I’m Headed to Iowa to Stop Donald Trump and Save Our Democracy

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One of my roommates had just walked through the front door of our house on Capitol Hill. “I just don’t get it,” he said. “Everything we did… none of it made a difference. We lost by just as much as last time.” He sat down on our couch with a case of Bud Light in hand, and we discussed why the day before should have been different. It was November 7, 2012, and my dream of a Mitt Romney presidency was dead.

Anticipating (poorly) a late night of election coverage, and a possible celebratory morning hangover, I had arranged to take the day off. Even well-rested from an early defeat and sobriety, I needed it. I had a non-political day job, and was travelling too much for work to volunteer with the campaign, but I was more emotionally invested in Romney’s candidacy than anyone in my house. All three of my roommates at the time worked for Republicans, and were therefore utilized as foot soldiers in the closing weeks of that campaign. One had spent the final few weeks staffed at Romney HQ in Boston, the other two canvassing and driving turnout in Northern Virginia. But at the end of the day, I was the Romney guy, and had been since he announced his first candidacy six years prior. November 6, 2012 hit me hardest.

I had poured my attention into every presidential and midterm election since 2002, and I was burnt out. As the calendar gave way to a new year, I resolved to completely detach from domestic politics, stop worrying about outcomes I couldn’t change and focus on my career. Little more than a year later, I was gone from DC altogether.

Entering the 2016 presidential cycle, I had every intention of sitting it out. I would still vote — I always have — but I would take no sides in either primary. Although I had drifted from party orthodoxy in several key policy areas, I still considered myself a conservative Republican. When firebrand Ted Cruz announced his candidacy ahead of a GOP field that would soon swell to 17, I saw roughly a dozen others with a better shot at the nomination, and was confident I would be supporting a Republican in November 2016. In a normal election cycle, Cruz would find an early ceiling of around 30–40% of the GOP electorate, and perhaps score a few strong performances before a mainstream alternative emerged.

Cruz’s ultra-conservatism alone probably wouldn’t have stopped me from voting for him against Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, or a wildcard far-left candidate (ultimately Bernie Sanders). But his political showboating for personal gain, which resulted in one government shutdown, fueled Congressional gridlock and drew the ire of most Senate colleagues, utterly disqualified him from holding executive office. Nonetheless, I saw a capable crop of conservative, albeit pragmatic and governance-oriented candidates that would winnow down and produce the eventual nominee.

And then Trump happened.

Like most of the professional punditry, I initially considered Donald Trump’s campaign a joke. This was a man who had flirted with presidential bids on multiple occasions (most recently holding the GOP hostage to threats of an independent run in 2012), consistently flipped party affiliation at five-year intervals and pushed an absurd conspiracy theory questioning President Obama’s birthplace, desperately seeking relevance. This was a man who had floated in and out of bankruptcy over the past quarter century, routinely stiffing creditors and investors through masterful manipulation of the legal system. This was a man who Americans knew for his real estate and media empire, but certainly not for serious political discourse or leadership.

After he did formally declare his candidacy, paying spectators $50 a pop to fill the press conference, one could hardly blame the Huffington Post for filing Trump news in its entertainment, rather than its politics, section. I figured he was merely looking to one-up the “will-he-or-won’t-he” spectacle of 2012, and would give up the gig after several months in which he failed to crack 10% in national polls of the primary race. And perhaps we’ll never know whether he seriously thought he could win from Day 1. American political history told me it wasn’t possible, save for extraordinary circumstances.

That was then.

Today, mere days from the Iowa Caucus, we’re facing the very real specter of a Trump nomination. Worse yet, we’re facing the disastrous implications of a Trump presidency. I can’t allow this to happen.

To be clear, Donald Trump poses the greatest threat to American democracy since the Great Depression. Not for his repellent anti-Hispanic and Muslim comments, which in the past would have constituted campaign-ending — possibly career-ending — gaffes for any candidate with national aspirations (see Allen, George). Not for his lack of interest and clear ignorance of key foreign policy issues, which would cripple him as commander-in-chief. Not for his obsession with public opinion, which would induce the same media-focused myopia that has driven the current president to eschew long-term strategy for optics in decision-making. Those qualities, among many others, would give us a presidency that could have 90 percent of the country longing for the Bush and Obama years.

Donald Trump is a threat to our democracy because he’d enter the Oval Office behind torches and pitchforks, carried by a mob begging him to do whatever it takes to “Make America Great Again.” This is power I trust no man to wield, let alone one as mercurial and narcissistic as Trump. Not once in any debate or discussion has he shown any deference to constitutional principles. Not once has he outlined a cogent plan for navigating historically awful partisanship in Congress to pass any legislation whatsoever, let alone authorizations for a 45% tariff on Chinese goods, an American Gestapo to round up and deport 11 million illegal immigrants and a religious test for border entry. This isn’t some leftist interpretation of a “living” Constitution to justify a progressive vision of the country. This is an invitation to govern by fiat, a political Rubicon in which voters for the first time have given a president license to use powers well beyond his legal authority. I’m not sure Trump’s supporters recognize those dangerous implications.

