Donald Trump Turned Me into a Mugwump

Voting for Joe Biden is almost like voting against Trump twice.

Nobody could believe this disreputable nincompoop had actually won the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States.

Seemingly everyone had assailed the candidate as dishonest and shady throughout the campaign, and as a result the intelligentsia agreed that he had no chance. All the newspapers, including the conservative ones, held the candidate in contempt—and they all backed up their denunciations with copious evidence and reasoned argument. The candidate was well-known, but had conducted his business affairs in a notoriously corrupt manner. His chances were so slim that the New York Times actually ran a headline that stated his nomination was “out of the question.”

But the candidate showed no contrition and angrily denounced his critics as insincere. He insisted that he had never done anything wrong. The tide began to turn.

Still, the news that this man would be the Republican nominee came as a shock to a group of steadfast Republican men playing pool at a writer’s house in Hartford, Connecticut. The writer described the scene when the news was broken to the dumbstruck group:

They could think of nothing to say. Then Henry Robinson broke the silence. He said, sorrowfully, that it was hard luck to have to vote for that man. I said:

“But we don’t have to vote for him.”

Robinson said, “Do you mean to say that you are not going to vote for him?”

“Yes,” I said, “that is what I mean to say. I am not going to vote for him.”

The others began to find their voices. They sang the same note. They said that when a party’s representatives choose a man, that ends it. If they choose unwisely it is a misfortune, but no loyal member of the party has any right to withhold his vote. He has a plain duty before him and he can’t shirk it. He must vote for that nominee.

I said that no party held the privilege of dictating to me how I should vote.

The writer went on to explain that the great thing about being an American is that each citizen can “decide for himself what is patriotic and what isn’t”—unlike in a monarchy, where the king decides what is best for the country. But the writer didn’t persuade anyone, at least that evening. Nobody wanted to vote for the unscrupulous Republican candidate, “but they all said they would do it, nevertheless.”

Then Henry Robinson said:

“It is a good while yet before election. There is time for you to come around, and you will come around. The influences about you will be too strong for you.”

Henry Robinson assured the writer that the writer would end up voting for the Republican. The writer noted his reply: “I said I should not go to the polls at all.”

I have not given the name of this wretched, awful Republican candidate whose nomination shocked every sensible Republican, but anyone reading this passage can instantly recognize him. I am speaking, of course, of James G. Blaine, who ran against Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884. The writer of whom I speak is Mark Twain, who documented his opposition to Blaine in his autobiography, among other places.

Reading Twain’s account of the Blaine candidacy is like witnessing the 2016 Trump candidacy and its aftermath, including the incredible changes in people’s views of the man after he secured the Republican nomination. Surely I need not document at great length the amazing transformation that has taken place among modern-day Republicans in their views of Donald J. Trump. To cite just one notable example among dozens, recall how Rick Perry described Trump’s candidacy as “a cancer on conservatism” that “must be clearly diagnosed, excised, and discarded”—only to later take a position as Trump’s secretary of energy, and tweet out MAGA hashtags as he expressed incredulity that anyone might vote for Joe Biden:

Similarly bizarre 180-degree spins have occurred among folks like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and others.

It’s oddly reassuring to read Twain and to learn that such craven reversals are not unique to today. No, political opportunism and hypocrisy is a firmly embedded feature of human nature, and so it was in 1884 as well. Twain describes how nearly everyone who had previously denounced Blaine suddenly turned on a dime and began supporting him, often within hours, beginning with the local paper, the Hartford Courant:

For two years the Courant had been making a “tar baby” of Mr. Blaine, and adding tar every day—and now it was called upon to praise him, hurrah for him, and urge its well-instructed clientele to elevate the “tar baby” to the Chief Magistracy of the nation. It was a difficult position and it took the Courant people and General Hawley nine hours to swallow the bitter pill. But at last General Hawley reached a decision and at midnight the pill was swallowed. Within a fortnight the Courant had acquired some facility in praising where it had so long censured; within another month the change in its character was become complete—and to this day it has never recovered its virtue entirely . . .

