Without George W. Bush’s presidency, it’s hard to imagine Obama’s 2008 victory; without both, it’s hard to imagine Trump being so dominant in 2016. Regardless of whether Trump wins in November, his securing the Republican Party’s nomination sets incredibly disturbing precedents that America will be stuck with for the foreseeable future and may never be able to shake off, much to the the detriment of its already struggling political system. Decades from now, Trump’s winning the nomination will be seen as a watershed moment, one that had roots in Obama’s victory, George W. Bush’s presidency, and even going back to the “Reagan Revolution.”
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse May 13, 2016
AMMAN — The more I watch the current American political proceedings, the more I am increasingly convinced of an increasing chance that the presidency of George W. Bush will be remembered as the moment when American democracy began rapidly unravelling.
Our Unravelling, “Unwinding” Democracy
The trends that resulted in this unravelling (or, to use George Packer’s word for it, “unwinding”) could be traced back decades to the so-called Reagan Revolution, coupled with the political incivility and onset of hyperpartisanship that resulted from the so-called Gingrich Revolution. Later, with tax cuts that went almost completely to the wealthiest 1% after we had a surplus, the damage of the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing grossly mismanaged wars, Hurricane Katrina, and the Great Recession after the mortgage and financial crises at the end of Bush’s presidency, George W. Bush had a record of disaster unmatched in modern times and was one of the worst presidents in all of American history, at least if one is to judge according to the effects of his policies.
Some people read a lot into Obama’s election that I did not: many saw it a sign that we had dramatically changed. I saw the election of a black man like Obama, born to and raised by a white mom and who ran as a centrist and went out of his way to not talk about “black issues,” but, rather, to be post-racial and post-partisan, more as an example of the type of minority candidate America would vote for in stark contrast to more outspoken, consciously racialized minority candidates that America would not vote for (Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio are examples in this year’s election cycle who share this approach of campaigning mainly away from their ethnic/racial identity along with Obama). To white America, Obama, Carson, Cruz, and Rubio are “less black” and “less Latino” than other candidates who would not earn as much support from them (if Obama was the exact same person but looked and spoke like Cornell West, does anyone think white America could have supported him at the same level? If Cruz and Rubio were exactly the same but looked and spoke like George Lopez, does anyone think they would have the same support with Republicans that they do now?).
But I realized something else that Obama’s rise and victory represented: the only way that Obama was able to win in 2008 is because the Republicans and George W. Bush has messed up so badly and so completely that America was absolutely desperate for whatever was the least-Bushlike thing they could find. Bush was such a categorical disaster that people wanted to reject the system and class that had produced Bush as a leader as much as possible: the less it acted and sounded like Bush, the better. Without Bush and his presidency creating such a terrible series of crises, it is impossible to imagine that voters would have been willing to try out such a wild card like Obama in 2008. In 2016, it’s incredibly in vogue to talk of candidates as “Establishment” and “anti-Establishment.” That sentiment was not described then the way it is now, but undoubtedly, much of Obama’s support came from people who were desperate for something new, desperate for something different, desperate to reject the past eight years, desperate to reject a system that had done what it had done to us (never mind that WE, first and foremost, empowered those people who ran the system so badly). Basically, at least in 2008, a President Obama was not possible without a President Bush. While many were celebrating Obama’s win in a way in which they were giving American voters an enormous amount of credit, I was saying that it was kind of embarrassing that things had to be that bad before we elected a black president.
