For Braden Smith, this year’s election is not about party or policy.
He should know. Though only 21 and preparing to vote in his first presidential election, Smith, a junior political science student at Park University, has already spent years immersing himself in the Grand Old Party.
He spent his freshman and first semester of his sophomore years at the University of Missouri, where he interned with the Missouri State Senate and was an active participant in Mizzou’s College Republicans student group. He spent a summer in Florida campaigning “nearly 40 hours a week” for Mitt Romney’s 2012 bid and just recently finished working on John Brunner’s campaign for the Missouri governor’s seat.
Smith can spend hours extolling (and critiquing) the legacies of his favorite politicians (FDR, Lincoln, Jefferson) or dissecting the latest talking points from conservative foreign policy expert Robert Kagan. A favorite hobby is to grab a coffee with friends and debate policy and promulgate the pragmatic benefits of conservatism: increased state power, constitutional limits on government, lower taxes.
Politics are Smith’s obsession. His fantasy football. “Game of Thrones.”
But this year, policy has taken a back seat to that other “p.” For Smith, this election has boiled down to the issue of patriotism. And as a patriot, he says, he cannot consciously vote for the Republican nominee.
“It is my civic duty not to vote for Donald Trump, someone who is so disrespectful, lacks so much integrity, doesn’t have any of the experience, temperament, intelligence or knowledge to be the president.”
“I am forced to vote for Hillary Clinton.”
This isn’t how 2016 was supposed to go for Smith’s party. After 2012, he says, he was “energized” and excited for the party’s future. The House of Representatives and Senate were majority Republican, and the presidential pipeline was stashed with new hopefuls like Paul Ryan and old-guard stalwarts like Jeb Bush.
But then there was the clash within the GOP, a combat of rhetoric that spiraled the party into chaos.
“The definition of conservatism is someone who is kind of resistant to drastic change and respects traditional values in reference to the past to deal with solutions,” Smith says. “But there is also this brand of traditional values of the past (that) some conservatives look back to where everyone is a white Protestant of traditional gender roles. But that’s not really the way the world is.”
It is that second view, Smith says, that has created an ecosystem of blatant and subtle xenophobia, misogyny, racism and heteronormativity that fuels Trump and so many of his supporters. A rhetoric Smith believes must be purged or at least made fringe before the party can move forward: “I don’t think the Republican Party wins another national election until things start to change.”
The question then pivots from “who is the best candidate for the country” to “who is not-the-absolute-worst candidate for the country.” For Smith, that answer is Hillary Clinton.
“I don’t support Democrats, but I am comfortable with Democrats,” he says. “I don’t agree with (Clinton) on most policy, especially with the hard veer left to kind of bring in the Bernie supporters, but Donald Trump is neither a Republican or a Democrat in my eyes. He wants to destroy what for the last 240 years has made us a great nation.”
Smith calls Clinton “the most prepared candidate we’ve had on either side of the aisle for quite some time” — though he understands how her career has harmed her reputation.
“She’s been in Washington perhaps too long,” he says. “There’s a difference between someone who’s experienced a career public scandal and someone who’s mired in a different public scandal every few years, who betrayed the public trust, who changes her position whenever it suits her. I don’t think she’s someone with a lot of integrity. Clinton seems fueled by ambition.”
Still, for Smith, Clinton’s shortcomings stack low compared to Trump’s.
“America cannot morally allow a man like Donald Trump to be the leader of the free world. It is unconscionable. As much as I don’t like Hillary Clinton and as much as I disagree with her, I feel it is my patriotic duty to vote for her.”