“Two Crap Sandwiches”

A conversation with conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg on why he won’t vote for Trump or Hillary.

National Review Online Contributing Editor Jonah Goldberg addresses the Defending the American Dream Summit at the Washington Convention Center November 4, 2011 in Washington, DC.
Jonah Goldberg addresses the Defending the American Dream Summit on Nov. 4, 2011, in Washington.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I first met Jonah Goldberg in 1997, when, as a young television producer, he worked down the hall from Slate’s bureau in Washington, D.C. Despite—or perhaps because of—our extreme differences of opinion, I’ve always enjoyed talking politics with him. Given the recent spate of conservative pundits and newspapers endorsing Hillary Clinton, I’d been wondering if Jonah, now a columnist for National Review, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times, had pondered doing the same. So I emailed him. Our edited exchange is below.

Seth Stevenson: You’ve said that living in Washington, D.C., gives you some relief from worrying about how to cast your vote, since the result there is not in doubt. But you still have a big platform that you could use to endorse a candidate. Given your distaste for Donald Trump, have you given any thought to urging your readers to vote for Hillary Clinton?

Jonah Goldberg: I have given some thought to endorsing Hillary Clinton, and every time I do I recoil in horror for many of the same reasons I recoil from the prospect of endorsing Trump. They are different people with different strengths and weaknesses, but both are flatly unacceptable to me.

My position in all this is really rather simple. I’ve never much cared about the idea that I might influence voters one way or the other. We think about that kind of thing institutionally at National Review, of course. But as an independent writer, I’ve always thought playing those sorts of games was corrupting. I see my job as telling the truth as I see it. Hillary Clinton will be bad for America. Donald Trump will be bad for America. I could spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out which one would be worse—and I have many thoughts on the topic which I’m happy to share—but no matter how that question resolved itself, it wouldn’t change the fact that both are unacceptably bad. At least for me, I think it’s better to be honest and straightforward about that and let the chips fall where they may.

Many conservatives—including many friends and fans—don’t like that answer because they think I have to bend the knee to some abstract binary: If I’m not for Trump that means I’m for Hillary. This seems to me a confusion of the logic of voting (which itself is pretty faulty, voters have other options) for the obligations of a writer or analyst. Ted Cruz, before his prostration, told conservatives to vote their conscience. I’m going to speak my conscience.

When given a choice between two crap sandwiches on different kinds of bread, my response is “I’ll skip lunch”—and then I’ll tell you why.

OK, let me dig into some of this. It seems the reason some conservative pundits and editorial boards are endorsing Hillary is that they view Trump as an existential threat to the republic. Sure, the logic goes, Hillary is a liberal who will be very bad for the country in a run-of-the-mill way. But Trump is an outlier, a genuine danger to our democracy, uniquely unfit due to his temperament and lack of qualification. There is an element of genuine fear about what might happen under Trump. Does that argument not sway you at all?

I don’t dismiss that argument. I think a President Trump would strain the constitutional system the same way he tested the GOP party apparatus. I would expect a President Trump to give orders that violate the Constitution, and then we would have to see whether the system could respond adequately. Remember how he used to insist that he would bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse” tactics? When it was pointed out to him that military officers would be required to refuse unlawful orders, he said, in effect, “Oh, they’ll obey!”

He later backtracked, but I think it’s clear his instincts are utterly uninformed by constitutional norms. I hear a lot of Republicans telling me that they will manage President Trump, box him in, etc. I am extremely skeptical about the idea that President Trump will be more manageable than candidate Trump once he gets Air Force One.

So, again, I think it’s a legitimate concern.

But, I think it’s also very clear that President Hillary Clinton would have contempt for the Constitution just as Obama has (see Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru’s recent piece on this point). One could even make the case that she’s the greater danger on this front. The legal establishment, the bureaucracy, the media et al. will all either explicitly come to her aid or they will provide respectable cover, just as they did for Obama’s unilateral executive orders. One of the best things about a Trump presidency—shudder—might just be how he would elicit a healthy antibody response, forcing a new commitment to separation of powers. I’m not making the case for voting for Trump here, I think he could be a very, very dangerous president (particularly on the economy and foreign policy). What I’m saying is that America is a bit like the proverbial frog in the pot. Hillary would incrementally turn up the heat, which is at near-boil, while Trump would start at the boiling point.

