After writing my last post on periodizing the 21st century, I have been thinking a lot about the Bush era. It's such a recent period, but we seem to have jammed it right down the memory hole. I think that's because a lot of people just don't want to reckon with what happened in that time.
As I said in my last post, 2000-2006 was its own distinct period. It began with the contested election of 2000, and ended with the 2007-2008 economic collapse, which happened to coincide with the rise of smart devices and social media.
Right now I just want to talk about the politics of the Bush era. The 2000 election set a precedent whereby Republicans would gain power through undemocratic means like gerrymandering and the electoral college, then use their narrow victories achieved without majorities to enact hardcore conservative policies. In 2003 Tom DeLay pushed through a redistricting in Texas that gave Republicans a majority mostly through redrawing the lines. State Republicans have been copying that tactic ever since.
These years also helped set the scene for austerity. In the months before 9/11 Bush enacted a largely unpopular tax cut that showered billions on the wealthy. The budget surplus achieved in the late 90s immediately went up in smoke. This is an underrated moment, considering that money could have funded an expansion of health insurance or elimination of student debt. Instead it aided austerity by creating deficits that could always be used as an excuse not to fund social programs.
Before 9/11 Dubya was an unpopular president, but that tragedy allowed him more power than he could have possibly imagined. This allowed for the invasion of Iraq, a neo-conservative wet dream that had been years in the making. It was also perhaps the biggest own goal in this country's history, America's equivalent of the Suez Crisis. Both exposed a dying empire's feet of clay. Parallel to that, Bush maintained a failed occupation of Afghanistan that continues to this day to show the United States' weaknesses. In prosecuting these wars the Bush-Cheney administration used torture and extraordinary rendition, destroying this country's claim to any sort of moral authority in the world. Trump has basically completed a process that began in these years.
The 2000-2006 period also cemented the role of white evangelicals in American politics. In 2004 Dubya won reelection partially through coordinated campaigns in various states to pass anti-gay marriage laws. This helped get the Bible thumpers, who Dubya could claim to be one of, to the polls. Now that gay marriage is the law of the land and broadly normalized this episode might seem antiquated. While this is no longer the primary issue used to appeal to evangelicals, they are still the solid base of the Republican Party. What Donald Trump discovered was that they are tied to together more by culture and outlook than by religious doctrine. Nationalism is just as central to their worldview as marriage or abortion, and leading with nationalism has allowed Trump to maintain the support of white evangelicals without alienating other voters. Unlike Bush, he doesn't even bother to walk the walk.
The political bubble of 2000-2006 ended due to the Bush administration's failures in New Orleans and Iraq and the collapse of the economy. But when Obama became president he faced a federal budget already gutted by tax cuts and a Republican Party that had figured out how to use its base and anti-democratic means to maintain power. Last but not least, conservatives learned to ignore "the reality based community" in an infamous line from the time. Trump, like no other modern politician, has simply created his own reality and managed to get his followers to buy into it. You see it every time he has a rally and tells lie after lie after lie. The tactics used by Bush and Cheney to bring America to war in Iraq and to get them into office in the first place live on.
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