If you’ve ever wanted to permanently freeze your television on MSNBC or be locked in the network’s greenroom, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank has written the book for you.
In Milbank’s opinion, the party of former presidents Donald Trump and George W. Bush has done little but lie to the American people and wreak havoc both here and abroad since the 1990s. He makes this case—in a long-winded and often repetitive manner—in The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party.
Milbank’s one-sided take breaks little new ground, and will do little to persuade people who do not already share his worldview. It reads like a long opposition-research document compiled by Democrats, which is not surprising given his columns and the fact that his wife, Anna Greenberg, is a Democratic pollster.
The author does make some valuable arguments about the missteps and deceptions of the Grand Old Party. His account of the lead-up to the Iraq war reminds readers of how Bush used the post-9/11 patriotic surge to garner support for an aggressive military effort in the Middle East.
However, he describes the Bush White House strategy as that of “naked mendacity” and contends that many of its arguments, which turned out to be wrong, such as alleging that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, “weren’t just misstatements” but lies. He fails to mention that, even before 9/11, many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, favored similar approaches to the Middle East, such as removing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power. To this day, we are living with the consequences of both presidents’ foreign policy. The mistakes made by both parties in Iraq and Afghanistan are part of the reason for the latest strain of populism and the rise of Trump.
Speaking of Clinton, Milbank recounts in great detail the G.O.P.’s efforts to destroy his career by focusing on the former president’s character flaws and inappropriate behavior, as the author argues. Milbank does not do enough to explain the political reasons why Republicans were angry at Clinton. The president’s “third way” approach—being more pro-business than most Democrats yet more supportive of labor unions and consumers than most Republicans—resulted in left-leaning people thinking he was a sellout while those on the right thought of him as a modern-day Karl Marx.
Dana Milbank’s take will do little to persuade people who do not already share his worldview.
In his Washington Post columns, Milbank displays a certain cleverness and snark that provide enough sugar to help his journalistic medicine go down in “a most delightful way,” as Mary Poppins put it. Unfortunately, none of that charm is evident in this book, which makes it a challenge to read even when one agrees with his arguments.
Although Milbank is hard on Bush and congressional Republicans, it’s nothing compared with the utter disdain in which he holds Trump. Milbank argues that Trump lied, encouraged white supremacists, denied scientific evidence, and caused the New York Knicks to lose. O.K., Milbank doesn’t actually touch on basketball, but his kitchen-sink critique overwhelms. He paints with such a broad brush that his writing is neither as effective nor as artful as it could be. He would have been better off remembering that less is often more.
Sometimes, Milbank is spot-on, like when he notes that, “one by one, a limitless cast of enablers swallowed hard, abandoned conscience, and embraced Trump’s fantasies as fact, condoning, echoing, or even building upon his fabrications.” But Milbank hurts his argument by not even attempting to understand Trump’s appeal.
He attributes much of Trump’s support to racism and fear of immigrants. He all but ignores the other factors that led to Trump’s rise, including economic trends (rising income inequality), bad trade deals (such as NAFTA, which shipped well-paying jobs to countries with lower wages), and the holier-than-thou attitude of many Democratic elites.
Milbank’s selective recounting of contemporary political history is part refresher course, part screed. It would have been more effective and persuasive as a long magazine article rather than a long book. Those looking for a more balanced look at modern conservatism would do well to read Matthew Continetti’s masterful, recently published The Right.
Claude R. Marx is a freelance journalist and a reporter for MLex and FTC Watch