Who Are the Anti-Trump Heroes?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Incredibly, The New York Times's op-ed diva Maureen Dowd actually wrote an interesting and insightful column last week.  Her argument is incomplete, as I will explain below, but she actually wrote words that made sense and offered an argument that needed to be made.

Dowd drew from her deep well of richly earned hatred for George W. Bush and especially Dick Cheney, and she pointed out that many of their enablers and cheerleaders are now being cheered on the left for being NeverTrumpers.  She is having none of it.  If anything, she nicely overstates her point rather than following her usual pattern of offering self-satisfied D.C. insider snark.  If she is going to err (and she is), it is much better to see her go for blood against the Republicans for real sins than to, say, carp about "Barry" Obama being too aloof.

Dowd states her thesis clearly in the third sentence of the piece, saying that "villainizing Trump should not entail sanitizing other malefactors."  The column was motivated by a new movie about Cheney, and Dowd's central argument is that we need to stop and ask why so many veterans of the second-worst presidency in American history are now not only respected public commentators but are actually being celebrated on the left.

The toleration of right-wingers is so bad that, as Dowd put it, "MSNBC is awash in nostalgia for Ronald Reagan and W."  This is great stuff, and as I said, when the anti-Trump crowd is hugging the Bush/Cheney people, someone needs to call BS.  As I will explain momentarily, however, Dowd simply ignores the counter-intuitive upside of having loathsome people on one's side.

Before getting there, however, it is worth luxuriating for a bit in Dowd's walk down memory lane, because we can all benefit from a reminder that the conservatives who now sit in judgment of Trump are going to have a rough go of it when they meet St. Peter.  She is outraged that "[w]ar criminals-turned-liberal heroes are festooned with book and TV contracts, podcasts and op-ed perches."

Consider The Washington Post's Max Boot, who has written a series of columns over the last year or so publicly announcing his divorce from the Republican Party, including October 31's "Vote Against Republicans.  Every Single One."  Potent stuff.  As Dowd points out, however, Boot "urged an invasion of Iraq whether or not Saddam was involved in 9/11."

She adds that "the Pygmalions of Palin, who backed Trump on the birther filth, are now among the most celebrated voices" among Democrats."  And she notes that Cheney was profiting from his White House perch (Halliburton no-bid contracts, anyone?) long before Trump became the hotelier to the Saudis.

Comparing Trump to Cheney, Dowd asks: "How do you like your norms broken? Over Twitter or in a torture memo? By a tinpot demagogue stomping on checks and balances he can’t even fathom or a shadowy authoritarian expertly and quietly dismantling checks and balances he knows are sacred?"  Indeed, I have been arguing for years that Cheney was the master of discovering which rules were not truly rules.  For example, he put pressure on intelligence officers to give him the answers that would justify his "cake-walk" invasion of Iraq.

To much the same effect, Dowd quotes Adam McKay, the director of the upcoming Cheney movie: “Would you rather have a professional assassin after you or a frothing maniac with a meat cleaver? I’d rather have a maniac with a meat cleaver after me, so I think Cheney is way worse. And also, if you look at the body count, more than 600,000 people died in Iraq. It’s not even close, right?”

Given that Trump represents a fundamental threat to constitutional democracy itself, I am not sure that McKay is right.  Even so, I certainly see his point.  There is more than enough reason to remember how bad Cheney was, and it is not actually necessary to compare him to Trump.  Instead, it is reasonable for Dowd to ask whether Cheney's minions have any right to be applauded for discovering too late that the Tea Party and, say, John Bolton are nutcases and that Trump's tax cuts were merely the extension of Reagan/Bush ideology.

One part of Dowd's argument does strike me as either implausible or a distraction.  She writes: "And we should acknowledge that the president is right on one point: For neocons, journalists, authors, political hacks and pundits, there is a financial incentive to demonize the president, not to mention an instant halo effect."

