Crying Wolf, Then Confronting Trump
Conservative commentators and die-hard Republicans often brush off denunciations of Donald Trump as an unprincipled hatemonger by saying: Yeah, yeah, that’s what Democrats wail about every Republican they’re trying to take down. Sing me a song I haven’t heard so many times before.
Howard Wolfson would be outraged by that response if he didn’t recognize its aptness.
“There’s enough truth to it to compel some self-reflection,” Wolfson, who was the communications director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2008, told me this week.
In fact, he finds himself thinking about it a whole lot: how extreme the put-downs of political adversaries have become; how automatically combatants adopt postures of unalloyed outrage; what this means when they come upon a crossroads — and a candidate — of much greater, graver danger.
“I worked on the presidential campaign in 2004,” he said, referring to John Kerry’s contest against George W. Bush. He added that he was also “active in discussing” John McCain when he ran for the presidency in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
“我参与过2004年总统竞选，”他说，这里指的是约翰·克里(John Kerry)向乔治·W·布什(George W. Bush)发起的挑战。他还说他在2008年和2012年分别积极地讨论过与约翰·麦凯恩(John McCain)和米特·罗姆尼(Mitt Romney)相关的总统竞选事宜。
“And I’m quite confident I employed language that, in retrospect, was hyperbolic and inaccurate, language that cheapened my ability — our ability — to talk about this moment with accuracy and credibility.”
Did Democrats cry wolf so many times before Trump that no one hears or heeds them now?
That’s a question being asked with increasing frequency, though mostly in conservative circles and publications. An essay by Jonah Goldberg in National Review in late July had this headline: “How the Media’s History of Smearing Republicans Now Helps Trump.”
这个问题正被越来越频繁地提起来，虽说主要是在保守派的圈子和出版物里。七月底乔纳·戈德伯格(Jonah Goldberg)在《国家评论》(National Review)上发表的一篇文章标题是“媒体抹黑共和党人的劣迹令特朗普受益”。
In Commentary, Noah Rothman has repeatedly examined this subject. He wrote back in March that when “honorable and decent men” like McCain and Romney “are reflexively dubbed racists simply for opposing Democratic policies, the result is a G.O.P. electorate that doesn’t listen to admonitions when the genuine article is in their midst.”
“Today,” he added, “they point and shout ‘racist’ into the void, but Democrats only have themselves to blame for the fact that so many on the right are no longer listening.”
I think he’s being more than a bit disingenuous about the potential receptiveness of the right — or the left — to anything that the other side says in this polarized, partisan age. There hasn’t been all that much listening for some time.
Also, the Democratic condemnations of McCain and Romney weren’t as widespread and operatic as the ones of Trump.
And this is a two-way street. Republicans paint a broad spectrum of Democrats as socialist kooks, and Obama has been as strong a magnet for hyperbole as any politician in my lifetime. Let us not forget Dinesh D’Souza’s 2010 book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” or Newt Gingrich’s assertion that “only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior” can you grasp Obama’s method of governing, or Trump’s insistence that Obama produce his American birth certificate.
而这是一条双向街。共和党人把各色民主党人一律归为社会主义狂人，而奥巴马是我这辈子见过的最容易招惹夸张言论的政治人物。我们可别忘了迪内希·德苏扎(Dinesh D'Souza)2010年的那本《奥巴马的暴戾根源》(The Roots of Obama’s Rage)，或纽特·金里奇(Newt Gingrich)说的，“只有理解了肯尼亚人的反殖民行为”，你才能领会奥巴马的执政手法，或特朗普死缠着要让奥巴马出示美国出生证。
The sad truth is that we conduct the bulk of our political debate in a key of near-hysteria. And this renders complaints of discrepant urgency, about politicians of different recklessness, into one big, ignorable mush of partisan rancor.
What stands out in this presidential campaign aren’t the alarms that Democrats are sounding about the Republican nominee but the ones that an unusual number of Republican defectors are. That’s what’s unfamiliar. And that’s what’s wounding Trump.
Democrats were indeed dire about Romney, even though many of them, including President Obama, now speak of him fondly, as a Republican whose prescriptions might be flawed but whose heart is true.
Four years ago, he was a bloodsucking capitalist vampire whose indictment of Obamacare was ipso facto proof of his racism. In The Daily Beast, he was called a “race-mongering pyromaniac.” On MSNBC, he was accused, by a black commentator, of the “niggerization” of Obama into “the scary black man who we’ve been trained to fear.”
Romney was supposedly out of touch with reality — never mind that he had governed a blue state, Massachusetts, without cataclysmic incident — just as McCain was described, in some quarters, as a combustible hothead who couldn’t be allowed anywhere near the nuclear codes. He was Trump before Trump, which makes Trump less Trump.
And those are just the presidential candidates. Plenty of other Republicans have confronted charges of florid racism and incipient fascism that apply to some of them infinitely better than to others. Gradations disappear. Distinctions vanish.
Important words are hollowed out, so that they lose their precision and their sting, and exist mainly to perpetuate a paralyzing climate of reciprocal hatred between political parties.
After Clinton’s 2008 campaign, Wolfson went on to work for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat who became a Republican and then an independent. He’s still in the former mayor’s employ, as a senior adviser.
That’s the vantage point from which he has watched Trump’s ascent, and from which he’s making some crucial observations.
“It’s only when you find yourself describing someone who really is the definition of an extremist — who really is, essentially, in my opinion, a fascist — that you recognize that the language that you’ve used in the past to describe other people was hyperbolic and inappropriate and cheap,” Wolfson said.
“It doesn’t mean that you somehow retrospectively agree with their positions on issues,” he added. “But when the system confronts an actual, honest-to-God menace, it should compel some rethinking on our part about how we describe people who are far short of that.”
“We should take stock of this moment,” he said, “and recognize that our language really needs to be more accountable and more appropriate to the circumstances.” I hope we do.