your memory should be longer than 7 years

Last night and today are the days to talk about how Donald Trump is the scariest politician in American history. Trump is monstrous, but unlikely to be elected. And, more, he’s not even worse than our previous president, George W. Bush. How have you all forgotten this stuff already?

  • The invasion of Iraq was one of the greatest foreign policy crimes in the history of this country. At least 600,000 Iraqis died as a direct result. The country’s entire civil infrastructure was destroyed; its professional and managerial classes were killed or fled. America lost 4500 soldiers and over $2 trillion dollars. The invasion in general and horrors like Abu Ghraib in particular helped do incredible damage to our international reputation. The invasion destabilized the country and directly contributed to the rise of ISIS. The principle of international cooperation and UN approval of foreign wars was undermined. A country was poisoned, figuratively and literally, for generations.
  • Whatever your thoughts on the Afghanistan invasion in general, the prosecution of that war failed in its most basic tasks during the Bush administration. Osama bin Laden was not captured; the Taliban was not permanently defeated; a functional and free Afghanistan did not emerge. The war devolved into an intractable, violent quagmire.
  • Bush responded to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina with utter apathy for days as poor people literally drowned in the streets of New Orleans. There was ample warning from the National Weather Service, and a concerted effort by the federal government to get people out of the city could have saved many lives, but no such help came. Bush publicly praised Michael Brown, the now-disgraced FEMA director, despite Brown’s total incompetence in handling the crisis.
  • The Bush administration did nothing to address the conditions that led to the financial crisis back when they could perhaps have been addressed. In fact that contributed to a culture of lax enforcement of regulations and a generally permissive culture that allowed Wall Street to run amok. They appeared to be caught completely unawares by the crash, despite many warning signs. Their response, while successful in preventing a worldwide economic meltdown, amounted to a vast, taxpayer-funded payout to the very same banks and wealthy people who created the crisis in the first place.
  • The tax cuts pushed by the Bush administration immediately upon entering a period of war and national emergency may be genuinely unprecedented in terms of slashing taxes just as a country entered a period of war. The Bush administration slashed taxes, claiming that most of those cuts would be for the middle class; that was a transparent lie.
  • Bush was a key figure in building a vast network of illegal surveillance of both Americans and others.
  • The Bush administration was complicit in torture, the establishment of a due process-free prison for Muslim men at Guantanamo, and the disappearing of “suspected terrorists” to foreign black sites without legal review or accountability.
  • After 9/11, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest the attacks. The Iranian government made overtures of solidarity towards ours. It was the best opportunity for rapprochement in my lifetime. That chance was destroyed by the (David Frum written) “Axis of Evil” speech.
  •  Bush pulled the US out of the Kyoto protocols, one of the most essential pieces of international climate change action ever.
  • The Bush administration deepened the War on Drugs, even after 9/11, and continued to pursue nonviolent drug offenders with zeal even as we poured vast sums into fighting terrorism.
  • Bush was a staunch opponent of abortion. He was a staunch defender of the death penalty. Enforcement of equal housing and equal employment opportunity laws declined and stagnated in his term. He supported vastly increasing budgets for anti-undocumented immigration enforcement along the US-Mexico border. His administration elevated unqualified or outright incompetent people to roles of immense importance. He pushed Medicare Part D, a massive transfer of government money to pharmaceutical companies, without expanding coverage or access to essential medicine for the vast majority of Americans. He championed the disastrous No Child Left Behind school reform bill. He participated in retribution against Valerie Plame for her husband’s role as a whistleblower. He dramatically expanded executive power in all of the worst ways. He was a disaster, from start to finish, someone with the blood of literally hundreds of thousand of people or more on his hands, a war criminal, a bigot, a historical villain of the first order. And he was in charge of this country 8 years ago.

Yet, somehow, I keep reading today about how Donald Trump is the scariest politician ever. Yes, Trump is a monster. Yes, his speech was bad. Yes, it is frightening that we have created this moment — that all of us have created this moment. But the worst politician of our lifetimes? He isn’t the worst politician of this decade. Meanwhile, the man that deserves that dubious distinction has somehow gained a reputation as a funny old idiot uncle, a Zelig figure who happened to wander into history, instead of a cruel and profoundly conniving politician of elite lineage and profound ambition. And some of the people who complain about Trump now championed him in the past, including some Democrats. In the nightmare scenario, it’s hard to imagine a Trump administration being as comprehensively horrific as that of George Bush.

I get the urge to call the present the most important time ever. (Because you live in the present, right, and so that makes it the most important.) And I get that perspective doesn’t do much for click through numbers. But history is important, and it’s essential that we recognize that business as usual has caused impossible human suffering in this country, that the true American monster was a guy called reasonable and impressive by many of those sensible moderates sounding the alarm now.

This is what your country is. This is what your country always has been. Donald Trump doesn’t make America ugly; Donald Trump reveals its ugliness to people who are too comfortable to want to hear it. The day after Trump is defeated, they’ll go back to numb apathy. Many of the people who cry today for undocumented immigrants won’t say a word as a Democratic president enforces our already-horrific immigration law. They won’t lift a finger against our already-existing war on Muslims. The status quo will stay the status quo and the rot that the ugly Trump campaign has revealed will go right on rotting.