When writing my book Vietnam Envy (see a summary here), I spent a lot of time looking at the protests and opposition during George W. Bush’s second term. There are significant parallels between what happened to George Bush in his second term and what the Left is trying to do to Donald Trump today. There are vital lessons for the Trump Administration to learn from the Bush team’s experience.
Bush’s second term was absolutely consumed by protests. There was Kanye disgustingly telling America that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” in the wake of Katrina. There was the incessant fraudulent argument that Bush deliberately lied the US into war. The Left created free speech martyrs and heroes out of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson. The left cynically elevated Cindy Sheehan as the symbol of the antiwar protest movement (and dropped her like a hot potato the minute Obama was elected).
There was the steady drumbeat of “grim milestones” from the media, which amplified every defeat and downplayed every success. There was the concerted effort by the Democrats to downplay the success of the surge, with Hillary Clinton basically accusing Gen. Petraeus of being a liar and requiring her to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief. The Iraq Study Group report (authored by one Ben Rhodes) deemed Iraq a failure and proposed withdrawal. Worse, the Left used the scandal at Abu Ghraib and the Justice Department’s authorization of the use of enhanced interrogation techniques to make the Bush Administration into a torture-supporting moral monster, even though the investigations of Abu Ghraib did not find any evidence that anyone in the Bush Administration ordered or even knew about the actions of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib. No matter — the “climate” the Bush Administration supposedly fostered was enough to hold Bush responsible for the reprehensible acts of a few soldiers.
All of this was a calculated effort to delegitimize George Bush’s administration and to make it beyond the pale. This was not mere policy disagreement. Bush was made to be illegitimate, a torture-supporting liar who would not meet with Cindy Sheehan (even though he had already met with her before she began her protest). The Left set out to destroy Bush’s second term, to neuter him and make his presidency impotent, and with the exception of the surge, the Left succeeded.
When Obama was elected, all of the protests, the sturm und drang, the chaos in the streets, immediately melted away and sunshine and rainbows were the order of the day. It was treated as a breath of fresh air. It was as if the mere election of a Democrat made everything right in the world again.
George Bush had to summon immense political courage in the face of all this negativity to implement the troop surge. As we now know, the troop surge worked, pacifying Iraq and routing al-Qaeda in Iraq. However, the protests, the endless delegitimization of the Bush Administration, nearly made the surge impossible. And it utterly paralyzed the Bush Administration on every other front. Bush decided not to take out the nuclear reactor in Syria (at al-Kidar) because his administration was exhausted and unable to defend itself. Fortunately the Israelis took the reactor out in 2007; one can only imagine what might have happened if that reactor was intact when the Syrian Civil War started.
The Left is now trying to do to the Trump Administration exactly what it did to George W. Bush in his second administration. A media, a Democratic Party, and a Left seeks not to oppose, but to delegitimize. It seeks to create such chaos in the streets and alarm in the body politic that the country will yearn for Democrats in office and the peace that comes with it. The Left is engaged in ideological banditry — “vote for us, and the streets will be calm again.” “Nice country there, shame if something were to happen to it.” We cannot allow for calm and peace to reign in the streets only when Democrats hold office.
The Left is also creating a narrative full of half-truths and outright falsehoods that nevertheless become received wisdom, just as it did during the Bush Administration. There is a lesson for the Trump Administration in the failures of Bush’s second term: fight back as hard as you can on everything. The Bush Administration’s greatest mistake was in not fighting back against the vicious canard that “Bush lied and people died.” The Bush Administration gravely erred in not fighting back against all of the negative news and the protests and countering each attack the minute it arose. The Bush Administration gravely erred in giving ground on the famous 16 words in Bush’s State of the Union address (that the British government believed Saddam was seeking yellowcake uranium in Africa) when Condolezza Rice said those words should not have been included in the SOTU — in fact, the British government stood by the report. The Bush Administration made a tremendous mistake when it failed to fight back against former ambassador Joe Wilson by noting that analysts concluded his report, far from debunking the reports that Saddam sought yellowcake in Africa, actually bolstered them. The Bush Administration was badly mistaken in not fighting back against the notion that the US went to war “unilaterally” when in fact the US assembled a large coalition of countries, many of which supplied ground troops as well as financial and material support.
Bush allowed false shibboleths to take hold and eventually become received truths, false though they might have been.
This is already starting with the Trump Administration. You can see the lines of attack:
- Trump is in cahoots with the Russians;
- Trump is banning all Muslims from entering the US;
- Trump is violating fundamental American values by pausing and limiting refugees’ entry into the US;
- Trump is a misogynist;
- Trump’s administration is incompetent and doesn’t know how government “works”;
- Trump’s incompetence is no longer amusing, it is now dangerous;
- Trump’s nominees want to destroy the agencies they will head.
In effect, the Left is picking up right where it left off at the end of the Bush Administration. There’s no buildup over eight years to a crescendo as there was during the Bush administration. The Left is starting from exactly the spot it left off at eight years ago when it protested and demonized everything the Bush Administration did.
The same people laughing about the supposed ham-handedness of Trump’s immigration EO were silent about the Fast and Furious scandal — that got a Border Patrol agent killed and resulted in Attorney General Holder being held in contempt of Congress. When someone gets killed? THAT’s incompetence — indeed, much more than mere incompetence. And as for the incompetence of the immigration EO? The Obama Administration’s decision to end the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy for Cuban refugees has left many Cuban refugees in limbo, including some in foreign countries. Several are being sent back to the Cuban prison island. Do any of these weepy maudlin immigration protesters care about how the Castro regime will treat these repatriated refugees? And what about the Clinton Administration’s removal of Elian Gonzales at gunpoint so he could be sent back to the prison island? Doesn’t exactly scream competence either.
The Trump Administration needs to fight back on everything, no matter how small. Don’t fall into the Bush II trap of not wanting to lower yourself to your opponents’ level. If you don’t, the field will be clear for your opponents to characterize and delegitimize you and for false impressions to become received wisdom. Trump needs to fight everything. Once a false impression becomes received wisdom, the game is over. As it was for the Bush Administration.
Because what is really dangerous is an Administration so paralyzed by domestic protest that it cannot act. We cannot rely on the Israelis to destroy Syrian reactors every time. We cannot rely on other nations to protect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. We cannot rely on other nations to keep the Russians out of Europe. We cannot rely on other nations to keep Iran from getting the bomb. If the Trump Administration is so paralyzed that it cannot take any action anywhere without creating unceasing protests, the world will become much more dangerous than it already is.