The American electorate is funny; in 2000, they more or less rejected Al Gore because he was too “nerdy,” wasn’t “cool” and affable like Bush (I bet they’d take that surplus and invest it now into Social Security in a “lockbox” as Al Gore said he wanted to do in 2000, when he was ridiculed for saying so!). In 2004, they chose Bush to continue his wars his way; in 2008, they voted for someone to get American out of Iraq just 4 years after they voted for someone to keep us in there. In 2010, voters empowered the Tea Party; in 2012, voters rejected multiple Tea Party extremists, which dragged Romney down, in favor of allowing Obama to continue a modest recovery from a historic recession and rejected Republican arguments that Obama’s national security and foreign policies made America less safe. Now, in 2016, voters think Obama is not tough enough on ISIS and many of them chose Donald Trump to be the nominee of one of America’s two major parties and are flirting with a democratic socialist to be the nominee of the other (yes, Clinton will win, but by a narrower margin than many thought would be the case). Fickle, indeed.
How America Took a Huge Gamble on Obama (and Mostly Won)
I voted for Obama in 2008. But not before: I had voted for Hillary Clinton in my local primary. I am still convinced that Hillary would have been a better president, that she would not have made the same rookie mistakes Obama made, that should would have accomplished more with a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate, but, as I wrote recently, that does not mean I don’t think Obama did not do a good job: I think he did do an overall good job and deserves a lot of credit, even if I think he could have, and Hillary would have, done better.
The thing is, experience counts. Hillary had a lot of it, Obama did not. And what was frustrating for me in 2008 was that so many voters got caught up in the story and style and “coolness” factor with Obama, and paid so little attention to his lack of experience. We basically elevated a man to the highest office in the land who had no executive experience, who has spent precious little time on the national stage, and with whom we as a people had very little familiarity. We did not properly vet him and fell in love with him partly because he was the new guy with an inspiring story and amazing stage presence.
America basically dodged a bullet with Obama. With someone who was so new, and who had so little experience on the national stage, it could have turned out much worse than it did. But in Obama, a man of vast intellect, poise, calm, and composure, and who understood history and the system well from an academic standpoint, if not from an experiential one, the United States of America made out pretty well, and is well on the path to recovering from the calamitous W. Bush presidency even if that recovery is slow, understandably slow, though, since Obama took office in the midst of the worst American and global economic crises since the Great Depression.
Yes, Obama overpromised and oversold ideas of postpartisanship, but he never promised anything ridiculous in terms of policy.
One thing the history of the ancient Roman Republic teaches you about democratic politics is that once a certain type of character rises to certain political heights, it paves a way for others who are similar; once certain behaviors succeed in propelling someone to power, it paves a way for such behavior to used in the same way again; once certain traditions or rules are circumvented or ignored, it paves a way for those traditions and rules to be pushed aside even more forcefully in the future.
Obama, Trump, et al.: The Experience Factor, 2008-2016
The rise of Obama and the fact that his candidacy was able to triumph over both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, both seasoned political hands that were objectively more qualified resume-wise for high office, opened the door for candidates with historically low levels of national-level or executive political experience. In fact, during this election cycle, the Republican Party fielded three candidates—Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Dr. Ben Carson—who had never, ever held elected office or any political office whatsoever; Trump won, and Dr. Carson was one of the top-polling candidates for most of the election season (even briefly leading), before he was one of the final candidates to drop out, outlasting twelve other candidates; Fiorina, too, was even one of the top-tier candidates, if only briefly.
This tells us something very simple and very disturbing: American voters care less about experience and qualifications than they possibly ever have, and this trend is only increasing. “Outsider,” “anti-‘Establishment’” politics have become wildly popular and wildly successful.
There were signs that this was coming.
With the Democrats, before, we he had a freshman U.S. Senator (Obama) defeat two of the most recognizable, experienced hands in American politics (Clinton, McCain) in 2008.
On the Republican side, we saw signs with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 and after—including some of the most unqualified, looney people ever to make it into Congress—and with seasoned, major political figures in the Republican Party being “primaried” and defeated from their right—people like veteran Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana and House Majority Leader (arguably the most powerful legislative position in Congress after Speaker of the House) Eric Cantor of Virginia, the latter losing to an obscure college professor. In 2012, only Herman Cain had never held political office before among Republican presidential candidates, and he still led in the polls for close to a month; still, the field was dominated by people with decent to serious experience in executive government positions or national-level politics, but the nomination contest felt more like a ritual, a wooden Mitt Romney never generating much enthusiasm (Trump must have looked at how weak the 2012 field was and realized there was a chance for someone with charisma and personality to really make a mark).