But let me jump ahead and just answer the question I think you’re really getting at. I think in the short term there is a very good argument that Hillary would be worse for America than Trump. My chief worry, among many, is that Trump would be worse in the long term because he threatens to destroy modern American conservatism.

We can already see how Trump is basically refashioning conservatism (I would say “corrupting”). If Trump comes out for X, within minutes people who’ve spent decades opposed to X suddenly turn on a dime and start cheerleading for X. (See, e.g. Gingrich on NAFTA and NATO, Mike Pence on everything.)

A bunch of very smart conservatives have allowed themselves to be seduced by a very dumb idea. Specifically, they think that this problem will get better once he’s elected president. It won’t. It will get much, much, much worse. Once in office, I could very easily see him getting rolled by the bureaucracy and basically become a big government Nixonite (which is what he is in his heart already).

Or, the GOP will become a nationalist party instead of a sort of Toryish/classical liberal party. It will become protectionist, pro-authoritarian, and dirigiste. There’s already a lot of that in the Democratic Party, but a Trumpified GOP will stop offering an alternative to that and instead starting a bidding war on everything from entitlements to infrastructure spending. And I’m not even addressing the extent to which the GOP would fully surrender to leftist categories of thinking when it comes to identity politics—only in reverse. I’m against identity politics full stop, which means I’m against white identity politics at least as much as I’m against minority identity politics.

In sum, my biggest fear—or at least the fear I am most confident about—is that he will break the already-strained spine of limited government constitutionalism and classical liberalism in such a way that there will no longer be any check on the administrative state.

America can survive four years of Hillary Clinton, it can’t survive a political system divided by Sanders-style socialists and Trump-style nationalists.

But because I want my kind of conservatism to survive, I don’t think it makes any sense for me to endorse Hillary Clinton, who is open and honest about her contempt for my kind of conservatism. I want to be able to say five, 10, 20 years from now, “These are the things I believe,” without someone saying, “Oh yeah? Then why did you support Clinton or Trump?” You don’t hear a lot of people demanding that prominent libertarians choose between the lesser of two evils. I just can’t support either of these people. (Much like National Review couldn’t endorse Kennedy or Nixon—neither met the minimal standards for Bill Buckley’s understanding of conservatism.)

You are essentially making the same argument I hear 500 times a day from conservatives. They say, “If Hillary wins America is over.” You’re saying (or suggesting), “If Trump wins, America is over.” I have more faith in America and our system of government. Indeed, if we really are at a place where America’s survival hinges on a single election of a single officeholder for one branch of one of our governments, then America is already over. Because that’s not what America is.

I still sense a vast difference in amplitude here, though. Even if we stipulate that Hillary might use executive orders regarding, say, immigration or guns in ways that conservatives find unconstitutional, is that really equivalent to the concerns surrounding Trump—a trade war resulting in massive economic shock, an impulsive attitude toward foreign relations that ramps up the danger of sudden armed conflict, etc? I hear you when you say America is resilient, but aren’t the downside risks MUCH, MUCH more extreme with Trump?

They very well might be. But let’s be honest:

  1. We don’t know.
  2. My endorsement wouldn’t change facts on the ground at all.

All I can do is tell the truth as I see it and say they both stink. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but my wife sent me this quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn the other week and I’ve been sort of carrying it around in my head and my heart ever since: “You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”

How much of your reluctance is about Hillary herself and how much is about party platform? I could see myself voting for, say, Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush if they faced off against a Democrat I considered truly unqualified and dangerous. Are there specific Democrats who, if they were running against Trump, you would consider endorsing or voting for?

​A lot of my reluctance is about Hillary Clinton. I do not think she’s an honest or honorable person—and I hate her ideological views. If it was someone whose politics I disliked but who I also thought was competent and decent, my calculus would be different. I suppose I could support Joe Lieberman (heck, William F. Buckley did—against a Republican!) or Joe Manchin or maybe a saner version of Jim Webb. But there aren’t too many centrist Democrats left. That said, if the Democratic nominee was, say, Tim Kaine, I doubt I would endorse him either. But it would be a harder case to make.

