By Jesse Crall
In his support for presumptive nominee Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders often offers the following refrain: “We must come together to defeat the most dangerous president in modern history.” (1) We’ve heard similar expressions of alarm from other influential sources. Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley’s made the podcast & editorial rounds comparing Trump’s presidency to various fascist regimes throughout history. (2) Last year, then-presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke likened Donald Trump’s rhetoric to both Goebbels and the entire Third Reich. (3)
This level of fear mongering has proven rather successful for the Democratic Party in recent years. Democrats gained 41 House seats during the 2018 midterms and election turnout before COVID limited in-person voting was high and in favor of Joe Biden, running a campaign largely devoid of any coherent agenda beyond defeating Trump. (4)
But in reality, Donald Trump hasn’t governed as a fascist or anything adjacent to the tyrants of Nazi Germany. He’s governed like a Republican. Consider his approval ratings: According to Gallup, Trump took office with an 89% approval rating among Republicans. Today? That number stands at 92%. (5) For all the column space and cable air time devoted to Never Trump GOP denizens, the president remains overwhelmingly popular within his own party. Would a fascist representing some stark break from orthodoxy enjoy such support?
While Donald Trump’s personal conduct remains unusual for any human being let alone a political leader, his actual policies and governance sit well within the expected parameters of the GOP. He enacted tax cuts to high incomes and corporations in 2017. He expanded military budgets every year and engaged in bipartisan regime change efforts in Iran and Venezuela. He continues to arm Saudi Arabia in their genocide against Yemen. He deregulated environmental protections and passed a new trade deal with no mention of climate. He imposed a permanent ban on federal funding for abortion. He nominated experienced conservatives Brett Kavanaugh & Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
These policies collectively mark the most significant elements of Trump’s agenda. All enjoyed overwhelming support from within his party. Consider the loudest Republican voices in opposition to Donald Trump in recent years. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse insisted that he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016. And yet he’s voted alongside Trump 86% of the time. (6) Mitt Romney earned the adulation of the Resistance Left by supporting one of the articles of impeachment this January. He’s voted with Trump 81% of the time. (7) Jeff Flake, who ended his tenure as Arizona Senator last year, said in a recent Washington Post interview that he wouldn’t support Trump in this upcoming election. In 2017, Flake wrote a book bearing the lofty title, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle. Yet Flake voted with Donald Trump 81% of the time, including on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, confirming Brett Kavanaugh, the 2017 tax cuts, repealing the Affordable Care Act and warrantless spying. (8) What meaningful principles does he support in contrast to those of Trump?
A 2018 CNN poll revealed that a majority of Democrats (54%) now approved of George W. Bush, a shocking result considering the enmity he drew from the left throughout his presidency. (9) And yet…as rhetoric around Trump keeps comparing him to authoritarian regimes, the news cycle absorbed itself in almost unyielding coverage of his objectionable behavior and Bush popped up on late night shows with paintings and embraced Michelle Obama at various events, the softening of the 43rd president’s image seemed inevitable. Here was a Republican we could get behind, a man with integrity, decency and civility in sharp contrast to the Mussolini of Pennsylvania Avenue.
But where do the real differences between Trump and Bush lie? Bush used the fear and fallout from the 9/11 attacks to push one of the most significant right-wing agendas in American history onto the world, engaging in two wars that cost trillions and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The depleted uranium used on Iraqis in Fallujah continues to cause birth defects to this day, sights far more newsworthy in my mind than Bush’s latest sketch of Jimmy Kimmel. (10) The 2001 and 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force gave Bush and future Commanders in Chief unprecedented powers of war, furthering Congress’ abandonment of checks on presidential power. In 2003, Bush signed the second round of his tax cuts into law two months after the Iraq Invasion. So much for fiscal conservatism.
On domestic issues, Bush’s 2001 PATRIOT Act set the stage for new levels of state surveillance continued under Obama and Trump with unnervingly little objection from Congress. In 2004, Bush ran for re-election on privatizing parts of Social Security, efforts that ultimately failed. (11) Though Bush expressed belief that climate change was real, he opposed joining the Kyoto Protocol, citing the high cost of commitment (12). He sought to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage, signed into law a ban on partial birth abortions and rejected federal funding for stem cell research. Perhaps most damningly, Bush’s handling of the Katrina disaster gives us a blueprint for his presumed ability to deal with the COVID pandemic. Would a president who cut taxes and funding for Medicare and Medicaid swiftly place the health of the American people above the ascent of the stock market? (13) The blood spilled in Iraq as profits for defense contractors grew leaves me a touch unconvinced.
While the entire American left defies easy categorization, I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that they’re generally committed to a more equitable economy, less interventionist foreign policy and an expansion of civil rights. Ostensibly. On all fronts, George W. Bush governed in clear opposition to these values. When recently-resigned Congresswoman Katie Hill tweets “In a million years I never thought I’d be crying watching this, thinking how much better we’d all feel if Bush were president today” at a quick video of Bush reading someone else’s copy, I have to wonder if she even cares about policy and results. (14) Yes, Bush could and can conduct himself in a calm, diplomatic fashion and all the attention paid to his verbal gaffes and mispronunciations seem trivial today. But the results of his presidency proved highly detrimental to any kind of left project. Are the lives lost during COVID worth more than those killed during the Iraq War? Are those sinking into poverty because of Trump’s economic agenda suffering more than those decimated by Bush’s?
The discourse around American politics emerges almost entirely from elite sources. The lawmakers, business leaders and national media figures dictating policy and analysis are an overwhelmingly educated, affluent group of people whose material lives remain unaffected by the actions of any one president or Congress. The platform of CNN anchors, the bonuses of Citibank executives and the influence of D.C. insiders continue unabated across administrations as entire towns, industries and even generations endure rapidly diminishing prospects and populations around the globe suffer from our interventions, arms deals and sanctions.
So why do so many of these leaders lay their ire on Trump? Because to them, politics reveals itself as little more than theatre. They can’t claim to care about the results of policy as they give glowing platforms to men and women who engaged in such destructive actions. But Trump’s vulgar. He’s crude. He brags about digital penetration and insults the very people they hold in such high esteem. Like the Bushes. Or Hillary Clinton. Or John McCain, who never ceased to enjoy resounding tributes across the ideological spectrum despite a career in the Senate that included unending financial deregulation, hawkishness far in excess of Trump’s, support for the 2017 tax cuts and, in one of his last political moves, a vote to maintain those arms deals to Saudi Arabia. McCain voted with Trump 83% of the time. (15) Some maverick.
So when Donald Trump earns the visceral wrath of the American left, we have to wonder why it’s not directed at the larger systems producing so many politicians with similar ideologies. For all the high-minded talk of “conservative principles” embraced by Jeff Flake, the party of Reagan, Nixon and William F. Buckley has long embraced foreign coups, napalming villages, xenophobia and a general elitism that helps perpetuate the same gross inequities liberals claim to abhor.
Of course, the Democratic Party has often engaged in the same kinds of behavior. Vietnam didn’t begin with Nixon. Regime change in impoverished countries aren’t the sole domain of GOP administrations. Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Crime Bill into law. So when the left calls Donald Trump a “fascist” after embracing Obama’s own corporatist policies, arms deals to Saudi Arabia, patently unconstitutional invasion of Libya, drone warfare, surveillance expansions and, yes, child separation at the border, what are they saying about themselves?
A Los Angeles native, Jesse Crall graduated from UCLA’s English Department before working as a copywriter, script reader and project manager for an engineering firm. Now pursuing a master’s degree in writing at NYU, he splits his time between Studio City and Manhattan. https://linktr.ee/jessecrall