No Matter the Liberal Metric Chosen, the Bush/Cheney Administration Was Far Worse Than Trump.
Fantasies of a Trump-led fascist coup have redounded to the benefit of many -- especially those responsible for abuses far worse than those of the current president.
President Bush and Former American Vice President Dick Cheney in the Presidential Limousine. Image courtesy George W Bush/National Archives (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).
That the liberal belief in and fear of a Trump-led fascist dictatorship and violent coup is actually a fantasy — a longing, a desire, a craving — has long been obvious.
The Democrats’ own actions proved that they never believed their own melodramatic and self-glorifying rhetoric about Trump as The New Hitler — from their leaders joining with the GOP to increase The Fascist Dictator’s domestic spying powers and military spending to their (correct) belief that the way to oust The Neo-Nazi Tyrant was through a peaceful and lawfully conducted democratic election in which vote totals and, if necessary, duly constituted courts would determine the next president.
The motives for concocting this Wagnerian fantasy about coups, dictatorship, concentration camps and civil war are numerous. Politics is boring, and your life unspectacular, if it’s dedicated to a goal as banal and uninspiring as empowering a septuagenarian career-politician — the centrist-authoritarian author of the 1994 Crime Bill, the credit card industry’s most loyal servant, and key Iraq War advocate — along with his tough-on-crime prosecutor-running-mate who always seems as if she just left a meeting of the Aetna Board of Directors where massive hikes in deductibles were approved.
Glory is available only if one can convincingly herald oneself as a front-line warrior risking it all to courageously battle unprecedented evil and a Nazi-like menace. But working to do nothing more than elect Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and the rest of the painfully ordinary and mediocre corporatist and imperialist Democratic Party politicians through a standard American election? There’s no glory residing in that, no courage needed for it, to put it mildly.
Posturing as a courageous soldier in an existential battle for freedom, democracy and the survival of the marginalized against Nazi despotism is far more exciting and psychologically satisfying (and financially profitable) than being an obedient liberal drone marching in perfect tune to the dreary, McKinsey-scripted musical theater produced by Tom Perez and the DNC. That is therefore the delusional storyline adopted by many.
Then there’s the multi-pronged profit that the Trump-as-Hitler motif has generated for virtually every institution of American authority. Numerous media outlets that in 2015 were sputtering if not collapsing, and numerous television personalities about to be fired because nobody was watching them, were first rescued and then propelled into the stratosphere by The Trump Show. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” said the network’s then-CEO Les Moonves in 2016 about Trump TV. Of course media outlets don’t want to declare the 2020 election over: they will milk the abundant Trumpian cash cow until the very last drop has been monetized.
The frightening spectre of a Dictatorial Menace also led liberal advocacy groups such as the ACLU to drown in previously unimaginable quantities of #Resistance cash, frenetically donated in the name of stopping Trump’s incomparable evil. Rotted and discredited institutions like the CIA, NSA and FBI re-branded themselves as patriotic guardians of liberal democracy and stalwart protectors of a besieged population. Leaders of those security state agencies went from toppling governments, engineering clandestine coups, disseminating disinformation campaigns, illegally spying on citizens, and entrapping young Muslims in manufactured terror plots to being lavished with book deals and cable news contracts and celebrated in liberal parlors as saviors rather than destroyers of democratic institutions and Enlightenment values.
But the most potent incentives for this warped fairy tale have been the whitewashing of recent U.S. history, the maintenance of American Exceptionalism, and most of all the reputational and career rehabilitative value it bestowed on all those pre-Trump officials, apparatchiks and myth-disseminating journalists who committed great evils and left a raft of violence, lawlessness, destruction and death in their wake but now get to claim, and have others believe, that, no matter their sins, at least they weren’t authoritarian white supremacist neo-Nazi pathological-lying fascist dictators like Trump and therefore deserve to be embraced by (and gainfully employed in) the Family of Decent Society.
That’s the deceitful framework that has led to two of the most mendacious and amoral War on Terror neocons, David Frum and Bill Kristol, being elevated to their new status as among the most beloved-by-liberals Trump-era pundits with a new massive social media platform and frequent MSNBC appearances; the actual chief propagandist of the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign and Bush/Cheney White House, Nicolle Wallace, becoming one of the most adored-by-liberals MSNBC hosts; the litany of War on Terror killers, including former Bush/Cheney CIA and NSA chief Gen. Michael Hayden, becoming a #Resistance star; and the most savage disciples of Rovian politics becoming the undisputed champions of political grifting while marching under the tickling-the-liberal-g-spot banner called the Lincoln Project.
