George W. Bush is not the worst living American, but only because former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger still lives.
Bush was the worst president since James Buchanan. He presided over eight years of ceaseless disaster. We are still fighting his wars, which have, by conservative estimates, killed hundreds of thousands, and by others, a million or more. He destroyed Iraq and plunged the entire Middle East into a slow-motion apocalypse that will take a century to heal, if it ever begins to heal at all. His war in Afghanistan, ostensibly a direct retaliation or response to the 9/11 attacks, was as desultory as it was cruel and unnecessary.
He was by turns diffident and hectoring, vicious and stupid. He presided over the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. He fiddled while New Orleans drowned. He foisted every sub-Nixonian Washington vampire—people you thought had evaporated in puffs of dust, leaving nothing but gouty skeletons back in the Ford administration—onto an unsuspecting nation.
He spent what seemed like half his presidency “clearing brush” on his Texas ranch for a credulous press corps. He was the son of a president who became president in this stupid republic of ours—the spoiled scion of a New England political dynasty who pretended to be from Texas. Living through eight years of him was like living with tinnitus and a vague nausea.
He nearly choked to death on a pretzel. He was almost hit in the head by a shoe.
During the Obama presidency, he largely disappeared into a parody of idyllic retirement, puttering about his property and taking up painting. This became a gentle punchline, which should have warned of his inevitable rehabilitation.
A more discerning nation would have noted that he was not the first monster to fancy himself a bit of an artist. Laura, his wife, appeared occasionally in public to advance her literacy causes, and there were rumors that she and Michelle Obama had forged some sort of friendship. Yet W. had the decency to stay retired, at least until Donald Trump’s political ascent, a bilious burp from the fever swamp of the American national psyche. Suddenly, America decided that the inanities and malapropisms from the man who transformed torture from the sordid dark secret of its foreign policy to a matter of national masculine pride were charming markers of humble authenticity. Anyway, he respected “norms” and acted “presidential.”
But Bush was not nice or respectable. He was churlish, and he had a cruel streak. His back-slapping geniality masked a vicious disdain for difference. He could be a nasty frat boy, indifferent to suffering. He dressed up like a fighter pilot and played army man on the deck of an aircraft carrier with a “Mission Accomplished” sign in the background while his idiot viceroys and their teenage Heritage Foundation interns were looting the Iraqi state.
He was very much like Trump: a fussy, dandyish thug whom the national press—insolubly defensive about its own supposed liberalism and cosmopolitan fanciness—treated as an avatar of some sort of Real America, that Brigadoon-by-way-of-exurban-Indianapolis that appears out of the mists every time America suffers through another one of its terrible elections.
The online resistance, which would have been perfectly content to watch Clintons and Bushes trade the Oval Office for the next thousand years, nevertheless pined openly for the days of Dick Cheney’s insane co-presidency. It began with slight embarrassment: I can’t believe I actually miss George Bush; or, I never thought I’d say this, but …
But the death of John McCain—another nasty, ungracious, bullying piece of work who became a hero to the media despite his bad manners and despicable politics—hurried the whole Bush renaissance to its absurd apotheosis.
McCain despised Trump, a fine example of the tyranny of small difference, and did not invite him to his self-planned and preposterously overproduced funeral. Bush, despite defeating McCain in one of the most virulently racist primary campaigns since the end of the Jim Crow era, was invited, as were the Obamas. The two families sat together, and Bush was filmed passing some hard candy to Michelle. It became a meme.
Two weeks later, Bush was out campaigning for GOP congressional candidates, the same folks who have insulated Trump from any consequences for his various lies and grotesqueries; who have endorsed his disastrous and often racist policies; who have hustled through his scheming, incompetent nominees and promised to continue if given the chance.
Over the last year, a quickening pace of inside-the-palace books and articles have confirmed what should have been obvious all along: that the supposed “adults in the room”—the gray-faced military men and old-time GOP apparatchiks who clattered into the Trump administration under the guise of protecting the president from himself and the rest of us from the president—are ineffectual at best and active collaborators at worse.
It is not so different from the Bush years, in which a man with obvious intellectual deficiencies and a poor grasp of the actual mechanics of governance was surrounded by, well, in some cases, the very same people. And this points to the fundamental underlying problem, the one no one who has ever sputtered, “This is not normal!” can admit or understand: The problem is the Republican Party.
The American Republican Party is the most right-wing, reactionary major political party in the so-called West. It is more right-wing than the Front National in France. It is more right-wing than Alternative für Deutschland in Germany or Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. It is as authoritarian as the right-wing governments of Poland or Hungary, whose anti-judicial coups are of a piece with GOP efforts in West Virginia, in Florida, in North Carolina and, increasingly (although with infuriating Democratic compliance), in the federal judiciary.
It is as incoherently nativist as any European blood-and-soil party. It is firmly committed to destroying the last vestiges of the welfare state, and in its growing opposition to any public institutions—schools, libraries, universities, transportation, public housing—it is effectively committed to the actual destruction of civil society. But George Bush gave Michelle Obama a Werther’s Original at a funeral, so I suppose we’re all in this together.
The project of the disempowered left is to resist rightist government, not to resist Donald Trump, who is just one more in a line of crooks and frauds coughed up to serve as a front man for this vile, venal party. Anyone who pours energy into a project of polite détente—whether a Twitter celebrity or a former Democratic first family—is a part of the problem and a part of the system we must struggle against.