Yes, the unhinged attacks on Romney mean no one is listening on Trump

Yesterday I wrote about a NY Times opinion piece by Frank Bruni that suggested Democrats were struggling to put their foot down on Donald Trump because they’d already gone overboard in their attacks on Mitt Romney. Today, Jonathan Chait has a response titled “Did Trump Happen Because Liberals Are Too Mean?” which misses the point in an effort to exonerate the left:

The leading theory of why Republicans nominated Donald Trump is that Republican voters like Donald Trump. This theory has the virtues of simplicity and truth, but the handicaps of being boring and quite rude to nearly half the electorate. And so an alternate theory has circulated that is more complex and also more flattering to Republican voters. This theory holds that Trump prevailed at least in part because liberals blew their credibility by hyperbolically denouncing previous Republican presidential candidates, thereby conditioning Republicans to ignore the warnings when Trump came along.

Chait is being a little slippery here I think. He opens with “why Republicans nominated Donald Trump” and then suggests Bruni is offering an alternate theory, one that lets the right off the hook. But the piece by Bruni isn’t an explanation for why Trump was nominated so much as an explanation for why the left, despite screaming at the top of its collective lungs, couldn’t stop him from being nominated. Those are different things and Chait even acknowledges that briefly when he writes “Trump prevailed at least in part….”

Chait says that Bruni’s argument isn’t convincing because he offers only a few examples of the left being hyperbolic toward John McCain and Mitt Romney. I think he’s actually right about this. As I noted yesterday, I was able to come up with three worse attacks on Romney (than the ones Bruni mentioned) off the top of my head. He didn’t mention Harry Reid’s dishonest attack on Romney’s taxes. He didn’t mention the disgusting PAC ad which dishonestly accused Romney of being responsible for a woman’s death from cancer. And he didn’t mention Seamus the dog, a story that was promoted by the left to portray Romney as heartless, even to animals.

You could also include the whole “war on women” attack and the suggestion Romney wanted to make birth control illegal and that he kept women in binders. And when I wrote about this yesterday I’d completely forgotten about this gem from Vice President Biden suggesting Romney and Ryan would “put y’all back in chains.” Dog whistle much?

And I’m still leaving out a lot. There were weeks worth of arguments from people like Ron Fournier that Romney was intentionally playing the race card. As I pointed out at the time, most of that piece relied on an old interview that Fournier mischaracterized plus his own imagination. But the fact that Fournier’s own interview subjects said he was misleading people about their conversation didn’t get nearly the traction that his accusation did.

I didn’t spend much time on the attacks on McCain but they were similarly excessive, particularly the attacks on Sarah Palin. It’s amazing how many people still think she claimed she could see Russia from her house (that was Tina Fey, not Palin). And of course there was Trig Trutherism which, though it rarely seems to come up anymore, was once voiced quite loudly and frequently on the left.

The point of all of this is that there is plenty of evidence to support Bruni’s thesis, even if he failed to cite most of it. I think Chait is aware of most of this material and could have supplied it himself if he were motivated to do so.

Chait also skips over the fact that the piece isn’t solely Bruni’s invention. It opens with quotes from Howard Wolfson, a former Clinton communications director, who says he regrets that some of his own attacks on previous GOP candidates left no room for turning up the volume later. This is the kind of admission against interest that ought to count for something, but Chait doesn’t even mention Wolfson.

The second half of Chait’s piece is really a tangent about his distaste for Bruni’s coverage of George W. Bush in 2000. He clearly dislikes the author to the point that one suspects there is some score settling going on. Chait tries to wrap everything together in his conclusion:

Liberals may be accused of many sins, but enabling Trump is not one them. Liberals have spent a quarter-century warning that the Republican Party was descending into unhinged, knee-jerk, anti-intellectual reaction. What Trump reveals is not that liberal warnings about the growing ignorance and derangement of the Republican Party were taken too seriously, but that they weren’t taken seriously enough.

Chait writes as if the left has been engaged in 25 years of polite, thoughtful warnings, from one gentleman to another, about the slippery slope of anti-intellectualism. In fact, as 2008 and 2012 demonstrate, what the left usually does is unleash a series of withering and dishonest attacks on often decent (even heroic) opponents and see what sticks. That’s how they fight these battles, with scorched-earth tactics that turn their opponents into vile caricatures. If Republicans missed the well-intended warnings it’s at least partly because they couldn’t hear them through all the shouting.

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