Two years ago, as Serbia’s (increasingly authoritarian) “reformed” ultranationalist president gave warm praise to the war criminal who once led the country to disaster, I warned:
The history of countries like Serbia is actually instructive for countries like the US. They show the danger of rehabilitating extreme and criminal elements of national leadership, of whitewashing their legacies, and of re-elevating them to positions of prominence. Unfortunately, they’re lessons Western media doesn’t seem to believe apply to their own countries.
Two years on, this has only become more true. Because the more the chaos of Trump’s presidency intensifies, the more clear it is that it’s far from the aberration his fiercest critics insist it is. Instead, its pandemonium churns not just in the shadow of war criminal George W. Bush’s eight years in office, but directly because of them.
This has been most obvious in the harrowing scenes coming out of Portland these past weeks, where the world has watched armed and armored forces drawn from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attack and even kidnap nonviolent activists protesting police brutality. The scenes have drawn widespread comparison to fascist governments of the 1930s, with many bewailing that Trump was using the DHS as something like his own private army.
Of course, Trump would never have had the opportunity to do such a thing were it not for the sprawling, opaque, and largely unaccountable DHS itself, created by Bush and his acolytes. While members of the national security establishment will tell you “the real problem” is Trump and only Trump, the reality is abuse was endemic to the DHS from its very beginning, when it was weaponized for the purposes of a partisan fistfight and quickly turned its crosshairs on law-abiding Americans. It was inevitable it would someday be abused in the way we’re seeing now, ever since the DHS under Bush broadened its definition of terrorism to include the vague charge of trying to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation.”
If only this were all. This terrible year started with Trump very nearly starting a disastrous war with Iran, another case where Trump’s bumbling aggression was directly enabled by the imperial presidency that Bush pioneered and Barack Obama then escalated. The drone program Trump recklessly used to assassinate Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, after all, was first implemented, at least in a lethal way, under Bush.
It’s a similar story with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency whose overreach more than any other has come to symbolize Trump’s protofascist rule, and which had its first birthday midway through Bush’s presidency. It was under Bush, with his creation of the DHS and reorganization of the federal government to fight terrorism, that immigration was officially reenvisioned as a national security threat instead of a law enforcement issue, and that a “100 percent rate of removal for all removable aliens” became a goal.
Indeed, as Quartz’s Heather Timmons pointed out, even the right-wing Heritage Foundation argued that ICE was created as a separate agency “without a compelling reason,” something the DHS’s own inspector general noted in 2005 would lead to its unnecessary bloating. One “senior official” told the inspector general that ICE wasn’t made “with a focus on supporting a particular mission but rather on building an institutional foundation large enough to justify a new organization.”
While Trump’s reign has brought us new monsters like Stephen Miller, the Bush brain trust has hovered in the wings throughout. John Yoo, the legal architect of Bush’s torture regime, has now begun quietly advising Trump and other White House officials, pitching them a new, expansive theory of presidential power based on “under-enforc[ing] the law.” Trump’s unhinged former national security adviser for a year and a half, John Bolton, came straight out of the Bush administration, both in his physical person and his ultranationalist mindset. In his brief time at the White House, Bolton succeeded in both pushing Trump to be more aggressive and in derailing his attempts at diplomacy and military withdrawal, one of the few actually good things Trump ever tried to do.
In fact, on a host of issues — from foreign policy and the courts to environmental policy and the unilateral use of power — Trump has merely been following Bush’s lead, albeit beating him at his own game. A large number of the Obama-era executive orders on labor issues that Trump has reversed were themselves reversals of measures put in place by Bush, for instance. And even the odious Miller has a Bush connection: his mentor was David Horowitz, a Bush fan whom the former Texas governor courted and was influenced by.
The shadow of Bush has worked its influence on Trump from without, as well as within. It is Bush appointees and allies — people like John Brennan, James Clapper, James Comey, and Bill Kristol — who pushed the ultimately disproven conspiracy theory that Trump was secretly doing the Kremlin’s bidding, manufacturing a political scandal aimed at pushing Trump away from what he hinted would be a friendlier relationship with the country. It worked: to lift the pressure, Trump has, from the start, led the most aggressively anti-Russia presidency in recent memory, a policy direction that three decades’ worth of bipartisan foreign policy officials now warn has brought the countries to a “dangerous dead end” and risks nuclear war, and must be reversed with all haste.
Using their newly prominent and rehabilitated public standing, the allies and alumni of Bush’s administration have extended their influence over their political adversaries on the liberal side, too. Conservative former Bush officials like MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace, Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt, and David Frum used their newfound pull with the liberal press to join the media onslaught against Bernie Sanders’s candidacy in the Democratic primary, making an explicit pitch to liberal voters that was pivotal to swinging frightened older Democratic voters away from him.
Having neutralized a left challenge to their favored foreign policy, these Bush-aligned figures are now attempting to ingratiate themselves with, and therefore influence, a future Joe Biden administration through groups like “43 Alumni For Biden,” viewing the former vice president’s hawkish worldview as more simpatico with theirs than Sanders’s or even Trump’s. They may find success: Biden is, after all, himself a Bush-era throwback, one of Bush’s most crucial allies in launching the Iraq War.
Of course, the Trump administration has deeper continuity with mainstream Republican politics than just Bush. Many of the scarily authoritarian and unprecedented measures that supposedly make Trump a unique, fascistic threat — politicization of the Justice Department, extending surveillance powers, the militarized repression of protesters — have been driven by William Barr, former attorney general to George H. W. Bush, who closed out that administration in a similarly outrageous fashion. Former Ronald Reagan administration ghoul Elliott Abrams, another war criminal Barr pushed the elder Bush to pardon, is today point man for Trump’s clumsy regime change efforts in Venezuela and, it seems from now on, Iran.
The state of play in the United States is therefore very similar to that of countries like Serbia, which failed to excise the hard-right war criminals and their enablers from government and public life, and even rehabilitated them. After a period of lying dormant, those officials, having changed nothing meaningful about their political beliefs or goals, gradually reentered the political arena to wield power and influence in government and media under a different leader.
Democrats and establishment media have successfully put all focus on Trump as a freak anomaly, instead of stating the truth: that he’s a typically extreme and authoritarian Republican leader who inherited a set of dangerous powers from his predecessors. So despite Biden’s empty sloganeering about “restoring the soul of America,” there is no actual appetite in his Democratic Party to take aim at the root causes of the country’s authoritarianism.
While the 2008 Democratic platform vainly promised to “restore our constitutional traditions, and recover our nation’s founding commitment to liberty under law” after Bush’s eight-year assault on civil liberties — a promise that Obama, that year’s winner, barely pretended to follow up on once in the White House — this year’s platform doesn’t even pay lip service to this goal, even though these problems have only gotten worse. It is thus more than likely the authoritarian structures that Trump has used and abused to frightening effect over his term will not only stay in place the next time a scary Republican takes office, but will have actually expanded.
Republicans set the (hard-right) agenda, and Democrats legitimize it: that’s the pattern that has prevailed over the course of the neoliberal era since the 1980s. With the momentum now slowly building for left politics, there will come a day where that’s reversed. It just probably won’t be in November 2020.