Now we're supposed to think Reagan, Bush and the Cheneys are cool? They got us here

Democrats and the media are now pretending that the Reagan-Bush era didn't lead us directly to Trump's crimes

Published May 9, 2021 12:07PM (EDT)

Ronald Reagan, Liz Cheney and George W. Bush (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ronald Reagan, Liz Cheney and George W. Bush (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The fate of American democracy rests in the hands of Michelle Obama, or more precisely, in her arms. Should she choose to give Donald Trump a hug, the Democratic Party — the high-salaried commentariat and the various jesters of pop culture — will ostensibly have no choice but to forgive him for his catalogue of atrocities. If Trump had even a little strategic savvy, rather than pathetically throwing inane grievances "From the Desk of Donald J. Trump," Geocities-style, he would position himself next to the former first lady at a televised public gathering, and carefully drop a lozenge into her palm. 

Having a few slightly human exchanges with Michelle Obama, of course, worked wonders for George W. Bush. Over the past five years, the grotesquery of Bush's presidency has undergone such a thorough rehabilitation that, according to many polls, even a majority of Democrats have a favorable view of the retired war criminal. 

Appearances with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, along with a newly published collection of kitschy paintings of immigrants, have led far too many members of the public to swoon over Bush — the man Karl Rove saw as a safe bet because he thought Americans would prefer to "have a beer with him" as opposed to his wonky political adversaries, Al Gore and John Kerry. Those guys might want to talk about boring stuff like climate change, whereas Bush would make a few wisecracks and then tell that great story about the time he bombed, invaded and occupied a country for no good reason. "The whole thing was a lie!" he would announce as his punchline. 

At press time, no journalist has inquired of any Iraqis whether they too are moved by the exchange of Lifesavers between Bush and Michelle Obama. Needless to say, more than a million Iraqis cannot comment or leave an Amazon rating of Bush's book, because they're dead. Perhaps because the Iraq war is over (more or less), there's a general feeling that the United States should "move on," as is the country's tendency whenever it violates international law. Forgiving and forgetting might not be so easy for those still in Iraq. Award-winning toxicologist Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani reports that birth defects, premature death, mental disabilities and other forms of medical misery are common in Iraq due to the widespread contamination of the environment, largely resulting from U.S. bombs, munitions, burn pits and toxic chemicals. 

Apparently, journalists cannot discuss the Iraq war because they are too busy lionizing Rep. Liz Cheney, whose father was not only vice president to George W. Bush, but the chief architect of that war. As recently as 2015, the father-daughter duo co-wrote a psychotic foreign policy manifesto, "Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America"; in it, they chastised then-President Barack Obama, who himself bombed multiple countries with dubious reasons, for failing to "maintain American supremacy." 

Donald Trump recently derided Liz Cheney as a "big shot warmonger." It is painful to admit that Trump might be right about anything, and even more painful to have no choice but to take the side of the big shot warmonger. Cheney and Trump are at each others' political throats, representing hostile factions of the Republican Party, because the congresswoman from Wyoming acknowledges the unremarkable fact that Joe Biden was the lawful and legitimate winner of the 2020 election. Cheney's refusal to mindlessly fall into the personality cult of Trump, and parrot the Big Lie of a massive voter fraud conspiracy, has significantly shortened her political life expectancy. Her most significant break with Trump occurred when she voted for his impeachment as penalty for inciting the insurrection of Jan. 6. 

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, has indicated that Cheney will lose her leadership position as House Republican Conference chair. Meanwhile, a bipartisan consensus of observers, ranging all the way from Rep. Jim Jordan to Sen. Bernie Sanders, has predicted that Cheney may not survive the 2022 midterm elections. 

One of America's two major political parties appears to have gone full fascist — elevating the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has promoted a conspiracy theory involving Jewish-controlled space lasers, and Sen. Josh Hawley, who the New York Times reports is raking in the cash at unprecedented levels since he provided aid, comfort and support to the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol with the intention of murdering elected officials and destroying our democratic system of governance. 

