Published September 16, 2020
Danielle Pletka, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has announced that while she never considered voting for Donald Trump in 2016, she may well do so this year. Oh, to be sure, she deplores Trump’s “odious tweets, chronic mendacity, and general crudeness.” But she is being driven to this extremity by the “hard left ideologues” of the Democratic party.
Judging by chatter on the right, this rationalization—so redolent of the Flight 93 argument from 2016—is somewhat popular. So let’s take a closer look.
Though she dutifully wrist slaps Trump for his lies and tweets, she does so as a backhanded compliment. The trouble with his style is that it “has managed to obscure his administration’s more-substantive accomplishments, such as focusing the world’s attention on China’s threat to global security and brokering a new era of Middle East peace.” So, you see, it’s not that he is degrading the very idea of truth or undermining cherished national ideals, it’s just that those darned tweets distract from his great accomplishments!
The notion that Trump has awakened the world to the threat from China is risible. He has, in fact, been played by China. After four years of tariffs and obsequiousness toward Xi Jinping, China is more powerful and the U.S. weaker. Trump may deserve a measure of credit for the peace deals between Israel and the Gulf Arab states, but it’s more likely that those are the unintended consequences of Obama’s Iran deal, which scared the Gulf states into Israel’s arms.
But wait, is Pletka really defending Trump’s foreign policy record? Maybe not. She castigates his “erratic, personality-driven decisionmaking” and frets about his “contempt” for NATO. She regrets his “delusion that he can manage rogue leaders.”
Again, that last bit is sort of a backhanded compliment. Franklin Roosevelt thought he could “manage” Stalin. Franz von Papen thought he could “manage” Hitler. They were naive. With Trump we have something altogether different. Trump gets a charge out of vicious dictators. He likes them and wants them to admire him. He revels in their cruelty—boasting to Bob Woodward that Kim Jong Un “tells me everything” including graphic details of the public murder of his uncle—and envies their absolute power. This has been evident not just in the past four years, but for decades. Pletka, a student of foreign affairs, surely noticed this. Trump has the soul of a mobster, and far from hoping to “manage” rogue leaders, he aspires to become one. As he put it to Bob Woodward,
I get along very well with Erdogan, even though you’re not supposed to because everyone says, ‘What a horrible guy.’ But for me it works out good. It’s funny, the relationships I have—the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. You know? Explain that to me someday, OK?
It may be a mystery to Trump himself, but it shouldn’t be to Pletka.
But her chief complaint is not about foreign affairs. Acknowledging that Joe Biden is a “decent” person, she endorses Trump’s insult that he is an empty suit. “He doesn’t even know he’s alive,” Trump said (in the days before he claimed the right to get vicious), and Pletka agrees. “Joe Biden would be a figurehead president, incapable of focus or leadership, who would run a teleprompter presidency with the words drafted by his party’s hard-left ideologues.”
What is the evidence for this? Biden ran a centrist campaign throughout the Democratic primaries despite lots of encouragement to tilt left. He resisted the siren song of Medicare for All, and opposed open borders, free public college tuition, banning fracking, and defunding the police. If the left couldn’t budge him when he was just one candidate in a field of 29, what makes people think they will have better luck when he is the party’s nominee, or the president of the United States?
Though Republicans are having a hard time taking yes for an answer, Democrats chose a candidate who has always positioned himself in the middle of his party. That may be way to the left of nearly all Republicans, but it ain’t Venezuela.
To sidestep this inconvenient reality, Trump supporters like Pletka have taken to suggesting that Biden will be merely a cardboard cutout and that the real power will be wielded by fill-in-the-blank: Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Rashida Tlaib.
Pletka summons a scare list of possible policy changes if Democrats win big in 2020—the Green New Deal, nationalized health care, the “dismantling of US borders,” and eliminating the filibuster. This is rubbish. Biden is on record opposing nationalized health care and he has never remotely suggested support for dismantling U.S. borders. Even many Democratic senators are opposed to ending the filibuster. Some aspects of the Green New Deal might pass, but the proposal as it stands now is vaporous and undeployable. Anything carrying that label would have to be drastically rewritten. So let’s wait and see what emerges, shall we?
Besides, these congeries of horrors assume that if Democrats achieve majorities in both houses and take the White House in 2020, the democratic process will be over. It’s as if there will never be another election. The Flight 93 election essay said, “Crash the plane into the Pennsylvania turf, because the end is nigh!” That isn’t political prognostication, it’s hysteria. The pedestrian truth is that if Democrats overestimate their mandate and go too far, they may find that voters clip their wings in 2022. Amazing how that works.
