It’s hard to spill enough ink (digital or otherwise) on how bad Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is. Let’s look past his uninformed, xenophobic, contradictory, and wholly ridiculous policy agenda for the moment, because focusing on the bluster and celebrity distracts from all the unspoken reasons why maintaining control of the White House is so important: losing the White House decimates Democrats’ constitutional ability to rein in or outright kill odious legislation. What’s more, framing the Democratic platform primarily as a response to Trump’s presidential campaign does little to address both the underlying causes and cascading effects of his particularly vile brand of politics all up and down the structure of civil government.
Beyond the White House
What’s often overlooked, especially amongst the dissenters in the left-wing of the Democratic Party, is that the presidency is about more than promoting a campaign-approved agenda — it’s also about filling the Executive Branch’s constitutionally mandated role in the process of checks and balances. It’s Civics 101, sure. But let’s not understate the importance of one of the primary roles of the Executive - maintaining a constitutional bulwark against extreme legislation.
Much has been made of Trump’s potential role in nominating justices to the Supreme Court, but the sensationalism and abundance of low-hanging fruit of the Presidential race causes coverage of Congressional races and issues to be primarily relegated to the sidelines (outside of those tangentially related to the Presidential narrative, that is.) It’s rarely mentioned that, barring wild down-ballot Democratic turnout, the GOP is likely to maintain its House and Senate majorities.
A Trump presidency, then, doesn’t just mean building walls, or deporting American citizens, or whatever else happens to be on his platform-of-the-day. It means that Democrats (and others on the left) lose one of two remaining institutional barriers to, among other things, those myriad “repeal Obamacare” votes actually mattering, the Keystone Pipeline’s construction, or gutting the EPA’s power to protect waterways.
A Democrat (any Democrat) in the White House at the very least maintains the last six years of divided government status quo; it is exceedingly difficult to see a President Hillary Clinton budge from a veto standpoint where her predecessor would not. And while upholding the status quo may disappoint those hoping for a liberal resurgence, at this point (sadly, perhaps) not losing ground feels like an accomplishment on its own.
Moreover, the threat of a veto is often enough to influence the policymaking process from the outside. A savvy president, facing unified Congressional opposition, can wield the threat of veto as a constitutional “ace in the hole”, allowing her to maintain some control over the legislative process and granting greater flexibility in winning legislative concessions from the opposition and tempering radical bills before they reach her desk.
Procedural implications like these are rarely dramatic enough to reach the forefront of the horse-race narrative. But now, when lawmakers in the majority party have cast their lot in with Donald Trump, that overlooked procedural nuance underscores exactly how much Democrats stand to lose to Donald Trump. Even disgruntled liberal dissidents should come to terms with the fact that a Trump presidency foregoes the possibility of smart political defense and effectively hands the GOP a legislative blank check.
No Trump Is An Island
That blank check is all the more reason to remember that this election, like every election, is bigger than one candidate, or one office, or an entire slate of impossible policy goals. And it’s always bigger than one level of government.
A year ago, endorsing Trump was considered political suicide (or, at the very least, self-mutilation). Today, GOP representatives are lining up to swear fealty to their nominee. Many of his now-supporters publicly denounced him as recently as a few months ago - but in a cruel twist of political fate, it’s becoming politically and electorally dangerous not to endorse Trump.
Political endorsements are more than just putting on a show and kissing the ring. They’re also a way for politicians to maintain their connection to the power brokers who influence the electoral base. Savvy politicians know that in order to keep their seats (a legislator’s top priority), they need to maintain access to their base’s political animus. At the moment, Trump is a major influence in the party’s base. To inore the influence Trump commands over many of the GOP’s bread-and-butter voters is to risk losing critical votes, especially for nervous elected officials in more purple districts. Any GOP politician worth his or her salt needs to tiptoe closer and closer to the Trump tent, even if they were publicly against his candidacy before (when there were other options). Worse yet, Trump has no problem publicly bullying his intra-party detractors, making dissent even more politically toxic for more moderate party members.
It remains to be seen whether the politics of Trump will continue to animate the base after this election. If the past year has been any indication, however, it’s probably not going away.
In order to stay relevant in the GOP’s New Trump Order, legislators will begin moving their Trumpism from the headlines and Sunday shows into committee chambers - in order to maintain their tie to Trump’s “populism”, lawmakers will inevitably have to translate Trump-friendly sound bites into actual policy.
So while at the moment Trump’s campaign non-sequiturs are a troublesome hodge-podge of coded racism, narcissism, and ignorance, they can also be read as a terrifying roadmap of the coming election cycles. His true lasting impact may not be gold trim around the White House, but rather a hastening and amplification of the rightward shift in the GOP’s agenda, particularly amongst vulnerable members of Congress - especially on hot-button, high-visibility issues like immigration and trade.
It’s important to rebuke the nonsense that comes from the candidate’s mouth, absolutely. But ignoring the underlying ripple effects of the Trump wave throughout the GOP is courting disaster down the line.
If liberals should have learned anything from the past two midterm elections, it’s that they can’t expect the infiltration of fringe-right orthodoxy into the mainstream of the GOP to fizzle out. Memories of 2010’s electoral embarrassment at the hands of the Tea Party should send shivers down progressives’ spines. Far-right populist moments like these are not just going to fade away; if anything, they’re going to keep growing. And unless the Democrats (and those to the left of them) want to watch idly as the Trumpian approach — the inflammatory, unapologetically post-facts approach — to policy and legislation further lodge itself in the mainstream policy apparatus within the GOP, they’re going to need to coalesce around a movement that rebukes it at every level of government, not just in the national headlines.
That’s going to take some serious work. Democrats already have to deal with serious uphill battles in non-presidential elections as it is - unless they can parlay their recent anti-Trump successes in the presidential race into a working strategy down-ballot, they’re going to be facing more and more GOP candidates who kowtow to the fringe right to get elected.
So, to those unswayed by the “lesser of two evils” argument; to those who equate the two; to those mulling third-party protest votes; remember: it isn’t enough just keeping Donald J. Trump out of the White House - it’s also about keeping him and his catastrophic brand of politics out of the entire system altogether.