There is something uniquely obscene about President Donald Trump’s character—evinced in his ignorance, abusiveness, lust for dominance, and magnetic effect on other sleazy individuals—that leaves his opponents in a constant struggle to recall that the surreality of this historical moment isn’t as new as it seems.
Trump is a uniquely dangerous and unfit president in many ways, but he tempts liberals to paint the Republican leaders who preceded him in an afterglow of decency and high-mindedness that is hard to detect if you go searching for it in the recent past.
Through a process of both forgetting and cohort replacement, the unremitting awfulness of the George W. Bush presidency—particularly its early years—has been rewritten in a faction of the liberal imagination as a kind of golden age when political debate was more honest and fact-driven. Things are in some ways worse now, but if that era ever existed, it predated George W. Bush by many years.
In 2004, the journalist Ron Suskind reported, in essence, that not only did the Bush administration disdain basic notions of empiricism and enlightenment, but that they were undermining those ideals consciously. They disdained what one senior official called “the reality-based community,” in which people “believe that solutions emerge from…judicious study of discernible reality.”
“That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the same aide continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
This attestation of the right’s philosophy, just over decade old, was somewhat nonspecific, but for years it stood in the minds of liberals as a Rosetta Stone of the Republican Party’s hopeless radicalization. And yet, Suskind wasn’t the first person to notice that the Bush administration disdained reason and inquiry in a way liberals found profoundly disorienting.
To take just one example, this largely forgotten 2003 essay in the Washington Monthly by TPM founder Josh Marshall captures our current predicament so closely that the resemblance is mesmerizing.
It is dispiriting to grapple with the fact that large swaths of the public have already forgiven a catastrophe as recent and unmitigated as the Bush administration. It is just as dispiriting to recognize that the party responsible for the Bush debacle has concluded based on fluky electoral fortunes that its conduct back then wasn’t post-modern enough.
But it is also true that the Bush-era GOP’s disdain for empirical fact contained the seeds of its ultimate failure, and that Trump’s even greater disdain for empiricism is hobbling his administration more than Bush’s was ever hobbled—in a way that may be saving the country from disaster.
In the Washington Monthly essay, Marshall distinguished between liberals and modern conservatives by way of comparison between Bill Clinton, who treated governing as a means of solving specifiable problems, and Newt Gingrich, for whom ideology was a totalizing source of motivation. Out of that distinction between liberals and movement conservatives grows the unmistakable fact that Democrats devise and sell policy in a more above board manner than Republicans do, sometimes to their own political detriment. Wage stagnation unites Democrats around the need to increase wages and income, but tends to plunge them into infighting over how aggressively to do so.
Republicans, by contrast, use the most convenient justifications available to them at any given moment to sell agenda items (tax cuts, deregulation, a welfare state rollback) that they’re committed to year in, year out, irrespective of prevailing circumstances.
During the 2000 election, Bush sold large, regressive, across-the-board tax cuts as a way of returning budget surpluses to taxpayers. When the surpluses evaporated, he sold the same large, regressive, across-the-board tax cuts as a way of stimulating a weak economy in need of larger deficits.
It is this same appetite for pretext and indifference to honest salesmanship that has Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney hawking the deficit reducing power of Trumpcare in May as an engine of economic growth, and deficit-financed tax cuts for the rich this week as…an engine of economic growth.
When Bush White House officials encountered agency findings that complicated their agenda, they suppressed those findings. Under Trump, it is no different—except, insofar, as he and his enablers are more goonish and ham-fisted about it.
In this method, “we find the kernel of almost every problem the administration has faced over recent months-and a foretaste of the troubles the nation may confront in coming years,” Marshall warned way back before Iraq descended into civil war, and Katrina devastated New Orleans. “Muzzling the experts helped the White House muscle its revisionist plans through. But in numerous cases, it prevented them from implementing even their own plans effectively.”
Today history is repeating itself, but in fast-forward, on a jumbo screen. Repurposing and amplifying Bush-era tactics isn’t just preventing Republicans from implementing their plans effectively, but from muscling them through Congress in the first place. It is offensive and humiliating to be lied to—about policy, and matters of basic, verifiable fact—the way we have been lied to in the Trump era. But in our umbrage we should also remind ourselves that while the lying is Trumpian in its shamelessness, it isn’t entirely new, and we wouldn’t be better off if Trump were subtler about it the way his predecessors were.
fall 2015 flashback: I asked Rubio in GOP debate why his tax plan gave more to rich than middle class. He said it wasn’t true. It was true.
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) September 29, 2017
The susceptibility of the Republican electorate to grievance and posturing and false promises made Trump an unstoppable force in the GOP primary, against which Marco Rubio wilted. But those same qualities explain why Trump has struggled to advance the Republican agenda, where President Rubio might have found more success.
We’ll never know what a Rubio administration would have looked like in practice, but in real time, he seemed to be promising to replicate the Bush strategy, which entailed selling bad policy with unfalsifiable claims. Under Trump, Republicans are selling worse policy with patently falsifiable claims, and it is the source of a tremendous amount of resistance to their agenda. The worst moments for Republicans on Capitol Hill this year have been when they’ve had to answer for official findings that their health-care repeal plans would leave tens of millions of additional people without insurance. This blew back at them not only because denying people access to medical care is unpopular, but because they had made up-is-down, black-is-white promises that nobody would be worse off after they replaced Obamacare.
The failure of repeal and replace was, perhaps, an unavoidable consequence of the irreconcilable claims Republicans had made to their voters about Obamacare, beginning long before Trump swallowed their party. But it is worth noting that they are attempting to repeat the process in the fight over tax cuts. Instead of drafting a plan that cuts everyones taxes, and then hiding behind the comparably minuscule tax cuts for the middle class, like Bush did, Trump and GOP leaders have drafted a plan that contains no discernible middle-class tax cut at all, and may ultimately increase taxes on millions of his own voters. Lying couldn’t paper over this basic problem in the fight over Obamacare repeal, and it won’t work in the coming tax cut fight, but Republicans seem determined to give it a shot anyhow.
If Republicans fail to cut taxes just as they failed to repeal Obamacare, the next turn in this fight won’t be a chastening of the Republican Party, anymore than the Bush experiment chastened them after 2008. Instead, as we’re already seeing, Republicans will try to suppress unflattering revelations, and wall off their supporters from any indications that they’re failing or being deceptive. On Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans are seeking to eliminate a rule that would require a Congressional Budget Office analysis of their tax cut plan to be public for at least 28 hours before a vote. From the White House, Trump is simply telling his supporters not to trust news stories that paint his administration’s response to the destruction of Puerto Rico in an unflattering light. Anyone who watches Fox News for any reason knows that within that information ecosystem, the reality that Obamacare repeal failed, and that middle-class taxes might go up, and that Trump bungled preparations for hurricane Maria barely exists.
If the Bush years proved that post-truth politics collapse upon themselves under the strain of reality, the Obama years proved that they can sustain a minority party through a brief period of political exile—but in a somewhat self-defeating way. Like a Fox News-addled Obi Wan Kenobi, Republicans are both more powerful, and less capable of exercising power, than we could have imagined they’d be when Trump vaulted to the top of the GOP primary field.
Bottomless bad faith may be a good way to win elections, but it also makes governing impossible, and in governing we can win the battle for truth—or at least fight it to a draw.