Two cheers for George W. Bush: But his party spawned this horror

Don't surrender to W-nesia! It's nice that Bush is speaking out against Trumpism, but the GOP must face its guilt

Published October 20, 2017 5:00AM (EDT)

George W. Bush (AP/Seth Wenig)
George W. Bush (AP/Seth Wenig)

We’ve officially reached that level of Dante’s hell in which former President George W. Bush is not just making sense but saying the things that absolutely have to be said. The only glitch in this development is the reality that Bush 43 helped set the table for the emergence of Trump. We’ll circle back to this in a second.

The former president spoke to an audience at the George W. Bush Institute on Thursday about where we are with politics in the Trump age, including, of course, the ongoing Russian attack on our democratic institutions.“America is experiencing the sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country’s divisions,” Bush warned. “According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other. This effort is broad, systematic and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social media platforms. … We must secure our electoral infrastructure and protect our electoral system from subversion.”

It’s refreshing whenever Republican A-listers step up and emphasize the existential threat of the Russian attack. It mitigates what would have otherwise been an exclusively partisan Democratic story, and proves that not all Republicans are prioritizing their party over the nation.

While Bush didn’t assign blame to Trump and his enablers, he certainly made it clear that the Trump administration, without naming names, isn’t doing a damn thing to thwart the attack, leaving us exposed and vulnerable to increasingly pernicious digital incursions — incursions that could easily include actual vote manipulation in coming elections. Bush also made sure to underscore the bone-chilling reality that American citizens have become unwitting enemy combatants, unknowingly aiding the Kremlin’s scheme by blindly sharing disinformation and fake news on social media.

Bush also seemed to attack Trump for inciting and excusing bigots and white supremacists, observing that “bigotry seems emboldened.” He added, “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.” Given how Bush acknowledged the Russian attack as a genuine threat, he’s likely referencing the Alex Jones crowd and, perhaps, Fox News Channel. We don’t know for certain because, again, he wasn’t more explicit. But I think we know.

Back on the bigotry front, meanwhile, Bush once again appeared to reference Trump and his antagonistic trolling of his political enemies, noting, “Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.”

Additionally, Bush seemed to directly target the current president’s refusal to condemn white supremacy after Charlottesville when he said that “bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”

Round of applause, right? Well, not quite.

We should appreciate that Republicans like Bush are standing up to Trump and the dangers his administration is precipitating. But let’s not forget how all of this got started. It was the Bush White House and cynical “with us or against us” political operatives like Karl Rove who elevated divisiveness, "Southern Strategy" racism, and dirty tricks from being underground tactics to the leading edge of the GOP’s campaign playbook. In the days, months and years after 9/11, it was Bush and his people who preyed upon our darkest instincts rather than the sense of national unity we experienced just after towers fell.

We lashed out at dissenting voices as unpatriotic — as being “with the terrorists.” We were encouraged to rat on our neighbors. We were encouraged to go shopping instead of becoming more engaged. Our fear and our post-traumatic stress, triggered by the unreal spectacle of 9/11 was directly targeted, in the name of acquiescing to executive overreach and supporting wars that have dragged on for too many years. We were told that it was OK to support “folksy” politicians, devaluing the leadership ideals of intelligence, engagement and experience in favor of candidates who were supposedly “just like us” — as if you or I would ever be qualified enough to make decent presidents. Parallel to all that, talk radio and Fox News Channel brainwashed their audiences with fabricated versions of reality, divorced from science, math, history and objective reality.

It was Rove, the “architect” of Bush's two narrow electoral victories (and let's not get started on the 2000 election), who observed that his administration was creating its own non-reality based empire, according to journalist Ron Suskind.

While the counterargument to Bush ended up being the election of Barack Obama, the next iteration of Bush’s folksy non-reality-based whatever became Sarah Palin, effectively lowering the bar even more. Then came the Tea Party, a movement that originated with Palin’s proto-Trumpian rally crowds. Toss into the mix conspiracy theorists like Orly Taitz, who, along with other far-right extremists, attacked Obama’s ethnicity in order to radicalize disaffected conservative racists. Trump picked up the racist baton in 2011 and ran with it — ultimately using Taitz’s birtherism as a springboard for his own presidential campaign.

If we deconstruct Trumpism, it’s easy to see the individual pieces: the folksy Bush populism of the post-9/11 era mixed with the disengaged numbskullery of Palin and the conspiratorial grievances and white resentment of the Tea Party. Bake for 16 years and voila! A casserole of Donald Trump goodness.

Worse yet, all of that was fueled and enabled by the Republican Party establishment, which, now that it’s too late, is slowly distancing itself from the ghoulish orange kaiju monster it birthed. Despite what Bush said on Thursday, or what Republicans like John McCain, Steve Schmidt and “axis of evil” speechwriter David Frum have been saying, Trump is the GOP’s chimera of insanity. They broke it, so they own it.

Moving forward, Republican leaders must take ownership of their conception and 16-year gestation of this horror. The alleged “party of personal responsibility” needs to step up and take the lead in jamming this destructive Twitter toddler into the airlock and jettisoning him into the void of space. It’s not enough to simply emphasize the awfulness of Trump. They must also explain to Republican voters what went wrong and how they can clean up this mess.

Democrats can’t heal the nation on their own. It will require leaders on Trump’s side of the aisle spearheading a full-fledged nationwide rejection of Trump, and it has to happen sooner rather than later because it’s not just the villains in the White House who are undermining our constitutional republic, it’s the villains in the Kremlin now, too, lurking within our technology. Keep your fingers crossed that it isn’t too late.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.