Progressive agenda or Trump 2.0? Conflicted conservatives weigh risks.

Why We Wrote This

When character and policy values clash, which takes precedence? A raft of ads featuring Republicans for Biden, including former Trump administration officials, have put a spotlight on conflicted conservative voters.

Mike Segar/Reuters
Voters fill out ballots in booths after waiting several hours in line during early voting in the Brooklyn borough of New York City Oct. 27, 2020.

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Lisa Rosendale doesn’t want to vote for Donald Trump, but has felt she has little choice.

Despite her distaste for the president’s divisiveness, she worries that behind former Vice President Joe Biden’s avuncular smile stands a vanguard of ambitious progressives whom he may be unwilling or unable to stop.

“Really the only option I have at the ballot box is to vote for Trump,” says Ms. Rosendale, a moderate conservative in Dallas.

From the cockpits of Navy fighter jets to the fields of Kansas, conservative voters with concerns about the president are wrestling with how to vote in what many see as the most consequential election in decades. A Never Trump 2.0 movement, fueled by dozens of former GOP officials and six-figure Democratic donations, has grabbed the headlines, but at least as numerous are conflicted conservatives like Ms. Rosendale who are still leaning toward supporting the president. How they vote could decide the election.

“These are some of the people who voted for Donald Trump [in 2016] as the lesser of two evils,” says Scott Rasmussen, whose recent poll indicates that Mr. Biden’s 8-point national lead could be almost entirely explained by conservative voters who are backing him.

“They’re conflicted again, but there’s enough of them saying they’re going to vote for Biden that at the moment it’s pushing Biden ahead.”

Lisa Rosendale doesn’t want to vote for Donald Trump, but feels she has little choice. 

She doesn’t approve of what she describes as the president’s divisive approach to governing. But she worries that behind former Vice President Joe Biden’s avuncular smile stands a vanguard of ambitious progressives whom he may be unwilling or unable to stop in the twilight of his career.

“The cancel culture, identity politics, and cultural power of the far left are, to me, the greatest threats to our country and our classical liberal norms,” says Ms. Rosendale, a federal contractor who describes herself as a moderate conservative, from Dallas. “I’m not confident Biden can hold them back.”

Other conflicted conservatives have come to a different conclusion: It’s time to put country over party.

“It brings me no joy to have to support a Democratic candidate for president. But what it comes down to for me is it’s a character election,” says Miles Taylor, who served as chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and came out today as the anonymous author of a 2018 New York Times op-ed describing a “resistance” movement of administration officials working to thwart Mr. Trump from within. “I believe that the corrosive impact of a bad man in the Oval Office on our democratic institutions is far more damaging than the corrosive impact of someone whose policies I disagree with serving as president.”

Mr. Taylor is at the forefront of a highly unusual offensive from within the Republican Party to defeat their own candidate – a Never Trump 2.0 movement, fueled in part by Democratic donations. Dozens of former officials from the Reagan, Bush, and Trump administrations have thrown their weight behind Mr. Biden, arguing that the longtime senator and former vice president has a sounder character and would better safeguard America’s democracy and national security. Any leftward shift in policy, they say, could be moderated by Congress or later reversed. 

Less prominent – but at least as numerous – are reluctant Trump voters like Ms. Rosendale who, echoing James Madison, put their trust not in men but in a model of government designed to prevent tyranny of the majority. They see the president – despite his many flaws and reckless swerving across the Twittersphere – as a necessary bulwark against a progressive takeover.  

Mr. Trump has the highest approval rating among Republicans of any president since Dwight Eisenhower, with 87% support. Many Republican voters say they appreciate how he has confronted China, taken a stand for border security, reduced government regulation, bolstered the economy before COVID-19 hit, made headway toward Middle East peace, and – with the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett this week – added three conservative jurists to the Supreme Court.

