Today is the last full day of the Donald Trump presidency, which means there has never been a better time for this little item at the top of Tuesday’s Politico Playbook:
Playbook has recently displayed copious evidence of its many deep flaws, and I doubt its authors thought much about the deeper symbolism of the gossip they passed along, but they have provided us with an unexpectedly rich text just as the Trump era ends and the Biden era begins.
George W. Bush was once seen as a disgraced man; a wildly unpopular political figure; an architect of the worst foreign policy disaster in modern American history; the person with buckets of blood on his hands who presided over an evil global torture regime; the president who tossed acres of civil liberties into the sea; the guy who let New Orleans drown; the man who left office with the economy in tatters around him; a religious bigot, a fool, an embarrassment.
Then Donald Trump turned up, and now George W. Bush is a man of honor and decency. He has been sanctified, retconned, his past misdeeds forgotten completely. He is a sign of an earlier, better America, a gentler conservatism, a time when the Republican Party had some nobility left. (Bush, to his credit, has navigated his post-presidency with a skill and political insightfulness that eluded him for much of his actual tenure. He’s also been immeasurably helped by the efforts of his successor to lavish care and praise on him, and by the fact that the worst of his crimes were committed against foreigners, and Americans don’t give a shit about them for very long.)Trump, meanwhile, was seen by many as a cancer let loose in the body politic, a malign force that had transformed the GOP into something unworthy and unrecognizable, a break with the stability that had come before.
And yet here is George W. Bush, dining with Tucker Carlson, the ultimate media avatar of Trumpism, a Fox News host beloved by white supremacists, a man who, in the past few days, has railed against the idea of Reconstruction, and peddled wild nonsense and conspiracies about the Capitol attack and its aftermath. Do you think they had an uncomfortable chat about integrity while they were staying on the exclusive island where they both maintain homes? Did Bush tell Carlson, his island neighbor and dinner companion, that he was ashamed of his behavior? Did Carlson, who lives in the same hyper-rich community as a former president, shame Bush as a member of the unaccountable elites he likes to hate on in public?
Or did the two men have a perfectly cordial time, because, in reality, there is not much difference between Bushism and Trumpism, except perhaps in style, and because Bushism paved the way for Trumpism, and because the elite forces that helped propel Trumpism along have always been accepted in the circles of people like Bush, and because the Republican Party today is a lot like the Republican Party of yesterday? We’ll never know, I suppose, but I have my guess.
The Trump era was horrendous in ways that are too innumerable to handle. We’re not seeing too many attempts to sum up what we’ve been through, which I think is partially because everyone is too exhausted and traumatized by the whole thing to try to deal with it. But one thing we should take away from this period is that when Trump goes, the Republican Party will still be there, and it will still be a danger to everyone, and it will still be animated by the forces of white grievance and ruling class greed, just as it was before Trump. George W. Bush having a meal with Tucker Carlson just as the Trump presidency comes to an end is as apt a reminder of these things as I can think of.