No Leftist Wants a Trump Presidency

Let’s be clear. The right poses an unparalleled threat. Left criticism of Democrats is in part about preventing the return of Trump.

ACurrent Affairs reader recently emailed in to express their disappointment that our magazine frequently criticizes the current president. We have been critical of the Biden administration’s foreign policy, including its weapons aid to Israel, its undermining of the authority of the ICC, its hawkishness on China, and its cruel immigration policies. We have also criticized the administration’s self-defeating and inadequate approach to the climate catastrophe, which puts the interests of the fossil fuel and automobile industries above those of humanity. 

Our dissatisfied reader argued that by making so much of Biden’s shortcomings, we were in fact helping Donald Trump. Trump, they pointed out, is in many ways much worse than Biden. By criticizing Biden, we are undermining him, and therefore making Trump’s election more probable, thus contributing to a worse outcome on the issues we care about. Our reader is not alone in this kind of thinking. Senator John Fetterman recently criticized those protesting the administration’s support for Israel, arguing that they were “de facto supporting and helping Trump” by encouraging people to “walk away from supporting the president.” After Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib recently called Joe Biden an “enabler” of genocide, and said Palestine’s supporters would not forget his actions in November, liberal commentator Keith Olbermann said she was committing “the equivalent of treason” and would “enable a Trump dictatorship,” and that “to prioritize anything above defeating Trump is suicidal madness,” especially since “Trump is dedicated to destroying Palestine.” He encouraged her to “repent” “immediately.” Economist Robert Marchini explained that “one of the basically overriding rules of party discipline, in any political party, is you do not publicly punch at other members of the party by name.” Criticism helps the enemy, thus anyone who criticizes Joe Biden must want Donald Trump to be president. 

I actually understand why people subscribe to this view, since it can seem so logically straightforward as to be incontrovertible: if you are aware that doing X makes outcome Y more probable, and you choose to do X anyway, then you favor outcome Y. But I don’t think this formula works. For example, when President Roosevelt decided to round up Japanese Americans and put them in internment camps in 1942—an appalling violation of their human rights—a Democratic partisan could say to anyone who objected: starting a debate on this issue distracts from the war effort. Anything that distracts from the war effort makes it more likely Hitler will win. Therefore you want Hitler to win. (I wondered casually whether the New York Times was making arguments like this in 1942, so I looked up their coverage of Japanese internment, but the first headline I found was in fact much worse.) 

Under many moral frameworks, a pure calculation of the probable consequences of an action simply cannot be the end of the analysis. Many activists who protested against Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war on Vietnam, including invading the country with 500,000 troops, probably knew full well that protesting Johnson in 1968 could undermine his presidency, and that the year would therefore end in a Republican victory. But they felt a moral duty to speak out against an atrocity, and their consciences revolted against the idea of remaining silent simply because Republicans tend to have worse foreign policy.

We also have to be careful about how we assign responsibility for consequences. I wrote about this a few years back in response to a Princeton professor who argued that violent protests in Black neighborhoods in the late 1960s contributed to the election of Richard Nixon, and used this as an argument that protesters should be nonviolent, lest they help Republicans. He said:

Protester-initiated violence… helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse, and public concern toward “social control.” In 1968… I find violent protests likely caused a 1.5–7.9 percent shift among whites toward Republicans and tipped the election.

The argument I made then was that this was a form of selective cause identification, meaning that he was choosing to blame protesters responding to racial injustice for the result, rather than blaming the racial injustice that triggered the protests, even though both were equally critical parts of the causal chain. The same goes for antiwar protests. Let’s say that in the absence of public criticism of Lyndon Johnson’s war policy, he would have been reelected, rather than having to drop out of the race. Perhaps this would have meant that the secret bombing of Cambodia would not have taken place. But, first, this is unknowable, and second, it’s the kind of thinking that would lead to remaining silent on all kinds of vitally important issues, merely because “the alternative could be worse” (and it can nearly always be worse). We also need to be careful not to blame protesters for what is ultimately the fault of the president whose policies are triggering the protests.

