How we got from George W. Bush to Donald Trump: Liberals had more to do with it than we'd like to think

History may view the Obama presidency as a brief (and failed) neoliberal interlude on the road to American fascism

Published August 13, 2017 6:00AM (EDT)

George W. Bush; Donald Trump   (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Evan Vucci)
George W. Bush; Donald Trump (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Evan Vucci)

The arrival of Donald J. Trump feels like the completion of the cycle I was writing about in the early George W. Bush years. It is all too easy to get caught up in the moment, though fears are understandably high, and not think about the deep-seated anomalies and contradictions in the body politic that have brought America to the cusp of out-and-out fascism. Even if Trump’s policies turn out in the end to be not as fearsome as he has repeatedly stated, his explicit persona and policy positions take us very far out of the realm of normal democracy. It has become fashionable lately to excuse George W. Bush for being a “moderate” in comparison with Trump, but it should not be forgotten that Bush was the original American fascist; everything Trump, or a future would-be authoritarian, might do is predicated on the radical innovations Bush introduced in our political style, subverting the constitution and changing the balance between liberty and security in ways that have had permanent impact.

We need to remind ourselves that the early years of the Bush administration felt utterly radical, that the defense of freedom of speech and mobility, of the civility and respect that make a constitutional democracy work, never felt so threatened, never felt more precious and worth saving, as in those years. That feeling, unfortunately, is gone now, despite Trumpism and whatever else will follow, because the anti-constitutional innovations have become normalized. This happened particularly because the succeeding Democratic administration did not take any steps to counter, philosophically, any of the constitutional violations, or even the disrespect for science, reason and empiricism that had deeply saturated the public discourse.

Again we need to remind ourselves of how events took place in the Bush years with incomprehensible speed and bombast, of how shocking it was to deal with such phenomena as torture, rendition, black sites, enemy combatants, the loss of habeas corpus, open-ended surveillance, registration, mass deportation, stripping Americans of citizenship and political assassination — the de facto end of the Bill of Rights.

By looking back at the important polemics and tracts that came out in the middle of the last decade in response to the Bush administration’s innovations — after some time had elapsed since the instigating event of 9/11 and passions had cooled a little — we are reminded that the degree of acceptance of the new mythologies of fear was very great and the degree of skepticism toward them, even among scholars and thinkers, was minute in comparison. Over the course of the years, though there were numerous opportunities to do so, the reckoning (with crimes against humanity) never came, the accountability and ethical reevaluation of the new establishing myths of the security state never came to pass. I believe that in the long run of history, these missed opportunities to correct course will assume greater and greater importance as we proceed further along the same path.

Perhaps some of my musings about the plans the Bush administration may have had in case of a “second terror attack” might have been a little overwrought at the time. But this was the hothouse atmosphere of 2001-2003, when anything was possible, and ideas such as a Patriot Act II or total surveillance such as John Poindexter was then dreaming up, did not seem far-fetched.

One could also argue that many of the tools of surveillance and of the abridgment of movement and expression I postulated as occurring in response to a second major terror attack transpired anyway, and that there was no second terror attack because the last 16 years represent an ongoing low level of terror that never fully recedes and has already given the bureaucrats enough time to develop fearsome tools against privacy and anonymity, except that they have occurred in such secrecy, or in the guise of normal intelligence or police work, that they have attracted less attention than the announcement of, let’s say, the TIA (total information awareness) program.

A national ID (Real ID) did in fact happen later in the decade, and now that it exists it can be hardened, made more data-sensitive, or encompass greater intrusions against privacy, depending on the will of bureaucrats. Data mining, increased computer sophistication and capability, and the erosion of public faith in privacy as the primary liberal value have contributed to the worst fears I speculated about all those years ago already coming to realization.

The most dire set of worries I outlined in the early Bush era may not all have come true then, but certainly Trump’s rhetoric is headed in that direction. It is important to know exactly why Trump is not a historical anomaly, and to understand how he is rooted in a discourse that has been central to our culture for a while now. This means that 9/11 was not a passing event, but was a true revolution, persistent today, and should be expected to be the defining paradigm well into the future. Because there was no real liberal dissent toward Obama’s continuation and even strengthening of many of Bush’s extra-constitutional metamorphoses, we have become well and truly desensitized by now.

The Obama presidency is best viewed as a passing interlude between Bush and Trump. The kind of neoliberal managerialism (along with insistent minority-group identity politics, which ultimately played into white nationalism) to which Obama was beholden was bound to lead to a further collapse of democratic values, as indeed has happened. But it is important to value historical memory, and note again the forks in the road during the Obama presidency where things could have taken a different path.

