This piece is appearing in newspapers in my conservative congressional district (VA-06), headed by the preface that “This piece is appearing on various liberal websites.”
Every liberal I know is both horrified that Donald Trump might become president and appalled that so many Americans would even consider voting for such a man.
I share both feelings. But I also think it important that Liberal America recognize its own contribution to this appalling state of affairs.
As one who has followed American politics closely since 1968, and who has lived in both preponderantly Republican and Democratic regions, I would bet the farm on this point:
Thirty years ago, when Ronald Reagan was president, Republican voters would never have supported a man like Trump for the presidency – someone so dishonest, so vain, so boorish, so disrespectful of basic American norms.
From that it follows:
There has been a major transformation in the thinking and values of Republican voters.
Many of today’s older Republicans have changed over these decades, and/or many younger Republicans differ from their parents or grandparents whom they’ve replaced in the Republican electorate.
How did this transformation come about? And what were liberals doing while that was happening?
To the second question, the basic answer is: Liberal America mostly just stood by and let it happen.
The answer to the first could begin with two figures who rose to prominence in the late 80s and early 90s: Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich.
Both demonized people on the other side of the political divide, both played fast and loose with the truth, both pandered to people’s prejudices and inflamed their resentments. The minds of millions — Limbaugh’s dittoheads and Gingrich’s followers — were slowly poisoned.
Liberals, meanwhile, did little to fight for the souls of their conservative countrymen.
By the 90s, the GOP was a party that no longer accepted the legitimacy of opponents the American people elected to office. Republicans embarked on a years-long campaign to find something – anything – with which to destroy the presidency of Bill Clinton.
Liberals were weak in calling out this violation of American norms, as the GOP searched in vain for financial scandal, and made up some others. Finally – with a meek assist from liberal justices on the Supreme Court, who could not imagine how a private lawsuit against the president, advanced by well-funded right-wing forces, could impact his presidency — the GOP thought it found its weapon in a stained blue dress, and embarked upon impeachment.
By the time George W. Bush and “Bush’s Brain,” Karl Rove, took the presidency, Republican supporters had already been taught to regard politics purely as warfare.
No president trampled on the Constitution as consistently as Bush, according to conservative Reagan-administration jurist, Bruce Fein (who himself had voted twice for Bush).
But the Democrats – contrary to their oath of office—never stood up to him.
The Bush administration’s famous lack of respect for “reality-based” politics further undermined the Republican electorate’s connection with truth. And the Bush/Rove divisive political strategies deepened their “Us vs. Them” mentality.
During the Obama presidency, the GOP has continually misrepresented the truth to gain public support for the Republican strategy of blocking everything the president tried to do, including insinuating that he is an illegitimate president aligned with the terrorists.
Meanwhile, Obama himself failed to fight back against his being demonized. And he never sought to summon from conservative patriots outrage over the unprecedented Republican strategy to make a president’s failure rather than the nation’s good their priority.
Why were liberals so passive while the Republican base was degraded by a succession of manipulative liars? Two reasons: 1) fear of combat and 2) a failure to recognize the gathering danger.
Now, as the specter of a Trump presidency has arisen out of the right’s darkened political culture, Liberal America apparently sees at last the danger that has been building all along. Trump’s more blatant display of the lying, the divisiveness, the preference for conflict over cooperation that have increasingly characterized Republican politics over the past generation has at last roused Democrats to match the intensity of the right’s eagerness for battle.
But even if Trump is defeated, no election result will make that dangerous mentality on the right – in which it can seem acceptable to give the power of the presidency to such a terrible man as Donald Trump – automatically disappear. What took years to degrade will take years to restore.
An ounce of prevention would have been worth a pound of cure. But perhaps liberals, who were too passive as the disease developed, can now find some way to help with the cure. Not easy, but necessary: like it or not, we’re all in this nation together.
Andy Schmookler — who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012 — is the author most recently of WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World– and How We Can Defeat It.