I know you’ve caught a lot of flak (from readers—and even from Sean Hannity!) for not getting on board with the GOP nominee, and you’ve stood your ground. How much more flak would you get if you endorsed a Democrat? Would it be a death blow to your personal brand as a conservative pundit? Does that factor into your thinking at all?

I’ll be honest: No career counselor worth a dime would tell me to endorse Clinton. It would do lasting damage to my “personal brand” (such as it is) with little prospect of winning me any lasting Strange New Respect from liberals, particularly since my ideology hasn’t changed—the GOP’s has.

But I try very hard not to think in those kinds of terms. After all, no career counselor would have told me to take my current stance either.

The smart play would have been to express misgivings, then just make the lesser of two evils case or the anti-anti-Trump case or just stay quiet entirely. That’s what a lot of people have done, some because they sincerely believe Hillary will be worse, some because it’s a safe-harbor position that maintains some credibility while at the same time staying on the right side of the TV/radio/book-buying base. I have some sympathy for that. What I have very little sympathy for is the asinine and ridiculous charge that people like me are doing this for some kind of personal gain. (If someone is paying extra for opposing Trump, my checks have been lost in the mail.) And I have no patience for the argument that Trump is some great world-historical figure who will make America great again with his Stakhanovite will and superior intelligence.

If you believe that junk sincerely, you’ve been conned and that truly makes me sad. If you don’t believe it, yet you’re still going around saying it because you think you need to out of party loyalty or to pander to your audience, that makes you a lying hack. One of the saddest and most sobering revelations of this whole experience has been to hear from people telling me how disappointed they are that I haven’t lived down to their expectations.

Ideology and competence aside, I simply cannot abide a president who mocks disabled people, insults prisoners of war and the parents of a dead American soldier, brags about the size of his member during a televised debate, bans media outlets from his events in fits of pique, and comports himself in a manner that attracts an inordinate level of support from anti-Semites and white supremacists. You find Hillary Clinton dishonorable, and I concede she has prodigious character flaws, but it’s hard to argue that she matches Trump’s behavior with regard to stuff like this.

You say that “because I want my kind of conservatism to survive, I don’t think it makes any sense for me to endorse Hillary Clinton who is open and honest about her contempt for my kind of conservatism.” But while I am very confident that conservatism can survive four years of Hillary Clinton, I’m not so sure civil society can survive four years of Trump. Does that stuff not give you extreme pause? Does it not make him a uniquely scary and reprehensible figure—one who must be stopped from reaching the White House at all costs, even if it means backing an unsavory opponent?

Hey look, you’re not going to get ahead of me on the issue of contempt for Trump. I think he’s dishonorable, vain, and goonish. It all gives me pause, and I’ve been criticizing him for a very long time (including back when a lot of liberals thought this was all very funny and delicious when it was a problem for the GOP). What you’re describing is the George Will position. He believes the first goal for conservatives must be to make sure Trump doesn’t win. I have sympathy for that, and there are days when I have more than just sympathy.

But it’s funny (though maybe not ha-ha funny) that many conservatives think this country will be “over” the moment Hillary wins. There are many liberals who think this country will be over the moment Trump wins. I still don’t believe that we live in that kind of country, in part because the still-functioning bits of the Constitution prevent it, and in part because the American people, for all their myriad and contradictory flaws and quirks, are still a good and decent liberty-loving people (albeit perhaps not as liberty-loving as I would like).

I have made a tactical or strategic or you might think idiotic decision to simply follow the course of Mencken and Nock, and express my position as honestly as I can. I will never vote for either of them, and I won’t let either of them turn me into a liar. That’s my safe harbor. Maybe that’s a dodge. Maybe it’s a delusion. Maybe history, or Future Jonah, or the race of super-intelligent bees who take over after we’ve nuked ourselves into extinction, will look back on this and see nothing but folly. But when it comes to scoring the follies of this nauseating election season, I think I will come out a lot better than most. And at least for now, it’s the only way I know how to get through the day or look at myself in the mirror.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.