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.