Forget the cough sweets and folksy eulogies, George W Bush is to blame for the rise of Trump

 If you disappear from the scene, people will start to miss you.

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It has now been two years since Donald Trump gave his inauguration address in Washington, DC, to a crowd whose size he would later dispute at alarming and tedious length. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America first,” the new president said. “America will start winning again – winning like never before.”

It was a strange speech, full of apocalyptic metaphors and odd assertions. Afterwards, Trump’s predecessor-but-one, George W Bush, was overheard saying: “That was some weird shit.” Earlier, on the podium, the now 72-year-old had struggled to put on his plastic rain poncho, ending up with it draped over his head. On the internet, this struggle and his comment on the speech were deemed to be “relatable”.

The younger Bush provides an instructive lesson to other politicians: if you disappear from the scene, people will start to miss you. After leaving office in 2008, Bush retreated to Texas, where he painted saccharine portraits of terriers and took part in occasional charity fundraisers. In the absence of fresh outrages, and the presence of Trump, it was almost possible to become nostalgic for the Bush era. By last autumn, Bush Jr was getting positive headlines for passing Michelle Obama a cough sweet at John McCain’s funeral. Compared with the baroque godawfulness of Trump, he looked humane, civil and moderate.

Notably, the McCain family did not invite Trump to the funeral. The two men began a long-running feud when Trump said the late Arizona senator, who had endured torture in Vietnam, was “not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” (Trump got a deferment from serving in Vietnam because of bone spurs in his feet.)

It was a typically sullen, mean-spirited comment from Trump. But Bush Jr, who gave a eulogy to McCain, committed offences against the late senator that were just as great, although further back in history. When the two men competed for the Republican party nomination in 2000, Bush’s strategist Karl Rove pioneered the concept of push polls. Under the guise of canvassing public opinion, these asked voters in South Carolina: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain … if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” McCain and his wife had adopted a daughter from Bangladesh and taken her on the campaign trail. She was then eight years old.

It is not hard to draw a line from the racist overtones of that push poll to the fake “birther” controversy – implying that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and so not eligible to run for president – which gave Trump his entrée to the Republican primary. Bush might not be a boorish bully like his successor, but many of the excesses of the current GOP can be traced back to his administration. Obscurity has been kind to him; history should not be.

Last week I watched Vice, the new film by Adam McKay. In The Big Short, McKay tried to make casino banking and the sub-prime mortgage crisis understandable to cinema audiences. Here, his subject is Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney, played by Christian Bale in pounds of excess flesh and his whispery Batman voice. The film’s premise, delivered with all the subtlety of a housebrick to the face, is that Bush was a hapless if charming frontman for Cheney’s hawkishness, hatred of environmental regulations and turbo-charged brand of capitalism. Bush handed out the metaphorical cough sweets, but Cheney held the real power.

It is not a nuanced film, but maybe it can’t be. Like The Big Short, it shows the cruelty enabled by obscure and impenetrable systems. The byzantine chicanery of “credit default swaps” and “collateralised debt obligations” led to ordinary Americans buying houses they couldn’t afford with money that didn’t exist. Cheney used wordy memos, bureaucratic tricks and reforms to little-known laws to rewire American democracy in the executive’s favour. 

OK, so the law requires an official from the department of the environment to sit in on meetings where corporations are given access to sensitive government data? Make it the twentysomething receptionist. Want to torture prisoners and undermine civil liberties? Get your in-house lawyer to write a memo suggesting there should be “no limits on the executive’s judgment whether to use military force in response to the national emergency”. Want to bind poor white voters to a party intent on tax cuts for the rich? Start a culture war. (In a rare break from didacticism, the film quietly juxtaposes Lynne Cheney railing against “affirmative action” on the campaign trail in Wyoming with a scene in which her husband becomes a Congressional intern in 1969. The camera pans to show his peers, who are entirely white, and almost exclusively male. How’s that for an affirmative action programme?)

Under Bush and Cheney, the Republican party cemented its symbiotic relationship with Fox News, boosting a channel that pumped out lurid, partisan headlines day and night. Again, draw a direct line to a president who now tweets Fox headlines practically verbatim, minutes after they air.

Then there was the “war on terror”, that fight against an abstract noun that allowed the US to excuse itself from the Geneva Convention at home and kill thousands of civilians abroad. Meanwhile, the real terror created by endless school shooters, jilted husbands and spree killers was never addressed because of the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association.

In politics, it’s easy to focus on personalities. Where Trump is loudly awful, Bush was folksy and Cheney stoutly boring. Yet the big reason the US president looks so appalling is that he is saying the “weird shit” out loud. They just did it.

Ryan Gilbey on “Vice”

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 25 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?