Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally on Jan. 21, 2024 in Rochester, N.H.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

American presidential elections are binary. Either a Democrat or a Republican wins. Nobody else.

The 2024 presidential election will be between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. No matter how much Americans may wish for other candidates, that’s the choice.

Third-party candidates don’t win, can’t win; they only steal votes from the mainstream Republican or Democratic candidate with whom they are most closely aligned. They help the candidate at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

This year, progressives who vote for a third-party candidate, or don’t vote at all, are really voting for Trump.

In 1992, Ross Perot ran one of the most significant third-party campaigns in American history, winning nearly 20 percent of the vote. The Dallas entrepreneur campaigned as a folksy populist conservative, a slightly crazy-sounding fiscal and trade hawk with a billionaire business resume — sort of a precursor to Trump but without the racism, fascism, and criminality. Perot took millions of votes from disaffected Republicans angered by President George H.W. Bush’s willingness to compromise with congressional Democrats on taxes. When Bush ran for president in 1988, one of his key campaign pledges had been not to raise taxes; his reversal once he was in office fueled Perot’s rise. Perot’s strong showing in 1992 ensured the election of Bill Clinton, returning the Democrats to the White House for the first time since Jimmy Carter.

I covered Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign for the Los Angeles Times, and the experience convinced me that third-party candidates launch what they know are futile presidential bids to satisfy their egos or because they harbor grudges against one of the major candidates and hope to damage their campaigns.

In Perot’s case, it was both. He had a massive ego. I saw that side of him during one interview over lunch, when I challenged one of his false assertions about his business background. Perot stared at me in fury and then took out his wallet, slammed it on the table, and loudly said that he would bet all the money in it that he was right. I laughed and told him that I didn’t have as much money as he did.  

Another key driving factor for Perot was his bitter hatred of Bush and the Bush family, who he saw as rich northern carpetbaggers and not real Texans. Throughout the campaign, Perot spouted strange conspiracy theories about Bush and other Republican officials.

Perot ended his presidential bid abruptly in July 1992, just when he was starting to come under real scrutiny. He weirdly restarted his campaign in October, in time to join the televised presidential debates. At almost every turn, Perot’s actions helped Clinton; he quit the race just as the successful Democratic National Convention in New York was ending, stunning the nation and solidifying Clinton’s standing as the only alternative to Bush. When Perot got back into the race in October, he kept Bush from regaining momentum. Perot ran again in 1996 with less success, but still hurt Republican nominee Bob Dole.

A MAGA Dark Age

None of the third-party candidates this year are likely to come close to Perot’s 1992 vote total, but it is possible that a combination of left-wing votes for third-party candidates and low voter turnout among young progressives because of an antipathy to Biden could damage the Democratic incumbent in a handful of critical states and doom his reelection bid. That would put Trump back in the White House.

So, just to be clear: A progressive who doesn’t vote, or who votes in the general election for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or Cornel West or Jill Stein — or whoever No Labels puts up as a candidate — is voting for Donald Trump.

A Trump presidency means the return of a vengeful maniac to the White House, determined to destroy anyone who gets in the way of his lust for power and ambition to become an American dictator. It means the ascendancy of a deranged MAGA Republican agenda, more vicious and poisonous than ever before, an agenda that will usher in a dark age for the United States.

That agenda would likely bring major wars abroad and cultural fundamentalism at home. MAGA-world wants wars with China and Mexico. Trump and his backers would undoubtedly support the complete Israeli takeover of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the dislocation of millions of Palestinians. He would endorse a Russian victory by cutting off U.S. aid to Ukraine; a U.S. withdrawal from Europe would likely follow, along with a Russian invasion of the Baltic states.

Despite acknowledging that it would be bad politics, Trump would almost certainly support a complete, nationwide ban on abortion and probably also endorse Christian fundamentalist demands to ban contraceptives, along with nationwide book bans. His aides are already on record calling for the creation of concentration camps for immigrants, while he has made it clear he wants to prosecute and imprison his political opponents, journalists, and other dissidents.

As president, he would name hundreds of more judges who would eagerly bring about the end of voting rights for minorities. And of course, Trump would pick up where he left off during his last term and loot the government’s coffers. The twice-impeached, four-times-indicted Trump is already vowing to politicize the Justice Department to escape his myriad legal troubles. America will be subjected to a government in the thrall of White Christian nationalists, who don’t believe in the separation of church and state.

Above all, Trump is clearly unfit for the presidency, or any leadership role. He constantly spews threats and hate on social media. Many of his former advisers now agree that he shouldn’t be in a position to give orders to the U.S. national security apparatus.

They are right. Trump poses an existential danger to the United States.

Progressives should not make the same mistake that Ernst Thälmann made in 1932. The leader of the German Communist Party, Thälmann saw mainstream liberals as his enemies, and so the center and left never joined forces against the Nazis. Thälmann famously said that “some Nazi trees must not be allowed to overshadow a forest” of social democrats, whom he sneeringly called “social fascists.”

After Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933, Thälmann was arrested. He was shot on Hitler’s orders in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944.

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