Anti-Trump conservatives have had the clarity to see that Donald Trump would make a very bad president, and to break with their team, often at some personal cost. I admire this.
But they have also spent an inordinate amount of time finding ways to assign blame for Trump’s rise to Democrats, rather than to the nominally conservative Republicans who voted for, endorsed, gave money to and campaigned for him.
One of the main arguments goes that Democrats cried wolf, attacking normal Republicans like 2008 nominee John McCain and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney in such vitriolic terms that voters do not believe them when they say Trump is different.
Charles Cooke of National Review argues:
“Donald Trump is a bad, bad man. But when a fine man such as Mitt Romney is given the Hitler treatment too, it becomes difficult for that message to resonate. As has been observed by men smarter than I, crying wolf has its drawbacks.”
First of all, this is a distortion of how Democrats talked about Romney in 2012. No, Democrats weren’t painting Romney as the reasonable, sober, moderate statesman they paint him as now. They were campaigning against him for president.
But who gave Romney “the Hitler treatment?”
Cooke points to an Atlantic article from spring 2012, discussing whether Obama could succeed in painting Romney as a radical on policy. Obama made very sharp attacks on eventual vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint and said Romney would try to implement it.
“They have proposed a budget so far to the right it makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal,” Obama was quoted as saying. “Disguised as deficit-reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country.”
You can debate whether “radical vision” is a fair description of the Ryan budget — which would have over time significantly restructured and reduced the generosity of programs including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, while sharply reducing taxes on high earners — but this description certainly does not constitute “the Hitler treatment.”
Cooke also complains that Democrats accused Marco Rubio of “racism” just as they have accused Donald Trump of racism. Who, exactly, called Marco Rubio a racist?
In fact, the Democratic attacks being leveled against Trump — that he is a self-confessed sexual abuser, that he degrades people on the basis of ethnicity and physical appearance and disability, that he is too erratic to command the world’s largest military — are categorically different from even the most vitriolic attacks against past Republican nominees.
There were no ads in 2012 warning that Romney might start a nuclear war or suggesting that he was an inappropriate role model for children. Not only is this time different, Democrats are also saying quite different things about their opponent than they said last time.
How does this represent crying wolf?
To be clear, I do not think all of the attacks on Republicans in past elections were fair, even though they were considerably less vitriolic than the ones that have been leveled against Trump.
“Binders full of women,” for example, was Romney’s awkward way of discussing his focus on gender diversity in hiring, not a way of reducing women to objects. The pile-on over this was silly.
The 2012 ad that most seemed to outrage Republicans was not from Obama himself but from the Super PAC Priorities USA, attacking Romney over the death of a woman who lost health insurance after her husband was laid off from a steel plant owned by Bain Capital.
I agree this attack was unfair. There is an unfortunately rich tradition of independent expenditure ads accusing candidates of endangering the lives of others, from Willie Horton to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. These attacks haven’t been good for our discourse, but I also don’t think this one ad amounted to the Hitlerization of Romney.
On the other hand, some of past years’ attacks on Republicans look more fair in retrospect than they seemed at the time.
Isn’t nominating Trump the sort of thing one might do if one were fighting a “war on women?”
In 2012, Romney went to Trump’s hotel in Las Vegas to accept Trump’s endorsement — saying it was a “delight” to do so — and had Trump make robocalls on his behalf in Michigan. This was when Trump had turned himself into a conservative celebrity by running around the country alleging that Obama had been secretly born in Africa.
Romney isn’t a racist, and I don’t recall any prominent Democrats calling him one. But he was certainly way more comfortable using Trump to market himself to racists than he should have been.
If Democrats previously talked about Republicans’ agenda as being driven by an underlying hostility to women and minorities, well, doesn’t the nomination of Trump, and near-universal support for Trump among Republican voters, provide some evidence in favour of that thesis?
In any case, I doubt voters who usually back Republicans would be more likely to listen to Obama’s warnings today if Obama had been nicer to Romney or other past Republican leaders.
As Cooke himself notes, overheated rhetoric is a problem on the Republican side, too. One of Rubio’s main talking points — the one he got in trouble by repeating five times in a New Hampshire debate — was that Obama was intentionally setting about to harm the country. Rubio, you will recall, was supposed to be the normal, reasonable one.
Republicans were never going to listen to Obama, the man their party set about delegitimizing for eight years, on the subject of whether Trump is too dangerous to be president. They needed to hear that message from Republicans and conservatives.
Cooke, admirably, has done his part on that front. But most Republican officeholders, party leaders, and mass conservative media figures have not. Even Rubio, who says Trump is an erratic individual who cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons, says Trump should be made president.
Along with the voters, these nominally conservative leaders are the ones who deserve the lion’s share of the blame for enabling Trump by downplaying his differences from past Republican nominees.
This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.
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