Almost everything the Democratic Left said about Donald Trump causing a Republican Party implosion proved untrue—and yet is proving true this year of the Democrats.

Trump’s agenda, for the most part, was Reaganesque, with a few important exceptions—closing the border and enforcing immigration law, getting tough with China’s unfair trade policies, restoring assembly and manufacturing jobs to the hollowed-out interior, avoiding optional wars abroad, and trying to drain the proverbial federal swamp of its careerist bureaucrats and revolving-door apparatchiks.

Those wrinkles from the Republican agenda, in fact, were consistent with traditional conservative values, and thus even among establishment and mainstream Republicans still polled well enough. That reality later was empowered by Trump’s effort to keep his campaign promises, by an economy at near-record employment, and by foreign policy recalibrations that are starting to win grudging, if unspoken, bipartisan support on China, given news coverage of the Hong Kong crackdown, the reeducation camps, the coronavirus debacle, and the Orwellian surveillance state apparat.

Even before Trump’s governance, the NeverTrump Right was emasculated, largely because its pundits and politicians could offer no alternative party agenda superior to Trump’s. Moreover, they had spent much of their lives advocating most of the very policies Trump was advancing, and increasingly was getting results. Nor before or after the election could they ever convince Republicans that Trump’s crassness and uncouth tweets were quite unlike the White House crudity of past presidents (e.g., Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton) rather than in part attributable to the Internet/social media age and the new tabloid media.

All those facts explain why Trump in 2016 received nearly 90 percent of the Republican vote, at par with, or better than, previous Republican nominees. Polling suggests that in 2020 Trump will do as well with Republican voters, or even better than four years ago. Certainly, the current NeverTrumpers, for all the “character is king” lectures, remain inert, and without influence. Again, they have never squared the circle of opposing the implementation of agendas they spent their careers promoting.

Instead, the rump that is left of the NeverTrump Right, more and more, is sustained by the Left, which finds them either useful idiot panelists on cable news, or eager website panhandlers of leftwing tech largess—always on the condition they write ever more contorted anti-Trump tirades.

In sum, for all the talk in 2016 of Trump destroying the Republican Party, he has learned how to unite it in a way unfathomable to his critics. Politicos concede that calling China to account, working to revitalize the industrial heartland, ending illegal immigration, and curbing the administrative state are becoming mainstream Republican tenets.

2020 is Not Quite 2016

In the frenzy to abort the Trump presidency, the Left advanced the construct that the Republican Party was fragmented, self-destructive, and soon to disappear as a serious political force. All those prognoses better characterized the current state of the Democratic Party.

2020 Sanders is their presumed 2016 Trump, at least as mainstream Democrats see it. Bernie is a supposed destructive outsider who loathes the party establishment and has a fervent base that is oblivious to their candidate’s inconsistencies and prior embarrassing associations and rhetoric—and doesn’t give a damn whether he takes down the party in the 2020 election on his singular, narcissistic crusade to become president. 

Yet unlike Sanders’ radical redistributionism, Trump’s tweaking of the Republican agenda eventually achieved unity, and brought Reagan Democrats, Perot voters, Tea-party activists, and blue-collar voter drop-outs back into the party without losing the Republican mainstream.

In contrast, Sanders’s promises to end fracking, implement the radical Green New Deal, institute a 70-90 percent top income tax rate along with a wealth tax, reparations, an open border and blanket amnesties, Medicare for all, and radical loosening of voter eligibility seem unlikely to unite Democrats in quite the same way. Little of that appeals to suburban voters and independents, and will not win them into the Democratic Party—but it will lose Sanders 10-20 percent of registered Democrats who will stay home or furtively vote Trump.

Top of the Ticket Sanders?

Sanders scares liberal Wall Street, and to some extent even the Silicon Valley progressive technocracy. Keeping one’s fortune cuts a lot of ideological ties. He has none of the appeal of Hillary Clinton to the deep state, or to party governors, senators, and House members. If in 2016 loyal Democrat office-holders and candidates at the state and federal level felt that Hillary on the ticket would empower them, they now fear Sanders could lose them the House and win Trump a supermajority in the Senate along with two more picks on the Supreme Court.

