The endless torment to which Trump-skeptical conservatives were first consigned in 2016 has been nothing if not creative. Their latest ordeal, as Washington Examiner columnist David Drucker recently observed, involves their pinning hopes for a restoration of the pre-Trump status quo on, of all people, Joe Biden.
For erstwhile Republican partisans who spent the better part of the last decade opposing the administration in which Biden served, the duty they feel is a special sort of misery. They are rationalizing themselves into pulling the lever for a candidate who accused them of seeking to reimpose slavery on African-Americans, whose instincts on foreign affairs are consistently atrocious, and who has committed himself to a more liberal agenda than even Hillary Clinton’s. But Biden doesn’t want to pay people not to work or nationalize the health-insurance industry, so he finds himself on the moderate end of the present Democratic spectrum. Everything is relative, so why make the perfect the enemy of the good? Disappointment is, after all, the default state of the right’s Trump skeptics.
But Drucker’s dispatch reveals that a new sort of resignation is washing over conservatives in political limbo. As Democratic primary polls shift in Bernie Sanders’s direction, these conservatives are forced to confront the prospect of a Sanders-Trump election. Their anxiety is palpable.
Soapbox progressives are quick to write off this demographic, but Democratic political professionals are not. It wasn’t high turnout in dark blue urban enclaves that made the 2018 midterm cycle what it was for Democrats but the suburbs. There, many educated, affluent, older voters—white women in particular—broke with the president they’d supported in 2016. There is much this administration did in its first two years for voters with conservative impulses to like, but those accomplishments could not quiet their concerns about the president himself.
The president’s moral shortcomings and misuses of his authority are well documented, but Trump skeptical voters with conservative leanings would not just ratify those shortcomings with their vote. They would render a verdict of support for a presidency that is increasingly bereft of the voices that were responsible for the conventionally Republican policies they backed. Those who remain fixed within the president’s orbit are those most willing to cater to Trump’s instincts, which—with the possible exceptions of issues related to trade and immigration—are unpredictable. All voters should be concerned about a presidency that has survived both impeachment and a special counsel probe, but especially voters with an affinity for a limited government. Trump would enter his second term uniquely undeterred by checks on the executive reserved for Congress and the judiciary.
But what is their alternative? If the answer is Bernie Sanders, that’s no alternative at all. A Sanders campaign cannot make the moral case against the president’s character—at least, not in a way that satisfies conservatives’ concerns. Sanders has spent his career subordinating moral qualms to his policy objectives, and every dissident population under the yoke of socialism or indigenous population ethnically cleansed by his ideological allies has suffered as a result. Nor can Sanders effectively campaign against the president’s habit of dividing Americans against each other and indulging in xenophobic rhetoric. At least, not while he has surrounded himself with a growing cadre of activists embroiled in anti-Semitic controversies.
There are few, if any, policy prescriptions Sanders espouses that conventional conservatives unmoved by populist grievance politics would find appealing. Conservative Trump critics who have taken solace in the president’s handling of relations with Israel, as well as his administration’s confrontational approach toward Russia, Iran, and hostile international organizations like the United Nations General Assembly, can look forward to a presidency that would make Barack Obama’s appear conventional by comparison. And while Donald Trump represented a departure from the institutionalism that typified past presidencies, the lack of a populist intellectual infrastructure on the right compelled him to staff his administration with establishmentarians who favored continuity over revolutionary change. Sanders wouldn’t have that same problem. A Sanders administration would have no trouble finding progressive reformers who know how to wield the levers of power in this country to effect radical change even outside the legislative process.
If typically Republican voters who remain unsold on Donald Trump and the GOP he has transformed over the last four years thought 2016 was a devil’s choice, they might not have seen anything yet. A Trump-Sanders race would test the limits of their patience like nothing else.