WASHINGTON – The lies and distortions that Donald Trump’s campaign messengers deploy to rationalize their candidate’s outrageousness are more typical of the last couple of decades of our politics than we’d like to admit.
Especially revealing and infuriating are the efforts to use Al Gore as a human shield against the public indignation Trump aroused by refusing to say whether he would accept the verdict of a democratic election. To compare what Gore did in the aftermath of the contested 2000 election with what Trump is doing now is like analogizing a fire marshal investigating the causes of a blaze to an arsonist.
But first, the larger lesson. As Trump has plummeted in the polls, more conventional Republicans who thought they could get away with supporting him have tried to pretend that Trump and his message were foisted on them from some distant planet.
On Thursday in Florida, President Barack Obama called the GOP’s bluff. “Trump didn’t come out of nowhere,” he declared. “For years, Republican politicians and far-right media outlets had just been pumping out all kinds of toxic, crazy stuff. … Donald Trump didn’t start all this. Like he usually does, he just slapped his name on it, took credit for it, and promoted the heck out of it.”
Obama cataloged the craziness he had in mind: the “birther thing,” climate change as “a Chinese hoax,” and claims that “I’m about to steal everybody’s guns in the middle of the night and declare martial law, but somehow I still need a teleprompter to finish a sentence.”
The headline news was about Obama taking on Sen. Marco Rubio for calling Trump “dangerous” and a “con artist” and then deciding it was still OK to endorse him. A race is on between now and Election Day: Can Republican candidates run away from Trump fast enough to keep their opponents from tagging them as enablers of the most dangerous candidate ever nominated by either party?
Many politically vulnerable Republicans have tried to cover themselves by condemning Trump’s refusal to say he’d accept the election’s outcome if he lost. But his election-rigging charges have a long history.
Part of Trump’s rationale rests on accusations that the media are stacked against him. This has been a staple Republican talking point since the days of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. And Trump’s insistence that Democrats win elections through “voter fraud,” mostly in big cities and minority neighborhoods, is the groundless, evidence-less rationalization Republicans have used for years to justify laws aimed at disenfranchising those who are inclined to vote against them.
In fact, voter suppression is a far graver danger to our democracy than the vanishingly tiny amount of fraud, as Ari Berman, the author of “Give Us the Ballot,” documented last week in The Nation.
Which brings us to Gore. Knowing the political trouble Trump’s blatant disrespect for the democratic process is causing him, the Republican’s defenders are relying on innocence by association. “I’m going to keep reminding everybody about the 2000 election when Al Gore said he would accept the results of the election and then did not,” said Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager. “He retracted his concession.”
This, of course, is ridiculous, as the fact-checkers have shown. Gore’s call to Bush after midnight conceding the race actually showed how much respect he had for the electoral process. It was only after news organizations withdrew their calls of Florida for Bush, depriving him of an Electoral College majority, that Gore decided a recount was called for.
To this day, many Democrats view the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision abruptly halting recounts and awarding Florida to Bush by 537 votes as partisan and even lawless. Yet despite this, and even though Gore won the national popular vote by more than 500,000, he nonetheless conceded with exceptional graciousness. “What remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside,” Gore said, publicly congratulating Bush and urging the country “to unite behind our next president.”
It’s very important to notice that Conway was effectively channeling the efforts of Bush partisans during the Florida struggle. They attacked Gore simply because he wanted a recount in an agonizingly close race. The Wall Street Journal’s editorialists spoke then of “a Gore Coup d’Etat” while Rush Limbaugh flatly asserted that Gore was trying to “steal it.” Limbaugh also said this: “We know the whole thing has been rigged.”
Yes, we’ve heard almost everything Trump and his minions are saying before. You wonder how much introspection Republicans will be capable of after all the votes are counted this year.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.