If you had told liberal Americans six months ago that the Republican presidential front-runner would be Donald Trump, the most common reaction would likely have been some combination of pragmatic glee and existential horror. Trump is the least electable Republican presidential candidate in a generation, a sinister demagogue who would almost certainly lose to Hillary Clinton in November. But Trump’s demagoguery also frightens liberals, and many centrists: His success has revealed an ugly side of America, full of prejudice, suspicion, and hate, all of it terrifyingly on display Friday night at his canceled rally in Chicago.
And yet, as the campaign has worn on and Trump has emerged as the leader in the delegate count, another liberal reaction to his rise has emerged: schadenfreude. Trump’s nomination could very well lead to the collapse of the Republican Party, which many liberals view as an increasingly debased institution that deserves not merely to lose elections but to be permanently vanquished. Even more satisfying to liberal rubberneckers is the idea that the Republicans have been the architects of their own demise—that this is a classic case of chickens coming home to roost. A party that for decades fomented and benefited from racial resentment is now seeing its political future potentially collapse thanks to the very forces it nurtured. “Chickens, Home to Roost” was actually the title of a Maureen Dowd column in which she opined, “The most enjoyable thing about the Trump phenomenon has been watching him make monkeys out of a lot of people who had it coming.”
Even the conservatives who have stood up to Trump and attempted to slow his march to the nomination were, in the past, Trump enablers. Mitt Romney made nice with Trump out of political expedience well after the latter’s “birther” attacks on Obama. William Kristol remains a steadfast admirer of the Bush administration’s policies on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which Trump has been criticized for supporting under their proper name, torture. They are both fine examples of a party that long ago lost its soul in the process of losing its way.
Haven’t these men earned this comeuppance for their hypocrisy—and is this not a moment for liberals to rejoice in the karmic justice of it all? Certainly the GOP and its supporters deserve to be called out for the party’s often ugly past and for setting the stage for Trump. But those liberals who find themselves rooting for Trump, in the hope that his continued success will only further damage the GOP, are playing with fire—and putting their self-satisfaction ahead of the interests of the country. Even if you despise the Republican Party and what it stands for, Trump is a different beast. His violent rhetoric, which seems to have infected everyone from his ardent supporters (who have turned his rallies into spectacles and, increasingly, melees) to his campaign manager (who is accused of assaulting a reporter), is uniquely frightening. He must be defeated at all costs.
Try to imagine a Trump presidency the day after a major, 9/11-like terrorist attack. There is simply no telling what the man would or could do. He has already threatened to go after his enemies if elected, promising a sort of Nixon-but-worse approach to governance. In the event of terrorism, how far would he go to curb civil liberties? What insane foreign policy idea would he dream up and pursue? Sure, George W. Bush curtailed civil liberties and invaded Iraq. But that’s the point. Trump is a more hateful person than Bush and threatens to be even less bound by democratic checks and balances than Bush was.
Even without an attack, Trump could move the United States closer to what Fareed Zakaria has called an “illiberal democracy,” a country with regular elections but little regard for the people or the institutions of state, which the leadership can ignore at will. (The current list of countries with illiberal elected leaders stretches from Russia to Turkey to India.) Recent American history has not featured a candidate who, if victorious, could fundamentally alter the country’s character in such a way.
Some schadenfreude-soaked liberals will argue that Trump could never get elected. Maybe so, though the Republican establishment was not long ago just as smug in such a conclusion. But even if Trump doesn’t win the presidency, it’s not clear that a shattered Republican Party is good for liberalism, or the country, however satisfying it might be. In the short term, Hillary Clinton is likely to benefit. But there is no guarantee that whatever emerges from the rubble of Republican collapse will be any better, or any less hateful, than what came before it. Two-party systems require two healthy parties. Rot would increasingly infect the Democratic Party if it had no real opposition.
It’s easy to calculate the well-being of a country by looking at its entitlement spending or investments in infrastructure; you could even argue that Trump might be marginally better on these issues than a conservative firebrand like Ted Cruz. But how do you measure the effect on a nation’s character of Muslims going on Facebook to express fear about what a Trump nomination would mean for their safety, or children wondering aloud whether their mixed-race parents will face discrimination in Trump’s America. (I am using examples from my life, but everyone has their own.) These things don’t show up in Government Accountability Office reports, but they matter. And they are worth remembering when you’re tempted to laugh at the latest Trump stunt or insult.
At least until the primary season is over, the only true opposition to Trump can come from his fellow Republicans. They have hardly covered themselves in glory as of late, and, collectively, they are partially to blame for the beast that has been unleashed on us all. But the distance from “the Republicans had it coming” to “the Republicans are all as bad as Trump” is too close for comfort. Trump is a unique danger, and any pleasure we take in his rise should be balanced by taking stock of the real threat he poses.