It says something about the state of affairs we’re in when George W. Bush emerges from the dung heap of history ostensibly smelling like roses. Were Bush from a less powerful country—one that has to follow rules it had no part in making, rather than one that sets rules it has no problem violating—he would be at The Hague before a war-crimes tribunal.
Instead, he is promoting his artwork—paintings of US veterans wounded in the line of duty—in a new book called Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors. Given that the illegal war he launched left so many dead or gravely injured, it might more properly be titled Victims of Hubris.
Were it simply a matter of the artwork Bush was promoting, the hypocrisy might have overwhelmed the entire enterprise. Yet while many Americans thought the country had reached rock bottom under his presidency, it turns out to have been a false floor. There is worse, it seems, than Bush. And so it was that the man America had conveniently forgotten, like an embarrassing uncle shut away in the basement, was brought upstairs and given a seat at the grown-ups’ table.
Bush’s moment of redemption came when he was asked how he felt about Donald Trump’s attacks on the media. “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy,” he replied. “That we need an independent media to hold people like me to account. I mean, power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive, and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.”
Bush’s comments, and the rush by some liberals to embrace him, illustrate two key trends. The first is the degree to which, in the desperation to mount the broadest possible coalition against Trump, some are prepared to neglect the principles guiding that opposition and, given their form, may yet prove to be unreliable allies.
Bush was never held to account for his own abuses of power. The mainstream media may have found their voice against Trump, but they were virtually mute or, even worse, implicated in peddling lies for the run-up to the Iraq War. This was fake news of some consequence: Hundreds of thousands died, a country was devastated, a region destabilized, innocents tortured, a generation of terrorists spawned. Meanwhile, The New York Times held a story about Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping until after the 2004 election, in part because the editors thought it would be unfair to run it too close to the vote.
Similarly, Trump’s Muslim ban, which has enraged so many at home and abroad, has its precursor in Bush’s own policies. Following September 11, his administration implemented the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, in which people from countries deemed “higher risk” were required to undergo interrogations and fingerprinting upon entering the United States. Noncitizen males over the age of 16 already in the country on student, work, or travel visas from countries with active militant threats were also required to register in person at government offices and periodically check in.
Put bluntly, the distinction between Bush and Trump is partly one of etiquette. Bush paid lip service to rights and norms before crushing them underfoot. Trump is more brazen in his language and more candid in his intent. Bush in no small part is how we got where we are today; to line up behind him against Trump is to pit the cause against the symptom without any suggestion of a cure.
This is not to claim that they are equivalent. The absence on Bush’s part of open race-baiting and Islamophobia makes a difference. Trump has emboldened bigots to speak out and act out on their hatred in a way that the more coded dog whistles of the Republican Party establishment did not. The Bush administration actively misled and bullied the media (remember how it hounded CBS’s Dan Rather and Mary Mapes for telling the truth about Bush’s draft-dodging?), but at least it didn’t boast about it.
Which brings us to the second trend. The same day that Bush came out to talk about his art and defend a free press, former Conservative prime minister John Major called Brexit a “historic mistake” and bemoaned the “unreal and over-optimistic” hopes that Prime Minister Theresa May had raised for Britain after exiting the European Union. That same week, François Fillon, the scandal-plagued center-right candidate in France, struggled to stay in the presidential race, while Marine Le Pen of the hard-right National Front is almost assured of a place in the runoff election. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the governing center-right party is in a tight race with the bombastic populist Geert Wilders, who has referred to Muslims as “goat-fuckers.” And in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel finds herself squeezed between an insurgent anti-immigration party, Alternative for Germany, and a revived Social Democratic Party.
In short, Bush’s intervention is illustrative of a moment in which mainstream conservatism is struggling to establish its credentials in the face of a hard-right onslaught. Some, like Merkel, are battling to distinguish themselves from their demagogic rivals, while others, like May or the Republicans in Congress, have preferred to join the stampede for fear that they will otherwise be crushed by it.
So much has been made of the crisis on the left—which cannot be denied—that the crisis on the right is being ignored. The capacity of mainstream conservatives to provide for their base has been so diminished in this neoliberal, post-crash moment as to render them virtually redundant. Failing on their own terms, they promise little and deliver less. As the once trusted stewards of capital, they remain the default parties of government. But while they still hold on to power, they continue to lose influence.