By Matt Taibbi / Substack
George W. Bush returned to the news last week. The man who once said, “Our enemies… never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we,” coughed up a gem of accidental truth about Ukraine. In the midst of blasting Vladimir Putin for suppressing dissent, he said:
The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq. I mean, of Ukraine.
Iraq too. Anyway. (laughs)
Although Bush in recent years has been regularly tongue-bathed by blue-party acolytes for speaking against Trump, with Katie Hill once going so far as to admit to tears as she pondered “how much better we’d all feel if Bush were president today,” press priests from CNN to NBC to The Guardian last week tossed him back overboard over his Ukraine miss. Stephen Colbert even “waxed nostalgic,” remembering the time before his current apple-polishing period, when he was an actual satirist under Bush: “I made so much fun of him, and he gave me so many reasons to do that.”
Propaganda demands Bush take a dive now. Not only did his recent honesty malfunction complicate messaging about the unique iniquity of Russian aggression, he’s a living reminder of the uncomfortable truth that he and Joe Biden have essentially merged to become the same president.
Biden is just a less likable, more deranged version of Dubya, a political potted plant behind which authoritarians rule by witch hunt and moral mania, with Joe floating on a somehow even fatter cloud of media protection than Bush enjoyed after 9/11. Today’s Biden is Bush, a helpless, terrified passenger dragged on a political journey beyond his comprehension, signing his name whenever told to appalling policies, like a child emperor or King George in the porphyria years. It’s obvious, but no one will bring it up, for the usual reason, i.e. because Trump. The major difference is that while
Bush was hammered as a simpleton by media smart-alecks for eight years, Biden’s steep mental decline has gone uncovered in an undeclared press cease-fire.
It’s more than a superficial resemblance. The mainstream Democratic Party project has merged in every meaningful way with the militaristic, authoritarian, surveillance-heavy vision of Bush’s neocon presidency, with woke fundamentalism replacing Bush’s “faith-based” evangelism, and Dems most recently pushing their own souped-up version of the PATRIOT Act. You could see the seeds of the merger back when Biden was still a sentient being, in those Bush years, when Scranton Joe was the chief Democratic cheerleader for Bush’s “brutal” Iraq invasion.
In his later, more overtly Bushian phase, Biden lied about his Iraq record repeatedly, but media outlets covering his presidential run told us not to put too much stock into his “gaffes,” which were nothing of the sort: they were intentional deceptions. “Immediately, that moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment,” Biden told NPR in September of 2019, prompting a story about “verbal slip-ups,” which became the go-to euphemism. In a debate against Trump a year later, Biden was even more explicitly deceptive:
From the moment “shock and awe” started, from that moment, I was opposed to the effort, and I was outspoken as much as anyone at all in the Congress and the administration.
This was just a lie, and not a particularly clever one. Biden told Fox months after the Iraq invasion that “I do think it was a just war,” told reporters weeks after “we need more forces,” and gave a speech at the Brookings Institution weeks later in which he said his yea vote for war “was the right vote then and it would be a correct vote today.” As Ryan Grim put it two years ago, Biden demonstrably supported the Iraq war “before, during, and after” the invasion. Unlike Bush, he never stopped lying about it.
If you want a clue into the political logic that drove both presidencies, a place to start is with The Right Man, a slobbering hagiography written by current blue-party darling and Bush speechwriter David Frum at the outset of the Iraq catastrophe. Author Frum paints himself as a world-weary wordsmith whose reflexive media-class cynicism was instantly exploded by exposure to Honest George’s artless rectitude. Every page of Frum’s book is filled with hilarious caricatures of presidential mythmaking, depicting Bush as a beatific cross of George Washington and Ben Stiller’s Simple Jack character from Tropic Thunder, a man literally too dumb to lie:
He insisted on accuracy to the point of pedantry. If his schedule called for him to record a radio address in Washington to be broadcast during a visit to California the following day, nothing could induce him to say, “Today, I am in California.” He would look up from the script with exasperation. “But I’m not in California.”
Of course this is not honesty but incomprehension, since Bush by the time the spot was set to air actually would be in California, but whatever.
Frum went on to insist Bush was so instinctively repulsed by untruth that he and other speechwriters had to learn not to “insert idle compliments” in speeches like, “I’m happy to be with you,” because “if he was not happy to be with you, he would not pretend that it was.” This from a man who didn’t hesitate to help write one of the lyingest presidential speeches ever, the “Axis of Evil” State of the Union address asserting nonexistent ties between Iraq, Iran, and North Korea that became a crucial part of Bush’s disgraced casus belli.
Frum was more interesting, though no less loathsome, in the book’s excitable passages explaining the nature of Bush’s political appeal:
Goodness had been one of the main themes of the campaign speeches of George W. Bush. He often observed that if the government could ever write a law that could make people love their neighbors, he would be glad to sign it.
This was, when you think about it, an odd thing for a Republican president to say. If Congress had sent Ronald Reagan a law obliging people to love their neighbors, he would have vetoed it as an impertinent infringement of personal liberty… But Bush came from and spoke for a very different culture from that of the individualistic Ronald Reagan: the culture of modern Evangelicalism.
Bush was the perfect politician to accelerate the long-sought elite project of deconstructing American liberalism and constitutional principle, and replacing them with an authoritarian technocracy that rules by moral emergency. Bush’s special vulnerability was that he wasn’t just an evangelical Christian, but a reformed alcoholic, for whom rigidity and moral absolutism were desperate personal necessities. A George Bush who slipped and stopped seeing the world in black and white for even five seconds would likely wake up blowing coke in his own personal Hobbesian jungle in no time. He was easily convinced the unconquered world was fraught with unacceptable dangers, because for him, it was.
This absolutism got him into the White House. As Frum noted, Bush lost by 19 points among “women who work outside the home,” while the voters who carried him were those “most outraged by Clinton’s misconduct.” Among the one-fourth of voters who said the most important consideration in voting was “honesty,” 80 percent voted for Bush over Gore. Bush in other words lost the popular vote, and the remaining plurality that didn’t see him as an illegitimate executive installed by the judiciary had elected him virtually without expectations. As Frum put it, Republicans just “wanted him not to be Clinton,” with no mandate beyond “the promise to lay off the interns.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s more or less exactly how Biden got elected. Three out of every ten Biden voters said they were primarily voting against Donald Trump (double the 15% of Trump voters who said voting against Biden was their main motivation). Moreover even though it was constantly reported that women won the election for Biden, Trump actually gained among women in 2020 versus 2016 — astonishing given the amount of negative coverage about his misogynistic attitudes — while Biden won because an even split among men in the 2016 race became an 11-point advantage for team blue in 2020. Biden, like Bush, was sent to Washington as an essentially mandateless president, elected in a spasm of moral reaction, by people who voted for who he wasn’t, not for who he was.
Democrats during Bush’s presidency ranted endlessly about Bush binary brain, and made him the butt of endless jokes over his simplistic bloviating about “evildoers” and “evil deeds.” They tuned in every night to Jon Stewart routines that reveled in being the snickering “some” who questioned Bush’s lunatic theory of pre-emptive war, lampooning Bush’s description of Iraq as the land where all the worst things were “gathered in one place” as the “Wal-Mart of Evil.”
Many of the same people who roared with laughter at those routines now back the same Bushian program in blue. In the twelve years between the Bush and Biden presidencies, the old Republican Party machinery was massacred by the Trump movement, and the Democratic Party merged with the rump of the old Republican Party. Together they adopted, surpassed even, Bush’s tone of evangelical absolutism, preaching a stark Manichean vision of good versus evil — Biden in his convention speech even intoned about how “light is more powerful than dark” — stacking one moral panic atop the next.
Biden as president has constantly sounded apocalyptic tones about evildoers pushing us to the cliff-end of existence, from the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” to saying Republican voting rights proposals made “Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle” and were the “most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War,” to the quintessentially Bushian “evil will not win” routine he unveiled in the wake of the recent Buffalo shooting, to the even more recent reports that Biden now views the entire Republican Party as an “existential threat to the nation’s democracy.”
These last two years of Biden speeches have used rhetoric borrowed directly from Bush’s tirades against terrorists, which is why it felt so appropriate when Bush chimed in last year to denounce QAnon Shaman and the rest of the selfie-snapping “insurrectionists” from January 6th as violent extremists sharing so so much with the 9/11 hijackers, murderers of 3,000 human beings:
In their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.
These remarks set both hearts and trouser-fronts aflutter among everyone from Bill Clinton to Keith Olbermann, as a “continuing duty” to confront the “existential threat” with every conceivable tool of state power is very much what current Democrats have in mind. The Biden presidency has been working round the clock to enhance the powers of Dick Cheney’s surveillance state, seeking to aim it inward and at American citizens to an even greater degree even than the unacceptable levels seen under Bush (when the primary targets were Muslims, placed on a “watch list” of 1.2 million people that a judge ruled to be unconstitutional three years ago).
The same kinds of programs I watched people like Bernie Sanders rally against in the fight over the PATRIOT Act are being re-marketed as Democrat-friendly initiatives. These include everything from the Domestic Terrorism Prevention bill just passed in the House, to the much-panned attempt to create a “Disinformation Governance Board” in the Department of Homeland Security under the leadership of rattish crooner Nina Jankowicz.
