The Trump administration has brought us all sorts of dumb revisionist history: plenty of pundits, and no small amount of liberals, have decided that George W. Bush’s time in office wasn’t all that bad.
Actually, it was that bad. In fact, in terms of tangible effects, like lives lost (Iraq, Katrina) or ruined (Katrina, the mortgage catastrophe), Bush did much, much worse than anything Trump has.
Of course, Trump is doing his best to catch up. Bush never came nearly as close as Trump to nuclear war, despite Bush’s now-forgotten antagonization of China in the first year of his presidency. Meanwhile, the shameful and disturbing neglect of the entire territory of Puerto Rico makes the horror of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina look like amateur hour.
So in the end, Bush might wind up as the second-worst president in modern history. But that still makes Bush awful.
Why the Bush administration still haunts us
Here is a partial list of reasons why the Bush administration was a disaster.
The Iraq War and incubation of ISIS
The Iraq War killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. 4,491 American service members died in the course of the war.
The war also led directly to the rise of ISIS: veterans of Saddam’s army make up the military leadership of the organization. ISIS depends on U.S. materiel left over or captured from the coalition. ISIS reached its greatest heights in the midst of a power vacuum caused by the war.
The Great Recession and mass deregulation
The Bush administration’s aggressive financial deregulation, particularly in the housing market, helped create the conditions for the Great Recession. Millions lost their homes through foreclosure; a cohort of young people (including the authors of this blog!) may never recover from the catastrophe. Millions of Americans, particularly people of color, lost their wealth and savings. Millions of Americans were cast into poverty.
Persecution of queer people, discrimination against people of color
At the same time, the administration did not enforce of civil rights laws and neutered the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, causing:
- Accelerated school re-segregation, exacerbated by the end of busing, which the administration supported
- Deepened housing segregation
- Predatory lending towards people of color, particularly Black people
- Attacked voting rights for people of color, specifically Black people in swing states
- Partisan gerrymandering unlike any before
And there’s Katrina.
The administration initially refused to believe that climate change was a) happening or b) human-caused, probably due to its close relationship to the fossil fuel industry. The administration actively suppressed, manipulated, and questioned scientific research that proved the contrary. Bush did admit that climate change was real at the end of his term, but did not act against it in any meaningful way.
But aren’t those paintings great?
Bush aides like David Frum encourage us to forget
Yet we’ve chosen to forget all of these disasters. We have short memories, I think, probably on purpose: Americans don’t like to review past failure, much less past evils.
We also like to rehabilitate people who have done awful things. That’s a necessary step if you believe that America is automatically a force for good, and that its leaders are always virtuous and decent.
Warmongering, incompetence, and corruption cannot be part of such a view. This retrospective virtue allowed Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to be perceived as wise and good from the 1980s on. The same process is happening with Bush now.
The process works because Bush played the part of president better than Trump does. He outwardly respected the institutions and rules of the republic, even though he was dismantling voting rights and other democratic necessities. He did the ineffable work of “acting presidential.”
Trump, of course, is different. He does not care about the separation of powers, voting rights, due process, or the rule of law. He does not care about his legacy, or the impact of his presidency on anybody else. He wants to get paid and get his rocks off.
But Bush played the part he was supposed to play. He acted, more or less, like every other modern president, so we can think of him that way.
His aides and cronies acted the same way, in contrast to the current circus in the West Wing. Bush’s team said they loved democracy—especially if it was created from the barrel of a gun, as in Iraq.
Bush’s former speechwriter, David Frum, is the best example of this bait and switch, the sly rehabilitation of his boss’s legacy. In January 2017, Frum wrote a much-discussed cover feature for for the Atlantic. In it, and since, Frum has styled himself as a defender of democracy. In his commentary and public appearances, Frum has rightly denounced Trump’s various abuses of power and corrupt practices.
But Frum has used that correct analysis to polish Bush’s record. In a December 2017 piece for the magazine, Frum wrote that:
“The Obama administration’s 2015 [National Security Strategy] addressed in some detail epidemics and climate change. The Bush administration committed the United States to supporting human dignity, opening societies, and supporting the building of democracy. The main lines of the Trump approach jettison these concerns. If McMaster fairly summarized the new approach, the United States will soon formally commit itself to a lonelier and less generous course.” (Emphasis added.)
Frum turns the mass death of the Iraq War into euphemism. He portrays it as a grand, noble experiment gone wrong—look how Trump is acting the fool instead! Isn’t that disgraceful? Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Yes, Trump is a disgrace. But so was George W. Bush.
Don’t let people like David Frum tell you otherwise.