Bush’s role in rise of Trump should not be forgotten

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Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

As difficult as it is to imagine a worse president than Donald Trump, try and picture this: Sixteen years from now, such a president is in office. From his presidential library in the basement of Trump Tower, the once-despised 45th president bemoans the current political climate, which is universally interpreted as a searing rebuke of the new administration. Liberals everywhere swoon.

It’s certainly an absurd scenario. But the present is absurd too, and last week former president George W. Bush earned lavish praise for delivering exactly such a condemnation at his presidential library in Dallas — a condemnation of the Trump presidency.

Now, don’t get me wrong; it was a good speech. Bush decried bigotry and white supremacy as “blasphemy against the American creed” and rejected “bullying and prejudice in public life,” taking fairly transparent jabs at Trump and the racist supporters he refuses to unequivocally denounce.

But look who’s talking. There’s something deeply ironic about Bush condemning nationalism, bigotry, bullying and prejudice. When he was in office, his administration was happy to co-opt nationalist rhetoric, leverage bigotry and make political tools out of bullying and prejudice. 

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush appealed to nationalism to sell his war on terror and convince Americans to give up their civil liberties, pitting our country against an “axis of evil” composed of enemies who “hate us for our freedoms.”

Although he made sincere efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry after the attacks, his administration’s actions to “defend the homeland” violated the rights of many innocent Muslims. Muslim prisoners were tortured and held indefinitely at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Arabs and Muslims were disproportionately targeted in a program that preceded Trump’s proposed Muslim registry by 15 years and failed spectacularly.

As for bullying and prejudice, Bush’s successful 2004 re-election bid was built on those pillars. Under the direction of Karl Rove, the campaign cheerfully weaponized prejudice against gays and lesbians: Republicans put same-sex marriage bans on the ballot in 11 states across the country in order to turn out social conservatives on Election Day.

Meanwhile, in an effort just as heinous as any of Trump’s fake news smear campaigns against Hillary Clinton, a Bush-supporting group attempted to falsely discredit Democratic nominee John Kerry’s decorated military career. Despite calls from Sen. John McCain, the Bush campaign refused to condemn the organization, and the smear worked: Conservatives later credited it for helping to bring about Kerry’s defeat.

By effusively praising Bush, we risk absolving him of responsibility for the damage he did to the country when he was president. And that damage was extensive. We’re still experiencing aftershocks from the three disasters that defined the Bush presidency: the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis.

Arguably, the election of Trump was one of these aftershocks. Public trust in government dropped precipitously during the Bush administration — from 44 percent in January 2001 to 25 percent in December 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. Since Pew started tracking the numbers, only the Nixon administration has done more damage to the credibility of our institutions.

That number remained low throughout the Obama administration, but it was Bush who brought it to that level. And what happened when people lost faith in the system? They turned to someone who promised to tear the system down — to “drain the swamp.” The result is the present crisis, which may make the Bush years look tame by comparison, but nevertheless shares a continuity with those years that the 43rd president refuses to acknowledge.

Groves is a philosophy junior from Dallas.