In 1941, journalist Dorothy Parker suggested a gruesome parlor game you could play at your next dinner party, which she called “Who Goes Nazi?” As this game was supposed to be played before anyone knew what Hitler himself would go on to do, Parker clearly meant the “born Nazi” epithet as a standard political jab rather than the over-the-top insult it has become. And for that reason, the methodology with which she judged her various dinner party companions and found them worthy (or not) of the “Nazi” designation could be readily appropriated for modern usage, provided it was used to compare them to less insane people.
And given that there are at least two candidates, one in each party, presently being likened to fascists, it only makes sense to try to do so now, by asking a similar, but more modern and different question: If the 2016 election were between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, as it now appears it could be, who would go Sanders, and who would go Trump?
Especially if you live in the sort of place where politics get discussed constantly, this can be an entertaining game to play with your friends, and I invite you to try it, with the following hypothetical group of “guests” as example starting points, who I will attempt to describe in the best imitation of the style of Dorothy Parker that I can.
Start with Mr. A, the tall, athletic man standing in the corner making good humored but risqué jokes. Mr. A, if accused of being a Republican, will tell you all too quickly that he is a very moderate one, as most such graduates of Ivy League schools will. He is more of the party of Abraham Lincoln than Ronald Reagan, despises all retrograde politics and demagoguery, and wishes that Mitch Daniels had decided to run in 2012. He works in finance, and like many financiers, has more than once contemplated crossing over to vote for Hillary Clinton due to her friendliness with Wall Street. Furthermore, he is comfortable with mild forms of identity politics because he sees it as a form of protection against those who would harm him for his sexual orientation (he is gay). He is in every way the perfect form of what many Trump voters regard as the enemy.
Yet I will hang myself if he wouldn’t join them in pulling the lever for Trump, if it were between him and Sanders. He might grumble about staying home, to be sure, but if it were a real contest, I suspect he wouldn’t bring himself to deliver.
Why? Because Mr. A, above all else, is a creature of business. His financial background requires it. He would not be able to bring himself to believe that someone with the financial interests of Donald Trump could really believe all those crazy things he says. He would see Trump as merely a dishonest, used car salesman applying his craft to politics, and because he is used to people trying to manipulate markets with disinformation, he would have no difficulty in rationalizing Trump’s behavior as just good business. Sanders, on the other hand, clearly has the fire of a true believer, and his refusal to listen to pragmatism in favor of ideology would terrify Mr. A. This is because Sanders’ consistency, even to the point of self-immolation, is not something Mr. A can wrap his mind around. If an idea cannot be useful, to his mind, it must be discarded. Trump’s grab bag approach to issues reflects this mindset. Sanders never can.
Most importantly, however, Trump judges himself against a standard of victory. He desires to achieve returns on his policies. He is obsessed with “winning,” or in drier terms, being maximally efficient. Mr. A, who could no more choose to be inefficient than he could choose not to breathe, and who aspires to one day be able to make decisions at the level Trump regularly does, can grudgingly respect this. He may not like Trump’s political platform, or his tactics, or his supporters, but he can’t argue with his results. And because he wants America to be a country where results matter, he will vote for the man who cares only about them before he votes for the man who wants to ignore them entirely.
The gregarious Mr. B, who is presently chatting to a score of ladies, is another matter entirely. Mr. B is alike to Mr. A in almost every way – both are moderate Republicans, both are businessmen, both are Ivy Leaguers, and both strenuously deplore extremism. But there is a key difference between them: Mr. A has never known social insecurity. Mr. B knows it intimately because of his upbringing. He has known poverty both financial and social, and the slings and arrows of people who regard themselves as his betters always sting. Mr. A is a moderate because he regards principles as tools to be used for success. Mr. B is a moderate because he regards pragmatism as a shield against rejection; a means to fly above the fray and to avoid getting trampled by partisan hordes. Women both liberal and conservative alike tumble into bed with him, but they rarely stay. They can sense his fundamental discomfort with who he is, and they sense that behind his always carefully considered words there is a radical lack of identity.
Mr. B, if pushed, will go for Sanders over Trump. He will cast it as a show of high-minded courage: a refusal to be compliant with the backwardness of his own party. He will say that the GOP needs to lose to socialists in order to realize that it has lost its way. He knows he will not be contradicted. But in truth, he will go for Sanders because Trump represents everything he hates others for lording over him: wealth, assertiveness, self-knowledge. Sanders will punish people like Trump. Mr. B likes the thought of that, even if he knows it’s impractical. But most of all, like Sanders, he is defined by what he is not: not rich, not confrontational, not sexually domineering,and above all, not extreme. Sanders is also not these things, at least not in his presentation, and what’s more, he promises to tear down those who are. Mr. B can easily cloak this desire to destroy as high-minded virtue if he has to, but he can’t turn away from it. And if Sanders represents anything, he represents insecurity and envy cloaked with virtue.
