Recently on Twitter, Josh Barro said Romney’s Never Trump speech from the primary was better than he remembered and Matt Yglesias replied that “If Mitt had the courage of his convictions and played the Evan McMullin role he could have made a real difference.” This struck me as profoundly uncharitable so I screencapped the tweet along with Yglesias’s infamous “Why I’m More Worried About Marco Rubio Than Donald Trump” post. Yglesias replied to this pointing out that he was wrong to say Rubio was worse and that he had retracted that take a few weeks later which he followed up by a few other tweets saying it was a mistake and other liberals had it right in vociferously opposing Trump from day one. Now as I have previously remarked, the appropriate response to someone who rejects folly for any reason is to embrace them for it. My point in blogging this is not to further sneer at Yglesias but to acknowledge that pretty much everybody has in some way underestimated the threat of Trump and this is what made him possible.
Most people underestimated Trump early on in the sense of seeing him as a problem that would solve itself, or perhaps as somebody else’s problem. For much of 2015 it was not absurd to see Trump as a clown seeking publicity who would drop out before certain disclosure-linked filing deadlines (just as he had in three earlier cycles). From this perspective you didn’t need to do anything to stop him as you could wishcast that he would drop out. Likewise, one could appreciate that Trump was a threat but focus on rivals within one’s own lane, which led to a collective action problem in challenging Trump. Hence the Jeb! Campaign and his Right to Rise super PAC squandered $100 million attacking Marco Rubio. Likewise, early in the primary Ted Cruz hugged Trump in the hope that he would sputter out and Cruz could then sweep up his voters.
There was also a much more egregious version of underestimating Trump which was to have such contempt for one’s traditional political rivals as to actively prefer Trump to them. This was the mistake that Yglesias (briefly) made in seeing Rubio as worse than Trump and giving as reasons all the standard complaints a center-leftist has against a generic Republican. And of course a center-leftist is entitled to oppose a center-right politician running on a garden variety fusionist platform, but it is absurd for a center-leftist to say fusionism is worse than fascism. Likewise, consider why once Rubio dropped out that the party didn’t rally to Cruz as Romney begged it to do, the standard answer being that every Republican in Washington hates Cruz for his endless showboating and propensity to call everybody else a bunch of RINOs and the K-Street wing was afraid that he would be harder to redirect towards their petty venalities than Trump. Now, I can understand hating Cruz for this. I hated Cruz for his shutdown theatrics and generally being the poster-boy for median voter theorem denialist derp, but I still voted for him in the California primary because it was the best shot at stopping Trump. And yet the party as a whole was so focused on the last six years of Tea Party versus establishment fights that it couldn’t recognize that the party was on the verge of being taken over by a demagogue far nastier than some guy in a three corner hat. If people like this were running things in 1941, we never would have extended Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union and Hitler would have taken Moscow in time to redeploy half the Wehrmacht to the Atlantic Wall.
The myopia of seeing Trump as somebody else’s problem, or worse, as less bad than my traditional enemy across or within political parties, is bad, but what makes it downright painful is there is every reason to believe the lesson has gone unlearned and that as a dog returns to its vomit so will we fools return to our folly. There was a preview of this “learned nothing, forgotten nothing” mentality a week ago when it briefly looked like the Republican party would convince Trump to resign and run Pence at the top of the ticket and the immediate response was a bunch of takes arguing Pence was just as bad or worse than Trump. Included amongst these was a piece from Vox, where Yglesias ran his “Rubio is worse than Trump” piece and the retraction a few weeks later. (Vox: The smartest thinkers, the tastiest vomit).
We deserve this. All of us.