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Yesterday, President Obama gave a semi-panicked “you-really-have-to-vote-against-Trump-guys” speech in Raleigh, North Carolina. Watching it, I was struck by a couple of things. First, by how effortlessly Obama rewrites history on the fly. Second, that Democrats really have limited their ability to credibly warn against the dangers posed by Trump.
During his address, Obama said this:
I’ve got Republican friends who don’t think or act the way Donald Trump does. This is somebody who is uniquely unqualified. I ran against John McCain. I ran against Mitt Romney. I thought I’d be a better President, but I never thought that the Republic was at risk if they were elected.
Really? Obama thought Romney was a normal Republican? Because that’s not how it came across at the time. It’s become boring to observe that Republicans suddenly become respectable when they lose or disappear or die, but it’s indisputably true. Perhaps now Obama likes Romney. But at the time — when Romney was actually a threat to him — he was wishing aloud that that outré Romney fellow could be more like that reasonable John McCain. Here’s Glenn Thrush from 2012:
Obama really doesn’t like, admire or even grudgingly respect Romney. It’s a level of contempt, say aides, he doesn’t even feel for the conservative, combative House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Hill Republican he disliked the most. “There was a baseline of respect for John McCain. The president always thought he was an honorable man and a war hero,” a longtime Obama adviser said. “That doesn’t hold true for Romney. He was no goddamned war hero.”
To recap: Then? Romney was dangerous and represented a departure. Then? He was no John McCain, that’s for sure! Now? Pah. Romney was a gentleman. A scholar. A safe pair of hands. Sure, in 2012 Obama ran a commercial arguing that Romney wasn’t “one of us.” Sure, Obama was so worried about Romney’s being in the White House that he tried to impose restraints on the drone program that he had run without restrictions. Sure, Joe Biden said that Romney would put African Americans “back in chains.” Sure, Harry Reid accused Romney of being a tax-cheat and a scoundrel. Sure, Obama’s campaigners repeatedly claimed that if Romney were elected he would continue his dastardly spree of killing people with cancer. Sure, the Atlantic characterized Obama’s approach toward Romney as being “My Opponent Is a Dangerous Radical (with a dash of My Opponent Is a Strange Weirdo thrown in).” But in retrospect? He was fine. In fact, he was no threat at all. Chill.
That I agree with some of Obama’s criticisms of Trump is, frankly, besides the point. Yes, Donald Trump is indeed unlike other Republicans. Yes, Trump is indeed “uniquely unqualified” for the presidency. But when this game is played every single time, regardless of the merits of the candidate in question, the charge becomes hollow. I was mortified last night to watch Hillary Clinton’s anti-Trump advertisement and to acknowledge that almost every claim in it was true. Once again, I thought, “this is the man the Right nominated?” But, fair as the charges against Trump so often are, I couldn’t help but think that I’d be watching similar accusations leveled against the Republican choice regardless of who he or she was. Donald Trump is a bad, bad man. But when a fine man such as Mitt Romney is given the Hitler treatment too, it becomes difficult for that message to resonate. As has been observed by men smarter than I, crying wolf has its drawbacks.
Which brings me to my second observation: Just like the Right, the Democratic party has exhausted its supply of effective political language. As I have already conceded, Donald Trump really is different. And — at least among fair-minded Democrats — the charges that are leveled against him are substantively different than those that are leveled against, say, Marco Rubio. But — and this is key — the language that is used to convey those different arguments is eerily similar. The progressive (and general) case against Trump is that he has said terrible things about women and minorities, and that he has indulged the most retrograde factions within the American polity. The progressive case against Rubio is that he opposes Obamacare, is staunchly pro-life, and has an economic vision that is closer to Paul Ryan’s than to, say, Barack Obama’s. On the face of it, these are dramatically different briefs. But when filtered through the progressive language filter, they tend to be rendered identically.
Thus it is that both Rubio and Trump are accused of “hating women” — Trump because he has said and done terrible things to them; Rubio because he wants to defund Planned Parenthood. Thus it is that both Rubio and Trump are accused of “racism” — Trump because he has attacked judges on the basis of their ethnicity and said ugly things about minorities; Rubio because he — for good reasons — opposes federal programs that disproportionately seek to help minorities. Thus it is that both Rubio and Trump are accused of “caring little for the poor” — Trump because he has a history of shafting his contractors; Rubio because he advocates limited government. Again: I am not for a moment suggesting that honest progressives believe in their hearts that Trump and Rubio are the same person. But when both direct flaws and perceived flaws are explained in the same way — “woman-hating, poor-destroying racist” — it becomes difficult for listeners to do anything but tune out. (A similar problem obtains with the use of “Jim Crow” to describe even the most modest of voting-law alterations.)
As is often the case, C.S. Lewis saw this coming, writing in a 1956 letter:
Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
Watching Obama yesterday, I was stuck by how limited were his options — and are the options of those who make an even more explicit case against Trump. Effectively, Obama was reduced to saying, “and I really mean it this time.” Time will tell how effective this will prove to be. Either way, just as the Right might want to consider how its often-apocalyptic language sounds to suburban families and to swing voters, Democrats might take a good look at themselves next time around. When the rhetoric used to describe Donald Trump and Mitt Romney is indistinguishable to all but the most tuned in, something has gone seriously wrong in the culture.