Yes, Trump is awful, but it’s going to be even worse if he loses. Look at the Democrats! They’ve gone so far left, it’s completely insane.
I’ve seen and heard variations on this sentiment several times in the past month, both online and among people I've met, mostly moderate Republicans or right-leaning independents. Even some hard-core never-Trump conservatives are watching the Democrats in dismay, increasingly fearful that they may not be able to bring themselves to vote for the eventual Democratic candidate. It’s a sentiment Democrats should certainly heed as they head into the primaries. But people who back President Donald Trump in the hope of stopping America’s leftward drift should think again, too. Trump is not stopping it, he’s helping it.
Democrats have moved sharply to the left in the past three years, so much so that The Washington Post can now run a piece titled “Barack Obama, conservative.” This doesn’t necessarily represent a shift in the positions of individual Democratic politicians — certainly not for someone like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was always a far-left figure. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) certainly strikes a more radical note today than in the past, with talk of massive race-based reparations, getting rid of the Electoral College, and using executive power to seize patents from drug companies that refuse to lower prices.
Presidential contenders aside, the overall mood in the Democratic political establishment has tangibly shifted as well. Radical environmental action that would entail a de facto overhaul of American society is increasingly popular. Attitudes toward Israel are noticeably less friendly. Hostility toward virtually all enforcement of laws against illegal immigration is the norm. The party’s most visible new faces are far-left progressives including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
It doesn’t take a political genius to see that one factor in this shift is the Trump presidency itself. Yes, left-wing views on both economic and social issues had been on the rise before the 2016 election for a variety of reasons, from disenchantment in capitalism after the 2008 crisis to the rise of internet-based progressive activism and identity politics. But Trump’s election accelerated these trends.
To many people, the Trump presidency seemed to validate what the far left was saying about white supremacy, misogyny and other entrenched bigotries — not to mention class privilege — in America. This was, after all, a president of the United States who talked about grabbing women by their genitalia and openly bashed immigrants from developing nations.
No less important, Trump’s election overturned the conventional wisdom that radicalism doesn’t work in American politics and even politicians with a revolutionary vision, from Ronald Reagan to Obama, are often pulled toward the center once they start governing. If Trump can defy expectations from the right, the limits of the possible expand on the left as well.
Of course, political polarization is a two-way street. To some extent, the radicalization of the Republican base is also a reaction to the rise of left-wing progressivism — and it will continue to get only worse.
Those who hoped Trump’s election would reverse political correctness were very wrong. Those who hope a Warren victory with a radical progressive agenda will reverse trends toward the mainstreaming of white nationalism are just as wrong.
Amid the madness, the most hopeful sign is that former Vice President Joe Biden is still the Democratic front-runner. Biden is a throwback to the past, but he offers an escape from the vicious cycle of polarization — and a breather until we can figure out the way to sanity.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.