The impeccably dressed Mr. C, who is talking animatedly to anyone who’ll listen, would probably already be working for Trump, given the chance. Like Mr. B, Mr. C knows social insecurity, poverty, and want, but unlike Mr. B, Mr. C has responded to it not by avoiding confrontation, but by relishing it. Everything about Mr. C is an implicit challenge to others. He shows off his good tastes, for example, merely to illustrate that his bad tastes are an intentional choice. He cannot bear to be thought accidentally virtuous or evil: he is determined that every ounce of kindness he shows be seen as a conscious allowance, and every drop of malice be seen as a purposeful thumb in someone’s eye.
His politics are, in substance, only a hair off from Mr. B and Mr. A, but in style, they are like night and day. He delights in the snarled epithet, the cutting insult, the cruel joke that is just ironic enough to be brushed off as kidding, but just on the nose enough to make you feel guilty for laughing. He is defined by what he despises, and what he despises is anything that permits even the slightest show of weakness. Trump he regards as an antidote to the implicit compassion of social conservatism, which is why he would pull the lever for Hillary Clinton if forced to choose between her and, say, Ben Carson. But Sanders he regards as subhuman: a delusional madman trying to steal every pearl from every oyster in order to cast them before every pig. He would rather vote for a Christian than Sanders: at least the Christian might hate someone weaker.
However, Mr. C’s bluster and sadism mask a deep-seated loathing of the weakness he believes lies at the core of his being, and which he has tried to deny every day of his life. Like Mr. B, he is voting for the man he sees himself in. Unlike Mr. B, who is voting for what he really is, Mr. C is voting for the man who is not all the things he aspires to not be.
Mr. D is also a natural Trump supporter, though you’d never know it from his politics, as Mr. D is one of the lifelong Democrats in the room. But when you listen to the barbs he trades with Mr. C, you can tell they’re kindred souls simply wearing different colors. Mr. D is a man with military tastes who’s always regarded himself as a warrior first, and a thinker second. His affiliation with Democrats is born of tribal loyalty rather than conscious thought. When he began thinking politically, he saw Democrats as strong, upstart rebels against a weak, craven, and hypocritical authority – a quality he has never been able to shed, even after time in the army. He pulled the lever for Barack Obama twice because both times, Obama was the nastier candidate, the more confrontational candidate, the more warlike, tribal candidate.
But these days, Mr. D senses that the tribe the Democrats represent is no longer his tribe. For him, the punch throwing, hard drinking, union boss style approach that red state Democrats have has always been what attracted him to the party. But as he watches the rise of the crybully Social Justice Warriors, with their insistence that weak, even parasitic groups must be treated with kindness because of their lack of privilege, he sees not plucky rebels against authority but instead simply the same sanctimonious hypocrisy that he has so long perceived in the Religious Right, and particularly the pro-life movement. He did not fight and kill for America to see it turned into a community of limp-wristed metrosexuals who treat their tears as a passport to unlimited moral dessert. For him, the Democratic Party has always represented the struggle of the working man to pull himself up, if not by his bootstraps, then by the arms of a government that acts the way his training buddies did in Boot Camp. In Trump, he sees that same willingness to pull the deserving up and leave the weak to pack their things and go home.
Unlike Mr. C, who is a raw Darwinist, Mr. D tempers that instinct with a sense of communitarianism. But the Darwinism is still in the driver’s seat. He knows America must be fit to survive before it has the luxury of being kind. Sanders, in his mind, gets this completely backwards, and Trump does not. Mr. D would like to be kind, magnanimous, and good to those he loves, but he knows that first he must have the strength to be so. Trump embodies that strength he has fought to attain, and as such, he will vote for him to act as America’s drill sergeant.
Ms. E would go for Sanders like a moth to a flame, though that statement would shock you if you knew her. After all, Ms. E is one of the most fierce Republican partisans in the room, and her name can be attached to any number of Leftist bogeymen. Nevertheless, Ms. E would never – ever – vote for Trump. She would vote for literally anyone else. And that includes Sanders.
The reason is complicated, but worth unpacking, as most people no doubt know someone like Ms. E. You see, while she claims to be a Republican, for Ms. E, this has always been a matter of promoting propriety, not freedom. Mrs. E would never admit it, but actually, the idea of freedom – which is to say, the absence of restraints – frightens her beyond words. She wants the state to move back only so that the conformism of churches, country clubs, and ladies’ societies can flourish. Her capacity to police the social proprieties of her peers would make Inspector Javert envious, and she prides herself on domesticating even the most brutish nonconformist with a mixture of kindness and passive aggression. She rolls her eyes at people like Mr. C and Mr. D, whose shows of cruelty she finds gauche and frustrating, even as she secretly is lured by the inherent dominance they project. But because she knows them, she feels safe around them. She thinks she could rein them in.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, offends Mrs. E as much as he would any hardened socialist. But where socialists revile Trump for what they think of as his antisocial wealth, Mrs. E reviles his antisocial big personality. It is no secret to her that Trump has achieved his success by constantly flouting and even mocking the conventions of politeness in media, politics, and society. Because of this, to her, he is an ape among men: a subhuman savage who needs to be put down – or rather, put in his place – as fiercely as possible. In her mind, no man can ever be big enough to be above social convention, and thus, no man can be permitted to think himself so big.
