Trump, Bush, and the Curse of Memory

The worst thing about Donald Trump is that he’ll get to come back.

There are many terrible things about Donald Trump The Presidential Candidate, to be sure, more than I care enumerate in this space. But the worst thing of all about him is that he won’t have to pay for any of these sins. He won’t be punished for empowering an army of nazis (online and off), or stoking revenge fantasies among a sizable portion of the electorate that will be impossible for the next president to douse, or even for being a goddamn creep of the highest order. This is all next-level awful, and bodes ill for the presidential elections of 2020 and beyond, when another fascist with sharper political skills and a modicum of impulse control could play the Nixon to Trump’s George Wallace.

But even if we wind up with an actual race-baiting Putin-worshiping monster in the White House 4 or 8 or 12 years from now—someone who will have marched there on a road Trump paved—Trump himself will not receive the slightest blame for it, and he will not only be unrepentant, but will not be forced to answer any hard questions about the horror he has unleashed.

This won’t happen because Trump is a psychopath who can compartmentalize the segments of his consciousness like a serial killer, or because he’s a self-proclaimed multibillionaire who can spend his way out of trouble, although these factors certainly help. This will happen because no one will call him to account. On the face of it, this seems impossible; surely Trump will have to answer for something he’s done during this election. But American political history—particularly that of the last 20 years or so—provides ample evidence to prove this, and the hyper-accelerated pace of media and life in general guarantees it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s statement that there are no second acts in American lives might be the least perceptive adage ever coined. (Even if Fitzgerald may not have even said it, or meant it in the sense in which it is constantly invoked, but that’s another story.) America loves second acts, and craves them perhaps more than any other nation on earth. So many of us Americans are, after all, descended from people who came to this country in search of a second chance. Stories of redemption tap into a desire to see self-made men rise to the top, a vein of meritocratic sentimentality that is uniquely American. It is a form Horatio Alger-ism: Any person who works and tries hard enough can overcome any obstacle—even complete and utter humiliation on the national stage.

America has never had much of a stomach to shun the politically disgraced. The post-Civil War Reconstruction is one of the few instances in our history where people who wrought death and destruction were actually made to pay for it, but once Reconstruction ended in 1876, the old Confederacy took on the nostalgic patina of The Lost Cause that made even speaking ill of the former rebels anathema for over a century. Herbert Hoover did nothing to alleviate people’s suffering in the early days of the Depression—and was proud of his role in thwarting “socialism” via inaction—yet in his later years he could be hailed as “an elder statesman” by anti-New Deal conservatives and even by liberals who feared FDR’s initiatives went “too far.” Lyndon Johnson was hounded out of the White House by anti-war protesters who labeled him a “baby killer” for his escalation of the Vietnam conflict, but though he died before his reputation could be fully rehabilitated, in retirement he was still able to assemble civil rights leaders at his ranch to celebrate his legislative achievements and even garner sympathetic interviews in which he pled for another look at his political legacy.

No president suffered a larger humiliation than Richard Nixon, forced to resign from office before the impeachment and removal that surely awaited him if he didn’t. No president damaged the reputation of the presidency more than him, and no president was more loathed when he left Washington. But even Richard Nixon was permitted a second act to his political career, granted “elder statesman” status on matters of foreign policy as a talking head and author. By the time he died in 1994, the passage of time had blunted his crimes to the point that it was considered almost uncouth to mention he’d quit the presidency in disgrace. When reporting the news of his death, the Washington Post—the newspaper whose dogged reporting brought Nixon to his knees—made mention of Watergate only in passing, as if it were just an embarrassing footnote to an otherwise distinguished life. Scan the piece and you’ll see that even Democrats like Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy—men whose political careers were shaped by the Watergate years—had nice things to say about Richard Nixon at the time of his passing.  Ever since, reminding people of just how vile Nixon was has been seen as a tad gauche.

But we don’t need to go back as far as Richard Nixon to see such revisionism in action. Witness George W. Bush. The war in Iraq he engineered on false pretenses led to millions of pointless deaths, engendered the rise of ISIS, and generated a slew of terrible consequences that will no doubt still be around by the time our grandchildren are grown. When the second Bush left office in 2009, even non-histrionic historians proclaimed him to be in the discussion of the worst presidents ever.

