What "truly motivates" George W. Bush?

Those who think that Bush and his movement can be explained away with trite moralistic or conspiratorial slogans share the same mentality that has driven his presidency.

Published June 20, 2007 11:20AM (EDT)

Salon this morning has published a somewhat lengthy excerpt from my new book, A Tragic Legacy. The excerpt is here, and it concerns the root premises which have led this country so explicitly to embrace the very policies and practices which we have long collectively condemned -- from lawless detentions to torture and rendition and theories of presidential omnipotence.

One of the core premises enabling such practices -- I'd say the principal one -- is the moralistic proposition that the U.S. is engaged in an epic battle of Good against Evil, that we are on the side of Good, and therefore any means and instruments we employ in service of our battle are, by definition, justifiable. Review any defense from Bush apologists on these issues -- or examine the arguments of GOP presidential candidates in defense of the extremist Bush policies -- and what you will find is the "justification" that America has the right to take any actions to defend itself against the forces of Evil which seek to destroy it. Actions taken by the Force of Good (the U.S.) against the Forces of Evil (the Enemy du jour) are themselves inherently Good.

Just yesterday, in London, Fred Thompson gave a speech defending America's right to act unilaterally in the world, including military invasions of other countries, based on this claim:

We understand that the Western world is in an international struggle with jihadists who see this struggle as part of a conflict that has gone on for centuries, and who won't give up until Western countries are brought to their knees.

In virtually every speech and interview he has given, George Bush has made the same argument -- that we are in an epic battle in defense of Good against Evil and therefore must take every step possible to triumph. In large part, that is the mentality that has led to the excesses and abuses of the last six years.

In response to this morning's Salon excerpt, there are numerous comments objecting to (what is perceived to be) my argument, all of which are based on the assertion that George Bush does not sincerely believe in these moralistic premises, that his claimed evangelical beliefs are a sham, and that "Good versus Evil" moralism is merely a rhetorical device to manipulate support for his policies.

The commenters argue, in essence, that Bush's behavior is exceedingly simple to explain. He is, they asset, simply Evil, and is only motivated by a one-dimensional desire for profit and power. Hence, there is no need to say anything about Bush other than: "He is evil and wants money." That simple, unifying "theory" explains everything. One finds this assertion in abundance both in the Salon comment thread and in other places my book is discussed -- such as here and, to a lesser extent, here -- all based on an objection to the notion that George Bush is truly motivated by any beliefs about "Good versus Evil."

This response raises several points worth mentioning, but initially, I want to clarify one point about the book. I don't ground any argument in the belief that George Bush's Christian evangelical convictions or Manichean moralism are sincerely held because -- though I believe they are sincerely held -- I don't purport to know that, and I don't see how anyone thinks they could know that. People have a difficult enough time discerning their own true motives with any degree of certainty, let alone divining what "truly motivates" others.

The "Good versus Evil mentality" which I examine, and which I identify as the predominant theme driving our political culture and national conduct, is not necessarily one to which George Bush personally subscribes with pure authenticity. What "truly lurks in George Bush's heart" (or anyone eles's), and specifically whether he does or doesn't authentically embrace these moralistic premises, is not something that anyone can know (though many commentators, on one side or the other, appear to believe themselves capable of knowing that).

Moreover, whether Bush's moralistic defense of his radical policies reflects his "true beliefs" in some Platonic sense or is merely a rhetorical tool for defending his actions -- or, most likely, a mixture of both -- is irrelevant to the need to examine and refute this way of thinking about the world, for reasons I explain in the book:

One can debate endlessly (without much hope for a definitive resolution) the question of whether George Bush has followed the neoconservative strategem of cynically wielding Manichean concepts in order to persuade Americans to support his international aggression or whether, instead, such techniques were first cynically wielded to persuade Bush himself of the wisdom and moral necessity of these policies. Either way, that George Bush has invoked Manichean moralism as the central justifying argument for his decisions is difficult to dispute, to put it mildly . . . .

Ultimately, whether moralistic dualism is in fact what motivates the president or whether he manipulatively adopts its rhetoric to justify his actions has no bearing on the need to examine and, where necessary, refute the framework he (and his political allies) invoke in order to persuade America of the rightness of their actions. . . . To engage, analyze and refute the president's proffered justifications for his actions is neither to accept nor reject that they are steadfastly held.

In either case, those Manichean appeals have powerfully shaped the perceptions of many Americans and have been a potent tool in inducing Americans to support many of the president's most radical policies. And other influential political figures, including several who wish to succeed Bush, invoke the same worldview to advocate their own extremist policies, both domestically and abroad. That alone compels the need to examine the president's Manichean moralism and its underlying premises on their own merits, independent of the question of whether he really embraces it.

