One of the common talking points shopped these days by pundits on the left is some version of “This is how you got Trump,” trotted out every time a Republican issues harsh criticisms of President Obama or other Democrats. We saw a lot of commentary in this vein from people such as Josh Marshall, after John McCain blasted Obama’s foreign policy for contributing to the creation and growth of ISIS, and thus the ISIS-inspired Orlando shooting. David Corn, for example, tweeted last week:
To all the conservatives now bemoaning GOP's embrace of Trump: you helped by fueling the base's desire for extreme Obama hatred. #PeaceOut
— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) June 17, 2016
It’s easy to see why this is an appealing narrative for Obama’s defenders; it proves to them that conservative criticism of Obama is both illegitimate and self-defeating — the worse Obama behaves and the more critics he attracts, the more sure his fans can be that the haters are only hurting Republicans.
There are three central problems with this spin: It ignores history, it’s hypocritical, and it completely misses the heart of the matter.
On the first point, basically every opposition party in U.S. history has fed on, and stoked, anger at the party in power. Without an opposition party to foment anger, voters would never bestir themselves to throw the bums out. And there’s an extraordinarily long history of rhetorical excesses committed in that process, including opponents calling for the impeachment or death of George Washington and every President since. Democrats hounded Reagan and George H. W. Bush with independent-counsel inquiries and conspiracy theories; Republicans actually impeached Bill Clinton and tried to remove him from office.
And that’s before we get to liberals’ collective amnesia about the florid rage they aimed at George W. Bush for eight years. There was the flood of accusations that he stole the election and was Hitler reincarnate or a budding theocrat, that he was a cokehead who lied the nation into war, and — according to Hillary Clinton — that he “shredded” the Constitution through nefarious means such as secret e-mail accounts. There were the polls showing half of all Democrats believed Bush knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks and 40 percent wanted him impeached. There was the Democratic presidential candidate (Dennis Kucinich) who introduced impeachment resolutions against Bush and Cheney, attracting nearly a dozen co-sponsors, one of them now in the Senate. There was Death of a President, the award-winning film depicting Bush’s assassination. There was the scurrilous charge that Bush was a “deserter” from the military, which formed the central theme of the entire 2004 presidential campaign. Bush was frequently compared to a chimp (one busy liberal website in that era, still in business today, called itself “The Smirking Chimp”). I could go on and on with examples from prominent House Democrats, among others, but you get the point.
It’s easy to see why this is an appealing narrative for Obama’s defenders; it proves to them that conservative criticism of Obama is both illegitimate and self-defeating.
Second, the charge is hypocritical because Democrats are still like this now, even in power. Just last week, Senators Chris Murphy and Elizabeth Warren accused the GOP of “selling weapons to ISIS” by opposing a Democratic gun-control bill; Harry Reid actively endorsed the charge, and the Obama White House refused to distance itself from it. Hillary Clinton is campaigning with Warren this week. Democrats tried to recall Scott Walker and sic investigators on his donors and other Wisconsin conservatives. In Texas, they pushed a thoroughly bogus indictment of Rick Perry. And ask almost any Democrat today about George W. Bush, and the old floodgates of hyperbole re-open. That’s before we even get to how quickly liberal commentators devolve to extreme or violent rhetoric when it suits their short-term political purposes.
Third, it’s a serious misdiagnosis of the Trump phenomenon. The causes of Trump’s popularity and his plurality primary victory are numerous, and any thumbnail sketch risks oversimplifying them. Partly, it was Trump’s unique celebrity-tycoon brand (his 35 years of national fame, his network TV show). Partly, it was the structure and rules of a primary field with 17 candidates, a compressed timeframe, open primaries, lots of winner-take-all primaries, and a series of squabbles and questionable decisions that kept his opposition divided. Partly, it was a class-based rebellion against GOP orthodoxy on trade, immigration, entitlements, and foreign policy. Partly, it was Trump’s appeal to racist impulses other candidates wouldn’t touch.
Partly, it was also the refusal to be “politically correct,” including his ethno-nationalistic dog-whistles. But the populist protest candidate who “tells it like it is” in the view of a faction of a party is not a new phenomenon: In past years we’ve seen Jesse Jackson (29.4 percent of the Democrat vote in 1988, 18.1 percent in 1984), George Wallace (23.5 percent of the Democrat vote in 1972, 12.8 percent in 1976), Pat Buchanan (23 percent of the GOP vote in 1992, 20.8 percent in 1996), Mike Huckabee (20.1 percent of the GOP vote in 2008), Ron Paul (10.9 percent of the GOP vote in 2012), Pat Robertson (9 percent of the GOP vote in 1988), and Lyndon LaRouche (5.5 percent of the Democrat vote in 1996), among others. This year, reflecting the bipartisan populist discontent, we saw Bernie Sanders get 43 percent of the vote on the Democratic side — more than Trump got in the primaries through May 4, the day the last of his 16 opponents dropped out.
Of course, Trump had vastly more money, personally, than any of those candidates did, and he got $2 billion of free media time, to boot. But even aside from that formidable advantage, the biggest reason why such candidates have failed to win their parties’ nominations in the past is that ultimately the party elite put forward a candidate (even if not a great one) and an argument that there was a safer, more practical path to victory than the populist insurgent. Democrats were pretty uninspired by Hillary this year, just as Republicans were pretty uninspired by McCain in 2008 and even by George H. W. Bush in 1988 — but at some level, enough of the party’s voters trusted the party leadership enough to nominate a candidate the “establishment” could live with.
More than any other one factor, that’s what changed this year. The GOP’s problem was not that the voters wanted harsh condemnation of Hillary and Obama — indeed, you could have gotten more of that from listening to Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Bobby Jindal than by watching a typical Trump speech, interview, or debate answer. Its problem, rather, was an overdose of mistrust of Republicans, fed both by the fecklessness of a Beltway GOP that had trouble showing results and by a talk-radio-led environment in which no charge against Republican leaders was too extreme or hyperbolic. It is a shame that so many in conservative media refused to recognize the strong slate of Republican governors standing right in front of their noses, offering living proof that the party is perfectly capable of playing to win, govern, and get results through the political system. Thirty-one states have a GOP governor today. Four others have elected one at some point during the Obama presidency. Most of them have had enough support in their state legislatures to pass a governing agenda, even if it’s often been stymied by the federal courts and the White House.
Trump fed into the anti-establishment mood through his ceaseless bashing of the party and its elected officials. He used his “we never win anymore” rhetoric to tap into a sense among the party’s own base that something radical was needed to change a dynamic in which elections never seem to have consequences except when Democrats win them. If you thought Obama was terrible and we needed to replace him, you voted for one of the elected-official candidates. If you thought Obama was terrible and it didn’t matter if we replaced him with a “normal” Republican, you voted for Trump. Ted Cruz, the least “normal” of the elected Republicans, finished second to Trump for similar reasons, despite their enormous ideological and experiential differences. The evidence of the anti-GOP establishment sentiment driving the primary was all over the exit polling and the anecdotal accounts gleaned from talking to Trump voters.
We didn’t get Trump because of too much bashing of Democrats, but because of too much bashing of Republicans. If the GOP wants to recover, it needs to rebuild its voters’ trust in its own leadership and efficacy, rather than laying off criticism of its opponents.
— Dan McLaughlin is an attorney in New York City and a National Review contributing columnist.