But from the cockpits of Navy fighter jets to the fields of Kansas, a not-insignificant number of conflicted conservatives are still wrestling with how to vote in what many see as the most consequential election in decades. They are not sure the president’s accomplishments outweigh his propensity to dismiss unfavorable media coverage and inconvenient facts as “fake news,” mock or even fire highly competent officials while promoting others with little relevant experience, and advance policy ideas such as banning travel from Muslim nations and separating immigrant children from their families at the border. According to a poll published Oct. 9 by the Pew Research Center, 93% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters supported Mr. Biden and 3% were planning to vote for Mr. Trump. But just 85% of Republican and Republican-leaning independents were planning to vote for Mr. Trump, with 9% backing Mr. Biden. 

Nicole Hester/Mlive.com/Ann Arbor News/AP
Supporters of President Donald Trump watch a video during a campaign event on Oct. 27, 2020, in Lansing, Michigan.

“These are some of the people who voted for Donald Trump [in 2016] as the lesser of two evils,” says Scott Rasmussen, whose former firm, Rasmussen Reports, is one of the president’s favorite polling outlets. Now independent, he says a recent poll of his indicates that Mr. Biden’s 8-point national lead could be almost entirely explained by conservative voters who have moved away from the president. “They’re conflicted again, but there’s enough of them saying they’re going to vote for Biden that at the moment it’s pushing Biden ahead.”

No PAC for Reluctant Trump Voters

Those leaning in Mr. Biden’s direction have found ample support for ditching their traditional conservative policy values – including in military circles, where Democratic voters have tended to stay mum in the past. Even some conservatives who strongly oppose abortion are openly backing Mr. Biden – both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, the latter citing Pope Francis’ criticism of the “harmful ideological error” of promoting one particular ethical issue above all others and his exhortation that poor, destitute, abandoned, and underprivileged people are “equally sacred” as the lives of the unborn. 

These Biden supporters have been flooding op-ed pages and flocking to groups like Republican Voters Against Trump, Republicans for the Rule of Law, Former Republican National Security Officials for Biden, and The Lincoln Project. The latter is a political action committee with 2.6 million Twitter followers that has received hefty Democratic donations, including $700,000 from Majority Forward. 

There is no PAC, however, for Reluctant Trump Voters. A Hold Your Nose Republican Facebook page has 12 followers and hasn’t been updated since 2008. Those leaning toward Mr. Trump are often reticent to discuss their deliberations with family and friends, let alone congregate on social media. One such voter notes ruefully that the days when driving around “the People’s Republic” of Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a Reagan sticker could get your windshield wipers torn off seem like a fond memory compared with today. 

Many conflicted conservatives who are considering casting ballots for Mr. Trump requested anonymity, voicing concern about cancel culture and its repercussions. One, a French American dual citizen who came back to the U.S. six years ago as a young professional, says he declined to vote in 2016 “out of respect for the people of this country,” thinking he should wait until he understood more about American politics. 

But now that the opportunity has arrived, he doesn’t know what to do with it. He considers himself a Republican, but describes Mr. Trump as “very vulgar.” In recent years, he has felt unfairly labeled as racist or xenophobic for his views on issues like immigration, saying his assessment is based on the problems with France’s more liberal approach. And as the election approaches, he feels the weight of what his Democratic friends and family members would think. “You carry that guilt of people blaming you for making the wrong choice,” he says.

John Raoux/AP
Supporters listen as former President Barack Obama speaks at a rally as he campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Oct. 27, 2020, in Orlando, Florida.

Between Trump and the “tyranny of the woke left”

Somewhat counterintuitively, for Mr. Taylor, the former DHS official, it was Mr. Trump’s talk of banning Muslims from entering the United States that pushed him to get more involved in his campaign, and eventually his administration, in what he describes as a damage-control mission. He left in 2019, and calls the president “quite literally one of the worst human beings that I’ve ever met in my entire life.”

While he understands why some Republican voters might decide to hold their nose on issues of character in pursuit of conservative policies, he says that’s misguided.

