Lately I’ve been chatting a lot with progressive friends about whether we’d prefer Donald Trump or Ted Cruz as the Republican nominee for President. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s memorable lament about his party’s choice – being poisoned versus getting shot – looms over our conversations.

Unlike Graham, some progressives salivate over these horrific but delicious options, since it seems that either man would lose come November. Though Hillary Clinton will not win any popularity contests, Trump’s negative ratings have set records for a major presidential candidate, with Cruz not far behind.

I’m admittedly unambiguously ambivalent about this choice. Whichever option we opt for, we should watch what we wish for.



So whom should progressives hope nabs the nomination?

Purely on electoral grounds, the answer is Trump. He’s a potential gift to Democrats, even more likely to lose than Cruz. He could also doom Republican control of the Senate and conceivably even the House, as he goes down in a blaze of anything but glory. That’s one big reason so much right wing money is going into anti-Trump advertising.

In addition, if he were somehow elected, Trump might not be as odious as Cruz. He would arguably be better on such issues as health care, social security and perhaps even Supreme Court nominees. True, his pronouncements on immigration, Muslims and other matters are appalling. But Cruz is not so different in those regards. And Trump’s thoughtless comments on abortion aside, does anyone really think that he gives a damn about social issues the way Cruz does or would pursue regressive social policies with the same vengeance?

Ironically, from a policy perspective, Donald’s very lack of thought and conviction makes him preferable to the Far Right’s True Believer Ted.



Here’s yet another reason for progressives to favor a Trump nomination: He could be the gift that keeps on giving, poisoning Republican politics through at least 2020.

How? It’s a given on the Far Right that Romney and McCain (and arguably Dole and Bush the First) lost their elections because they were not “true conservatives.” Many such true believers insist that if they could only have another man of real political faith, like Saint Ronald the Reagan, they would sweep to victory. (Let’s put aside for the moment the reality that Reagan would be considered a weak-kneed compromiser in today’s Republican Party.)

Trump’s likely election disaster would prove the point, at least in the true conservatives’ own minds.  In their view, the electorate would reject not just his wacko, sexist, racist rants – something people across the political spectrum can all condemn – but also his ideologically lazy and liberal stances.

Bolstered by that argument, and having run a strong though stymied race for the nomination in 2016, Cruz would be back with a vengeance the next time around. He’d either win the nomination or, in losing, perpetuate the Party’s bitter divisions. Either way, from a progressive point of view, his far-right positions could produce yet another disastrous Republican run and ensure yet another Democratic victory in 2020.



But…there’s the problem of Trump being a dangerous demagogue.

This makes me ambivalent about even wanting Trump to be nominated. Unlikely but conceivable stuff could tilt the race the Republicans’ way between now and November: a large-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil, a financial crash, Hillary being indicted for her sloppy email practices, some new Clinton scandal, even events we can’t imagine. I find even a 10 percent chance of Trump winning the presidency truly scary.

We could end up with a President Trump who has little respect for democracy, the rule of law, an independent press, the Constitution, you name it. He’s the Man Who Would Be King.

If he were to secure the nomination, he’d presumably tack toward the center and rationality as an electoral tactic. In fact, that process has already begun. But does any reasonable progressive really want to rely on Trump being reasonable if elected? Does anyone doubt that this egomaniac would not be even more egomaniacal if an election ratified his egocentricity?

What could all of this mean in practice? As former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum recently warned the world on CNN, we could face regular constitutional crises as Trump ignores Supreme Court rulings. (Sorry, I could not find any link.)

We also could see dramatic surges in ISIS support, perhaps even in the United States, as President Trump’s anti-Muslim rants constitute a one-man recruiting campaign for its cause. His big mouth would alienate, provoke and otherwise disturb the world in other big ways as well.

Finally, do we really want his explosive id in charge of our military forces and nuclear arsenal?



But wait…are we so sure that Cruz would be so much better in many of these ways? He’s no prince himself when it comes to military restraint, anti-ISIS strategies, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric and a host of other stances. And even by present-day Republican standards, and even as presented in a tempered take on his positions, he’s way far out to the right on any number of issues.

Besides, there’s more than one way to subvert democracy and the Constitution. You don’t need Trump’s frontal demagogic assault to do damage. A more subtle, legalistic approach happens all the time in other countries. From South Africa and the Philippines in the twentieth century to Cambodia and Russia today, governments have masked some of their abuses with veneers of legality.

This approach has happened and could happen here, albeit in arguably milder forms than we see abroad. After all, the George W. Bush administration made torture a matter of “enhanced interrogation” policy. The Republican Party is making voter suppression a key part of its electoral strategy. And the Supreme Court has practically legalized corruption through its campaign finance decisions.

A brilliant lawyer like Cruz could take us further down this path.

In other words, Cruz could be far cleverer than Trump at conniving to undermine democracy and the rule of law through ostensibly legal means. His impressive intellect frightens me just as much as his ideology does.



Having said all this, I’m certainly not saying a Trump or Cruz win places us on the brink of a dictatorship. Our democratic institutions, including parts of the Republican Party itself, are too resilient for that. And for all of my cynicism about the two men, I don’t suspect either one of aiming to establish an autocracy.

But it doesn’t take a dictator to corrode a democracy.

So…The Man Who Would Be King or the Conniver in Chief? Pick your poison.





Based in Oakland, California, Stephen Golub writes, consults and teaches about international development, with a particular focus on justice, democracy, human rights and governance issues. Currently teaching part-time at Central European University in Budapest and previously at the University of California at Berkeley, he has worked in over 40 countries and with such organizations as Amnesty International, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Ford and Open Society Foundations, the U.K. Department for International Development, the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank

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