George W. Bush, the least visible of our five living ex-presidents, popped up in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the site of the United Flight 93 crash, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the 11th attacks. Commentaries that gave him an air of unfamiliar liberalism. Brought him love. Bush, without naming names, compared the al Qaida attackers to Capitol rioters from January 6th. He said that both were “children of an evil spirit” and had to be “opposed to duty”. Bush did not name Donald Trump either, but it was no secret who he was thinking of when he said, “So much of our politics has become a bare appeal to anger, fear and resentment. It is a concern for our nation’s future and our common future.
Bush was always a hateful person. Trump has been directing his verbal attacks against the Bush family in a consistent manner. He has also made it very clear that Bush’s ancestral party includes what Bush in Shanksville called “evil forces”. Either Bush lost interest in the political cause he had dedicated his life to, or he misunderstood the nature of the party that he led. It is not pleasant to consider.
Bush spoke in Pennsylvania about the spirit and unity that prevailed after September 11th. However, this was a natural and temporary response to the country’s attack. Trumpism was not born of nothing. American politics have been home to anti-immigrant and religiously intolerant elements. And since the South was thrown out of the Democratic Party, their primary home has been in the GOP. From the Northeast to Southwest and the High Protestant to Born again, the Liberal Internationalist to the belligerent, the GOP is where they are most at home.
Bush was in a war for his soul before September 11th. In the weeks before the attacks, he was publicly agonizing over federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He eventually reached a compromise as a sign of his appreciation of the power and influence of the evangelical movement. Those who believed Bush’s father should depose Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War in 1991 dreamed of another chance. Multilateralists were in competition with the majority of a superpower. These arguments have been settled by the attacks. The Bush administration chose to go on the dark side in Dick Cheney’s immortal words about incarceration torture and civil rights. It approved new surveillance programs, both domestically and internationally. It alienated many its traditional allies. It was clear that she wanted to conquer and occupy Afghanistan first and then Iraq.
Bush’s aggressive instincts were exposed in the attacks. But he believed that all of his moves would be successful. In a speech nine days following the attacks, he began to lay out his arguments. A great global battle between good and evil had begun; People everywhere, particularly in the Arab Middle East, longed to live in an American-style capitalist democracy and looked to the United States to bring them there. Osama Bin Laden’s murderous fanaticism was their only viable alternative to the American path. Bush spoke in Shanksville of the “boldness and evil” of his Manichaean thinking. His pride in the large picture and his determination to succeed, as it is now obvious, led to enormous mistakes with lasting consequences.
The American failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and at the end Bush’s presidency, financial crisis, and the beginning of the Great Recession, have definitely overpowered the distrust and disillusionment of leaders and institutions, which has led to a flood of blame-worthy people, both high (elites), and low (immigrants). Both major parties have produced unanticipated underdog heroes – Bernie Sanders, for the Democrats, and Trump, for the Republicans. But the populist triumph in Bush’s party was greater. Mitt Romney and others are now the underdogs of the Democrats while Barack Obama & Joe Biden are the main characters.
There is a sharpness in Bush’s complaints about Trumpism; he’s not just pretending to find it repulsive. This isn’t what Bush believes. It is not about spreading a message about unity, respect, and honor, although that’s a nice thing too. It doesn’t make sense to interpret world events broadly as a struggle for good and evil. The January 6 rioters and the 9/11 bombers were in fact evil in very different ways which required very different responses. We would be most successful in leading into a post-Trump world if our government didn’t make a big deal about failing in its biggest tasks. Let’s pray that the Biden administration is able to offer this. The Bush administration did not.
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