THERE is madness, then there’s Trump. Since a lot of lyrical indignation has already been expressed about the horrors of a Trump presidency, let me dwell on a comparison here that others have not tried to undertake yet.
Remember George Bush Jr? The insanity that was his presidency may seem like a memory, but the fires he lit are still raging in the Middle East. That’s the kind of damage a madman can do from within the White House. But there are some crucial differences between Bush and Trump which make the latter far more dangerous.
Start with this. Bush was an ideologue whereas Trump is nakedly an egotist. Bush lived the swashbuckling life till 40, boozing to his heart’s content, then became a born-again Christian and switched to a rigorous and disciplined lifestyle.
Trump, on the other hand, is driven by little more than his own urges, rather primal ones at that. He recognises no power greater than himself, and does not consider himself accountable to any moral standard, whether in the conduct of his day-to-day life, or in his larger agenda for the country.
There are some crucial differences between Bush and Trump which make the latter far more dangerous.
All his life he has championed liberal causes like a woman’s right to choose, but then suddenly somewhere around 2012 he began to gravitate towards a pro-life stance, first by saying that late-term abortions should be outlawed, but slowly drifting further and further towards the hardest of anti-choice stances, ultimately getting trapped into saying that a woman deserves punishment for having an abortion.
On issues like guns and race, Trump only began to court the militant right when he felt its power, and the ease with which the words that sought to get their attention came out of his mouth showed he felt no compunction whatsoever in embracing such hard and divisive stances on issues so central to American political life. It wasn’t boldness, it was audacious opportunism. Someone of this makeup can change his mind in a moment and start saying things that are completely contrary, depending on which way the wind is blowing.
This is an important contrast to Bush, whose mind was firmly made up, whose thinking was anchored in his religious beliefs, and who was closely wedded to a conservative social agenda for decades and even campaigned on it.
Second, Bush was very much a creature of the Republican Party whereas Trump has burned the party down to get power. Bush was the compromise candidate in 2000, the safe bet because they couldn’t agree on any of the other nominees.
Once in power, he built his Camelot by bowing individually to each of the factions that the party had fragmented into. So the Christian right got the attorney general (John Ashcroft), the isolationists got the UN representative (John Bolton), the old guard got the secretary of state (Colin Powell), the military contractors got defence (Donald Rumsfeld who sought to privatise large chunks of the armed forces), and Wall Street got treasury (Henry Paulson, after O’Neill and Snow didn’t quite work out) and the neocon faction got the vice president.
Trump, on the other hand, has spoken of Republican Party leaders with staggering disdain when they failed to endorse him. He didn’t seek their confidence, he demanded it and punished them terribly when they wavered. He stands above the party and will not behave as if he owes it anything.
Bush’s idea of dealing with criticism was to ignore it. He read no newspapers, preferring to rely on the counsel of those around him rather than making up his own mind. He surrounded himself by likeminded advisers and his court became profoundly a victim of groupthink.
Trump, on the other hand, bristles at criticism, is keenly tuned to what people are saying about him and actively seeks affirmation in the eyes of others. He cannot deal with it when he does not get this affirmation and responds reflexively to criticism.
Moreover, Bush was largely empty in the upstairs quarter and actively outsourced his thinking and decision-making to others, even as he tried to present himself as “decider-in-chief”. The decision to invade Iraq, for example, was not his but that of his brand of neocon advisers, led by Dick Cheney, who did much of the thinking on foreign affairs, along with Karl Rove who did the thinking on domestic matters.
Trump, on the other hand, outsources nothing, preferring to retain the prerogative for himself. He demands to know what people think of a particular issue, then persecutes those who think differently from him. When he changes his mind, those around him are expected to follow suit. They will never have a say in any decision-making, while his own decisions are rooted in an opportunistic miasma of whim, greed, ambition and other animal instincts.
In short, a Trump presidency is likely to be of an order of magnitude more dangerous than the Bush presidency. It took Bush almost four years to begin to realise that the invasion of Iraq may not have been the best idea, even if he never publicly acknowledged the mistake. He toyed with idea of bombing Iran, possibly with nuclear weapons according to reporting by Seymour Hersh, but never crossed that red line.
He walked out of the Kyoto Protocol and showed disdain for global regimes that served as constraints on American power. But he bowed before the power of the establishment, and oversaw the implementation of the WTO and the strengthening of Nato.
How will Trump, with his erratic mind, whimsical instincts, centralised decision-making around himself, and total disregard for anything — whether facts, reality, consequences, or the opinions of others — that runs against his whims, approach the same issues?
Bush showed us what can happen when the powers of the White House fall in the wrong hands. With Trump though, we have something of an order of magnitude that is far more deadly.
The writer is a member of staff.