Donald Trump is a threat to our democracy because he’d prove it possible to earn the most powerful position on earth without any prior experience in government. He’d win the presidency with the most uncivil of campaigns, where hurling nasty insults at opponents is acceptable as long as it drives ratings. He’d win the presidency with a fact-free campaign (aside from the poll numbers he cites), in which he slanders entire demographics on blatantly spurious hearsay. How does he know the Mexican government is deliberately sending its criminals to the United States? An American border guard told him so. How does he know thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11? He saw it in non-existent news stories. Journalists are captives, required by occupational standards to remain objective, but compelled by their editors/producers to give Trump a microphone because it’s good for business. They’re unable to aggressively challenge him on bogus claims or appalling rhetoric, lest he decide he can no longer control the forum and simply end the conversation. A Trump win would reverberate through the political pipeline, telling aspiring officeholders they need not bother with qualifications, civility or truthfulness as long as they can generate shocking headlines and dominate news cycle after news cycle.

Donald Trump is a threat to our democracy because he’d validate the dumbing down of our political discourse to the level of his own reality television. Smart politicians are technologically adaptive, utilizing new media to communicate with the largest possible audience. We saw it with mass-print newspapers in the 19th Century. We saw it with radio and television in the 20th Century. We saw it with President Obama and a whole host of social media platforms. Presidents and presidential candidates hit late night shows not so much to entertain, but rather to demonstrate relatability to the American public. Conversely, Trump is himself the entertainer. Carly Fiorina aptly styled him “the Kim Kardashian of politics,” completely devoid of substance but widely popular nonetheless. Who cares if his stump speech is absent policy specifics, provided he makes funny faces and calls George Will a bespectacled loser again. Who cares if random word generators could cobble together more coherent debate responses than he does; he’s going to brag about his net worth and throw in several of his trademark riffs. The election of Trump would signal that we value the crude entertainment of nonsensical sound bites over serious policy discussion in our presidential candidacies.

Donald Trump is a threat to our democracy because his personality portends a presidency marked by insatiable ego and Nixonian impulses. President Obama drew heavy fire shortly before the 2010 midterm elections for suggesting that supporters “punish their enemies” i.e. Republicans. Chris Christie’s once-promising national aspirations suffered a devastating blow when allegations surfaced that he used his office to exact revenge on a political opponent in “Bridgegate.” Trump would put both to shame. His frenetic use of Twitter to lash out at anyone who dares criticize him, and praise of favorable commentary, reflects insecurity and desperate quest for adulation. Trump recently gloated when Macy’s, which had the nerve to pull Trump-branded products from its shelves after his anti-Mexican comments, reported poor holiday sales and laid off more than two thousand employees. Aside from the fact this episode roundly dispels the fiction he cares about the “little guy,” it reveals his belief that material harm is a legitimate response to minor insult. He’d almost certainly abuse the powers of government for his own benefit, at the expense of the defenseless. Eminent domain is a four-letter word for many conservatives, but I believe its use is justifiable if responsibly applied for municipal and regional infrastructure. Trump sees no limits. Rather he embraces it as a tool for private development, having employed it on multiple occasions to displace low-income individuals so he can build properties for the über-wealthy. How can we give anyone, let alone such a man, carte blanche to do whatever it takes to “Make America Great Again.”

Donald Trump’s candidacy terrifies me in a way no fringe ideologue’s could. America has had its share of populists before, including the nativist “Know-Nothings” of the mid-1800s and various socialist, evangelical and protectionist movements of the past century. These political phenomena may have shifted national discourse, but were more ideologically confined and never posed true electoral challenges. Populist William Jennings Bryan managed to win the Democratic nomination three times in four cycles and reshaped the party. But even his brand of populism, while feeding off and fueling class warfare, wasn’t so much a threat to democracy as it was to a broken monetary system.

And then there’s Old Hickory. Historian Walter Russell Mead and several notable pundits have argued Trump is a modern incarnation of Andrew Jackson in his demeanor, in his policy positions and in the composition of his supporters. Jackson was America’s first and sole truly populist president, shattering a four-decade stranglehold on the presidency by elites from Virginia and Massachusetts. Donald Trump is similarly challenging a political establishment that has almost always had its way in electing amenable candidates. Like Trump, Jackson espoused economic populism, distrust of cultural elites, rabid nationalism and bellicose, yet limited, foreign policy. Unlike Trump, Jackson actually was a man of the people, and his political ideology reflected life experiences.

