Embracing a radical Left agenda because you think Trump is vulnerable so you may as well shoot for the moon is understandable, but it’s also completely reasonable for those who don’t like Trump but don’t buy into that agenda to say, “No thanks.”
But are these two things equally reasonable? Are they really equivalent postures at all?
I think the answer to both of those questions is “no.”
Both Brooks and Stephens (as well as Andrew Sullivan) are warning the Democrats that the hard-left shift of the party on display in the primaries is going to lose them much-needed votes in the middle and put the defeat of President Trump in jeopardy. It’s not something I disagree with and there are plenty of other Democrats who are raising the same concern. But the idea that Trump is so vulnerable that progressives should shoot for the moon is a calculated gamble rather than a moral consideration. The Democrats may choose a nominee who is unelectable, thereby showing that they miscalculated. They may force an electable candidate to sabotage his or her general elections chances in order to win votes for the nomination. But that will also be more of an unintended consequence than a decision. Either way, you can chalk it up to making a mistake. In no way will any of these people have chosen Trump or seen him as the better of two options.
For the Republican #NeverTrump crowd and those in the mushy-middle of American politics, the election is going to be a choice or a decision about whether Donald Trump should be granted a second term in office. Some may decide that it’s better to stick with Trump than to put things in the hands of a Democrat running on a radical or socialistic platform. If they make that choice, then they’re showing that they’re really not that concerned about Trump. Whatever his faults, they are not as severe as living with college debt forgiveness or “open borders.”
Maybe some people will try to convince themselves that they can reject both options and avoid a choice. Some will rationalize that their state is going to be blue or red and their vote won’t change anything. Some will talk themselves into believing that a vote for a third-party candidate is at least half a vote against Trump even if it will also be half a vote against the Democrat. But if you believe Trump should not be reelected, you can’t avoid a decision. Either you cast the vote with maximum power to defeat him or you don’t. If there are people out there who, given the power to wave a magic wand and determine the winner of the election, would choose Trump, then those people aren’t serious about opposing him.
What makes these choices different is that people on the left are clear on who they want to be president (the Democrat) and they’re arguing about how much they can get away with without jeopardizing that victory. Some people don’t want to shoot for the moon because they themselves are in a moderate camp. But they’re all engaged in a dispute about priorities and strategies rather than any confusion about whether someone could possibly be worse than Trump.
For people like Bret Stephens and David Brooks, they’re threatening to not support the Democrat if the Democrat is too far out of the mainstream. That’s a clear indication that the reelection of Trump isn’t the worst thing that can happen in their minds, and that’s a moral judgment. If Medicare-for-All and free college and the abolition of ICE are more repugnant than being a suspected foreign agent, an obvious criminal, an opponent of NATO and friend of Putin, a menace to a free press, and a brutalizer of migrant children, then they should be clear that they’ll tolerate everything Trump can dish out to prevent the election of a far left-wing Democrat.
The Democrats want to win the votes of all decent people, but you’re not a decent person if you would consider Trump over the alternative. It is not “reasonable” to say “no thanks” to the Democrat because you think their policies are too far left if those policies don’t involve crippling America’s alliances and moral leadership while committing a litany of crimes, including crimes against humanity.
It’s obviously a harder choice for a Republican to cast a vote for a Democrat than for a Democrat to cast a vote for a Democrat, but the referendum on Trump transcends ideological or ordinary political considerations. That’s why the choice David Brooks faces is not equivalent to the choice a Democrat faces in choosing between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, or Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders. It’s not the same kind of decision, as well, because when the Democrats argue about policy and strategy, it’s in the context of defeating Trump rather than in the context of possibly choosing Trump, staying home, or casting a protest vote.
The bottom line is that you can’t be #NeverTrump if Trump is still an option for you. And you can’t oppose Trump with all your might by staying home or voting for the Libertarian or Green Party candidate. If you really want him gone, you’ll vote for the Democrat. If you want to have influence over who his opponent will be, you can hardly do worse than threaten to leave the battlefield if you don’t get who you want.