Anti-Trump conservatives need to stop trying to blame Democrats for the rise of Donald Trump, and take a good look in the mirror instead
While it is admirable that many prominent American conservatives are refusing on principle to support Donald Trump, far fewer seem introspective or self-critical enough to consider their own role in fuelling the mania which brought a reality TV star to the cusp of the presidency.
Latest to hop aboard the “look what the Democrats made us do” bandwagon is a writer I like and respect very much, the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. There is much to admire in Goldberg’s continued and principled criticism of Donald Trump, but he goes too far when he tries to shift blame for the rise of Trump away from where it belongs – the hysterical and alarmist nature of Republican opposition to President Obama – and create an alternative universe where the dastardly Obama “trolled” the helpless GOP and effectively forced the Republican base to become frothing-at-the-mouth crazy people uniquely receptive to Trump’s message.
Consider President Obama. One of the central insights of both the Obama campaign and administration (the difference is subtle but real) is that Obama benefits when his critics overreact. In 2008, then-political adviser David Axelrod coined the phrase “no drama Obama” to describe not only his client’s personality but his messaging. By seeming unflappable in the face of criticism, Obama comes across as presidential. The more heated the criticism, the more presidential he seems.
The thing is, Obama often intentionally provokes the conservative base. As the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman put it in January 2015, Obama “seems to come up with a new idea every couple of weeks to drive [the GOP] up a wall.” That makes him a master at trolling.
[..] Obama played a similar game with his birth certificate and the whole birther craze. He could have released his birth certificate as early as 2008, when the Mephistophelean Clinton henchman Sid Blumenthal was whispering in reporters’ ears. But Obama didn’t for years — in part because he knew the conspiracy theory would galvanize his base. It not only confirmed everything liberals wanted to hear about the Right, it also provided Obama with an endless supply of one-liners. And for a long time that worked well for Obama; he got to mock birthers and play the dignified victim.
You can probably already see the problem. When you throw out so many buckets of chum, you have no idea what kinds of creatures you’ll attract.
Obama chummed the waters for so long, he pulled in a great white shark. A man often in error but never in doubt, with a thumbless grasp of facts and a total willingness to repeat conspiracy theories, rumors, and innuendo as the truth, Trump was almost the personification of the collective id of the angrier strata of the Republican base.
It takes quite some gall to accuse Barack Obama (of all people) of fuelling the birther movement, while keeping a straight face. No other presidents in history have been forced by relentless fringe political pressure to release their birth certificate in order to prove eligibility for office, and to suggest that Obama’s understandable reluctance to rise to the conspiracy theorist bait was motivated primarily by a desire to smear the Republican Party is like blaming a homeowner you just burgled for not warning you in advance that burglary is illegal and will get you in trouble with the law.
Is Barack Obama now responsible for the welfare and fortunes of the Republican Party? Does he have some hitherto-unknown obligation to save his political foes from their own worst excesses? The idea is laughable. Republicans loved having fringe birthers on their side when it helped them storm to victory in the 2010 midterm elections – it is disingenuous in the extreme for American conservatives to pretend that birtherism was something foisted upon them by Obama himself now that it has finally become a liability.
Besides, the real roots of Donald Trump’s rise – besides the pervasive weariness with political elites in general, a phenomenon witnessed on both sides of the Atlantic – lie in the behaviour of leading conservative politicians and media personalities, and the way in which they chose to portray Obama’s centre-leftism as a unique and unprecedented socialist assault on America.
As this blog recently noted:
It was the tri-cornered hat brigade whose admirable devotion to fiscal responsibility only materialised once Barack Obama took office, and then failed to force any meaningful change in Washington despite many of their number being elected to Congress in the 2010 midterms which, who have a case to answer. They were the Great White Hope whose inevitable failure formed the third strike against the political class.