Pletka also invites us to believe that other stakeholders — business interests, the bond market, local and state governments, educators, farmers, and yes, Republicans—will be ignored or bulldozed. That’s not the way American politics has ever worked.
What these doomsday scenarios also overlook is that if Biden is elected and Democrats take the Senate, they are going to have their hands full attempting to guide the nation safely through the remainder of this pandemic. They will be busy trying to keep the economy from tanking in the meanwhile. More ambitious projects may have to wait, and as we’ve seen, a president’s capacity to enact new legislation is its apex in the first 18 months after election. After that, it loses oxygen.
But perhaps Pletka only gets to her true complaint toward the end:
I fear the grip of Manhattan-San Francisco progressive mores that increasingly permeate my daily newspapers, my children’s curriculums and my local government. I fear the virtue-signaling bullies who increasingly try to dominate or silence public discourse—and encourage my children to think that their being White is intrinsically evil, that America’s founding is akin to original sin. I fear the growing self-censorship that guides many people’s every utterance, and the leftist vigilantes who view every personal choice—from recipes to hairdos—through their twisted prisms of politics and culture.
These are the cultural battles that increasingly matter to Americans far more than budget deficits, foreign policy, or climate change. And they are Trump’s last best hope of salvaging victory from the ashes of his four-year record.
If Pletka is genuinely alarmed by the extremism of the left, maybe the best solution is not to throw herself into the arms of an openly racist, authoritarian right-wing extremist who embodies every stereotype the left harbors about conservatives. If she’s upset that her children are being challenged about their whiteness, why not teach them to answer it? Yes, they can reply, American history, like all human history, has ugly aspects, racism chief among them. Not judging people by skin color is one of the lessons of that history, and that applies to everyone. But denying that history, or worse, giving aid and comfort to white nationalists is the very worst response and will only intensify the left’s reaction.
Pletka doesn’t like Manhattan-San Francisco progressivism. Neither do I, but like so many in modern America, she confuses cultural and political arguments. Choosing a president is not the answer to Berkeley’s political correctness. We don’t elect a chief executive to outlaw Drag Queen story hour.
Nor does the left operate in a vacuum. The extremism of the right, enthroned in the White House no less, is stimulating ever more reaction from the left. Trump has been the greatest gift Antifa could have wished for.
Pletka highlights this or that sin or tendency on the part of “progressives” and declares it to be the true essence of the Democratic party. The party may have nominated centrist Joe Biden, but never mind. He’s a Potemkin facade. The real party is Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar, and the woke people in her timeline. Meanwhile, we can disregard Trump and the grotesque menagerie he has invited into public life. Pletka writes: “These execrable gun-toting racists have received too much tacit encouragement from Trump. But they do not represent the mainstream of the Republican Party or guide the choices of the vast mass of Republican members of Congress.”
People on the left and in the center would be forgiven for concluding that Trump is precisely the “mainstream of the Republican Party” if he is reelected. And who among the leaders of the Democratic party has offered anything like the encouragement to extremism that Trump has given to QAnon and the vigilantes on the streets?
We expect a president to uphold the Constitution and the laws, to respect our traditions and mores, and to take the responsibilities of office seriously. It’s not really so hard. Does Pletka genuinely doubt that Biden will address the coronavirus more competently than Trump? Does she have any reason to think he will lie to the people about a public health emergency as Trump did, causing tens of thousands of needless deaths? Does she wonder whether he’ll ignore Putin’s bounties on the heads of American soldiers? Does she believe Biden will pervert the Department of Justice to protect his friends and punish his enemies? Does she imagine that Biden will staff his administration with the likes of Michael Caputo, Stephen Miller, and Chad Wolf? Does she think that Biden will grovel before dictators, issue pardons to cronies, unleash the military on civilian protesters, encourage vigilantism, or threaten the legitimacy of elections?
The one essential rock upon which this country depends is the rule of law. It’s more crucial than blocking Medicare for All, more essential even than preventing another Iran nuclear deal. If the rule of law is undermined as Trump is doing and threatens to accelerate, everything else— prosperity, civil cohesion, security—is in danger. Those are the stakes, not the filibuster, not hair styles, and not virtue signaling.
Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a contributor to The Bulwark, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast.