It's just a few short weeks until primary voting begins, meaning we're going to endure one, maybe two at the most rounds of journalists writing hopeful articles projecting that Donald Trump loses, even though he has held the lead in polls since July. The latest round was kicked off by Ezra Klein of Vox, who wrote a piece projecting Trump's lead holds right up until the end, when Republican voters come to their senses and switch off to someone supposedly more respectable. Ross Douthat of The New York Times echoes the same argument, though adding that he doesn't think Trump has to lose any votes, so much as someone else has to coalesce support to beat him.
Both these pieces are remarkable for leaning more heavily on hunches than political science, adding an air of wistfulness to the whole enterprise. It's not that these writers are wrong, exactly. It could play out that way, sure, though it could also play out a totally different way that leads Trump to the nomination, just as easily.
But I have to ask: So what? Who really cares if Donald Trump wins the nomination?
It's obvious why Douthat cares. He's a Republican and wants to back someone who is a good soldier and has a better shot at beating Hillary Clinton. But, despite Klein's ostensibly neutral stance on the topic, it feels like he only bothered to game this out because he really does not want Trump to win. You don't usually see think pieces gaming out a path to losing for someone with as strong a lead as Trump without that wishfulness underpinning the operation.
To be clear, Klein is far from alone on this. It's safe to say that many in the media, including the liberal media, find Trump especially disturbing and, even if they will never vote Republican, they want to see someone a little more in line with the party establishment win. That's why waiting for Trump to collapse and breathlessly wondering if this will be the day has been sport for six months and counting now.
I personally dislike Trump, with his obnoxious racism and his rallies that feel like anti-desegregation meetings from the '60s and his misogyny and his stupid hair, as well. But, personal style aside, the grim fact of the matter is that Trump is no worse than the wretched hive of scum and villainy that makes up the entire Republican field at this point. Every last one of those mothers is a moral monster who has no business running the country and if any of them win, this country will be so much the sorrier for it.
Let's say that Trump does flame out, Howard Dean-style, in the month of February. If that does happen, odds are that Ted Cruz, who has been lurking around in the background like Gollum, will step up and take the nomination. It's not just that Cruz is the favorite "second choice" option for Republican voters, but he's a strong favorite for Trump supporters, and will vacuum them up in case of a Trump collapse.
If this happens, it will be much worse than if Trump just wins this thing. Cruz has the word "senator" in front of his name and his kids are cute and he's won an election, so he gets treated as if he's a less-awful version of Trump. But he is actually way, way worse, if you look past surface issues like squawkiness in the press. Compared to Cruz, Trump's agenda looks downright moderate.
Take the candidates on two of the major issues driving the election: Taxes and immigration. On both of them, Trump has a nutty right wing agenda that will cause immeasurable damage to this country, but Cruz is even worse.
Trump's plan is a standard right-wing wish list, promising to reduce deficits when it will clearly explode them by dramatically reducing the amount of taxes the wealthiest Americans pay. But despite the radicalism underpinning it, it still looks, if you squint hard, like a kind of sort of tax plan of the kind you might be familiar with. It's still technically progressive — people who make under $25,000 will pay nothing, and then three tax brackets on top of that. (Which are clearly designed to allow millionaires and billionaires to see their tax burden plummet, while keeping it roughly the same for everyone else.) It's dangerous and irresponsible, but at least it is recognizable as a tax plan.
Cruz, on the other hand, plans to eliminate the IRS. Oh, he claims he means to "replace" it, in the same way that Republicans always say they plan to "replace" Obamacare without actually offering a plan to do so. But he's made this nutty idea, of eliminating the people who actually collect money so that everyone else can do their job, the centerpiece of his campaign. The tax plan he's tossed on that — a 10% flat tax — is some crazed right-wing radical nonsense, but it almost doesn't matter. Whether it's 10%, 20%, or 90%, who cares if you're running around saying you're going to shut down the only agency that has the right to collect the money and enforce the tax code, whatever it is?
In other words, Trump is crazy, but Cruz is nihilistic. Trump runs around claiming he'll make America "great" again (which appears to mean restoring past levels of white supremacy), but Cruz's attitude is far more reminiscent of a stalker who swears to his obsession object that if he can't have her, no one can.
Trump's entire campaign, of course, has been built on his hysteria-mongering on immigration, with his tendency to characterize Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals and his promise to "build the greatest wall that you’ve ever seen" between the U.S. and Mexico. (Never mind that most undocumented immigrants don't actually sneak across the border but enter with legal visas that then run out.) Oh, and while he's at it, he promises to make Mexico pay for it. He hasn't yet promised to get magical elves to build it, but hey, there's a few weeks to go until the primary.
Cruz's own father is an immigrant from a Spanish-speaking country, which might make you think he'd be more reasonable about this, but in reality, he's even more radical than Trump. He not only has signed off on everything Trump wants to do, including mass deportation and ending birthright citizenship, but he goes a step further. While Trump claims to support legal immigration, Cruz promises to halt any increases in legal immigration, claiming that it suppresses wages. (Cruz's fear that overpopulation reduces wages has not reduced his enthusiasm for forced childbirth, however.)
Cruz likes to trumpet how much "harder" he is on immigration than Trump, in fact. "He’s advocated allowing folks to come back in and become citizens," Cruz has argued. "I oppose that."
All this is happening not because Donald Trump is a uniquely obnoxious person, but because the conservative movement in this country, which is indistinguishable from the Republican base, has become radicalized, hateful and desperate. They believe "their" country is being stolen from them. They have become enraptured by the politics of purity, believing that the measure of how good a candidate is lays with how radical he is, how "hard" he is willing to be. The candidates, all of them, are simply responding to what the voters want and what the voters want right now is a candidate who would rather burn this country to the ground than to let conservatives share it with people they see as inferior to them.
In a sick sort of way, the system is working, as the candidates are responding to what their voters want. But that is also why there's no use worrying about Donald Trump winning the nomination. He may. He may not. But whoever wins — and therefore has a chance at the presidency — will be just as bad, or, as with Cruz, quite likely worse.