America may be sinking ever deeper into the moral morass of the Trump era, but if you think the malevolence of this period began with him, think again. The moment I still dwell on, the moment I believe ignited the vast public disorder that is now our all-American world, has been almost completely forgotten here. And little wonder. It was no more than a casually tossed-off cliché, a passing historical reference whose implications and consequences meant nothing to the speaker. “This crusade,” said President George W. Bush just days after the 9/11 attacks, “this war on terrorism…”
That, however, proved to be an invocation from hell, one that set the stage for so much of the horror to follow. The Crusades were, of course, a centuries-long medieval catastrophe. Bush’s Global War on Terror, in contrast, has already wreaked comparable havoc in a paltry 17 years, leading to almost unimaginable mayhem abroad and a moral collapse at home personified by President Donald J. Trump.
Despite the threads of causality woven together as if on some malignant loom that brought about his election—the cult of reality-show celebrity, the FBI director’s last-minute campaign intervention, Russian mischief, Hillary Clinton’s vulnerability to self-defeat and misogyny, Electoral College anomalies, Republican party nihilism, and a wickedly disenchanted public—the ease with which such a figure took control of the levers of power in this country should still stun us. Some deep sickness of the soul had already played havoc with our democracy’s immune system or he wouldn’t have been imaginable. Think of him as a symptom, not the disease. After Trump finally leaves the Oval Office, we’ll still be a stricken people and the world will still be groaning under the weight of the wreckage this country has brought about. How, then, did we actually get here? It might be worth a momentary glance back.
A Fever Dream of a War
“This is a new kind of evil.” So said the president that September 16, standing on the South Lawn of the White House. “And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” In that way, only five days after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush elevated a band of petty nihilists to the status of world-historic warriors. “And the American people must be patient,” he continued. “I’m going to be patient.”
He, of course, is long gone, but what he initiated that day is still unspooling. It could have been so different. September 11 was a tragic moment, but the initial reactions of most Americans to those collapsed towers and a damaged Pentagon were ones of empathy and patriotism. The selflessness of first responders that day had its echo in a broad and surprising manifestation of national altruism. The usual left-right divides of politics disappeared and the flag, for once, became a true symbol of national unity. The global reaction was similar. From across the world, including from erstwhile adversaries like Russia and China, came authentic expressions of support and sympathy, of grief-struck affection.