When lifelong Republican and former Ronald Reagan aide Doug Elmets publicly declared his support for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, backlash was swift. A longtime mentor called him up to ask: “‘Have you lost your goddamn mind?’” Elmets recalled. There have damaged friendships, even death threats. But there has been an outpouring of enthusiasm as well. “I’ve heard from a lot of Republicans who appreciate that I’m speaking out,” Elmets said. “Many people feel the way I do, that Donald Trump is unhinged and totally unfit to be president.”
A small, but growing, number of Republicans are turning their back on the party’s presidential nominee and rallying around Clinton as the days tick down to the general election. Earlier this week, Representative Richard Hanna of New York broke with his party to become the first sitting Republican member of Congress to announce that he will vote for Clinton over Trump. Republican fundraiser Meg Whitman came forward to say that she too will support Clinton—personally and monetarily—in order to defeat Trump.
There may be more defections ahead. “People are starting to panic,” said Ben Howe, a contributing editor at the conservative website RedState who tweeted #ImWithHer the day Ted Cruz dropped out of the race and effectively handed the Republican nomination to Trump. “People want to make sure their voices are heard in opposition to Trump before it’s too late,” Howe said. “It’s becoming a Titanic situation, where everyone wants to grab a lifeboat.”
Republicans who can’t stand Trump face a difficult choice. If they publicly denounce him and go so far as to say they want Clinton to win, they risk retaliation from within the ranks of their own party. If they stay silent, they will have to live with the consequences and very likely their own guilty consciences. Elected officials have taken to saying things that sound strange and contradictory as a way of navigating that challenge. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have committed to supporting Trump, though they have also attempted to distance themselves from him—weakly opposing offensive episodes of the candidate’s own making without actually disavowing Trump himself.
It’s a strategy that risks damaging the credibility of anyone who pursues it—that is, if the credibility of Republican leaders has not already been irrevocably damaged. “There’s no way to lie down with somebody like Trump without getting fleas,” said Max Boot, a former foreign-policy adviser to Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, and John McCain who has said he will vote for Clinton. “Being associated with him, I think, will do long-term damage to the Republican Party and to individual Republicans who have endorsed him.”
“The vast majority of Republicans in elected office are weak-kneed,” Elmets said. “That includes Speaker Ryan and Mitch McConnell, who are acting as if Donald Trump is simply an out-of-control toddler rather than potentially the next president of the United States.”
Conservative resistance to Trump, and the mixed reaction of scorn and admiration it has provoked from within the ranks of the Republican Party, is testament to the tumult on the political right. There will always be partisans who don’t want to fall in line behind their party’s presidential candidate. But the extent to which prominent Republicans are condemning Trump, and making clear that they would rather see Clinton win instead, is remarkable.
The Democrats certainly had their own high-profile Clinton critics—notably Bernie Sanders. But while there may be Democratic voters promising to leave the party and take their votes elsewhere, the anti-Clinton commentary from the upper-echelons of the Democratic Party has quieted down now that she has formally won the nomination. If any high-profile Democrats still have serious misgivings, they are doing a good job of hiding their doubts.
Making peace with the prospect of voting for Clinton won’t necessarily be easy for Republicans who refuse to vote for Trump. The former secretary of state, after all, is deeply unpopular in her own right. She has also been the target of Republican disdain and attacks for years. And yet, for some Republicans, it comes down to a clear moral choice. “It’s not enough to simply not support Trump,” said Charles Fried, a former solicitor general during the Reagan administration who intends to vote for Clinton. “It is imperative that this man not be allowed to get anywhere near the levers of power. He must be defeated, and the only way to do that is by supporting Hillary Clinton.”
To be sure, that doesn’t mean that every anti-Trump Republican who would rather see Clinton elected over Trump actually likes her. “I would say that I look at Hillary as the devil I know,” Howe said. “If my state is not competitive, I will probably save myself the heartache of pulling the lever, but in a contest between Trump and Hillary, I choose Hillary.”
Not everyone sounds quite so reluctant. “I am enthusiastic about supporting Secretary Clinton,” said Mike Treiser, a former aide to Mitt Romney. “Someone who believes in pursuing equality of opportunity and treating everyone with dignity and respect is exactly the kind of person that I, and hopefully a lot of other folks, want as the most powerful person in the world.”
Elmets seems to agree. He even showed up at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia to speak in support of Clinton and against Trump. “To my fellow Republicans, if you believe like I do, you believe that loyalty to our country is more important than loyalty to party,” he said, “I ask that you join me in voting for Hillary Clinton.”
To stop Trump, other pro-Clinton Republicans are working hard to win converts. Craig Snyder, a political consultant who once worked with Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, started a super PAC called Republicans for Her 2016. It aims to make a conservative argument for electing Clinton and to provide a safe haven for GOP defectors. “I think there are voters who can be persuaded to vote for the candidate who is sane and competent,” Snyder said.
For his part, Fried said he sent out an email to everybody in his address book urging them to support Clinton “or risk being complicit in a national catastrophe.” There was no pushback. “I got so many responses from people who said they agree completely or told me they are raising money for Hillary,” Fried said. “I don’t know anybody who has anything good to say about Trump.”
Howe certainly doesn’t. He’s raising money for a movie that warns voters about the danger of a Trump presidency. It’s called The Sociopath. He told MSNBC in May that even if Clinton “just represented the status quo, [that] would be better than having a maniac in the Oval Office.” Howe has received pushback for his anti-Trump activism. He has been called a shill, a sell-out, a traitor, and a hack.
Framing the election, as many of these Republicans do, as a choice between a candidate who will tear the country apart, maybe even destroy it, and one who will not, threatens to leave a far deeper rift in the party than any garden-variety disagreement over policy. It’s no wonder then that many disaffected Republicans say that they can’t see themselves continuing to remain a part of the Republican Party if Trump ultimately wins. “I couldn’t possibly be a part of a Trumpified party in the long term,” Boot said. Elmets has started to wonder “if the Republican Party is leaving me, rather than me leaving the Republican Party.” He added: “Yes, if Donald Trump gets elected president and the Party of Trump is solidified, I will switch parties.”
If Trump emerges victorious in November, there may be an exodus from the Republican Party. But if he is soundly defeated, that alone will not heal the divisions on display, even if it keeps some conservatives from outright abandoning the GOP. Trump has amassed loyal followers who will never want the party to retreat to what it looked like before his political rise. That divide is likely even deeper than it seems. For every Republican who has so far been willing to publicly side with Clinton over Trump, there are surely many more who have opted to remain silent out of fear of what would happen if they spoke up.