The initial stupefaction and dismay with which liberals greeted Donald Trump’s candidacy have slowly given way to feelings of Schadenfreude— reveling in the suffering of others, in this case the apoplectic members of the Republican Establishment. Are such feelings morally wrong? Or can liberals enjoy the spectacle unleavened by guilt? As Republican voters start actually voting, is it okay to be sad — alarmed, even — by the prospect that the Trump hostile takeover of the GOP may fail?
There are three reasons, in descending order of obviousness, for a liberal to earnestly and patriotically support a Trump Republican nomination. The first, of course, is that he would almost certainly lose. Trump’s ability to stay atop the polls for months, even as critics predicted his demise, has given him an aura of voodoo magic that frightens some Democrats. But whatever wizardry Trump has used to defy the laws of political gravity has worked only within his party. Among the electorate as a whole, he is massively — indeed, historically — unpopular, with unfavorable ratings now hovering around 60 percent and a public persona almost perfectly designed to repel the Obama coalition: racial minorities, single women, and college-educated whites. It would take a landscape-altering event like a recession for him to win; even that might not be enough.
Second, a Trump nomination might upend his party. The GOP is a machine that harnesses ethno-nationalistic fear — of communists, criminals, matrimonial gays, terrorists, snooty cultural elites — to win elections and then, once in office, caters to its wealthy donor base. (This is why even a social firebrand like Ted Cruz would privately assure the billionaire investor Paul Singer that he wasn’t particularly concerned about gay-marriage laws.) As its voting base has lost college-educated voters and gained blue-collar whites, the fissure between the means by which Republicans attain power and the ends they pursue once they have it has widened.
What has most horrified conservative activists about Trump’s rise is how little he or his supporters seem to care about their anti-government ideology. When presented with the candidate’s previous support for higher taxes on the rich or single-payer insurance, heresies of the highest order, Trump fans merely shrug. During this campaign, Trump has mostly conformed to party doctrine, but without much conviction. Trump does not mouth the rote conservative formulation that government is failing because it can’t work and that the solution is to cut it down to size. Instead, he says it is failing because it is run by idiots and that the solution is for it to instead be run by Trump. About half of Republicans favor higher taxes on the rich, a position that has zero representation among their party’s leaders. And those Republicans are the most likely to support Trump.
Trump’s candidacy represents, among other things, a revolt by the Republican proletariat against its master class. That is why National Review devoted a cover editorial and 22 columns to denouncing Trump as a heretic to the conservative movement. A Trump nomination might not actually cleave the GOP in two, but it could wreak havoc. If, like me, you think the Republican Party in its current incarnation needs to be burned to the ground and rebuilt anew, Trump is the only one holding a match.
The third reason to prefer a Trump nomination: If he does win, a Trump presidency would probably wind up doing less harm to the country than a Marco Rubio or a Cruz presidency. It might even, possibly, do some good.
The Trump campaign may feel like an off-the-grid surrealistic nightmare, The Man in the High Castle meets Idiocracy. But something like it has happened before. Specifically, it happened in California, a place where things often happen before they happen to the rest of us, in 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger won the governorship. At the time, the prospect of Schwarzenegger governing America’s largest state struck many of us as just as ghastly as the idea of a Trump presidency seems now. Like Trump, Schwarzenegger came directly to politics from the celebrity world without bothering to inform himself about public policy. He campaigned as a vacuous Man of Action in opposition to the Politicians, breezing by all the specifics as the petty obsessions of his inferiors.
In addition to being grossly unqualified, Schwarzenegger was just gross. He barely concealed his habit of reducing all women to sex objects — and, to a degree exceeding anything Trump has done, put this theory into practice. Shortly before his election, the Los Angeles Times published the accounts of six women who reported being groped and humiliated by Schwarzenegger. Even Schwarzenegger’s attempts to portray himself as respecting standards of decency revealed his inability to comprehend them. “When you see a blonde with great tits and a great ass, you say to yourself, ‘Hey, she must be stupid or must have nothing else to offer,’ which maybe is the case many times,” he told Esquire in 2003. “But then again there is the one that is as smart as her breasts look, great as her face looks, beautiful as her whole body looks gorgeous, you know, so people are shocked.”
At the beginning of his term, Schwarzenegger more or less fulfilled the worst liberal fears. He gashed a hole in the state budget with a tax cut he couldn’t pay for. He assailed his opponents in the legislature as “girlie men,” proposed a slew of right-wing ballot initiatives, and stated in a meeting that Puerto Rican–American and Cuban-American officials opposed to him were acting “hot,” i.e., angry, thanks to their “black blood” and “Latino blood.”
But then something funny happened. When his legislative agenda stalled and his ballot measures failed, Schwarzenegger reversed course. The new Schwarzenegger compromised with Democrats on the budget, raising taxes and funding new public infrastructure. He abandoned his opposition to gay marriage, passed redistricting reform, and enacted cutting-edge legislation to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. He proposed sweeping health-care reform based on Mitt Romney’s successful Massachusetts plan. It failed, but when President Obama passed a national health-care law (also based on Romney’s plan), Schwarzenegger defied furious Republicans and eagerly hopped aboard, which enabled his state to roll out its Obamacare exchange smoothly. By the end of his tenure, it was impossible to deny that Schwarzenegger had become a highly effective governor.
The reasons for this bear directly on a hypothetical Trump presidency. Schwarzenegger’s loyalty to Republican doctrine was tissue-thin. He joined the GOP because he vaguely shared its veneration of wealth and success. But his sub-intellectualism, which initially made him so repellent, turned out to be an asset. When conventional Republican governance made him unpopular, he had no incentive to go down with the party ship. The only thing Schwarzenegger really craved was popularity. Running for office as an exercise in ego gratification may not be as good a thing as running as a serious candidate with good ideas, but it’s much better than running as a serious candidate with bad ideas.
Having left Sacramento five years ago, Schwarzenegger floats around Trump’s candidacy like a half-forgotten doppelgänger. When Trump left Celebrity Apprentice to launch his campaign, Schwarzenegger took over as host. He appears in ads for the video game Mobile Strike as a joyfully hawkish general — barking, “Send a dozen choppers, when one chopper would do” — which have aired in heavy rotation during Republican debates. The juxtaposition has an understated hilarity. Video-game pitchman Schwarzenegger, like Trump, sounds like a parody of the foreign-policy thought offered by the actual GOP candidates, who promise to bring back torture and make the sand glow. The difference: Schwarzenegger, like Trump, is only playing a character. The truly dangerous Republicans are the ones who believe their own dialogue.
*This article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.