Several days before the 2016 presidential election, the comedian-cum political commentator Bill Maher made an extraordinary admission to his audience. In the past, he said, he’d heaped derision on Republican candidates and officeholders like George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, portraying them as extremists. “We attacked your boy Bush as if he was the end of the world,” he told former presidential speechwriter David Frum, “and he wasn’t.” Maher spoke of giving President Obama $1 million to defeat Romney because he feared him so much. But “Mitt Romney wouldn’t have changed my life that much,” he admitted in 2016. For years, Maher said, liberals like himself had been “crying wolf” about Republicans, including “honorable men” like Bush and McCain. But the 2016 election, and Donald Trump, were different. “Once fascists get power, they don’t give it up,” Maher said, as he pleaded for votes against Trump.
It’s not clear how much of Maher’s audience was persuaded by his confession, but we know that far more people voted for Trump than the political establishment imagined possible—so that many voters must have discounted the same kinds of claims made against Trump as just more “crying wolf.” Six years later, Trump is a defeated ex-president, but still very much on the minds of liberals. If Trump is a fascist, he’s been an ineffective one, given that he claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him—not what you’d expect a dangerous autocrat to let happen. His own behavior in the wake of that loss, and especially his words and actions around the events of January 6, were unpresidential, to say the least, and even the partisan congressional hearings that have often seemed more like a show trial than a serious inquiry have reminded the country how disturbing Trump’s behavior was, and how serious his character flaws remain. But the political establishment has itself in the ensuing years often acted as autocratic as they accuse Trump of being—most recently, in the FBI raid on Trump’s Florida home.
All this has become more relevant in recent weeks as opinion swells in Republican circles suggesting that it’s time to move beyond Trump and his blistering rhetoric. A recent Wall Street Journal article found few prominent influential GOP representatives and senators willing to go on the record saying that they wanted Trump to run again. Typical of the mood was that of retiring New York Republican Congressman Chris Jacobs, who told the Journal that it was time for a “new generation” of party leadership. “I support a lot of Donald Trump’s policies,” Jacobs said. “And I think that they benefit this nation. But I think it’s time to move on.”
Republicans, after all, do have a “new generation” looking to assume leadership—28 states have Republican governors, and broadly speaking these states have vastly outperformed Democratic-led states over the last four years, including during the pandemic, on a host of issues important to voters.
Even so, there’s little to suggest that anything will change in Democrats’ rhetoric—even if Trump steps aside or is forced to do so. Maher’s revealing 2016 monologue is a reminder that words like “fascist,” “dictator,” and “autocrat” have become part of the Left’s regular language, now aimed at anyone espousing ideas that barely a decade ago would have been considered moderate, even mainstream. Already, left-leaning critics are hurling such epithets at the most visible of the GOP’s new leaders.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis leads a state that has performed well on many economic and Covid-related measures—but he can already attest to what awaits future Republican candidates. Charlie Crist, a Democrat who wants DeSantis’s job, recently called him an “autocrat that would love to be the dictator of Florida, and then America.” Another Democratic candidate, Nikki Fried, called DeSantis “the greatest threat to democracy in the entire country”—a stature DeSantis has apparently taken from Trump. The New Yorker recently described DeSantis as a candidate who “channels the same rage as the former President, but with more discipline.” Meantime, California governor Gavin Newsom, who fancies himself a Democratic alternative if President Biden bows out in 2024, has run ads in Florida inviting residents and businesses to move to the Golden State to enjoy the freedoms there—a mystifying approach, considering that Florida is ranked among the freest states and California among the least free.
As the governor of one of the largest states, Texas’s Greg Abbott has been a target of similar bombastic derision. His Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke earlier this year called him a thug and autocrat and compared him with Russian oligarchs. “You’re seeing the continued rise of authoritarians and thugs across the world” O’Rourke observed, then added, “And we have our own, right here, in the state of Texas.”
Another Republican who troubles the left is South Carolina senator Tim Scott, a conservative black legislator with a compelling family history of rising out of poverty in the Deep South. One conservative group has praised Scott as endorsing many of the same policies as Trump “but without the explosive, unhinged behavior of the former president.” That kind of talk worried one Democrat enough to brand Scott an “Oreo” after he delivered the Republican response to a President Biden address to Congress. The media found its own angle, with the Washington Post publishing a “fact check” questioning Scott’s family history. Though the Post admitted that records were vague, it suggested that Scott’s grandfather may have been a landowner in South Carolina, implying that, somehow, the family may have been well off—though without contemplating the difficulties that even a black property owner would have faced in the South during the Jim Crow era.
In his 2016 confession, Maher warned that voting for Trump would be cataclysmic. “You’ve got President Trump for life,” he told his audience. So even in the process of admitting his past mistakes, Maher proved wrong again. Instead, we got a president who was impeached twice and defeated for reelection. Indeed, if Trump has much viability now as a future candidate, it’s only because the Democrats have done such a terrible job governing since he left office.
But not to worry, Democrats assure us. Whoever replaces Trump in the GOP will be just as bad—you can count on it.
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