Of course, in many simplistic ways Trump really is “unprecedented.” We have never seen any president act in such bizarre and dangerous ways. On the other hand, the rather glib overuse of this word “unprecedented” masks a much more deeply entrenched problem. The word “unprecedented” has basically become a mere euphemism that masks a multitude of much more serious issues. It would be nice if our political pundits would take the time to look for adjectives that are more accurate and to the point. A few that immediately come to mind would be immoral, unethical, illegal, criminal, indefensible… I could go on and on, probably ending with incompetent, dangerous, reckless, and simply, just plain hideous.
Naturally, no one has gone as far as Trump before. Our nation might not have survived such behavior. It actually might not survive it now.
And yet, the repetition of the word “unprecedented” dissatisfies me in a much more relevant way. This is not just about Trump’s personally abhorrent manner of governing. To my mind, almost everything he has done has been very much in line with long established tactics, attitudes, and policies of the entire Republican party going back to the days of their ‘Reagan/Gingich’ resurgence.
To make this case, I can simply contrast the George Bush regime with the Trump farce. The volume of the parallels is simply staggering, so I won’t and can’t (for reasons of length), go into every example in depth, but even if you take issue with one or two or even three specific points, the comparison is striking.
In terms of character, Bush certainly seemed to be more likeable, even innocuous, yet he and Trump resemble each other is some notable ways. In spite of his family and background, Bush actually had very little experience with governing (when Bush was governor of Texas, the Democratic legislature was really calling the shots). This largely accounts for his reputation as a “moderate.” Trump of course, had no experience in any kind of government or public service of any kind. In short, both were remarkably unqualified to serve in the highest office in the land.
Both shied away from serving in Vietnam—Bush through ducking into the Texas air national guard, Trump by pleading he had “bone spurs.”
Both were remarkably intellectually incurious. Both (in spite of enormous wealth and privilege) tried hard to present themselves as “regular folks. Both went to Ivy League schools—and later tried to demonize “East Coast Liberal Elites.” Neither man was especially religious, but both did all they could to appease the Christian right. Both shamelessly used race baiting in their campaigns (Bush against John McCain in the pivotal North Carolina primary, and Trump from the start with his “Mexicans are rapists” anti-immigrant line).
Both were elected under highly contested and very disturbing circumstances (Florida non-recounts and the whole Russia/collusion thing). Because of that, both were expected to govern from the center—instead, both moved sharply to the hard right. Both lost the popular vote to much more qualified opponents.
From the very start, both administrations were characterized by massive corruption (Enron with Bush and just too many things to count with Trump—including again of course, Russia and later the Ukraine).
Both appointed exceptionally unqualified people to important positions (Alberto Gonzalez and Condoleezza Rice for Bush, Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, daughter Ivanka, Bill Barr and many others with Trump). Both hired John Bolton and both times the results were bad. Both exploited times of crisis to undermine the rule of law and break long-standing legal norms. For Bush, 9/11 was used to institute the legalization of torture, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act, etc. With Trump his obsession about immigration, the Covid-19 pandemic, and race riots led him to extremes like the “Muslim Ban,” child-separation, diverting pentagon funds to build his famous wall, the declaration of a false national emergency, and finally, the deployment of the military to suppress legitimate peaceful protests.
Both helped militarize domestic policing (Bush by giving military equipment to police departments, Trump by actually calling on the Army for domestic policing).
Both men badly mishandled natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina and Puerto Rico). Both supported massive deregulation. Neither was especial concerned about the environment and thought industry could “self-regulate. Bush undermined Kyoto, Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate accord.
Both men reneged on effective nuclear arms control treaties (Bush with North Korea, Trump with Iran—with predictably bad results). Both demonized Iran and encouraged regime change there. Both tried to overthrow the government of Venezuela—and failed. Both made a mess of the Middle East in general.
Both invested hugely in the military and liked to talk about how much they loved the armed forces. At the same time, both men shamelessly insulted decorated veterans (the Bush “Swift-boating” of John Kerry, Trump with attacks on Gold Star families and in many other cases). Both let US Veterans down badly.
Both were extremely dishonest (Bush lied us into the Iraq war, Trump lied about everything). Both tried to corrupt and/or attack their own intelligence agencies (Bush with the Iraq war intel, and the “Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame affair and Trump with almost everyone right from the start). During the Iraq War, Bush let critical supply chains break down badly. Trump did the same in the face of the pandemic. In both the Iraq war and the Pandemic crisis huge amounts of money were thrown at the problems—and much of it was doled out in ways that enabled enormous amount of corruption on the part of administration supporters.
Both had a “go it alone” attitude and weakened old, traditional alliances.
Both sponsored huge, irresponsible tax cuts and caused the deficit to balloon.
Both inherited a strong economy from a popular Democratic predecessor, and both left the economy in ruins. Both created massive unemployment. Both of their predecessors warned them of coming dangers (Bin Laden and the threat of a pandemic). In both cases they ignored the warnings—with disastrous consequences. In response to the 9/11 attacks,Condoleeza Rice claimed that, “Nobody could have possibly imagined that could happen.” Trump made the same claim when the Pandemic really got going.
In both cases, disaster planners had done exactly that.
I suppose other points of similarity will come to mind. This is enough, I think, to make my main point: On one hand, while Trump has been much worse than Bush in every way, on the other hand, little that Trump as done is really NEW either.
That is a sobering thought. Even more sobering is that the whole attitude toward governing reflected in all these acts has been evolving in the GOP since at least the time of Reagan and Gingrich—and in many cases, long before that.
I was always puzzled that some well-meaning liberals said of both Bush and Trump that they were somehow “aberrations.” With the Democratic opposition to both candidates, a certain complacency set in—Democrats thought they were just too silly, stupid, offensive and shallow to ever be elected—yet both managed to play the system and squirm their way into the highest office in the land.
That result is a direct result of the fact that both men represent some deeply ingrained trends in our broader American culture. It is not just frightening that we consistently produce such men and place them in positions where they can vie for the Presidency, but that we also produce millions of people who are taken in by their cons. The real problem is that both also represent the direction that the entire GOP has been heading for a long, long time. Until we address and root out that basic problem, our nation is unlikely to truly prosper. You may have noticed that somewhere in this piece I began referring to Trump in the past tense. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but the sooner we retire him and his GOP allies, the better it will be for our country.