Crying Wolf, Then Confronting Trump

Frank Bruni, New York Times, September 1, 2016

Conservative commentators and die-hard Republicans often brush off denunciations of Donald Trump as an unprincipled hatemonger by saying: Yeah, yeah, that’s what Democrats wail about every Republican they’re trying to take down. Sing me a song I haven’t heard so many times before.

Howard Wolfson would be outraged by that response if he didn’t recognize its aptness.

“There’s enough truth to it to compel some self-reflection,” Wolfson, who was the communications director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2008, told me this week.

In fact, he finds himself thinking about it a whole lot: how extreme the put-downs of political adversaries have become; how automatically combatants adopt postures of unalloyed outrage; what this means when they come upon a crossroads–and a candidate–of much greater, graver danger.

“I worked on the presidential campaign in 2004,” he said, referring to John Kerry’s contest against George W. Bush. He added that he was also “active in discussing” John McCain when he ran for the presidency in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

“And I’m quite confident I employed language that, in retrospect, was hyperbolic and inaccurate, language that cheapened my ability–our ability–to talk about this moment with accuracy and credibility.”

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{snip} An essay by Jonah Goldberg in National Review in late July had this headline: “How the Media’s History of Smearing Republicans Now Helps Trump.”

In Commentary, Noah Rothman has repeatedly examined this subject. He wrote back in March that when “honorable and decent men” like McCain and Romney “are reflexively dubbed racists simply for opposing Democratic policies, the result is a G.O.P. electorate that doesn’t listen to admonitions when the genuine article is in their midst.”

“Today,” he added, “they point and shout ‘racist’ into the void, but Democrats only have themselves to blame for the fact that so many on the right are no longer listening.”

I think he’s being more than a bit disingenuous about the potential receptiveness of the right–or the left–to anything that the other side says in this polarized, partisan age. There hasn’t been all that much listening for some time.

Also, the Democratic condemnations of McCain and Romney weren’t as widespread and operatic as the ones of Trump.

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The sad truth is that we conduct the bulk of our political debate in a key of near-hysteria. And this renders complaints of discrepant urgency, about politicians of different recklessness, into one big, ignorable mush of partisan rancor.

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Democrats were indeed dire about Romney, even though many of them, including President Obama, now speak of him fondly, as a Republican whose prescriptions might be flawed but whose heart is true.

Four years ago, he was a bloodsucking capitalist vampire whose indictment of Obamacare was ipso facto proof of his racism. In The Daily Beast, he was called a “race-mongering pyromaniac.” On MSNBC, he was accused, by a black commentator, of the “niggerization” of Obama into “the scary black man who we’ve been trained to fear.”

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