This post originally appeared with the Roosevelt Institute.
On Sunday, Vox posted a video in which editor-in-chief Ezra Klein makes his case that “Donald Trump is the most dangerous presidential candidate in recent memory.” While I agree that Trump is dangerous and appreciate Ezra as a brilliant and thoughtful journalist, I disagree with his analysis. In short, I fail to see how Trump is substantively more dangerous than any of the other potential Republican presidents, or how he could possibly prove more dangerous than many presidents we have had already.
Klein’s thesis—that Trump’s candidacy represents an unprecedented level of danger in American politics—ignores a rich history of deadly and destructive policy by the leaders of both political parties, to say nothing of the plight of many millions of Americans for whom the worst has already come to pass. I agree with Ezra that the time to take policy and elections seriously has come; I just disagree on when it came.
[Requisite Trump disclaimer:] I am, of course, deeply troubled by Trump’s candidacy and his success with American voters. The broad approval that his brand of paranoid xenophobia has received reveals something truly disturbing about a large portion of American voters.
But, in my mind, the danger Klein speaks of was real long before Trump.
If I am a Black youth in Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore, Maryland, how much weight do Donald Trump’s racist diatribes really add to the pre-existing burden of going through life knowing I could be shot dead by a police officer who would face no legal ramifications for my murder?
If I am a single mother living under the poverty line in Flint, Michigan, with scant job prospects and poisonous water flowing out of my kitchen tap, how much of an additional threat does Donald Trump truly pose to my well-being? I am already drowning in a sea of existential threats.
The truth is, American politicians have been playing with live ammunition since the first Congress was convened in 1789. Just ask the relatives and friends of 58,220 American soldiers unnecessarily slain in Vietnam. Ask the victims of Japanese internment. Ask the descendants of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee tribes, forced out of their ancestral land and into a federally mandated death march.
These are dramatic examples, to be sure, but even more mundane-seeming policy questions elucidate the point that, when it comes to dangerous policy, Donald Trump is nothing new.
Republican candidates and presidents (Trump included) have a long history of proposing outrageous, unaffordable, and regressive tax cuts, many of which have become law, to the detriment of the American people and the economy. The carried interest loophole is one example: This provision costs billions every year, exists exclusively to benefit wealthy investment managers, and has been supported by every Republican presidential candidate—except Trump, who has proposed to end it. Overall, Trump’s tax plan—like those of his fellow candidates—is terrible and unrealistic, and this proposed repeal is mere lip service, but it is still more than any other candidate has proposed with regard to closing loopholes for the wealthy.
If it is Trump’s honesty Klein worries about (the man does love a good flip-flop), then again, I must insist the bar is set very low.
President George W. Bush led the American people to believe he possessed incontrovertible evidence of nuclear weapons in Iraq and used that misinformation to drag the country into a 15-year war that cost trillions of tax dollars and 4,486 American lives. Those were my generational brothers and sisters, as are those now living through unprecedented violence and political upheaval throughout the Middle East. So forgive me if I appear unfazed by Trump’s racism, because I already lived through eight years of a president who went to war over prejudice. If anything, Trump’s attitude seems par for the course.
And I in no way mean to be partisan: It was four presidential terms, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, that led to the largest financial crisis the world has ever known and the worst recession since the Great Depression. We watched the perpetrators walk away without a scratch. Some got raises.
Looking at the other candidates, I detect no safe choice. In fact, all but Trump support defunding Planned Parenthood, and every single candidate followed his lead on supporting a ban on refugees from the Syrian civil war. Ditto his Sinophobia. Ditto the wall on the Mexican border. Is Trump dangerous for his beliefs, or is he just offensive for his willingness to state them?
What I suspect Klein is responding to is not the content of Trump’s policies but the disturbingly disrespectful way in which he hocks this ever-shifting platform of xenophobic rabble-rousing and racially charged scapegoating. And I don’t blame Klein for feeling the way he does: It is an ugly, ugly business, and it is revealing an ugly, ugly side of American culture. But to many observers of American politics, it is nothing new.
The Republican Party has been campaigning and leading on a platform of very thinly veiled (and sometimes completely unveiled) xenophobia, homophobia, and disregard for the poor and working class for quite some time. Trump is just saying in plain English what has been the implicit conservative platform for over half a century. Did the mild manners of previous candidates make their stances any less destructive to the American people? Perhaps Klein took solace in the panache of primary politicians gone by, but I do not, and I doubt that those who have suffered the worst ills of American policy do either.
Perhaps it is better that progressives can finally fight this battle out in the open, offering a direct challenge to the ugly underpinnings of right-wing ideology instead of grappling with the coded language and feigned innocence of other candidates.
Klein’s video suggests that, though we’ve lived through decades of unjustified war, top-heavy tax cuts, financial deregulation, and structural discrimination, now is when we are really at risk.
I think that moment came and went some time ago.
Photo: (L-R) Governor John Kasich, former Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Ted Cruz, businessman Donald Trump, Senator Marco Rubio and Dr. Ben Carson pose before the start of the Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate sponsored by CBS News and the Republican National Committee in Greenville, South Carolina February 13, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.