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Column: I oppose Trump. But here’s why I won’t celebrate wholeheartedly if he’s defeated

"I voted" stickers
Some Biden votes will come from principled conservatives. Would liberals be as willing to cross party lines to stop a demagogue?
(Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

If Donald Trump loses the election, you can be sure that there will be a lot of celebratory rhetoric about how “democracy has been restored” and “normalcy” is back. I won’t be joining in.

More about that in a moment.

If Trump loses, there will also be no end of explanations and excuses for his defeat. The pandemic, his handling of it, and the damage it inflicted on the economy will obviously top the list. Trump’s crudity and indiscipline will also birth a thousand editorial post-mortems.

One factor likely to be exaggerated by partisans on the right and downplayed on the left will be disaffected Republicans and conservatives who refused to board or reboard the Trump Train.

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If Biden wins, the importance of those votes will be dismissed by Democrats, who will be eager to quickly translate a clear anti-Trump verdict into an ambitious pro-Biden mandate. Trump loyalists, on the other hand, will exaggerate the importance of crossover voting, claiming Trump was betrayed by “Never Trump” apparatchiks of the establishment and the Deep State and sundry “RINO” turncoats.

“Never Trump” may be a stupid term to apply to millions of voters, many of whom actually voted for him in 2016 before becoming disillusioned. But it’s certainly true that if all “natural” Republican or Republican-leaning voters had stayed with Trump, he would have a better shot at keeping his job.

Liberals have heaped a lot of praise on those anti-Trump conservatives — a group that includes me — for their patriotic spirit and devotion to principles. Some of this praise is warranted, but some is misplaced.

And it has left me with a nagging question. How would liberals respond to a demagogue of their own? Would they, in the interest of preserving our democracy, turn away from someone more likely to embrace their issues, direct funding to their causes and make court appointments they supported — as so many principled conservatives have done? I don’t know, which is why I won’t be joining the “democracy has been saved” parties.

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It’s worth noting that much of the rhetoric aimed at Trump these last four years wasn’t new. Prominent liberals called George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan fascists and would-be dictators. And it goes back a lot further than that. CBS News, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others insinuated Barry Goldwater was a Nazi. The point here isn’t simply to warn of the dangers of crying wolf, but to note that for many partisan liberals, any threat to Democratic political hegemony looks like a threat to democracy itself.

When I’ve savaged Trump’s cult of personality, I’ve often gotten nice notes from liberals in response. But many of these same people were fully on board with Barack Obama’s cult of personality. If you don’t remember it, it’s probably because you were part of it. Fish don’t know they’re wet, either. I remember all the prominent journalists who saw in Obama a messiah (as Barbara Walters put it). I remember “Saturday Night Live’s” political humor specialist insisting that Obama was unmockable.

I’m not trying to equate Obama and Trump. I’m merely noting that liberals, being human beings, are just as capable of getting caught up in the sort of hysteria, groupthink and political worship that blinds them to their side’s faults and abuses. We’ve seen a lot of that across the spectrum in recent years.

When I look at the conservatives getting seduced by populism and abandoning decades of dogma, my reaction is, “If it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone.”

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The last time liberals were truly tested on this score, they failed. Woodrow Wilson — vastly more of a tyrant than many imagine Trump to be — was a godlike figure for progressives during World War I. The anti-immigrant hatred he fomented was far worse than anything Trump has done or said. His administration’s war on the press made Trump’s whining seem pathetically ineffectual. Wilson shut down newspapers and magazines and threw thought criminals in jail, often with the aid of his own semi-official goon squads. He created the world’s first modern propaganda ministry. Artists, writers, actors and intellectuals signed up to do their part. Precious few progressives dissented from the madness.

Joe Biden is no Wilson, he’s not even an Obama. But when I look leftward, I see a lot of illiberalism marching under the banner of liberalism. It’s worth asking, who among you would refuse to get onboard with a demagogue all your own? And will you recognize the threat when you see it?

@JonahDispatch


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