victories. I cautioned people that when you start thinking like a partisan you often become a partisan, and that in the flush of victory it would become easy to forget Joe Biden only represented your values and principles in the most limited sense. I told them that if they wanted to fall on the sword to get Trump out of the White House, so be it, but that they would have to hold Biden’s feet to the fire with intense ferocity if they wanted to have any hope at maintaining the efficacy of their conservative witness in the face of a progressive government they had enabled. I asked people to really think carefully about what they were doing, because if our small remnant of principled conservatives became unmoored from the principles we sought to preserve by taking the stances we took in 2016, there would be no one left in the aftermath to rise above the fray and guide conservatism back to the principles, values, and beliefs it has abandoned in the heat of impassioned partisanship.
Unfortunately, I fear these warnings have played out. Having offered support, campaigned for, and voted for a Democratic candidate, a great many non-Trump conservatives have developed blinders to the eccentricities and unhinged direction of the Democratic Party. They offer no quarter to bad faith from Republicans but carry water and offer excuses to bad faith from Democrats. They have come to think like partisans.
Very few of these “Conservatives for Biden” have pivoted to a place of strident objection to the actions of the Biden administration that violate the principles of conservative governance time and time again. Even as Joe Biden has evolved into an activist president seeking the mantle of LBJ and FDR as he openly embarks on a project to usher in a “new progressive era” the passions of my former fellow travelers remain zeroed in on Donald J. Trump and those who refuse to leave his shadow. Despite Trump’s defeat and banishment, they feel that the existential crisis that “threatens democracy” remains in full force and they must stay the course. To the extent they have pivoted away from outright Democrat boosterism, it is towards projects that survey what remains of the Republican Party and the conservative movement and declares “burn it down!”
And, crucially, the brief moment of self-awareness in the aftermath of January 6th went uncapitalized. Even as so many conservatives and Republicans stood in shock that the violent agitators pushing against barricades, assaulting police officers, and driving our elected officials from the Capitol weren’t far-left anarchists and agitators but people calling themselves patriots and engaging in political violence in the name of conservatism, even in the face of this the non-Trump conservatives who chose to fall on their swords to beat Trump were too easily dismissed because the question of how on earth standing for conservative “principles first” led to voting for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had an answer to difficult to explain effectively to who those who, yes, were horrified at the violence on January 6th but, when looking at the summer of riots, didn’t understand why Trump and Republicans were existential threats but Biden and the Democrats weren’t.
In the vacuum of clear-minded leadership and untainted principle, the lies, the equivocations, the conspiracy theories, and the pleasing rhetoric crept back in and the moment was lost. Donald Trump left the White House in disgrace as Republican leaders denounced his words and inaction while his popularity dipped among Republicans and conservatives to their lowest levels since the 2016 primary. But today, he has regained his footing and is resurging in his influence and power.
Finally, many of those who think of themselves as principled conservatives, even those who have pivoted to criticizing Joe Biden and have moved on towards efforts to revitalize conservatism, are finding it difficult to re-establish their credibility in that project.
The determination to put “principles first” has become hard to square with a past justification that only certain conservative principles were important in last year’s election and that only now are the other ones important once more. This has put people who honestly want to embark on a project to revitalize conservatism in an extremely difficult situation.
It’s just going to come off as prudish and aloof when addressing the anxieties and fears that have led so many conservatives to where they are today and to try and tell them that you’re the principled ones, you’re the ones to lead conservatism to a new dawn, you’re the ones that remain untainted from moral compromise when you’re decision to choose Biden over Trump in a lesser-of-two-evils determination is fundamentally no different than choosing to vote for Trump over Hillary or Biden in a similar determination.
By the time we got to 2020, #NeverTrump and #MAGA had come to be fueled by the same thought process. Having given themselves over to “existential threat” narratives, the choice was made to compromise. The only effective difference is which way the compromise was made. That reality makes claims to be principled while everyone else isn't ring very hollow.
That's a tragedy. And it’s a tragedy that should cause a reassessment of how to proceed. It should cause every non-Trump conservative who wants to see a renewal of truly conservative values to reevaluate what it means to have principles and what those principles demand of us in order for them to continue being principles. This is what I’m trying to do here in this episode. This is why I say the things I say and write the way I write in my newsletters and on social media.
The goals I held when I first started writing an anonymous blog all the way back in 2016 remain the same. I want to preserve and defend conservative principles. I want to renew and revive conservatism in America because the project of American conservatism is to safeguard the founding vision we have inherited, to defend it and enlarge it in our own generation, and to pass it on to the next generation intact and secure as it was passed it on to us. And while prudence demands flexibility and adaptability, the realities of our political moment have demonstrated that the chief concern must be maintaining the efficacy of our political witness.
The serial political decay that surrounds us cannot be voted away at the ballot box, it will not be reversed in our halls of government, and it will not be erased by sending empty messages tainted by partisan politics and maneuvering.
The threat to our republic is not any one man who stumbles into being an avatar for the anxieties and fears that have fueled this moment. The threat is the millions of hearts and minds across the political spectrum who have slowly lost hope in the American experiment and are giving up on the founding vision in the belief that their way of life cannot survive the present trajectory of our country.
The only way to effectively respond to this threat is to showcase straightforward and uncompromised conservative principles. Any project that claims to represent conservative principles must embrace as it’s first and foremost to offer a contrast to the departures from values and moors that the rise of nationalism and populism engenders.
The idea that the vast and overwhelming majority of conservatives who don’t understand the extent to which they have departed from their own principles were going to wake up from their fears and anxieties after the shock of defeat was always a fool’s errand. And in the face of that failure, moving the goalposts to say it was always just about defeating Trump is as dishonest and slimy as anything that came out of the White House during his tenure.
I believe it’s time for this small remnant of conservatism who have tried to stand athwart the rise of nationalism and populism in our movement to be about what our efforts should have always been about. I’ll conclude this podcast episode by speaking directly to them.
Rise above Trump, move beyond Trump, stand for the things we claim to believe in without all of this slick political operative maneuvering and posturing that play right into the hands of those who want so badly dismiss us. Go out there, stand firmly on principle and don’t back down from any fights, but show empathy and compassion for the real pain, fear, and uncertainty that people are facing.
We didn’t get to this place because Trump decided to come down the golden escalator and, in that moment, changed everything. He’s a symptom. Let’s stop treating the symptom and put our efforts towards addressing the root of the problem. Let us seek out our brothers and sisters “from every mountain and every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.” This republic will be saved one heart and one mind at a time, and we will be able to do so only by the strength and efficacy of our unvarnished and untainted appeal to principle.
So yes, be prudent, be mindful of reality, be cautious of being so strident that we end up alone in some field yelling at clouds, but as you engage in these times that have been so difficult to navigate, be sure to safeguard the most valuable things in your possession...your principles. They are the compass that can guide us through the mist and they are the strength that confound those who stand against us. No election, no politician, no moment of existential crisis is worth surrendering or polluting what, at the end of the day, is the last best hope for the American Republic.