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Commentary: The Trump blame game

In the wake of the pipe bomb scare and the Pittsburgh shooting, pundits and anti-Trump politicians have been demanding that Republicans and conservatives "abandon their hateful rhetoric," as the cliché' goes. Why aren't Trump supporters aren't turning on the president, they demand to know. What's keeping rank-and-file Republicans from abandoning Trump over his clearly objectionable statements and divisive outbursts?

To paraphrase that great political philosopher Syndrome from the movie "The Incredibles," it's because when everything is Trump's fault, nothing is. And from his first day on the campaign trail until the anti-Semitic massacre on Saturday, the media appear to have the same news story logged into their computers, one in which the details change, but the ending is always the same:  "…and that's why it's all Trump's fault."

And they mean it. From Hurricane Florence to Roseanne Barr's twitter feed to — no joke — the shooting of a congressional Republican baseball practice by an avid, anti-Trump liberal, members of the mainstream media and political culture blame it all on Trump.

There's even a "Blame Trump" Facebook page whose mottos is literally "Whenever something bad happens, blame Trump!!!"

And when Republicans see President Trump blamed as the sole cause for America's ills, many of them think "Buddy, I know exactly how you feel."

The lesson many Republicans have taken away from their treatment by the media and prominent Democrats over the past two decades is that they — conservatives, gun owners, Tea Party supporters, Evangelical Christians — are always going to be portrayed as the bad guys. Always.

They watched John McCain, the Democrats' favorite Republican, attacked as a racist during the 2008 campaign against Barack Obama. They saw Mitt Romney, the world's biggest Boy Scout, berated as a money-grubbing sexist who counted his money as employees' family members died of cancer.

Conservatives are called racists for supporting immigration law, haters for defending their faith's long-standing views on sexuality and marriage, "deplorables" for not supporting President Obama's political agenda — and then they've waited (largely in vain) to see anything resembling similar treatment of politicians and pundits of the Left.

In 2016, many Republicans decided that, if they're going to get called bigots and haters anyway, why not back a politician who would at least fight back on their behalf. If every argument is going to be reduced to identity politics — you can't possibly oppose Obamacare based on math, you must hate it because of Obama's race, you Republican bigots — then these voters have found a politician with whom they can truly identify.

Trump is under attack, they believe, because Trump stands up for them. If he weren't president, many Republicans believe, they would still be smeared as bigots, they would still be insulted nightly on prime-time TV and by late-night comics. The only difference would be that there wouldn't be tax cuts or a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Consider an Atlantic article published the day after the Tree of Life mass shooting entitled "Trump's Caravan Hysteria Led to This." How does opposing a caravan of migrants who have announced they're coming to America whether the American people like it or not cause an anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh?

Start with the premise that mere concern about the issue is a form of "hysteria." The idea that a nation controlling its own borders might be a completely reasonable, non-partisan position isn't even entertained.

Then throw in the fact that some irresponsible or ill-informed Republicans like Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz and the American Conservative Union's Matt Schlapp have been speculating, without evidence, that the caravan might be funded by liberal activist and billionaire George Soros.  And since Soros is Jewish ...

On its face, this argument is ridiculous. Soros has given hundreds of millions of dollars for causes conservatives oppose. Criticizing him is no more anti-Semitic than criticizing the libertarian Koch Brothers for funding Americans for Prosperity is anti….well, whatever religion they are.  Tom Steyer is a prominent liberal bankroller who's an Episcopalian but whose father was a non-practicing Jew. He's spending millions trying to help Democrats take over the House and is believed to be considering a 2020 run from his party's Left flank. Do Republicans really need a religious reason to criticize him?

And yet that's exactly what they were accused of.  

Democrats attack Republican "millionaires and billionaire" for allegedly buying elections all the time. Nobody asks if liberal criticism of, say, Sheldon Adelson, is based on bigotry.  And yet standard-issue partisan rhetoric from the Right is immediately declared racist dog-whistling and used to condemn the entire party.

Not that President Trump's rhetoric is standard issue. It's not. His attacks on Mexican-Americans and women and Muslims and pretty much everyone else are beyond anything America has ever seen from a president.  And he's been denounced for it by members of his own party. Polls show Republican voters don't like what Trump does on Twitter. In theory, there should be common ground for a conversation about civility.

The difference is that, while Republicans are clearly uncomfortable with Trump's behavior, it's not clear at all that Democrats or the liberal media feel the same way about excesses from their own side of the aisle. It's hard to take the New York Times' calls for civility seriously when they are literally running fantasy fiction about assassinating President Trump the day the pipe bomber is caught.  Hillary Clinton's insults about the 60 million American "deplorables" are only criticized by Democrats for costing her votes, not for the disdain of her fellow citizens.

When liberals can both demand "when are you Republicans going to end the hate" and cheer comedian Kathy Griffin for waving around a severed Trump head, you can't blame conservatives for doubting their sincerity.

Conservatives believe that calls for increased civility are really code for "You shut up while we bash you as bigots."  When op-ed writers insist it's time to "turn down the rhetoric," they're speaking exclusively about the rhetoric from the Right.  Conservative talk radio could shut down tomorrow and President Trump would still be called a fascist in the pages of the Washington Post and denounced as a traitor on CNN.

There is no sign that the liberals who've spent decades demeaning the character of their political opponents are prepared to stop. It should come as no surprise that their request that the targets of their attacks unilaterally disarm is met with derision and seen as self-serving, disingenuous, and, alas, futile.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.