“Donald Trump is not a Republican, was never a Republican, and only hijacked the Republican brand to get himself into office,” he says, echoing others who cite in particular Mr. Trump’s lack of fiscal conservatism, his isolationist tendencies, and his inconsistent approach to trade deals. “He doesn’t care about Republican policies and principles. He only cares about his own self-interest.”

To Mr. Taylor, the danger of another four years of Mr. Trump, who he sees as bent on destroying America’s system of government, is far greater than the threat of any liberal policies that may be implemented under Mr. Biden. 

“I’m not worried about Biden advancing incredibly progressive positions. It’s not as if he’s going to wake up tomorrow and become some super-progressive thinker,” agrees Travis Sawyer, a financial adviser in Abilene, Kansas, who stepped down as chair of his local Republican Party this summer because he couldn’t support Mr. Trump. With the president not doing much to uphold Mr. Sawyer’s key policy priority of fiscal conservatism, the Kansas conservative ultimately opted to vote for Mr. Biden, but also the GOP Senate candidate. “In my mind, the Senate is what keeps those types of initiatives from making it to his desk.” 

Yet some conservatives worry that Democrats could be poised to retake not only the White House but also the Senate, and increase their majority in the House. 

In a Sept. 14 Washington Post op-ed, Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a 2016 Never-Trumper, laid out the damage that could be done under unified Democratic control – including abolishing the filibuster in the Senate, packing the Supreme Court with liberal judges, nationalizing health care, and dismantling the borders. 

“Trump, for all his flaws, could be all that stands between our imperfect democracy and the tyranny of the woke left,” she wrote.

In an interview, Ms. Pletka says that despite the blowback she received for her piece, many people told her privately that they felt the same way. “This persistent belief that if you ... vote for Donald Trump you are a mindless cretin is so offensive,” she says, adding that she isn’t blind to the dangers he represents. “It’s ridiculous.”

Regrouping before the real showdown in 2024

Looking ahead, some Republicans actually see a silver lining in losing the White House this year. 

“I think the real battle for progressives will be 2024,” says Anne Emily Caplin, a New Hampshire Republican who worked on Capitol Hill for former Sen. Warren Rudman and did Trump opposition research for 2016 GOP candidate Sen. Marco Rubio. “With Trump out of the picture, Republicans do have the chance to heal from the insanity.”

In 2016, she couldn’t bring herself to vote for anyone running, so she wrote in Abigail Adams. But this year she’s all in for Mr. Biden. Like many others interviewed, she holds out hope for a new generation of Republican leaders. People like Ben Sasse, the junior Nebraska senator known for his passionate disquisitions on the Constitution – or Nikki Haley, the daughter of immigrant parents who became governor of South Carolina and Mr. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.

“We are far more worthy as a people than to have a charlatan as a president,” says Betty Tamposi, a former New Hampshire state legislator and chair of the state Ways and Means Committee, who also served as assistant secretary of state for consular affairs in President George H.W. Bush’s administration. “This false sense of American patriotism is not at all authentic.”

Some Trump critics see in the president’s style of campaigning and governing echoes of Nazi Germany. But another Trump supporter who requested anonymity, a retired Kansas high school teacher who emigrated from Germany, finds such comparisons deeply upsetting. “[Trump] is certainly pompous and braggadocious. But he is nothing compared to Hitler,” she says. “Comparing Hitler to Trump or any other person speaks of intellectual laziness. It actually diminishes the evil Hitler perpetrated.”

Regardless of which candidate these conflicted conservatives ultimately settle on, many agree on one thing: This election is even more important than 2016. A Cuban American millennial in Miami who didn’t vote for Mr. Trump in 2016 says he decided to this year because the stakes seem higher. “We want to make our vote count as much as possible.”

That’s where Ms. Rosendale’s dilemma gets even more complicated. Her husband, also a self-described moderate conservative, has been planning on voting for Mr. Biden, which would cancel out her vote for Mr. Trump. So she’s been trying to get him to agree to both vote third-party, since the net result would be the same. “Basically I want to keep my hands clean. ... I feel a lot of people would judge me, and I would judge me.”

Today her husband said OK. 

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