Who's to blame for Donald Trump's rise? Conservatives use revisionist history to claim liberals are responsible

The very people who enabled Trump and nurtured his base are now blaming liberals and liberal media for his ascent

Published October 25, 2016 8:59AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Christopher Gregory)
(Getty/Christopher Gregory)

As a Hillary Clinton victory in the presidential election has come to seem more and more likely, one of the big questions in political circles is what the Republican Party will do starting on Nov. 9. Will the GOP as an institution admit it has spent decades incubating the ethno-nationalism and white supremacy that Trump has exploited to grab the loyalty of the party's base and the presidential nomination?

Will the party conduct an appropriate housecleaning, expelling the poison of the alt-right and moderating its conservatism to appeal to a wider range of the electorate?

Or will the GOP go in another direction by blaming Democrats and the mainstream media for somehow duping Republican voters into falling under the spell of this tangelo-shaded demagogue in ill-fitting suits?

Conservatives are beginning what will probably be a years-long argument over the answer to these questions. And wouldn’t you know it, some of them are going with the latter option.

For example, here is an anonymous writer at the Federalist chastising progressives for, early in the election cycle, softening Trump by noting that in terms of policy, candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were so much further to the right that the prospect of their winning the presidency should scare liberals much more than Trump’s possible election.

Here is Mollie Hemingway, another Federalist writer, complaining that media outlets abetted Trump’s meltdown over the Alicia Machado story by covering a story that the campaign of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, fed them.

And here is Matt Lewis, a columnist for the Daily Caller, complaining that the mainstream media “boosted” Trump with tons of free airtime. Presumably Lewis knows that much of this airtime came from CNN, which employs him as a commentator.

There are few things more cynical than placing the blame for your party’s shortcomings in an election on what amounts to the mean things that adherents of an opposing ideology said about it during a political campaign. This line of thinking removes agency from the people in the GOP's base who voted for Trump in large numbers, rejecting 16 other more ordinary, doctrinaire Republicans in the process.

I don’t want to assume that these commentators are suggesting GOP voters are gullible idiots who fell for the garbage that these pundits have been putting out in the world for years. But maybe I’m wrong!

So if these and other conservatives are going to blame a biased media for aiding Trump’s ascension, there are a couple of points that need to be made.

For starters, there is Lewis’s argument about the mainstream media giving Trump tons of airtime. It is true that the networks covered Trump extensively, something that Lewis’ boss at CNN, Jeff Zucker, recently admitted he regrets. (In fact, as reported on Monday, he has $100 million worth of regrets.)

But do you know which network boosted Trump the most during the yearlong Republican primary? It was Fox News, which from May 2015 t0 May 2016 gave the mogul double the airtime and number of appearances that it gave to the Republican runner-up, Ted Cruz.

Who exactly does Lewis think was watching Fox News while its head, Roger Ailes, was allowing Trump to pollute its airwaves with his demagoguery? This is the network that has been a propaganda arm for conservatism and the GOP since its inception two decades ago. Put it this way: All those primary voters who gave Trump the nomination have not spent years watching “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

What Hemingway, Lewis and the anonymous Federalist writer upset at liberal policy writers for analyzing policies are really upset about is that the conservative movement has become locked in “epistemic closure,” as libertarian writer Julian Sanchez termed it in early 2010. As Jonathan Chait has defined it, epistemic closure is “an intellectual world in which the only trustworthy sources of information are those within your movement.”

On the right, these sources include Hemingway’s Federalist and Lewis’ Daily Caller, which have both spent the better part of the Obama administration pushing the exact silly demagoguery and conspiracy theories that riled up the conservative base and pushed it into nominating a demagogue of its own — one who promised to protect and save them from the same insanities that Lewis and Hemingway were being paid to spout.

It is not enough to say now that you are the principled conservatives who have always opposed Trump when you participated in feeding the rage that fueled his rise with bad-faith criticisms of liberalism.

There are some on the right who have in fact recognized the monster created by conservative media that resulted in the GOP's being saddled with Trump.

As much as anything else, how the battle between these two sides plays out over coming months will determine the future of the Republican Party.

By Gary Legum

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