Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Bush-Era Prophecy For Our Times

One of the many bad things happening in America under Trump is a collective amnesia about the Dubya years. This country has a hard time keeping a grasp on the past even in the best of times, and now in our post-Trump social media world more and more is shoved down the memory hole.

One artifact worth resurrecting is a Ron Suskind article in the New York Times Magazine from 2004. The article is about Bush's "faith based" approach to governing. Back then Republicans still tried to portray governing from their worst gut instincts as piety. Trump of course, doesn't even bother, and his voters enjoy being liberated of the pretense of having moral principles. The article contained the following passage, one infamous in its time that has been mostly forgotten:

"In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.""

The aide, long rumored to be Karl Rove, baldly asserted that reality no longer mattered, and that the Bush administration simply created what was real and what was not. This article shook me when it was published, because it reminded me of O'Brien's interrogation of Winston Smith in 1984. This article was published a year and a half after the disastrous invasion of Iraq, which was sold to the public with lies and faked evidence. Now here was one of the architects of the Bush administration laughing about how reality was an outdated principle while people needlessly died for a lie. 

Despite the failure of the invasion and the lies that propelled it, Bush would be reelected a month after that article came out. Like much else, Trump has taken this central insight of the conservative political dark arts and has taken it to the extreme. His tweets and rants brim with easily disproven lies that he doesn't even bother to justify. And why should he? There is a gigantic conservative media apparatus ready to repeat his lies and millions of loyal followers online to spread memes forged out of those lies. 

Talk to someone who consumes conservative media on a regular basis and you will find the experience disconcerting. They might tell you that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants to ban hamburgers, that there's Islamist terrorists pouring across the southern border, or president Obama was born in Kenya. These people live in a new reality constructed in the ways that Karl Rove described. Fifteen years later the tools to make this reality have never been more potent, and the president is a man who made a career of turning his time as a failed businessman into an image of success.

Another thing sticks out to me too, though. Suskind talks about "enlightenment principles and empiricism" as if they are any match for potent political myths. Liberals gladly called themselves "members of the reality based community" after this article, but failed to contemplate whether other people would actually be impressed by that. The solution is not to lie, obviously, but to build alternative narratives with mass appeal. Failure to do so will make 2020 a repeat of 2004.

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