Why Do Democrats Feel So Much Anxiety?

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The anxiety about Trump is at Roz Chast levels of neuroticism.
The anxiety about Trump is at Roz Chast levels of neuroticism.Photo: Jeff J Mitchell

It’s early summer 2016, and in many ways things couldn’t be looking better for the Democrats. The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, is falling in the polls significantly for the first time since he rode into the presidential fray more than a year ago. A Federal Election Commission report recently showed that the Trump campaign began the month of May with only $1.29 million on hand, compared with the Clinton campaign’s $42 million. Last week, Trump fired his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and launched an almost comedic birther-style attack on his Democratic rival, suggesting that her religious background is murky, despite the fact that you can look up “Methodist” in the dictionary and find a picture of Hillary Clinton (I exaggerate, but only barely). He then left the U.S. for Scotland, on a business trip promoting his golf courses, where he pronounced the Brexit vote “a great thing” and called it “essentially the same thing that is happening in the United States.” (This is after he said, before the vote, “I don’t think anyone should listen to me” on the subject “because I haven’t really focused on it very much.”) Really, who could vote for this guy?

Meanwhile, even though Bernie Sanders has still not conceded or officially endorsed Clinton, Democrats are, slowly but surely, coming around to their presumptive nominee. Clinton is leading Trump in national polls by anywhere from five to 12 points and wiping the floor with him in every region except the South. One recent poll shows her up by four points in Arizona, a state that has gone Republican in all but one of the presidential elections since 1948 (Bill Clinton won there in 1996).

And yet — and yet — the anxiety among many liberals is at Roz Chast levels of neuroticism. In no particular order, here are some of the many scenarios currently and regularly discussed by Democrats of my acquaintance:

Trump is ousted. Could the presumptive Republican nominee be overthrown by his own party, replaced by Paul Ryan or Scott Walker or John Kasich or maybe even runner-up Ted Cruz, who now, compared with Trump, could conceivably appear reasonable and competent?

Trump walks. As Gawker recently observed, kind of jokingly but kind of not: “Trump isn’t going to let himself lose in any official capacity … that would go against everything the Trump brand stands for. So when his numbers start dropping, as they inevitably will and already have, Donald Trump is going to save face the best way he knows how: quitting before it’s too late.” Even some members of the Clinton camp are not “convinced that Donald Trump is sure to be the GOP nominee,” according to a recent Politico report, suggesting this is why Clinton is delaying her veep choice until after the Republican convention. In either of these cases, the worry is whether Clinton could move swiftly enough to reframe the debate to address a new candidate who, if he manages to spell tweets correctly, will immediately appear more capable than the vulgar Chaos Muppet who preceded him.

Trump stays in. What if Trump’s numbers stabilize in part because his early weak performance has lowered the bar to such a degree that he has plenty of room to clear it? Already we’ve seen an example of this: On June 22, Trump gave a speech attacking Clinton on trade and the Middle East and the Clinton Foundation. He spoke in complete sentences, he read accurately from a teleprompter, and, as Slate’s Michelle Goldberg wrote, he “spoke for 40 minutes without saying anything overtly sexist.” The speech, Goldberg concluded, was “probably the most unnervingly effective” one he has ever given. The specter of an improved Trump performance is especially troubling because Clinton is leading in the polls by a relatively narrow margin, all things considered.

And really, look at what’s going on in the world! The U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union, which risks the nation’s financial ruin, after a “Leave” campaign that relied on racist and xenophobic fearmongering, offers chilling evidence of the willingness of nationalist voters to make self-destructive choices rather than move toward a more racially and ethnically inclusive future. It’s not hard to see parallels here, to imagine the thing we’ve been telling ourselves is unimaginable: Trump riding into the Oval Office on a wave of violent bigotry.

But wait a second. To all my angst-ridden friends (and memo to myself): Slow down.

Let’s unpack these fears. It would be difficult for the Republican Party to oust Donald Trump, who won 37 states and territories; the party’s rules committee would have to overturn the will of the delegates and Trump’s voters would revolt. Even if he drops out, the fight over whom to nominate in his place would leave the party riven, and putting together a ground game for a new candidate in a few months would be challenging. Clinton may have high unfavorable numbers, but she is still one of the most successful politicians in the country. Her polling margin seems narrower than it should be, but Barack Obama’s defeat of John McCain, a commanding Electoral College victory, was by only seven points nationally. The Brexit vote is stop-in-your-tracks terrifying, a potent reminder of how white anger and fear can be stoked to dangerous effect. But it is also true that the U.S.’s population, 62 percent white, is not the U.K.’s population, which is 87 percent white.

Despite liberals’ reputation for neuroticism, recent studies have shown that we are typically less anxious and fearful than conservatives. So why does our collective state of mind seem to be getting more and more agitated? It’s partly because we have become, in a sense, more conservative — in our desire to keep what we have. Obama’s presidency, the reform of our health-care system, the expansions of women’s rights and civil rights and gay rights — these are real (if imperfect) liberal gains. And psychologically, the fear of losing something is more acute than the fear of not gaining something. Underlying our worry is the notion that the next five months could see either a total rupture of a humiliated Republican Party, a consolidation of liberal gains, and confirmation that the country has decided to move, at least for now, in a more progressive direction — or a horrifying defeat for liberal Democrats, a repudiation not only of Clinton but of Obama, and a rollback of many of the progressive gains of the past five decades. So it’s understandable that this is an epically tense time for the liberal psyche.

And all this worry might actually be a good thing. After all, we have just lived through a Republican primary season that has shown the costs of entitlement and overconfidence. If the powers that be within the GOP had felt the tremor of imagined future failure, they might have taken steps to keep Trump from leading their party in November. Instead, many of them brayed their confidence that a Trump nomination would never come to pass, that Rubio or Jeb! would show up and restore sanity.

In 2014, The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber wrote a defense of the liberal anxiety in response to the Obamacare rollout, which looked like it was going to be a disaster. “The mere spectacle of so many prominent liberals wetting themselves,” Scheiber argued, “clearly helped focus minds in the White House, which in turn helped ensure that the dysfunction got solved.”

Perhaps those of us who are sitting around biting our nails right now are serving a kind of civic purpose. Perhaps our worry will keep the Clinton campaign on its toes, act as a nagging reminder that she needs to home in on a message that could appeal to voters no matter her opponent. More important, that aching anxiety that loss looms with every refresh of the FiveThirtyEight website is the antidote to electoral indolence, the one prophylactic we have against self-defeat.

*This article appears in the June 27, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

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