Flamboyantly denouncing Trump as an Unprecedented Evil became a cheap, instant and easy ticket to absolution, redemption and profit no matter how barbaric and monstrous one’s pre-Trump resume had been. That’s why it seems normal, reasonable, and credible that the very same people now demanding that lists of Trump supporters be compiled so as to ensure permanent ostracization themselves justified, advocated for, implemented and presided over crimes far worse than the Trump administration got close to committing.
In the green rooms of CNN and MSNBC, on the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, and in the hearts and minds (and bank accounts) of American liberals, one now finds the worst and most amoral architects and enablers of the invasion and destruction of Iraq, the worldwide torture regime, the global program of official kidnapping (“rendition”), Article II theories of a lawless and omnipotent President, the drowning of New Orleans, the slaughter of innocents by the thousands at the hands of fighter jets and drones, the targeting of U.S. citizens for assassination-by-drone, vital support for the world’s most barbaric tyrants, the saving of Wall Street at the expense of ordinary homeowners and communities of workers, and the seamless and rapid re-imaginging of the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union as a country of Endless War.
How can people with this much blood on their hands, this much admiration of tyranny, this much support for lawlessness and corruption, and with a record of so many lies to obscure and justify it all, possibly find career success and public adoration again? We see the answer in its stark efficacy: they manufacture a never-before-seen monster who poses unprecedented dangers and embraces incomparably evil beliefs, and then they position themselves as the necessary and uniquely suited vanquishers of this New Nazi Evil. At first begrudgingly, then enthusiastically, their former critics and adversaries fall into line behind them, cheer them, support them, fund them, hire them, and buy their books en masse. Some will undoubtedly be rewarded with plum jobs or lucrative influence in the new administration. After all, however bad these once-despised figures might have been, it pales in comparison to the new Nazi demon.
But this entire narrative is complete and utter bullshit: blatantly so. There is nothing done by the Trump administration that can be rationally characterized as a radical aberration, some dramatic break, from U.S. tradition. Quite the contrary: none of Trump’s actions and policies are in some new universe of savagery, lawlessness, or radicalism when compared to those who preceded him in power.
The age of social media has fostered a type of reductive thinking and discourse about politics and the world in which pat and trite phrases have replaced critical thought as our primary instruments for making sense of external events. One can already hear the outraged liberal response to this claim finding expression in a series of dreary, now-familiar clichés that fit comfortably into a tweet and a chant: lawlessness and authoritarianism, racism and bigotry, kids in cages, he killed 235,000 Americans, lying — these are the stunted, juvenile slogans that are supposed to serve as proof that America has never seen an evil quite like Trump before.
That Trump ushered in an unprecedented climate of lawlessness and authoritarianism is perhaps the most stunning of the assertions, particularly when delivered by the Bush/Obama Warriors on Terror who succeeded in imposing a model of the American Presidency that resided above not only morality but law.
I began writing about politics in 2005 as a reaction to the lawlessness, executive power transgressions and authoritarian Article II theories imposed by Bush/Cheney officials in the name of fighting terror. They claimed the right to violate Congressional statutes restricting how they could spy, detain, or even kill anyone, including American citizens, as long they justified it as helpful in the fight again terrorism.
They invented new theories of secrecy to hide virtually everything they did and, worse, to bar courts from subjecting their actions to legal or constitutional scrutiny. Josh Marshall’s entire career is based on a well-documented claim that the Bush White House and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales fired U.S. Attorneys who were investigating their own associates, including those of Karl Rove. The Obama administration prosecuted more whistleblowers and sources under the 1917 Espionage Act — enacted by Woodrow Wilson to criminalize dissent from U.S. involvement in World War I — than all prior presidents combined.
And in early 2009, The New York Times’ reporter Charlie Savage — in an article entitled “Obama’s War on Terror May Resemble Bush’s in Some Areas” — detailed how many of the worst authoritarian excesses implemented by Nicolle Wallace’s bosses would be continued and perhaps even expanded by the new Democratic president:
Even as it pulls back from harsh interrogations and other sharply debated aspects of George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism,” the Obama administration is quietly signaling continued support for other major elements of its predecessor’s approach to fighting Al Qaeda.
In little-noticed confirmation testimony recently, Obama nominees endorsed continuing the C.I.A.’s program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone.
The administration has also embraced the Bush legal team’s arguments that a lawsuit by former C.I.A. detainees should be shut down based on the “state secrets” doctrine. It has also left the door open to resuming military commission trials.
And earlier this month, after a British court cited pressure by the United States in declining to release information about the alleged torture of a detainee in American custody, the Obama administration issued a statement thanking the British government “for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information.”
These and other signs suggest that the administration’s changes may turn out to be less sweeping than many had hoped or feared — prompting growing worry among civil liberties groups and a sense of vindication among supporters of Bush-era policies.
