There is one thing you will never hear an American politician say, at least in public, after losing an election: "I would have prevailed if the voters weren't so foolish, short-sighted, and stupid."
The reticence makes sense. For one thing, when your career depends on winning votes, it's wise not to insult those who cast them. But on a deeper level, such an outburst clashes with bedrock American convictions about democracy.
In the U.S. the people rule, and we tend to assume the legitimacy of their decisions. You might disagree with the outcome of an election, but you accept it. Of course it was justified. The people have spoken, and they have rendered judgment. If the opposing candidate or campaign had been better, more sensible, more reasonable, it would have prevailed.
Who's to say the people were wrong?
And yet here we are, facing the prospect of Donald Trump winning the Republican presidential nomination.
I know we've entered a new bearish phase of Trump coverage. The Heidi Cruz tweet! The pending Lewandowski arraignment! The abortion meltdown! The 10-point polling gap in Wisconsin!
All true. It's been a bad week or so for Trump. Yet he's still beating Cruz by nearly 300 delegates. He's still on track to win big in New York and other delegate-rich states on the East Coast in the coming weeks. And his national poll numbers continue to track slowly upwards. Whereas the party's appointed Trumpslayer (Ted Cruz) sits at 31 percent in the latest Reuters tracking poll, Trump himself has seen his number modestly rising over the past week to 44.6 percent.
Which means that millions of Republican voters — not a majority, but a solid plurality — continue to want Donald Trump to be their party's nominee for president. How could that possibly be — after the mess of the past week, but also after endless months of insults; racial, ethnic, and religious taunts and threats; blatantly ignorant statements about policy (foreign and domestic); and a continual flood of transparent lies?
- It's the media's fault, for giving Trump so much free publicity.
- It's the GOP establishment's fault, for whipping up irrational hostility to Barack Obama for seven long years.
- It's the right-wing media's fault, for doing something similar to liberals in general for even longer.
- It's neoliberalism's fault, because 30+ years of tax cuts and free-market policies have decimated the white working class.
- It's George W. Bush's fault.
- It's Barack Obama's fault.
Those are just the most pervasive theories. Each of them gets at a part of the truth.
But so does this: Roughly 40 percent of the GOP base is voting out of a poisonous mixture of ignorance and spite. They are behaving like a mob. And thus their political choice deserves no deference or respect whatsoever.
This judgment has nothing to do with ideology. I disagree with the mainstream Republican agenda, but it represents a legitimate position on our politics. The same holds for the mainstream Democratic agenda, as well as for Bernie Sanders' left-wing insurgency against the Democratic establishment and its preferred nominee for president (Hillary Clinton).
This isn't even about the cluster of ideas that Trump is running on: immigration restrictions, protectionism, and so forth. A responsible, informed candidate could run for president on an agenda like that without it posing a threat to the country in the way that Trump's candidacy clearly does.
The problem is that Donald Trump, as an individual, is manifestly, indisputably unqualified to be president. Yes, as nearly everyone recognizes, he's a demagogue, which should be bad enough. But he's also wildly inconsistent, petulant, and vindictive, and he obviously delights in encouraging (and in the case of his campaign manager's alleged behavior, rewarding) violence.
Then there's his inexcusable ignorance about policy. In just the past two weeks, Trump has staked out as many as four positions on abortion, and threatened to scrap the mainstay of the postwar liberal order (NATO), as well as efforts to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons in a world where terrorists are actively seeking to procure them, without so much as a coherent or compelling explanation as to why.
Apparently millions of Republican voters don't care that Trump would make a disastrously bad president. And that is an expression of rank civic irresponsibility.
What can we do about it? Other than work within the political system to ensure his defeat at the polls, nothing. But that doesn't mean we should deny sobering implications of this whole sorry episode: Democracy lets the people decide who rules, but there is no guarantee that they won't occasionally use the power to make catastrophically bad decisions.
This is something Aristotle understood very well, which is why his arguments in favor of a modified form of democracy differ so dramatically from modern, egalitarian versions. The latter nearly always involve some praise of The People's innate wisdom and make a profoundly moral case for deferring to its preferences. Aristotle, by contrast, simply points out that if you don't give the people a voice, they'll make trouble. And because they are so numerous — the people, in Aristotle's terms, are "the many" — they can potentially make an awful lot of trouble. Which may necessitate giving them an awful lot of power.
There are a lot of Trump supporters in the GOP. The party may have no alternative but to defer to their choice of presidential nominee. But please, let's not pretend that a Trump victory in the primaries would carry even an ounce of moral legitimacy.
It would be colossally foolish choice, made by colossally foolish voters.