The chances of Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States remain vanishingly small, but given that almost no votes have actually been cast yet and the polls are in a tightening phase, it’s an interesting exercise to consider what a Trump presidency would look like. Much of the discussion has centered around what dangers Trump might present to the nation, the political system, racial and ethnic minorities, or Republicans and conservatives. But what would it mean to the Democrats? For them, the answer is probably a galvanizing political moment, but it would also signify a lot of lost opportunities and much acrimonious bloodletting.
The Blame Game
First would come the recriminations; Jim Geraghty, in “The Fallout (Non-Nuclear) from a Donald Trump Victory,” has outlined some of the probable carnage. On paper, a Hillary–Trump election matchup should be an electoral dream for Democrats. Hillary is, for all her flaws, the party’s undoubted first choice; ever since 2012, many Democrats have been confident that her name recognition, gender, fundraising machine, and experience would translate into a campaign that could beat even the strongest of Republicans on their best day. The party establishment lined up behind her early and would probably have done so even if another of the party’s biggest names had jumped into the race. Joe Biden is too old and too straight-white-male, and he has lost too badly in prior presidential runs. Michelle Obama is too untested in political campaigns. Elizabeth Warren is too inexperienced and radical. Nobody else is more than a blip with the voters. It had to be Hillary. Even now, as badly as Hillary has played with the voters so far, a majority of Democrats would still choose her if asked to re-run the primaries (although a significant minority still Feels the Bern).
Trump, by contrast, is the worst and weakest candidate the GOP could possibly imagine. Lacking any candidate so bad among all of its officeholders, activists, and pundits, the GOP had to go outside the party to recruit an aging Hillary Clinton donor from a deep-blue state, a man who had no political experience, a long record of left-wing views, a penchant for conspiracy theories, a disastrous personal life, a messy business career, a truckload of racist baggage, and an appalling habit of toadying to Vladimir Putin. Trump is the most broadly disliked candidate with the general electorate in recorded political history, with a combination of liabilities no other Republican has to shoulder. Imagine the best candidate in your party losing to the weakest candidate in the other party, after years of telling yourself that your party had unlocked the demographic code to a permanent majority. This gives you the sense of how badly the Democrats would be unglued by losing to Trump. The sheer panic emanating from liberal and Democratic commentators over the past week is only a preview.
Worse yet, Democrats have been banking heavily that the Trump effect will help them destroy Republicans down-ticket, because of Trump’s political toxicity, his lack of political organization, and the impossible position in which he puts Republicans sharing a ballot with him. But the polls so far show that the voters can tell the difference between Trump and normal Republicans, most of whom are running several points ahead of Trump in Senate races. If Trump actually wins, you would expect to see the GOP lose no more than one to three seats overall in the Senate (losing Illinois, Wisconsin, and possibly Indiana and maybe picking up Nevada), and limit its losses in the House and the governors’ races. That would make it hard for Democrats to blame everything on the “black swan” nature of Trump, and it would shatter one of their favorite talking points: that the GOP’s congressional majorities are solely a feature of low off-year election turnout.
Hillary herself would obviously take the brunt of the blame, finishing the Clintons and their circle for good in Democratic politics. But the loss of an election that Democrats saw as an easy win, combined with down-ticket heartbreak, would set off internal debates about far more than the merits of a single candidate. As of now, the most likely scenario for a Hillary loss is a combination of 1) a large white working-class vote for Trump and 2) a lot of young voters and progressives deserting her to stay home or vote third-party. Under those circumstances, you’d expect a lot of I-told-you-so complaints from the Sanders/Warren faction, insisting that Hillary lost because she was too Wall Street, too Davos, too hawkish, too pro-trade, too economically centrist, and too ethically compromised by her ties to big money. A big under-30 vote for Gary Johnson would specifically embolden those who argue that Democrats should embrace a national crusade to legalize marijuana and dismantle the War on Drugs.
A second potential demographic explanation for a Hillary loss would be low turnout among African Americans. Some marginal loss of black turnout in 2016 has long been expected, with Barack Obama no longer on the ballot. But if the drop-off is bigger than predicted, expect the Black Lives Matter crowd to argue that Democrats needed to become more stridently hostile to law enforcement.
A lot of these debates have been roiling within the Democratic party for the past eight years, but the imperative to support Obama’s leadership and the Democrats’ smug conviction that they have a permanent electoral majority have kept a lid on them. Finding the party suddenly leaderless, out of power, and humiliated by a reality-TV circus candidate would usher in an all-out civil war of a sort the Democratic party hasn’t really faced since 1992, maybe 1972.
Geraghty suggests in his analysis that progressives (or at least liberals) might learn a useful lesson from losing to Trump: that the stifling nature of political correctness has produced a backlash in the country and that the party should try to rein in the speech police. In particular, a Trump win would show that the madness of the campus Left has alienated many non-college-educated whites who share neither their experiences nor their university-inculcated ideology.
Most on the left would treat Trump’s supporters not as potential constituents they failed but as enemies to be silenced and purged.
I suspect the actual result, were Trump to win, would be the opposite of self-reflection and course correction. Much of the Left’s anger right now (directed at the media’s already-harsh posture toward Trump) is based on the argument that Trump should not be legitimized by treating him as a normal figure whose views are to receive a fair hearing. Much of the academic Left would treat his election as a vindication of their grim view of America; they would see themselves as offering the last safe spaces in an island of insanity, havens where they could protect their fragile-flower students from a triggering world. Campus protests would blossom like dandelions. And most on the left would treat Trump’s supporters not as potential constituents they failed but as enemies to be silenced and purged.