Perhaps the most radical and tyrannical U.S. Government domestic act of the last two decades began at Chicago O’Hare International Airport in 2002 when the U.S.-born American citizen Jose Padilla was arrested and accused by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft of being the “Dirty Bomber,” someone trying to detonate a radiological weapon in the U.S. Rather than being criminally charged and prosecuted for those accusations, this U.S. citizen was instead detained indefinitely as a presidentially-decreed “enemy combatant,” and held in a South Carolina military brig for almost three years without charges, without access to a lawyer, without communication with the outside world, and under torturous interrogations — all based on the view that a wartime president is omnipotent, bound neither by laws nor constitutional guarantees.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations then proceeded to expand their claims of unlimited executive power far beyond “merely” detaining U.S. citizens with no legal constraints to spying on them and even targeting them for assassination without a whiff of due process. As the liberal writer Adam Serwer argued in 2011: “what we’re talking about is the establishment of a precedent by which a US president can secretly order the death of an American citizen unchecked by any outside process.” This Obama policy meant, said the ACLU’s Hina Shamsi, that “the president, it seems, can be judge, jury, and executioner.”
Talk about lawlessness and authoritarianism. As I wrote in The Washington Post shortly before Trump was inaugurated, the Bush and Obama administrations “detained terrorism suspects without due process, proposed new frameworks to keep them locked up without trial, targeted thousands of individuals (including a U.S. citizen) for execution by drone, invoked secrecy doctrines to shield torture and eavesdropping programs from judicial review, and covertly expanded the nation’s mass electronic surveillance.” Indeed, Trump was able to campaign on, and then implement, escalated bombing campaigns that killed large numbers of civilians because the bipartisan framework had been laid over the prior two presidencies that empowered that.
And that’s to say nothing of the legalized torture program, a due-process-free prison in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where dozens are still held — almost 20 years later — with no trial, the “rendition” program where people were kidnapped off European streets and shipped to despotic regimes for torture, and the relentless slaughter of civilians by drones.
When it comes to lawlessness and authoritarianism, what are the actions and policies of the Trump administration that compete with, let alone dramatically surpass, these radical seizures of unchecked power by the administrations which preceded him?
That the Bush administration was free of overt racism and bigotry would certainly come as a big surprise to an American liberal circa 2006. Recall that the first political statement of major consequence from Kanye West came that year when, after watching U.S. Government indifference over the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he announced — in a statement widely applauded by liberals — that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He also strongly suggested that both media narratives and government responses were permeated with overt racism.
That the War on Terror itself was racist and Islamophobic — how else to explain year after year of predominantly Muslim countries being bombed by the Bush and Obama administrations? — was barely disputed in liberal discourse. Karl Rove’s core campaign strategy in 2002 and 2004 was to place anti-gay referenda on as many state ballots as possible, and disseminate slanderous propaganda about same-sex couples, all to incentivize evangelicals to vote. And now we’re subjected to the revolting sanctimony of the very same same operatives and supporters who did that, trying to prove the unprecedented evil of Trump by insisting that at least prior administrations did not rely on bigoted tropes or racist rhetoric.
Perhaps the most reflexive response to prove the unprecedented nature of Trump’s evil is the refrain of the “kids in cages” slogan: shorthand for the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the border which attempt to enter the United States illegally. Beyond the claim of Trump officials that this policy was necessitated by a court ruling which held that only adults can be indefinitely detained but not children, the most vivid refutation of the attempt to depict this as not just immoral but unprecedentedly so is when numerous liberals, including former Obama officials, feigned flamboyant disgust at a photograph of children in cages at the border, only to discover that the photo was from 2014 — when Obama was president.
While it is true that those children whom Obama put in cages crossed the border unaccompanied by adults, surely that cannot suffice to place those “kids in cages” in some completely different moral universe at the ones in Trump-era cages. As The New York Times reported in 2015:
A federal judge in California has ruled that the Obama administration’s detention of children and their mothers who were caught crossing the border illegally is a serious violation of a longstanding court settlement, and that the families should be released as quickly as possible.
In a decision late Friday roundly rejecting the administration’s arguments for holding the families, Judge Dolly M. Gee of Federal District Court for the Central District of California found that two detention centers in Texas that the administration opened last summer fail to meet minimum legal requirements of the 1997 settlement for facilities housing children.
Judge Gee also found that migrant children had been held in “widespread deplorable conditions” in Border Patrol stations after they were first caught, and she said the authorities had “wholly failed” to provide the “safe and sanitary” conditions required for children even in temporary cells….