In this 2016 cycle, the Republican field had three freshmen U.S. Senators and three candidates who have never held national-level or executive government office, representing over a third of all candidates, and the last man standing, Trump, has never, ever held a position in government.
What will be the situation if trends continue on this path in 2020? 2024?? 2028??? 2032!???! Will the typical office-holder of 2016 bear any resemblance to his or her counterpart of 2032? Given today’s situation, the answer is very likely no.
Trump & Today’s Scary Precedents for Presidential Politics
Only once in American history has the nominee of a major party never held government office: in 1940, when Republicans nominated businessman Wendell Willkie to challenge Franklin Delano Roosevelt as fascism was taking over the world; when Willkie lost, he became a huge supporter of FDR’s war effort in an extraordinary show of bipartisanship; in other words, he was no Trump or Tea Partier.
Only once, that is, until now, until 2016, when Trump is already the de-facto nominee.
I am scared far less of Trump than I am scared about the barriers he has broken for men seeking high office, the behaviors he has set up as examples of ones that lead to political success, and the traditions and decorum he has smashed. I am scared far less by this election and its smashing of precedent in 2016 than by what—and who—this election paves the way for in the future.
In 2008, the winner of the presidency was a freshman senator with little national-level experience and no executive experience in government. In 2016, about one-sixth of Republican candidates were freshmen senators who had no national-level or executive government experience prior to entering the Senate (Cruz, Rubio, Paul), and roughly one-sixth had never held any government office before (Trump, Carson, Fiorina). All but one (Ohio Gov. John Kasich) of the final five Republican candidates were in one of these two categories, and the man who essentially has the nomination, Trump, has no government experience. How much larger proportionally will such candidates be out of the whole field in 2020, 2024, and beyond? How many people, like Rubio and Cruz, are going to run for the House or Senate and care little for the office they seek, but, rather, seek to use it merely as a platform to run for president? Instead of one-third as it was in 2016, will be in half in 2020? Two-thirds? While people have complained about the dumbing-down of American politics for years, perhaps with what is now happening today it has never been more inarguably clearly so.
Make no mistake, as I have written before, Trump is a threat to Western civilization and democracy as we know it today. But a big part of what is scary about him—is the most frightening—involves not Trump himself whether he wins or loses, but what comes after.
A case in point from ancient Rome: for nearly four centuries, that Roman Republic’s evolving democratic (small-r) republican system avoided any serious internal political violence until 133 B.C.E., when a Pandora’s Box of political violence was unleashed; less than half a century after that was the Roman Republic’s first civil war, and less than a half-century after that, its final one between Caesar and Pompey that would see the destruction of republican government in all but name. The point is, once precedents are broken, there are serious consequences, especially when new “norms” delve into dangerous territory.
Another case in point: the Romans very much valued experience, and they had not only age requirements for someone to hold their highest political office—the consulship with its two annually elected consuls, on which the American presidency and vice presidency are based—but also required the holder of that office to have been elected to and held two other lower offices (praetor and quaestor) before being considered eligible (see Part II here). Considering that the Roman Republic lasted roughly twice as long as America’s republic has thus far existed, Americans might want to take note of this.
In Conclusion: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid
Even without the specter of political violence (at which Trump has lightly hinted and at whose rallies there have been sporadic incidents of mild violence), the precedents of 2016 and especially Trump will be remembered collectively as a watershed moment. But this moment would not have been possible without the extraordinarily destructive policies and gross incompetence of the experienced career politicians of the George W. Bush Administration, without which the stage would not have been set, the desperate hunger for something different established, for the precedent-breaking candidacy of Barack Obama, whose victory was both the beginning of a shift of large portions of America turning away from the familiar in favor of the risky and a harbinger of a much larger shift in this direction to come.