It was not the Democratic Party which fanned the flames of birtherism (and then considered a nominee for president who was born in Canada) and refused to stand up to angry constituents demanding to see a birth certificate. That was all on the Republicans. Donald Trump led that effort, and nearly the entire GOP sat back with a tub of popcorn, thinking that the circus would benefit them politically. And so it did, until their attack dog finally broke the leash and turned on its handlers.
Has Barack Obama been a decidedly left-wing and in some (though by no means all) ways unimpressive president? Yes, he has. But is he a closet Communist, a secret Muslim planning to enforce hardline Islamism on America or a hopelessly incompetent buffoon? Absolutely not. He is a centre-left politician with undeniable skills, twice elected on a centre-left platform and governing according to a centre-left approach. But in their greed to quickly win back power without doing the hard work of making their own pitch to the voters more appealing, too many Republicans were willing to tolerate and sometimes actively participate in the anti-Obama hysteria for short term political gain.
[..] Yes, the Democrats peddle in identity politics and often come down on the wrong side when it comes to favouring political correctness over freedom of speech, religion and behaviour. But it was the Republicans who opted to whip up (and profit from) blind fury about the state of the country instead of articulating a serious, coherent alternative. And in the end they were beaten at their own game. Why vote for the politician who smirks or winks when someone else is making ignorant, bigoted remarks when now you can vote for the real deal?
And again, even earlier, here:
As Barack Obama’s second term reaches its end, the size and scope of the federal government is still stubbornly large, but America has by no means transitioned into a Soviet-style planned economy. Even the hated (in right-wing circles) ObamaCare has only tinkered around the margins, funnelling a few million uninsured into some form of health coverage, inconveniently disrupting the existing coverage of a number of other people but otherwise doing nothing to change the private insurance, private provision model of American healthcare. The Second Amendment has not been substantially undermined, let alone repealed. Defence spending may be misaligned but still eclipses the rest of the world, and the US military has not been decimated. In terms of domestic policy, in other words, the world has not ended.
Has America become a libertarian paradise under President Obama? Of course not. But that’s because a Democrat won the White House and focused (as much as he could, given a spineless Democratic congressional caucus and entrenched Republican opposition) on the kind of centre-left priorities you would expect from a Democrat. And crucially, neither has America become a socialist dystopia in that time.
That’s not to say that the Republicans did not often have a point, or that they were perpetually in the wrong – in many cases, their opposition to Obama’s agenda was justified. But at all times this opposition was carried out in a shrill, alarmist and hyperbolic manner – much as British left-wingers are currently mirroring the American Tea Party with their “pass the smelling salts” horror at the thoroughly unexciting, centrist government of David Cameron.
And when you go trawling for low information votes by feeding on prejudice and stoking up concerns about the personal motivations, the loyalty and even the American-ness of the president in a childishly obstructionist scorched earth strategy, you can’t really feign surprise when the sentiments you unleash give rise to a populist demagogue like Donald Trump.
Remember, this is a political party which urged Americans in all seriousness to vote for Sarah Palin as vice president back in 2008. Sarah Palin. The Republicans have been dabbling in crazy and courting the proudly ignorant vote for decades. Donald Trump is nothing but the GOP’s longstanding approach taken to its logical extreme.
And if decent conservatives want to ensure that they never again find themselves in a position of seeing their movement taken over by an ignorant, populist demagogue then they might want to stop blaming Democrats for their own self-inflicted misfortune and instead re-examine their behaviour both in government and opposition.
Was it wise, for example, to pretend to be super tough on immigration, yet ultimately do nothing to stem the flow of illegal immigrants or otherwise reform the system, simply because Republican donors had no interest in changing the status quo, with its plentiful cheap labour for corporations and affordable illegal domestic service for households?
Was it wise to continually shriek not just that Democrats wanted to impose stricter gun control but that they were actively seeking to abolish the Second Amendment? (The big push to completely outlaw guns trumpeted in GOP propaganda has been just weeks away for the past eight years now – is Obama waiting until his very last day in office to take America’s guns?)