One of the reasons why such moralistic appeals are so potent is because they are comforting. As both John Dean and Bob Altemeyer have so brilliantly documented, that dynamic is the root of authoritarian movements. Any theory which promises to simplify a complex and frightening world into clean dualities, unyielding moral imperatives, simple and all-encomassing narratives, and one-dimensional, cartoonish Truths will always resonate powerfully with those for whom the world's complexity produces discomfort and fear.

In many ways, those who think that George Bush personally or the Bush movement generally can be quickly and easily explained away with trite slogans and all-encompassing cartoon theories ("he's evil and there is nothing else to say" or "the whole thing is a grand plan to enrich his corporate cronies and that is all there is to it") are driven by the same temptations. The need to find some simplistic, overarching theory to explain the whole world is powerful and universal, but such simplicity is rarely accurate.

I'm always amazed, and fairly appalled, by the assertions of right-wing fanatics that the claimed Christianity of various Democratic politicians is a sham, that they do not really believe in Jesus or Christian doctrine and that their faith is manufactured for political gain. During my Rush Limbaugh-listening week earlier this month, he repeatedly made that claim about Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama's claimed faith. The 2004 campaign was filled with all sorts of innuendo that John Kerry was not a "real Catholic" and that his claimed religious beliefs were inauthentic. Just fathom the hubris required for that claim. Who could possibly purport to know that?

The claim that George Bush's evangelical conversion is inauthentic, or that he does not really believe in the Christian doctrine he touts, or that he is consciously exploiting an artificial evangelical facade to mask some grand Machieveillian corporatist plot, is just the opposite side of that same hubristic coin. One can certainly make rational arguments that Bush's conduct (or anyone else's) does not comport with core Christian values. But the assertion that Bush's evangelical fervor is insincerely held is no less irrational, hubristic and absurd than when the same claim is made by his followers against Democrats and liberals who claim to be guided by faith.

Human beings are complex and shaped by all sorts of influences and motives. Even the modern embodiments of what we think of as pure Evil -- Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin -- have had tens of thousands of pages written about them in the effort to determine what shaped and drove them, what accounted for their conduct. To simply assert that they are "pure evil" or "mass murderers" and leave it at that may be gratifying and easy, but it actually does not explain very much at all.

Those who demand that a cartoon image of George Bush be embraced to the exclusion of all else -- that all one can say about him is that he embraced and brilliantly executed an Evil Corporatist Plot to enrich himself because he is Evil and that his evangelical furor is just an act -- are themselves exhibiting the precise mentality that drives the Bush movement. The world is driven by pure Good and pure Evil. Understanding the world requires nothing more than figuring out who is on what side. That explains everything. There are no complexities, nuances or shades to any of it. And indeed, even the attempt to discuss the world or its events beyond these simplistic formulations is not just misguided but corrupt, as that endeavor conceals the simple, two-dimensional truths that explain everything.

That "analysis" is no more accurate, impressive or constructive when used by Bush opponents than it is when used by the Bush movement to justify its actions and to explain and simplify the world. One of the best explanations as to why such cartoonish slogans find such appeal, and why they are so misguided, comes -- ironically -- from Noam Chomsky when he expressed his contempt for conspiracy theories regarding the 9/11 attack:

There is a big industry in the United States, on the Left as well, that are trying to demonstrate -- and there are books coming out that are best sellers in France -- that [the 9/11 attack] is all fake and was planned by the Bush administration and so on.

If you look at the evidence, anybody who knows anything about the sciences, would instantly discount that evidence. There are plenty of coincidences and unexplained phenomena -- why didn't this happen and why didn't that happen? -- but if you look at a controlled scientific experiment, the same thing is true.

When someone carries out a controlled scientific experiment in the best laboratories in the world - at the end, there are lots of things that are unexplained -- funny coincidences and this and that . . . . which are just going to leave a lot of things unexplained. That's just the way the world is. . . . That's just the way complicated events are.

The world is complex. Simplistic moralistic and conspiratorial explanations cast the illusion that it can be easily understood and navigated ("Karl Rove controls all the voting machines so everything is hopeless"). But such explanations, particularly binary ones grounded in claimed moral certainty, are virtually always wrong, and thus are virtually never valuable in understanding the way the world is.

That is the central critique of the Bush mentality and its approach to "Terrorism" -- that it ludicrously asserts that one merely needs to know that we are Good and they are Evil and everything else falls perfectly and seamlessly into place. But that critique is equally true for those who think they have captured the definitive, conclusive two-sentence slogan to explain the Evil George Bush, the Bush administration's conduct over the last six years, or anything else of real significance in the world.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn Greenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------