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These tweets reveal why it's so hard for conservatives to oppose Trump

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

For a lot of liberals, the refusal of major Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and even frequent Trump critics like Sen. John McCain or the Bush family to endorse Hillary Clinton is a major character failing. It suggests that in the face of an unprecedentedly awful candidate, who imperils our NATO allies and argues for flagrantly racist policies and attacks the families of fallen soldiers, they care more about partisanship than what’s best for the country. They’re willing to elect a bigoted demagogue if that’s what it takes to get tax cuts.

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat has a smart series of tweets responding to this line of criticism, and clarifying just what a huge ask it is to demand that Republicans who really do find Clinton’s policy positions dangerous and, in the case of abortion, morally abhorrent, support her nonetheless:

The analogy is revealing in what it leaves out

Perhaps the most interesting part of Douthat’s analogy, though, is what it omits. The thing that liberals find most consistently horrifying and disgusting about Trump’s candidacy is its overt racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

But Douthat’s left-Trump isn’t a bigot. He might be a sleaze and a sexual predator (Jeffrey Epstein), an ill-qualified publicity hound (Al Sharpton), or a political newcomer with little grasp on policy (Jill Stein), but he’s not calling for an entire religion to be banned from entering the United States, or condemning Mexican-American immigrants as rapists and drug-runners.

What Douthat’s left-Trump is instead is a manifestation of conservatives’ critique of Trump: He’s an unprincipled hustler who’s incompetent, unknowledgeable, incurious, and unqualified.

This sometimes get lost in coverage of conservative #NeverTrump sentiment, but conservatives have never been horrified at Trump for the same reasons as liberals. It was never primarily a reaction to Trump’s bigotry. And the best evidence of that is that most of the Republican field endorsed positions on immigration that were at least somewhat bigoted against Muslims — and got basically zero pushback as a result.

Ted Cruz and Rand Paul voted for a Senate amendment banning immigration from dozens of Muslim countries. Jeb Bush called for Christian refugees from Syria to get preferential treatment because of their religion. Marco Rubio called for a shutdown of Syrian refugee admittance after the Paris attacks, allowing some exceptions, providing as an example, tellingly, "a well-known Chaldean priest."

Cruz, the favored candidate of elite conservatives after Rubio dropped out, was the worst of the bunch. "President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s idea that we should bring tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees to America — it is nothing less than lunacy," he declared in November. But Christians? Totally fine: "On the other hand, Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them. But President Obama refuses to do that."

To be very clear, Cruz proposed that the US explicitly discriminate against Muslim refugees on the basis of their religion and nothing more. When pressed on this point by CNN's Dana Bash, he didn't budge — except to say that he might support screening the Christians to make sure they're not Muslims hiding as Christians.

If elite conservatives’ loathing of Trump was a reaction to his bigotry, these comments should have ruled Cruz out of contention as well. But they didn’t. Instead, National Review endorsed Cruz, Jeb Bush endorsed Cruz, Erick Erickson endorsed Cruz and so on down the line.

All of which suggests another, deeper reason for why many elite conservatives are so reluctant to endorse Clinton than the ones posited by Douthat: They do not view Trump’s policies on Muslim or Hispanic immigration as inherently racist, and they indeed have a good deal of sympathy with his underlying aims. Douthat himself isn't as vulnerable to this critique (he didn't get on board the Cruz train the way everyone else did) but a number of his fellow conservative commentators are.

If they were horrified by Trump’s proposals, then sticking by him, either explicitly or by refusing to endorse his opponent, might be too much to bear. But once you accept that this is a group that does not view Trump’s proposals as bigoted and unacceptable the way many on the left do, their complacency makes a lot more sense.