The GOP stands for Grand Old Party, but there is no past on display at the 2020 Republican National Convention: No previous Republican presidents, or previous Republican presidential nominees, are speaking. History, for this Republican Party, began on June 15, 2015, when Donald J. Trump descended a golden escalator. That suits both sides just fine. The Bush family, and the Republicans who admire them, view Trump and his followers with horror. In turn, Trump and his allies look upon the Bush wing of the party with contempt.
Trump’s rise has driven a rehabilitation of the George W. Bush brand. Bush’s personal decency, his impulse toward tolerance and inclusivity, glows against the backdrop of Trump’s casual cruelty and personal decadence. But the catastrophic misgovernance in which George W. Bush ended his presidency, and Trump ends his first term, reveals the continuity between the two administrations.
When George W. Bush left the White House in 2009, the Iraq War was a recognized debacle, with thousands of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, casualties of its chaos. The global economy was in collapse, driven by a calamitous void of regulatory oversight of Wall Street, and the disastrous decision to let Lehman Brothers fall. Fewer than 10 years later, the next Republican president is ending his first term with more than 200,000 Americans dead of the coronavirus — the worst pandemic performance, by far, of any rich nation — and an economy in shambles.
Bush and Trump are so personally different, and their administrations so temperamentally opposite, that it feels awkward to compare them, like trying to find the symmetries between a car crash and a spontaneous combustion. But in his new book, To Start A War, Robert Draper chronicles the internal deliberations and dynamics that led the Bush administration into Iraq. In doing so, Draper reminds us of the through-line between the two administrations: A toxic contempt for the government itself.
thought he knew better than the experts, and didn’t. Like the Bush administration before it, the Trump administration sidelined internal critics, silencing those who said the administration was doing insufficient planning and committing insufficient resources. Like the Bush administration before it, the Trump administration has been dismissive of the concerns and models offered by foreign governments and contemptuous of international organizations. And like the Bush administration before it, the Trump administration’s misjudgments have led to a shocking casualty count and an economic crisis.
There are many differences between Bush and Trump as individuals, and many differences between the administrations they led. But both of them represent a Republican Party soaked in contempt for, and mistrust of, the federal government. When you don’t respect, or even like, the institution you lead, you lead it poorly. When that institution is incredibly, globally important — as the US government is — leading it poorly can invite global catastrophe. And sure enough, under the last two Republican administrations, it has. There is continuity here, of the most consequential sort: a continuity of terrible outcomes.
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