But are these people truly in it for the money?  I have no doubt that they do not refuse any paychecks, but that is true of me as well (and most likely for nearly everyone reading this column).  Moreover, when she adds that, "[a]s with Nixon and Watergate, the correct moral response and the lavish remunerative rewards neatly dovetail," she undermines her own argument.  That is, one need not be in it for the money to earn money in this media environment.  I can see why it is galling to see these people -- who advanced truly horrible policies that cost countless innocent lives -- doing well financially.  But that seems beside the point.

The "halo effect," however, is the essence of the unanswered question raised by Dowd's column.  She asks essentially why the non-Fox media is even listening to the Devil's former helpers, essentially saying that their past bad deeds make them unfit to comment today.  I completely agree with her assessment of everyone in that crowd, but she is simply wrong if she thinks that there is no value in having these people on liberals' side in the fight against Trump.

It is clearly helpful to be able to say about, for example, John Yoo that "even the author of the torture memos is calling out Trump for replacing Jeff Sessions with a hack who has never been confirmed by the Senate."  When people who have fundamentally disagreed on so many things can all agree that Trump is a menace, that strengthens the message.

Frequent readers of this blog have surely noticed that I have my own favorite NeverTrumper in the person of Post columnist Jennifer Rubin (another neocon who apparently spends a lot of time on MSNBC).  In response to one of my columns earlier this year in which I said good things about Rubin (but criticized her mindless adoption of conservative economic orthodoxy), one of this blog's regular commenters wrote: "Jennifer Rubin is a conservative Romneyite whose only value is her opposition to Trump."

Actually, Rubin has arguably become a moderate Democrat, opposing the Republicans' tax cuts because of their regressivity, defending reproductive rights and gun control, and strongly opposing the Republicans' court-packing activities (including some insightful anti-Kavanaugh commentary).  So it is possible that she is not merely one of the crew that enrages Dowd, at least not any more.

If so, however, Rubin still needs to do a lot of work to get over her knee-jerk reactions to a lot of issues.  For example, she is positively obsessed with attacking Bernie Sanders, arguing as recently as last week that some non-Democratic voters "are prepared to join with Democratic voters, who far from Bernie Sanders socialists, sound fairly moderate."

The problem for Rubin is that "Bernie Sanders socialists" (note that she leaves out the modifier "democratic" before socialist) are themselves not immoderate.  Although Rubin favors commentary from center-right groups like Third Way (which is itself obsessed with Sanders and insists on misrepresenting his policies and the public's preferences for them), the fact is that 70 percent of voters of all stripes favor "Medicare for All."  And it is easy to find support for increased minimum wages, increased taxes on the rich and corporations, and straight down the Sanders line (almost all of which Rubin herself advocates).

As I argued this past summer, conservatives who want to stop Trump must learn to compromise at least as much as they have been telling liberals to "be realistic" for the last decade or four.  That means that when Democrats nominate someone who is actually further to the left than an anti-Trump conservative prefers, such conservatives have to suck it up and do what Sanders's supporters were told to do in 2016 after their preferred candidate lost: Vote for someone they dislike anyway, because it is the only realistic choice.

And it is certainly essential not to invent extremism where it does not exist or exaggerate policy differences by shouting "Socialist!"  That, more than anything else, plays into the Republicans' hands.  I suspect that Rubin would argue that she is merely being realistic about what voters will tolerate, such as when she says that "the large center is wide open if Democrats run appropriate candidates."  But she makes it very clear that Sanders is definitely not an appropriate candidate, and she is there to reinforce voters' misconceptions about him.

Boot, by contrast, simply tells people to vote against Republicans, no matter what.  No exceptions for Republicans running against Sanders or his allies.

In the end, I am glad that Dowd has reminded us of the creepy track records of some of the people who are now being rehabilitated by this political moment.  But their presence need not be a matter of forgiveness (nor about cashing in).  When people who disagree about most things can say, "On Trump, there is no disagreement," it matters.