The party of personal responsibility is now the party of “the libs made me do it”
More than just a hit song by Taylor Swift, Look what you made me do has become the go-to excuse for unsavory actions among conservatives.
You’d be surprised how many conservatives were this close to casting a ballot for Democrats next month only to be thrust back into their Republican ways by how liberal protesters and Democratic senators handled themselves during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. No, I don’t have data to back this up. What I do have, however, are anecdotes -- lots and lots of anecdotes from conservative media figures who are sharing them, ever so kindly and not at all suspiciously, because they just want to help Democrats win some elections.
“From a conservative who has been disgusted by the Trumpified GOP: ‘I didn’t think I could drag myself to the polls. But after the Left’s performance in the Kavanaugh affair, I would crawl across broken glass.’ I believe this sentiment is common,” wrote National Review’s Jay Nordlinger on Twitter.
In his most recent Washington Post column, Hugh Hewitt stressed the importance of not rewarding the “outburst of the new McCarthyism” that was the opposition to Kavanaugh’s spot on the court. This lesson, of course, is for the Democratic Party’s own good -- and it’s one that can be taught only by increasing Republican majorities in the House and Senate. For Republicans who find themselves disapproving of President Donald Trump’s “hyperbole and occasional cruelty,” voting a straight-GOP ballot is a courageous sacrifice worthy of applause. Democrats can rest easy knowing that Hugh Hewitt, longtime friend of the left, has their best interests at heart. Or … something like that.
“I’ve heard from several of my center-right friends today who are turned off by the Left’s attacks on Kavanaugh & Cruz. As a result, they have started solidly supporting them both,” wrote Daily Beast columnist and CNN commentator Matt Lewis on Twitter, sharing an “admittedly anecdotal” bit of info with his followers.
Each of these stories could be thusly summed up: I didn’t want to vote for Trump or his congressional enablers … but look what you made me do. In other words, it’s your fault that we’re here.
It’s a convenient defense to sidestep responsibility for actions or positions one knows to be ethically murky. For many conservatives, that includes supporting Trump and his oft-cruel agenda.
One variation on this trope is the rejoinder, “This is how you got Trump.” Again on Twitter, Lewis reminds readers that though he’s spent years “lamenting the rise of what came to be called ‘Trumpism’ on the Right,” we should remember at least two of the real causes behind the phenomenon: “liberal media bias” and “the radicalization of the Left.”
The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro has blamed the rise of Trump on a litany of factors: former President Barack Obama’s lectures; Hillary Clinton’s decision to participate in a sketch during the 2018 Grammy Awards (14 months after Trump’s election); a joke about salads; a tweet from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes about the cancellation of Roseanne; an admittedly bizarre HuffPost article titled “Why I Put A Dragonfruit Up My Butt…”; the response to a CNN segment in which Fox Sports Radio host Clay Travis said the only two things he believed in were “the First Amendment and boobs”; and, in the most meta example possible, the phrase “this is why Trump won.”
Surely some of those were meant as jokes, but they illustrate something important within modern politics: No one can ever be to blame for their own actions. “How you got Trump” is that Republicans voted for him during the party’s 2016 primary and then went on to cast their ballots for him in the general election. Yes, of course there were other factors, such as Obama voters who crossed over to Trump, Democrats and independents who sat the election out, voter suppression and disenfranchisement efforts, and so on. None of them, however, were tweets, salads, or sketches during awards shows. Voters -- Trump voters -- gave us Trump. At least that would seem apparent.
Sometimes, this tactic is deployed as a response, as it was during the Kavanaugh confirmation. Other times, it’s a warning against future action.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win during the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District left some on the right flustered. A young, affable, progressive candidate who rose from obscurity to defeat a powerful incumbent could pose a threat to the conservative monopoly on power -- if more candidates like her were to emerge and succeed. Right-leaning commentators have since deployed a series of editorials urging Democrats, for their own sake, not to venture too far to the left.
“Democrats need to choose: Are they the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the party of Michael Bloomberg?” asked a June Business Insider article by Daniella Greenbaum. At The Atlantic, Reihan Salam wrote about Ocasio-Cortez as a sign that the Democratic Party may be in for an unwise shift to the left. Former George H.W. Bush staffer Lloyd Green warned at The Hill that “wealthy swing voters will not buy what Ocasio-Cortez is selling.”
