There are many ways that the American electorate is going to be sold the idea of a Trump presidency in the months between now and November. Tales of commercial protectionism, macho disregard for the Geneva Convention, and the fungible relationship between The Art of the Deal and the art of diplomacy will be repeated ad nauseam in all media at all hours. But the most insidious rhetorical device that will be used is a meme that circulates below the radar, in print and online. Its genius lies, in part, in the fact that it is not immediately recognizable as a bit of electioneering, and one might not perceive that the person peddling it is a Trump surrogate.
The meme to which I refer is the proposition, articulated in various ways, that Hillary Clinton is "as bad as Donald Trump." Clinton's ambition, her penchant for scandal, her failures of competence (so we are told) are so egregious as to make a vote for her as much of a risk as one for Trump. Whatever baggage Trump brings to the table is more than matched by the flaws and liabilities of the presumptive Democratic nominee.
This rhetoric is exceptionally clever because, on the surface, it appears critical of Trump. It is counter-intuitive to campaign for someone by acknowledging his flaws. But the net effect of this argument, if one assents to it, is to normalize a vote for Trump, at least within the context of this election. If the prospective election of either major-party candidate entails similar risks for the country, a voter is free to choose whichever candidate most closely aligns with his or her partisan preferences, without concern for the larger systemic effects of that vote.
The perceived efficacy of this strategy on the part of Trump's camp is a measure of just how eccentric Trump's candidacy is. Like so much of Trump's campaign, this claim of equivalency is a con. The fact is that there has never been a major-party candidate like Trump, and no presidential candidate has ever posed the enormous risk that he does to the fabric of our social contract and the coherence of our institutions. No candidate in living memory who had built an electoral coalition by advocating the ostracism of religious and ethnic minorities has gotten as close to the White House as Donald Trump. That fact alone is enough to give one pause, much less the prospect of an actual Trump administration.
The point can be illustrated by reference to yesterday's speech by former President George W. Bush during the memorial service for the police officers slain in Dallas. In policy terms Bush was among the most polarizing presidents of modern times. Yet in this moment of crisis he struck a quintessentially "presidential" tone, mourning the fact that, "Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions." This was precisely what the nation needed to hear, and was what one would expect from an individual invested in the continuation and robust health of our system of government.
Contrast that with Trump's remarks about Mexican immigrants, or Muslims, or President Obama's potential culpability in the wake of the Orlando shooting. It is not a question of whether Trump might ever, in his heart or mind, agree with the sentiments expressed by President Bush. Such speculation is moot, because Trump has built his public persona in a way that would be undermined by the kind of conciliatory gesture offered by the former President. Trump's candidacy is animated by divisive and entropic forces that would shake the foundations of our Republic apart if they become transmuted in November into a presidential mandate.
Where Trump could never (without fatally damaging his "brand") deliver the kind of remarks offered by President Bush, Hillary Clinton could quite naturally (as her husband did on many occasions as president). Whatever her flaws, Clinton is a figure of and for our larger system of government. One can bemoan the perils that her policies might pose for our economy, or our culture, or our geopolitical security, but one cannot plausibly claim that her election would pose an existential threat to our constitutional order in the manner of a Trump presidency. The proposition that "Clinton is as bad as Trump" is a con, and those who perpetuate it are aiding Trump's electoral chances whether they realize it or not.