Oddly, Sanders’s rivals on the debate stage never really hit the presumptive leader where he is most vulnerable: his reprehensible past empathy for the genocidal Soviet Union, and his praise of communist dictatorships such as those in Nicaragua and Cuba. Then there remains the embarrassing paradox of a die-hard socialist redistributionist eager to cash in on his political career—to the extent of setting up his wife as an in-house, well-paid consultant (with her past failed career as wheeler-dealer small college president who bankrupted her institution and for a while won the attention of the FBI), while becoming a millionaire with three homes. Mention that, as Bloomberg did in the recent debate, and Bernie becomes livid, in a fashion that appears dangerous for a septuagenarian who recently survived a heart attack.

Will there arise a Democratic NeverSanders movement if Bernie wins the nomination? It depends. The Democratic fear and loathing of Sanders exceed that of Republicans for Trump in 2016.

But whereas the alternative four years ago for NeverTrump Republicans was Hillary Clinton—with all the orthodox respectability and bipartisan bureaucratic schmoozing that Clinton sought to convey—would-be NeverSanders Democrats either would be actively or implicitly helping Donald J. Trump.

Would a Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, or Joe Manchin prefer the hated Donald Trump or good ol’ radical socialist Bernie Sanders with his calls for wealth taxes, 90 percent tax rates, wars against billionaires, a foreign policy far to the left of Barack Obama’s and socialization of the medical system?

We can see glimpses of the NeverSanders Left dilemma in the confusion of the current NeverTrump right. For most of the primary season, they more or less praised Joe Biden, the front-runner and assumed likely nominee who ultimately supposedly would govern in the fashion of Bill Clinton, and thus was clearly preferable to the despised Trump.

But now?

Most are going silent on the question of 2016, given the embarrassment that the logical dividend of hating Trump in 2020 is the election of America’s first socialist, whose agenda makes his spiritual predecessors Eugene Debs and Huey Long seem tame in comparison. Will NeverTrumpers resurrect the third-party wannabe Evan McMullen or finally convince David French to run? Will they sit out the election? Any NeverTrump “conservative” who voted for Sanders would be revealed as a rank opportunist or an unhinged obsessive-compulsive Trump hater, given the strange odyssey from establishment Beltway conservative to socialist nihilist.  

So Sanders as the nominee has the unique ability of destroying the Democratic Party. In 1964, Rockefeller Republicans jumped to LBJ, after the tumultuous Goldwater takeover of the party. George McGovern in 1972 helped accelerate the neoconservative transformation of Democrats into Republicans. Reagan Democrats abandoned Mondale in 1984. For a half-century until the election of Barack Obama in 2008—a result of the anemic McCain campaign, the 2008 financial meltdown, the incumbent Bush’s sub-30 percent popularity, the unpopular Iraq War, and the idea of America’s first African-American president—Democrats did not win the popular vote in presidential elections unless their nominees had a southern accent—LBJ, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore—and, with it, reassuring proof of centrism. Northern losing liberals like Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry apparently confirmed a too leftward drift of the party.

In sum, if Sanders wins, the silent NeverSanders Democrats will become more numerous than were the loud impotent NeverTrump Republicans. And they need not vote Trump, but instead simply stay home or find a third-party or renegade Democrat to rally around to ensure Trump’s reelection.

Note that Trump was not only more consistent with his party’s values than Sanders, but more representative of the views of American voters in general. One might object that Trump is crude and off-putting and thus cancels out the appeal of his record. But is Bernie pleasant and measured?

His policy nostrums are frightening. He cannot take criticism, but becomes gruff and animated. And he is a different sort of septuagenarian than is Trump, who has a sense of humor and can be self-deprecating. Get-off-my-grass Bernie, like most true-believers and fellow travelers of mandated government redistribution, is serious 24/7. He never really addresses criticism, and his fallback position on any issue is always another predictable socialist bromide, a frown and two frail arms flailing in the air.

Again, Sanders the person gives the Sanders agenda no boost. All that can be said of Sanders is that he is authentically socialist in a way that candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren are only so occasionally and opportunistically.

In 2020 if Sanders is the Democratic nominee, the NeverSanders movement will be far larger, far wealthier, far more influential—even as it is likely far quieter—than were the vociferous but anemic NeverTrumpers of 2016.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.

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