As many conservatives grapple with the growing prospect of a Donald Trump presidential nomination, I’ve started to hear them asking one another the once-unthinkable: “Would you vote for Trump?” Mostly, the answer is “of course not.” He’s a fascistic clown. He’s a clandestine liberal (not really that cagey about it, to be honest) who’d be a disaster for the country, not to mention destroy the Republican Party for generations, perhaps forever.
Which is exactly the point, right?
The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson writes that Trump (and, as is the wont of many Republican moderates, he tries to tie Ted Cruz to Trump) is “proposing a massive ideological and moral revision of the Republican Party.” He might have added: Like the one Democrats have already gone through.
Since there’s so much concern-trolling and hang-wringing about the future of the Right, it should not escape our attention that Republicans aren’t the only ones dealing with the corrosive effects of populist anger and a cult of personality.
Yes, Trump is going to be a spectacular disaster — maybe even worse than most — but why would anyone believe the contrived progressivism and incompetence of Hillary Clinton or (the incredibly expensive) radicalism of Bernie Sanders would be any less of a catastrophe? The Democrat frontrunners aren’t less inclined to embrace authoritarianism or destructive economic theories than Trump — even if some of those ideas were mainstreamed over the past few years.
Democrats aren’t ripping themselves apart as their leadership continually surrenders to the most strident voices in the party. Hillary, once the target of grassroots’ derision and frustration, now sounds like a random blogger at DailyKos — which once-upon-a-time wanted to burn it all down, as well. The Democrats’ debate was a celebration of “free” stuff and gargantuan reforms that would have been unthinkable positions for a mainstream Democrat candidate in 1992, or even 2008.
Oh, and like most of Trump’s agenda, none of it is going to pass.
And, contra the finger-wagging wisdom of moderates, Democrats are just as likely to embrace a hateful tone aimed those they hold liable for the ills of the nation. They just happen to direct that anger at clingy gun-owners, reactionary Christians, or those who believe in the superiority of Western ideals. Thought pieces fret over the end of civility only when the “anger” chafes against sensibilities of the media. Obama and Trump fans have more in common than they’d like to imagine.
If Trump can be accused of fascism (and there’s something to this charge), surely Sanders, now making huge strides in the polls, can easily be accused of being a Marxist. More so. Yet, how apprehensive are Democrats about this turn towards leftism? Could the hundreds of seats lost to Republicans over the past few years have anything to do with this turn? Is anyone worried that Sander’s success will exacerbate the cultural rifts already destroying the party’s appeal? How many Democrats ask themselves: Hey, would I vote for Bernie Sanders over Marco Rubio?
The corrupted centrist and one-time backer of the Iraq war (once the litmus test for liberals) holds every conceivable fiscal and political advantage over an obscure senator peddling failed ideas from early 20th century. Yet, imagine, if you will, what Hillary’s prospects would look like if a more competent and charismatic socialist were running instead of Sanders, who is now ahead of Clinton by 27 percentage points among Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire, according to a new CNN/WMUR poll. Or imagine if there were four or five other competent and well-funded candidates running in the Democrat primaries splitting the votes as they do on the other side? Would Sanders be where Trump is? What happens if the bottom falls out? What happens if Hillary’s candidacy becomes untenable because of her legal problems? Democrats will have a socialist candidate, who probably would more appropriately reflect their views.
This should not surprise anyone. After a number of populist revolts against their establishment during the Bush years — including the tossing aside Hillary in 2008 — liberals reinvented their party. And still Obama could not realize most of his agenda with the party behind him. The fear (and the promise) of a Trump candidacy comes from vastly overestimating executive power. What exactly do Trump fans think they can accomplish?
A President Trump will be treated as a unique proposition, separate from the mainstream conservatism, since, by any measure, he holds almost no position aligning with any contemporary right-wing view of the past 50 or so years. Most Republicans in Congress will surely oppose the majority of Trump’s measures and executive agenda, making them an opposition party. They will continue to offer traditionally conservative arguments locally, and win state elections. There will be three parties. Trump will be Jesse Ventura, but for the entire nation.
A President Trump will be treated as a unique proposition because, it turns out, on issues outside of immigration, he’s a pretty liberal guy who will continue to spend lots of money on social programs and align well with progressives on trade. Democrats will occasionally be more supportive of his ideas than Republicans. His reign will be less eventful than everyone imagines.
Gerson will be proven right. There is a dramatic revision within the party because the anger will forever change American politics on the Right. We’ll have something akin to the Western European model, with a nationalistic party, a socialistic one, and perhaps a few others that align with each. Because maybe voters never much cared about free markets and free trade or abortion and religious freedom anyway.
This last scenario seems the most unlikely to me because although progressives wanted to rip the Democratic Party apart and start all over again, they have a clear ideological purpose in mind. Trump supports whatever policy pleases his sensibilities, and events have a lot to do with it.
I’m not sold on the inevitability of a Trump victory in the primaries, but you don’t get to build the ideal candidate, you get what the era gives you. This is an era of anger and populism. It was in 2008 — when the recession shook free the anger and frustrations of many nervous voters — and it still is.