Donald Trump is a vile human being. He also happens to advocate policies — or, in some cases, policy-esque impulses — that I find dangerous and horrifying. And so revelations about his boasting of sexual assault serve to reinforce my repugnance for this grotesque bully. This makes it easy for people who agree with me to judge the Republicans willing to overlook Trump’s obscene and even criminal mistreatment of women. But what if the candidate I supported were the Trump-like character? And, hence, what if the election of a sexual predator was the only alternative to eliminating health insurance for millions, allowing runaway climate change, submitting to right-wing control of the courts, and so on? Well, then, I have to admit that I would probably hold my nose and support him anyway.
One way to get around the problem of disentangling the personal from the political is to consider them as a whole. In Trump’s case, this is easy. He is a deeply misogynistic figure whose promise of restoring traditional white male authority dovetails easily, if not perfectly, with conservative social values. Rebecca Traister argues that Trump’s abusive habits simply expose his party’s agenda:
Which is worse: Threatening to grab someone by the pussy or forcing someone to carry and give birth to a baby that is the result of rape? Which is worse: Popping a Tic Tac in preparation for forced extramarital kissing with a stranger or actively discouraging women’s full participation in the workforce? The answer is: None of these is worse; they are all of a kind.
In Trump’s case, yes, these are all of a kind. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are always of a kind. One can go back in history and find examples of leaders (John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson) who treated women like garbage but still earned liberal support. One does not even need to go back that far. There are still liberals who hold positions of power while mistreating women. This reinforces the importance of changing social norms to render such behavior unacceptable. But democracy sometimes forces you into a situation where it is too late to change your party leader’s values, and you’re presented with the choice of supporting either a bad person in your party or giving the opposing party power. It’s not always such an easy choice.
We don’t need to venture that far back into history to find a case where liberals, rather than conservatives, were the ones facing this dilemma. Bill Clinton did not treat women well. The most famous case of his philandering, with Monica Lewinsky, which was consensual and initiated by her, is not the worst one. As Dylan Matthews has argued, Juanita Broaddrick has plausibly accused Clinton of raping her in 1978. We don’t know whether the accusation is true. Clinton’s supporters give him the benefit of the doubt, which is reasonable, given the paucity of evidence. (Though it runs contrary to the now-prevailing left-of-center view that a woman’s accusation of rape should always be presumed true until it is conclusively disproven.)
But suppose proof existed that Clinton had committed rape, and this proof had surfaced in October of 1992 or 1996. Would liberals have been obligated to withdraw their support, even if it meant handing the presidency to Republicans? That is the question that has to be asked to consider the dilemma the Trump tapes, and the broader suite of gross Trump behavior, present to conservatives. If you believe, as conservatives do, that abortion is murder and its legalization is a holocaust, then the bar for withdrawing support is necessarily going to be very high.
Now, an important distinction has to be made between accepting a leader’s moral unfitness as a necessary trade-off for the greater good and minimizing or justifying the behavior itself. The most disturbing response to the Trump tapes is the casual insistence that his behavior is normal and therefore acceptable. A recent Politico survey of anonymous political insiders provided harrowing evidence of this very belief. “They’re men — they think this way. It’s gross, but it’s reality,” said one Republican. “The idea that a straight male who clearly finds women sexually attractive disqualifies himself by making comments that most straight men have made in the company of other straight men is absurd when the husband of his opponent was impeached for having oral sex in the Oval Office,” said another.
These comments are evidence for why the personal behavior of political leaders matters. Presidents are role models, and their choices can normalize behavior that ripples through the culture. To elect Trump would make his brand of misogyny more acceptable for Republicans across the country. Rejection of Trump as a man is an important reason why he should be defeated. There is more to politics than policy.
But policy matters an awful lot. Republicans find their policy preferences linked to the triumph of a loathsome man. I have little agreement with those policy preferences, but the dilemma is one with which I sympathize.