This is a memo for the politically homeless. It’s a memo to those of us who could never support Donald Trump but think the Bernie-Squad-Warren Democratic Party is sprinting too far left. It’s a memo built around the following question: If the general election campaign turns out to be Trump vs. Warren, what the heck are we supposed to do?
The first thing we could do, of course, is pray for a miracle. Maybe the Democrats will nominate one of the five B’s or the K: Biden, Buttigieg, Booker, Bennet, Bullock or Klobuchar.
These candidates are pluralists, not purists. They make many voters who disagree with them feel heard and respected. They practice the craft of politics, building majority coalitions to get things done.
If the party nominated one of those six, you really could see the Democrats gather progressives and moderates into an enduring majority coalition as the Republicans recede into old, white, rural obsolescence. You could see movement on a range of issues where large majorities are already stacked on one side: guns, climate change, reducing income inequality, expanding health coverage.
But right now, Elizabeth Warren has the momentum, and so those of us who feel politically homeless may face a stark choice.
For many, supporting Warren is too high a price to pay, even for ousting Trump. “There is no universe where I will ever vote for Donald Trump, and there is no universe where I could ever vote for Elizabeth Warren,” Jennifer Horn, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire GOP, told The Washington Examiner.
And you can see why so many people have that reaction.
First, there are Warren’s policies. On trade, she’s a protectionist. Her 10-year, $34 trillion health care plan isn’t paid for. Her student debt cancellation plan is a handout to the upper middle class. Her campaign seems to not acknowledge the inevitable trade-off between economic growth and high spending, high taxes and high regulation.
Second, she’s one of the few Democrats who could actually lose. As Yascha Mounk notes in The Atlantic, Democrats won in 2018 because they won back a lot of nonpartisan suburban office park workers who found moderates they could vote for. When you remind independents of Democratic support for abolishing private health insurance and decriminalizing unauthorized border crossing — two key Warren policies — they become six percentage points less likely to vote for the Democrats. Trump will tell voters: You may despise me, but she’ll destroy the economy.
Third, a Warren presidency would be deeply polarizing and probably unsuccessful. Warren’s policy ideas would make any progressive-moderate coalition impossible. She’d try to govern with her 40% partisan base, just as Trump has, which is no way to pass big legislation.
Fourth, there is a wave of insular intolerance coursing through parts of the American left. If given executive power, some progressives may use it to cancel any culture or faith other than their own.
And yet ….
And yet, if it comes to Trump vs. Warren in a general election, the only plausible choice is to support Warren. Over the past month, Donald Trump has given us fresh reminders of the unique and exceptional ways he corrupts American life. You’re either part of removing that corruption or you are not. When your nation’s political system is in danger, staying home and not voting is not a responsible option.
Politics is downstream from morality and culture. Warren represents a policy wrong turn, in my view, but policies can be argued about and reversed. Trump represents a much more important and fundamental threat — to the norms, values, standards and soul of this country.
Last week, Trump all but greenlighted the ethnic cleansing of Kurds without an ounce of remorse. He normalizes dishonesty and valorizes cruelty. His letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reminds us yet again that we have a president whose professional competence is at kindergarten level. Once a nation has lost its heart, mind and soul, it is very hard to get these things back.
Furthermore, Trump is an unprecedented threat to democratic institutions. Over the past few years, I’ve thought the progressive fears of incipient American fascism were vastly overblown. But, especially over the past month, Trump has worked overtime to validate those fears and to raise the horrifying specter of what he’ll be like if he is given a second term and is vindicated, unhinged and unwell.
In their book “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that authoritarians undermine democracy in several ways. They reject the democratic rules of the game, the unwritten norms we rely upon to make the political system work. They deny the legitimacy of their political opponents, using extreme language to deny them standing as co-citizens. They tolerate or even encourage violence, threatening to take legal action against critics in rival parties.
Trump has been guilty of all three sins, and given a second term he will feel free to stomp where up until now he has merely tread.
This election is about whether we can hold together as a functioning nation, across our economic, racial, geographic and ideological divides. In such circumstances, a bad option is better than a suicidal one.
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.