THE MILBANK FILES: "Donald Trump didn’t create this!"


Dana Milbank remembers: This past Sunday, the Washington Post offered an essay which was adapted from—what else?—a new book.

The essay was written by Dana Milbank. At one point, he correctly said this:

MILBANK (8/7/22): It is crucial to understand that Donald Trump didn’t create this noxious environment. He isn’t some hideous, orange Venus emerging from the half-shell. Rather, he is a brilliant opportunist; he saw the direction the Republican Party was taking and the appetites it was stoking. The onetime pro-choice advocate of universal health care reinvented himself to give Republicans what they wanted. Because Trump is merely a reflection of the sickness in the GOP, the problem won’t go away when he does.

Each person will have to judge the claim that Donald J. Trump actually isn't "some hideous, orange Venus emerging from the half-shell." 

That said, it's true that Trump didn't create the noxious environment which currently rules our politics and pervades our national discourse. 

Other performers started the fire. At one point, for example, Milbank remembers an event from September 27, 1994, the day when Rep. Bob Michel stepped aside, allowing Newt Gingrich to become the Republican Party's leader in the House:

MILBANK: Gingrich had avoided service in Vietnam and regarded Democrats as the enemy, impugning their patriotism and otherwise savaging them nightly on the House floor for the benefit of C-SPAN viewers.

“Newt! Newt! Newt! Newt!” the candidates and lawmakers chanted. A pudgy 51-year-old with a helmet of gray hair approached the lectern. “The fact is that America is in trouble,” Gingrich declared. “It is impossible to maintain American civilization with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds killing each other, 17-year-olds dying of AIDS and 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can’t even read.” The pejoratives piled up in Gingrich’s shouted, finger-wagging harangue: “Collapsing … Failed so totally … Worried about their jobs … Worried about their safety … Trust broke down … Out of touch … Wasteful … Dumb … Ineffective … Out of balance … Malaise … Drug dealers … Pimps … Prostitution … Crime … Barbarism … Devastation … Human tragedy … Chaos and poverty.” “Recognize that if America fails, our children will live on a dark and bloody planet,” Gingrich told them.

Whatever a person might think of the views which Gingrich expressed that day, such presentations were clearly the start of "American carnage." 

Had Gingrich "avoided service in Vietnam?" So had a wide array of major figures from both political parties. For the record, we've never heard an account of Milbank's military service after emerging from Yale.

That said, did Gingrich "regard Democrats as the enemy?" In our view, Milbank frequently puts his thumbs on the scale in Sunday's essay, but it's very hard to disagree with that assessment of the attitude Gingrich brought to the party.

Forget the words which rained down from Gingrich that day in September 1994. Long before the address which Milbank quotes, Gingrich had been schooling Republicans in the best ways to describe Democrats. 

All the way back in 1990, a conservative entity named GOPAC had been circulating a list of 133 words assembled by Gingrich—a list of words conservatives should use to characterize themselves and Others.

What words should conservatives use in describing Democrats? You can peruse the full list here, but such words as "sick, pathetic, traitors, destructive" appear early on the long list.

In Gingrich's view, that was the way one of our two political tribes should describe the members of the other. This advice was already being aggressively pushed as far back as 1990—and not by Donald J. Trump.

For whatever reason, Milbank has chosen an awkward title for his book. The title is a bit of a mouthful. It goes exactly like this:

The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party

"Destructionists"—is that a word? If Milbank has his way, it will become one now.

On balance, we aren't fans of Milbank's work for the Post. That said, we were thrilled to see one major thrust of his new book.

For the record, many people will agree with the approach Newt Gingrich suggested. On balance, tens of millions of voters agree with the type of rhetoric, and the type of politics, performed today by Donald J. Trump.

Those people are our fellow citizens, and they have a right to their views. That said:

As of 1990, were Democratic office-holders "sick, pathetic, traitors, destructive?" ("Corrupt, intolerant, selfish, insensitive?") 

Such questions are always a matter of judgment. That said, a modern nation can't hope to survive the harsh, unyielding  tribal warfare Gingrich recommended. 

("We must not be enemies," Lincoln advised. "We are not enemies, but friends.")

Milbank is right when he says that Donald J. Trump didn't invent the type of rhetoric, and the brand of politics, which is now widespread within the GOP.

The Others were "sick, pathetic, traitors, destructive!" Gingrich was saying that way back when, and he was telling other conservatives that they should speak the same way.

Other aspects of our modern Crazy were also taking form at that time. For today, we'll offer this closing thought:

Milbank describes the problems among the Republican Party, and among no one else. He fails to discuss the ways his own guild, the mainstream press, has contributed to this plainly "destructive" societal decline.

Tomorrow: Trump didn't invent The Crazy

An extra credit assignment: In September 1990,  the New York Times published a Political Memo about the 133 words.

That was 32 years ago! To peruse it, just click here.


  1. Newt and Frank Lubyanka.
    Trump let the genie (straight out bigotry) out of the bottle. Trump isn’t the genie.


  2. "such presentations were clearly the start of "American carnage." "

    What nonsense, dear Bob.

    Behind any political crisis there is a socioeconomic crisis, dear Bob.

    Economics. Geopolitics. All that shit. Not some politician making "presentations", dear Bob. Grow up, dear.

