As we all begin to consign ourselves to the fact that Donald Trump is at this point the prohibitive favorite to win the Republican nomination, a few writers have (correctly) pointed out that, as far as platforms go, Trump’s isn’t exactly worse than those of his opponents.
To take two of the best examples, Matt Yglesias at Vox reminds us that Marco Rubio’s platform is much more worrisome than Trump’s. Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine points out that Trump, being driven by ego rather than by ideology, isn’t at all committed to the brand of conservatism he is promoting on the trail. They aren’t wrong:
Ted Cruz is to the right of Trump on immigration. Marco Rubio is to the right of him on domestic surveillance and civil liberties restrictions for Muslim-Americans. Rubio’s tax plan also looks like what would happen if George W. Bush took acid. Cruz’s looks like what would happen if Jerry Falwell rose from the dead and spent a weekend with Grover Norquist. Both Rubio and Cruz have all but promised to start at least two wars in the Middle East. Both Rubio and Cruz have emphatically promised to appoint reactionary Supreme Court justices who would bolster corporate power while repealing a century of social progress. Unlike Trump, they sound like they might have the first idea as to what they’re talking about, and how to go about doing so.
Trump has been successful because he has spoken to the racism at the core of the conservative id, but much of his conservatism is performed. Where he’s been able to — which is to say, on issues where the Republican base never really agreed with their elites — he has broken with GOP orthodoxy. That means he’s come down on the right side of issues like free trade, the social safety net and even (sort of) reproductive health — albeit for the wrong reasons.
Additionally, the worst parts of Trump’s agenda are plainly unworkable. His mass deportation plan is downright sadistic on paper, but will be logistically impossible to implement. Same goes for his ban on Muslims entering the United States — it’s all bluster until a candidate starts talking about banning immigration from entire countries that happen to have a high proportion of Muslims, which is the bigoted and counterproductive immigration policy we could actually pursue.
Hand each of the GOP frontrunners a Republican Congress and free rein to tinker with the Supreme Court, and Trump would likely do the least (though still a large amount of) damage in the form of public policy. What makes him really dangerous, by contrast, is the way in which he would as president completely discard democratic norms, which could have far-reaching consequences in the day-to-day life of people who don’t share his politics.
For starters, Trump openly embraces the use of violence in support of his persona and his agenda. Last August, when Trump was just beginning to gain traction in the race, he called two Boston-area supporters who beat up a homeless man in his name “passionate.” It’s been downhill ever since. Just last night, Trump said of a protestor at a rally that “I’d like to punch him in the face.” Lines like that have become a common enough occurrence that they’re barely even news anymore, and that desensitization to calls for violence suggests that, under a President Trump, angry white men would be openly encouraged to attack people who belong to groups that Trump has otherized. The Department of Justice under President Trump would likely do as little as possible to ensure that they were prosecuted.
One of the first groups that would be the subject of Trump and his mob’s fury would be the press. Despite the fact that free (and at times fawning) media has been one of the single greatest contributors to Trump’s rise, he and his supporters hate the press. Occasionally, the press tells them things they don’t want to hear, which they think is completely unfair and smacks of establishment bias. Naturally, Team Trump has thus far handled this perception in the least adult ways possible:
Trump trashes press. Crowd jeers. Guy by press 'pen' looks at us & screams "you're a bitch!" Other gentleman gives cameras the double bird.
— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) February 21, 2016
Going beyond simply telling his mob that anyone who doesn’t report favorably on the things he says is bad and possibly deserves violence, Trump has gone to great lengths to restrict the press’s ability to cover him in the first place. He has threatened to “blacklist” reporters who don’t stay in designated media “pens” during his rallies, and he has revoked media credentials from entire newspapers who have run editorials criticizing him. Extend that behavior to the West Wing and consider how his administration would handle the White House Press Corps. Every president frames issues and manipulates the press; President Trump would smash the press. And he’d do it with the full support of half the country.
Once the press had been effectively neutralized, it isn’t hard to imagine Trump using the new tools he’d have at his disposal as president to target other types of dissidents. He could take the national security infrastructure we have been assured is only meant for defense against foreign threats and turn it on American citizens — going well beyond the current Republican candidates’ promises to limit these restrictions of civil liberties to Muslims. A President Rubio or Cruz may not listen to the Black Lives Matter or Fight for $15 movements, but a President Trump would likely be openly hostile toward them. If Trump is already openly calling for violence against protestors at his rallies, what’s to stop him from directing the FBI to extensively monitor and in some cases arrest dissidents on, ahem, trumped-up charges? He seems fairly convinced that they’d deserve it.
This manner of silencing dissenters — and I mean really silencing them; not the “silencing” you hear about today when college students disagree with each other — would make it rather difficult to run against Trump in his re-election campaign. It’s hard to tell whether he’d even consider such a challenge to be legitimate, or whether he’d simply sue the eligibility out of whichever challenger emerged. And if you think the media’s unending, ratings-chasing coverage of Trump is a problem now, imagine the state it’d be in by year three of a Trump presidency — after outlets who don’t play his game have been effectively neutralized. As president, Trump would almost certainly continue to undermine basic democratic norms, and the media would be incapable of effectively calling him out for doing so.
That’s a much bigger problem than any one policy.
So, yes, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz wield more dangerous sets of white papers than Donald Trump does, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should be more worried about either of those two becoming president. Just because he’s the frontrunner for the Republican nomination now doesn’t mean we have to rationalize his success.