The judge also found that the family detention centers in Texas were a “material breach” of provisions requiring that minors be placed in facilities that are not secured like prisons and are licensed to take care of children. The detention centers are secure facilities run by private prison contractors.
If immigration abuses are to be the primary metric for determining unprecedented evil, one must also account for the fact that “Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] has deported more immigrants [in 2019] than any full fiscal year of Donald Trump's presidency, but it has yet to reach [Deporter-in-Chief] Barack Obama's early deportation levels.” And then one must compare those border abuses to the due-process-free and human-rights-abusing hellholes of Guantanamo, Bagram and other places opened by the Bush administration and maintained and defended by the Obama administration to imprison people for years if not longer with no due process rights of any kind.
Prior resistance to the notion of Trump as unprecedented evil has been somewhat eroded in some liberal precincts by the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying claim that Trump is now responsible for “killing” the 235,000 Americans who have died from it. That Trump was reckless in his handling of the COVID crisis is beyond doubt, but the same is true of a wide array of governments and health agencies, including the World Health Organization, which, among several tragic mistakes, told people as late as April not to wear masks and which, like many liberal media outlets, downplayed the seriousness of the virus.
If Trump is responsible for “killing 235,000 Americans” because they died of the coronavirus while he was in office, can the same be said of the governments of France and Spain which, despite much smaller populations, presided over almost 40,000 deaths each, or the governments of Belgium, Peru, Argentina, Mexico and Chile which have comparable or higher per capita death rates from the coronavirus than the U.S., or WHO officials who told people not to wear masks even when the CDC said the opposite?
And what moral calculus allows deaths from a pandemic, even if the by-product of negligence and mismanagement, to be placed on the same moral plane as deaths from bombs, drones, tanks and bullets, or the displacement of tens of millions of people from the War on Terror, or the slave markets and anarchy that still persist after the NATO bombing of Libya championed by Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power, or the world’s worst humanitarian crisis from the U.S.-supported bombing campaign of Yemen that began under Obama?
As for the claim that it is Trump’s lying that makes him some singular figure of evil, that would come as a great shock to the pioneering left-wing independent journalist I.F. Stone, whose skepticism of government pronouncements was captured by his signature phrase: “all governments lie.” It would also likely come as a surprise to James Clapper (now of CNN) who got caught lying to the Senate about programs of mass surveillance aimed at the American people, and John Brennan (now of MSNBC), who got caught lying about the CIA’s spying on the Senate’s investigation of torture and the number of innocent people killed by U.S. drones.
And even if Trump has lied more frequently and more blatantly than prior presidents — a conclusion I would probably accept — how do those lies compare to the one sustained over many years, from liberals’ most currently beloved neocon pundits and journalists, that convinced Americans that Saddam Hussein was pursuing nuclear and biological weapons and was in an alliance with Al Qaeda and thus likely responsible for the 9/11 attack, leading to the invasion and destruction of a country of 26 million people and, ultimately, the rise of ISIS?
It should go without saying, though I know it does not, that none of this is a defense of these Trump failings or an attempt to mitigate the harms they caused. What this argument is, instead, is a vehement rejection of the grotesque historical revisionism that seeks to erase and whitewash the far worse moral evils, acts of violence and assertions of lawlessness that preceded him, all in order to propagate myths of American Exceptionalism and, worse, to rehabilitate the reputations and careers of the political and media cretins who perpetrated them.
Those who want to insist that Trump’s evils are unprecedented — such that their own service to or support for prior presidents should not exclude them from the realm of the Patriotic, the Decent and the Noble — should be prepared to explain which acts of Trump’s compete with the destruction of Iraq, or the implementation of a global regime of torture, or the “rendition” kidnappings and CIA black sites and illegal domestic eavesdropping under Bush and Obama, or imprisoning people for decades with no due process, and on and on and on.
It is not an exaggeration to say that much of the division on the center-left over the past four years has been shaped by whether one sees Trump as a symptom of American pathologies or as its primary cause, of whether one views the return of pre-Trump “normalcy” as something to loathe or something to crave, of whether one views the Bush/Cheney years and War on Terror abuses (to say nothing of the horrors of the Cold War) as at least as bad as anything Trump has ushered in or whether one sees those pre-Trump evils as somehow more benign and less ignoble.
Those who have most loudly and aggressively insisted that Trump’s evils stand alone are, coincidentally or not, those who have stood to profit the most from perpetuating this ahistorical mythology. It has allowed them to deceive many into believing that their hands are as clean as their conscience, even though the huge amounts of blood will never be washed away, no matter how many green rooms they are welcomed in, or how much #Resistance cash they raise, or how melodramatic and hyperbolic is their denunciation of the Trump years.