We all like to think of ourselves as principled, thoughtful, and courageous. So ask yourself this: If the Democrats nominated their own version of Donald Trump, what would you do?
When we're not horrified by the Republican nominee for president, those of us on the left have been soaking in schadenfreude this year, watching the Republican Party reap what they've spent the last eight years (and more, depending on how you look at it) sowing. All the race-baiting, all the immigrant-bashing, all the establishment-vilifying, all the government-delegitimizing has come to its logical fruition in Trump's nomination. So over on this side we say they deserve every bit of what Trump has reduced them to—and we pay respect to the few with the guts to stand up and say that they will not be party to this abomination of a candidacy.
The greatest scorn is reserved for those like Paul Ryan or John McCain, who make sure we understand their disagreements with Trump and their dismay at the fact that he leads their party, but who nonetheless endorse his candidacy. I'd never do that, it's tempting to say. But is it true?
What if the Democratic Party had nominated someone whose career was full of scams, who could barely open his mouth without lying, who displayed an ignorance of policy and public affairs that would shame a seventh grader, and whose campaign was built on hatred and demagoguery? And let's say he was running against someone liberals truly reviled, like Ted Cruz.
The reasons to support your liberal Trump would be powerful. You'd know that even if this embarrassment won, the same policy experts who would populate any Democratic administration would have to fill out the 3,000 or so political appointments in the executive branch, because there'd be no one else to do it—and personnel, as they say, is policy. The liberal version of Trump would make perfectly acceptable appointments to the Supreme Court (and other federal courts as well), because it was one of many substantive matters he obviously cared nothing about. He'd simply outsource it to the Democrats around him who do care. And since a Trump victory would almost certainly come with a Republican Congress, imagine there would be a Democratic Congress delivering our liberal Trump a steady stream of progressive bills to sign, which he would do willingly—again, because he just didn't care enough about legislation not to.
Now imagine that all this was happening at the end of eight years of Republican rule, when there was so much built-up frustration and so much work that needed to be done. How would you feel then?
I've seen liberals discuss this issue in public and in private, and to serve the thought experiment they usually throw up some names of left-wing celebrities whose nomination for president would be disturbing for one reason or another, like Sean Penn or Kanye West. But the analogy never quite fits, because Trump is so unique, and uniquely loathsome. Even so, it might sound like a cop-out to say that Democrats would never nominate like Penn or West for president, but it's also almost certainly true.
For starters, it was the civil war within the GOP that created the opening for Trump's candidacy, and nothing similar can be seen on the Democratic side—though of course it might one day. Nevertheless, there are features of the Democratic Party and liberalism itself that make it all but impossible.
The Democrats haven't poured contempt on the ideas of expertise and political experience the way Republicans have—which makes considering someone like Trump possible. The base of the Republican Party is consumed by the kind of anger that can lead to people saying, "Screw it, let's vote for Trump." On the other hand, the core constituency of the Democrats, African Americans—without whose support no Democrat can win the presidential nomination—has long demonstrated an extreme practicality in where they put their votes (perhaps because once you've had to fight so hard to acquire and keep the right to vote, you're less inclined toward using it to make symbolic statements). And liberals fundamentally believe in government, so they're not going to hire an arsonist to burn it down on the off-chance that what emerges from the ashes might be an improvement over the status quo.
What about the Sanders campaign? Doesn't that show that an outsider—even if he isn't a vile demagogue—could seize the party with a radical program thin on practicalities? You might argue that saying that Republicans in Congress will vote for single-payer health care because you'll have a revolution and people will demand it isn't much more grounded in reality than "We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning." But the truth is that the real problem with Trump isn't a lack of fleshed-out policy plans. Bernie Sanders fed his unlikely campaign on idealism and hope, even if his analysis of the system and his proposed solutions were sometimes overly simplistic. Trump, on the other hand, feeds his campaign on hatred and fear.
So yes, you could find a left-wing celebrity who has some wacky ideas, or who knows less than he thinks he does, or even who is simultaneously repellent and charismatic. But are there any who could reach down into the American psyche and find a throbbing tumor of hate to massage the way Trump has? Who would celebrate our worst impulses, turn us against each other, and promise to enshrine people's ugliest prejudices as national policy? And who upon doing that would be greeted with cheers from a plurality of Democratic primary voters?
No, you couldn't.
You may be saying: OK, but just for the sake of argument, what if Democrats did nominate someone like Trump? What if they were in exactly the same position Republicans are now? What then?
I think we'd see the same thing. Some liberals would speak out against the nominee, either because they had determined it was their best strategy for the future (as Ted Cruz has), or because their position gives them the freedom to do so without risk (as is true of anti-Trump conservative pundits like George Will or Bill Kristol). But most would weigh the pros and cons, then reluctantly get on board with the nominee.
Think about what Republicans are faced with now. If Hillary Clinton is elected, it would mean a large number of consequential and clearly understood losses for them. The Supreme Court will have a liberal majority, perhaps for decades to come. The Affordable Care Act will become further entrenched. The Obama administration's regulatory steps to address climate change will be safe, and will likely be expanded upon. You could list a hundred more consequences—and add to them all that Republicans would gain even with Donald Trump in the White House.
On the negative side of the scale, you have a lot of uncertainty. Will Trump's ignorance of policy and government do harm? Maybe, but maybe not. Will his comically thin skin lead to international crises? Maybe, but maybe not. Could he be dissuaded from following through on his most appalling ideas, like banning Muslims from entering the country? Maybe he could—he does have a legendarily short attention span. Will his white nationalist campaign taint the party over the long term? Probably—but once he's the nominee, it may be too late.
So the way most Republicans have decided to resolve their dilemma is to criticize him for the more vile things he says and does, while still maintaining their support for him. It may not be the most principled of stands, but it's enough to let them sleep at night. And if Democrats ever found themselves in the same position, it's probably what most of them would do, too.
Fortunately, they'll almost certainly never have to face that choice.