Donald Trump’s strategy (if that’s not too grand a word) to overturn his defeat in last month’s presidential election continues to unravel, with his otherwise fiercely loyal attorney general, Bill Barr, confirming yesterday that there was no evidence of fraud on a scale that could have affected the outcome.
But while we wait for the process to wrap up, it’s important not to lose sight of the last disputed election, which the Republicans did succeed in stealing – and the man that they made president as a result, George W Bush. Bruce Bartlett last week in the New Republic reviews Bush’s record in all its ignominy.
Bartlett sees Bush as a precursor of Trump in a number of ways, particularly his lack of intelligence and his insistence on the malleability of facts. In one telling anecdote, a senior economic adviser is reprimanded by Bush: “If I decide to do it, by definition it’s good policy. I thought you got that.”
But Bartlett, who started out as a Republican, is an exception here. Far too many commentators, struck by the sheer awfulness of Trump, seem impelled to give Bush a free pass. They’ve been helped by the obvious antipathy between Trump and the Bush family; many of Bush’s circle have been prominent in the anti-Trump Lincoln Project and similar campaigns.
Even Barack Obama, as perceptive an observer as one is likely to get, carefully avoids blaming Bush for the Republican Party’s descent into madness. Instead he points to Sarah Palin, 2008’s vice-presidential candidate – a significant figure no doubt, but not one that appeared out of nowhere. The ground had been prepared in advance.
Ideologically there was certainly a gap between the Bush administration on the one hand, and Palin and most of Trump’s supporters on the other. But the last few years should have reminded us that ideology is not what matters most in politics, and certainly not in the Republican Party.
Bush pioneered the anti-intellectual and faux populist style that Trump later perfected, and in conjunction with Dick Cheney, his vice-president, he showed a Trumpian contempt for the restraints of both domestic and international law. While he was not personally corrupt, such a comprehensive trashing of standards in public life inevitably paved the way for a mafia presidency.
Perhaps most significant was Bush’s means of coming to power, and the fact that no Republicans have disavowed the stolen election of 2000.* Some commentators seem surprised at Republican reluctance to denounce Trump’s stumbling efforts to steal this election. But given what they got away with twenty years ago, there’s nothing odd in the fact that they might have thought it was possible a second time.
None of this is meant to be an excuse for Trump, who has taken all the defects of his predecessors to new heights. (Nor do I think Bartlett intends it that way.) But Republicans who think that they can turn their backs on Trump while keeping Bush in the pantheon should be warned that that is an unsustainable position.
* In this they have been abetted by the media, who seem allergic to any mention of the fact that Florida actually voted for Al Gore. This BBC piece comparing the two elections is a particularly egregious example.
7 thoughts on ““W” revisited”
Excellent article. Thanks, Charles.
yes, good points, Charles. I find Dubya an odd case because he doesn’t seem to be personally malicious. As far as I can tell, he caused enormous death and chaos in the Middle East because he honestly thought that all he needed to do was topple Saddam, the bad guy, and Iraqis would rejoice and start setting up dot.coms. A lot of this was Republican small-government ideology (who needs a functioning state? Didn’t Reagan Himself say the most terrifying sentence in the English language was “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you?”) which grossly underestimated the need for Iraq to have civil order to prevent private violence, sectarian killings, corruption, siphoning of oil wealth and other things that can harm you and your family as much as Uday and Qusay can.
War opponents like Michael Moore went too far with the happy children flying kites, but Saddam’s regime did have an efficient healthcare system and a food distribution network with ration cards. Easy to imagine the big Stetsons in the GOP pooh-poohing such institutions as representing not achievements to the regime’s (meagre) credit but as “socialism” and thus as further examples of the subjugation of Iraqis.
I actually think Bush’s creditable work on combating AIDS in Africa came from the same thinking as his war crimes in Iraq. In both cases, it was “brown people are suffering and America’s intervention will save them”. In the first case, the strategy Bush favoured (ie, medical spending) was widely-agreed and did not involve bombing anyone. In the second case, the strategy Bush favoured was intensely disputed and involved bombing people, so one of these things is not like the other. But from Dubya’s viewpoint, I’m convinced, both were essentially the same problem with the same solution.
It’s not a million miles removed from the thinking that led to the Stolen Generation. “Aboriginal children are growing up in squalour. Surely you don’t think children should _never_ be removed from their parents, do you?” But in both cases there was dangerous naivety and far too much trust in one’s own rightness, closed off to hearing what the people affected actually wanted. Throw in a devout and very simplistic version of Christian faith where God speaks directly to the true believer without any external checks and balances. Listening to God’s voice saved Dubya from alcoholism, so why wouldn’t it save Iraq from dictatorship?
(Cheney was a different matter. He was a Dutton-like figure, the hard man who wants to defend his own tribe from anyone who so much as looks as them sideways. I think he used Dubya’s naivety).
Yeah, that picture mostly rings true to me. When it came to foreign policy, though, I don’t think Bush had a lot of agency; it seems that it was very much Cheney calling the shots.
Bush himself is rather like Jim Hacker from Yes Minister – idealistic and well-intentioned, but also easily tricked and manipulated by Sir Humphrey Appleby/D-ick Cheney.
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I like the analogy – except that Hacker occasionally had a win against Sir Humphrey, but I’m not sure that Bush ever disagreed with Cheney & got his way.
Recent memes on the parallels between Hunter Biden and Hunter S Thompson (don’t snigger… someone’s made an uncannily long list) remind me that the US left has a corresponding difficulty with squaring the moral balance sheet for Lyndon B Johnson. Was he the moral giant who rose above his prejudiced Texan upbringing to risk his political capital on the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, who extended the Great Society, and who quotably attacked white supremacy and defended affirmative action? Or was he the corrupt and toxic-male “pigf####r” (Hunter S’s description) who lied American into the Vietnam War and bombed Asians just to punish them for unanimously supporting Kindly Uncle Ho? I’ve seen both attitudes expressed by _the same writers_ at different times. (Probably because the Left gotta Left and don’t deal well with shades of grey – most things are either unquestionably good or else they’re Literally Hitler).
Likewise, Paul Keating has an ambiguous status among Australian leftwingers. But since his economic-deregulationist and culturally conservative phase was almost all pre-1991, while his push for white Australians to come to terms with Asia and with Indigenous Australia dominated his public life from 1992 onwards, it is easier for a typical wine-sipper to recall PJK with fond nostalgia. (Also, true, he didn’t bomb anyone. Although the Indonesian occupation of Timor, which PJK vocally supported, did have a respectable per-capita body count).
It’s not just that LBJ wavered lukewarmly between, eg, centre-right and centre-Left – it’s that he is _both_ (to American liberals and progressives) a leftwing champion of welfare and civil rights _and_ a reviled racist warmonger, at the same time.