Flash forward seven years and Bush is making serious bank on the corporate talk circuit (where he drops science like “evil is real” and “bowling is fun”), delighting the internet with his amateur oil paintings, and plucking heartstrings by cuddling up to his successor and his wife for some reason. When Bush reenters the news cycle these days, it is not so he can be blamed him for the unrest in the Middle East that can be laid squarely at his feet, but for cutesy “break the internet reasons.” Like Nixon in his later years, Bush’s worst offenses are rarely mentioned.

Why the selective memory? Apart from the general American desire to cheer Comeback Kids and our willingness to forgive, there are other reasons why we are loath to exile such people from public life forever. Among politicians, there is an unspoken edict that adopts the judge not lest ye be judged principle whenever one of them is taken down by scandal or shuffles off this mortal coil. Whether the death be literal or merely political, when one of their brethren departs the scene nobody wants to be the jerk at graveside who reminds the mourners actually, this guy was awful.

For the DC pundit class who cover these pols, there is a traditional desire to assume that all politicians are working in good faith for ultimately patriotic reasons. They believe the differences between the parties run only skin deep and that, at their core, politicians on both sides of the aisle want what’s best for America. Through this view, whatever errors these men may commit are made honestly. Even for jaded Washington journalists, believing that any politician might function on purely cynical terms for purely cynical ends at all times—that they might actually wish to do harm—is a bridge too far. And even if they do believe that, they feel it vulgar to admit as much in print. The pundits’ condemnatory attitude toward Trump, though it was slow in coming, is (these pundits would say) proof that the Republican candidate lives outside of this polite sphere, that he is something totally different from every candidate who came before.

But one could just as easily have said that George W. Bush also disqualified himself from gotta hear both sides bromides, if for different reasons than Trump. Though both LBJ and Richard Nixon lied to the American public and committed atrocities in their conduct of the Vietnam conflict, at the very least each man could say he inherited the mess from his predecessor. Bush, in contrast, created a war in Iraq where there was no need for one, on the basis of evidence that was shown at the time—not after the fact, but at that moment in time—to be specious at best. Because a president must make decisions that affect life on a global scale, one could say that any president has blood on his/her hands—and yet Bush went out of his way to ensure that he would have more than most by inciting a battle with no reason to be fought, except to slake the neocon regime change wet dreams of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et al.

In other words, if anyone should fail to qualify for the “do-over” clause in American politics, it is Bush. Looked at objectively, what he did while in office is so monstrous and so disastrous that, at the bare minimum, it should disqualify him, and everyone associated with his administration, from any political company for the rest of his natural life.

And yet, a curious amnesia surrounds Bush’s years in office. Too often, that time in history is now presented as if it were some ancient geologic epoch of which we know little, rather than a mere decade-plus ago. Little effort is expended whatsoever to even mention what Bush did as president these days, let alone chastise or punish him for it.

When details of his eight years in office are mentioned lately, it is almost always to present Bush as antithetical to Trump. The ex-president is now named as a principled Republican who would have never stooped to the depths of the current GOP nominee. Bush, we have been reminded often in recent months, visited a mosque a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in order to discourage vigilante violence against Muslims. Compared to Trump’s overtly racist rhetoric, Bush is now considered a “voice of reason” on Islam and other subjects. He is now lauded for obeying certain “rules” of decorum and civility that Trump does not. Trump has set the bar so low for what we expect from a presidential candidate that George W. Bush can easily leap over it.

Some of these reactions come from “Never Trump” intellectual conservatives desperate to cling to a Republican party that they now realize (in the wake of Trump’s rise) never had much use for them and has even less use for them now. But just as often, these reactions come from non-conservative sources who should have a vested interest in chipping away at conservative figures, yet don’t seem to recognize that Bush is someone whose figure deserves chipping. See the nominally liberal Huffington Post, which published a piece with a YASS QUEEN headline to praise Condaleezza Rice for her mild diss of Trump.

Since the incident (in which the GOP candidate called Rice the b-word) dovetailed with Trump’s horrible treatment of women, and the abuse that every woman in public life has had to endure during his micro-dick swinging campaign, the piece painted Rice as a sympathetic figure—a woman who, like most women, will be very glad on the morning of November 9. But the fact that Rice, as Bush’s secretary of state, carried water for one of the worst abuses of intelligence in American history—and therefore enabled the Iraq War to proceed—went completely unmentioned by HuffPo, or pretty much any news outlet that discussed the incident. For all of Trump’s many sins, Condaleezza Rice is directly responsible for hundreds of thousands more deaths than he is.

