Former Attorney General Bill Barr gave an interview to CNN on Friday to explain why he plans to vote for Donald Trump after previously denouncing him as unfit for office. Trump might be an unfit president, Barr conceded. Trump had only recently belittled Barr personally. But President Joe Biden might overregulate kitchen stoves, Barr complained, and faced with that dread possibility, Barr had to prefer Trump as the lesser evil.

Barr feels how he feels. But as a rational matter, hes not thinking clearly. Even for a conservative Republican such as Barr, who wants to maximize power for conservative Republicanism, Trump is a choice that makes sense only if you have no long-term imagination at all. To see how wrong that choice is, consider a hypothetical: how much better Republicans political prospects would look today if the Electoral College had followed the popular vote in 2016 and Hillary Clinton had won the presidency that year. Back then, someone like Barr would have thought that outcome a catastrophe. But in retrospect imagine:

Alongside a President Clinton, voters in 2016 elected a 241194 Republican House and a 5248 Republican Senate. A President Clinton would probably not have signed as big a tax cut as President Trump did in 2017. Her regulators would not have been as friendly to the oil and gas industry as Trumps were. But facing such strong Republican majorities in Congress, and with a popular-vote mandate of only 48 percent, she would have been limited in her ability to advance her own agenda.

Now look at what might have happened next. In the real-life elections of 2018, Republicans got badly beaten. They dropped 40 House seats in the highest-turnout off-year election since before World War I. In our hypotheticalPresident Clinton scenario, Republicans surely would have added seats to their House majority in 2018, while likely holding the Senate too. The party of the president almost always loses seats in a midterm, and thats even more emphatically true when the party of the president has held office for three consecutive terms.

In 2020, when COVID struck, a President Clinton surely would have responded more competently and compassionately than Trump did. But the pandemic still would have been a bad experience for most Americansdoubly so if riots broke out in our alternate-history 2020 as they did in the real timeline. Republicans would have been well-positioned for a massive presidential comeback that fall, very possibly with the popular-vote majority they otherwise have not won since 2004.

Peter Wehner: Trumps willing accomplice

Whoever the new Republican president would have been, the GOP could have passed a big 2017-style tax cut in 2021without having to cover for Trumps alleged crimes. The post-COVID recoveryinflation in 2021 and 2022, followed by strong growth in 2023 and 2024would then have put the Republican incumbent on the path to reelection in 2024.

But what about the Supreme Court? our Trump-skeptical Republicans might ask. Trump filled seats opened by the deaths of Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and by the resignation of Anthony Kennedy. Even if we suppose that Kennedy would not have resigned during a Clinton presidency, a President Clinton could have remade the Court majority in the liberals favor, as Trump did for conservatives.

But a President Clinton would not have had as much leeway on the Court as Trump did. Her nominees would have had to pass the Republican Senate. And if Roe v. Wade had been upheld under a Clinton-appointed majority, the politics might have played out better for Republicans, who have struggled in national and state elections since Roes overturning. So long as Roe was law, the anti-abortion position was good Republican politics. Instead, a generation of young women might be alienated from the Republican Party for the rest of their voting lives. Although some anti-abortion true believers would gladly pay the price, most Republicans are not anti-abortion true believers.

All told, victory for Clinton in 2016 would have left Republicans in a much better place in the 2020sand without the shame and disgrace of complicity with Trump.

Now lets think realistically about what 2024 could mean for Trump-wary Republicans.

If Trump wins in 2024, the country could plunge almost instantly into a political and constitutional crisisespecially if Democrats hold the Senate and win the House, but even if they dont. A reelected Trumps first priority will be to shut down all of the legal cases against him, including trials that have already begun. Hell want to pardon himself if he has been convicted of any offenses. Hell try to use presidential power to quash the half-billion dollars of civil judgments against him. Trumps opponents will not passively submit to any of this. There will be upheaval, unrest, and very likely a third Trump impeachment trial.

A reelected Trumps second priority will be to sell out Ukraine and bust up NATO. Eighty years of U.S.-led alliance structure will collapse, and the whole system of world peace and security will unravelwith who knows what consequences.

From the January/February 2024 issue: The danger ahead

A reelected Trumps third priority will be to impose tariffs on China, triggering a global trade war. Consumer prices will rise, the stock market will tumble, and the world economy could slide into recession if not outright depression.

Alternatively, imagine if Joe Biden wins in November. A Biden reelection might well mean more regulation of stoves, as Bill Barr worried. Biden might do other things Barr would not like either, but even those things would be an improvement over the outlook of chaos from Trumps attempt to overturn American law to save himself from prison. The 2017 tax cut would expire in a second Biden term, and might not be renewed. That said, President Bill Clinton signed a capital-gains tax in his second term as a cost of doing business. Biden is even more of a dealmaker.

Meanwhile, the path to Republican revival would open. Republicans could reasonably expect to score gains in the 2026 midterm elections. With Trump a three-time popular-vote loser, even his base would begin to perceive the failure of his corrupt and authoritarian leadershipand turn again to leaders whom Barr himself would much prefer to Trump or the Trump imitators who would proliferate if Trump somehow returns to power in 2025.

In Republican rhetoric, it is always five minutes to midnight. In 2011, future Speaker of the House Paul Ryan delivered a speech warning that the United States was fast approaching a tipping point that would curtail free enterprise, transform our government, and weaken our national identity in ways that may not be reversible. That way of thinking can justify extreme actions. If the choice really is between constitutional democracy on the one hand, and free enterprise and national identity on the other, thats indeed agonizing.

But as the history of the Trump years shows, that choice is as phony as Bill Barrs pretense of integrity. A Hillary Clinton presidency in 2016 would have left both free enterprise and national identity perfectly intact, with no worse consequences for conservatives than a four-year delay of a big tax cut and possibly the benefit of escape from their present predicament over abortion rights. A Biden reelection in 2024 will be annoying to conservatives in other ways. But compared with what Trump threatens?

Before choosing the lesser of two evils, Trump-skeptical Republicans must measure the choices accurately. Assessing clearly the recent past helps with that analysis. The Republican Party would today be healthier and more successful if it had lost the presidency in 2016. It will be healthier in 2032 if it loses in 2024.