Update (Friday, 5.27): Well, so much for that. As I alluded to toward the end of this piece, Trump could always just back out of a debate with Sanders because, well, aside from hurting Clinton there's nothing personally for him to gain by taking on someone he doesn't absolutely have to. That's exactly what he's done, changing his mind and saying no to any face-off with Sanders. In doing so, he surprisingly both fed Sanders's ego and poured cold water all him, saying that although "Crooked Hillary and Debbie Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win," Sanders isn't, in fact, going to win. So Trump says he won't debate "the second place finisher."
Here's a badly kept secret in politics: the political spectrum isn't a straight line. The far-right and far-left, counterintuitively, have never been the diametric opposites of one another. At best, the scope of belief in politics has looked, as a prominent theory in political science states, more like a horseshoe, with the center being the top of the arc while the ends loop around at the bottom and come close together without actually meeting. Throughout history, there have been fundamental differences between the left and right that kept that from happening -- that kept the fringes safely apart -- but over the past several years something has changed. While there are still matters of policy and the role of government on which the far left and right disagree, their common enemy and the way in which they approach the change they seek have brought them together. The fringes now have more in common than they do dividing them. In essence, they're now practically indistinguishable from each other. The horseshoe has become a circle.
So maybe it's fitting, the perfect embodiment of that closing of the spectrum, that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders -- the standard-bearers for the political fringes -- may very well meet on a debate stage at some point in the near future. Last night, during his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, we heard Trump take to the idea of debating Sanders, given that Hillary Clinton has rejected the notion of a tenth debate with him as she has nothing at all to gain from it at this point. (She's going to secure the Democratic nomination; it's all but mathematically impossible for Sanders to catch her, particularly since Nate Silver gives her a 97% chance of winning the final primary in California on June 7th.) It goes without saying that, as he has nothing to lose and continues to be determined to stick a thumb in the eye of the Democrats, Sanders went right to Twitter to agree to the debate. Should it happen it will be completely unprecedented: a presumptive nominee from one party facing off against a mere candidate who's assuredly not going to be the nominee from another party. To call what Trump and particularly Sanders are doing here impudent is an understatement.
Still, while it's a surprise at face value, in an election season that's felt like nothing but surprises, it's hard to be too shocked at the prospect of a Trump/Sanders debate. Both candidates have nothing in the way of respect or loyalty to their parties -- with Sanders increasingly showing utter contempt for the Democrats -- and both command the hearts and minds of fan bases that are not simply devoted but howling, rage-filled, thoroughly irrational, racist and misogynist, and prone to wild conspiracy theories. Sanders claims to believe that Clinton on her worst day is better than a President Trump, but recently, as his presidential aspirations have withered and died, he's become more and more combative against Clinton's alleged character flaws. And he's done absolutely nothing to quell the delusional vitriol of his disciples, who threaten on a regular basis to embrace Trump before voting for Clinton. Hell, he won't even correct a close surrogate like Susan Sarandon when she makes the irresponsible and painfully privileged claim that Donald Trump in the White House would "hasten the revolution." Sanders's most vocal supporters don't see Trump as a threat. They see him as a tool -- as, astonishingly, the lesser of two evils when compared against the Great Corporatist Satan Hillary Clinton.
Why Trump would agree to debate Sanders is crystal clear and barely requires expounding on. While he's called Sanders "Crazy Bernie" more than once on the nonstop stream of digital diarrhea that is his Twitter feed, he's also taken a savvy cue from the Republican party he's now the de facto leader of and has boasted about how much he respects him. He does this for the same reason he claims to be more than happy to face off against Sanders in public: he wants to sow discord among the Democrats and make life as hard as possible for the person he's actually going to face in November -- Hillary Clinton. The Republicans have, on the record at least, remained silent on Sanders because they'd much rather run against him than Clinton. Clinton they've exhausted nearly every possible attack against over 25 years, to no avail -- which is why Trump now has to resort to bringing up conspiracy theories from the 90s in an attempt to land a blow -- but Sanders is fresh meat. More than that, he's an avowed socialist with a radical past they'd have a spontaneous mass orgasm to be able to terrify the American public with in a vicious and coordinated attack campaign.
But Sanders -- why he's agreeing to this farce inadvertently speaks volumes about his mindset in the final days of his campaign. Only arrogance, a profound desire to hurt Clinton, or simply a lack of concern either way would lead him to play into the hands of Trump and the Republicans by stepping on a stage and allowing himself to be used as a weapon against Trump's eventual opponent -- the only thing standing between him and the White House. If what we'd witness in a Trump/Sanders face-off was, at the very least, Trump going up against a Democrat who would defend not only his own ideals but the party's ideals and its best interests, then maybe that would be one thing. But at this point it's almost impossible to imagine Sanders defending Clinton from what would surely be a flurry of insults from Trump. In fact, it's way too easy to imagine moments of chumminess in which Trump and Sanders team up to tag-team Clinton, with her of course not there to defend herself. Trump's goal here would be to hurt Clinton. And if very recent history is any indication, Sanders would be a willing accomplice in helping him reach it.
How do we know Clinton would be the mutual target in a Trump/Sanders debate? Because before this thing was even birthed officially in the public consciousness on Kimmel, increasingly unhinged Sanders superfan Cenk Uygur was already in the early stages of trying to sponsor just such a match-up. And Uygur is the living embodiment of the maniacal mind of Sanders's zombie horde -- filled to the very brim with conspiracy theories, outrageously delusional presumptions and, of course, an irrational hatred of Hillary Clinton. It's certainly possible for Uygur's Young Turks network to carry the debate, but if it genuinely does come to fruition it's unlikely. An unsanctioned presidential debate between these two would be a ratings bonanza and it's difficult to imagine a major network not wanting to get in on the action. The only way the DNC or RNC could stop it would be to threaten access and, well, the contest has already been decided so there's little leverage at this point. Whether either organization will in fact sanction such an event should it come to that is anyone's guess.
But there is one more thing to consider here. Donald Trump could always refuse to follow through with a debate with Sanders and he could do it for the same reason Clinton sees no need to debate Sanders: because there's no immediate benefit to his presidential campaign. Trump is already the presumptive nominee so he has little to gain other than potentially hurting his opponent. Why face down someone he doesn't absolutely have to? Well, again, to cause trouble and hurt Clinton. That's a pretty big carrot on a stick. But there's an argument to be made that he wins either way. If he debates Sanders and holds his own, he sticks it to Clinton; if he backs out, he makes Sanders -- a guy he's not going to face in November -- look fearsome, which once again sticks it to Clinton. The latter move would whip Sanders's most fanatical supporters into a frenzy that may carry not only to the convention but through it, causing a potentially debilitating headache for Clinton and the Democrats all along the way. Any of these possibilities is why Sanders should have stayed away from this: because no matter what happens, he risks helping the Republicans. But Sanders has proven that he just doesn't care about that anymore. It's all about him, his ego and his own pettiness at this point.
As for Hillary Clinton herself, well, in a sane world her willingness to stay far above the fray and let this circus sideshow go on without her would be hugely beneficial to her. It would make her appear not only presidential but like the only adult in the room in this campaign. But who knows? As this election season has shown us, we're not living in a sane world anymore. And like the circle that's now the political spectrum, it just keeps spinning round and round.