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Republicans Are Responsible for Trump

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Are Democrats responsible for the rise of Donald Trump? That’s an argument some are making – asserting that hyperbolic partisan attacks on Republicans such as George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney rendered Republicans insensitive to more accurate alarms later raised about Trump. It’s essentially an argument that Democrats cried “Wolf!” so often that Republicans didn’t care when the genuine article showed up at the door.

You can argue about whether Romney, for example, was a “sneering plutocrat,” or Bush was a “dunce.” But there is no credible argument that even the most over-the-top partisan claims produced a Trump.

How do we know? Because Republicans proved it. They called President Bill Clinton a drug-running murderer and a likely communist, and then they impeached him, claiming he had committed high crimes. Democrats reacted to these often outlandish attacks by nominating normal candidates such as Al Gore and John Kerry. Not Donald Trump.

Republicans similarly attacked Kerry’s service in the Vietnam War. And that’s before some Republicans alleged that Barack Obama was not even a U.S. citizen, a claim that top Republican leaders declined for years to refute. The Democrats, once again, managed to handle all of that unpleasantness without nominating someone like Trump.

It’s pretty normal for partisans from either side to believe that their candidates are uniquely and unfairly maligned -- “our attacks were just telling the truth, while their attacks were full of exaggerations and falsehoods.” That skewed perception has consequences. For example, some Democrats who believe Hillary Clinton is prone to appearances of impropriety may be more willing to overlook that fault because they believe that Republicans would just make up a phony scandal in lieu of a real one. 

The key difference between the parties, however, is the closed conservative information feedback loop. Within the feedback loop of Republican-aligned media, fringe attacks on Republicans (such as, for instance, Kanye West’s claim that Bush “doesn’t care about black people”) are treated as if they are official Democratic dogma. Likewise, within the loop, it’s taken for granted that Democrats are both dishonest and disastrous -- making even very harsh attacks on them seem relatively moderate and restrained.

At any rate, the notion that Republicans were somehow blinded to Trump’s inadequacies as a candidate by previous over-the-top criticism of Bush, McCain and Romney just doesn’t hold up. After all, the Democrats haven’t nominated a Kardashian. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net