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Liberals, Stop Applauding George W. Bush

One half-decent speech doesn't atone for paving the way for Donald Trump.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

George W. Bush left office as one of the most reviled presidents in modern history—even by many Republicans’ estimation—but he’s found a path to rehabilitation: reminding everyone how much worse Donald Trump is.

On Thursday, Bush gave a speech in New York that Aaron Blake of The Washington Post described as “an unexpected and rather eloquent speech against Trumpism.” The speech didn’t mention Trump at all, in fact. “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, forgetting the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” Bush said. “We have seen the return of isolationist sentiments—forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.” Bush also contended that “people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.... Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.”

Liberals were heartened by his words:

Even Esquire’s Charles Pierce, who loathes Bush, couldn’t help himself, writing that “it was [a] very effective speech, and I agreed with every diphthong, and I have no idea how to feel about that.”

It’s undeniable that Bush’s speech was a major political event. Former presidents rarely attack sitting presidents, especially those from the same political party. But Bush doesn’t deserve such praise. The speech was as fundamentally flawed as the speaker was. The alternative Bush offered to Trumpism is just a rehash of failed policies, and his criticisms, while valid, are rendered moot by an uncomfortable truth: He’s complicit in the rise of Trumpism.

The rapturous response in some liberal circles to Bush’s speech was merely the crescendo of nostalgia for him that started surfacing as soon as Trump emerged as the Republican frontrunner in the fall of 2015. In late November of that year, Al Jazeera English host Mehdi Hasan contrasted the strident Islamophobia of Trump and other Republican candidates with Bush’s insistence that America was fighting terrorism, not Islam. “I never thought I’d say it, but now I long for the Republican Party of George W. Bush,” Hasan wrote in The New York Times.

The September of 2016, Michelle Obama hugged Bush at the dedication of the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and the photo went viral on the left. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writing days later in The Week, extended Hasan’s sentiment: “Progressives have reason to miss George W. Bush, too. He spent his entire political career, dating back to Texas, reaching out to minorities. The Bush-style communitarian vision of the welfare state was designed to help many minority communities thrive.” Gobry, rather implausibly, even defended Bush’s verbal tics. “Heck, even Bush’s much-mocked malapropisms look positively charming next to Trump’s foot-in-mouth ramblings.”

Bush nostalgia only intensified after Trump was elected. As conservative New York Post columnist Kyle Smith noted in late January, Mother Jones’ David Corn “approvingly quoted Bush on Inauguration Day” and Time, Slate, The Atlantic and the Times op-ed page “have all run pieces in which left-wing writers favorably compared the second President Bush’s rhetoric to President Trump’s.” Smith crowed, “With Obama out and Trump in, the mental malady known as Bush Derangement Syndrome has finally begun to recede, and the 43rd president is enjoying an unlikely renaissance.”

By 2017, “I miss George Bush” was a tired meme, and yet it has persisted—even among top Democrats in Washington, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi perhaps the worst offender. “Did we ever think we would see the day when we would say, ‘Please bring back George W. Bush’?” she asked during a Texas Tribune event in April. “We really did work together.” The same month, appearing on ABC News, she mistakenly said Bush’s name instead of Trump’s. “I’m sorry, President Bush,” she said. “I never thought I would pray for the day that you were president again.” And in June, she said, “I wish [Bush] were president now.”

Some on the left have sought to smash these rose-colored glasses. “If you thought George W. Bush was generally swell, but too racially inclusive, you are going to like Trump’s presidency,” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote in April, arguing that Trump and Bush were in agreement on almost all major issues except immigration. “It is easy to look back on Bush’s tenure as comparatively benign—but Bush’s presidency was a period of gross misgovernance. His legacy includes not only Iraq and Katrina, but his obsession with cutting taxes for the rich, a comprehensive fealty to the business lobby, rampant corruption, refusal to take any steps to limit climate change, and a deregulatory agenda that set the conditions for the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

Bush’s anti-Trump speech, when examined closely, vindicates Chait and refutes those who are eager to rehabilitate the former president. It shows that the differences between Bush and Trump are superficial, and that Bush has learned nothing from the catastrophic right-wing policies and politics which enabled Trump’s rise.

Bush began the speech by rightly noting that the current wave of nativist populism engulfing the western world is rooted in the failures of globalization. “We should not be blind to the economic and social dislocations caused by globalization,” he said. “People are hurting. They are angry. And, they are frustrated. We must hear them and help them.” Yet what is Bush’s solution for these people hurt by globalization? A return to the tired bromides of compassionate conservatism: “The first step should be to enact policies that encourage robust economic growth by unlocking the potential of the private sector, and for unleashing the creativity and compassion of this country.”

