It’s a balmy June morning in 2018, and President Hillary Clinton fires up her tablet to find that a mysterious new candidate is running against her in the 2020 Democratic primary. Faced with domestic terror attacks and a government shutdown forced by congressional Republicans, Hillary has grown unpopular. Young voters want something fresh.
At noon, eccentric Texas billionaire and Shark Tank star Mark Cuban livestreams a press conference on YouTube and Snapchat. Wearing jeans and unpretentious Silicon Valley sneakers, Cuban lays out a platform for the 21st century — heavy investment in self-driving cars, private space travel and biotechnological human enhancement, the complete divestment of U.S. energy from foreign oil, and legalization of all drugs. After his speech, Cuban celebrates with his reality TV costar Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary, Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon and the Dallas Mavericks cheerleaders. Cuban is the number-one most Googled search term that evening; one week later, he leads Hillary among Democratic voters.
Sound crazy, liberals? If so, think again. What Donald J. Trump has done to the Republican Party could happen to the left, too, since Trump has demonstrated that the system that keeps unserious candidates away from American voters no longer works. Many of the same trends that helped Trump beat richer, more experienced rivals in the Republican primary have also powered upstart candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Barack Obama, who defeated a heavily favored Hillary Clinton in 2008 in part because he killed her in free media coverage and grassroots organization on social media.
Trump has been able to sell impossible fantasies to millions of Americans. The right popular liberal — Cuban, Stephen Colbert, Kanye West — could sell aspirational leftist dreams to millions, too. Anti-war activists sick of Hillary’s hard-nosed foreign policy might prop up a candidate who, like Trump, refuses to honor America’s commitment to defend NATO allies. A billionaire like Cuban could exploit the current obsession with tech. Or a socialist like Bernie Sanders could run on free public tuition and single-payer health care — remember, the Sanders plan would have added $21 trillion to the national debt in 10 years — and find them impossible to implement.
The reasons Trump won aren’t specific to conservative politics. No one has been able to hold Trump accountable for his errors and lies because his supporters read news sources that support their views. The same is true for the liberal echo chamber: Slate, Buzzfeed and John Oliver. Trump has used his name recognition and sensational headlines to draw attention from more-qualified, less interesting opponents. A figure like Cuban, who also built a brand as a savvy, charismatic businessman, could do the same.
The Trump campaign came wrapped in patriotism, the conservative civil religion. A liberal equivalent would play to the leftist religion: technological progress. To Americans sick of the government, the scientific genius and business acumen of an Elon Musk could qualify him for the presidency, especially if such a figure were willing to make Trump-sized promises about Mars settlements and virtual reality. (The South Africa-born Musk himself is ineligible.) Technology, to some on the left, is like the term America is to those on the right — they’ll trust a figure who successfully associates himself with it, and they’ll assume that only a subversive wouldn’t support it. The mainstream media may be no more able to stop such a candidate than they were able to stop Trump.
The problems with Hillary Clinton’s persona that have been masked by Trump’s near-complete failure to run a professional campaign will still be there if she becomes President. First-term Presidents tend to get less and less popular as the honeymoon period ends and the years go by. Remember, Obama swept into office with majorities in both houses of Congress and his approval rating was still in the upper thirties by his reelection campaign. He was a more charismatic, likable and talented politician than Hillary, too, and he made bigger promises: wouldn’t an unpopular Hillary Clinton be uniquely suited to a primary challenge from a dynamic opponent? Won’t disillusioned liberals want someone to tell them what they want to hear, too?
I like Mark Cuban, and I don’t think new ideas and fresh faces are always bad. But taking candidates with little to no actual experience seriously is a terrible idea. The least qualified presidents of the past typically had stronger resumés than you might think; Reagan, for instance, was a two-term governor. Don’t let a Trump loss give you the idea that your 2020 candidates will all be reasonable and qualified. Trump has shown ambitious egomaniacs and minor celebrities all over the country that the right media frenzy could propel nearly anyone towards the White House.
Liberals congratulating each other on the collapse of the Republican party are missing the big picture. In fact, progressives could fall for a charismatic celebrity candidate with big dreams, online support and a talent for making headlines, too. As we move (hopefully) into a post-Trump era, be careful who you support. The new media age isn’t ending soon. Don’t let the next Donald Trump be a Democrat.
Max Van Zile is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.