Some people have been calling American politics the “race for the bottom.” When George W. Bush looks great to his former detractors, Trump is a problem.
I never thought I would ever say that, let alone write it.
As a child of the 1980s, protests against the Iraq War were in full swing by the time I traded my conservative school blazer for an over-sized college letterman sweater. During my tenure at the University of Edinburgh, George W. Bush was commonly depicted as the antithesis of common sense — ridiculed widely by the media and popular culture. Of course, the Iraq War remains a hallmark of both Bush and Blair’s premiership, and the latter has recently acknowledged the link between the invasion of Iraq and the rise of deadly jihadism — mainly Daesh. Tony Blair’s quasi-apology is an inconvenient truth, and the Iraq War ended up marring the career aspirations of presidential candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.
The Trump era has indeed emboldened my own political convictions, but since November 2016 I have seriously engaged in a period of revisionist thinking, critically examining the attitudes that I have held for other politicians and their cheerleaders. In the spirit of Bill Maher, I do indeed regret previously representing some figures as the worst possible candidates — criticism which may have been considered doom-laden and unjust by others of an opposing or neutral political standpoint. I certainly did not hold back my views on David Cameron when he was elected the Prime Minister of the UK in 2010, but in retrospect would much rather have him in the corridors of power, than the possibility of someone like Nigel Farage. Cameron had his flaws and I strongly disagreed with aspects of his politics, but he treated his opponents with more respect and conducted himself professionally. On the whole, most mainstream politicians, irrespective of political persuasion, want similar outcomes on various issues — they just disagree on the policies to reach those end-goals. For the benefit of doubt, I have never criticized any modern politician as severely as Trump, and my most acute criticism of political figures has centered on proponents of narrow nationalism, and those who have been overtly socially exclusive.
I do not regret the policies I have supported in the past, but I am content to stand corrected when wrong. At the end of the day, political leaders are not necessarily an “enemy” of citizens by virtue of their ideological viewpoints. Any common attempt to criticize some individuals as the worst-case scenario in politics only makes it more difficult to spread that message when someone really extreme comes along. Exaggerating and espousing half-truths about politicians is part and parcel of partisan politics — it has happened throughout political history, and will continue. Politics and sports have a lot in common — people love to side with their team, lionize their main players, and to abhor criticism from their greatest rivals. It is inherent within human nature to be parti pris, but like sport affiliations these loyalties can often become irrational and lead people to be dismissive of opinions that run counter to their own narrative.
George W. Bush’s recent comments with regard to the new political era are more than just noteworthy. Bush was virtually silent for eight years during Obama’s tenure in the White House, yet his rhetoric has been less restrained under the new Republican leadership. The former President’s interview was measured — he avoided criticizing Trump personally, and also spoke of optimism for the future. While some have referred to his comments as “muted criticism”, he did not hold back when proffering his views on Russia, racism, and freedom of the press. One of the most powerful and compelling statements he made during the recent interview was the following:
“Power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse power.”
These words are spot on. Bush did not have the best relationship with the press, but he did not unleash an undemocratic tirade on the industry and profession in the manner that Trump and Bannon et al. have done. After all, the Founding Fathers provided our great country with a fourth branch of government — a freedom of the press designed to hold the political system to account. It is absolutely fundamental for our democracy to ensure that a free press has the ability to make sure the actions of the other three branches of power are available for public consumption. That is not a Democrat concept or a Republican one — it is American.
Bush’s comments, however, do not come as a complete surprise. I did not think for one minute that the only time he would pop up in the news cycle during Trump’s presidency would be for showcasing his paintings, talking about his grandchildren, or taking part in charity fundraising, like he did for the ALS ice bucket challenge. No doubt there will be someone, somewhere, who thinks that Bush is only courting the political scene due to the treatment of Jeb during the primary season, or because he is promoting a new book. I have conviction that our former President is showing less restraint because this is not a period of normalcy, and the tone and attitudes of Trump are more than just a step-change. While I may have opposed Bush’s foreign policy during the 2000s, during his career he did not sidestep opportunities to denounce white supremacists, use profanities during speeches, joke about shooting people in the street, refer to Hillary going to the bathroom as “disgusting,” cruelly criticize a colleague for being a prisoner of war, or bully a high-profile journalist in an overtly sexist fashion. The list goes on. It is heartbreaking and unsettling to read the story that one of Megyn Kelly’s little children apparently believed that Trump wanted to hurt her personally. This was during the spell when Trump was unleashing personal attacks on Megyn Kelly via Twitter, and she ended up receiving ominous death threats from members of the public. It was Trump’s treatment of Ms. Kelly that prompted Barbara Bush to caution another female journalist to not “get in his firing line” during a media interview with Jeb last year.
I welcome the intervention of Bush, and I hope more individuals affiliated with the GOP— whether elected officials or not — vocalize their concerns, and really objectively and responsibly scrutinize his tenure. While Trump’s recent first address to Congress was notably subdued and more similar to the style of past Presidents, there is no room for complacency. It is important for the US to have an effective conservative party, but as it stands the party is appearing more and more radical. Resistance to Trump’s behavior, including his indifference to the boundaries of the Constitution, are issues that ought to transcend party political lines — period.
As the late American educator and historian James Harvey Robinson once cautioned: “Partisanship is our great curse. We too readily assume that everything has two sides and that it is our duty to be on one or the other.”