I’m not going to delve too deeply into Jackson’s life and politics, but he was a frontiersman with a tragic youth, in stark contrast with Trump’s privileged upbringing. Jackson was well-educated by the standards of his time, but lacked connections and inherited nothing. He built his wealth as a Southern entrepreneur and eventually owned many slaves on his prosperous Hermitage plantation outside Nashville. (Not going to tackle slavery in this space) He fought at the tail-end of the American Revolution, as a teenager, and the experience instilled in him a lifelong hatred of the British. He was a duelist, a war hero and a national celebrity much in the same vein as Trump by the time he ran for office.

As a politician and then president, he promoted political participation for all white males, paving the way for universal suffrage movements and the subsequent enfranchisement of blacks and women. He railed against tariffs, which he saw unfairly benefiting northeastern industrialists over the agrarian masses. He wielded unprecedented executive authority to kill the National Bank, which provided the nation’s elite unfair access to credit. He crushed the Nullification movement in favor of national unity. He introduced the spoils system, whereby he axed existing federal appointees and replaced them with his own supporters. And perhaps most notoriously, he displaced thousands of American Indians to clear their land for white Southern farmers. Looking at Jackson’s persona and politics, one can see the strong parallels to Trump. While I’m not going to litigate the merits of Jackson’s presidency, I believe he serves as a useful foil as to why Trump’s brand of populism is far more dangerous:

  1. Jackson was well-versed in constitutional and political philosophy, and his arguments reflected it. With only 40 years of presidential and judicial precedent when Jackson took office, much of the Constitution was still lightly-interpreted. So when he vetoed legislation he opposed in the spirit of the document, rather than in clear violation of it, he saw it well within constitutional parameters to do so. Trump on the other hand, hasn’t demonstrated any deference to such principles. Trump’s voters are supporting ends without reasonable — or lawful — means to do so.
  2. Jackson had experience in government. His role as a political outsider during his 1824 and 1828 presidential campaigns draws much better parallels with Ted Cruz’s current candidacy, as both had brief senatorial tenures prior to running. Jackson also served as a military governor and commander of the Tennessee militia, which effectively constituted the American military presence in the South during the War of 1812 and Seminole Wars. Although Trump has plenty of experience greasing politicians to promote his interests, he’s never served in any public capacity, and would be the first president of that profile. Much as the criticism of then-Senator Obama contended the presidency has no patience for a lengthy learning curve, the problem would resurface with a vengeance in a Trump presidency. His authoritarian impulses would quickly run into congressional gridlock, and he’d resort to executive orders with a frequency that would put recent presidencies to shame.
  3. Jackson ran in an era of unbridled optimism. Not only is he the only populist to win election in American history, he’s the only populist I know in human history whose rise came in a time of peace and relative prosperity. Voters were unhappy with the dominance of political elites, but the national economic climate was mostly positive. Conversely, a Trump presidency would owe itself to more than just an anemic economic recovery to massive financial crisis. Add in roughly two decades of stagnant middle class wage growth, rapidly changing demographics, and the attempted cultural disenfranchisement of working class whites by coastal elites, and we have the recipe for a truly nasty populist movement. A movement that cares little for political convention or Constitutional niceties, and the man atop it couldn’t be a better fit.
  4. Jackson was authentic. On the surface, this shouldn’t seem to have anything to do with Trump posing a threat to American democracy. However, never has the American voting public elected a man who so clearly misrepresented his policy positions. Just about every candidate today and in the past has “evolved” on key issues, but Trump has done so on nearly everything. Abortion, immigration, trade, taxes, you name it. Jackson’s populism was derivative of his past and public experience; Trump is classic demagogue, clearly manipulating the anxieties of an insecure electorate desperately looking for a strong leader. We may have sufficient institutional checks to prevent Trump from becoming our own Mussolini, but this is the recipe for dictatorship.

Even were they closer comparisons, an Andrew Jackson 2016 candidacy would also unnerve me. I think highly of both him and his political opponents in the context of their era, but the modern state is too powerful to hand over to a man with Jackson’s personality and political instincts. During the Great Depression, the United States was fortunate to have a president with conservative leanings, but a pragmatist in tune with the suffering of his people. Some academics credit FDR’s New Deal policies with staving off the extremist nationalism that seized control of governments across Europe. But he was, in many ways, the most authoritarian president in our nation’s history. Today, federal agencies have far more power than they did during FDR’s term, and a populist president in a climate of national malaise could do far more damage. Trump will not have FDR’s large congressional majorities, nor would he need them with executive orders at his disposal. These are in theory limited, and like normal legislation, subject to lawsuits and Supreme Court review, but Trump is a master of manipulating the legal system. I fear the damage he could do with the president’s pen at his disposal. We all should.

