Is a Second Trump Presidency a Lesser Evil Than a Biden Presidency?

In this essay I will sketch an outline for an argument that, from a left-wing and especially an environmentalist perspective, a second Trump presidency will be a lesser evil than a Biden presidency. Before doing so, I will discuss my personal views on lesser-of-two-evils voting, protest voting, and the article that led me to stumble onto the argument that voting for Trump is a lesser evil than voting for Biden.

For as long as I can remember I have been opposed to lesser-of-two evils voting. I have not voted for a Democrat for president since the first time Bill Clinton ran. In each of the subsequent presidential elections I have voted for the Green Party candidate.

On the one hand, over the years I’ve been involved in some intense arguments on the topic of lesser-of-two-evils voting. I have a vague recollection of a group argument in which someone was agreeing that lesser-of-two-evils voting was bad and that he would never do so after the upcoming election, but that the upcoming election was an exception because of how unusually bad the Republican candidate was. At that time the Republican candidate was George W. Bush. I am confident that this person probably backed off his claim, and voted for Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump on a lesser-of-two-evils theory.

On the other hand, I often engage in self-reflection and question my view on the subject of lesser-of-two-evils voting as circumstances change. With an irrationally dangerous, and what I believe to be a mentally ill, candidate like Donald Trump I do question my official stance. While it is probable that I will vote for the Green Party candidate in the next presidential election, I won’t be positive until the time arrives. At this point we don’t know for sure that Biden will be the Democratic candidate. And we can’t be sure that Trump will be the Republican candidate. But Trump is clearly a problem and I note that, since Trump recently threatened to use the military to “dominate” protesters and/or rioters, both Kyle Kulinski and Krystal Ball have moved away from an inclination to not vote for Biden. Thus in the realm I somewhat misleadingly refer to as “left-wing millennial Internet TV,” that leaves Tim Black to hold down the fort.

While I do not know how all advocates of lesser-of-two-evils voting think, the ones I have encountered in person and in the press are implicitly arrogant. Their arrogance is reflected in their assumption that all rational people accept lesser-of-two-evils voting. The view seems to be that if someone votes for a third party they do so for one of two reasons. One is for the purposes of protest voting. The other reason is that the voter does accept lesser-of-two-evils voting but has simply run a different calculus. In other words, the arrogant assumption is that the second reason for voting for a third party, or not voting at all, is that the voter has applied a lesser-of-two-evils analysis and concluded that neither the Democratic or Republican presidential candidate is more or less evil than the other. This can be seen in what amounts to the at times somewhat hostile accusations: “for you there is no difference between the parties,” and “you don’t think there’s any difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.” The lesser-of-two-evils advocates I have seen cannot come to terms with a voter who will concede that the Republican party is generally worse than the Democratic Party, or that Donald Trump is worse than Hillary Clinton, and still not vote for the Democratic candidate. That is, the lesser-of-two-evils advocates that I have encountered simply cannot conceive of a reason to vote for a third party candidate other than on a basis of a lesser-of-two-evils calculus (or as a protest).

I used to think I understood the concept of protest voting. I knew what voting is and I knew what a protest is, and so I figured a person might somehow protest by voting. But then I saw the term “protest voting” applied to people like me who voted for third parties. This confused me because I had never seen my voting Green as a protest. And when I thought about this I realized that I didn’t know what protest voting was.

I thought of my voting in terms of the old fashioned view of liberal democracy that we learned in school. We live in a democracy and can vote for the president. So we study the issues, keep abreast of current events, and vote for the candidate or party that represents our values, political views or interests. In that way, by voting for a Green for president I didn’t see myself as any different from a Democratic or Republican voter.

And the more I thought about the concept of protest voting I began to wonder if such a thing is even possible. After thinking about it, I concluded that it is possible to protest by voting. I think I can do a protest vote by writing in a candidate’s name. So, for example, in the upcoming presidential election I can write in the name “Vladimir Putin” as my choice for president of the United States. That has to be seen as a protest. Even though the vote will not be associated with me personally, the local vote counters will see that there’s been a protest of some kind. And once they see it, the local press might be called in to report the protest. I’ve never tried that, but it might work as some sort of protest.

