On Friday night’s edition of Real Time, host Bill Maher was in spectacular form, lashing out at the sheer existential insanity of Trump for somehow reaching this level in presidential politics. It was one of his best performances yet, especially when he tossed aside the usual monologue jokes for a serious and appropriately loud message to the political press: “It’s not fucking funny. There is a slow-moving right-wing coup going on. Media, do your fucking job! Report on it!”
However, during a heated conversation with David Frum later in the show, Maher revealed something that I simply couldn’t fully embrace, even though I normally agree with Maher on everything from pot to terrorism. The keyword here is “fully,” by the way. We’ll circle back to this point.
Maher told Frum that the left was “crying wolf” about the GOP nominees in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 presidential elections — specifically, George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney. The idea, I assume, was that we all recognized how each candidate was at his core a decent man and, with regard to McCain and Romney, wouldn’t have utterly ruined our lives had they won.
“I know liberals made a big mistake because we attacked your boy [President George W. Bush] like he was the end of the world,” Maher told panelist David Frum, a former speechwriter for Bush. “He wasn’t.”
Maher continued: “And Mitt Romney, we attacked that way. I gave Obama a million dollars, I was so afraid of Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney wouldn’t have changed my life that much, or yours. Or John McCain.”
“They were honorable men who we disagreed with. And we should have kept it that way. So we cried wolf. And that was wrong,” Maher said.
If Maher was trying to say that, in comparison, Bush, McCain and Romney were far better men than Trump in a relative sense, then I mostly agree.
But the idea that we unfairly amplified the stakes of those elections by fabricating and superimposing demonic intentions onto the candidates is a huge stretch. Maybe that was the case with Maher’s approach at the time, but he surely doesn’t speak for me on this one. Absent the perspective of Trump, or even with it, I believe I fairly and accurately criticized the previous GOP nominees, including President Bush. The same goes for most rational participants in the debate during those years, and, of course, excluding the hotheads and conspiracy theorists.
Without re-litigating the full menu of his flaws, Bush deserved to be ousted in 2004 for a variety of reasons beginning with the ill-conceived and horrendously executed Iraq War, not to mention the rap-sheet of other unforgivable decisions. After he was re-elected, he screwed middle-class Americans with his bankruptcy reform legislation; he tried desperately to privatize Social Security; he completely bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina; he gave us Scalia’s Mini-Me in the form of Sam Alito; and he helped precipitate the Great Recession, to name a few of the most treacherous downsides.
For what it’s worth, the bankruptcy reform bill combined with the cascading impact of the Great Recession utterly screwed my life and personal finances for at least the subsequent five years.
As for McCain, we need only look to his choice for vice president. Sarah Palin. The Proto-Trump. Furthermore, based on his scattered, disengaged reaction to the economic meltdown, it’s unlikely his recovery plan would’ve been as effective as Obama’s numerous actions, including the stimulus, which McCain vigorously opposed. We also likely would’ve gone to war in Iran, with Russia and China waiting in the wings. Oh, and Obamacare, which provided millions of Americans, including me, with affordable insurance, would’ve never existed.
And Romney? While he’s been one of the most honest critics of Trump from the Republican side, it’s clear he would’ve repealed Obamacare. He would’ve stacked the Supreme Court with two more conservative justices. With Paul Ryan in the White House, the current speaker’s budget would’ve become law, including the slow privatization of Medicare and Social Security. And same-sex marriage would’ve never received the presidential momentum to pass through various courts and state legislatures.
It’s entirely rational to observe that McCain and Romney would’ve been better presidents than a would-be President Trump. It’s also rational to observe that each candidate was far less embarrassing and lightyears more dignified than Trump. Then again, there are relentlessly masturbating sociopaths in maximum security prisons who are more dignified than Trump, so the bar is really, really low. And, of course, if you’re wealthy enough, like Maher, most of McCain’s or Romney’s terrible policy decisions wouldn’t have been all that painful. The rest of us, on the other hand, wouldn’t have been so fortunate. Including me.
This is all to say that one of the many post-Trump crises will be this: downplaying the dangers of future Republican presidential candidates simply because they’re not as horrifying as Trump. In the coming months, it’ll become increasingly evident that the GOP can’t abandon the Trump base, so, not unlike the Tea Party before it, party establishment will predictably welcome the white nationalist Trumpers into the club with open arms simply because the party can’t win without them. Likewise, the more rational Republicans will continue to be hosed and trolled, unfortunately.
We can also safely assume that there will be many future Trump-like presidential candidates among the Republican A-listers. They won’t be berzerkers and fire-eaters like Trump, but their politics will borrow heavily from his. Therefore, the best way to elect a far-right Republican president in 2020 and beyond will be for the GOP to elevate a character like Mike Pence, then for the rest of us to rationalize his candidacy by saying, “Well, at least he’s not as crazy as Trump.” In the process, we will have forgotten how previous Republican chief executives were mostly disasters.
It might take four or eight more years to fully realize the extent of Trump’s debris field. But it’s galactically important that we acquire the fullest possible perspective in order to not allow another episode like 2016. This includes closely scrutinizing everyone who emerges to fill that void. Just because their names aren’t “Trump” doesn’t mean they’ll be less dangerous in terms of policy, if not behavior. After all, it was a nearly catastrophic lack of political vigilance that allowed Trump to glide this close to the Oval Office in the first place.