It sucks when your political coalition loses an election. In these highly charged, polarizing times, an electoral defeat seems to evoke not just sadness, but a psychological meltdown on behalf of the losing side. The right went through this in 2008, and it seems the left is going through it as we speak.
Some of this is just howls of pain. Hysterical venting is more therapeutic than anything. But another part of the progressive reaction to Trump reflects a deep rift within the left on how to understand the Trump phenomenon.
Since the beginning, there have been two schools of thought about Trump: One views him as essentially alien both to the normal political order and to the political right as we've known it. During the Democratic convention, for example, President Obama made a point of saying that Trump was something different from the conservative movement or the Republican Party.
The other school of thought, by contrast, sees Trump as essentially the embodiment of the American right. Conservatism was always fundamentally an authoritarian, ethnonationalist ideology, and all the genteel stuff about limited Constitutional government, free markets, and Christianity was either a cynical façade or self-delusion.
People at almost every point on the political spectrum have agreed on the former of these ideas. Trump was no ordinary conservative candidate, and he will be no ordinary conservative president. This has been argued by the left, and by the Clinton campaign, by #NeverTrump conservatives, and even by the Trump camp itself, which touted Trump's outsider status as a virtue.
Which is why it's strange to see progressive writers freaking out that Trump might do things in office that Republicans have always done. For example, here's Supreme Court reporter Dahlia Lithwick reaching for the smelling salts over the fact that Trump might appoint "rock-ribbed conservative" judges to the Supreme Court — something any Republican president would have pledged to do, and something that has been a major goal of the mainstream conservative movement for about 40 years now.
At The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill assures us that Trump "is a Trojan horse for a cabal of vicious zealots who have long craved an extremist Christian theocracy," thanks to the influence of Christian conservative Mike Pence, who wants to wage "Christian jihad." Pence, we're told, wants to let local communities decide what bathrooms transgender people should be allowed to use, "economically isolate" Iran until it gives up its nuclear weapons program, and will try to — GASP — repeal ObamaCare. Scahill seems much more apoplectic about these notions than Trump's musings about the U.S. reneging on its NATO commitments, or encouraging a nuclear arms race in East Asia, or his burgeoning Putin bromance.
What's really scary about Trump, liberals seem to be saying, is that he might govern not like an authoritarian ethnonationalist, but like a mainstream conservative!
During the Republican primary, when it still looked like Trump might be just a passing fad, liberal writers like Matt Yglesias, Gary Legum, and Jonathan Chait (to his credit, the latter publicly regretted this) played a concern-trolly game of saying mainstream conservatism was worse than Trump: At least Trump's populist rhetoric intersects with progressive concerns in some areas, like infrastructure spending and entitlements. Much better to have an ignorant, unstable sociopath who says he wants to build some bridges than a sane person who would restore abortion to the democratic process and cut some taxes.
As David Frum, a prominent #NeverTrump conservative, put it in response to concerns about what a President Trump would mean for pro-choice policy: "If you lose enough elections, you get an abortion regime you don't like. That's normal. Whenever you focus on the same objections you'd make if another Republican had won, you're focusing on the wrong things." Quite right.
If the stunning disarray of Trump's transition effort is any indication, the incoming administration promises cataclysmic incompetence and government by a combination of cronies and nincompoops. Proud "alt-right" supporter Steve Bannon's elevation to a senior advisory role might portend an unabashedly ethnonationalist agenda from the White House. Trump's financial ties to Russian and Chinese banks (and other autocratic regimes) suggest a president who, for the first time in recorded history, has a personal financial interest in kowtowing to regimes that have a record of human rights abuse and geopolitical antagonism towards America. Those things are completely out of the ordinary, and yes, they are more alarming and more pressing than whether high-income Americans pay a 39.5 percent or 35 percent or even 25 percent marginal tax rate, or which bathroom transgender people get to use. Come on, people.
America has gotten much more politically polarized over recent years, and it's killing us. Given that Trump looks like a disaster in waiting, there's an obvious political incentive to paint all Republicans with the Trump brush and to equate Trump with conservatism writ large. But this only heightens and deepens our partisan divisions.
I won't lie: I have been #NeverTrump from day one, but when I hear people say Donald Trump is a monster because he might appoint pro-life judges, my first instinct is to put on a red hat and help build that wall. It's stupid, but it's how the human mind works — we are a tribal species, first and foremost. Now, of all times, is not the time to give in to tribalism and spend our energies focused on how we can eliminate our rival tribes. Donald Trump is a man-child. If you want to oppose him, start by acting like a grown-up.