So how has the Republican Party, which styles itself as the ultimate defender of constitutional values, responded to the threat Trump poses to it and our country?

By training its fire on Cruz, hoping to inflict enough damage to help Trump beat him in Iowa. Apparently, the broader strategy is to suck the oxygen from Cruz’s campaign, giving Marco Rubio space to poach his support as the sole conservative alternative to Trump. Rubio would simultaneously knock out the three governors (Bush, Kasich, Christie) on his center-right flank, and defeat Trump in a head to head matchup. I believe this strategy is severely half-baked, failing to account for the far more probable outcome that a Trump victory in Iowa would allow him to run the table in all four early primaries states, and then his national bandwagon would grow to the extent no other candidate could beat him.

The more cynical reality of this effort assumes a binary choice between Trump and Cruz for the Republican nomination. It would squelch Cruz, whom the establishment despises and views as even less electable than Trump. Moreover, these players believe Trump, while an insufferable man and unworthy of the office, is ultimately a pragmatic dealmaker. When elected president, he will ditch the inflammatory rhetoric and shelve his unreasonable policies, and govern as a centrist technocrat. While the strategy to clear the field for Rubio to face Trump alone is a risky gambit, the preference for a Trump nomination over Cruz is downright foolish. If not Trump, then at what point does a Republican candidate become truly unacceptable?

Political parties exist to provide a vehicle for voters with common values. The purification rituals that Republican primaries have become, in which candidates seek to out-conservative one another while doing their best to re-frame past “apostasies,” have certainly shrunk what was once a “big tent” party. However, the party is still organized around fundamental ideas that exist on a higher plane than specific policy issues. The editors of the reliably conservative National Review penned a scathing editorial against Trump to headline an entire issue dedicated to opposing his candidacy. They argued he is not a conservative and therefore undeserving of Republican the nomination, and highlighted many of the same sinister traits I have in this space. Following the editorial were twenty-two essays from a diverse group of conservative pundits, which largely echoed the overriding message of the issue.

I wholeheartedly support their commentary, but believe most of them didn’t go far enough in their denunciations. Trump so deeply violates the spirit of the Republican Party, above all else an adherence to constitutional principles, that they should commit to opposing him even as the nominee. His candidacy represents not only anti-Republican principles, but fundamentally anti-American ones. I find Hillary Clinton to be a contemptible person and astonishingly corrupt (even by political standards), and under no circumstances do I want to see her president. Yet, she has an extensive record in government, and despite her “stick-a-finger-in-the-wind” approach to campaigning, she would almost certainly govern as a center-left technocrat. She would extend the damage to our country done by the Obama Administration, but I would still prefer her to Trump. I simply don’t fear her the way I fear Trump.

After suffering through so many years of Congressional gridlock, while wages are stagnant, underemployment is rampant, and the middle class is shrinking, Americans clearly want a “doer.” One of my key gripes with the Republican Party is its failure to address the very real suffering of working class America, and therefore I sympathize with many of Trump’s supporters. However, we’ve seen too many historical examples of nation turning to demagogues in time of crisis or strife. These men enter the scene fighting for the commoner, promising the moon and stars behind a facade of competency. Even were my fears overblown, and those Republicans betting he’d conform to the Oval Office were right, rewarding the Trump candidacy with electoral victory would set a dangerous precedent for America. We’d send a message to all future office seekers that we’ve entered a new paradigm of electoral politics, in which the merits of a candidate are irrelevant, in which we’d find rhetoric promulgating anti-American principles acceptable, in which politicians are entertainers with real-world power. We can’t let this happen. I can’t let this happen.

That’s why I’m throwing my hat back in the ring and going to Iowa. Will I stop Donald Trump there? No. But I’m committing to the fight, no matter how long it takes, to ensure Donald Trump never holds our fate as a nation in his hands. The man is too dangerous, and the stakes are too high.

I recognize my GOTV volunteering on caucus day is unlikely to noticeably impact the outcome in the contest. Best case scenario, I get a few folks to the polls for Marco Rubio who otherwise would have stayed home. I also understand that if my sole purpose were to stop Trump, I’d be better off supporting Cruz, who best positioned to defeat him in the state, given his polling strength and superior ground operation.

However, I believe Rubio to be the best candidate capable of winning both the nomination and the general election, and I’d rather vote for someone than against another. Trump could win Iowa and New Hampshire, and then cruise through the remaining primaries, as no candidate in either party has ever won both and failed to capture the nomination. However, much as Trump’s rise is the product of unusual circumstances and an entirely unorthodox campaign, he may find that Republican voters won’t concede the nomination as quickly as they would a standard front runner well into the primary season. Rubio’s chances may be better than they look today, and one day we may reflect on these closing hours before the primaries begin as the dark before the dawn. We’ll know soon enough.

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