I recently saw a political bumper-sticker calling for “Any Functioning Adult [in] 2020.” That’s going a bit far for a presidential election — but not by much.
The standard when it comes to describing a test for President Donald Trump’s opponent in next year’s presidential election should be a series of “nots”: not a racist; not a would-be authoritarian; not a fraudulent con man; not a grifter cashing in on the presidential office; not someone who puts unqualified relatives in senior White House jobs; not someone who pays off lovers to keep quiet; not someone who brags about committing sexual assault; not someone who celebrates political violence; not someone who cozies up to tyrants; not someone who publicly invites electoral assistance from other countries. Any Democratic candidate who meets this basic test of reasonableness, decency, competence, and support for American constitutional democracy would be a tonic against Trump’s toxic reign.
In 2020, American voters will decide whether they want to give Trump further permission to do as he chooses, unbound by the constitutional system. There is nothing subtle about Trump’s ambitions. This is not something Trump is cleverly trying to disguise.
This is who Trump is. He has never believed that ordinary rules apply to him. He recently told Americans in no uncertain terms that he believes the Constitution grants him unlimited power, falsely claiming that “I have an Article II where I have the right to do whatever I want as president”. I’m putting Trump’s key words in italics, just in case anyone would otherwise miss this clear and present warning. Re-electing Trump would be an endorsement of all the ways in which he has defiled the constitutional system, and it would grant him license to do as he likes in a second term.
Elections are choices. It can be easy to forget how stark the choice is in 2020. The Democratic party isn’t helping with a debate format that allows charlatans Marianne Williamson and Tulsi Gabbard to be treated like serious contenders. The Democratic candidates aren’t helping by beating up on each other. Pundits aren’t helping by describing a liberal v. moderate split in the Democratic party that falsely suggests that senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are extremists and radicals.
Veteran Republican strategist Rick Wilson forthrightly observes that “the election is a referendum on Trump and nothing else”. Trump’s presidency has unmoored America from its foundations. A second Trump term promises to accelerate our seemingly daily journey toward national breakdown. As Wilson puts it: “Getting back to normal [after Trump] is job one.”
Journalists and political insiders play an important role in shaping public opinion and defining which candidates are or are not legitimate. In 2016, journalists and Republican elites gave Americans permission to vote for Trump. Republicans who knew how dangerous Trump was couldn’t bring themselves to endorse Hillary Clinton. I remember seeing a political cartoon just before the 2016 election that showed Uncle Sam approaching the voting booth and holding his nose when presented with the two main options. The message to voters: both candidates were flawed and there was no clear choice.
It was a tragic mistake to normalize the 2016 election by falsely suggesting it was just another relatively ordinary choice between a standard Republican and Democratic candidate. Trump was and is no ordinary Republican, and the danger he poses has nothing to do with ordinary partisan issues.
That’s why it’s a mistake to suggest that more liberal Democratic candidates like Warren are too extreme to be president because of their positions on, for example, health care. Unless we’re talking about the second coming of Joseph Stalin (which, notwithstanding Republican scare tactics, is thankfully not in the cards) the question to ask isn’t whether a potential Democratic nominee is too far to the left on policy. It’s whether a potential nominee sees Article II as Trump does — license to govern as a king, beyond the reach of the law.
It would be a terrible mistake to equate the run-of-the-mill flaws any Democratic nominee will inevitably have with Trump’s disqualifying failure in temperament, judgment, and conduct.
No candidate will be perfect. Any candidate will have flaws. It would be a terrible mistake to equate the run-of-the-mill flaws any Democratic nominee will inevitably have with Trump’s disqualifying failure in temperament, judgment, and conduct.
Of course, just because Trump is so odious doesn’t mean that we should expect little from Democrats. Passing the basic test I have outlined here is enough to promise a dramatic improvement over Trump. But the Democratic nominee doesn’t have to be timid or cautious. He or she can and should be bold in making the case against Trump, and in presenting a positive, hopeful, energizing vision of America and Americans that contrasts with Trump’s fetid message of fear, hatred, and division.
Nearly all of the Democratic nominees pass the basic test of reasonableness that would make them a welcome antidote to Trump. A few can’t pass that test. But absent some disaster that makes Williamson or Gabbard the Democratic nominee, the choice will be clear.
The 2020 election will see voters either supporting four more years of Trump’s rampage against common decency or electing someone who will uphold constitutional democracy and restore dignity to both the White House and the country. The ultimate question is whether voters can do what self-government requires — in this case, selecting a president worthy of the title.
Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. He has written two books on presidential power.
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