It’s no great shock that HuffPo—whose liberalism comprises comparing every political conflict to Game of Thrones and stops short of paying its writers a living wage—would have a skin-deep assessment of Bush administration figures. It’s far more troubling when you see shallow historical perspective from people who are far too old to claim ignorance of the Iraq War years and far too young to claim dementia, such as this Democratic strategist:


[Screenshot provided because Mr. Aravosis deleted his tweet for some reason.]

The obvious counter to this is that yes, I remember being very much against the Iraq War. I remember marching in protests against it. I remember following the reporting of Seymour Hersh and others that said Hey, they’re selling this war on a lie. And I also remember we went to war anyway and it was a nightmare that still has no end in sight. I remember.

Thus, I find it infuriating that some people of the professional political class have already relegated that debate, that struggle, and that bitter, disastrous failure to the same status as a line in a grade school history book. To them, the Iraq War is already on the same level as the XYZ Affair or the Teapot Dome Scandal or 54-40 Or Fight—an ancient political battle whose participants and motives are obscure to the modern mind. To them, it is dusty history, and not what it really is: a preventable tragedy in which tons of people died, tons more were maimed, and most of the ghouls responsible aren’t even old enough to qualify for Social Security yet.

And I suspect this is because the Iraq War happened in an era where iPhones and Twitter and Slack didn’t exist just yet. In many people’s minds, pre-iPhone internet might as well be 50 years ago, with all history occurring before that time dumped into the same box.

The insane pace of the current presidential campaign leaves little room for any sort of historical perspective or long view, each side looking to score points as quickly as possible because they know our attention spans have been whittled down to the lengths of nanoseconds. As of this writing, the vile Trump/Billy Bush incident came to light barely two weeks ago. In 2008, or even 2012, a revelation like this would have dominated the news cycle for weeks. (Think about how long Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe was chatted about in the news four years ago.) In 2016, though the Billy Bush kerfuffle has had a definite and lasting impact on Trump’s chances (torpedoing them for good), we’ve already left it behind to devour the next talking point. (Though, to be fair, this is due in part to Trump himself, whose prodigious generation of faux pas is truly historic.) This is one reason why none of the Clinton emails released by Wikileaks have done any damage whatsoever to the Democrat’s chances. Aside from being boring reading, the most recent missives describe backroom conniving during the primaries of last winter. Who, in October of 2016, can possibly think back that far?

To be sure, our assessments of history are fluid. Many presidents left office with bad reputations that were burnished by historians later. (Truman and Eisenhower come to mind.) Much of what happens politically is shaped by politicians who are astute enough to see the straws in the wind and know the direction in which public opinion is heading. Rick Perlstein’s books on the conservative movement (and especially Nixonland) are excellent examples of works that capture this phenomenon, as are the Robert Caro biographies of LBJ. People change their minds about the present, which colors their view of the past.

But there is a difference between an evolving opinion of history and an opinion that ignores history altogether. It’s not that George W. Bush’s Iraq War is now seen as a good thing; it’s that it’s barely seen at all. And when it is seen, the war is painted as something akin to a natural disaster—something everyone, including Bush, could never have foreseen—rather than a calculated series of moves that made the world a far worse place than it was before, orchestrated by people who are still roaming the earth freely.

If you have an argument that the Iraq War and Bush’s presidency were good things, I would be willing to listen to it. But no one, as far as I know, is making that argument because we no longer seem to acknowledge that either event ever happened. If you remember those years, to have it erased from public discussion because it’s just too unpleasant to talk about is maddening—doubly so when the unpleasantness we’re supposed to avoid isn’t that of Iraqis or wounded servicemen, but that of an ex-president who is, when all is said and done, a mass murderer.

This is why I am completely assured that Donald Trump will return as a political figure. It may be just as a Sunday morning talk show guest, or hype man for future candidates, or TV news network mogul, or he may even give it another shot in 2020. But he will return, and when the political landscape of America grows even uglier in the years to come—as it almost undoubtedly will—he will not field one question as to his responsibility for that outcome. And when another candidate emerges who goes a few steps beyond Trump—whose racism is more blatant, whose calls to violence are more explicit, and whose contempt for democracy is even more naked—the pundits will harken back to the “simpler” days of 2016 and say Well, Donald Trump never would have said that…

When that day comes, pray you don’t have a decent memory of what actually happened in 2016, because it will only drive you mad. In our future, a long memory won’t be an asset. It will be something closer to a disease.