The disaster of this presidential election is a long time in coming—it will spawn disasters beyond our imagining—and yet it remains our responsibility to persevere and make the best of our challenges and opportunities as they come upon us.
The first thing is to steel ourselves for a disaster in the Supreme Court. The death of Antonin Scalia means that the Court is one vote away from a compact and aggressive liberal majority. Harvard professor Mark Tushnet offers us a glimpse of what that kind of Court could look like—complete with the understanding that Americans who disagree with him should be viewed as Nazi criminals and collaborators.
There is a strain of thought among conservatives that America is so far gone that it cannot get much worse. After all, Chief Justice John Roberts voted to uphold Obamacare in an opinion that was transparently political rather than constitutional. And yet Roberts (and the kinds of judges that have been appointed by Republican presidents in recent years), will soon seem like the heroes of a bygone golden age. The John Robertses and the Sam Alitos would not have forced the Little Sisters of the Poor to choose between their faith and helping the poor. They would have upheld incremental restrictions on late-term abortion. They would have struck down attempts to use the campaign finance laws to restrict criticism of liberal politicians (or anybody else.) To adapt the words of Rorschach, the Trump voters and tea partiers will look up for another Justice Roberts to save them, and Hillary Clinton will look down and whisper “no.” Actually, she won't whisper.
We shouldn't expect anything better from her opponent. Hugh Hewitt has asked that Donald Trump “take a series of public actions and make crucial commitments regarding the Supreme Court. . . . Most important would be a clear declaration of his intended first nominee to the court.” Hewitt is expecting these “crucial commitments” from a candidate who promised gargantuan upper-income tax cuts during the Republican primary, then said he wasn't necessarily a huge fan of his own tax cut proposal, and then engaged in nonsensical double-talk about whether taxes would go up or down on high-earners. Crucial commitments.
What is crucial to remember is that, on the off chance that Trump becomes president, the Senate Democratic leader (likely old Trump friend Chuck Schumer) will have at least forty-five Senate votes and possibly a Senate majority. That will give the Democrats enough votes to sustain a filibuster. A tough, shrewd, and principled Republican president might still get a constitutionalist judge through the Senate even under those circumstances (though it might involve killing the filibuster), but it would be a long, grinding battle.
There is no reason to believe that Trump has the constitutionalist principles to sustain the fight for a constitutionalist judge. . .There is no reason to suspect that Trump would even want that kind of judge. Trump, the greatest Planned Parenthood enthusiast among the Republican contenders, has always treated the law as either an obstacle to be overcome or another public institution to be suborned in the pursuit of his personal interests. It much better fits Trump's personality and policy profile to reach a deal (he loves deals) with Chuck Schumer that leaves conservatives in the cold. Supporting Trump in the hopes of saving the Supreme Court hardly even qualifies as a deal with the devil. Deal implies the likely attainment of a benefit. This devil doesn’t pretend to offer anything.
Focusing on salvaging anything from the wreck of this presidential election might be missing the point. We are in the position of liberals in the middle part of 1984 (worse, in some ways.) It is going to be very bad for us for a long time. This disaster happened because conservatives have lost touch with the priorities of large swaths of the American people. We don't need false promises from presidential candidates. We need to start the process of rebuilding our relationships with our fellow Americans so that, when the opportunity arises, we can be part of bringing some good out of whatever evil comes.
That starts with understanding our fellow Americans. Think of the Trump supporters you know. No, not the idiots and sociopaths on the internet. Think of the working people you know who support Trump because they have lost all trust in politicians. To them, only Trump seems to offer the possibility of relevant change. Think of the Obama voters you know who don't want their taxes raised, don't think government works very well, and oppose late-term abortion, but who are going to vote for Hillary Clinton because they think of conservative politics as a battle between the grasping rich and the violently racist. When we can talk to both of these groups at the same time, when we can offer both of these groups a comprehensible and attractive agenda, we will have begun the process of digging out from this disaster. But for now, we have to remember that, come what may, we should not quit on our country or abandon our responsibilities as citizens.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.