The Trumpist takeover of the GOP is essentially complete. Polls find that huge majorities of Republican voters believe the stolen-election lie, and the party establishment is purging the (very few) members who have the minimal honesty to admit that Joe Biden’s victory was legitimate. With an eye on 2024, the GOP is remodeling itself as an authoritarian, white supremacist, anti-immigrant party whose primary goal is to hold onto power by any means necessary, including voter suppression and outright election theft.
There seems to be just one Republican elder statesman who’s spoken out against this frightening trend. And it’s… George W. Bush?!
Bush is promoting a new book, a collection of portraits and stories of immigrants. In an interview released on Friday by the Dispatch, an anti-Trump conservative podcast, he was asked about recent moves by pro-Trump extremists to form a congressional caucus promoting “Anglo-Saxon traditions”.
“To me that basically says that we want to be extinct,” he said.
If such trends continued, Bush said, in three to five years “there’s not going to be a party… [I]t’s like saying when I was running for governor of Texas, you’ll never get any Latino votes because you’re Republican. And I said you watch. And I worked hard.
“And the key thing was to let them know that I could hear their voice. I mean, democracy is great in that sense. And the idea of kind of saying you can only be Republican ‘if’, then the ultimate extension of that is it ends up being a one-person party.”
Asked if he agreed with “more than 50%” of Republicans who think the election was stolen, Bush said: “No. I guess I’m one of the other 50%.”
It seems as though Bush was never on board with Trump and his brand of politics. In 2017, he reportedly called Trump’s inauguration speech “weird shit“. And after the 2020 election, Bush congratulated Biden in November, almost as if he were offering a concession on Trump’s behalf when Trump refused to do it.
Of course, if Bush disagreed with the direction Trump was taking the GOP, he had four years in which he could have spoken out forcefully, when there’s a slight chance it would have mattered. He didn’t do that. The cynical interpretation is that he’s only coming forward now because he has a new book to promote and wants to get his name back in the headlines.
However, just to be absolutely fair, I don’t think that his press tour is entirely for the sake of self-promotion. His book is a series of portraits of immigrants; he didn’t have to write about that topic. It seems likely that he chose to do so as a rebuke of Trump and the GOP’s xenophobic turn, knowing that he’d face a backlash from other conservatives.
But now, having said that, I’m through being charitable to George W. Bush. If he’s trying to portray himself as the kinder, gentler, more sensible Republican, he must be counting on our collective memory getting hazy in the twelve years since he was in office. Atheists and progressives remember his administration as eight years of disaster, crisis and outrage. It’s only in comparison to the even more corrupt, feckless and vicious Trump administration that we can look back on Bush with anything like nostalgia.
Let’s begin at the beginning: George W. Bush was the original Republican election thief. He lost the popular vote in 2000, and he only squeaked into office because a conservative Supreme Court handed the election to him by halting a recount in Florida. If not for that, Al Gore would likely have been president. This judicially sanctioned coup set the precedent for all Trump’s later efforts to subvert the democratic process.
George W. Bush allowed 9/11 to happen through arrogance and incuriosity, blowing off a presidential intelligence brief just a month prior that warned of evidence for an al-Qaeda plot which involved the hijacking of aircraft. In response to another, similar briefing from intelligence officials, Bush’s only response was, “All right, you’ve covered your ass.”
George W. Bush lied the country into war. He exploited post-9/11 jingoism to claim that Saddam Hussein was developing WMDs to use against America and a preemptive invasion was the only way to stop him. All this was a lie – there were no WMDs, and the true motivation was to fulfill neoconservative fantasies of empire – but we went to war anyway, predictably destabilizing the region, contributing to the later rise of ISIS, and creating a disastrous quagmire that left hundreds of thousands dead.
George W. Bush pandered to the religious right at every turn. He made opposition to marriage equality a cornerstone of his presidency, exploiting religious bigotry to turn out the vote. What’s worse, he apparently believed it himself. His White House circulated images of the American military blazoned with Bible quotes, implying it was God’s command to wage war, and Bush himself told a baffled French President Jacques Chirac that the Iraq war was necessary as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
George W. Bush oversaw the brutal and sadistic torture of prisoners on an industrial scale. The victims of torture weren’t just prisoners of war captured on the battlefield, although that would be bad enough, but ordinary people snatched off the street and flown to secret black sites in countries with no laws against torture – the so-called extraordinary rendition program.
George W. Bush created the Guantanamo prison as a legal black hole where detainees have no rights and can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial or tried before military tribunals bound by no precedent. And he sought to create an atmosphere where anyone who questioned this regime was similarly guilty of disloyalty. As Bush put it, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”
George W. Bush advanced the “unitary executive” theory, which holds that the president is essentially a king who wields limitless power and can’t be constrained by any law.
George W. Bush created ICE, the agency that did Trump’s fascist bidding more than any other.
George W. Bush did the bidding of fossil fuel companies. He rejected the Kyoto Protocol, put oil lobbyists in charge of butchering federal scientific reports, stifled state efforts to fight climate change, and sought to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
George W. Bush sat on his hands and let New Orleans drown, gawking at the catastrophe from the window of Air Force One, while he praised his wet-paper-sack FEMA director Michael Brown for doing “a heckuva job”.
For all these reasons (and many more I don’t have space for here!), George W. Bush deserves no forgiveness. He deserves only to be scorned and his name remembered with ignominy. He’s one of the worst presidents America ever had the misfortune to have. We can draw a straight line from things he did, or things he permitted to happen, to the crimes and outrages of the Trump administration.
I’ll grant that Bush didn’t seek to enthrone outright white supremacy in the way Trump did. His vision was of a multiracial evangelical Christian theocracy. But that doesn’t absolve him. Likewise, Bush was somewhat more competent than Trump, but that only made him more effective at evil. Whatever token condemnations these two might issue of each other, I see little ground for distinction. They both richly deserve their place among the pantheon of American villains.