In other words, she disagrees with Sanders’ choice of mechanism, but not with his essential conclusion: All men are created equal and should stay that way, whether in the eyes of the state, or the eyes of society. Any tree that tries to grow above – which is to say, against -- the rest of the forest must be pruned until it changes course. She doesn’t agree with what Sanders wants to punish about men like Trump, but she agrees with the spirit of his punitive policies, and that matters more than its target.
Ms. E does not know it, but she has an ally in this regard in the person of probably the most supposedly liberal person in the room: Mr. F. However, you would never catch Mr. F and Ms. E agreeing about anything else, as Mr. F’s entire existence to this point has been a flight from the social conventions that have stunted his maturation due to their inability to cope with his homosexuality. In this respect, he has much in common with Mr. A, Mr. B, and Mr. C. After all, the former is also gay, and the latter two have also experienced total social rejections. But unlike Mr. A, whose sexuality has been permitted to be an afterthought compared with his facility with numbers and logic, Mr. F’s sexuality has colored most of his interactions with the world due to the conservative culture he has only recently escaped.
Perhaps because he has not been allowed to move past the moment when puberty cursed him with being a pariah, Mr. F also represents a road not taken for Mr. B, and Mr. C, the former of whom dealt with social rejection by growing to seem above it, and the latter of whom dealt with it by growing to seem twice as cruel as those who rejected him. Mr. F, by contrast, has dealt with it by not growing at all. His mind has sharpened, but his emotions are, charitably speaking, stuck at 15. What’s more, having to constantly find ways to escape censure by the ruthlessly legalistic culture he comes from, he has become accustomed to shooting holes in the visions or ideas of others, no matter how irrelevant or tangential, as a means of asserting himself. For him, a show of dominance is inextricable from tearing something down using its own rules. He cannot aspire to something without also wanting to destroy something else. And because he thinks himself a victim, with all the unguarded passion of a permanently adolescent heart, he wants nothing more than to destroy all those who have victimized him.
The ironic thing is that he might vote for Trump, if Trump acted like a vicious queen instead of the unrepentant alpha male caricature he actually presents. But as it stands, Trump represents the traditional masculinity whose absence in Mr. F has been responsible for so much of his persecution. To see Trump brought low would be to see the ideals of the culture he came from, in their most bullying form, also brought low. Sanders, meanwhile, appeals to the adolescent in Mr. F on every level, with his promises of a world that is universally fair and universally kind, most of all to downtrodden victims, and least of all to big, powerful, forceful bullies. Sanders will reward Mr. F’s hidden yearning to belong someplace – a yearning he believes cannot be fulfilled unless all those places he doesn’t belong are destroyed and brought into line first.
In short, like many Leftist adolescents, Mr. F believes you cannot comfort the afflicted without afflicting the comfortable twice as hard. He could no more vote for a man as comfortable in his own skin as Donald Trump than he could surrender his sense of grievance at his upbringing. And why should he? Sanders offers a government that will behave like the parent every damaged adolescent secretly dreams of: a government that constantly hands out gifts and affirmation, while demanding nothing in return, and always beating up anyone who might take the goodies away.
I could go on, but really, in describing this hypothetical gathering of friends, I am aiming to do more than simply taxonomize the people you might run into at your next dinner party, though I’m sure everyone in DC, at least, will be able to recognize these traits in at least someone they know. Rather, what I am aiming to demonstrate is what I believe a hypothetical Trump vs Sanders race would ultimately come down to, and it is simply this:
Those who aspire to become something greater, even if getting there requires amorality (like Mr. A), cruelty (like Mr. C), or brutishness (like Mr. D), will vote for Trump. Those who wish to tear other people down, whether out of frustrated ambition (like Mr. B), desire for harmony (like Mrs. E), or desperation for justice (like Mr. F), will go for Sanders.
They are, in other words, the perfect microcosm of the choice America could face this coming November: A choice between an architect who builds and dreams, and a one-man wrecking crew bent on destroying and punishing his enemies. Which you choose will depend entirely on whether you want to risk the country becoming garish, coarse, and cruel in the name of greatness, or if you want to risk the country becoming illiberal, vengeful, and petty in the name of utopia.