Was it smart to prance around as the party of national security while consistently involving America in foreign conflagrations which increased anti-American sentiment, or to pose as the party of civil liberties while loudly cheerleading for the surveillance state?
Was it really such a genius move to talk endlessly about the benefits of tax cuts for ordinary Americans while focusing them overwhelmingly on the wealthy, or to cynically pretend that America’s lost manufacturing jobs could be easily brought back home in the age of globalisation and international supply chains?
At nearly every election going back to the Bill Clinton administration and probably earlier, the Republican Party has been writing rhetorical cheques that its politicians cannot or will not cash when they are either in office or a position of influential opposition, at a national or statewide level.
They promised to be on the side of ordinary wage and salary earners, yet together with the Democrats they did nothing to address the economic stagnation of the middle class.
They ran around screaming that ObamaCare (originally a conservative think tank idea, in large part) was socialism incarnate, an evil government takeover of healthcare rather than merely a messy and flawed patch to America’s abysmal healthcare system.
They took tons of cash in campaign contributions and small donations in order to fight the Culture Wars, enriching many pundits and activists in the process, and then rode to glorious defeat on nearly all fronts.
In other words, the Republican Party was acutely vulnerable to a Trumpian takeover because they have consistently been a party of failure. They sucked at doing the things they promised their base that they would do, and they did a whole load of other things in office or opposition which their base never wanted. And still they coasted by for years, knowing that they were their supporters’ least-worst option, until a brash new arrival appeared on the scene, a stranger to Washington politics, who promised – however glibly – that instead of mere talk he would deliver decisive action.
I think this is one of those times when I see things a little more clearly and with better perspective than American conservatives like Jonah Goldberg who have been in the trenches, fighting Barack Obama from Day 1 of his presidency. Aside from eighteen instructive months in Chicago, I spent the past eight years living in Britain, where the legacy and tradition of socialism is much stronger and more pervasive than it is in the United States.
In Britain we make the NHS, our nationalised healthcare system, into a ghastly national religion and worship it from dawn to dusk even as it kills people. We accept a much bigger welfare state than Americans would tolerate. Many of us actively demand a large, activist state to protect us from the consequences of our own decisions. Even our nominally conservative party supports many of these things.
And while I may not have the painful first-hand experience of socialism as someone from, say, Venezuela, I am surrounded by enough monuments to it for Republican wailings that Evil ObamaCare is going to destroy the “greatest healthcare system on the face of the earth” and institute socialist “death panels” to dispatch infirm Americans as the opportunistic, partisan rabble-rousing that it is. Those conservatives screeching about Obama’s plot to force “socialism” on America need to take a vacation in Venezuela, and then come back and moderate their language.
As proclaimed conservatives, the Republicans are supposedly the party of personal responsibility. Well, Donald Trump is 100% the responsibility of conservative politicians and pundits, and their scorched earth approach to opposing President Obama’s agenda. It was never the job of Barack Obama to protect the Republicans from their own worst excesses, though the GOP has done a remarkable job of “socialising” the consequences and spreading the cost of their greed and idiocy across the entire country in the risk of a potential Trump presidency.
Jonah Goldberg and other conservative thinkers peddling the “look what the Democrats made us do” defence are better than this. Donald Trump is the product of decades of establishment and conservative failure to address the needs, concerns and aspirations of millions of traditional Republican voters. And rather than blaming a Democratic president for failing to keep their own supporters in check, influential conservatives should hold themselves accountable for their part in this failure.
Hopefully the price of their failure will not be a Donald Trump presidency. But if Hillary Clinton does prevail in November, Republicans should be aware that opposing her in the same shrill and apocalyptic manner as they opposed Obama may see the donations come rolling in to conservative candidates and Super PACs, but it will leave them acutely vulnerable to takeover by someone far worse than even Donald Trump in 2020.
In other words, this would be a very good time for American conservatives to learn the right lessons from their own recent history.
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