We can draw a straight line from the “war on terror” to the January 6 attack on the Capitol, from the state of emergency that gave us mass surveillance, indefinite detention, extraordinary renditions and “Reinforced interrogations” to the insurgent belief that the only way to save America is to subvert it.
Or, as journalist Spencer Ackerman writes in “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilised America and Produced Trump,” “A war that never defined its enemy has become an opportunity for the so-called coalition MAGA of white Americans to merge their grievances in an atmosphere of just urgency. This impulse, he continues, “unlocked an authoritarian panoply of possibilities that extended far beyond the war on terror, ranging from theft of children at the instigation of a violent mob trying to overthrow a presidential election ”.
The “war on terror” has eroded the institutions of American democracy and fed our most reactionary impulses. This paved the way for a new political movement with an old idea: that some Americans belong and some don’t; that some are “real” and some are not; that the people who have the right to rule are a narrow and exclusive group.
It was with all of this in mind that I found it maddening to see George W. Bush speak on Saturday.
The former president helped commemorate the 20th anniversary of September 11 with a speech in Shanksville, Pa. At a memorial service for the victims of Flight 93. He praised the dead, praised heroism passengers and crew and praised the unity of the American people in the weeks and months following the attacks. He also spoke about recent events condemning extremists and extremism at home and abroad.
“We have seen more and more evidence that dangers to our country can come not only from borders, but also from the violence that gathers within,” Bush said. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their contempt for pluralism, in their contempt for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are the children of the same filthy spirit. And it is our permanent duty to confront them.
From there, Bush expressed dismay at the brutal polarization and rigid partisanship of modern American politics. “A malicious force seems at work in our common life which turns every disagreement into an argument and every argument into a clash of cultures,” he said. “Much of our politics has become a naked appeal for anger, fear and resentment. This leaves us worried about our nation and our future together. “
Bush spoke as if he was just an observer, an elderly and worried statesman who fears for the future of his country. But this is nonsense. Bush actively participated in the policies he now deplores.
In 2002, Bush declared that the Senate, then controlled by Democrats, was “not interested in the safety of the American people.” In 2004, he made his opposition to same-sex marriage a centerpiece of his campaign, harnessing anti-gay prejudices to mobilize his conservative supporters. On the eve of the 2006 midterm elections, he denounced the Democratic Party as “soft” on terrorism and unable to defend the United States.
And that’s not to mention his allies in the conservative media, who have treated disagreement over his wars and anti-terrorism policies as tantamount to treason. His Republican Party has also not hesitated to label the criticism as disloyal or worse. “Some people are now attacking the president for attacking terrorists,” said the Republican National Committee’s first announcement of the 2004 presidential election.
Bush was remarkable for the partisanship of his White House and the cruelty of his political tactics, for using the politics of fear to push his opponents into submission. For turning, as he said on Saturday, “every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures.”
Bush won praise on Saturday. A typical response came from Michael Beschloss, presidential historian and cable news regular, who noted it was an “important speech”.
It is frankly infuriating to see anyone treating the former president as if he had the moral authority to speak out about extremism, division and the crises facing our democracy. His criticism of the Trump movement is not false, but it is fatally undermined by his own conduct in power.
During his eight years as President, George W. Bush launched two destructive wars (one based on outright lies), embraced torture, radically expanded the power of the national security state, and all defended by dividing the public into two camps. . Either you were with him or you were against him.
As much as he has been rehabilitated in the eyes of many Americans – as much his supporters might want to separate him and his administration from Donald Trump – the truth is that Bush is one of the main architects of our current crisis. We may not be able to hold him accountable, but we certainly shouldn’t forget his leading role in making this country more damaged and dysfunctional than it should be.