The Republican nominee for president is a racist, sexist threat to American democracy — and this time, we really mean it.
In a nutshell, this is the Democratic argument against Donald Trump. In a wild, topsy-turvy political year, it is the one exceedingly familiar piece of the political landscape — because it is a version of the argument the Left makes against every Republican nominee.
That this line of attack is so shopworn, just when Democrats think we need it most, has led to self-reflection and regret from one of the harshest commentators on the left. The HBO host Bill Maher said the other day that “liberals made a big mistake” when they attacked George W. Bush “like he was the end of the world,” and did the same thing to Mitt Romney and John McCain.
Maher himself was a prime offender, with no hesitation about resorting to Nazi analogies (he compared Romney’s aides to Adolf Hitler’s dead-end loyalists, and Laura Bush to Hitler’s dog).
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been touring the country saying that Trump isn’t like past Republican nominees, even though they were attacked in exactly the same terms.
George W. Bush was a man of deep faith who did all he could to reach out to minorities and soften conservatism’s edge. Yet right out of the gate in 2000, the NAACP ran an ad accusing him of being all but complicit in a hideous racist murder in Texas. His botched handling of Hurricane Katrina wasn’t portrayed as a mistake in trying circumstances, but of his disregard for black people. He was called a fascist, a war criminal, and a would-be theocrat.
Obama now says Romney was only “wrong on certain policy issues.” This is rank revisionism. His campaign’s entire approach in 2012 was to disqualify Romney as a person, basically for being too coldbloodedly rational and prim and proper (i.e., the opposite of Trump).
Romney was not, as an Obama ad put it, “one of us.” He basically killed people with his heartless layoffs. He posed a real and present danger to Latinos with his policy of “self-deportation.” He was waging a “war on women.” One prominent piece of evidence for Romney’s unhinged sexism was his entirely anodyne, if awkward, comment that he asked for “binders full of women” when making appointments as governor of Massachusetts.
Harry Reid infamously alleged, with no evidence whatsoever, that Romney didn’t pay taxes for a decade. When the Republican candidate released his returns, it turned out he had overpaid. And so it went.
It has always been the case that Republican leaders are retrospectively deemed statesmen by the Left when they are dead or retired. It has happened to Ronald Reagan, who went from a warmongering right-wing radical to a statesmanlike moderate; to George H. W. Bush, who was an out-of-touch elitist and now is the epitome of class; and to George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, who now are getting their revivals.
This isn’t about the softening passage of time so much as opportunistically using past Republican politicians as a bludgeon against contemporary Republican politicians.
Genuinely alarmed by Trump, Bill Maher apparently realizes how tinny it sounds to lodge against him all the accusations routinely made against any other Republican. It was just a couple of years ago that Paul Ryan – an earnest policy wonk who operates in the inclusive style of the late Jack Kemp – was attacked as a racist for commenting on men not working in troubled inner-city neighborhoods.
If this isn’t crying wolf, what is? Confronted with Trump, Democrats don’t have any radioactive denunciations in reserve. They have all been deployed against a couple of generations of Republicans whose politics and characters were starkly different than Trump’s. And will surely be deployed once again – the charges never change, just the target.