Placing blame where it belongs: Why you can't just point to the GOP establishment for the rise of Donald Trump

Vox's Ezra Klein says "the Donald" is succeeding due to elite GOPers' recklessness. If only it were so simple

Published March 9, 2016 7:12PM (EST)

Donald Trump                                                 (AP/Dennis Van Tine)
Donald Trump (AP/Dennis Van Tine)

Now that Donald Trump has once again responded to doubts about his campaign by decisively winning three more states — and maybe ending “Little Marco” Rubio’s career — conservative pundits and intellectuals are just about ready to face the music.

Their “deep bench” of candidates has been depleted. And unless Gov. John Kasich manages to transform himself into the greatest retail politician in living history, it’s increasingly likely that the GOP elite will have to choose between either Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz — the two candidates they hate the most.

It’s enough to drive even the more sophisticated conservative intellectual to drink:

Trump’s viselike grip on a decisive plurality of Republican voters will inspire a lot of handwringing and think pieces from conservative and liberal pundits alike. But while the former have been holding back — presumably hoping Rubio could pull off a miracle — Vox’s Ezra Klein has stepped into the vacuum already, offering a kind of post-mortem for the GOP elite.

I agree with much of his analysis, but not all of it. And the points where Klein and I differ matter. Not just because getting the analysis right is valuable for its own sake, but also because Klein’s argument is likely to have a bearing on how America’s political class decides to respond to both Trump and the demagogues like him that are sure to follow.

So what is Klein’s argument? That the Trump phenomenon is the logical result of the anti-Obamacare hysteria that GOP leaders have encouraged since at least 2009. Instead of responding to the Affordable Care Act as they would to any other policy from they disagreed with, Klein says, Republicans acted as if Obamacare was nothing less than the end of the United States of America as we know it:

Republicans executed a coordinated and successful strategy to make sure the country saw Obama as a hardcore partisan and Obamacare as an unconstitutional takeover of the American health care system (despite the fact that the hypothetically unconstitutional part, the individual mandate, was actually a Republican idea that many Senate Republicans were supporting at the same time they were opposing Obamacare). They did everything in their power to whip their base into a frenzy over the law. And they succeeded. [….]

Republicans persuaded their base that something terrible was happening to the country and promised that if they won the 2010 election they could undo the damage Obama had done. The strategy worked. Republicans won the 2010 election, and they won it in a big way. But then they couldn't undo what Obama had done. And their base was too scared to simply accept that.

“To say this more simply,” Klein writes, “grassroots conservatives weren't fated to panic over Obamacare. They were told to panic over Obamacare. And their leaders told them that for good reason.”

As I said before, there’s a lot here that I think is correct. People go too far when they describe the ACA as essentially a conservative’s version of health care reform, it’s true. But it’s also true, as Klein writes, that the ACA was “a much more modest, moderate piece of legislation than Medicare,” which Republicans didn’t like, but didn’t treat as an existential threat, either.

Similarly, Klein is right to note that current Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a conscious decision to turn the debate over the ACA — and Obama’s presidency, in general — into a Manichean struggle between tyranny and freedom, and that he did so for political rather than philosophical reasons. (Gridlock and rancor, he correctly figured, would tarnish Obama’s post-partisan, non-ideological brand.) That’s all correct.

I think that Klein goes astray, however, when he presents the situation as one entirely of the GOP leadership’s own making. Partisans look to their party’s leadership for direction, no doubt. But ultimately its voters who decide if their elected officials’ keep their jobs. The Republican base was mad as hell in 2009 — remember those final McCain-Palin rallies? — and GOP pols wanted voters to think they were angry, too.

The influence went both ways, in other words, with Republican leadership reacting to their base — who were often themselves being riled up by conservative media demagogues — nearly as much as the other way around. But Klein seems to put almost all the blame on the GOP leadership’s shoulders. Here, for example, is how he accounts for Republican voters’ recent mad dash to the far-right:

Republican voters have good reason believe American politics is truly broken and something precious about this country is on the verge of being lost forever. They have been told that, again and again, by every leader and pundit in their party, for years.

They were told that by Mitt Romney, who said we are "inches away from no longer being a free economy." They were told that by John Boehner, who won a House majority based on the promise that he could repeal Obamacare even though he knew nothing of the sort was true.

Again, this narrative contains more than a few kernels of truth. At the same time, though, it’s hard to believe that a consummate weathervane like The Moderate Formerly Known As Mitt was the driving force pushing the GOP rightward. Romney didn’t talk about “self-deportation” because he wanted to; he did it because he thought that his goal of winning his party’s presidential nomination gave him no other choice.

Even if you agree with me, you may be wondering at this point whether this adds up to anything more than someone being wrong on the Internet. I think it does, and here’s why: If the political class in the U.S. wants to see Trump’s candidacy as an especially odious byproduct of a larger socio-political sickness — which they should! — then they need to look the problem square in the face.

The GOP leaderships hands are dirty, without question. But there are a lot of Republicans who can’t get enough of what Donald Trump is selling. They’re still going to be out there, fighting for a country that never existed, whether they have Mitch McConnell’s permission or not.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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