Donald Trump’s conquest of the Republican Party certainly represents a crisis—and possibly the final crisis—for the conservative movement. As with a doctor’s hammer to a knee, the reflexive reaction across much of the political spectrum has been to blame “liberals,” a label that has come to stand for anyone who does not embrace the combination of imagined history, religious fundamentalism, and corporate-driven pseudoscience that comprises conservative ideology.
Public Enemy No. 1 is almost always “the liberal media.” This is perhaps the one thing upon which traditional conservatives and Trump can easily agree. (A recent email from the Trump campaign began, “You’ve seen it—the liberal media can’t stop telling outrageous lies about me. They are really a disgrace to journalism, and they’re so desperate to mislead the American people…”)
Lately, however, some of the sore losers—I hope Trump hasn’t ruined this expression for all of us—have come up with a more precise description of the culprits they seek to hold accountable: the pundits and others who have been calling attention to the extremist drift of the Republican Party, which ultimately paved the path for Trump. Apparently, liberals used up all the mean words we could think of to describe the likes of McCain, Romney, Rubio, George W. Bush, and others. With no insults left over for Trump, we simply recycled the old ones.
This line of argument is hardly limited to the lunatic fringe. Writing in The Atlantic on August 3, David A. Graham complained:
Dangerously ignorant about policy and incurious about the world? That was the line on George W. Bush 16 years ago. Radical, unacceptable views about women? Said of any number of Republicans. Overrated business career? Just ask Mitt Romney about that one. (Not only was Romney’s success credited to his father’s connection, The New York Times reported, “Mr. Romney, though, never ran a corner store or a traditional business. Instead, he excelled as a deal maker,” which sounds eerily familiar.) A temperament unsuited for the Oval Office? Some said the same thing about John McCain. Fascism? MoveOn likened Bush to Adolph Hitler in 2004. Extreme positions? “He’s the most conservative nominee that they’ve had going back to Goldwater,” top Obama aide David Plouffe said of Romney in 2012.
Note that nowhere did Graham attempt to dispute any of these characterizations with counterevidence. And in the case of MoveOn’s alleged Bush/Hitler equation, he neglected to mention that the incident concerned an entry in a contest submitted by someone with no standing in the organization, and was taken down from the MoveOn website shortly after its appearance. The Atlantic has since issued a correction. But never mind facts. Generously, Graham goes on to blame, you guessed it, both sides. “The prevalence of wolf-crying, rather than being the fault of any particular party or even specific politicians or pundits, is a symptom of a particularly toxic, polarized moment in American politics,” he writes.
It’s rather sad to read such nonsense in The Atlantic, where the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have published so many compelling arguments demonstrating that the exact opposite is true. Republicans, they have amply demonstrated, have been captured by a radical right-wing movement that is empowered by the media’s unwillingness to accept the obvious. Critics of the false-equivalence meme celebrated recently when one of its most conspicuous practitioners, National Journal columnist Ron Fournier, retired to a job in his hometown of Detroit. Whether voluntary or not, his absence will significantly improve the quality of judgment displayed in the Establishment media. It will not fix the problem, however—not even at The Atlantic. The magazine recently published an 8,000-plus-word cover story describing “How American Politics Went Insane,” in which writer Jonathan Rauch diagnosed a bipartisan political crisis but could not bring himself to admit the fundamental difference between the parties. “The Republicans’ noisy breakdown has been echoed eerily, albeit less loudly, on the Democratic side.” These are the weasel words with which Rauch constructs his easily disproven narrative, leaving one to wonder whether he and his editors even read their own magazine.
The Fournierist “Blame the Meanie Pundits” meme is not exclusive to The Atlantic. Writing in The Daily Beast on August 5, Karol Markowicz made the accusation even more specific—and therefore more ridiculous—by attempting to explain “How Paul Krugman Made Donald Trump Possible.” Here again we hear of all the sorry things pundits said about Mitt Romney, and here again we see no attempt to disprove them (for an extended examination of the radical policy proposals Romney endorsed during his presidential campaign, see my 2012 article “President Romney?”). Next comes the Church Lady lecture: “If you use the most vile language available on a good man like Romney, or on real candidates like Rubio and Cruz, you find you have none left for the Donald Trumps of the world—and no one is listening to you anyway.”
If these writers or their editors paid any attention to the substance of the arguments they’ve so casually dismissed, they might have noticed a problem. Space does not permit me to mention all the dangerous proposals put forth by the likes of Rubio and Cruz, but just for starters, let’s take Rubio’s economic plan. As Jordan Weissmann noted in Slate, Citizens for Tax Justice scored Rubio’s proposal and found that the various gifts it would bestow on the 0.01 percent would ultimately cost the US Treasury $11.8 trillion, or “slightly less than the roughly $12 trillion the entire Social Security program is expected to cost from 2016 through 2025, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It’s also more than the $9.1 trillion Medicare will require over the same period.” As for Cruz, the man former House Speaker John Boehner termed “Lucifer in the flesh,” historian Julian Zelizer noted on CNN.com that he adopted extremist and/or intellectually indefensible positions on virtually every issue facing the country, from immigration to climate change to health care to LGBT rights—even rape.
Trump may have gone a bit further than his competition, but this too is a mere matter of degree. As the writer Jeet Heer accurately observes, “The last time Republicans wholeheartedly accepted the legitimacy of a Democratic president was Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.” Bill Clinton was churlishly impeached—by a group led by philanderers and child molesters, one might add—and Barack Obama “has had to contend with birthers who think he has no legal right to be president and conspiracy theorists who believe ACORN stole the election on his behalf.”
According to recent polling, a significant number of Republicans are certain that Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim and that ACORN, which no longer exists, is rigging the election for Hillary Clinton. The fault for this mass outbreak of political idiocy lies with many people in the Republican Party, the conservative media, and its tributaries within mainstream organizations. CNN deserves special demerit for its willingness to allow its analysts to lie on the air in support of baseless Republican conspiracy theories—without the excuse of having the sexual predator and paranoid tyrant Roger Ailes running the place. But the fact that some writers and thinkers have been trying for years to point out that the soil is poisoned is hardly cause for dishonor.