In the Age of Trump, Will Democrats Sell Out More, Or Less?

The collapse of the GOP gives the Democrats an opportunity to abandon "lesser evilism" — but they probably won't

Democrats have celebrated the Trump-fueled GOP spiral. Credit: Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist/NYTimes/Redux

Over the weekend, polls showed that that the Trump-fueled collapse of the Republican Party is reaching historic depths. According to CNN, the GOP's approval rating is now down to 32 percent, the lowest level in over two decades. It probably won't be trending up anytime soon, either, now that the Trump campaign is turning "you can't rape your spouse" into this week's political catchphrase.

News of the Republican approval-rating slide came not long after the release of a Gallup survey showing that 32 percent of Americans now believe animals should have the same rights as people. That number is likely to keep climbing – though one can't say the same for the GOP's numbers, given the nation's demographic situation. Animals are now a better political futures bet than Republicans.

This is leading to a lot of "the witch is dead"-style celebrating among Democrats. Many believe Trump has triggered a long-overdue Credibility Event Horizon that will sink the loony right forever as a mainstream force.

"Donald Trump is Democrats' greatest gift," applauded The Globalist, via Salon. "As Donald Trump surges in polls, Democrats cheer," countered The Washington Post. Even before Trump surged in the polls, Democrats were smacking their lips, a la DNC spokeswoman Holly Schulman, who cheekily applauded Trump for bringing "seriousness" to the Republican debate. 

For sheer entertainment value, the Trump-as-political-anvil phenomenon is pretty hilarious. But history shows that if the Republican Party pushes further in the direction of brainless nativism and economic reaction, the Democrats will probably follow right behind them.

Theoretically, the collapse of the GOP should mean we can ease up on the whole "we must accept the lesser evil" argument. After all, the Greater Evil is now shooting itself in the face on TV every day.

But it turns out that mainstream Democrats believe just the opposite – that with the GOP spiraling, the party should now brook even less dissent within their ranks. They'd like a primary season with no debate at all, apparently.

We saw a preview of how this rotten dynamic will work last week, when former Democratic congressman and current Signature Bank board member Barney Frank wrote a piece for Politico entitled "Why Progressives Shouldn't Support Bernie."

Frank's core point is that progressive voters should terminate all discussion even before the beginning of the primary season, and jump on board with the frontrunner Hillary Clinton, so she can save her money to fight the evil Trumps of the world:

"Of course it is not only possible to accept the legitimacy of Clinton's liberal-progressive credentials and still prefer that [Vermont Senator Bernie] Sanders be president….But wishful thinking is no way to win the presidency. There is not only no chance — perhaps regrettably — for Sanders to win a national election. A long primary campaign will only erode the benefit Democrats are now poised to reap from the Republicans' free-for-all."

This isn't about Hillary. The lesser evil argument has been a consistent feature of Democratic Party thought dating all the way back to the late Reagan years, long before Hillary Clinton was herself a candidate. The argument always hits the same notes:

–The essentially antiwar, anti-inequality platform progressives want will never win a national election in this country, because McGovern, etc.
–Therefore we must instead support corporate-sponsored Candidate A, who will help us bridge the fundraising gap with the evil Republicans.
–And we should vote for Candidate A anyway, because even though he doesn't always (or even often) show it with his votes, deep down, he's a true believer on the issues.

Frank hit all of these notes in his piece, with special emphasis on point #3. He insisted that people like Hillary, John Kerry and Joe Biden didn't mean it when they voted for the Iraq War, that they only did it out of political expediency. "I regard liberal senators' support for the Iraq War as a response to a given fraught political situation," Frank wrote, "rather than an indication of their basic policy stance."

Since the Republicans got really crazy, life in some ways got easier for the Democrats. All they've had to do to keep 90 percent of their support every election season is point at crazy John Ashcroft and his fear of stone boobs, or human SNL skit Sarah Palin, or Rapture prognosticator Michele Bachmann, and a lot of their voters have been ready to run to the ballot box to vote blue, if only to keep the Supreme Court away from such people.

Everything became about beating Republicans. If you inhabit the dreary world of lefty media, you can't help but be familiar with the phenomenon, because in the last decade or so it's changed countless careers and taken over whole publications and TV channels.

A lot of media outlets became thinly-veiled proxies for the Democratic Party. They hammered Republicans for goofball transgressions large and small but soft-pedaled the darker developments on the Democratic side, like for instance the worsening surveillance issue or the failure to fight Wall Street corruption.

It's not an accident that The Daily Show turned into the most trusted political news program in America during the Bush years. When the traditional lefty media became so convinced by the "lesser evil" argument that it lost its sense of humor about the Democratic Party, people had to flee to comedy shows for objective news.

Even worse, a lot of Democratic-leaning campaign reporters are to this day so convinced by the lesser evil argument that they go out of their way to sabotage/ridicule candidates who don't fit their idea of a "credible" opponent for Republicans.

I've seen this countless times, usually with candidates like Dennis Kucinich who didn't have a real chance of winning the Democratic nomination (although early 2004 frontrunner Howard Dean also fell into this category). Sanders, who was ludicrously called the Trump of the left by bloviating Meet the Press hack Chuck Todd last week, is another longshot type getting the royal treatment by "serious" pundits now.

But framing every single decision solely in terms of its utility in beating the Republicans leads to absurdities. Not every situation is a ballot with Ralph Nader on it.

The Democrats insisted they had to support the Iraq War in order to compete with Bush, but they ended up not competing with Bush anyway and supporting a crappy war that no sane person believed in. All it won Democratic voters in the end was a faster trip into Iraq, and the honor of having supported the war at the ballot box.

When the Democrats had a legitimate electoral threat in the Republicans to wave in front of their voters, they used that as currency to buy their voters' indulgence as they deregulated Wall Street, widened the drug war, abandoned unions in favor of free-trade deals and other horrors, and vastly increased the prison population, among innumerable other things.

But now that the rival electoral threat is mostly gone, they want permission to take the whole primary season off so they can hoard their money for massive ad buys targeting swing votes in Tennessee or whatever. In other words, even though the road ahead is easier for them, they want increased latitude to take their core voters for granted.

The Democrats could take this godsend of a Trump situation and use it as an opportunity to finally have a healthy primary season debate about what they want to stand for in the future. But nah to that. They'll probably just hoover donor cash and use press surrogates to bash progressives the way they always have. Trump or no Trump, if politicians don't have to work for your vote, they won't.