A number of influential commentators who firmly opposed Donald Trump in 2016 recently announced their intention to vote for him in 2020. Nearly all of them, including James Lindsay, Danielle Pletka, and Ben Shapiro, blamed illiberalism on the left. As Shapiro said on his popular show, he is planning to vote for Trump because “Democrats have lost their fucking minds.”
Concerns about illiberal tendencies on the left are not made up out of thin air. Many Democratic politicians have not been as full-throated in their opposition to left-wing political violence as they should be. Parts of the left now seek far-reaching censorship in social media, advocate for employees to be fired for expressing conservative opinions, and are openly hostile to free speech. The likely future mayor of Portland, Oregon, has appeared to glorify mass murderers such as Che Guevara and Mao Zedong on the campaign trail.
But the fact is that Trump presents a much greater danger to key constitutional values, and does more than anyone else to lend apparent credibility to extreme forms of protest as well as an unremittingly negative appraisal of America. Voting for Trump to stem the rising tide of illiberalism is about as pure an example of cutting off your nose to spite your face as political life can afford.
Most Americans at all attentive to politics can recite a long list of Trump’s verbal attacks on democracy. Trump has called for both Hillary Clinton, his competitor in 2016, and Joe Biden, his current adversary, to be locked up. He claims that the 2016 election was marred by fraud, even though he won, and now refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose. Whenever he has clashed with judges, civil servants, or public-health experts, he has called their legitimacy into question. Trump routinely denigrates journalists and opposition politicians, and spreads racist memes.
Apologists who say that Trump barks much louder than he bites make an important point. While Trump’s Twitter feed would make any dictator proud, the actions of his government have been less nakedly autocratic. Trump has not tried to imprison Biden or shut down The New York Times. And although he has repeatedly denounced the judiciary in ways that undermine the constitutional responsibility of judges, he has mostly proved willing to be bound by their rulings.
But if Trump’s words are worse than his actions, his actions have still been outrageous. Trump has repeatedly interfered in the processes of awarding federal contracts and approving corporate mergers to punish companies that have dared to criticize him. He has made illegal payments, possibly using campaign contributions, to women with whom he has had affairs. He has fired inspectors general of federal departments when they have uncovered wrongdoing by members of his administration. He has engaged in blatant nepotism and awarded his son-in-law the highest level of security clearance over the objections of professionals. He has invoked a fake national emergency to redirect federal funds toward a political pet project, the wall at the southern border. He has used the resources of his office to boost companies of friends and allies, and channeled significant sums of money into his own properties. He has separated thousands of children from their parents, and has lost track of hundreds of those parents.
These attacks on America’s constitutional traditions don’t mean that Trump is about to pronounce himself emperor for life. Nor, as Graeme Wood has recently argued, do they mean that he will manage to stay in office if he loses the upcoming election. But they should make removing him from office the top priority for any voter who is genuinely concerned about the rise of illiberal forces.
Many of the most worrying tendencies on the left stem from two intellectual mistakes. The first is to focus so tightly on the country’s flaws that its strengths become invisible, and its institutions dispensable. The second is to believe that the right poses such an imminent danger that any form of resistance against it is justifiable, even if it involves violence.
Trump, of course, disagrees with both of these mistakes. But because he is genuinely dangerous and extraordinarily polarizing, he makes it much harder for establishment institutions, as well as moderate voices on the left, to hold their ground against these fallacies.
The president has, again and again, incited racial tensions in the hopes of making partisan gains. If he wins reelection, the idea that racism not only shaped the country’s past but continues to define its essence in the present will become much more difficult to refute. If, however, a clear majority of Americans turn on Trump, rejecting his racist remarks, those of us who still retain faith in America’s perfectibility and seek to preserve its core institutions can more easily win the argument.
Similarly, a Biden victory would make it easier, not harder, to push back against antifa types who think engaging in violent tactics to resist the Trump administration is justifiable. So long as citizens can contest political injustice at the ballot box, there can be no excuse for burning down government buildings. But Trump’s penchant for cruelty is the best possible recruitment tool for those who want to fight fire with even more fire. When the sense of terror that Trump has understandably instilled in many citizens begins to ebb, so too will the misguided hesitance of many Americans to criticize violent extremists pretending to fight for a noble cause.
When Trump was first elected, some progressives feared that he would normalize expressions of hatred and prejudice. America would experience a “preference cascade” in which ordinary people change their opinions to align with the prevailing social cues. The country would tack far to the right.
Far from moving to the right on key social and cultural issues such as immigration, race relations, and same-sex marriage, however, Americans—especially white Americans—have moved to the left. The proportions of voters who believe that immigrants are good for the country, that members of ethnic minorities suffer from significant discrimination, and that everyone should enjoy the right to marry have all gone up. Scholars have found that this counterreaction to Trump is no outlier: More often than not, public opinion moves against the president.
Those who worry about illiberalism on the left should take this pattern to heart. According to commentators such as Shapiro, progressives already hold power in universities and the mainstream media, in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. If they also capture Congress and the White House, they would gain virtually unified control of American politics and culture. But fears of a Biden presidency leading to a woke takeover misunderstand the way public opinion moves in America. Because Trump’s ample failings have given the most misguided claims of the far left a superficial veneer of plausibility, Trump himself has been the far left’s biggest ally. And if the Biden administration does overreach on key cultural issues, that will likely set the stage for a course correction—a cascade back to moderation.
If you want to combat illiberalism, casting a vote for Donald Trump is the worst possible thing you can do.