Political memory is both long and short. Talking heads on TV last month seemed eager to recall, for instance, that previous election years’ Republican conventions had been more decorous, and less dark, than the apocalyptic neo-fascist rally we recently witnessed in Cleveland. Op-ed writers were equally quick to point out the severe impropriety of Donald Trump’s attacks on the family of Capt. Humayun Khan, a U.S. Army officer killed in action — Gold Star Parents whose remarkable poise has made Trump look smaller than ever.
But the cartoonish nature of the ongoing Trump fiasco has made it harder to see the ways that his campaign is building on a decades-long history of nasty political attacks, race-bating and veteran-shaming in American politics. It’s past time for a collective reckoning on the way that right-wingers both inside and adjacent to the political system have promoted these tactics, long before Trump arrived on the scene— and the way they’ve been abetted by the media, both right-wing and “mainstream.”
For instance, recall that during the allegedly much more elegant and classy RNC in 2004, delegates mocked an American Veteran, John Kerry, by wearing “purple heart” bandaids that trivialized his service in Vietnam. That year, George W. Bush’s re-election efforts were aided by a political hit group that was so successful it spawned its own verb:
The term swiftboating (also swift-boating or swift boating) is a pejorative American neologism used to describe an unfair or untrue political attack. The term is derived from the name of the organization “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” (SBVT, later the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth) because of their widely publicized—and later discredited—campaign against 2004 U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry.
Kerry was far from a perfect candidate — he overhyped his military background in the first place, and failed to fight back against the false Swift Boat insinuations. But surely that doesn’t absolve those who attacked him of their ill intentions and underhanded tactics. And the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (or “truth”) were given tacit approval by the Republican Party to go after a decorated veteran and to do so with lies — because playing dirty against American veterans has never really been verboten territory for the Grand Old Party.
Another recent moment in which Trump crossed a supposedly uncrossable line regarding veterans was his callous attack against the service record of Senator John McCain, saying, “I like people who weren’t captured.” In doing so, he picked up the torch of Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, which went dirty (and racist) against McCain to win southern primaries. John Nichols wrote about it at The Nation.
[Karl] Rove invented a uniquely injurious fiction for his operatives to circulate via a phony poll. Voters were asked, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain…if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” This was no random slur. McCain was at the time campaigning with his dark-skinned daughter, Bridget, adopted from Bangladesh.
It worked. Owing largely to the Rove-orchestrated whispering campaign, Bush prevailed in South Carolina and secured the Republican nomination. The rest is history–specifically the tragic and blighted history of our young century. It worked in another way as well. Too shaken to defend himself, McCain emerged from the bruising episode less maverick reformer and more Manchurian candidate.
Not only did this Rove-led attack pave the way for Trump’s current attacks on veterans, but it also opened the door for more race-baiting, including Trump’s own obsession with Obama Birtherism.
What about Trump’s crude attacks on the differently abled, women, and even a mother with a small baby? Again, this sort of thing is nothing new. In 2007, when a young child with a traumatic brain injury spoke up about an expansion of children’s health insurance that Republicans opposed, conservatives went ballistic, attacking the family personally. The New York Times reported:
In recent days, Graeme and his family have been attacked by conservative bloggers and other critics of the Democrats’ plan to expand the insurance program, known as S-chip. They scrutinized the family’s income and assets — even alleged the counters in their kitchen to be granite — and declared that the Frosts did not seem needy enough for government benefits.
They were wrong, and the GOP eventually “backed off” attacking this particular family, but not before much damage was done. Again, an injured kid was the right wing’s target. Are we surprised that differently-abled folks are now fair game for a candidate like Trump? As for women, just look at the decades of misogynistic attacks on Hillary Clinton — continuing through the present — calling her a murderer, sexualizing and desexualizing her, demeaning and demonizing her — and understand that virulent sexism is part of the national DNA, with a special place in the right-wing heart. Think of how the likes of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock talk about rape and pregnancy, and understand that Trump’s tone-deaf remarks about periods and sexual harassment aren’t all that extreme by GOP standards.
Clearly, insulting veterans, children, women of color, grieving and suffering families and more is far from unique to Trump. Baseless attacks using racial and sexual insinuations are a feature, not a bug, of right-wing politics and media, predating the notorious work of smear artists Lee Atwater and Karl Rove.
Maybe no one has done it all at once, on a daily basis, with the vicious flair of Trump. The current Republican nominee’s disrespect for political norms and for the rules and procedures of governance are uniquely frightening; even more terrifying is his particular ability to whip up the fury of angry crowds. Yet the attention storm around Trump is so intense and rapid at the moment that we risk losing sight of history. We need to examine the climate that encouraged this beast to come forward. When politicians like the Bushes lament the era of Trump and pine for the good old days, they are in denial about their own complicity in his rise to prominence.