If the Republican presidential primary race were a Thanksgiving dinner, Donald Trump would be the crazy old uncle who drinks too much and says outrageous things that embarrass everyone at the table. Sometimes those things are embarrassing because they’re brazenly bigoted, or absurdly boastful, or otherwise generally unconnected to reality. But occasionally he says something embarrassing precisely because it’s true.
Trump’s repeated tweaking of Jeb Bush for Bush’s preposterous claim that his brother “kept us safe” during his presidency falls into the latter category. Trump’s mockery is of course more than justified. On its face, Jeb’s claim would be analogous to Exxon boasting about its record of keeping the Alaskan coastline mostly free from oil spills, or the governor of Texas taking pride in executing mostly guilty defendants.
Jeb’s defense of his brother on this score is patently absurd, but this should not obscure the fact that, in making the claim, Jeb is merely repeating many years of GOP dogma. That George W. Bush kept the nation safe from terrorism, is, bizarrely enough, something that Republicans argued constantly when he was in office. The argument was (and continues to be) that W. shouldn’t be held responsible for by far the worst terrorist attack in American history, even though his administration was warned about it in advance, because he only had nine months to do something about it, and Al Qaeda was already around at the time he took office, and also Al Gore is fat.
But in all seriousness, the genuinely freakish doublethink Republicans indulge in on this subject requires further explanation. Two factors help explain why it’s possible and indeed commonplace for people to give Jeb’s younger brother a kind of historical mulligan in regard to terrorism, to the point where it’s necessary for Crazy Uncle Donald to remind everyone that the whole 9/11 thing happened well into W’s presidency.
First, consider the power of what sociologists call “framing.” The cultural frame that the Republican party has so successfully managed to build up since the days of Ronald Reagan is one in which Democrats are weak—kneed appeasers and semi-pacifists, while the GOP is the party of strong, war-like Daddy figures, who know how to deal with foreign threats with unsentimental ruthlessness.
You would think it would be impossible to assimilate the 9/11 terrorist attacks to this frame, but you would be wrong. Such is the power of this pre-ordained narrative that, when America suffered a catastrophic terrorist attack under a Republican president, this inconvenient fact was, for enormous numbers of people, magically whisked down a kind of collective memory hole.
The power of this frame to distort perception is evident if we consider a counter-factual in which something like the 9/11 attacks happened during the term of any Democratic president. Imagine if 3,000 Americans had been murdered by foreign terrorists nine months into the Obama administration. It’s almost inconceivable that it would occur to anyone to claim subsequently that Obama had “kept us safe,” because such a claim wouldn’t be supported by the powerful distortions of a cultural frame that turned the combat-dodging ne’er do well son of George H.W. Bush into some sort of heroic warrior.
Second, not ascribing any blame to W. for 9/11 was and is another way of treating the events of that terrible day as a kind of inexplicable cataclysm, that was visited upon the nation by irrational and cowardly evildoers, whose motivations were either impossible to understand, or wholly irrelevant, or both. To try to ascribe any responsibility to the Bush administration for letting 9/11 happen could lead to uncomfortable questions of, among other things, whether and to what extent American foreign policy had played a role in creating the conditions that allowed those attacks to happen.
It’s understandable that, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, almost no one wanted to consider such questions. Fourteen years later, we no longer have any excuse not to do so – and that applies especially to GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush.