Chief Justice William Rehnquist administering the oath of office to President George H. W. Bush during Inaugural ceremonies at the United States Capitol. January 20, 1989. | From Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
Imagine, if you will, Donald Trump and the charlatans, third-raters and crooks in his cabinet providing world leadership as the Soviet Union disintegrated, or building a broad international coalition to confront Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
Even harder to imagine: Trump with an approval rating of 89 percent.
That’s what George H.W. Bush’s was shortly after the first Gulf War in 1991.
By Election Day the following year that had collapsed, along with a number of key economic indicators, and Bush was a one-termer.
Much is being written and said currently about what a decent and gracious guy Bush was in person. Publicly, accepting his party’s nomination for president in 1988, Bush envisioned a “kinder, gentler nation.”
But there was nothing kinder or gentler about his 1988 campaign.
The Willie Horton ad was run by a political action committee, and not Bush’s campaign directly. But more or less concurrently with that ad, the Bush campaign, with the able assistance of none other than longtime Nevada PR & politics guy Sig Rogich, did capitalize on the Horton media buzz by airing an ad showing what were supposed to be prisoners walking through a revolving door. The camera zoomed in on a man who was black.
Both ads were racist. Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater knew it. And loved it. The Horton narrative – that Michael Dukakis supported furloughs that let black men rape white women – was very effective with white focus groups. As Atwater famously/infamously told a group of campaign workers, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate.”
The effectiveness of Bush’s 1988 campaign didn’t hinge on his decency, or what was often described as the longest resume in the western world. The heart of the campaign was the same thing that was at the heart of Nixon’s southern strategy, which was also the same thing at the heart of Trump’s appeal in 2016: White identity politics.
Of course there was more to Bush’s 1988 campaign than Willie Horton. The Reagan-Thatcher 80’s marked a conservative ascendancy that would put Democrats on the defensive until, well, the present day, and the Bush campaign never missed an opportunity to slam Dukakis as a “Massachusetts liberal.” Liberal was a already a dirty word by 1988, part of an ongoing (and continuing) effort by Republicans to demonize government, higher education, and virtually every other public institution except for evangelical Christian churches and publicly traded corporations.
Dukakis didn’t help. He might have answered with something along the lines of “old people have social security and health care coverage and segregation was ended and there isn’t a poll tax in the South anymore but there is electricity in the rural south and oh by the way rivers don’t catch fire anymore and that’s all thanks to liberalism so there.” But instead of embracing liberalism as a set of principles, he dismissed it as a mere “label,” and cast himself as a technocrat. Whatever.
Like white identity politics, the demonization of “liberalism” has been standard operating procedure for Republican campaigns for several decades. The two strategies are not unrelated, as recently evidenced here in Nevada by the Great Californication Scare of 2018.
And both are accompanied by another staple of Republican campaigns that was finely honed by the Bush team in 1988, the assault on opponents as out of touch with mainstream, “real” Americans. Dukakis got all his ideas from a “Harvard Yard boutique,” Bush said over and over again.
Anti-intellectualism in American politics dates far further back than Richard Hofstadter’s famous essays on the subject in the 1950s. As Andrew Jackson’s supporters put it, the 1828 presidential election was between “John Quincy Adams, who can write, and Andrew Jackson, who can fight.” Since Jackson’s victory, nearly every U.S. politician has run as the candidate “of the people,” often publicly dumbing themselves down in the process. The rise of U.S. democracy in the first half of the 19th century (a phenomenon limited almost exclusively to white males) was accompanied by suspicion of, and hostility to, learning and expertise.
Bush, the truly elitist son of a truly elitist blueblood financier and statesman, may have seemed an imperfect candidate to play the “my opponent’s an elitist” card. But he played it, relentlessly, in 1988, and arguably even more effectively than Bush’s son George W. and his surrogates played it in 2004. (Did you know that John Kerry speaks French? French! What a snob.)
With Trump, the American tradition of distrusting expertise and shunning critical analysis has reached new depths. Trump and his apologists have developed and nurtured some very strong feelings about knowledge, evidence, analysis and facts: They’re against them. Trump and his supporters are convinced that being hostile to and aggressively rejecting facts is a behavior that really upsets liberals and minorities. And there is no higher calling, no grander goal, among the Trumpists than upsetting liberals and minorities.
The difference, or one difference, between G.H.W. Bush and Trump is that Bush as president did not routinely reject or deny facts (nor was every third word that came out of his mouth a lie, so there’s that). The Bush administration relied on facts, and experts. A case in point: The other day Trump, in the course of denying climate change, gushed about how the air is “at record clean.” A) No it’s not, but B) it’s a lot cleaner than it used to be, thanks in part to arguably the most consequential domestic achievement of Bush’s single term, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
An informed and mature grasp of the world and America’s responsibilities in it, an appropriate regard for evidence-based policy, and yes, however flawed, a sense of personal decency orders of magnitudes greater than anything found in the current White House (ok, that’s an extremely low bar) — George H.W. Bush was very different from Donald Trump.
And yet, notwithstanding Trump’s obvious belief to the contrary, Trump didn’t become president out of the sheer force of his own personal greatness. Trump didn’t rise to lead a nation. He was vomited up by it. It took decades to condition a sufficient portion of the electorate to render Trump’s absurd presidency a possibility, let alone a reality. Practicing white identity politics, recklessly discrediting government and public institutions, and eagerly stoking popular resentment of people who know stuff, Republicans have been paving the way for Trump for more than half a century. All of them were in on it. Including George H.W. Bush.
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