With Obama, the American people certainly gambled on an unknown but came out pretty well in the end, but it was still a big risk. Without the W. Bush Administration disaster, it is hard to envision American voters in 2008 taking such a big risk in an election. But if electing Obama can be said to have been a risky gamble on the part of the American people, Trump’s winning the Republican Party’s nomination in 2016, powered by voters and grassroots support above all else, as well as his having a real shot at winning the presidency, is a move of a far greater level of risk on the part of the American people, one that is unlikely to pay positive dividends like 2008’s gamble did, and is far more likely to damage us in ways many of us now cannot even begin to imagine.
Right now, the new political rulebook clearly states to win as a candidate to be the nominee of one of America’s two major political parties, Trump, Trump’s behavior, and Trumpism are all acceptable, when literally less than a year ago, they were not (and far from it!).
These are dangerous and exciting times we live in, but, then again, when any society take a giant leap forward towards self-destruction, there is always plenty of excitement. There was plenty of excitement when Rome’s republic fell, as was the case in Revolutionary France, Russia, and China. As many voters are feeling the energy for candidates like Trump and Sanders, hoping they will tear down the current system, one can only hope that the more passionate and frenzied political noise-makers will be outnumbered by the moderates who will back Hillary Clinton over Trump in the end. People are angry and suffering today, but as Hillary Clinton knew since her days as an undergraduate, and as Barack Obama recently told graduating Howard University students, “Change requires more than righteous anger.” He also told them “It may sound like a controversial statement—a hot take—given the current state of our political rhetoric and debate, but America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college. It also happens to be better off than when I took office, but that’s a longer story.”
And he’s right; and these improvements were accomplished not by disruptive and divisive anger, not by the far left castigating everyone who is not immediately on board to seismic reforms, but, in reality, by “Establishment” politics, seeking not to destroy the system, but to work within it.
This is the approach Obama took once elected, and it’s the approach the Hillary Clinton has taken her whole career. It’s not as exciting as promising free college and that millions of new manufacturing jobs will be won from renegotiating all of our existing trade deals, but unlike the other promises, Clinton’s promises of working within the system are not in the realm of laughable fantasy. Declaring war on reality might please many voters, but it also pushes more and more people to give up on a system that, even creakingly and grudgingly, has delivered an enormous amount of positive change across generations, if imperfectly and unevenly. But politics is always imperfect and uneven, regardless of what candidates like Trump and Sanders pump into the heads of their oft-rabid followers. And the solution is not to give up on the successful if sometimes frustrating incremental success of successful reforms of the past century, but to realize that all those increments add up over time into something big and revolutionary; heck, even revolutions take many years and are hardly instant. And yet those who are the youngest voters often seem the most impatient for change; yes, we face many problems now, but our chances of success are far less if we give up on the system and allow our leaders to destroy our confidence in it, if we forget how and why America has been great, how it is still relatively great though currently in serious decline and in sore need of improvement, and how the past shows us a recipe for making American even greater than before if we can roll up our sleeves to work towards reasonable expectations and can do so with a degree of patience as well as optimism.
With Trump and even Sanders, we have creaked open the door to demagoguery, which thrives when people have low to zero expectations for the system and foolishly high expectations for their savior who will deliver them from it. When a population moves too far away from the politics of the system to the cult of personality, the health of democracy is unquestionably in decline. It is not clear how many of Obama’s supporters fell more for his personality and style than his substance and intellect, but I imagine it would be a level that is higher than with which many would be comfortable; when it comes to Trump, we can be certain his supporters are not behind him for his intellect and substance.
Americans should be concerned. Only now are we truly seeing the political consequences of the calamitous two terms of George W. Bush and other trends in place for decades before; I shudder to think of what seeds are being sown today in the era where Trump could win the nomination of the party of Lincoln, and may even win the presidency.
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