The promise, though sometimes unspoken, is that if the Democrats were to simply be a little more conservative, they would be able to cash in on the many disillusioned Trump voters. At The New York Times, David Brooks urged Democrats to make less of a fuss about right-wing attacks on abortion rights. Doing this, he surmises, would help them defeat the threat that Trumpism poses to the country and the world. Often, these articles are a request for just one little concession here or there -- maybe it’s to ease up on abortion; or maybe it’s to sit out the conservative battle against LGBTQ rights; or maybe it’s to adopt a more market-driven approach to health insurance. The message bombarding readers is that people on the left are forcing those on the right to march toward authoritarianism simply by being on the left. The underlying argument is that to be successful at the polls, Democrats need to abandon many of the things that differentiate them from Republicans -- which, in Greenbaum’s argument, involves becoming “the party of” a former Republican mayor -- or else conservatives will have no choice but to continue their rightward march.
But if Trump is the type of existential threat to conservatism and country that National Review made him out to be in its “Against Trump” issue or that Shapiro sugested in a piece for The Daily Wire, then the “party of personal responsibility” needs to take it upon itself to reshape from within. Instead, right-wing media figures are rattling off reasons that it’s actually the fault of Democrats that Republicans became the party of Trump -- not because of their own choices, actions, and divisions.
Trump himself uses this tactic in his own political battles. Take his immigration policy, for example.
“It is now time for Congress to act!” Trump said in a 2017 statement announcing the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
The meticulously crafted statement suggested that his hands were tied. As much as he wanted to keep the program in place, he had little choice but to send the issue back to Congress with hope that it would pass legislation to protect the undocumented immigrants here under the 2012 program. This, of course, was a farce. Trump had every right to leave the program in place while encouraging Congress to make it permanent. Instead, he turned the lives of nearly 700,000 people into a political bargaining chip attached to a ticking time bomb.
“We want to see something happen with DACA,” Trump said in January. “It’s been spoken of for years, and children are now adults in many cases.” But did he actually want to have a DACA bill on his desk to sign? A number of Democrats (including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein) called on Republican leaders in Congress to vote on a clean bill to completely resolve the issue. In fact, at the same time Trump announced the plan to wind down DACA, the DREAM Act of 2017 had been languishing in the Senate for more than a month. He chose not to put pressure on Republican members of Congress (the bill did have Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Cory Gardner (R-CO) as co-sponsors) to pass the existing bill. Instead, he railed against inaction, making repeated claims that Democrats were the ones choosing not to protect DACA recipients, tweeting that Democrats were “nowhere to be found” on the issue, didn’t care, and were ultimately responsible for the fact that “DACA is dead” (DACA is actually still active as it faces challenges in courts).
Not only were Democrats willing to act, but many crossed the aisle to provide a bipartisan solution which included an offer to fund his border wall. In response, Trump threatened to veto the bill were it to pass Congress. He went on to repeat this exact same strategy to defend his administration’s family separation policy, falsely blaming it on a “horrible law” that simply did not and does not exist.
Just as some conservatives in the media can justify their support of Trump’s cruelest policies by blaming just about anything apart from their own decision-making (did you know that Saturday Night Live can lead the most disillusioned former Republican back into the party’s warm embrace?), Trump justifies his own policies by blaming his political opponents. Everyone is happy to take credit for making the right call when something is good -- there’s no shortage of positive coverage among conservatives when it comes to the “Trump economy” -- but blame gets spread far and fast when something has a negative outcome.
One of the latest examples of this trend involves Trump’s own op-ed in USA Today. While there are a number of outright lies in the piece, there’s one that’s especially galling.
“As a candidate, I promised that we would protect coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions and create new health care insurance options that would lower premiums,” reads the editorial. “I have kept that promise, and we are now seeing health insurance premiums coming down.”
Trump has not kept his promise to people with pre-existing conditions, of course, instead painting Democrats as the party that wants to take away people’s access to health care. In fact, the administration is actively trying to gut protections for people with pre-existing conditions in court. On Wednesday, the Republican Senate voted down a measure to prevent a new rule put forward by the administration that would allow insurance companies to offer plans that exclude these crucial and popular protections.
If and when those defenses erode, there’s little doubt that he will look to Democrats as he did during the DACA debate and shrug as if to say, “I really wanted to help. Really, I did. But look what you made me do.” His defenders are sure to join in. It’s the job of a responsible media to hold him to account.