In Slate today, Seth Stevenson offered an interesting thought experiment: If a Trump equivalent were the Democratic nominee, would Democrats/liberals vote for him?
Neither party has a monopoly on shortsighted, tribal behavior. It’s not difficult to envision Democrats supporting an absurd candidate out of inane partisanship or in hopes (even gossamer hopes) of a precious November win. Do you doubt me?
His example, after suggesting Kanye West and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s, is Sean Penn.
In this parallel universe, Penn — china-shop bull and occasional paparazzi fighter — wins the nomination and goes up against, say, Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum. I’m a center-left Democrat. Would I hold my nose and vote for “Penn” — I put his name in quotes because I don’t know how much of what we’ve seen in public matches the whole person — assuming (hoping!) he’d appoint good people to run things and not embarrass the United States or run it into the ground?
Stevenson’s query is a bit of a troll, but I think it’s a good question. A lot of commenters disagree, pointing out that the Democrats didn’t nominate Penn, and the equivalent of Hillary Clinton in this universe would be someone like Jeb Bush, not Ted Cruz. Also, we’re coming off eight years of a Democratic president. Maybe if the president were Republican, and Democrats were the out party, that might influence some liberals’ beliefs about voting for “Sean Penn.”
Still, though I think the commenters make some fair points, we’re not dealing with reality: Stevenson’s proposal of Trump-like Democrat vs. extreme-right Republican is, for many Americans, an electoral version of Hobson’s choice. (Hell, it’s the electoral version of Sophie’s choice.)
The fact is, we’d all like to think we’d do what we consider right for our country versus what’s expedient for ourselves or our “side.” Ideally, I’d like a thoughtful, pragmatic candidate who generally lines up with my beliefs. I don’t expect the person to be a Boy Scout (or Girl Scout), but I do hope they’re human beings capable of empathy, that they take issues seriously and are aware of the expectations that come with the office. Moreover, I’d prefer it if they kept the bombast and self-aggrandizing to a minimum.
A Trump-like Democrat — a Trump-like person — is many things, but not thoughtful or, frankly, serious. I couldn’t vote for that. (Slate’s Stevenson thought many Democrats would, though.)
But could I vote for the other party if they had a seemingly reasonable candidate, despite representing a whole slew of beliefs I can’t stand?
I’m not sure I could vote for that, either. There was supposed to be little difference between cautious Al Gore and “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush, but history has shown otherwise. In the hypothetical Stevenson election, replace W with Cruz — or even Jeb — and I wouldn’t trust what comes next, especially given the hard-right GOP in Congress. (I often wonder, these days, how blue-state Republican governors like Larry Hogan or any GOP person who’s run Massachusetts would run the country, given their differences with legislators from their own party. You’re an interesting guy, William Weld.)
So, then what? Would I vote for a third-party candidate? (What if it helps the Trump-like person win?) Would I not vote for president at all? (Which could also help the Trump-like person win.) Would I move to New Zealand and wait for “On the Beach” to start? (Nick, could I move in with you?)
Would I take one of those Quietus pills they advertise in “Children of Men”? (No.)
I would hope I could do something to prevent the situation from happening entirely, but human history is littered with incompetents who skated into office based on demagoguery. Look at Hugo Chavez himself. And look at Venezuela.
I do hope I could be Joseph Welch. I do hope there would be many Joseph Welches. But the fact is, as late as January 1954, Joseph McCarthy had the support of 50% of respondents in a Gallup poll. Just 29% had an unfavorable opinion. This was while good people were losing their jobs over their alleged political beliefs.
Many people questioned McCarthy, but few stood up to him. Had McCarthy not taken on the U.S. Army, who knows how far he would have gone?
So, your country or your party? Your desire to blow the system up or your desire to maintain an unpleasant status quo and work to rebuild in the future?
Josh Marshall writes in Talking Points Memo:
If we’re lucky and Trump is defeated, I believe people will quickly come to look back on it as a McCarthy-era-like near miss. People will be asking, which side were you on? What did you do? Did you stand up?