What the Bush years can tell us about President Trump
by Michael Digioia
( Image by Graphic Havoc featured in Lumpen magazine, March 2002 )
To most of America it seemed impossible that the star of The Apprentice could win the 2016 presidential election. But as Chris Rock noted on SNL, “You ever been around this country?” And while this is definitely new territory, the Trump wildcard is unpredictable, we can still look back on the Bush years to help us understand some of what we can expect. Remember, in those 8 years we invaded a country that didn’t attack us, almost lost a major American city to a storm, and we managed to cause the largest global economic meltdown since the Great Depression.
So there will be consequences. Let’s mine a little history to see what we might expect and hopefully glean some ideas of how to prepare. Keep in mind that Bush ran on an anti-gay marriage platform in 2004 and less than 10 years later marriage equality became the law of the land. Progress still happens in the face of opposition.
It’ll start fast and your head will spin
In many ways the Bush campaign was as devious and orchestrated as the Trump campaign. Bush’s slogan was that he was a compassionate conservative, and he presented himself as not that much different than Gore, except with him we could lose the Clinton baggage. He downplayed his conservative agenda and cloaked it in this we’re-pretty-much-the-same rhetoric that became the media’s narrative.
Once in office his administration proved to be highly organized, appointing a dizzying array of know-nothings and corporate interests to key government positions that amounted to a dramatic reversal of the previous 8 years of policy. Within months we pulled out of the Kyoto Treaty, passed tax cuts for the wealthy that effectively eliminated our surplus, stopped any funding for foreign aid that performed or counseled an abortion, hampered stem cell research, proposed building 38,000 miles of new pipelines, put forth a budget that included a half a billion dollar cut to the EPA and reduced research into renewable energy by 50%. That’s the first 180 days short list and that was all before 9/11.
While Bush pretended to be conservative-light during his campaign, Trump represented himself as a clown that could never possibly win a national election. This implausibility is exactly what allowed him to dominate every news cycle with an endless parade of supposed gaffes. But he’s turned out to be surprisingly organized, continuing to dominate the news cycle while choosing a cabinet that could easily make the Bush agenda feel like a walk in the park. Expect a reversal in policy under Trump to be more drastic, and as swift, as the the first 180 days of Bush.
Terrorism as opportunity
After 9/11 Bush chose to invade Iraq instead of focusing on who attacked us. Capturing Bin Laden and setting Afghanistan on a NATO-assisted future would have been easy given the good will the U.S. enjoyed back then. But Bush took the opportunity to advance his agenda of invading Iraq and starting a new cold war, the war on terror. These were well-documented positions that Bush and his cabinet were advocating before taking office. Being at war also had the effect of curtailing much of his legislative opposition for a couple of years.
Unfortunately, there will most likely be a terrorist attack on U.S. soil and it won’t have to be spectacular for the Trump administration to capitalize on it to justify whatever action it chooses. Likely he’ll push for what he campaigned on, like building a wall, creating a registry or mass deportations. It also could be used to support a cozier relationship with Russia as a partner in the war on terror, justifying the end of sanctions and probably the end of a two-state solution to Israel as well. These are the positions Trump has taken that he’ll need some more political capital to push through.
Dealing with our fellow citizens
I hate to keep quoting Chris Rock but as he said regarding the American public in the lead up to the Iraq war, “You got a little Nazi on us didn’t ya”. I was just in a diner in Wisconsin that still refuses to use the term French Fries. When I asked what the “America Fries” on the menu were they said “they’re liked deep fried potato sticks”. Think about that (if you don’t know what I’m talking about just google Freedom Fries). So while Trump supporters are more openly bigoted, we’ve been dealing with this for a long time. Trump was able to channel the hatred of liberal ideology (and governance in general) that right wing propaganda has been fostering for decades. People who buy into this aren’t going to easily change their tune.
Under Bush we wasted a lot of time thinking that if we could just educate people they would see what a disaster the Bush policies were. It didn’t work. We just drove ourselves crazy. Trump supporters are loving that they won, and they will continue loving that they won regardless of any cabinet picks, or a bromance with Putin or any obvious get-rich-quick scheme Trump comes up with for himself. As much as people like to share those kind of things on Facebook, it won’t change anyone’s mind. Besides everyone’s already de-friended each other.
However, eventually, just as it happened with Bush, many people who expected some sort of positive change from Trump will be disappointed and it will be important to find ways to connect when that happens. That’s something that never happened with Bush supporters. When everyone started hating Bush, there was no coming together. Partially because many quickly transitioned to unreasonably questioning the legitimacy of the first African American President, and partially because no one really tried. The Left just beat them back for a while and furthered the divide, helping to create the current disparate realities we seem to live in.
We have to focus on creating new models for a better society, and nurturing local economies and communities, but we also have to find ways to include some of those that fall prey to people like Trump. There’s no easy answer as to how that can be done and we can’t excuse bigotry. But keep in mind, it’s not Trump that we should be afraid of, it’s that we live in a society that enough people will buy into someone like him. The Trumps of the world will always come around, we somehow have to make sure that not enough of us fall for it.