If we look at fear of the “rage” of the Muslim in previous manifestations, such as Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, Christopher Hitchens or Bernard-Henri Lévy’s polemics in the early Bush years, and then we come down to Trump’s calls for a Muslim ban and almost explicit articulations of ethnic cleansing and genocide, then the Obama presidency, with the missed opportunity of the Arab Spring, yet again appears as a hopeless intermission.

The different interplaying factors — fascism, identity politics, neoliberal economics, terror, globalization — have all come to full fruition as any perspicuous observer might have noted for many years. Just after the conclusion of the Clinton presidency, it wasn’t possible to have such clear insight into exactly what neoliberalism was, how it operated in tandem with identity politics to bring about a facetious meritocracy that was really an upsurge of what later came to be known as the 1 percent taking over every aspect of power and leaving the rest of us in the dust.

Anti-terrorism has been feeding in the years since 9/11 into a liberalism that was already radically weakened and compromised by many tendencies that elevate group protectiveness (or communitarian cohesion) over anarchic individualist impulses, a path that leaves the Bill of Rights as an afterthought.

Slowly the picture of neoliberalism as it was implemented in its second wave in the 1990s became clearer as time went by, until its full crystallization, as ideology and program, came in the lead-up to the 2016 campaign, and worldwide too the reactions against it reached a crescendo. Such was not the case even five years ago, so if one movement is toward increased repression since the fateful turn of the millennium, then the countervailing movement is one toward awareness of everyone's true position on the power spectrum. The fog that was intentionally created in the early 2000s has lifted in a way, so that there is extreme clarity, perhaps matched only by the clarity of the 1930s, when similar forces were loose. Again, we must remember how revolutionary the Bush years were, because they define everything we’re doing now as a nation, both domestically and internationally, and how Obama was not able to fundamentally change the discourse.  

If we look back at the career of Naomi Klein, we realize that populist anti-globalization never assumed the philosophical consistency and rigor, not to mention the courage, to go against the real enemy — capital — and instead remained mired in tactical issues, or took on the wrong enemies (unaccountable corporations or corporate leaders). This has made facing up to the violations of liberty nearly impossible, since dissenters usually go quickly down the confusing road of anti-globalization, which has not yet been clarified to anyone’s satisfaction.

There must be a non-neoliberal way to bring the world closer together, but neither the Naderites nor the Occupy movement nor even the Sanderistas ever made such a philosophy clear; we are going to pay a high price for this ideological confusion, because not having a clear articulation of a global cosmopolitanism, which accepts globalization in principle but shuns neoliberal globalization, has led to the false answers of Trump, a dangerous shutting down of borders and rigidification of identities.

Michael Moore made a similar error in his movie "Capitalism: A Love Story," where he attacked not capitalism but corporate malfeasance, which is a lower order of ideological potency altogether. The question that needs to be addressed is how the progressive anti-globalization movement can set itself apart from Trumpist illiberal nationalism. All the attention on trade, because it’s presented as an external factor, creates the feeling that we can do something about it more easily than addressing fundamental questions of economic justice that are more difficult because they take us into the microeconomics of personal decision-making, into individual culpability and violence, into the implicit bargain all of us as a society have made with a particular lifestyle that is not that amenable to reform.

Another factor to keep in mind is the evolution of the liberal delusion that demographics alone would keep the Democratic Party (and progressive ideals) in power, a notion I resisted with great ferocity when it was becoming popular around 2001, and continued doing so during the troublesome elections that came later. Despite superficial gains at the presidential level, the extreme right was gaining at every other level, which meant that the cultural commitment to tolerance and pluralism among the meritocratic 1 percent was neither deep nor thick. It didn’t extend, even at the rhetorical level, to a broad enough range of people to have any impact beyond their own confined circles — a bubble that was finally exposed with the Trump ascendancy.

Relying on demographics alone — Hillary Clinton’s doomed strategy in the 2016 election — without an economic philosophy that feeds into the greatest strengths of our democracy was a course destined for failure. In an era of political party dealignment, right-wing philosophy was bound to emerge victorious, so the question now becomes whether the sources of party weakness are being addressed or if they are even understood; needless to say, such understanding is nowhere in the offing, as spectacle and celebrity, buttressed by politically correct discourse, hide the enervation of the parties, and capital in the most abstract sense dictates, behind the scenes, what is handed out for easy consumption.

Another question that has become urgent all over again is that of political obligation: When is it due, when should it be withheld, what are the criteria for the citizen to understand his own moral role in ongoing crises and emergencies, and indeed during times of “normalization.”

