Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Department of Shameless Appropriation

Editors' Note:  Long-time Spy readers will note that we are usually sparing in quoting other sources, on the theory that if we can't improve on what someone else says, why steal their stuff? Sometimes, though, a piece comes along that perfectly summarizes something we've been trying to say in a more clumsy fashion, and so in admiration we are ripping off this column from Air Mail Editor-in-Chief Alessandra Stanley.  Perhaps she will forgive us, this one time.

When Mitt Romney, wearing a mask, his normally Brylcreem-smooth hair slightly askew, joined a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington last Sunday, it was kind of a mixed blessing. We’re all for Republicans breaking with their president, but let’s face it, that was a stunt, not a road-to-Damascus conversion. Romney and other Republican grandees, from Colin Powell to George W. Bush, have little to lose by dumping on Trump, and most have personal grievances that suggest their rejection has more to do with pique than principle. (Remember “Low Energy Jeb”? )

The fact that they are collecting hosannas for announcing they won’t support Trump’s re-election is downright insulting. Really? Now they voice their objections? And what are they going to do about it besides not check the Trump box on Election Day?

Trump may be sui generis horribilis, but his norm-busting presidency didn’t come out of nowhere. In many ways, he’s the raw embodiment of decades of Republican race-baiting and dog-whistling, except he ditched the dog whistle for a megaphone. Some of his most appalling decisions, statements, and tweets are rooted in Republican worst practices.

Tweeters on the anti-racist left are so busy canceling each other that they seem to have lost sight of the real enemy. (Hint: he’s the one who won’t consider changing the names of military bases named after Confederate generals.)

So, let’s not forget Bush Sr.’s infamous “Willie Horton” ads, in 1988, designed to scare white voters with the specter of African-American rapists on the rampage. Bush tossed all his patrician heritage and breeding overboard to make racism the ugly underbelly of his victory over Michael Dukakis. The only difference is that Bush Sr. delegated the dirty work to the help; Trump would have emblazoned Willie Horton’s face on his golf shirt.

During the 2000 South Carolina primary, George W. Bush’s campaign denied having anything to do with the false rumor that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. (She was actually Bridget, his adopted daughter from Bangladesh.) Were Trump then running, he would have blitzed Twitter with #Blackbabygate; Bush sought plausible deniability of any connection to the story.

And W. certainly didn’t complain when a right-wing veterans’ group smeared the war record of Senator John Kerry in 2004. That jujitsu was so mind-boggling it gave birth to a verb, “Swift Boating.” The veterans championed Bush, who had pulled out all the stops to avoid combat in Vietnam, and viciously attacked the patriotism of Kerry, who had volunteered to go and won three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star in combat. Trump—the bone-spur warrior—used the same cudgel against John McCain. (“He’s a hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”) The difference: Trump crowed his calumnies on Twitter and national television. Bush let his Swift Boating surrogates do the deed.

Remember: Bush Jr. rushed into a needless invasion of Iraq based on a family grudge and trumped-up intelligence—exactly the kind of thing you’d expect Trump to do. Except that on this subject—and this subject alone—Trump is correct that Bush’s war was wrong.

Which brings us to Colin Powell, who said last Sunday that he will vote for Biden. Big whoop. When he was Bush’s secretary of state, Powell knew his boss was wrong before the invasion and didn’t speak up—or resign. Instead, he sat before the United Nations and made a “case.” He could have done better. Even General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a job Powell once held, admitted he was wrong to be at Trump’s side in Lafayette Square, and that was just a photo op, not a war: “I should not have been there.” Thank you.

And as much as Trump has done to divide and discredit this country, Bush’s willfully ignorant war lust—which in the region cost the lives of 7,000 Americans and 182,000 Iraqi civilians, and wasted $5.4 trillion—was surely one of the falling dominoes that got us to this sorry state. (Oh, and Bush tried to put his White House counsel Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court, a choice so ridiculous that even conservatives complained. That would be like Trump nominating Rudolph Giuliani to the bench. Which could happen.)

Not voting for Trump is a given. We think these Trump enablers owe this country a bit more than that. Here’s a thought: Romney doesn’t need to muss his hair and march. Why not just Venmo the N.A.A.C.P. 10 percent of the $250 million he amassed from Bain? A $25 million tithe would go a long way toward their get-out-the-vote efforts. The Mormons won’t miss his contribution: their church is reportedly sitting on a $100 billion investment fund.

Colin Powell should join a Democratic Party phone bank and call every military serviceperson and veteran and beg them not to vote for Trump. He should lead the fight to rename military bases.

As for George W. Bush, why can’t he put down his paintbrush and pick up his Rolodex and call every oilman, C.E.O., and banker he ever did a favor for and call in the markers? Bush nominated two of the five justices who voted in favor of Citizens United. (Short definition: big business can now spend as much money as it wants for a candidate.) Let him put some of that unlimited corporate campaign spending where his mouth is.

Trump is monstrous, but he is not an orphan. Let his predecessors make amends.

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