The Democrats Who Cried Wolf

Did liberals botch their chance to take down Trump by hyperbolically attacking past Republican nominees? Probably, though the GOP is no more innocent.

Donald Trump endorses Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign. (Steve Marcus / Reuters)

Donald Trump really is different.

So say his critics, particularly those on the left: He’s dangerously ignorant about policy, and incurious about the world. His views on women are radical and unacceptable. His business career ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. He doesn’t have the temperament to be president. He’s a fascist. His positions are the most extreme any Republican has proposed since Goldwater.

On Tuesday, President Obama amplified the attack during remarks with the prime minister of Singapore, saying Trump is “woefully unprepared to do this job” of being president.

“What does this say about your party that this is your standard bearer?” he asked Republicans. “This isn't a situation where you have an episodic gaffe. There has to be a point in which you say, ‘This is not somebody I can support for president of the United States.’”

To which some American conservatives wearily reply: Oh, you don’t say? Jaundiced after hearing past GOP candidates described in similarly extreme terms, some conservatives feel that Democrats and liberal pundits have cried wolf, describing past Republicans with such elevated levels of alarm that warnings about Trump don’t elicit the same urgency.

Dangerously ignorant about policy and incurious about the world? That was the line on George W. Bush 16 years ago. Radical, unacceptable views about women? Said of any number of Republicans. Overrated business career? Just ask Mitt Romney about that one. (Not only was Romney’s success credited to his father’s connection, The New York Times reported,“Mr. Romney, though, never ran a corner store or a traditional business. Instead, he excelled as a deal maker,” which sounds eerily familiar.) A temperament unsuited for the Oval Office? Some said the same thing about John McCain. Fascism? Two videos uploaded by users to a MoveOn contest likened Bush to Adolph Hitler in 2004.* Extreme positions? “He’s the most conservative nominee that they’ve had going back to Goldwater,” top Obama aide David Plouffe said of Romney in 2012.

Once you’ve already used all of these insults once before, they start to lose their sting. That’s the point of Godwin’s Law, the theory that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1,” and of critiques of likening various politicians to the Nazi leader. Once you’ve compared someone to Hitler, you have both used up your one chance to compare her to history’s greatest monster—and you’ve risked downplaying the significance of Hitler by diluting the insult.

The wolf-crying problem plays out in ways both large and small. I saw several conservative writers throwing up their hands in protest at Paul Krugman’s column Monday, in which he wrote, “Yet the great majority of these not-crazy Republicans are still supporting Mr. Trump for president. And we have a right to ask why.” The New York Post’s Kyle Smith snarkily dismissed the plea:

Kevin Glass added:

“But Donald Trump is totally worse than that,” Glass concluded. “Sorry you used up all your ammo in 2012.”

In keeping with the theme of hyperbole, I don’t recall Krugman saying quite that, though he did call Ryan a “fraud” and “con man” given to “brazen dishonesty.”

These critiques carry a bit more weight because many of them come from conservatives who are disgusted with Trump and have denounced him, but still think Democrats erred by overreaching in their rhetoric. During one of the many recent Trump outbursts, Republican operative Tim Miller joked on Twitter:

Miller, who was communications director for Jeb Bush’s ill-fated presidential campaign, has been a consistent and outspoken Trump critic, but he still argued that overheated reaction to past Republicans had hurt the effort to beat Trump. “I was also just thinking about the time a top Obama aide confronted me and asked how I could sleep at night supporting Mitt Romney,” he told me.

The phenomenon affects Trump supporters, too, in the form of voters who simply dismiss what they hear on the news because they’ve decided the press is untrustworthy. When the political world was briefly enthralled Tuesday afternoon with Trump’s contretemps with a baby, Justin Green of the Independent Journal Review looked askance:

Perhaps some progressives are a mite remorseful about their rhetoric in the past: Next to Trump, Mitt Romney doesn’t look so bad and John McCain (at least the John McCain of 2008) looks downright, um, acceptable. Some of the same publications that were critical of Romney’s presidential run lavishly lauded him for speaking out against Trump. On Tuesday, Obama drew a distinction between policy criticisms he leveled against his two opponents and the idea that they were unqualified. “I think I was right, and Mitt Romney and John McCain were wrong on certain policy issues, but I never thought that they couldn’t do the job,” he said.

The “cried wolf” paradigm is not sufficient to explain what’s going on, nor is it a single-party phenomenon. For one thing, some of these attacks might be true. You could make an argument that Mitt Romney really was the most conservative candidate since Goldwater—after all, the Republican Party has been moving rightward, although FiveThirtyEight found Romney to be slightly more centrist than George W. Bush—and it could still be true that Trump is more conservative. Romney surely benefited from his father’s career. Abortion-rights advocates see any number of Republican candidates as extreme and threatening. And so on. For another, refusing to believe the news does not make it wrong or false.

Nor are Republicans and conservatives innocent of excess. Attacking the media has been a popular page in the Republican playbook for years, even if Trump has taken it to virtuosic levels. Conservatives have also happily indulged in hyperbole. Members of both camps have employed Hitler analogies. Back in the 1990s, Republicans hated Bill Clinton so much that they impeached him and tried to remove him from office. By the middle of Barack Obama’s presidency, they were fondly remembering Clinton as a dealmaker, an honest broker, and essentially a good guy—at least compared to Obama. Michele Bachmann even said that Solyndra (remember that?) “makes Watergate look like child’s play.” Nonetheless, my colleague Russell Berman found that many Republicans at the party’s convention last month preferred Obama to Clinton. It doesn’t matter if a president or candidate is already the worst; there’s always room for worse than that.

The prevalence of wolf-crying, rather than being the fault of any particular party or even specific politicians or pundits, is a symptom of a particularly toxic, polarized moment in American politics. Hyperbole is just about the only way to live in such a moment, and who better to exemplify it than a man who once justified his lies as “truthful hyperbole” (whatever that means)?

That doesn’t mean the concern is misplaced. At some point, warnings really will become meaningless, and there will be no room for effective debate. The challenge is figuring out how to release some of the tension in today’s political world. Needless to say, that’s unlikely to happen anytime between now and Election Day. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but the next three months are going to be absolutely the worst ever.

* This article originally stated that MoveOn had likened Bush to Adolf Hitler. In fact, the comparisons were made in two videos submitted for its "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest. We regret the error.