The latter program, by the way, was universally misreported as having failed because of objections from “right wing media and Republican lawmakers,” as NPR put it, as if only evil Republicans could oppose such a great idea. This ignored the 1 in 3 Democrats who didn’t favor the idea, and blew off the criticisms of people like Glenn Greenwald, myself, former ACLU chief Nadine Strossen, Professor Amna Khalid, Nico Perrino of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and countless other liberals who were horrified that Democrats who spent the Bush years raising money as defenders of civil liberties were behind such a plainly Orwellian Truth Ministry concept.
Remember when Sean Hannity made bestseller lists with titles like Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism? Good times. “Hannity compares American liberals to terrorists and despots and categorically calls them ‘evil,’” observed a shocked Jason Carter, grandson of Jimmy. During these years Republicans appeared to have no vision of America that included people who didn’t vote red, calling liberals evil and indistinguishable from mass-murderers. People like former FBI agent Gary Aldrich said “Liberals are largely responsible for much of what happened” on 9/11, and people like novelist Tom Clancy concurred, saying on The O’Reilly Factor that 9/11 happened because “the CIA was gutted by people on the political left who don’t like intelligence operations.”
I seem to remember a lot of people like myself who were enraged to hear themselves blamed for 9/11, our basic decency constantly impugned on Fox’s airwaves, or in speeches by the president questioning the patriotism of those “some” who saw the Iraq invasion as madness. It was even more infuriating to see the never-ending coverage of fanatics like John Walker Lindh upheld as evidence of widespread traitorous rot in the liberal ranks (“We need to execute people like John Walker [Lindh] in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too,” was Ann Coulter’s take).
Now, suddenly, it’s appropriate for Democrats to think this way about our own political opponents? We’re going to declare half the country (or more) an “existential threat” to Democracy, place them on lists, have their message boards policed and monitored, effectively criminalizing ideas and political orientation? This is exactly the Bush playbook we all once loathed, in reverse.
The one conspicuous stylistic difference is that this time, the loose-tongued, mentally absent executive signing off on sweeping secret surveillance programs gets a near-total pass from the press. The big difference between Bushisms and Bidenisms is the former were often endearing or unintentionally funny, while Biden is mostly just horrifying. His brain is like a cereal bowl in which the bits floating in milk occasionally touch and produce furious or incoherent exclamations: “immune to prostitute,” “I love those barrettes in her hair map,” “I used to drive an 18-wheeler, man,” “Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks but he’ll never gain the hearts and souls of the Iranian people,” and so on.
Even when the president is just mixing up words, it’s a freak show, like that time a few weeks ago when he talked about “our underlying effort to accommodate the Russian oligarchs and take their ill-begotten gains… We’re gonna accommodate them.” Official White House transcripts now contain bracketed passages to explain to us what the president “meant” to say:
The enormous policy difference between Bush and Biden to date is Bush responded to a foreign policy emergency by jumping straight to boots-on-ground war, while Biden’s response to Putin’s far more serious invasion has so far been limited to rejecting negotiation, imposing sanctions, and massively expanding a proxy battle with Russia in an apparent effort to “bleed” Putin. I believe it’s eventually going to come out that Bushian “regime change” is the plan for Russia, by force if necessary. Part of the reason to think this is because Biden keeps saying it. However, instead of having Jon Stewart around every night to batter the too-frank remarks of President Scramblebrains, the press response to the Biden show has been to spin these episodes as unconnected verbal accidents, signifying nothing.
When Biden said of Putin, “For God’s sake, the man cannot remain in power,” we had NPR stories about how what he said could have been more “nuanced.” When Biden visited 82nd airborne troops in Poland and said of the war, “You’re going to see when you’re there… women, young people standing in the middle, in the front of a damn tank saying, ‘I’m not leaving.’” The next day the White House “clarified” that “The president has been clear we are not sending U.S. troops to Ukraine and there is no change in that position.”
All this is remarkably similar to Bush’s habit of saying things to troops like, “I appreciate the fact that you really snatched defeat out of the jaws of those who are trying to defeat us,” or “I fully understand those who say you can’t win this thing militarily. That’s exactly what the United States military says, that you can’t win this military.” Bush often told us the blunt truth by mistake and Biden does the same thing. The subtext in both cases is an executive who’s been read in so infrequently that he forgets what he’s supposed to lie about.
We’ll see how big of a mistake, or not, the administration’s handling of Ukraine turns out to be, whether they’ll really attempt the same regime change madness that destroyed the Bush presidency. Maybe they won’t go that far, but it’s already obvious where their Domestic War on Terror is headed. This is the same “gross and excessive power grab” that Al Gore once warned would place constitutional protections in “grave danger.” Democrats were once appalled by the idea of a vast spy state, sorting humanity into “good” and “evil” piles. Now, they want in on these same ideas so badly, they even got their own version of Bush to preside over the plan. Can political life in America get any more ridiculous?