A lot of people are going to be writing about Bari Weiss's latest column, in which she makes the usual complaints about campus lefties and others who attack speech they consider hateful and speakers they consider totalitarian. I have qualms about some of the protests Weiss writes about, and I think some of the protesters' language is imprecise -- Christina Hoff Sommers isn't a "fascist," she's just a professional right-wing troll -- though I don't shed many tears regarding the alleged mistreatment of "Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former Muslim and feminist who the Southern Poverty Law Center insists is in fact a 'propagandist far outside the political mainstream,'" because that's what she is. (Here's an essay she wrote called "Islam Is a Religion of Violence." Here she is telling a Reason interviewer, "There is no moderate Islam," and telling Jon Stewart, “If you look at 70% of the violence in the world today, Muslims are responsible.”)
But I want to talk about something else Weiss writes, because it's a zombie lie we'll never kill:
There are consequences to all this “fascism” — and not just the reputational damage to those who are smeared, though there is surely that.
The main effect is that these endless accusations of “fascism” or “misogyny” or “alt-right” dull the effects of the words themselves. As they are stripped of meaning, they strip us of our sharpness — of our ability to react forcefully to real fascists and misogynists or members of the alt-right.
For a case study in how this numbing of the political senses works, look no further than Mitt Romney and John McCain. They were roundly denounced as right-wing extremists. Then Donald Trump came along and the words meant to warn us against him had already been rendered hollow.
Sorry, but that's not what happened. One way we can tell that that's not what happened is that Donald Trump was tied for the lead in polling of potential GOP primary voters in April 2011, when he was teasing a possible presidential run partly based on his championing of the birther issue. If the reason conservative and centrist voters couldn't be warned away from Trump in 2016 was that we lefties had exaggerated Mitt Romney's sins, why were those voters so eager to vote for Trump in 2011, when we hadn't said mean things about Romney yet?
Beyond that, when have conservative and moderate voters ever based their assessment of any candidate even in part on what progressives have to say? These days we all accept the notion that we live in political silos and don't consume the same news and opinion media our opponents do -- and yet somehow what lefties say in our media outlets is assumed to magically migrate over to the right and reduce the ability of conservatives and centrists to identify real danger. The reality is that Trump voters haven't believed anything we've said for years -- they never believed what we said about George W. Bush (until they came to the conclusion that they didn't like him, while never admitting that we were right all along about him). Why should we believe they'd have listened to us if we'd been more circumspect and measured in our criticism of McCain and Romney?
And as I've said before, why doesn't this work the other way around? Conservatives say that Barack Obama is a communist jihadist who wants to destroy America as an act of revenge against its colonial past. Bill Clinton was a murderer and a drug dealer. Hillary Clinton's crimes are worse than Watergate. Why didn't we respond to that kind of rhetoric by nominating Alan Grayson or Cynthia McKinney or Roseanne Barr, or someone fringe-ier, in 2016?
Trump is not our fault. Trump is the fault of Trump voters. But the lie that we're to blame for him will never die.
Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog