How the Right Brought the Trump Birther Madness on Itself

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Conservatives now lament ideas they were complicit in spreading in the first place. Here's how they paved the way for The Donald.

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The man does not have a well thought out philosophy. He does not have serious, substantive principles. He's figured out the hot button issues. And he's going to keep pressing them. Look, I like a lot of what he says too. That's not the point. ~ talk radio host Mark Levin, criticizing Donald Trump

GOP primary voters should reward substance, rather than pols who masterfully exploit hot button issues. So why are so many Republicans embracing Donald Trump? They've been trained to elevate politicians based on the "tough" rhetoric they use rather than the record they've amassed. And to rally around anyone seen as being disrespected by the dread mainstream media.

The talk radio right bears much of the blame for these pathologies. Caught up in the Tea Party excitement, guys like Mark Levin used their platforms to act as apologists for Republicans like Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell. Didn't they fire up the base? Weren't they unafraid to zing President Obama? As Donald Trump rises in the polls, however, Levin is having second thoughts. The right is suddenly foolish to embrace demagogues with thin resumes and incoherent political philosophies. For all their differences, folks like Ross Douthat, David Frum, Reihan Salam, David Brooks, Daniel Larison, and many others have long been urging the GOP to pick its champions based on substance. You'll never hear any of them urge that Donald Trump be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin is defending Trump. Will Levin call out the woman whose political judgment he has frequently touted? Rush Limbaugh is inviting Trump on his show for softball interviews, and telling callers to his program that the celebrity billionaire ought to be taken "half-seriously." Having announced that taking Trump at all seriously is idiocy of the highest order, will Levin openly criticize his fellow talk radio host? Or does this bully lack the courage to go after anyone with a bigger audience than his? Remember that the next time he tries to tell you that the reformers embody what's wrong with the right. Like all bullies, his targets aren't chosen based on desert.

In failing to call out the people most responsible for the right's pathologies, Mark Levin is not alone. As Adam Serwer notes:

Trump's candidacy is largely a problem of the GOP's own making. It's a symptom of circumstances Republicans have spent the last two years tacitly cultivating as an asset. Republican leaders have at best refused to tamp down the most outlandish right-wing conspiracy-mongering about the president and at worst have actively enabled it. The result: A substantial portion of their base believes a complete myth about the president's birth certificate, and Republicans are stuck with a candidate shameless enough to exploit the issue without resorting to the usual euphemisms more respectable Republicans tend to employ when hinting at the president's supposed cultural otherness. I don't know how you solve a problem like Donald Trump, but I know it's a problem the Republican Party brought on itself.

Indeed, half of the Iowa GOP are birthers. It's so much of a problem that Ann Coulter and Karl Rove are out there assuring everyone that President Obama was in fact born in the United States. In doing so, they frame Birtherism as a trap liberals are setting. They're implicitly criticizing all the mainstream voices on the right who've flirted with Birtherism, but are uninclined to name names, or to come right out and state that what those conservatives did has come back to bite the right. 

Some of us have long insisted that the conservative movement was going to pay for its embrace of demagoguery, anti-intellectualism, bombast in place of substance, and shameless pandering. For our trouble, we've been dismissed by talk radio hosts and conservative bloggers, who took an ends-justify-the-means approach to the 2010 primaries and opposition to President Obama generally. Lo and behold, the conservative movement is now paying a price, exactly as predicted. The GOP has a weak field for 2012, and although Donald Trump isn't going to win the nomination, his early status as a front-runner is an unwelcome distraction and may end up pulling other candidates toward the sort of absurd populism that will hurt them in a general election.

Even Mark Levin, Ann Coulter and Karl Rove now see these pathologies on the right, and the dangers they pose. So are they going to criticize the most prominent conservatives who brought these conditions about? Nope. There is never direct intra-movement criticism of Rush Limbaugh or Roger Ailes. There is never any appreciation of the pathologies encouraged by everyone who supported Sarah Palin. Instead we get self-righteous criticism that is too little, too late, and a cowardly refusal to confront the culpable parties in a way that would prevent this sort of thing from happening again. 


Image credit: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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