Earlier this year, when progressive America decided to make as much noise as it possibly could, there were a few faint stirrings of what might be called “anti-anti-Trumpism.” Power-worshipping establishment figures might dislike Trump’s vulgarity and intemperate tweeting, but they were so put off by the vehemence of the resistance that they instinctively leapt into power-protection mode. One conservative writer was so irritated that 93 percent of media coverage of Trump was “negative,” that he forgot to ruminate on whether said coverage might also have been true. All that mattered was that a coalition of dirty hippies and mainstream media agreed that Trump was terrible, and the identity of messenger instantly became more important than the veracity of the message.
It’s a lazy, tribally rooted mode of analysis — but the opposite phenomenon is also happening before our eyes. So horrible is Donald Trump that anyone who says anything honest about him automatically vaults into the stratosphere, as if on some fast-track to canonization — even people as odious as Eminem, a one-time Trump fan whose whose No. 1 fixation might be violence against women. Call it reflexive pro-anti-Trumpism, if you want. It’s a powerful thing — strong enough to get cranky white people to reconsider hip-hop!
Contrarian, doublethink-tainted views of the world are common enough. We can rightly criticize Hugh Hefner for being a misogynist creep and, only weeks after his death, praise Playboy for featuring its first trans model. But the ease with which anti-Trump figures can now refashion themselves in the court of public opinion is something else altogether. With a touch of savvy, you can go from zero to hero. If I were Jared from Subway, Bob or Harvey Weinstein, or any of the various people who’ve briefly held the title of Worst Human Being of All Time — a lion-killing dentist, maybe — I would immediately direct my minions to issue a red-hot denunciation of the president, because apparently that’s all you gotta do to stay in the public’s good graces.
If you think I’m being glib or cynical, look at the rehabilitation of the mendacious and catastrophic George W. Bush. Bush lied us into a pointless and still-ongoing war, won re-election on the backs of LGBT Americans, expanded the imperial presidency into previously uncharted extraconstitutional terrain, and walked out the door leaving us with a recession so severe that its effects in half the country lasted longer than the entire Obama presidency and helped pave the way for an even worse president. Now 71 years old, he’s still prone to embarrassing antics at solemn occasions, but he paints pretty pictures sometimes — and he emerged from semi-retirement last week to criticize 45 in New York. (So did Obama, for that matter.)
In admonishing his successor’s successor, Bush didn’t name names, of course. That would be gauche. It would sully the august stature of an ex-president. So: passive-aggressive insinuations it is! And the rapturous encomiums poured in, praising that other guy who lost the popular vote for the courage to tut-tut about the leader of his party — and all without mangling his syntax. (Little mention that W. probably hates Trump because Trump torpedoed Jeb Bush’s presidential aspirations without breaking a sweat.) But now, at long last, how presidential is George W. Bush? Even Salon, the issuer of some of the hottest hot takes this side of Hypoallergenic, said so. Esquire‘s Charles Pierce bought it, too, but at least he had the decency to put his inner turmoil about Bush’s speech in the subhead.
I don’t mean to be deliberately obtuse about this. Yes, most people’s point is not that the Bush years were actually a blessing in disguise, but that Bush was less awful than Trump. And in a strict sense, I agree — and I’d glumly prefer Karl Rove over Steve Bannon, Christine Whitman over Scott Pruitt, or “hippie Republican” Margaret Spellings over Betsy DeVos. But it’s disheartening to see Bush stumble on some sort of Community Chest card that allows him to pass Go, collect $200, and win the game because Trump put a hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. To butcher this metaphor completely, he doesn’t even deserve to collect $10 for winning third place in a beauty contest. Why? For one simple reason: Because he was a horrible, destructive president.
It hasn’t stopped his rehabilitation, which began with that annoying “Miss Me Yet?” billboard campaign in early 2010. Speaker Nancy Pelosi might be solidly on the left side of the political spectrum, but even she expressed qualified praise for Bush earlier this year. And Bush’s speech was apparently the capstone for his stealth return to the grownups’ table, in spite of the glaring horrors it exposed for anyone whose memory extends back before Jan. 20, 2009.
“Bigotry seems emboldened,” said the man whose unconscionable summertime laziness helped enable the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, which he combated by saying all Muslims and Arab-Americans were either with us or against us.
“Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” said the climate-change denier whose disastrous and self-congratulatory handling of Hurricane Katrina led to hundreds of unnecessary deaths and the destruction of an American city.
“Bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed,” said the man who won the 2000 South Carolina primary through a decidedly Trumpian robocall campaign that informed Palmetto State residents that his opponent had sired a Black baby. (That opponent was Sen. John McCain, a monstrous pseudo-maverick warmonger with numerous sins he’s apparently atoned for now that he’s emerged as a Trump foil in this final chapter of his public life. And for the record, the McCains’ adopted daughter Bridget is of Bangladeshi descent.)
Just to hammer the point home about what reflexive pro-anti-Trumpism is capable of in a debased media landscape, this is the pro-border fence John McCain who dives rightward at the first sign of a primary challenge. It’s the McCain who gave the world Sarah Palin — the John the Baptist to Trump’s Jesus — more or less on a whim. The one who once sang that we should “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran,” and who even voted against making Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday (as well as against the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell). But McCain loathes Trump, and so the grudge-holding Arizona senator’s obviously personal vendetta leads him right back in our maverick-y good graces as some sort of august statesman — just like Bush.
It has to stop, but it won’t. In America, the people at the top, even when they should be in prison for war crimes, will always get that second chance — unlike Kathy Griffin, or anyone who found themselves shit-canned after idly tweeting ill will toward the president. When American democracy finally, truly ends — when Nazis take over small towns and Alabama and Mississippi have seceded and a Supreme Court with three vacancies can’t issue rulings — the last institution we will be left with is the cherished respectability of the Oval Office, dutifully maintained by all who once sat there and whose portraits now line the hallway. The fall of America will be violent and bloody and the physical White House might even be in flames, but at least everyone who got us to that point will still be invited to Thanksgiving.
But if a national tragedy like George W. Bush is now officially Wise and Good, can we at least agree that Jimmy Carter is a secular saint who’s effectively functioned as the ambassador for everything good about America for more than 35 years?