If Sean Penn Were the Democratic Nominee

Imagining a world where the wackadoo candidate is in the other party.


Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images.

Republicans have faced an excruciating choice in 2016: Get behind their own party’s mortifying nominee or cede the White House to a deeply despised rival.

It’s an easy call from the left side of the fence. Democrats are baffled when seemingly sane conservatives like Paul Ryan and John McCain promise to vote for the GOP’s loony new standard-bearer. We tut-tut. We roll our eyes. We s our gdhs.

But confronted with the same dilemma, I wonder how the left would respond. If a dopey populist surge somehow contrived to foist a wackadoo lefty nominee on the American electorate, how many of my fellow Democrats would feel obliged, for the sheer safety of the nation, to vote for an especially hated but well-qualified right-wing opponent? And how many would swallow hard and climb on board with the wackadoo?

Or, as Ross Douthat put it Monday morning:

Neither party has a monopoly on shortsighted, tribal behavior. It’s not difficult to envision Democrats supporting an absurd candidate out of inane partisanship or in hopes (even gossamer hopes) of a precious November win. Do you doubt me?

Let’s posit a Donald Trump of the left: a radical celebrity, with no prior political experience, who tosses his hat into the Democratic ring. Could be Kanye West, or Ben from Ben and Jerry’s. But for the sake of this exercise, let’s say it’s Sean Penn. Join me in a thought experiment that imagines Spicoli as Democratic nominee.

It’s a sunny Cesar Chavez Day at the beginning of our pretend election cycle. Mr. Penn has ventured far inland from Malibu, California, trailed by a teeming press pack, and is now standing with grave symbolic intent amid a field of budding artichokes. He kneels to pluck one from the earth, holds it aloft, and declares, in that raspy SoCal drawl, that his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s nomination will be dedicated to the migrants. To the pickers. To la raza. To the unions, the underprivileged, the 99 percent. Penn’s glamorous actress paramour stands beaming by his side as the cameras click.

Penn’s campaign launch meets with amused chuckles within the Democratic Party establishment. He’s a sideshow. A man whose most recent accomplishment is a voice role in The Angry Birds Movie. A man who’s attacked the media—with actual fists! A man who expressed heartfelt fondness for Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and empathy for Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo. Penn brings star power to the process, but no one thinks he’ll get anywhere. So the Democratic National Committee holds its tongue.

It quickly becomes clear that a certain Bernie-ish swath of primary voters can’t get enough of Penn. He rants about social justice issues with a raw ferocity that packaged liberal politicians never quite muster. He rips into right-wing enemies with salty language and palpable anger. He’s a loose cannon on Twitter and seems nigh incorruptible. He commands the stage at large rallies, where folks come out just to see a Hollywood celeb. Over the summer and into the fall, he soars in the polls. Still, no one takes any of that seriously. It’s Sean Penn, after all.

The debates begin. Penn’s performance exposes policy ignorance, an unwillingness to do his homework, and a general dimness swirled with arrogance. But there he is, always at the center of the stage, always getting the most attention, fighting with the moderators. To his supporters, he can do no wrong. They point to his humanitarian work after Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake. They argue that the pseudo-journalistic trips he took to Pakistan and Iran constitute foreign policy experience.

And then the bomb drops: Penn wins Iowa. He’s on his way.

Stop here, my Democrat friends, and ask yourself how you’d react. Would you willingly cede the White House to, say, Ted Cruz if it meant keeping Sean Penn away from the levers of power? Or would you consider voting for Cruz just to stop Penn?

I’ve been posing this very question to my own friends, of late. Most scoff, arguing it’s a faulty analogy. Their initial objections break down like this:

  1. Penn (or a similar Trump of the left) would be nothing like Trump, in that there would be none of the racism, the appeal to ethno-nationalism, or the authoritarian overtones.

    My response: Sure, the outrageousness might take a different form, but I can actually envision a Penn platform offering plenty of “deal-breakers”—mooted and then walked back and then mooted again, in a Trumpian manner. Maybe he reiterates his respect for Hugo Chavez and declares there’s much we could learn from the way he ran Venezuela. Maybe he vows to disarm all U.S. police forces.

    I can also envision similar character questions. Maybe our fictional Penn defends punching reporters and says he’d do it again. Maybe he talks about how he’d like to lynch Lloyd Blankfein, including a vivid description of the act. Would that be enough for you to abandon your own party’s nominee?
  2. But Ted Cruz is not like Hillary Clinton. Cruz is an extremist! Hillary’s a moderate! Of course I’d vote for Mitt Romney/John Kasich if he were up against Sean Penn, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger for Ted Cruz.

    My response: I’ve had several Republican friends say they could vote for Joe Biden, but they simply can’t cast a vote for Hillary Clinton. To them, she is a bridge too far. She represents everything that’s wrong with the left. The analogy is fair, when viewed through the eyes of a Republican voter.

And here’s where my friends really do themselves in. They start saying things like, “OK, but I am confident that Sean Penn would surround himself with people I trust more than the people Ted Cruz would surround himself with.” Or: “I’m not sure how much power the president really has. He’d just be a figurehead.” Or: “But I would have to vote for him because of the Supreme Court—I just can’t let Ted Cruz appoint any justices.” They can’t even hear themselves making the exact same excuses that Republicans have been making for supporting Trump.

I’m sure plenty of smart Democratic pundits would recognize the danger of electing someone like Penn, and publicly say so, just as some smart Republicans are doing. But people at the DNC might hope they could control Penn and might stick by him for “the good of the party.” Harry Reid would no doubt come out as a Penn-backer. Al Gore might see a chance to become relevant again. Cory Booker might do anything in hopes of securing a VP nomination.

Penn would have no experience. He’d have huge knowledge gaps and would be incompetent at the work of governing. His self-assurance in the face of his own ignorance would be galling. And yet, I’m not so sure that would be enough to turn the party apparatus against him.

The Bernie Sanders movement revealed a profound level of dissatisfaction within the Democratic ranks and a willingness to roll the dice with a nontraditional, more radical leader. The DNC effectively quashed this revolt, as the WikiLeaks dump demonstrated. But anyone watching the convention in Philadelphia could see that lefty anger has not been fully doused. Or, put in terms you’ll recognize from this election cycle: The party establishment paved the way for Penn to happen.

Read more Slate coverage on the 2016 campaign.