Bad, Worse, and Worst of All
Ranking the awfulness of Trump v. DeSantis in 2024
Because today’s post is a response to an op-ed column published on Wednesday, I decided to publish it on Thursday instead of waiting for Friday (the usual date for my third post of the week). That means, with the July 4th holiday on Monday pushing my first post to Tuesday, this week’s posts have been clustered in the middle of the week. I don’t anticipate this becoming the new normal, but such shifts might happen from time to time. In any case, thanks for reading. I’ll see you next week.
After a couple of long and involved posts about the history of the GOP and abortion, I’ve given myself a comparatively simple and straightforward task today. I want to illustrate a point I made in my inaugural post about the importance of making relevant distinctions in trying to understand the right and the threat it poses to our politics. The occasion is a column by Max Boot that appeared in the Washington Post on Wednesday.
The column isn’t the first, and it surely won’t be the last, to make the following argument: People seem to be relieved that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may now be a more likely 2024 GOP presidential nominee than Donald Trump. But this is a mistake—because DeSantis “might be an even bigger threat” than Trump.
Who’s Worse Than Orban?
This is wrong—but that doesn’t mean DeSantis is good. He’s a cultural populist in the mold of Trump, and he’s smart and disciplined in a way the 45th president never was and never will be. That does make him a formidable threat to the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party, and a guy who could do a lot of things as president that I, along with many other liberals and progressives, would strongly dislike. But that isn’t the same thing as saying he poses a formidable threat to American democracy in the way that Trump clearly and indisputably does.
DeSantis may well aspire to be something like an American Viktor Orban, bringing the Hungarian strongman’s blustering, highly competent style of conservative cultural populism to the United States. That’s certainly not good.
But there are worse things than Orbanism in the world.
One of them is losing a free and fair election, rejecting the results on the basis of lies and conspiracies, and then provoking an insurrectionary assault against the national legislature in a bid to keep oneself in power. That is a coup attempt, a headlong assault on the peaceful transition of power, and it is far worse—categorically worse—than anything we’ve seen, or are likely to see, from DeSantis.
Defining Trump’s Badness
The reason many fail to heed this distinction is that they have yet to clarify in their own minds precisely what it was that made Trump so bad. Was he bad because he broke from longstanding Republican orthodoxy on policy? Or was he bad because he was temperamentally ill-suited to the presidency and displayed outright authoritarian contempt for the rule of law? The answer, of course, was that he was bad for both reasons—but that the second form of badness was much more dangerous.
There is nothing sacrosanct about the policy mix that dominated the Republican Party from Ronald Reagan through Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign—suspicion of big government and addiction to tax cuts; support for free trade and immigration; a reflexively hawkish foreign policy; and moral traditionalism on social issues.
Trump challenged many of those nostrums, attacking the party’s elite consensus on foreign policy, immigration, and trade, and promising to fight much harder on culture-war issues. That was an important shift, and it did manage to move the policy matrix on the right further away from the centrist-liberal default that more or less prevailed in American politics from the start of the Cold War through the Obama administration. But that doesn’t mean it’s fundamentally illegitimate or a regime-level threat to liberal democratic government in the United States to make that change.
What is a regime-level threat to liberal democratic government in the United States is the sitting president running for a second term in office, losing that election, and then refusing to step down. That’s what Trump did in the two months leading up to the insurrectionary violence of January 6, 2021, and we’ve seen nothing like it in Hungary or any other country contending with right-wing populism. That doesn’t mean we won’t see something like it elsewhere as more right-populists in office around the world run for re-election and lose. But we haven’t seen it elsewhere yet, and that makes the situation in the United States uniquely dire—because of Trump.
Nightmare Scenarios, Ranked
So if Boot’s analysis of threat-levels is wrong, what’s my alternative? Here’s how I see it:
The best possible but extremely unlikely outcome for the United States would be for the Republican Party to nominate an anti-populist Republican like Rep. Liz Cheney or Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan in 2024. Whether such a candidate or the Democratic alternative won the general election would matter for a host of reasons, and I would undoubtedly side with the Democratic ticket. But the choice would be an ordinary one, with the stakes as low as they were in, say, 1992 or 2012.
A worse outcome would be a Trumpy Republican ending up as the nominee in 2024—this could be DeSantis, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, or any number of others longing to jump into the race—and winning the election outright, by a solid margin in both the Electoral College and popular vote. I wouldn’t vote for any of these candidates over the Democrat and would be highly critical of the new president’s policies, but it would be better for the country (compared to the alternatives below) for the right-wing cultural populist to have a solid popular mandate for what the administration would attempt to achieve.
Somewhat worse than that would be one of these populists winning an extremely narrow victory in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote by an even larger margin than Trump did in 2016 (and came ominously close to doing again in 2020). This would be bad because it would once again call into question the justice of America’s electoral system, which would understandably be accused by liberals and progressives of systematically handing the country’s highest office to presidential candidates who receive fewer votes. The right would respond that we have never conducted a nationwide popular vote contest for president, and they would be correct. But it’s also true that the right would never tolerate the reverse scenario—namely, the system repeatedly rewarding political power to their less popular opponents.
Similarly bad would be for one of these populist candidates to lose the election very narrowly, leading some on the right to raise Trumpian objections to the vote count in the hope of changing the outcome. My instincts tell me that none of the likely Republican candidates would push these objections anywhere near as far as Trump did after the 2020 election, but another round of severe electoral turbulence would be very bad for the country at home and abroad regardless.
Considerably worse than any of those scenarios would be for Donald Trump himself to run again in 2024, win the GOP nomination, and then prevail in the general election to win a second term in the White House—though the marginally better scenario would be for him, too, to win the election outright by solid margins in both the popular vote and Electoral College. Another Trump presidency would be terrible. But another Trump presidency haunted by the specter of electoral illegitimacy would be even worse.
Which brings us to the worst scenario of all: Trump runs, becomes the GOP nominee, and then loses in the general election, but by a narrow enough margin that he once again denies the outcome, prompting fights to break out in several states over vote counting, rules for rejecting ballots, certification of vote totals, appointment of electors, and all the other steps required to pronounce a victor whose legitimacy is broadly accepted across both parties and the electorate as a whole.
The sorry fact is that it is now possible to imagine a series of events that lands the country in the middle of a governance and constitutional crisis so profound that seeing a way out of it without widespread violence and the extra-lawful seizure of power by one or another political faction or institution (like the military, for example) is impossible.
That is the real near-term, worst-case political scenario for the United States. And getting there runs through one man alone: Donald Trump.
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