Cheney, who has an 80 percent rating from the Heritage Foundation, and on most issues is slightly to the right of Attila the Hun, is suddenly persona non grata, because of a range of anti-Trump offenses that includes the crime of fist-bumping with Joe Biden. 

Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, coined one of his boss's most famous phrases in an address against affirmative action: "the soft bigotry of low expectations." It is a rich irony that Bush now benefits from that exact form of "soft bigotry" as he is lavished with praise for not being a fascist or a nativist.

Liz Cheney's current status in mainstream media is similar. The Republican Party has descended to such depths of cruelty and stupidity that honoring free and fair elections, and giving a polite greeting to the actual president, is enough to earn contempt.

Difficult as it is to sympathize with Cheney, who is such an extreme anti-environmentalist that she once called on the Department of Justice to investigate the National Resources Defense Council for espionage, anyone with the slightest hint of loyalty to democracy should hope that the Trumpian right's insane campaign against her inflicts some permanent damage on the Republican Party. 

All the same, anyone curious to learn how that party could have become such a severe threat to the American democracy need look no further than Cheney herself, or watch any of the recent banal and servile TV interviews of George W. Bush.

That dark story dates back much further than Bush's destructive tenure as president. Detailing the extent of America's collective ability to deny, sugarcoat or forget its own atrocities would be impossible here. Gore Vidal coined the phrase "United States of Amnesia" for a reason, and joked that his biggest disagreement with legendary oral historian Studs Terkel was over that quip. (Terkel preferred to say that USA stood for "United States of Alzheimer's.")

Over the closing credits of Oliver Stone's film "Nixon," there is actual footage from the disgraced president's funeral. The entire American political establishment sits in attention as then-President Bill Clinton pays mawkish tribute to Nixon's "service to his country," for which the country, Clinton explains, is forever in his debt. Other than one brief reference to the creation of the EPA, Clinton does not offer any specific examples of Nixon's "service." It is safe to assume that he probably didn't mean the illegal bombing of Cambodia, the COINTELPRO persecution of antiwar and civil rights activists or the creation of the "Southern strategy." 

If one of Trump's most grievous attacks on American life was the overt use of racism as a campaign tactic, then the road to ruin in many ways starts with Nixon, whose own political staffers even admitted that racist appeals were their most effective means of winning votes in the South and parts of the Midwest. 

Gerald Ford has often been praised for pardoning Nixon, because allowing his predecessor to evade any serious consequences for authorizing and lying about the burglary of the Democratic Party Headquarters, was deemed the "best way to stanch the open wound of Watergate." Commentators are still fond of tossing out the pro-pardon bromide even though Trump once again demonstrated the danger of allowing the president to remain above the law. 

If Nixon pioneered the Southern strategy, Ronald Reagan mastered it. One of Reagan's early campaign events in 1980 took place at the Neshoba County Fair, merely seven miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where members of the Ku Klux Klan, with the assistance of local law enforcement, had murdered the Freedom Riders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964. It was more a bullhorn than a "dog whistle": Reagan discussed the importance of "states' rights" in that speech. As president, he pumped out the "welfare queen" myth, accusing Black women in inner cities of picking up their food stamps and welfare checks while sporting mink coats and diamond rings. That racist stereotype became central to the bipartisan destruction of social programs and public goods, reinforcing the prevalent attitude among white moderates and conservatives that poor people, especially if they were Black, were freeloaders who refused to work. 

For all the ugliness of his rhetoric, Reagan's policies were even worse. He waged a proxy war of aggression against several Latin American countries — condemned as terrorism by the World Court — and funded on-the-ground forces in Nicaragua through the illegal sale of arms to Iran. 

None of which prevented Barack Obama from repeatedly praising Reagan in speeches and interviews. Obama's encomiums to Reagan were so effusive and consistent that Douglas Brinkley, the popular historian and editor of Reagan's diaries, posited that Reagan was Obama's "role model."

It is now almost obligatory for TV pundits to break out the world's smallest violin and wax nostalgic for the "party of Reagan" while lamenting what Republicans have become under Trump. But the party of Reagan, setting aside the public grace and everyday eloquence of the "Great Communicator," was in many ways an early incarnation of the party of Trump. Those who fail to make the connection are being willfully ignorant. Now, it's also true Reagan signed international nuclear treaties that Trump tried to destroy, and offered amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants. Trump was measurably worse on several important issues, but that's not a good reason to delude ourselves about the fundamental nature of the Republican Party, and the right-wing cultural and media movement that empowers it. 

Trump was especially destructive because he and his gaggle of ghouls actively sought to undermine important government agencies, deliberately violated democratic norms and civil liberties, and made a mockery of the rule of law. It's impossible to imagine that if George W. Bush lost to Kerry in 2004, he would have rambled incoherently about how the election was "rigged," or urged a violent band of fanatics to storm the Capitol and terrorize Dick Cheney. 

On the other side of the ledger, however, most people have forgotten that in 2001, the state of Florida reached a settlement with the NAACP over illegally purging Black voters from the polls prior to the 2000 presidential election. Infamously, Bush won the state by only 537 votes (even assuming that was a fair and accurate count, which it certainly wasn't). As president, Bush oversaw the violation of millions of Americans' civil rights after the passage of the PATRIOT Act; authorized the use of torture against "enemy combatants"; and created ICE, the barbaric agency most responsible for the Trump-era persecution and abuse of newly-arrived immigrants, including children and asylum applicants. 

Bush's disregard for good governance reached its nadir during Hurricane Katrina. The predominantly poor and Black residents of New Orleans went five days without federal intervention. While people drowned in their homes, or lived in the filthy conditions of the Superdome, Bush told FEMA administrator Michael Brown, previously the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job." 

Brownie now hosts a talk radio program in Denver, where he warns that the "republic is faltering" under President Biden's leadership. In promotional press for the radio program, Brown's colleagues actually use the "Brownie" nickname with pride and affection. Kris Olinger, who oversees radio programming for the Denver Clear Channel affiliate that airs Brown's show, has said that Brown's experience with Hurricane Katrina is a "definite positive" which offers him "great insight into how government works." Brown's FEMA tenure involved the deaths of 1,833 people during and after Katrina.

Brown's new role as political expert is frankly no worse than CNN's insistence on regularly featuring New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as oracular genius and valiant defender of democracy. Arguably Donald Trump has never said anything as loathsome as Friedman's full-throated endorsement of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, claiming it would send a clear message to "Islamic extremists": "Which part of this sentence don't you understand? You don't think we care about our open society? You think this (terrorism) fantasy you have — we're just gonna let it grow? Well, suck. on. this."

As the media and even some Democrats praise Liz Cheney for showing minimal fidelity to law and democracy, it is crucial to keep in mind that while Cheney and does not represent the personality cult of Trump's deadly narcissism, she represents the party of the Southern Strategy, the party of Iran-Contra, the party of disenfranchising Black voters, and the party of "suck on this." As Salon's Chauncey DeVega wrote in his analysis of the Cheney-Trump feud, Cheney is not a genuine believer or practitioner of democracy — she is a "friendly fascist." 

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, one of the country's most intelligent public officials — and unlike Liz Cheney, an actual public servant acting in the interest of his society — has warned that the U.S. risks internal assaults worse than Jan. 6 if Congress, the Justice Department and the FBI do not investigate (and potentially prosecute) Trump administration officials for the their manipulation of science during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their role in Trump's attempted coup-d'état. 

Referring to the Obama administration's refusal to pursue charges against the Bush administration for the use of torture, Whitehouse recently told the New Republic, "If Obama had not [said], 'We're not going to look back, we're only going to look forward,' the Trumpsters would have been a lot less bold about doing the reckless damage that they did."

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters," and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" and the forthcoming, "Exurbia Now: Notes from the Battleground of American Democracy." He lives in Indiana. 

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