I can't vote Biden. If Trump is found guilty, where does that leave Republicans like me?

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Will Republicans vote for Donald Trump even if he's found guilty?

This could be the quandary for Republicans if the former president is convicted in the hush money trial. It could raise important legal, ethical and political questions – or at least it should – about Trump's candidacy and our willingness to vote for him. A verdict could come this week after Tuesday's closing arguments.

Republicans' views of Trump have already shifted. A May PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll shows that 46% say Trump has acted unethically. This number has jumped 12 points since February. This is a hint that the trial has tarnished Trump's reputation in the eyes of Republicans. But to what extent?

Conservatives like me have to start asking tough questions about Trump

Former President Donald Trump campaigns at a NASCAR race on May 26, 2024, in Concord, N.C.
Former President Donald Trump campaigns at a NASCAR race on May 26, 2024, in Concord, N.C.

If Trump is found guilty, MAGA Republicans will reframe this as a win, suggesting this bolsters their original conspiracy theories about the left's use of lawfare as a way to prevent Trump from winning again. They will nod their MAGA-capped heads and say in unison: See? We told you so! It was all a giant conspiracy!

However, if Trump is found guilty, conservatives who are not pro-Trump or hard-right MAGA fans (like myself) will face the hardest question of all. Who will conservatives who, like me, dislike Trump and President Joe Biden vote for? Will we vote at all?

Trump is the best we have? Trump is ruining the GOP with his lawlessness. Republicans like me deserve better.

A guilty verdict could push Republicans like me into a corner to reckon with our conscience. Do we choose someone who acts unethically and illegally but is a "conservative" because even that is better than a Democrat?

As of now, I don't think I could justify voting for Biden.

Disliking Trump doesn't mean we can vote for Biden

Biden has derailed this country's social fabric with executive decisions like revising Title IX and offering billions in student loan forgiveness.

Thanks to his "Build Back Better" plan, inflation is still higher than it was a few years ago, and his administration has already pledged to increase taxes on wealthy people and corporations.

President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin attend the Memorial Day observance at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C., on May 27, 2024.
President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin attend the Memorial Day observance at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C., on May 27, 2024.

One could argue that optics are the least important thing about a president, but perception matters when you're the leader of the free world. Biden's incompetence, incoherence and weakness fail to communicate the right message to allies and enemies around the world.

For many Republicans, this is enough to withhold their vote. For single-issue voters, like many evangelicals, Biden's pro-abortion stance is enough not to vote for him regardless of how they feel about Trump.

Great job, Biden! Social Security is going broke and debt payments are breaking the bank.

But some conservatives do have reservations about Trump and what it means if we support him in November.

Should a Republican choose Biden – someone we know is not a conservative and who we believe is actively derailing the country's economy, reputation and social fabric – just to avoid Trump?

For some Republicans, this answer is easy: Never vote Democrat. Ever. For the rest of us conservatives, Trump is so awful for the GOP and for democracy – he's just so loathsome and narcissistic – that with or without a guilty verdict, we will struggle to vote for him. This raises questions about the importance of idealizing party over country.

Do Republicans choose conscience or compromise?

Former Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley answered that question when she announced Wednesday that she would vote for Trump, even though she previously said he's "not qualified" to lead the nation. This is a position one would expect Haley, as a known Republican leader, to take.

Many, many Republican leaders will vote for Trump even if they think he's not qualified, even if the jury does find him guilty, because they are casting their vote, in their minds, against Biden rather than for Trump.

Nikki Haley, former Republican candidate for president and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visits on May 27, 2024, the site of the Israeli music festival that Hamas terrorists attacked on Oct. 7, 2023, with gunfire, grenades and rockets – killing hundreds.
Nikki Haley, former Republican candidate for president and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visits on May 27, 2024, the site of the Israeli music festival that Hamas terrorists attacked on Oct. 7, 2023, with gunfire, grenades and rockets – killing hundreds.

Republicans in this precarious position must weigh whether or not a guilty verdict in a hush money trial is as bad as a president who we believe incoherent and unethical.

Do Republicans think that, if elected, Trump will be a worse president than Biden? This is tricky to answer and depends on your worldview and values, and what you think a president is responsible for doing.

What voting for Trump means for Republicans who can't support Biden

Trump lies, obfuscates and constantly changes his story. He maintains the image as a Republican for the people when really he's an elitist charming fraud who is deceitful, immoral and lacks principles.

Unlike 2016, we now have a clearer picture of Trump. Conservatives know there are clearly two versions of him in the White House. One that champions religious liberty, tries to grow the economy with tax cuts and appoints originalist justices to the Supreme Court. Another apparently pays off lovers, lies about classified documents and maintains that the 2020 election was stolen.

It was one thing for Trump to have a decent presidency, but another for him to maintain that the last presidential election was rigged and support the riot that ensued at the nation's Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. It was one thing to claim the election was stolen but another to test that with lawsuits in a handful of states and be proven wrong over and over.

A vote for Trump is an acknowledgment that we condone this. Do we? Is it OK to vote for this because we don't like higher taxes? Do we let him maintain the election was rigged against all evidence to the contrary because we don't like a massive, costly student loan forgiveness plan?

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A Republican might say that we cast a ballot for Trump in good conscience because even if he's guilty, he's better than Biden, a Democrat. If, as a Republican, I think Biden is awful, and I do, how could I possibly think Trump is better? He's clearly not. But still, I can't vote for Biden.

Democrats and MAGA won't face this ethical decision. Their minds are made up. But a sect of conservatives – large enough to matter – will wrestle with this.

A guilty verdict will make things harder for us.

Nicole Russell is an opinion columnist with USA TODAY. She lives in Texas with her four kids.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is Trump guilty? As we await verdict, Republicans must make a choice