“Did Democrats cry wolf so many times before [Donald] Trump that no one hears or heeds them now?” asks the New York Times’s Frank Bruni. One such Democrat, the fittingly named Howard Wolfson, answers in the affirmative.
Wolfson worked for John Kerry’s campaign in 2004 and was communications director for Hillary Clinton’s failed 2008 campaign. In referring to Republican nominees in those years and 2012, Wolfson tells Bruni, “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.”
In contrast with George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney, according to Wolfson, Trump is “an actual, honest-to-God menace”:
“It’s only when you find yourself describing someone who really is the definition of an extremist—who really is, essentially, in my opinion, a fascist—that you recognize that the language that you’ve used in the past to describe other people was hyperbolic and inappropriate and cheap,” Wolfson said.
He certainly has a point about credibility—as we noted way back in February, in a column titled “The Boy Who Cried Trump.” What about accuracy? That’s debatable, to say the least. Wolfson acknowledges that his description of Trump as “essentially . . . a fascist” is just his opinion.
Wolfson is unequivocal in describing Trump as an “extremist,” but is that description really apt? In August 2015, the Times published a piece by Josh Barro titled “Donald Trump, Moderate Republican.” In a November Slate piece, Jamelle Bouie echoed the claim: “Donald Trump Is Actually a Moderate Republican.”
Six days later, another Bouie piece appeared, titled “Donald Trump Is a Fascist.” In July, Barro tweeted: “The Republicans lining up with Trump now would’ve gone with Hitler in the 1930s, seeing his rise as an opportunity.”
So Trump is a moderate Republican fascist? Well, why not? So was Mitt Romney. In a hilarious piece for the Daily Beast last month, Karol Markowicz rehearsed some of the rhetoric of former Enron adviser Paul Krugman:
In 2012, Krugman called Mitt Romney a “charlatan,” pathologically dishonest, and untrustworthy. He said Romney doesn’t even pretend to care about poor people and wants people to die so that the rich could get richer. Romney is “completely amoral,” “a dangerous fool,” “ignorant as well as uncaring.”
In March, Krugman had a column called “Clash of Republican Con Artists.” In it, he called Trump’s foreign policy more reasonable than that of Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz and said he’s just as terrified of either of those men in the White House as he is of Trump. He wrote: “In fact, you have to wonder why, exactly, the Republican establishment is really so horrified by Mr. Trump. Yes, he’s a con man, but they all are. So why is this con job different from any other?”
Yet a few weeks ago Krugman wondered how Republicans could rally around Trump “just as if he were a normal candidate.” It was exactly Krugman who normalized him! What makes Donald Trump normal to so many is that they’ve heard all the hysteria from people like Krugman before.
Markowicz is a Nevertrump Republican; she agrees with Wolfson that Trump is an honest-to-God menace, though unlike him she always recognized earlier GOP nominees weren’t. “Perhaps if the Trump campaign has taught the media anything,” she concludes, “it’s to ratchet down the rhetoric so that words mean something again.”
Bruni ends on a similar note:
“We should take stock of this moment,” [Wolfson] said, “and recognize that our language really needs to be more accountable and more appropriate to the circumstances.” I hope we do.
The problem is that at this moment, “ratcheting down the rhetoric” is actually a way of ratcheting it up. Wolfson’s acknowledgment that his own past characterizations of GOP nominees were false is meant to create a dramatic contrast and thereby lend credibility to his current denunciations of Trump.
But if you are inclined to think (as we are) that it is overwrought to describe Trump as an extremist or fascist, why should it? Wolfson has said similar things about past GOP nominees, and apparently he was sincere about them, realizing only “in retrospect” that they were inaccurate. Why should we think his judgment is reliable now?
Bruni half-acknowledges the point:
What stands out in this presidential campaign aren’t [sic] the alarms that Democrats are sounding about the Republican nominee but the ones that an unusual number of Republican defectors are. That’s what’s unfamiliar. And that’s what’s wounding Trump.
He cites as examples pieces from July by National Review’s Jonah Goldberg and March from Commentary’s Noah Rothman. He doesn’t mention Markowicz’s much-discussed piece; we suppose it would be awkward to do so given her evisceration of his colleague Krugman.
It’s true enough that the Trump nomination has occasioned an unusual amount of Republican disunity and conservative opposition. But Nevertrump conservatives are all over the map as to their rationales for opposing the candidate. Some would agree with Wolfson’s characterization of him as an extremist, but others make the opposite argument. Last week a Nevertrump friend of ours told us she would vote for neither Trump nor Mrs. Clinton because both are “New York liberals.” Still others object to Trump for nonideological reasons of character, personality, temperament, style or experience.
And those conservatives whose objections to Trump are ideological often end up sounding suspiciously like liberals, as Jonah Goldberg found on Wednesday night. In response to Trump’s immigration speech, Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post’s token conservative blogress, tweeted: “David Duke and NRO [National Review Online, former name of NR’s website] pleased. One of these should know better.”
Goldberg—whose magazine published an issue before the primaries almost entirely devoted to the case against Trump—replied: “Push away the keyboard, Jennifer. Shameful and dumb.” Rubin rejected that wise counsel. The guilt-by-association-with-David-Duke move is an old and tired liberal smear, and it gains no added vitality from being employed by a putative conservative.
On the other hand, after the Republican nominee’s visit to Mexico earlier Wednesday, Howard Wolfson tweeted: “If you believe Trump needed to pivot, moderate and look more Presidential, that event was a home run.” So let’s give Wolfson credit for giving Trump credit where it was due.