In the spirit of spreading culpability for the GOP’s meltdown as thin as possible, The Daily Beast recently served up a new theory that lays blame for Donald Trump at the feet of liberal commentators in general, and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman in particular. The argument is that overheated liberal denunciations of past Republican standard-bearers desensitized conservative and independent voters to the kind of criticism that should’ve been reserved for a uniquely menacing figure like Trump.
“He was frequently called a ‘bully,’ ‘anti-immigrant,’ ‘racist,’ ‘stupid,’ and ‘unfit’ to be president,” complained Karol Markowicz in a piece that received wide acclaim on the anti-Trump right. “I’m referring, obviously, to the terrifying Mitt Romney.”
As the full horror of Donald Trump’s takeover of their party has dawned on them, conservatives have attempted, with greater or lesser sophistication, to pass off partial responsibility for his rise to liberals, from Barack Obama to liberal PC culture to Al Franken. Markowicz’s argument has proven more durable than its predecessors, because in addition to being convenient buck-passing, it also feels right. In the same way that Trump’s off-putting manner has seemingly helped to lift President Obama’s climbing favorability, it has belatedly encircled Romney in a halo. Trump’s offenses against basic decency burn so hot and so proximate that they occlude distant liberal complaints about Romney the way sunlight makes the stars invisible until nightfall.
But it is just as illusory to claim that liberals manufactured panic about Romney, and in turn inured Republican voters to similar complaints about Trump, as it is to claim the stars cease to exist each morning at sunrise. In reality, liberal complaints about Romney four years ago were mostly in proper proportion to current, graver warnings about Trump today. Just as liberals were more apt than conservatives to be clear-eyed about Trump’s appeal to Republican voters, liberal misgivings about Romney’s politics were prescient and accurate. And if conservatives had heeded them at the time, they might’ve been equipped to preempt Trumpism before it destroyed their movement.
Markowicz plucks the above, one-word descriptors liberals used in 2012 because from the vantage point of today, they fit Trump much better than Romney. But when you unearth the context in which liberals used those terms, you find they were being perfectly fair-minded, and the lustrous halo around Romney begins to fade.
Amy Davidson of The New Yorker called Romney a “bully” after The Washington Post reported that as a high school student at the Cranbrook School, Romney had mercilessly bullied a gay teenage classmate.
Ruben Navarrette argued, persuasively, that Romney’s “self-deportation”-based immigration proposals were “anti-immigrant.”
It turns out nobody of any stature in liberal politics called Romney racist, but liberals like Lawrence O’Donnell did quite rightly allege that Romney was pandering to racists by seeking boos from the NAACP national convention, so he could turn around and boast, “if they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff.”
Meanwhile the person who claimed Romney was “unfit to be president” did so in an uncompensated Huffington Post blog post, as did the comedian who, taking cues from CNN’s Erin Burnett, argued it was politically “stupid” for Romney not to release his tax returns.
Krugman frequently questioned Romney’s honesty, but almost always in relation to the fact that Romney used fantasy budget math to mislead voters about his regressive tax reform proposal, or for more discrete lies, like claiming Obama had gone on an “apology tour” after assuming the presidency in 2009.
In other words, the similarities between liberal criticism of Romney and liberal criticism of Trump are extremely superficial. What liberals recognized about Romney is that his economic policies were tilted heavily to benefit the wealthy, and thus that his electoral potential necessarily ran through mobilizing white voters, occasionally through the use of offensive tactics. In fact, Republicans recognized the same thing at the time, and argued during the election and after that Romney-style whites-only politicking would have to stop.
The recriminations of the GOP’s across-the-board losses in 2012 began before the winners knew they’d won. In an MSNBC appearance on election day, GOP strategist Steve Schmidt admitted that the Republicans’ quadrennial strategy of mobilizing whites had run its course and that refusing to alter it going forward would lead to the destruction of his party.
“Even if Mitt Romney is able to win this election tonight,” Schmitt said, “this will be the last election that a Republican can possibly win as a national candidate with these type of numbers [in the] Latino community with women voters and it’s really going to lead to some important moments of soul searching I think in the Republican Party if we’re to be a national party.”
Three months earlier, an unnamed GOP strategist used suspiciously similar language, telling National Journal’s Ron Brownstein, “This is the last time anyone will try to do this.”
The earlier quote came at a time when Romney was baiting white voters with dishonest advertisements falsely accusing Obama of “gut[ting] welfare reform,” by eliminating work requirements for people on government assistance.
“We will end the culture of dependency and restore a culture of good, hard work,” Romney said on the campaign trail.
Just a couple weeks later, leaked hidden camera footage would show Romney appealing to party donors by disparaging the impoverished and working poor—disproportionately non-white—with yet more casuistry.
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Schmidt’s concern was demographic—eventually there wouldn’t be enough white voters for Republicans to court. But the corollary of his argument was obvious: Finding more and more white voters to mobilize would ultimately require the party to make more overt appeals to white identity.
If the Romney campaign still seems like an imperfect harbinger of Trumpism, recall that Romney ran only four years after John McCain’s campaign allowed Sarah Palin to tour the country drawing bright lines between “real America” and Obama’s America, and accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” It wasn’t enough to win Republicans the election but was enough to make Palin the celebrity-leader of the country’s white ethno-nationalists.
Her antics laid a predicate for interpreting what we’d ultimately hear from Romney and Representative Paul Ryan—about makers and takers, dependent Americans who want free stuff—as heavily raced rhetoric that would ultimately leave the GOP in hoc to a base that wasn’t particularly interested in corporate-friendly economic policy or merely-sublimated appeals to ethnic resentment. That interpretation was correct at the time, and is no less correct now that we know just how ugly the payoff of that hate debt turned out to be.
Conservatives say liberals cried wolf, and thus share culpability for the fact that few Republican voters believe Trump is the lupine threat his critics know he is. But the GOP is a continuous entity. It’s been evolving steadily into the creature it is today for many years. Liberals weren’t crying wolf at earlier stages of that evolution. We were warning conservatives that the pressures they were subjecting the GOP to would select for fangs, and a tendency to turn on its enablers.