Warren Henry, writing in The Federalist, castigates a long list of liberal columnists for arguing during the early stages of the Republican primary that Donald Trump was in many ways the least offensive of the GOP’s candidates. The idea is that they were willing to overlook his racism, misogyny, ignorance, and polity incoherence, and that their decision to make a big deal about those faults now represents a kind of situational ethics and an opportunistic hypocrisy.
Some of the quotes that Henry finds are a bit breathtaking in retrospect, and I certainly don’t want to do a line-by-line defense of any of them. But Henry makes too little of one valid critique and too much of the rest.
To be frank, there was a fair amount of bad faith trolling going on. These are liberal columnists who were mixing honest analysis with a rooting interest in the Republicans nominating their least electable option. Sometimes they fancied that making Trump sound formidable was a way to trick Republicans into supporting him. But the majority of what they wrote was of a different nature. They were saying that, “yes,” Trump “is out there,” but the so-called “reasonable” and “establishment” alternatives to Trump were proposing equally or even worse policies and saying equally or even more unhinged and crazy things. By and large, this was sincerely felt analysis. Marco Rubio really did sound like an apocalyptic warmonger and Ted Cruz is hardly a John Boehner-Republican. Trump has proposed things more to (some) liberals’ liking, whether that’s renegotiating NAFTA or protecting Social Security and Medicare, or its being willing to provide a limited defense of Planned Parenthood.
Henry ignores the bad faith Br’er Rabbit element of some of this analysis: “Oh please, please, please don’t nominate the scary Mr. Trump!” As a result, Henry misses a justifiable opportunity to ding their reputations for straight-shooting.
And he makes too much of the hypocrisy. The error here is in thinking that there was some element of dishonesty in the assessment that the alternatives to Trump were in most meaningful ways just as catastrophic from a liberal point of view. Other than John Kasich, at times, and short-timers like George Pataki and maybe Jim Gilmore, the rest of the field represented (or, at least, pandered to) a far right-wing conservative worldview that has been steeping in weaponized stupidity for the entire Obama Era.
At the moment, liberals are animated by a variety of things. Some are in Occcupy mode, concerned about wealth disparities and the under-regulated casino on Wall Street. Some are in WikiLeaks mode and disturbed about the surveillance state. Some are primarily preoccupied with gun violence and/or police brutality toward racial minorities. Some are alarmed at how reproductive rights are being curtailed on the state level. Some either like Obama’s foreign policies and want to see more of the same or find even his decisions too bellicose. Almost all liberals want to see Obama’s accomplishments, including the Affordable Care Act, protected and improved upon rather than rolled back. From any of these points of view, it is and was never clear that Chris Christie or Newt Gingrich or Ben Carson would be better alternatives than Donald Trump.
And that, in almost every case Henry cites, is the gist of the argument that was being advanced.
Long before Trump arrived as a “Republican” in any normal sense of that word, liberals had discovered that it is no longer possible to converse with “mainstream” Republican politicians. Rather than legislating with them and ironing out difficult compromises, all their time has been spent fending off insanity about Benghazi and Death Panels and asinine conspiracy theories. It’s been a challenge to just keep the governments’ lights on and not default on our debts.
So, the idea that there was some “sane” alternative to Trump was seen as an offensive proposition from the beginning of the primaries until the end. The result was a seemingly endless number of sentences that took the form of “let’s dispense with the fiction that the alternatives to Trump are normal and acceptable candidates for the highest office in the land.”
And, if that sometimes came out as some kind of excuse-making for Trump, it was really a way of telling the truth as most of these people saw it.
In the end, Trump took things farther and into darker places than people anticipated he would. But let’s not forget that his campaign began with widespread protests and boycotts. Liberals never felt that there was anything “okay” about Trump except that he was guaranteed to lose.
And this still stands. If the Republicans get the idea that the way to respond to their failed Trump experiment is to revert back to Boehnerism, the liberals will be as disappointed as their base.