The past 16 years have given us a cornucopia of instigating events, labeled as emergencies of various orders by those in power, to elicit obedience from citizens. In effect, we have been propelled in these years (and this is a continuing project assuming even greater urgency in the Trump years) to define and redefine citizenship — what it means, who will interpret it, how it will play out in practice and how it must be defended or protected, extended or denied. The practice of non-cooperation or civil disobedience is integrally connected to how citizenship is defined on an ongoing basis, keeping it alive as reality rather than letting it lapse into a deadened artifact, a badge of identity that provides no political empowerment.

This point about civil disobedience, or stepping outside forms of resistance that we know have no chance of working but which pliant political leadership foists upon us, is going to become transcendent in the age of Trump as citizens explore different options and interpret for themselves the nature of personal empowerment. How can voting processes go on as before in the face of political disempowerment? Eventually these things blend into each other, if we remember the irregularities that were witnessed — but not protested — in the 2004 election, which, like the 2000 election, created a permanent fog over election results, a clarity that we will keep missing as long as human agency is hidden behind electronic dependency, as long as the myth of a democracy too generalized and expanded for its own good translates into the weakening of electoral mechanisms that go to the very root of functional democracy.

Many myths were born from nowhere in these last 16 years, and many of them are still being kept alive, in a constellation of provocative thanatology, if you will — the circus of death and denial that liberal democracies usually experience after they have ceased to live up to the spirit of their constitution and only the husk lives on.

Was Osama bin Laden, that great bugbear of 16 or even six years ago, ever real— in the sense that he had the power or capability assigned to him by the mythmakers? Or is he — like ISIS today — a figment of our imagination? This is not to deny the actual harm such entities inflict upon their own people and upon others, but to question their importance, their actual capacity as independent forces and their ability to intrude upon liberal privacy, versus our own suicidal desire to put to rest all the liberal verities and cease to exist as a democratic people, in precisely the manner the terrorists are supposed to want from us. In other words, what explains our suicidal fantasy?

Aside from the question of the extent to which American policies and interventions empower such forces as al-Qaida or ISIS, the question that has always interested me  is why we, as citizens, are so keen to empower what has been called the “terror presidency.”

In the middle of the last decade, once the war on terror had time to settle down, even some relatively liberal protagonists affirmed the need for a new kind of presidency, not beholden to traditional constitutional rules. I see a great deal of consensus between the American left and the right in what it takes to keep us “safe,” a convergence that I think holds true to a large extent today. It is no longer possible, in Year One of the Trump presidency, to assess what was lost in the rise of the terror presidency, since we’re starting from a different baseline established in the middle of the last decade, where it has remained, especially because a liberal president came to power.

But at the time there was a tremendous flurry of opinion and counter-opinion, judicial flashpoints right and left, which were trying to settle these questions. The problem now is that these dire questions have been mostly frozen, so a future presidency with authoritarian aims will have all the materials it needs to take things to the next level. And without reconciliation and accountability — whose absence we should have lamented greatly in the early Obama years — the same set of issues have seamlessly moved on from terror to immigration, where they will continue to play out in the foreseeable future.

Part of the mythology of empire is our denial of its very existence. This festering denial — which causes so much rupture and turbulence in the rest of the world, particularly among the populations of the client states most beholden to and entrapped by us — is also part of our future as we look ahead to possibly even greater international turmoil than in the last 16 years.

Liberals didn’t address our relationship with a client state like Pakistan, as the denial of the dependency went along with the continuous constitution and reconstitution of the war on terror, a legacy that haunts us to this day as we treat violence against our bourgeois patrons abroad as something stemming from ahistorical roots — or at least roots having nothing to do with our own history of inventions and interventions in areas that concern us for their strategic importance.

There was a neoliberal way of managing “terror” available to us in the Clinton years, an arsenal of manipulation and pressure no longer accessible, once we shifted into a different gear. The liberalism-terrorism dilemma — resting on such false quandaries as, Can there be an open society in the face of violence by some disgruntled quarters? — was already posing unbearable pressure for answers by the middle of the last decade.

One strange avenue this led into was that so-called anti-globalizers like Naomi Klein as well as mainstream progressives like Paul Starr were relatively enthused about the prospects for renewed state power in the wake of the war on terrorism (contravening Bill Clinton’s elegiac note in 1996 that the “era of big government is over”). They were hoping that while the government sought power for such abominable mass actions as smallpox vaccination of vulnerable populations or trigger-happy bioterror alerts, power, once constituted, would be available for the achievement of progressive goals — everything from road-building to health subsidies. The problem that I have always sought to identify is the disconnect between the domestic and the international, our actions and policies at home and abroad; all these segregations and compartmentalizations are aspects of a denial that cannot admit the sordid story behind the rosy picture of American exceptionalism.

