This Is No Time for NeverTrumpers to Coyly Threaten Not to Support Some Democrats

by Neil H. Buchanan

Let us say, for the sake of discussion, that you were perfectly happy with the Republican Party until well into the 2016 primary process, and you somehow convinced yourself that 16 of the 17 candidates in your party were a "deep bench" of presidential-level talent.  You would have voted for Ted Cruz, and you actually thought that the guy who turned out to be the weaker Bush brother was somehow impressive.  You turned away only when it became clear that a corrupt, vulgar, opportunistic liar whose only deep commitments were to racism and protectionism took over your party.

The protectionism part was easy, because so-called free trade has always been a supposedly conservative commitment.  (I say "so-called free trade" because there is no such thing as a rule-free trading system, but I digress.)  Saying that Donald Trump is not a true conservative or Republican on that basis makes perfect sense.  (The Big Government stuff, and especially the hysteria about budget deficits, are another matter entirely, being entirely situational for Republicans since long before 2016.)

The racism part?  Hmmm.  You, as someone who stood by your not-so-grand old party throughout its decades of race-baiting (the Southern Strategy, Reagan and "strapping young bucks" and "welfare queens," the first Bush's Willie Horton ugliness, and on and on), are not exactly in a position to claim to be horrified by the idea that your party would stoke and exploit white supremacist hatreds.

Still, maybe you genuinely believed that such bigoted pandering was a detestable but necessary path to power, and you were able at least to make yourself believe that your party did not actually want to act on that stuff.  It is true that you were fine when supposed "thought leader" Paul Ryan rose through the ranks pushing long-since-discredited drivel about dependency theory, which was an excuse to, among other things, specifically target nutrition programs for poor children for budget cuts.

But when Trump made the bigotry explicit, and you saw just how many in your party actually believed the things that you thought/hoped were merely strategic feints, you broke with your party and decided to oppose it in its current, mutated form.  Even better, you have remained steadfast even as other conservatives who once opposed Trump have gotten back on board.  Tax cuts and extremist judges are worth less to you than the rule of law and the preservation of constitutional democracy.

Congratulations, you have found that you have a level to which you will not stoop in pursuit of raw political power!  I do not mean that as (or only as) sarcastically as that sounds, because the essential underpinning of pluralist republican governing systems is a belief that there are some shared political values that are inviolable.  We might have hoped that people would have gotten here long before Trump came along, given Republicans' decades-long efforts to suppress voting and use extreme tactics to retain power.  (See esp. Bush v. Gore, but the list is long.)  Oh well.

Yet here we are, at long last, agreeing that some things are too basic to our shared fates to allow your former compatriots and their cult leader to destroy them.  What should you do now, knowing that you are going to end up supporting someone for president in 2020 whom you never would have considered supporting under any other circumstances?

Washington Post NeverTrump columnist Max Boot answers that question quite simply in "Here are 14 reasons I’ll vote for any Democrat over Trump": "I will vote for any Democratic nominee, even Warren or Sanders, despite my profound disagreement with their far-left agendas."  He concludes:
"I may not agree with Warren or Sanders on most issues, but I am confident they would not do any of the offensive and even impeachable acts that Trump commits with mind-numbing regularity. That is reason enough to vote for them, even if I would prefer a more moderate alternative. Saving U.S. democracy from a mad king matters more than the specific policies of his successor."
To be clear, there is nothing far-left about the Warren or even Sanders agendas.  (One must use the word "even" before Sanders's name because of the wide and deep ignorance among supposedly informed pundits about what "democratic socialism" means.)  They are both espousing very popular policies that are no more than one-half standard deviation to the left of what counts as moderate even in a world where dissembling extremists like Susan Collins somehow count as center-right.  Lindsey Graham (another one of those supposedly reasonable conservatives that you would have happily voted for in 2016) might call all Democrats "commies," but he could have called them poopy-heads and it would have made as much sense.

But the very point here is that people like Boot are not anywhere near the mainstream when it comes to policy views.  He apparently believes nearly all of the hyper-conservative cant that his former party has been repeating for decades, so even though Warren and Sanders are not the scary extremists that he thinks they are, the point is that he thinks they are problematic as a matter of policy.

Yet Boot understands that America can withstand policies with which he strongly disagrees, so long as the mechanisms remain in place to allow people to reverse those policies if they fail or if people like Boot can convince their fellow citizens that Social Darwinism is what we really should be pursuing.  He is admirably unequivocal: the preservation of constitutional democracy is a commitment prior to all other political commitments.

Would that Boot were not so alone.  He begins his piece by noting that Michael Bloomberg was apparently "noncommittal" about supporting Warren or Sanders.  Now, I have never bought into the myth of Bloomberg-as-moderate.  Yes, he did some very good things as mayor (the smoking ban in bars and restaurants topping the list), and his post-mayoral work on gun control is laudable.

But he also did some terrible things as mayor, most worryingly including a tactic that Trump would dearly love to emulate, i.e., changing the city's constitution to allow himself a third term in office.  He also tried to strong-arm a disastrous football stadium plan in a key part of Manhattan.  Oh, and let us not forget his fierce defense of stop-and-frisk.

Perhaps the worst thing that Bloomberg did politically, however, was to enthusiastically participate in the Republicans' use of New York City as a studio for their 2004 national convention, which provided a perfect platform for Bush/Cheney and others to push the first prong of what Al Franken once correctly called their "fear, smears, and queers" reelection strategy.  No mayor of New York -- no decent human being -- should have countenanced using the 9/11 site as a political prop.  Bloomberg made it happen.

Still, Bloomberg is to be credited for not running as an independent for president in 2016, knowing full well that doing so simply would have handed the election to Trump; and Bloomberg's decision not to run for president in 2020 shows remarkable restraint.  He is generally firm in his NeverTrumpiness, and that is to be cheered.

Still, he is coy about Warren and Sanders, which suggests that -- unlike Boot -- he thinks that there is something worse than Trump.  Even more troubling, Bloomberg's only reason for taking that position is a difference of opinion on policy, which means that he would rather protect billionaires like himself from Warren's wealth tax than protect America and the world from Trump's descent into authoritarian madness.

More creatively, an op-ed last month in USA Today by NeverTrumper Tom Nichols included this:
"I have only two requirements from the Democratic nominee. First, he or she must not be obviously mentally unstable. Second, the nominee must not be in any way sympathetic — or worse, potentially beholden — to a hostile foreign power. This rules out Gabbard, Williamson and maybe New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, although in de Blasio’s case it’s hard to tell whether he is unstable or just a terrible person."
Let us leave out the specific reasons that Nichols thinks that those three do not pass his two-part test.  Even if they do not, is Nichols honestly saying that he would rather have Trump stay in office than to have any of those three take over?  I find Marianne Williamson to be weird and scary, and I think she would be a terrible president, but compared to Trump?  On a one-on-one ballot in November 2020 with Trump against Williamson, Nichols says (somewhat unclearly, but he says it) that he would not vote at all.  That is his principled stand -- casting half-a-vote for Trump by not voting for his opponent?

Why is Trump worse than the worst of the Democrats?  Need we ask?  There is zero chance that the Democratic Party -- especially post-Trump -- would follow in lockstep behind a leader like Williamson (or Tulsi Gabbard or Bill de Blasio).  Yes, they would vote for any of them (as would I), but if it became clear that the new president was unbalanced or corrupt or simply unfit for office, at least half the Democrats in the Senate would readily vote to remove her or him from the White House.  There would be no cult of Williamson, even though she seems to want one.

Even in the face of everything, Bloomberg and Nichols are saying, in different ways, that Trump is preferable in their minds to something.  Bloomberg's apparent reasons are worse, but both seem to believe that Trump's threat to the Constitution and the very existence of life on earth is not bad enough to make him wholly unacceptable.

Would I vote, in a one-on-one ballot, for Ted Cruz over Trump?  Yup.  Lindsey Graham?  Absolutely.  Tucker Carlson?  Sure, even him.  They are all horrible, but Trump is in his own category of unthinkably and irreversibly horrible.  It is impossible to imagine any of them being able to get away with what Trump's fervent backers are willing to tolerate.

But is there perhaps a method to the Bloomberg/Nichols approach?  By saying that the Democrats cannot count on their unqualified support, are they not shrewdly doing what they can to push Democrats to the right?  "Don't nominate Warren, or I'll abandon you!" warns a stern Michael Bloomberg.

If so, then this is simply a different version of the same problem.  Even if Bloomberg knows that he will ultimately vote for any Democratic nominee but thinks it clever to hint otherwise, he suggests that Trump is somehow not abnormal enough to be categorically rejected.  Telling people that some Democrats might be worse than Trump -- even (especially) when you do not actually believe it -- is the worst kind of false equivalence.

This is yet another way in which things are no longer normal.  What once would have been savvy posturing is now simply too clever by more than half.  Suggesting that the threat that Trump poses is not so bad is, in a word, bad.