George W. Bush ended his second term with a 25 per cent approval rating, one of the lowest in the history of the United States. The criticism he received during his presidency, as well as in the years following it, which centred on his initiation of the Iraq war and bumbling presentation, has been a touchstone of left-wing political commentary. So it comes as a surreal surprise to see Bush making headlines for his book of paintings (which recently topped the Washington Post’s best-seller list), his rationality, and his apparent friendship with the Obamas, rather than the militarism which made the Iraq war the most defining feature of his presidency. Ironically, the same bumbling nature that once served as a point of critique, is suddenly attractive in comparison to the brash and aggressive figure now in office. The shock of a Trump presidency and the Executive Orders flooding in, have understandably left many feeling nostalgic for another time. However, before we rush headlong into a congratulatory parade for Bush’s newfound position as “not as bad,” we should consider the implications of disconnecting him from the actions of his presidency, and where we draw the line in dubbing people “a lesser evil.”
With Bush no longer at the forefront of the American government, it is easy to forget that this grandfatherly figure who calls for unity and artistic expression, once stood under that infamous star-spangled banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.” The reality is that every year since 2003, Iraq has ranked in the top ten of countries worldwide for number of people displaced. According to 2016 statistics from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, around 3.4 million people are estimated to be internally displaced in Iraq. Though Bush’s actions in Iraq may appear distant, their implications are not. Bush is no longer commander in chief, but that does not presuppose a complete absolution of his actions as such. Rather than viewing Bush’s actions as the past and Trump’s as the present, they should be viewed as components of a historical trajectory.
In isolating Bush Jr. and Trump from their surrounding contexts, you reduce them to their individual personalities, ignoring the political climates which cultivate them. Presidents serve primarily as figureheads, whose personas greatly impact public opinion, but they are supported by the historically-built ideologies of white supremacy, misogyny, and settler-colonialism, amongst various other forms of oppression. Their actions, and even just their elections, are the manifestations of the history of exploitation in the U.S.. The Iraq war is more than just the actions of George W. Bush: it is the culmination of a culture of militarism, imperialism, and colonialism. Trump’s election represents the overwhelming presence of white supremacy and Islamophobia in the U.S.. While it is easy to reduce them to their latest TV presences, whether this be a bumbling old painter or a shouting demagogue, they neither possess nor deserve the credit for the power to singlehandedly produce events. By simplifying them to comparable evils and talk show appearances, you ignore the broader narrative to which they contribute, and fail to condemn the implications of this trajectory.
With Bush no longer at the forefront of the American polity, it is easy to forget that this grandfatherly figure who calls for unity and artistic expression, once stood under that infamous star-spangled banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.”
Naturally, the present is more easily called to mind than the past, but the oppressive systems that exist today trace back through Bush and the decades preceding him. One example of this is the “fake news” rhetoric which is so heavily used by the current Republican administration. Considering Trump’s gas lighting technique of establishing the mainstream media as a national enemy and his apparent use of Breitbart as his source for White House briefings, the extremity of it all can seem too distinctly Donald to associate with the existing legacy in the U.S. However, Bush’s denunciation of Trump’s anti-media rhetoric is starkly different to his behaviour in office. While in power the Bush administration produced and distributed fake news segments known as Video News Releases, also known as VNRs, which were presented without reference to their source, in order to propagate success of the Iraq war. The same war was initiated based on false knowledge of weapons of mass destruction, used by the administration to push their agenda. While Bush’s personality, or at least presentation of his personality, might have changed since his time in office, his actions still remain a part of the techniques used by the U.S. to justify oppression.
History builds on itself, and Bush and Trump are not outliers on this trajectory, but manifestations of its path. By longing for the days of Bush, one is wishing to return to a different era of the same injustice. Neither of the two men are isolated cases, so comparisons determining who is a “lesser evil” are pointless. They are particularly notorious leaders whose implications are scary, but they are powered by prejudices and systems of oppression which are firmly ingrained in society. By absolving Bush you not only normalize his actions, but normalize components of the system which supports him. With the shadow of 9/11 acting as public justification, Bush called for the war in Iraq, but was powered by the history of militarism and imperialism. Trump’s travel ban is presented through his rhetoric but is fuelled by pre-existing Islamophobia and xenophobia in the U.S..
If we choose to relegate Bush to the role of the lesser evil, it begs the question as to where we draw the line on who can qualify for this designation. Hinging the public opinion on the degree of expressionism contained in someone’s hobby paintings ignores not only the ramifications, but also the implications, of certain events in our recent history. Will we one day be saying “well, Trump doesn’t seem too bad anymore?” By forgiving people, or at least minimizing their negative impact, on the basis of how they compare to the evils of others, we allow for a continued escalation. If this is the case, then the only requirement for forgiveness becomes the presence of someone louder and worse. When do we stop normalizing these actions entirely rather than settling for a less extreme option?
History builds on itself, and Bush and Trump are not outliers on this trajectory, but manifestations of its path.
For many Trump’s election feels like a bizarre alternate universe, or is just rightfully terrifying. It’s natural that this has many wishing to return to a time before now, but before we run straight into grandfather Bush’s open arms and ask him to teach us about modernist painting, we should consider the implications this has for both our present and future consciousnesses. If we forgive Bush, then we normalize everything he stands for, and move one step closer to normalizing Trump as well. We also lose sight of the broader historical narrative when we allow Bush’s distance from the office to distance him from his actions. Trump and Bush are not simply their personalities, nor are they isolated events. They are the product of systems of oppression in the U.S. which are built to use prejudice in order to justify abhorrent actions. Rather than leaving historical events in the past in favour of more immediate problems, we should consider the ways in which they build on each other, and the broader implications they hold for the U.S..