28 October 2020

Nothing would be better for the illiberal left than a Trump win


“The only middle finger available”. That is how National Review editor Rich Lowry preemptively explains a hypothetical shock Donald Trump win next week. 

“After months and months of statues toppling and riots in American cities and a crime wave and woke virtue-signalling from professional sports leagues and absurd firings and cancellations, the year would end with a stunning, stark rebuke to all of that,” he writes. 

He’s probably right: in the event of such an upset, there wouldn’t be many plausible explanations other than “a gigantic rude gesture directed at the commanding heights of American culture”. If there is one clear message in Trump’s contradictory and scrappy re-election campaign, it’s the president’s full-throated anti-wokeness. If there is a unifying theme to his meandering speeches, it’s a proven commitment to political incorrectness — both in theory and in practice. And if there is an obstacle on the path to a Biden win, it is left-wing overreach: Democratic calls to defund the police and bring down the likenesses of founding fathers. 

Does that mean Trump should be the preferred candidate for Americans worried about the cultural dominance of an ever-more censorious and illiberal left? 

Some Trump-critical right-wingers think so. Take the conservative vlogger (and Andrew Neil victim) Ben Shapiro. He didn’t vote for Trump four years ago, but will do so this time in part because “the Democrats have lost their f*cking minds”. The AEI’s Danielle Pletka makes a similar argument. She fears that a Biden administration would empower “virtue-signalling bullies” and “leftist vigilantes who view every personal choice — from recipes to hairdos — through their twisted prisms of politics and culture”. 

There is an internal logic to this view. Parts of the American left really have lost their minds, and I sympathise with embattled conservatives worried about the consequences of giving the American left control of Washington to go with its control of New York, LA and San Francisco. 

But whether you’re an enthusiastic recruit in the war against wokeness, or just a weary spectator, the result you should be hoping for next week is a Biden win. 

For all that the Trump campaign wants Americans to see Biden as a puppet of the left, the defining feature of his presidential bid has been the consistency with which he has batted away unpopular left-wing ideas. Ever since he announced his candidacy last year, the former Vice President has hugged the centre. During the primary, his opponents swerved left in search of votes. Biden stayed firm and won. After winning the nomination, Biden plotted a moderate course through a moment of unrest and racial tension, focusing on a unifying message rather than endorsing trendy calls to defund the police. If the polls are right and Biden beats Trump handily, it will be a further rebuke to the woke left. And if his past behaviour is any indicator, he won’t suddenly become a puppet of the far-left.  

The alternative — a second Trump term — would be the best thing that has happened to the illiberal left since the first Trump term. The Trump years have radicalised countless Americans. To them, his presidency has underscored the country’s flaws to the exclusion of any discussion of its merits. It has convinced more and more of them that progressive ends justify illiberal means. A Biden loss, and four more years of Trump, would be a powerful recruiting tool, hollowing out the centre-left and swelling the radicals’ ranks. 

Trump supporters will argue that this ignores the things their candidate might be able to do in office. They might cite Trump’s recent ban on any sensitivity training in federal agencies that “promotes race or sex-stereotyping or scapegoating”. But in the identity-obsessed and divisive climate that Trump and the illiberal left have conspired to create, such a measure will likely be met with an equal-but-opposite doubling down on woke corporate culture in liberal America. In a free society, executive edict cannot stop cultural change.

More generally, the president sees anti-woke measures as trolls, designed to wind up liberals rather than foster the kind of cohesive, accepting liberalism that so much far-left thinking helps to undermine. An alliance with Trump in a war on illiberalism, albeit of the far-left variety, is ultimately doomed because it undermines its moral force. Arguments for free expression over censorship and individualism over group identities lose their persuasiveness when you have sided with someone who expounds his own brand of grievance politics.  

Will Biden slay the beast of illiberalism? No. But if he wins next week, he will have undermined the far-left’s version of recent American history and disproven some of their more outlandish claims about the extreme measures needed to defeat Trump. 

The sooner the Trump presidency ends, the sooner those on the liberal left have a chance to stop the ratcheting up of identity politics and cool the rhetoric coming from the far-left. On the right, Trump’s departure will mean conservatives can start the fight for a more persuasive and sincere advocate of the vital American values threatened by parts of today’s left. 

To be sure, there are more important things at stake in this election than the future of “wokeness”, but even if that is your number one concern, don’t back the candidate who spends all day trying to wind lefties up on social media. Instead, vote for the old-timey 77-year-old from Scranton who probably doesn’t know how to send a tweet, let alone the meaning of the word “woke”.  

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Oliver Wiseman is US Editor of The Critic.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.