So my voting strategy is not to protest. As I’ve said, I vote for what I consider the best candidate or party. One of my original additional motivations for voting Green was to help build a true left-wing party. For that reason I did not agree with Ralph Nader’s strategy when he ran for president as the Green Party candidate. Nader’s strategy was to “nudge” the Democratic Party to the left. It’s not my project to nudge the Democratic Party anywhere. I don’t want to have anything to do with the Democratic Party. The point, however, is that my voting strategies have led me to reject lesser-of-two-evils voting.

In recent years I’ve developed an additional reason for rejecting lesser-of-two-evils voting. Lesser-of-two-evils voting allows the Democratic Party to move to the right. That is because if the Republican candidate is more reactionary than the Democratic candidate, then the Democratic candidate can move further to the right and still be the lesser evil as long as he or she does not become as reactionary as the Republican candidate. And the Democratic Party’s move to the right allows the Republican Party to move even further to the right. In other words, lesser-of-two-evils voting sets certain causal forces into operation and the result is to further reactionary values and corporate interests.

I now consider the argument that a second Trump presidency is a lesser evil than a Biden presidency. The argument is based on an article by Thomas Neuberger. In his article Neuberger does not even mention lesser-of-two-evils voting. Neuberger instead addresses the question stated in his article’s title: “What’s the Earliest a Progressive Democrat Can Be Elected President?” The article was originally published at Down With Tyranny. It was republished at Naked Capitalism. To answer the question, Neuberger considers five possible electoral scenarios and then derives four conclusions, or four answers, to the question. While I will list all of the conclusions, I will explain only two of the scenarios Neuberger considers. If I were to explain them all, I’d be repeating the short article. So I have chosen the scenarios that result in the soonest a progressive Democrat could be elected and the scenario that results in the longest period of time that Neuberger considers. These two examples will illustrate Neuberger’s methodology.

In Neuberger’s view the soonest a progressive Democrat can be elected president is in 2024. The scenario that leads to this possibility is that Trump beats Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Obviously with Biden out of the way a progressive Democrat can run and win in 2024. In the longest period of time before a progressive Democrat can be elected we have to wait until 2040. In this scenario Biden beats Trump in 2020 but does not run in 2024. In 2024 a neoliberal Democrat wins in both 2024 and 2028. This president’s neoliberal vice president wins in 2032 and 2036. So we have to wait another four years before a progressive Democrat can run and be elected.

Neuberger’s conclusions are as follows:

“We can run a progressive against a non-incumbent Democrat:

• In 2024 if Biden loses to Trump [in 2020].
• In 2028 if Biden wins [in 2020 and doesn’t run in 2024] and [Biden’s] VP[-cum Democratic presidential candidate] loses in 2024.
• In 2032 if Biden wins [in 2020], his VP wins next [in 2024] but loses in 2028.
• In 2036 or later in all other cases.”

This is a depressing article. Neuberger is, with good reason, a pessimist. Here’s what he says: “In other words, unless the Democratic Party becomes suddenly anti-neoliberal, the answer to our initial question—What’s the earliest a progressive Democrat can be elected president?–is Never or Too Late.” But why the pessimism? Why would it be too late? The answer lies in a political cartoon that appears in both versions of the article.

The cartoon depicts a small island on which someone says, “Be sure to wash your hands and all will be well.” About to crash on the island are three successive waves, any one of which will swamp the island. Each wave is massively larger than the one preceding it. The first wave is labeled “COVID 19,” the second is labeled “Recession,” and the third is labeled “Climate Change.” The carton suggests that the island will not survive.

The unstated premise in all of this is something the reader knows; that some experts say that we have only ten or twelve years in which to solve the problem of global warming or else it will be too late. Twelve years from 2024 is 2036. So Neuberger’s pessimistic conclusion is supported by the idea that a progressive Democrat will not be elected in time to prevent utter catastrophe.

