by Victor Davis Hanson
Peggy Noonan, apparently like many, believes that Trump’s occasional callousness and crassness are unprecedented. And they have so befouled the political landscape that he has spawned rude and crude leftwing imitators. The result allegedly is the vile language of the “mean girls” such as the anti-Semitism and foul speech of Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib:
I think we all know where this started, the political brutishness, the ignoring of traditions and norms. Donald Trump is both origin and rationale . . . The mean girls of Congress have learned at his knee. They have taken their tactics from him. They claim to be his reluctant imitators but I think they admire his ferocity. They have a taste for it, and a talent.
With all due respect, I don’t think we “all” know that this started with Trump, however crass he can be. Rather, we know all too well the political landscape a decade before Trump.
Do we recall the recent deranged talk of 2004-8 from the Democratic Party, the popular culture, and the media – or the relative passivity of the wounded Bush administration in response to such venom?
Why, after all, did Alfred A. Knopf publish the novel Checkpoint, a boring and tired rant about fantasizing the assassination of then-President Bush? Who created the particular landscape that encouraged filmmaker Gabriel Range to offer up “Death of a President”that trafficked in the same fantasies of a Bush assassination?
Why would the Guardian publish an op-ed by “satirist” Charles Brooker’s dreaming of the need for another John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald to repeat their needed work – a theme in part that actor Johnny Depp has recently channeled against Trump.
Were premonitions of Trump in 2004 befouling our political discourse?
What were the “origin and rationale” of the Jonathan Chait’s 2003 New Republic screed, “Why I Hate George W. Bush” in which he began: “I hate President George W. Bush There, I said it . . . I hate the way he walks – shoulders flexed, elbows splayed out from his sides like a teenage boy feigning machismo. I hate the way he talks – blustery self-assurance masked by a pseudo populist twang. I even hate the things that everybody seems to like about him.”
Had Chait become unhinged by reading The Art of the Deal?
Long before Johnny Depp, Peter Fonda, Kathy Griffin, Robert De Niro, Madonna, Snoop Dogg, and a host of celebrities were vying to fantasize how best to dispatch President Trump (shooting? burning? decapitation? fisticuffs? explosives?), Garrison Keillor, Linda Ronstadt, Harold Pinter, George Soros, and other notables competed to find the proper fascist/Nazi simile for George Bush and his administration.
As far as the discourse of pre-Trump politicians and statesmen go, again, who or what exactly was the model for the former governor, presidential candidate, and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, when he blustered, “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for” or “This is a struggle of good and evil. And we’re the good”?
Do we remember 2007, when the New York Times gave a discount to MoveOn.org for the ad hominem, anti-David Petraeus “General Betray Us” advertisement? Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) on that very day suggested that the commander of all forces in Iraq had given sworn testimony that required “a willing suspension of disbelief.” Did tabloid stories of Manhattan raconteur Trump egg on Hillary to call America’s supreme battlefield commander a veritable liar in the middle of a war?
Did anticipation of Donald Trump over a decade ago prompt Al Gore to libel Bush’s Internet supporters as “digital brownshirts”? Who offered the “rationale” to the late senator and hero John Glenn to talk of Bush in terms of “It’s the old Hitler business”?
Are we to suppose that when Trump was alternately going broke and making millions in New York he had influenced NAACP chairman Julian Bond to slander the Bush Administration with, “Their idea of equal rights is the American flag and the Confederate swastika flying side by side”? What were the “norms and traditions” that prompted the “doyen” of the Senate, Robert Byrd, to compare the Bush Administration’s legislative efforts to those of the Third Reich?
Was Bush himself the origin of and rationale for such hate? Was his decision not to respond an example of welcomed and much needed magnanimity that was reciprocated in kind and thus cooled the waters of hate?
Sober and Judicious Hate?
Did Barack Obama, as promised, usher in a new hope and change climate in which such rhetoric abated? Were “Fight the Smears,” JournoList, and AttackWatch of the Obama-era reflections of such a subdued rhetorical climate? Perhaps the outreach of a Lois Lerner was calming or the commentary of an Anita Dunn?
Were norms and traditions followed in monitoring the Associated Press reporters and Fox’s James Rosen? What prompted the 2008 campaign rhetoric of “typical white person,” “get in their face” and “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun, because from what I understand folks in Philly like a good brawl.”
Or was the later Obama taunt of “you didn’t build that,” and a call for Latinos to “punish our enemies” prompted by the ghost of Joe McCarthy or Richard Nixon, or channeled through a Donald Trump séance?
Do we remember the jest and discourse concerning Sarah Palin? Who, then, was president (and thus supposedly set the national tone of permissible jest and rhetoric), when David Letterman joked of the statutory rape of Sarah Palin’s 14-year-old daughter who had attended a recent New York Yankees game: “One awkward moment for Sarah Palin at the Yankee game—during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez”? Was essayist Andrew Sullivan, anticipating years in advance Donald Trump’s birther fantasies, when he kept peddling the absurd “truther” conspiracy theory of Sarah Palin faking her own pregnancy?
Before Trump was elected, Peter Strzok, the FBI investigator at the center of so many of the FBI’s investigations from 2015 through 2017, wrote off Trump supporters as hillbillies fouling the air of Walmart. For a CNN reporter, Trump’s supporters were toothless nobodies. There is an ample corpus of elite fantasies of swapping out Trump supporters for supposedly more industrious and morally superior immigrants.
Why Then Do The “Mean Girls” Hate?
The point is not to excuse Trump’s sometimes counterproductive and coarse tweets, but to emphasize that the idea of Trump as the fons et origio of all calumny is absurd. Such a construct demands convenient amnesia about a pre-Trump political environment in which comparing political enemies to Nazis, openly expressing hatred, and vile dreaming of killing a president were all pretty normal stuff. Madonna and Kathy Griffin simply resumed the customary presidential hatred after the Left had taken a brief hiatus from the attitude between 2009-2017.