It was not just newspapers that changed their tune, but religious leaders:

The conversation with the learned American member of the board of scholars which revised the New Testament did occur as I have outlined it in that old article. He was vehement in his denunciation of Blaine, his relative, and said he should never vote for him. But he was so used to revising New Testaments that it took him only a few days to revise this one.

and businessmen:

I had hardly finished with him when I came across James G. Batterson. Batterson was president of the great Travelers’ Insurance Company. He was a fine man, a strong man, and a valuable citizen. He was fully as vehement as that clergyman had been in his denunciations of Blaine—but inside of two weeks he was presiding at a great Republican ratification meeting; and to hear him talk about Blaine and his perfections, a stranger would have supposed that the Republican party had had the good fortune to secure an archangel as its nominee.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Here’s the important part for us today, as we rapidly approach Election Day 2020. Twain describes how, despite his initial determination not to vote at all, he came to the conclusion that he ought to vote for Cleveland, the Democrat:

Goodwin had a happy idea, and brought it out. He said:

“Why are we keeping back these three votes from Blaine? Plainly the answer is, to do what we can to defeat Blaine. Very well, then, these are three votes against Blaine. The common-sense procedure would be to cast six votes against him by turning in our three votes for Cleveland.”

Even Twichell and I could see that there was sense in that, and we said:

“That is a very good thing to do and we’ll do it.”

He makes it sound simple, but in reality it wasn’t—especially in a Republican community like Hartford. Voting was a very public thing in those days, and there was no hiding your choice. And the choice had consequences. As Twain explains: “To withhold a vote from Blaine was bad enough, but to add to that iniquity by actually voting for the Democratic candidate was criminal to a degree for which there was no adequate language discoverable in the dictionary.” Support for Blaine became an article of faith in Republican circles, and those who refused to toe the line were denounced and punished. Twain describes how one local clergyman nearly lost his position, despite years of impeccable service to his congregation, simply for the offense of having voted for the Democrat.

The movement of Republicans who dared to commit this crime—not only to withhold their vote for the Republican, but actively vote for the Democrat—gained a name: Mugwumps. Twain was a proud Mugwump.

An aside: When I was a small child, my dad used to tease my siblings and me by raising his arms in front of him, palms facing outward, and curling his fingers in the faux-menacing fashion of a cartoon monster, as he announced: “I’M GOING TO TURN YOU INTO A MUGWUMP!” The way it came out, in his mild Oklahoma drawl, was “MUGWAMP.” Dad never explained the term to us. I thought he had made it up. It wasn’t until a high school history class that I learned otherwise. Even then, I thought of “Mugwumps” as an obscure political movement from the 1800s, nothing more. It wasn’t until I read Twain’s autobiography in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election that the significance of the Mugwumps knocked me over the head.

In this election, I have decided to adopt the strategy of the Mugwumps.

Many of my fellow travelers who share my free-market, small-government, classical liberal views have decided to simply sit this one out. I do not criticize them for this. As a general rule, I do not like to criticize anyone for their vote. I don’t criticize those who will stay at home, or even those who will vote for Donald Trump because they dislike Joe Biden’s policies. (Hell, I don’t like most of Biden’s policies. I see this election as Rule of Law vs. No Rule of Law. But not everyone sees it the same way, and that’s fine.) Voting is a personal matter, and people vote (or refuse to vote) for all kinds of reasons. That’s their business.

But I am persuaded by the Mugwump logic. To parallel Twain’s argument above, I must ask myself: Why am I keeping back my vote for Donald Trump? Plainly the answer is, to do what I can to defeat Donald Trump. I consider him to be a criminal, an illiterate doofus, a danger on the world stage, and a person who is completely nuts with his finger on the nuclear trigger. Very well then, refusing to vote for Trump is a vote against Trump. The common-sense procedure would be to cast two votes against him, by turning in my vote for Joe Biden. After all, Trump has told his supporters to vote twice: once by mail and again at the polling booth. That’s not legal, of course—but if there is a legal way to cast the equivalent of two votes against Trump, I might as well take it.

Dad, although I remember your attempts with fondness, you never really turned me into a Mugwump.

It took Donald J. Trump to do that.

Patrick Frey is a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County and has been the proprietor of patterico.com since 2003. His opinions are offered in his personal capacity and not on behalf of his office.

Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.