Prominent Democratic media figures and politicians have long argued that Donald Trump is a uniquely terrifying threat to America’s future. Back in February, for example, Ezra Klein called Trump “the most dangerous presidential candidate in memory.” In March, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz claimed that Trump is “the most extreme and vile, misogynistic candidate in modern times.” And more recently, right before the Indiana primary, President Barack Obama said that Trump “is not somebody who, even within the Republican Party, can be considered as equipped to deal with the problems of this office.”
These claims, however, are missing vital context. Trump would probably make a really bad president, but far from being a unique disaster, his nomination may have actually been the best-case outcome of this year’s Republican primary.
Many of the things Trump is known for – his overtly racist comments, for example – certainly are, as Jenée Desmond-Harris recently noted in The New York Times, “infuriating and frightening.” But they’re not anomalies. Both Republican and Democratic politicians have long played more subtly on racist stereotypes. Trump’s blatant racism, as Desmond-Harris explains, makes it harder for people to pretend racism doesn’t exist or not to “understand what it represents about the country.”
There is, of course, a very legitimate concern about the costs of such unconcealed racism from a prominent public figure. Trump “has given people permission to openly trumpet views they may once have kept to themselves — and gives them a place to gather together.” Violence is a predictable result of these gatherings – especially considering the fact that Trump has at times encouraged it – and we’ve already seen it happening at Trump rallies all over the country.
At the same time, it’s not like the pre-Trump era was free from violent White supremacy, and when racism and other forms of discrimination are easily identifiable, they’re much easier to confront. Consider, for example, Trump’s despicable proposal to ban Muslims from the country. Given that American society has persecuted Muslims intensely for the past 15 years and that the mainstream media and numerous politicians – again, in both major parties – have facilitated this persecution, it’s hard to believe we’d be seeing the same outrage about the ban (let alone legislation intended to thwart it) if it had been proposed in more coded language by someone perceived to be more mainstream. In fact, survey evidence highlights this point; Democratic support for a Muslim ban grows from 25 percent to 45 percent when voters don’t know the ban is Trump’s idea (Republican support is above 70 percent whether voters know it’s Trump’s idea or not).
Marco Rubio’s comment that Trump “says what people wish they could say [but] can’t [because of] consequences, here and around the world” is telling. The consequences are in the form of popular backlash, and it’s the fear of that backlash, in part, that’s driving Right-wing opposition to the Republican nominee. Radio and television personality Glenn Beck, for instance, worries “that the GOP is going to be completely racist – whether it’s true or not – because of Donald Trump. You will never have another Republican president ever again.” Beck is likely wrong about his electoral prediction, unfortunately, but he may be right about Trump exposing the racist, sexist, and xenophobic elements of America that are particularly prevalent in the Republican party. It’s perfectly rational to fear having those prejudices out in the open, but that exposure could also be what’s necessary to begin to dismantle them.
The other reason a lot of prominent Republicans don’t like Trump is that, as Nate Silver put it back in September of 2015: “There’s an alternate reality in which he decided to run as a Democrat instead — he wouldn’t have to change his policy positions all that much.” That was certainly the argument of Ted Cruz, who complained in a Super Tuesday speech about, among other things, Trump’s support for “socialized medicine,” Planned Parenthood, “compromise…on Supreme Court nominees,” and neutrality when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.
The man Trump calls “Lyin’ Ted” described most of Trump’s positions incorrectly, but there was also an element of truth in what Cruz told his supporters. Despite Trump’s promise to repeal Obamacare during the primary, he’s also said, to the chagrin of his Republican foes, that he wants to replace it with more universal coverage; he’s even been a supporter of single-payer health care in the past. Though Trump has argued for defunding Planned Parenthood, he’s also maintained, unlike other Republican candidates, that he has “a lot of respect for some of the things they do.” It’s hard to know what Trump would do with the Supreme Court – as one legal scholar mused in March, he’s a real “wild card” – but unlike most Republican candidates (John Kasich is another exception), he has floated less insane justices in the past. On Israel and Palestine, Cruz actually got Trump’s prior statements right, and while Trump recently spoke much more hawkishly about the conflict, that may be in response to Hillary Clinton’s “attempt to cast herself to Trump’s right” on the issue.
It’s hard to know for sure what Trump believes – “his hair has been more permanent than his political positions,” as AEI’s Thomas Miller said last July – but there are actually a few domains in which Trump might have better policy positions than Clinton. Trump and Clinton both say they oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, but while Trump’s opposition isn’t quite for the right reasons, it’s fairly credible; Clinton’s, on the other hand, isn’t. While Clinton and her supporters make arguments more extreme than Antonin Scalia’s in defense of her big money donors and speeches at Goldman Sachs, Trump is telling the truth about the influence of money in politics (which he openly admits that he has benefited from as a donor and, like Clinton, pledges to reform). Trump says he wants a much bigger investment in infrastructure than does Clinton, and there’s a legitimate case to be made that, in general, Clinton has a bigger “appetite for military engagement abroad” than Trump does.
In other areas, Trump’s positions may be less extreme than his primary posturing suggests. For example, he now says he is open to raising the minimum wage, he initially frowned upon North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law, and there are indications that he may walk back his plans to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and deport millions of immigrants. To be clear, he hasn’t given a number on the minimum wage, he decided North Carolina’s law was a state decision in response to pressure from Republicans, and he has not yet pulled support for a border wall or deportations. His positions here are completely unacceptable, as are his tax plan and his statements on guns, torture, and much else. Furthermore, as mentioned above, it’s hard to know whether he would adhere to anything he’s said, and it would be a serious understatement to say that his advisers inspire little confidence. But it’s also important to remember that it’s hard to know what Clinton truly believes, that there is cause for concern about who her staff would be, and that she was absent from the fight for a higher minimum wage, opposed to marriage equality, and supportive of border barriers and deportations until relatively recently, when the right positions (pro-large minimum wage increase, pro-marriage equality, anti-border barrier, and anti-deportations) became politically advantageous for a Democratic Party politician.
None of that is to say that anyone who believes in social justice should consider voting for Trump; please don’t. I strongly disagree with the notion that he’d be the lesser-of-evils candidate if Clinton is the Democratic nominee. (If that happens, I encourage Bernie Sanders supporters to vote for a third-party candidate.)
I would, however, urge everyone, both here and around the world, to treat Trump less like a heretofore unseen danger. It’s not a bad thing that Trump “is reinforcing long-held suspicions that America is a racist, imperialist nation” – there are very good reasons for those suspicions, and we can’t fix our problems if we don’t acknowledge them. And it’s also not a bad thing that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan – who Dylan Matthews recently called a “doctrinaire, down-the-line supply-sider who wants massive cuts to safety net and social insurance programs and equally massive tax cuts for the wealthy” – has wondered whether his “conservative principles will be championed” by the Republican nominee for president. As even pro-Clinton journalist Jonathan Chait has pointed out, “a Trump presidency would probably wind up doing less harm to the country than a Marco Rubio or a Cruz presidency.”
That certainly doesn’t mean fears of Trump are unfounded. But let’s also make sure we give his candidacy the appropriate context.