As far as the vitriol that now regularly is heard from Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), they are simply reflections of a long-standing left-wing viciousness against Israel and Jews in general that is now deeply embedded within elements of the Democratic Party, who abroad see Israel as a sinister force in the Middle East, in the stereotyped manner they apparently do of Jews at home.
There is no need to quote thirty years of the anti-Semitic hatred of Louis Farrakhan, so welcomed in the past by the progressive women’s march co-leader heartthrob Linda Sarsour. But why in the world would a Senator Barack Obama pose for a photo-op with such a bigot, and why was his personal confidant and advisor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a veritable anti-Semitic nut (“Them Jews ain’t going to let him talk to me.”)? Whose excesses prompted Democratic House member Hank Johnson to compare West Bank settlers to “termites” and who influenced his predecessor, Cynthia McKinney, to have talked of “dancing Israelis” celebrating the 9/11 attack?
So, what explains this desire to blame Trump for supposedly alone prompting the sudden debasement of political discourse and behavior?
One, we all suffer from historical amnesia, both ancient and recent. Read what was said and written about Jefferson, Adams, Jackson, and Lincoln, or what they sometimes said about others, and Trump seems near tame in comparison. Harry Truman in 1948 likened Thomas Dewey to a Hitlerian tool. Franklin Roosevelt and Dewey in 1944 traded similar smears.
In 2008, John McCain was cruelly reduced to an amnesiac warmonger who could not remember all the houses that his rich wife bought for him; in 2012 Mitt Romney was guilty of everything from having an elevator in his house and a dog strapped to his car roof to his wife’s having too fancy riding clothes and of hazing a boy with an unwanted haircut while in high school.
When we say that Trump is the worst something or another (fill in the blanks) during his presidential tenure, we must deliberately forget what exactly a JFK, LBJ, or Bill Clinton were routinely doing while president. If Trump orders a 18-year-old female staffer to fellate a senior aide in the White House swimming pool, or exposes himself to staff, or has oral sex with a young female subordinate in the West Wing, we certainly could agree that his presidential behavior is typical of the abhorrent behavior of past presidents.
Second, before his nomination Trump was considered a cable news entertainment ratings bonanza, coverage of whom might aid in imploding the Republican Party. Then during the general election, Trump was written off as a buffoon with no chance of winning and thus interrupting a sure 16-year Obama-Clinton progressive regnum.
So, his startling 2016 victory literally sickened the establishment that had found his candidacy previously either entertaining or useful. After the initial disbelief, followed unprecedented anger that led to an effort to abort a supposedly illegitimate and unprecedented crude presidency in a manner never seen before in American political history.
When the bogus “collusion” dossier – paid for by Hillary Clinton, seeded by her supporters among the Obama administration, and its contents leaked to the press – failed to stop Trump’s election, it was revived in vain efforts to end his presidency before it had really started.
By Any Means Necessary
What followed was hysteria and, yes, a bitter and nasty effort to claim that Trump was physically and mentally impaired and should be removed under the 25th Amendment. What created the present cycle of bombast, venom, and furor were likewise pathetic efforts to warp the Electoral College voting, to impugn the voting records of three states, to impeach Trump, to sue under the Emoluments Clause, to cite the Logan Act, and to launch the Muller investigation, as well as the amateurish comedic “resistance” invoked by the September 5, 2018 anonymous New York Times op-ed writer and referenced as a near coup by Andrew McCabe and Rod Rosenstein.
All that, amid 80-90 percent negative news coverage, was not just mean discourse, but a fanatic and mean-spirited effort to overturn the results of the 2016 election, ensuring a bitterness the end of which we have not yet seen. The point was not to wait for 2020 and to persuade Americans that they had been in error in 2016, but to destroy – as soon as possible – the man whom Americans had chosen as their president by any rhetorical and concrete means necessary.
By 2008, the Left had learned that it had helped to implode the Bush Administration through an unhinged attack that encompassed everything from “Bush lied, people died” to charging the president with planning a near genocide during the Katrina disaster. In response, the Right had seemed to think the way to calm such serial calumny was to be sober, judicious, and compliant, in the manner of the 2008 McCain and 2012 Romney campaigns. Fairly or not, that prior cycle of left-wing smears and conservative deference likely created Trump, who eventually would have had to be invented had he not existed.
Of course, Trump’s retaliatory tweets directed at the late John McCain or the nonentity George Conway direct attention away from his achievements and should be avoided. They win him no additional voters. They are certainly not Sermon on the Mount, turn-the-other-cheek examples of tolerance – even if part of a long-standing, give-and-take feud with the late McCain, and as a response to the furor of members of the McCain family, especially after the solemn McCain funeral seemed to descend into a Paul Wellstone funeral-like political event.
Nonetheless, Trump’s recent unwise tit-for-tat tweets did not create the “mean girl” hatred of Ilhan Omar, or the stream of consciousness venom of Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They and their ilk learned that ritually trashing Israel and mouthing polarizing progressive platitudes – laced with hip slang, snark, and obscenity and fueled by peremptory charges of racism and sexism – were winning formulas that since the Bush administration had met only indifferent pushback.
They will continue because they know their tough talk solidifies their base, embarrasses their appeasing party seniors, is transforming the Democratic Party into a Jacobin revolutionary movement, is shielded by empty anticipatory charges of “Islamophobia” and “racism,” and will likely not even be called out by establishment conservatives too mannered and proud to respond – especially when it is so much easier to say “Trump did it.”
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Victor Davis Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and is currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004.