Everyone scapegoats someone.
Most successful politicians and most political movements have an enemy—an Emmanuel Goldstein to rail against. This isn't something only demagogues do.
A successful politician almost always convinces people that he or she is "fighting for you." Every fight needs an enemy—a scapegoat.
Here's what divides an acceptable scapegoating from a shameful one: Whom do you choose as the enemy? Is it someone who truly deserves blame? Is it someone is position to defend himself? Or is it a dishonest choice? Does it abuse the powerless?
Scapegoating is more prominent in 2016 than in most elections, which makes it cheering that House Speaker Paul Ryan has admitted his scapegoating errors of the past.
A brief history: Al Gore used to talk about the "People versus the Powerful." This was a weak scapegoating—he failed to live up to Saul Alinsky's instruction to "personalize" the target.
Obama's targets in 2008 were easier: George W. Bush and Karl Rove. These were powerful people who had created the circumstance against which he was campaigning.
When trying to pass his healthcare law, Obama inveighed against health-sector lobbyists — this was dishonest because they were largely on his side. (His White House privately apologized to drug lobbyists, blaming "a young speechwriter.")
In the 2010 congressional election, Obama and the Democratic leaders pretended they were running against secret Communist Chinese money, or something. This was impotent and false. In 2014, Democrats personalized it a bit more, inveighing against the billionaire conservative Koch brothers.
These days, Donald Trump scapegoats immigrants — an old standby for demagogues — along with Beltway lobbyists, who would be a worthy target if they weren't mostly rooting for him over Ted Cruz.
Everyone scapegoats, but not all scapegoating is equal.
Paul Ryan on Wednesday admitted that he and the GOP had unfairly scapegoated the poor and the working class in the "makers vs. takers" framework they had created before the 2012 election.
"There was a time," Ryan said in an address on Wednesday afternoon, "when I would talk about a difference between 'makers' and 'taker' in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits."
Ryan went on: "As I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. 'Takers' wasn't how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don't want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn't castigate a large group of Americans to make a point."
This idea of low-income "takers" lay beneath Mitt Romney's view that the 47 percent of adults in the U.S. who owed no federal income tax were therefore "dependent upon government" and "who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them…."
Ryan today is totally correct that Ryan back then was totally wrong.
First there are the factual problems: Owing no federal income tax doesn't mean you don't work hard, or are dependent on government.
A man with a stay-at-home wife and three kids owes no taxes on his first $59,000 thanks to standard deduction, personal and dependent exemptions, and child tax credits. If he has commuting costs and a student loan, he's easily over $60,000 before he owes federal income taxes. He may even have a 401(k), or pre-tax health insurance premiums, in which case he's saving for his family, taking care of them, earning $70,000, while paying sales tax, excise tax, and other taxes, but owing no federal income tax.
Calling this family "takers" is false in every sense of the word.
But "taker" is a slur also when aimed at recipients of government benefits. Millions of "takers" are people who work 40 hours, but at low wages, and thus receive the earned-income tax credit. Will you blame their low wages on them? Perhaps they got horrible education thanks to incompetent government, or were just never blessed with marketable skills.
Some percentage of the 47 percent are World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam Veterans, who after serving their country, put in decades of work, and now live off the Social Security they paid into, without earning enough to owe federal income tax.
The "takers" include widows receiving food stamps, the ill being kept alive by Medicaid, and people drawing on unemployment because their employer got up and moved to Mexico.
More importantly, many of those on welfare or disability hate that they are dependent. They want to be working.
Are there "welfare queens," lazy able-bodied moochers, and people scamming disability? Yes. But lumping in 47 percent of the country with these scoundrels is as illegitimate lumping all businessmen in with the failed bankers who depend on bailouts.
This wasn't just Ryan's mistake. Conservatives broadly have equated low income with dependency. The conservative belief that the market tends to reward skill and diligence often mutates into a belief that poverty reflects some sort of turpitude.
That view helped give birth to Donald Trump, who has tapped into the working class that Ryan and Romney had pushed away. Ryan has outgrown that view, but the damage it did will linger.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.