    1. Yes Mao, we can see you pouring over your studies on socioeconomic crisis.
      By camping out on the old couch in your Mom's basement, stuffing your face with Ritz Crackers while listening to Newsmax. Oh, friend of the working man!!

  3. The FBI raid is bad (but not for Trump or Republicans) but the 87,000 IRS agents is what has made me decide to vote Republican this time. I've been audited twice, have never run afoul of tax laws, and both times it was a nightmare combined with shit show. What a politically crazy and gratuitous thing to do.

    1. That's because the IRS does not audit the rich and powerful the way it does average americans because it costs more money to do so. Their funding has been sharply curtailed by Republicans over the years, resulting in this situation. Think how much money we could collect if the rich paid their legal share of taxes, let alone at higher rates.

    2. Meh.
      Your vote doesn’t count, unless you call Liberals “snowflakes” BEFORE you whine and cry about how tough your life is.

    3. The majority of working Americans have their income taxes deducted from their pay checks. It is estimated that roughly $600 Billion of owed taxes is not paid each year from the rich and the super rich who illegally avoid paying their tax obligations.

      When do these 87000 new auditors start to work?

    4. I've been audited twice, once when I had made only $18,000 that year. It was triggered by claiming an office in the home. If you have your taxes done by a tax preparer, they should accompany you to the audit and help you through the process. If you do your own taxes, the audit shouldn't be that complicated. A tax preparer will tell you how to avoid an audit. My tax prepared looked up tax court verdicts and found a ruling that won my case, without charging me another dime for her services.

      Rich people have paid help to deal with their finances. They can afford to go through audits and they should be keeping records -- so should you. It is part of your responsibility as a citizen, part of being an adult. Republicans should never have been allowed to enact policies to help rich people shirk their duties as Americans.

  4. "Had Gingrich "avoided service in Vietnam?" So had a wide array of major figures from both political parties. For the record, we've never heard an account of Milbank's military service after emerging from Yale."

    It had been traditional for anyone going into politics to first engage in service to one's country via the military. It is a valid criticism of Gingrich. It is NOT a valid criticism of Milbank, who is not a politician but a writer.

    Somerby may think it is clever of himself to turn this question back on Milbank, but it is actually churlish and small, a childishness that sounds like he has no defense against the things Milbank has said about Gingrich, but wants to manufacture one.

    It says a great deal that Gingrich avoided military service. But perhaps Somerby does not want to admit that fault, given that he himself evaded military service by enrolling in Teach for America and spending a decade among children he apparently didn't care much about, given that he didn't try to learn his trade, and hasn't spoken about those beautiful, deserving black kids in months now, preferring to excuse Trump for his disordered presidency.

    But Somerby cannot whitewash Gingrich as easily. And Somerby himself is accumulating things he needs to answer for, such as why he did not support Hillary when he had the chance to save our presidency from Russian manipulation, and why he is now attacking Biden, whose biggest flaw has been opposing Trumpies while trying to help our nation recover from the covid pandemic. Biden had a huge victory a few days ago but Somerby can only fixate on Gingrich and call Milbank a hypocrite. WHAT is wrong with Somerby?

    1. Milbank has advocated for universal conscription and a return to the draft. It appears he was in college and did not join the volunteer army, whereas Somerby actively avoided the draft. That is a distinction with some meaning.

      Is it true that no one can advocate for something they did not personally do? Are all those men advocating for choice not permitted opinions because they cannot have babies? Should I have no opinion about climate change because I don't own a coal mine? Somerby is being ridiculous today.

    2. Yes at 12:55, it's a small point but a telling one. A good example of the petty nature Bob uses to size things up.

  5. On a political awfulness scale, Trump is near 100 whereas Newt is down around 20, just like Hitler would be near 100 on the crazy dictator scale and Trump would be around 20 and Newt would be around 1. They are all liars and crooks and awful people, but there are qualities that Trump has that Newt didn't, and qualities that Hitler had that Trump lacks, so comparing them is kind of idiotic. We can agree that they are all awful human beings and none of them should have been entrusted with any amount of power.

    Where is Somerby compared to Milbank? Milbank had an actual career in journalism -- Somerby not so much. Milbank is a much better writer. In terms of ideas, both are bankrupt but Milbank has a bigger podium and can do more harm because he reaches more people. Somerby is older so he will exit stage right sooner. Somerby is a midget trying to reach the shelf. Who cares what Milbank writes? Conservatives are all twisted sons of bitches.

  6. The phrase “didn’t start with” has become a transparent would be excuse. Like the explicit nature of sex and violence in movies, the last push of the envelope creates an audience wanting more.
    Ironically the grotesque state of the Republican Party gestated, in part,
    for the opposite reason than Bob tends
    To state. We didn’t think they would
    take it this far, tragically, we thought
    better of them.

  7. Talking about Republican crazy, why doesn't Somerby go back to Joseph McCarthy and the lives he ruined with his paranoia over communism? Why not tell us about the John Birchers? Or Somerby could talk about how the right became the hosts for racist extremism during the 1960s & 70s, when the Dixicrats left the Democratic party?

    Somerby is very selective about when he starts his history. He might profitably explain why Trump started out as a Democrat but turned Republican when he decided to run for office. There is a story to be told about why the Russians originally were allied with the left to the point where Dems were accused of being reds, but then became the natural partners of the right wing. How did that happen? When did the right stop red-baiting and start welcoming Russia support and help? Whose initiative was it? Who was Russia's first puppet?