To hear Republican insiders tell it, Doomsday is here. If Donald Trump scores huge today and seizes control of the nomination in the Super Tuesday primaries, it will mark the beginning of the end of the Republican Party, and perhaps the presidency.
But Trump isn’t the beginning of the end. George W. Bush was. The amazing anti-miracle of the Bush presidency is what makes today’s nightmare possible.
People forget what an extraordinary thing it was that Bush was president. Dubya wasn’t merely ignorant when compared with other politicians or other famous people. No, he would have stood out as dumb in just about any setting.
If you could somehow run simulations where Bush was repeatedly shipwrecked on a desert island with 20 other adults chosen at random, he would be the last person listened to by the group every single time. He knew absolutely nothing about anything. He wouldn’t have been able to make fire, find water, build shelter or raise morale. It would have taken him days to get over the shock of no room service.
Bush went to the best schools but was totally ignorant of history, philosophy, science, geography, languages and the arts. Asked by a child in South Carolina in 1999 what his favorite book had been growing up, Bush replied, “I can’t remember any specific books.”
Bush showed no interest in learning and angrily rejected the idea that a president ought to be able to think his way through problems. As Mark Crispin Miller wrote in The Bush Dyslexicon, Bush’s main rhetorical tool was the tautology — i.e., saying the same thing, only twice.
“It’s very important for folks to understand that when there’s more trade, there’s more commerce” was a classic Bush formulation. “Our nation must come together to unite” was another. One of my favorites was: “I understand that the unrest in the Middle East creates unrest throughout the region.”
Academics and political junkies alike giddily compiled these “Bushisms” along with others that were funny for different reasons (“I’m doing what I think what’s wrong,” for instance).
But Bush’s tautologies weren’t gaffes or verbal slips. They just represented the limits of his reasoning powers: A = A. There are educational apps that use groups of images to teach two-year-olds to recognize that an orange is like an orange while a banana is a banana. Bush was stalled at that developmental moment. And we elected him president.
Bush’s eight years were like the reigns of a thousand overwhelmed congenital monarchs from centuries past. While the prince rode horses, romped with governesses and blew the national treasure on britches or hedge-mazes, the state was run by Svengalis and Rasputins who dealt with what Bush once derisively described as “what’s happening in the world.”
In Bush’s case he had Karl “Turd Blossom” Rove thinking out the problem of how to get re-elected, while Dick “Vice” Cheney, Donald “Rummy” Rumsfeld and Andrew “Tangent Man” Card took care of the day-to-day affairs of the country (part of Card’s responsibilities involved telling Bush what was in the newspapers he refused to read).
It took hundreds of millions of dollars and huge armies of such behind-the-throne puppet-masters to twice (well, maybe twice) sell a voting majority on the delusion of George Bush, president. Though people might quibble with the results, the scale of this as a purely political achievement was awesome and heroic, comparable to a moon landing or the splitting of the atom.
Guiding Bush the younger through eight years of public appearances was surely the greatest coaching job in history. It was like teaching a donkey to play the Waldstein Sonata. It’s breathtaking to think about now.
But one part of it backfired. Instead of using an actor like Reagan to sell policies to the public, the Svengalis behind Bush sold him as an authentic man of the people, the guy you’d want to have an O’Doul’s with.
Rove correctly guessed that a generation of watching TV and Hollywood movies left huge blocs of Americans convinced that people who read books, looked at paintings and cared about spelling were either serial killers or scheming to steal bearer bonds from the Nakatomi building. (Even knowing what a bearer bond is was villainous).
The hero in American culture, meanwhile, was always a moron with a big gun who learned everything he needed to know from cowboy movies. The climax of pretty much every action movie from the mid-eighties on involved shotgunning the smarty-pants villain in the face before he could finish some fruity speech about whatever.
Rove sold Bush as that hero. He didn’t know anything, but dammit, he was sure about what he didn’t know. He was John McClane, and Al Gore was Hans Gruber. GOP flacks like Rove rallied the whole press corps around that narrative, to the point where anytime Gore tried to nail Bush down on a point of policy, pundits blasted him for being a smug know-it-all using wonk-ese to talk over our heads — as Cokie Roberts put it once, “this guy from Washington doing Washington-speak.”
This is like the scene from the increasingly prophetic Idiocracy where no one can understand Luke Wilson, a person of average intelligence rocketed 500 years into America’s idiot future, because whenever he tries to reason with people, they think he’s talking “like a fag.”
The Roves of the world used Bush’s simplicity to win the White House. Once they got there, they used the levers of power to pillage and scheme like every other gang of rapacious politicians ever. But the plan was never to make ignorance a political principle. It was just a ruse to win office.
Now the situation is the opposite. Now GOP insiders are frantic at the prospect of an uncultured ignoramus winning the presidency. A group of major donors and GOP strategists even wrote out a memo outlining why a super PAC dedicated to stopping Trump was needed.
“We want voters to imagine Donald Trump in the Big Chair in the Oval Office, with responsibilities for worldwide confrontation at his fingertips,” they wrote. Virginia Republican congressman Scott Ringell wrote an open letter to fellow Republicans arguing that a Trump presidency would be “reckless, embarrassing and ultimately dangerous.”
Hold on. It wasn’t scary to imagine George “Is our children learning?” Bush with the “responsibilities for worldwide confrontation” at his fingertips? It wasn’t embarrassing to have a president represent the U.S. on the diplomatic stage who called people from Kosovo “Kosovians” and people from Greece “Grecians?”
It was way worse. Compared to Bush, Donald Trump is a Rutherford or an Einstein. In the same shipwreck scenario, Trump would have all sorts of ideas — all wrong, but at least he’d think of something, instead of staring at the sand waiting for a hotel phone to rise out of it.
Of course, Trump’s ignorance level, considering his Wharton education, is nearly as awesome as what Bush accomplished in spite of Yale. In fact, unlike Bush, who had the decency to not even try to understand the news, Trump reads all sorts of crazy things and believes them all. From theories about vaccines causing autism to conspiratorial questions about the pillow on Antonin Scalia’s face to Internet legends about Americans using bullets dipped in pigs’ blood to shoot Muslims, there isn’t any absurd idea Donald Trump isn’t willing to entertain, so long as it fits in with his worldview.
But Washington is freaking out about Trump in a way they never did about Bush. Why? Because Bush was their moron, while Trump is his own moron. That’s really what it comes down to.
And all of the Beltway’s hooting and hollering about how “embarrassing” and “dangerous” Trump is will fall on deaf ears, because as gullible as Americans can be, they’re smart enough to remember being told that it was OK to vote for George Bush, a man capable of losing at tic-tac-toe.
We’re about to enter a dark period in the history of the American experiment. The Founding Fathers never imagined an electorate raised on Toddlers and Tiaras and Temptation Island. Remember, just a few decades ago, shows like Married With Children and Roseanne were satirical parodies. Now the audience can’t even handle that much irony. A lot of American culture is just dumb slobs cheering on other dumb slobs. It was inevitable, once we broke the seal with Bush, that our politics would become the same thing.
Madison and Jefferson never foresaw this situation. They knew there was danger of demagoguery, but they never imagined presidential candidates exchanging “mine’s bigger than yours” jokes or doing “let’s laugh at the disabled” routines. There’s no map in the Constitution to tell us how to get out of where we’re going. All we can do now is hold on.