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Will Trump Winning be a Net Positive?

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Chait writes that the Republicans might ultimately regret Trump winning:

But the experience of Trump as president has reversed whatever small momentum the party had gained by 2016. Voters under 30 disapprove of his performance by margins exceeding two-to-one. My recent magazine story describes Trump’s strategy of dividing the country along racial lines, in a way that would allow his party to claim an ever-growing share of the white vote. But the issues Trump hopes to use to attract younger whites to him instead repel them. “In the CNN survey, about three-fourths of white Millennials opposed the border wall and about three-fifths rejected the temporary seven-nation immigration ban,” explains Ron Brownstein. “In the Pew survey, both Millennials overall and young whites were also more likely than any other age group to say the United States benefits from increasing racial and ethnic diversity, more likely to say they personally knew a Muslim, and least likely to say American Muslims were sympathetic to extremism.”

The power of ethnonationalism, which I tried to communicate in the story, is that it manipulates the most base and emotionally accessible ideas about politics. But that power is also a source of danger to the party that tries to weaponize it: If it backfires, it activates equally powerful emotions against it. And while the fight to preserve the American ideal from Trump’s ethnonationalism is hardly assured, there is every sign it will backfire.

Michael Anton’s now-iconic essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” made the case for Trump as a desperation gamble. (Hence the metaphor to a hijacked airline flight whose passengers had to choose a desperate and probably doomed fight over certain death.) Anton, now a staffer in Trump’s administration, saw another four years of Democratic presidencies as the end of white America and conservative America. Most Republicans — even those, like Anton, deeply suspicious of Trump — ultimately agreed. Almost the entire GOP decided its hatred or fear of Clinton overrode their misgivings about their own nominee, and, with varying levels of enthusiasm, supported Trump. They brought disaster upon their country, but as a small measure of compensatory justice, they have also brought it upon their party. By the time Trump has departed the Oval Office, they will look longingly at a staid, boxed-in Clinton presidency as a road not taken.

There is a flipside to this plausible analysis: could this be a case of heightening the contradictions actually leading to a better net outcome? Well, even as a sworn enemy of this strategy I will acknowledge that it’s possible. If:

  • All four Democratic nominees and Kennedy are still on the Supreme Court (or, at least, haven’t been replaced by January 2021)
  • Gillibrand, Harris, or another politically gifted progressive wins the White House in 2020
  • Democrats take the House in 2018, retain the House in 2020, and re-take the Senate with a majority willing to kill the filibuster in 2020
  • Repeal of the ACA remains DOA, Medicaid remains standing, and exchanges remain functional in most states
  • “Tax reform” is just some marginal tax cuts that can be reversed by a Democratic Congress that has finally grasped that “we pay down deficits, you use this to pass upper-class tax cuts” is a mug’s game
  • Trump’s attacks on the EPA turn it to be largely botched
  • The courts curtail Trump’s worst excesses on immigration, and the next Democratic Congress can pass humane immigration reform
  • Trump can somehow avoid any Bush-level horrible foreign policy blunders

Then Trump winning will be a net benefit.

Laying it out like this, however, should make it clear why willful heighten-the-contradictions is a really dumb idea. There are a lot of contingencies here, and it doesn’t take very many to come out the other way for the Trump administration to be a complete catastrophe. Some of these, especially ACA repeal and tax “reform,” are looking pretty good. But while I think it’s possible winning the House in 2018 and retaining it will be brutally difficult — the Dems can get a substantial edge in votes and still not get enough seats to turn it.  The Senate is never easy, and the 2018 map is so bad Dem control is probably off the table no matter how unpopular Trump is.  All signs point to Turmp being unusually vulnerable for an incumbent in decent structural conditions and toast in bad ones, particularly is Gillibrand and/or Harris (or someone else) turns out to fulfill their potential, but Trump certainly can be re-elected.  One or more Supreme Court vacancies are a real possibility, especially since Kennedy might resign. You can say that the Dems can pack the courts but 1)maybe a Dem Congress will be willing to do this and maybe it won’t, and 2)once the 9-justice equilibrium is gone it’s gone forever, and given the current structure of Congress in the long run it’s unlikely Dems will come out ahead. Foreign policy you don’t even want to think about, as you have a horribly unfit man surrounded by incompetents and cranks.  The most likely outcome, I think, is that the Trump administration is bad for the Republicans politically for the reasons Chait identifies, but is able to do enough damage to have been a yooooge net negative even assuming Dems can clean up some of the damage in 2021.

But the strategic argument is beside the point — Trump won. So the task is to make as many of the positive contingencies happen as possible, and everything starts with making Trump as unpopular as possible.

…since several commenters have misinterpreted me, I should clarify that Chait is not making a heighten-the-contradictions argument and I didn’t say they he was. My point is that his narrow argument that Trump winning is politically bad for the GOP could be read this way by others, and it’s worth noting why this is wrong.

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