The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s far-right extremism is driving his opponents to the far left

President Trump arrives to speak at a rally on June 27 in Fargo, N.D., to campaign for Kevin Cramer, a Republican Senate hopeful who is seeking to unseat Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp. (Jim Mone/AP)
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This week saw two epochal shifts in American politics. First, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old self-described “democratic socialist,” defeated in a primary Rep. Joseph Crowley, the No. 4 Democrat in the House. Second, and even more consequentially, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, allowing President Trump to appoint his successor. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was good news for liberals; Kennedy’s retirement good news for conservatives. For everyone else — for those of us trapped on the ever-shrinking island of centrism being eroded by overlapping tidal waves of extremism — this was a dark week indeed.

Ocasio-Cortez is undeniably a smart, energetic figure with an irresistible “David beats Goliath” narrative. She is also a Bernie Sanders follower who advocates a far-left agenda that includes free Medicare for all, canceling student debt, free public-college tuition, federally guaranteed jobs for all, “housing as a human right” (whatever that means), the phaseout of fossil fuels and the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). I’m as outraged as anyone about Trump’s barbarous immigration policies, but don’t we need someone to police our borders? Ocasio-Cortez never bothered to say what, if anything, would replace ICE. Nor did she ever come up with a plan for funding her liberal wish list.

The United States is already in a fiscal crisis, with federal debt as a percentage of GDP reaching the highest levels since World War II. If the Ocasio-Cortez approach is implemented, it will finish the job that Trump and the GOP have begun — of turning the United States into a fiscal basket case like Italy or Greece. Granted, Ocasio-Cortez will be only one junior member, but her victory, over a far more senior Democrat, is indicative of a broader shift to the left. A quarter of all Senate Democrats — including potential presidential contenders Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren — have endorsed Sanders’s Medicare for All plan, which is estimated to cost nearly $1.4 trillion annually.

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory shows that Democrats are fed up with Clinton-style triangulation. That trend was also evident in the furor among the grass roots against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for suggesting that harassing Trump Cabinet members may not be the most effective method of resistance. Trump’s far-right extremism is driving his opponents to the far left — and that trajectory is likely to be intensified if the president succeeds in replacing Kennedy with a far more conservative justice.

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Kennedy was a throwback to a kinder, gentler era of conservatism. He infuriated the far right by ruling in favor of abortion rights, affirmative action, habeas corpus rights for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and of course gay rights. From Romer v. Evans (1996), which overturned a law that discriminated against gays, to Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which established a right to marriage for same-sex couples, Kennedy was a pioneer in LGBTQ rights.

But Kennedy was no doctrinaire leftist. He also joined Justice Antonin Scalia’s ahistorical ruling, in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which held that the Second Amendment guaranteed a personal right to bear arms. In Citizens United v. FEC (2010), he wrote the opinion that overturned campaign spending limits on political advertising by corporations, unions and associations. And in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), he voted to overturn the individual mandate at the heart of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. In all but the latter case, Kennedy was in the majority. More than any justice since Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired in 2006, he was the swing vote that determined the court’s direction — sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right.

Kennedy’s ideological eclecticism was the bane of conservatives and liberals alike, each side getting mad at him every time he failed to hew to their agenda. Constitutional scholars were particularly frustrated at his seeming lack of a consistent judicial philosophy.

Now Trump will appoint a replacement who is likely to vote far more consistently with the court’s conservative bloc. For the right, this ushers in the long-awaited prospect of overturning hated decisions of the past — with the ultimate target being Roe v. Wade, which recognized a right to abortion. It tells you all you need to know about the court’s ideological trajectory that the new swing vote is likely to be Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who is far more conservative than Kennedy but who aggravated the right by refusing to overturn Obamacare. He was accused by conservative activists of “judicial activism,” when in fact he was showing judicial restraint.

Restraint is, of course, the cardinal sin for partisans of both sides. Extremism was already on the rise before Trump, but he has turbocharged it. With his reactionary agenda and his unhinged attacks on Democrats as traitors and criminals, he is ushering in the rise of a new class of radicals who will play by his rules. The loser will be the few remaining Americans who still believe in old-fashioned ideals such as bipartisanship, civility, compromise and moderation.