It’s not at all apparent how this proposed solution is any different than the very privatization policies that created greater economic inequality in America, leading many to embrace Trump’s populist rhetoric. As a practical matter, “unlocking the potential of the private sector” is exactly what Trump claims he’s trying to do with tax cuts and deregulation. Indeed, the speech raises the question of what separates Bush from Trump. Trump’s agenda is to implement a plutocratic economic policy under the cover of a cultural war, the very formula that Bush and adviser Karl Rove mastered.

To be sure, Trump’s cultural war is largely racial, marked by attacks on Muslim immigrants and black athletes. Rove and Bush targeted LGBT people instead, using marriage equality as a wedge issue by appealing to conservative homophobia. During the 2004 campaign, Bush ginned up homophobia by calling for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, which, had it passed, would have been the first constitutional amendment that restricted the rights of a group of Americans. In effect, Bush was willing to make gays a special constitutional class—one with less rights than other Americans. When it comes to cultural wars, the main difference between Bush and Trump is their choice of targets, not any fundamental ethical divide.

Further, Bush seems unbothered by racial demagoguery from other Republicans today. He’s currently raising money for Ed Gillespie, the GOP nominee for Virginia governor. As Paul Waldman notes in The Washington Post, Gillepsie might be trying to separate himself from Trump as a politician but is running a positively Trumpian campaign fueled by anti-immigrant xenophobia:

Gillespie has all but centered his gubernatorial campaign on fear of the MS-13 gang, alleging that because his opponent Ralph Northam does not condemn “sanctuary cities” — of which there are none in Virginia — that Northam is practically indifferent to the prospect of MS-13 coming to kill you and your family. And of course, the rape.

Bush’s denunciation of Trump’s “isolationism” also rings false. It’s hardly clear that Trump, who has threatened North Korea with nuclear extermination and who has ramped up Barack Obama’s drone war, is an isolationist. More accurately, Trump is a unilateralist. So was George W. Bush, who withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol, generally scorned international agreements, and sidelined the United Nations before invading Iraq. Trump’s disdain for NATO is not unlike the contempt for “Old Europe” shown by Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s secretary of defense. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush himself offered a blunt message to the nations of the world: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” This is as severe a bullying of allies as anything Trump has done.

Bush was a precursor to Trump another key way: He was a gleeful anti-intellectual who scorned expertise. One of Bush’s beloved jokes, often told when he met someone with a doctorate, was about the unimportance of education. “I remind people that, like when I’m with Condi [Rice] I say, she’s the Ph.D. and I’m the C-student, and just look at who’s the president and who’s the advisor,” Bush quipped. If Republican voters were willing to take a chance in 2016 with a candidate who clearly had only a cursory knowledge of policy but a lot of attitude, they surely did so because Bush had already lowered the expectations for the intellectual capacity required for the office.

Bush was a decider, but his confidence was not matched by his intelligence. His deep ignorance of policy made him vulnerable to manipulation by his staff and inner circle, not least Vice President Dick Cheney. Bush didn’t ask his advisors tough questions, and he was convinced to embrace disastrous ideas, most famously that invading Iraq would help spread democracy in the Middle East. Steve Bannon had it right on Friday when he told a crowd in Anaheim, “There has not been a more destructive presidency than George Bush’s.” But the new decider in office—Bannon’s boss until recently—also combines macho arrogance with proud ignorance, and is no less than Bush does he shift to the prevailing winds of his staff. Trump may yet be a more destructive president, but in terms of sheer human toll, Bush still holds that ignominious distinction.

“So, do I applaud?” Pierce, of Esquire, asked about Bush’s speech on Thursday. “Do I marinate in my cynicism and remember that this proud defender of American democracy lied the country into a foreign policy debacle that is still ongoing, and that is now overseen by someone who couldn’t find Iraq on a map … of Iraq? Of all the strange places that the last election has taken this country, this has to be one of the strangest. You have to watch every step. The past is clutching your feet here like poison vines camouflaged as the comforting tendrils of citizenship.”

The simple answer is: No, do not applaud. Do not let Trump move the Overton window. Do not let his presidency inspire a revisionist history of Bush’s.

Nostalgia is not a harmless vice. It clouds our ability to understand how the past is shaping the present. Trumpism is a powerful and pernicious force because it has deep roots in American history. To defeat Trumpism, we not only have to fight the sitting president himself, but also address the causes that made his rise possible. Every time we extoll George W. Bush, we drift further from the sober and painful reckoning we need, and further yet from solutions to prevent a Trumpian or Bushian presidency from ever wreaking such havoc again.