We confront, then, a chronicle of missed opportunities, amid situations of great “crisis” (or engendered crises, since that is what neoliberalism thrives on). In probing what was missed and when and why, we can see the outlines of an explanation for our present predicament, when a genuine democratic socialist was maneuvered out of a nomination that was rightfully his and a neoliberal avatar suffered a predictable catastrophic defeat at the hands of an authoritarian populist shading over into fascism.

If we wish to, we can easily witness many glimpses of how we moved from a fascism that was seeking constitutional cover in the Bush years to one that no longer needs such cover. Together we collaborated in the decline of our democracy, moment to moment during these historic last 16 years, as the pace of change accelerated to the disadvantage of everyone but the most powerful, and many people found themselves on the outside who had had at least some tentative hold on prospects and opportunity — all this in the midst of escalation of elite rhetorical obeisance to the cultural dignity of formerly marginalized others.

Inequality, then, became a condition of our existence, its prerequisite, its sine qua non, when it had been, at least for most of our history, an exceptional situation, not the norm. I mean hardened inequality that does not give way to amelioration: a loss of cultural and political mobility, a calcification of social position. That kind of extreme inequality is new for us, and we need to understand the stages in its creation, from politics to culture, ending in a new kind of thoroughgoing cynicism — such as is represented in the TV show "House of Cards— that leaves little room for democratic optimism, whether of a socialist or a liberal disposition. The underlying material tendency ought to still be toward an anarchic/Marxist form of highly diffused liberalism, because scarcity should already be a thing of the past, but the abstraction that is capital today is making this natural movement forward impossible.

In a sense, there has been a continuous economic crisis for 16 years, as there has been a continuous political crisis. The 2007-2011 period, though a manifest form of the crisis that everyone could grasp, was not resolved in any helpful way, and instead the norms that had created this overt rupture were even further established as permanent policy. It was during this period that immigration, constitutional rights and basic conditions for economic equality could have received a boost, but instead a renewed commitment to neoliberal principles all but guaranteed further and greater crises in the future.

It seems almost simplistic to say that neoliberalism leads to crisis after crisis. It is truer instead to say that prompting crisis after crisis is how neoliberalism functions. It’s in its very DNA; this is true in the cultural realm as well, where politically correct discourse does not engage in constitutional confirmation of every person’s legal rights but diminishes opposition to the reigning philosophy by conceptualizing each group as a discrete unit without reference to others.

Globalization, under Bill Clinton, at least promised, at the end of a transitional period of displacement and turbulence, an ideal of global cosmopolitanism. To the extent that’s gone now we share a much more negative view of globalization, whose evolution we have yet to comprehend; again, this has everything do with the ceaseless crises we have faced in the last decade and a half, which erode cosmopolitanism in any of its forms, and leave us all fragmented, scattered, impotent consumers without our full bearings about the future and its contours.

The intellectual task of the moment is to note the evolution of our public responses, the slow shift in assessments and reassessments of our common ideologies. It is true that some of the worst of what I feared from Bush and company from 2001 to 2003 didn’t always come true, partly because the Iraq war caused Bush to lose political capital rapidly, but all the principles established by that regime remain fundamentally unquestioned.

I noted at the time in my review of Bush’s post-presidential memoir, "Decision Points," that in this environment of unaccountability Bush felt empowered enough to write a justification for all he did, as did other leading members of his administration. Bush’s memoir, in essence a rationalization of the terror presidency, is the perfect template for Trump as commander in chief, securer of our securities, protector of our protections. And we do not anymore, as a culture, have the power to resist this force, because of the continuous dumbing down, or more charitably the slow death of the liberal-humanist intellectual outlook, which has occurred during these same years and even for some decades prior to it; this is something for which we are about to pay the highest possible price.

Just as the unreality of the 2012 election campaign and the Republican resistance and extremism in the years afterward led directly to Trump, so will our view of our recent collective past continually recede as no more than a memory. We ought to find these recent memories jolting, if we reflect on the events unfolding against any norms an American is trained to expect.

What comes after the unreality of "House of Cards," which is where we are now, is Trump and his movement; the disconnect between the elite and the people, even when a movement is supposedly populist, prevents functioning along a prism of reality and truth, so that problems offer their own eminent solutions but nobody is interested in taking them up. Dysfunction becomes its own kind of functionality, again relating to neoliberalism’s constant mockery of normalcy as something almost obtrusive to “progress.” Thus even something as basic as a functioning postal service or public education can be seen as insults to progress, as abnormal and anomalous, conditions worth correcting.

Neoliberalism has been on a path to regroup, strengthen and reorganize under the banner of populism, and there has been no renewed social contract on behalf of equality, employment, economic justice or even basic dignity. It is easy to lose the thread of the larger story; it’s too bad that we got over our initial shock, which removes us from the best way to narrate our collective predicament.

By Anis Shivani