Donald Trump is a lawless president and revolting person who richly deserved his impeachment and, in a better world, would be convicted in the Senate and removed from the White House. That’s my view, as it is the view of a plurality – albeit a narrow plurality – of the American people.
Ergo, every American who feels this way has a moral obligation to vote for whomever winds up being the Democratic nominee, even if the nominee turns out to be Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Right?
Well, hang on.
I’ve been thinking about this question for a while now, thanks mainly to some good-natured prodding from my colleague Gail Collins. The strongest version of the argument is this: Say what you will about Warren’s or Sanders’ policies, neither candidate poses any serious threat to our constitutional order, just as neither possesses Trump’s crippling character flaws or has such contempt for the institutions, traditions and habits of a free and civilized society.
In short, while a Warren or Sanders presidency might drastically rearrange the furniture in our common democratic home, it will not – as Trump’s has – seek to blast away at the foundations. What’s more, a decisive loss by Trump might have the added benefit of chastening conservatives who abandoned their former “free people, free markets” convictions in favor of Trump’s nativist demagogy.
It’s a serious argument that deserves respect. But it falls short in three big ways.
First, the argument overstates the extent to which this presidency has eroded the foundations of liberal democracy at home and abroad. Has Trump abandoned NATO? No. Has he lifted sanctions on Russia? No. Has he closed the borders to all immigrants? No. Did the president steal the midterms or stop Congress from impeaching him? No. Has he significantly suppressed the press? Again, no.
None of this should diminish the extent to which Trump has repeatedly sought to do the wrong thing or – nearly as bad – the ways in which he has normalized the seeking. Nor does it lessen my apprehensions about what Trump, after an acquittal in the Senate, may seek to do with a second term.
Yet for the overwhelming majority of Americans, life is pretty much the same under Trump as it was under Obama.
The truth of Trumpism is that it’s a morally corrosive and corrupting force, not a politically or economically catastrophic one. It’s a reality Trump’s critics need to internalize lest their criticism become a self-defeating caricature.
Second, the argument understates the radicalism of what Sanders and Warren propose. Theirs is not a painless policy massage in the direction of a kinder, gentler economy. It’s a frontal and high-handed assault on U.S. capitalism. If it succeeded, it would entail devastating dislocations to millions of workers lasting for years. If it failed, it would have devastating effects on the country lasting for decades.
How devastating? In October, Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute tallied the costs of Sanders’ policy goals. By his calculations, the federal government would double in size. Half the U.S. workforce would be employed by the government, Riedl wrote. Government spending as a percent of GDP would rise to 70% (in Sweden, it’s less than 50%). The 15.3% payroll tax would hit 27.2% to help pay for Medicare for All. Total additional outlays would reach $97.5 trillion on top of the nearly $90 trillion the federal, state and local government is projected to spend.
At least Sanders is honest enough to call this what it is: socialism. Warren’s terminology is less forthright. Her ambition is no less breathtaking.
Fracking and health insurance – two industries that collectively employ hundreds of thousands of people – wouldn’t be better regulated or reformed in her administration. They’d be abolished. Much of Silicon Valley, America’s premier growth engine for 40 years, would be turned into a quasi-public utility. She doesn’t have one climate plan. She has at least five, costing in the trillions, which she plans to finance partly with a wealth tax that, as a law professor, she surely knows is unconstitutional. It’s of a piece with the other dishonesties that are such a part of her political persona.
Third, the argument ignores the likely effect that a Sanders or Warren presidency would have on the right.
Chastening? Probably not. Neither candidate is any bit more interested in finding common ground with Republican-leaning voters than Trump was interested in finding it with Democratic-leaning ones. And an assertively left-wing presidency would spark a right-wing backlash that would have all of the fear and rage of the left’s Resistance – but none of its restraint.
Democrats can, and hopefully will, nominate a candidate capable of attracting middle-of-the-road support. They can eschew polarization for persuasion and ideology for pragmatism. They can offer themselves as a sober alternative to a reckless president.
What they can’t do is nominate a reckless candidate of their own and insist it’s the only moral choice. For some of us, “none of the above” is a viable option. For far too many others, it’ll be the devil they know.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.