Revisionism in the Age of Trump

Trump is a horrendous and vile president. But don’t let his brash comportment trick you for a second into thinking that he is worse than George W. Bush was.

Today marks the 16th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq. The invasion and subsequent occupation were part of a brutal, heinous, 8-year campaign that forever changed the world for the worse. It left nearly 500,000 people dead (mostly Iraqi citizens), it exacerbated sectarian divides in a country already fiercely divided, it fanned the flames of global islamophobia, it reaffirmed the US’ role as one of the most dangerous threats to global stability, and it unleashed ISIS, who would later go on to claim tens of thousands of their own victims. And it was all based on a lie.

Yet today, Americans find themselves longing for the days of yore — when there was a president who spoke like a president, acted like a president, and gave speeches that didn’t make you want to gouge your eardrums out. During last year’s funeral of Sen. John McCain, liberals scrambled to get a fresh breath of that seemingly-lost air; to not constantly feel painfully aware of the dangers of the White House and its occupant. This urge culminated in a truly horrendous piece from The New Yorker’s Susan B. Glasser, who wrote that the funeral of John McCain was “The Biggest Resistance Meeting Yet.”

Describing the mood during the many eulogies given for Sen. McCain, she wrote:

“Heads nodded. Democratic heads and Republican ones alike. For a moment, at least, they still lived in the America where Obama and Bush and Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney could all sit in the same pew, in the same church, and sing the same words to the patriotic hymns that made them all teary-eyed at the same time. When the two Presidents were done speaking, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” blared out. This time, once again, the battle is within America.”

This understanding of our world and political culture completely glosses over everything that made our current reality possible. It may be uncomfortable to believe, but no political action or outcome happens in a vacuum–no substantial political outcome can ever be an aberration–and it is incumbent upon us, as US citizens, to observe and study how the political forces over the years gave rise to President Donald Trump, else we be doomed to thousands more horrific blunders.

Instead, the #Resistance has admitted just about anyone who says a bad thing about Trump into its ranks. A neocon who believes we should treat our ongoing War On Terror the way we set about ensuring the extermination of the indigenous populations of North America? Welcome. A foreign policy “expert” who will blame every problem the US has on Putin? You betcha. And now George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and John McCain? Give me a break. The bar is extremely low, and as we push it lower, the reasons why Trump came about will become more nebulous as we continue to forget the past and obsess over the now. That, in my view, is the quickest route to four more years of Donald J. Trump.

Thanks to this phenomenon, the “Anything But Trump” syndrome, the neocons are back, and now they’re trying to cover up their war crimes in order to gain purchase in any future political landscape. Ari Fleischer, White House Press Secretary under George W. Bush, used today’s anniversary of the Iraq War as an opportunity to try his hand at the classic game of historical revisionism:

To this day, the only weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq were the empty shells of chemical weapons we sold Saddam Hussein in the 80s as our ally in the Iran-Iraq War. To this day, there remains documented evidence that Dick Cheney’s office took command of the intelligence that would undergird Colin Powell’s pivotal 2002 speech to the UN Security Council, and instructed Powell to falsify a link between Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein’s government. Despite there having been no prior links to Saddam Hussein and the Jordanian street criminal, Zarqawi’s name was mentioned over 20 times in the speech. It was only after that point, wanted in the eyes of the West, that Zarqawi was admitted into the ranks of Al-Qaeda, where he later led and further radicalized AQ’s Iraq cell, which we now know today was a sort of proto-ISIS.

But thanks to all of these lies, Fleischer, Cheney, Bush, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld got their war. The global opinion of Saddam’s brutal rule was rendered irrelevant–there is no possible argument that exists that proves that Iraq is a better place in 2019 than it was in 2003. Hundreds of thousands died in the sectarian war. Many of the soldiers that Bush purged from the Iraqi Army and the officials he removed from the Ba’athist government either joined Al-Qaeda in Iraq (under Zarqawi until his death in 2006), or later joined ISIS as the now Shi’a government of Iraq continued to crack down on dissent. ISIS ravaged the region, carrying out a genocide of the Yazidi people and selling their women, no matter their age, into sexual slavery. They imposed their brutal interpretation of Sharia law onto cities like Mosul and Raqqa, murdering all non-compliers. They even carried out a series of terrorist attacks in the West that made Europeans and Americans skeptical of the refugees fleeing the very wars their own leaders had created!

The Bush Administration may have thought it was going to be a short war. They may have thought it was going to be a simple “topple the dictator, then hold new elections” campaign, but when has it ever been that simple? Any arguments around their naïvité simply do not matter; the forces they unleashed in this war have had monumental global consequences and there is quite simply no way to put those forces back in the bottle. We have to live in the political and social reality they created for us.

Yet Bush still is considered — even amongst many liberals–as a resistance figure. His approval rating has doubled since he left office in 2009. An actual war criminal. The mind boggles.

I understand the desire to blame everything on Trump — he’s a terrible person with no real interest in the job and no definable political ideology other than to react glowingly to those who praise him and harshly against those who criticize him. But any true resistance must be more substantial and appeal to the broad political landscape, not just tunnel-visioned towards the guy who is pissing people off with his disrespect of democratic norms.

Ah, yes. The norms: Looking presidential. Embodying American global leadership. Reaching across the aisle. Speaking with clarity and authority. These are all traditionally desirable qualities that many Americans sought in the past in their presidential choices, but they are quite tricky things. After all, it was through the manipulation of these norms that Bush delivered speeches on and won bipartisan support in Congress for his Iraq War. Through his presidential rhetoric and manipulation of the atmosphere after 9/11 (during which Bush performed very well), the majority of Americans suddenly found themselves beating the drum for yet another war. The norms were, this time, very deceptive.

But now the norms have been shattered, as there is a current White House occupant who could not care less for them. And many American voters shouted out that they didn’t necessarily care about those norms either when they voted for him. But we should not critique Trump for his simple lack of norms, which is what the Max Boot’s and David Frum’s of the world spend their entire op-eds doing. After all, norms can be deceptive, and, at the same time, breaking the norms can allow truth to be spoken to power. In February of this year, Ilhan Omar (D-MN) proved this when, as the first Somali-American and first headscarf-wearing member of Congress, she grilled notorious war criminal Elliott Abrams as he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

No, it is not the ignorance of norms that is the problem with Trump, it’s his policies: his loosening of the rules of engagement in the War on Terror, his child detention camps on the US border, his attacks on journalists–the list goes on and on. He deserves constant criticism for all of those things and his failures should, of course, be highlighted by whoever his opponent in the 2020 election turns out to be. But he hasn’t done anything even close to the scale of the War in Iraq, not in terms of intention nor consequence. Not even close.

That is why George W. Bush and his band of neoconservative maniacs cannot float back into our good graces. “Anything but Trump” syndrome has us grasping for times that were even worse. With the bar set so low, more and more hideous figures will join the #Resistance, rendering it ever more meaningless.

That is why today, as Ari Fleischer tries to spin history in a way that clears his and his boss’ name, we must recognize that our history indeed has meaning, and reject any notion that the neoconservatives who sold us Iraq have any value or import in today’s society. If we don’t, we will prove to the world that only the glossy ideas around someone being “presidential” matter to us as voters, no matter the hell that they may have visited upon innocent people across the globe.