Now some people, further left on the political spectrum than Neuberger, might think he’s being over optimistic. Why do we think a progressive Democratic President will take the necessary radical action? The term “progressive” is vague. But Neuberger explains what he means: “…a true progressive president, a real FDR, an unbought, skillful champion of the people who ‘welcomes the hatred’ of the rich and destructive and means it. Not a pretender; the real thing.” Some on the left will say that if we look at the role of progressive Democrats in passing the economic reform legislation in response to the COVID-19 crisis; they have not, with the exception of Pramila Jayapal, acquitted themselves well. But I have focused on the environmental issue and some progressive Democrats are making bold proposals with regard to environmental remedies. Let’s put aside leftist objections to Neuberger’s faith in progressive Democrats. Let’s beg all questions in Neuberger’s favor. We will assume that a progressive Democratic president is just what we need.

So we now need a progressive Democratic president. But after reading Neuberger’s depressing conclusion my eyes were focused on the line showing the the solution may come as soon as 2024. All that takes is Biden losing in 2020! So then why wouldn’t all enlightened voters, whatever their political views; conservative, centrist, liberal, socialist, communist, anarchist, whatever, vote for Trump? I may not be in the same political space Neuberger is in, but I think he’s raised some good points. To the extent Neuberger’s article has validity, I think it shows that voting for Trump is a lesser evil than voting for Biden.

I will now consider two objections to the thesis that voting for Trump is the lesser evil. The first has been raised by two friends.

The first objection arises from the view of Trump as agent of the Götterdämmerung. The idea is that Trump will become a dictator and so there won’t be an election in 2024. That results in an objection because if Trump becomes “president” in perpetuity, then there will be no action on global warming to prevent the third wave from crashing on the island. There will not be action within the ten to twelve years remaining to stave off catastrophe.

I’ve encountered two versions of the view that Trump is an agent of the Götterdämmerung. The strongest version of the view is simply irrelevant to the issue of lesser-of-two-evils voting. The strong view claims that there will not even be an election in 2020. That’s because Trump will postpone the election based on a claim of some emergency. Another variation of the view is that Trump will allow the election but declare it invalid on the basis of vote tampering by the Democrats if Biden receives more votes. Under either of these two scenarios whom one votes for, or wants to vote for, doesn’t matter. For that reason lesser-of-two-evils theory doesn’t come into play in a meaningful way.

So the objection to my argument is that there is an election in 2020, Trump wins the election, but then sometime between 2020 and 2024 establishes a dictatorship. In an argument with a friend holding the strong view of Trump as agent of the Götterdämmerung I suggested that a dictatorship was not plausible because the highest ranking members of the military probably took their oaths to the constitution seriously. My suggestion was shrugged off. But recent public statements by ex-generals in response to Trump’s threat to use the military to quell civilian riots suggests that the highest ranking members of the military do take seriously their oaths to support the constitution. So if Trump wants to establish a dictatorship, it’s not clear where the power to do so will come from.

The second objection has to do with the courts, especially the Supreme Court. The objection is that Biden is the lesser evil because if Trump is elected he and Mitch McConnell will continue appointing right-wing judges. The result will be the the Supreme Court will nullify any reforms adopted under a future progressive Democratic president and Congress. The court will do this by maintaining the notions that corporations are persons and that property ownership is a form of liberty. If remedial legislation to protect the environment sufficiently interferes with a corporation’s use of property, then the corporation’s liberty has been infringed. Therefore, the legislation is unconstitutional. The effect will be to delay action on the environment until it is too late.

If this objection is valid, then I acknowledge that it refutes the argument that Trump is the lesser evil. But it also fails to show that Biden is the lesser evil. That’s because of what Neuberger’s analysis shows; time is running out. Thus if the objection refutes the claim that Trump is the lesser evil, it also undermines the relevance of the lesser-of-two-evils theory to the upcoming election. That’s because both candidates present such an existential threat to life on the planet that lesser-of-two-evils theory does not determine who to vote for.

Correction (6 August 2020): At that time the Republican candidate was George W. Bush. I am confident that this person probably backed off his claim, and voted for Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump on a lesser-of-two-evils theory. Originally: At that time the Republican candidate was George W. Bush, Jr. [He wasn’t a Jr] I am confident that this person probably backed off his claim, and voted for Hillary Clinton on a lesser-of-two-evils theory.

Bob Scofield is a legal research and writing attorney who drafts briefs for California criminal defense attorneys. Read other articles by Bob.