In fact, after a Trump win, the likelier lesson on the Democratic side would be much the same lesson many on the Republican side took from losing to Obama (especially in 2012, when a racially polarized electorate provided Obama’s margin of victory). You’d see growing sentiment that what the party needs is populist candidates who “tell it like it is” (as the angriest and least-educated segment of the party’s voting base see “it”) and call out the other side’s voters. Imitation, in politics, is the sincerest form of hatred, so the result would be more confrontational, in-your-face Sharpton/Grayson style race-and-culture warriors and more candidates with celebrity appeal — a recipe not so much for de-escalating political correctness as for wielding it more brutally as a hammer.
The Unified Opposition
Being in the opposition has its advantages, especially when the president is a buffoon. It’s a lot easier to hold together a legislative coalition to vote no than yes. And there are obvious electoral advantages. For example, the 2018 Senate map should greatly favor Republicans, especially in an off year, but an unpopular president could easily invert that (in 2018, you don’t want to be Republican Dean Heller, the junior senator from Nevada, if Trump is the president). And if the business cycle turns sour again, either party would suffer from being in the Oval Office. That alone isn’t a reason for Democrats to want to lose to Trump, but it does suggest a silver lining.
A Trump victory would suggest that one campaign season wasn’t enough for Democrats to use him as a recruiting tool to win more support from Hispanics and college-educated whites. But Trump in office would surely help on that front as well, allowing the Democrats to build toward a long-term dominance of the former group and a firmer grip on the latter. For all the internal bloodletting, a loss would doubtless make Democrats stay unified as the anti-Trump party. The downside is twofold: The party might shift hard to the progressive left, costing it the opportunity to consolidate its support with upscale white voters and culturally conservative Hispanics; and the dynamics that would drive Democrats to a unified front against Trump might also cost them some major opportunities for policy victories.
The Temptation of Rage
Politics isn’t just about elections. It’s also about policy and legislation and budgets. A Trump presidency would present Democrats with the biggest target since George H. W. Bush to co-opt and divide the GOP by getting a Republican to sign on to all sorts of leftist policy. Would they take it?
For conservatives, that’s one of the biggest fears about a Trump administration: liberal judges, tax-hiking budget deals, new entitlements. It was also a big fear when Obama came to office: that he would seduce the GOP into signing on to a lot of his agenda, eroding the base for resistance the way Bill Clinton did. But flush with victory, Obama never really tried. Has his party lost the reflex to do so?
Beltway Democrats could seduce Trump into a great many compromises. To pick one example, the heart of GOP objections to Obamacare has focused on the “iron triangle” of the individual mandate, the guaranteed-issue requirement (which requires insurers to take everyone, no matter how sick they might already be), and the community-rating requirement (which constrains insurers’ ability to charge higher prices to sicker or older customers). Obama’s personal commitment to keep Obamacare as written made it impossible to pass any bipartisan reform of these core elements of socializing health-care costs. But their continuance has made Obamacare highly unstable and in constant political and fiscal jeopardy as Republicans have blocked the bailouts needed to compensate insurers for doing business under these conditions.
The real public expense of Obamacare, however, has been the expansion of Medicaid. Thanks to the Supreme Court, many states with Republican governors have been able to resist joining the stampede to expand this expensive and dysfunctional entitlement program. If Democrats really wanted to give Republicans a face-saving way to say they repealed Obamacare, while actually entrenching a much larger and more permanent federal health-care entitlement and a potential pathway to single-payer health care, they would compromise on the “iron triangle” in exchange for Republicans’ endorsing a Medicaid expansion, turning it into a de facto “public option.” Would President Trump sign that deal? Expanding Medicaid is already Trump’s proposal for an Obamacare replacement. And a Republican White House pushing this would weaken a lot of the spines of Republican opposition in Congress and the states.
This kind of deal — and others like it on judges, taxes, trade, infrastructure spending, Planned Parenthood, and scores of other issues — would be the savvy move for Beltway Democrats. It’s what Teddy Kennedy would have done. But it’s entirely possible that Democratic politicians would find it impossible, especially in his first two years in office, to pursue this strategy because their voting base wouldn’t permit them to do business with Trump at all.
This has, of course, already been a Trump-specific theme during the campaign: that Democrats should treat Trump as a pariah who must be excised entirely from American life. Democrats who run around the country calling Trump a racist, a fascist, and a budding dictator and who refer to his Republican supporters as collaborators would find it hard to walk that back in order to do smiling press conferences with him announcing that they could do business with him after all.
Democrats would be under enormous pressure from Day One to oppose everything done by the next Republican president, no matter who he or she was.
It runs deeper than that, though. A lot of the Democratic base believes that Republicans have acted in an unprecedented and illegitimate campaign to obstruct President Obama, and that this “disrespect” for Obama has racist roots. As result — here’s that instinct for imitation again — Democrats would be under enormous pressure from Day One to oppose everything done by the next Republican president, no matter who he or she was, and no matter if that meant opposing proposals that would shift the country to the left. If that next president is the very man who spent years questioning Obama’s birth certificate, Democrats will see him as the avatar of Republican obstructionism, against whom they must exact revenge. This dynamic could hobble efforts to compromise with Trump; ironically, it might have the effect of pushing him against his own instincts into compromising instead with congressional Republicans. Beltway Democrats just might find themselves unable to accept Trump’s surrender on policy.
A Trump presidency would hand great electoral and policy opportunities to the Democratic party. But Democrats might not be able to resist vengeful impulses that could limit their ability to capitalize on those opportunities.