Donald Trump’s rise was fueled in part by progressives who cried wolf about Republicans for years. During the so-called “invisible primary” and early contests in 2016, several liberal pundits entertained the idea that Donald Trump was not the worst possible GOP nominee, even if some ultimately changed their minds.
The Left wants to disappear their treatment of George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain down the memory hole—but it’s instructive to note how many ignored the threat of Trump, even when he was on their doorstep.
Before Progressives Hated Trump, They Were For Him
For example, last August, Maureen Dowd—after discussing his attitudes toward women at length—described Trump as “wickedly fun” and “wildly useful.” After noting that “it is really hard to know who you’re electing,” Dowd suggested: “It’s always a pig in a poke. So why not a pig who pokes?” She quickly recanted after Trump went on the attack against Megyn Kelly of Fox News.
Matt Yglesias argued that Trump was “running on a much less extreme agenda than his ‘establishment’ rival Marco Rubio, who’s offering a platform of economic ruin, multiple wars, and an attack on civil liberties that’s nearly as vicious as anything Trump has proposed — even while wrapping it in an edgy, anxious, overreaction-prone approach to politics that heavily features big risky bets and huge, unpredictable changes in direction.” Yglesias changed his mind only after Trump’s rallies sparked violence.
Robert Borosage, a longtime progressive operative who advised Jesse Jackson’s presidential bids, wrote that “[u]nlike Trump and Cruz, Rubio’s stump speech echoes Reagan’s sunny optimism. But the platform of this Tea Party senator is far darker and more far-right fringe than those of his rivals.” In Borosage’s opinion, Rubio “espouses an extremist agenda that makes former President George W. Bush look like a peacemaker and Ronald Reagan like a democratic socialist.”
Liberals Said Rubio and Cruz Were ‘Scarier’ Than Trump
Jonathan Chait argued that liberals should “earnestly and patriotically support a Trump Republican nomination.” Chait contended (likely correctly) that Trump would likely lose and upend the GOP. But he also argued that “a Trump presidency would probably wind up doing less harm to the country than a Marco Rubio or a Cruz presidency. It might even, possibly, do some good.” Amid the early primaries, Paul Krugman saw the GOP race this way:
The thing is, one of the two men who may still have a good chance of becoming the Republican nominee is a scary character. His notions on foreign policy seem to boil down to the belief that America can bully everyone into doing its bidding, and that engaging in diplomacy is a sign of weakness. His ideas on domestic policy are deeply ignorant and irresponsible, and would be disastrous if put into effect.
The other man, of course, has very peculiar hair.
Yes, Rubio was the real threat. Krugman followed this column with one in April arguing that Cruz also was worse than Trump on economics.
Bill Maher originally opined that Ted Cruz was scarier than Donald Trump, because Trump, “despite some of the crazy things he says and some of the disgusting things he says, he also says some things that a liberal can love.” Maher would not recant until the end of March 2016, citing Trump’s fascist tendencies.
Before July, Liberals Said Clinton Was ‘Far Worse’
Ruth Marcus once argued “Cruz is a different, and in many ways more dangerous, character” than Trump. She said that “although neither man is particularly constrained by truth or facts, Cruz is even more ruthless and cutthroat.” Moreover, “while Trump’s efforts are in the service of self-promotion, Cruz’s are all that plus the implementation of an extreme-right ideology.”
Marcus was also of the opinion that “Bill Clinton’s conduct toward women is far worse than any of the offensive things that Trump has said.” Perhaps Marcus missed the coverage of Ivana Trump’s divorce allegations, though they were widely reported months earlier.
Eugene Robinson was slightly equivocal, but claimed: “If Ted Cruz is the Republican Party’s cure for Donald Trump, the antidote may be worse than the poison.” Robinson wrote: “Trump, at least, cloaks his unthinkable policies beneath a certain populist appeal. Cruz’s self-assured extremism tells whole classes of voters — independents, minorities, women — to look elsewhere. He would be like Barry Goldwater without the avuncular charm.” Again, Trump’s attitude towards women, Mexicans, Muslims, and the disabled (to name a few) were known when he wrote this.
Amanda Marcotte rooted for a Trump nomination, arguing that “if you actually look past the surface, even by a millimeter, to the policy level, this notion that Trump is somehow more hateful than his competitors Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio simply becomes laughable.” She later doubled down on her preference for Trump over Cruz.
This is not surprising, as Marcotte began the cycle arguing that “while Trump has a big mouth, he is, policy-wise, one of the least anti-woman candidates in the 2016 Republican field.”
Democrats Tolerate Sexual Misconduct From Their Own
Bill Press argued that Cruz “in many respects, is worse than Trump.” Indeed, to Press, Trump often sounded “like a Democrat.” He hastened to add: “This is no endorsement of Trump. Far from it. He’s still an inexperienced blowhard and racist, unqualified to be president. But, on the issues, Ted Cruz is a lot more extreme.”
Robert Reich is also among those who opined that Cruz would be worse than Trump, as is Noam Chomsky. Never content to keep things domestic, former President Carter reportedly told members of Britain’s House of Lords that he would choose Trump over Cruz.
This baker’s dozen does not to purport to be a complete list. Many lesser-known pundits set forth similar views. For example, David Atkins wrote for the progressive-venerated Washington Monthly that “[n]o matter how uncomfortable Trump’s crowds may make us, they pale in comparison to the disgust we should feel at the politics of Karl Rove and David Brooks.” He added, “Unless carried to its farthest extreme, racist nationalism isn’t as damaging as corporatist objectivism.”
One cannot read these commentaries without noting the immense tolerance many progressives have had for people—so long as they are not conservative. Perhaps some prefer to view it as the problem of progressives who view any deviation from their statist dogma as evil per se.
This blind spot is far more obvious when a person involved in sexual misconduct is a Democrat—like Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Chris Dodd, Brock Adams, Mel Reynolds, Fred Richmond, and so forth. Apparently, many progressives were willing to extend the same professional courtesy to Trump, a former Democratic donor who holds to little of Republican orthodoxy.
Beyond the Hypocrisy, Crying Wolf Is Bad For Society
Aside from the obvious hypocrisy and situational ethics, the problem with that mode of thinking is that it ignores the non-ideological aspects of the presidency (and other public offices, if to lesser degrees). One of these is the message that elevating and defending such people sends to the larger society, whether one views it as normalizing such behavior generally or as a double-standard for the wealthy or powerful. There is also the question of whether ignoring a candidate’s temperament results in a nominee who increases the threat of war (nuclear or otherwise) or undermines the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
Perhaps it is ironic that Hillary Clinton by experience understood these questions better than many of the early soft-on-Trump progressives to her left. It is increasingly clear, however, that any Clinton victory will be based largely on that understanding. Progressives may find that winning an election on character issues may provide a weak claim to any ideological mandate. And thus crying wolf would end badly—even if the wolf is defeated.