The same is true in 2024. As Hamilton Nolan points out, Joe Biden is ultimately responsible for his own policies. It’s not Current Affairs, with its modest audience, that is causing a lot of people to be revolted by the deaths of Palestinian children. They are being revolted because they’re seeing a horror unfold, they realize the U.S. is in very large part responsible for it, and they want to stop it. If Biden’s actions are unpopular, he deserves the blame for them. Similarly, as this magazine has covered, Black voters in Wisconsin felt ignored by Hillary Clinton, and lack of attention to their interests may have contributed to her election loss in that state in 2016. Clinton infamously failed to visit Wisconsin once before the general election. Do we choose to blame the voters she didn’t inspire, or the candidate who offered no vision for how she was going to improve their lives? (Clinton blames everyone other than herself.) I think it is in very large part Lyndon Johnson’s fault that Democrats lost the White House in 1968, Hillary Clinton’s fault that the Democrats lost in 2016, and it will be in very large part Joe Biden’s fault if he loses reelection. (Some obstacles facing Biden, such as persistently high prices, are difficult for him to control, but he does control his messaging, and Biden has chosen to insist the economy is good rather than empathize with voters who think it’s not.) 

But even if one does take the position that it is our job to help Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump, even if we are appalled by Joe Biden’s foreign policy, that still does not get us to the conclusion that we should never criticize Biden. Criticism is an exhortation to do better, and many of us want a better, more popular Biden presidency than the one we have. I’d love it if Joe Biden had won widespread public approval by pushing for universal healthcare, rather than promising to deny it to Americans. I’d love it if his climate policies weren’t in large part fraudulent. I’m not pleased when he fails, I’m exasperated. When this magazine points out that Democrats will not win elections by showing contempt for voters, we are offering advice that, if followed, will help Democrats win. If Hillary Clinton had chosen Bernie Sanders as her running mate in 2016, I suspect she might have won, because Bernie had a huge base of supporters who would have turned out voters for her. Instead, she acted as if she didn’t need to win them over, and made it difficult for them to stomach showing up to help her. 

I actually think I’m far more horrified about the prospect of a Trump presidency than even Joe Biden is. Trump will bring us into an unprecedented disaster. He’s going to scupper every single policy that attempts to reduce the harms of climate change, at a time when global heating is accelerating in terrifying ways. He is going to try to deport millions of people, in the process building a nightmarishly cruel new policing apparatus. He has vowed to crush pro-Palestinian protests completely, and the sort of people he has around him think Israel should take over Gaza’s valuable “waterfront property.” The right’s “Project 2025” agenda is what J.D. Vance calls a plan for an “American Caesar.” Trump, we have already seen, will try to cling to power however he can, whether by invoking a “state of emergency” or by mobilizing militia groups against his enemies. It is very seriously open to question what will be left of American democracy by the end of a second Trump term. I dread it and I think Trump’s promises of building new detention camps, and his rants against leftists and “human scum,” should be taken very seriously indeed. Many people I know and love will have their freedom threatened by a second Trump term. It needs to be prevented.

That is in part why I am constantly exhorting Democrats to not do stupid, indefensible things. As Nolan pointed out in an earlier post, Joe Biden is making it so that voters have to, effectively, step over a pile of children’s corpses in order to vote for him, and making it impossible to run on some of Biden’s good pro-labor policies because they pale next to his support for an ongoing genocide. I am distressed when I see Donald Trump raising more and more money and polling well, because I know full well what his victory could mean, and so I lament that we have such a feckless, weak, and unpopular party in opposition. Here at Current Affairs, we have always tried not only to criticize, but to provide a vision for how things can be done better. When I wrote a whole book about Trump (Anatomy of a Monstrosity), a very large part was devoted to explaining effective ways to counter his messaging and offer voters a compelling alternative. If Democratic party leaders do not take this advice, and choose once again to run an unpopular, dishonest, uninspiring candidate whose record is impossible to defend, they will have only themselves to blame if Donald Trump returns. We on the left, on the other hand, have been issuing dire warnings about the dangers of complacency and the need to change course. 

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