For the last few days I have been watching an extraordinary miniseries, The Loudest Voice, which tells the story of the Fox News career of Roger Ailes on Showtime. It ranks with the British production of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson as one of the best historical dramatizations ever. Russell Crowe, who gained between 50 and 100 pounds for the part, turns in an extraordinary performance, and the show effectively uses real footage. It also gives a terrifying portrayal of heavy duty sexual harassment at the highest corporate levels. I haven't read the book on which it is based, but even some of the plot lines that might seem a bit over the top--including one that involves Rupert Murdoch's wife--have a certain ring of truth.The series focuses on critical years: 1996 (the launch of Fox News), 2001 (9/11 and its aftermath), 2008, 2009, etc. The 2001 episode really got me thinking, once again, about the critical impact of the administration of George W. Bush on American life. The collapse of the American political system, now so visible before our eyes, began, I believe, with him.
The collapse began, really, in November and December 2000, when our institutions failed a critical test. Confronted with the closest election in American history, they failed to discover who had won and see that the right man was inaugurated. Both sides of the controversy played a role in this sad outcome, because Al Gore didn't have the sense to demand a full recount of the whole state of Florida--a move which, a team of journalists later concluded, would probably have shown that he had won. As it was, the Bush campaign orchestrated a coup d'etat, really, first by purging the Florida registration rolls before the vote, and then by getting a partisan Supreme Court to stop the recount altogether and award the election to Bush. That, however, was only the beginning.
Once in office, Bush, Cheney, and Karl Rove showed that they wanted to play the role Strauss and Howe had laid out only ten years or so earlier in Generations: to preside over a crisis or "fourth turning" that would take the nation in a new direction. 9/11, which they did not foresee, gave them the chance to do that. (The Loudest Voice shows that Ailes gave them some important help, which in turn established his network as the Ministry of Propaganda for Republican administrations.) Bush, Cheney, and the neoconservatives who dominated their Defense and State Departments wanted to use 9/11 and the theme of "terrorism" to establish American rule over the whole world by successively overthrowing the "rogue regimes" or Iraq, Iran and North Korea that stood in the way of American hegemony. Over a two-year period they planned and mobilized widespread support for the invasion of Iraq, the last major presidential initiative in the 21st century that enjoyed genuine bipartisan support, including intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, and Michael Ignatieff. Never since then has the American elite and public united around a common enterprise. Their publicists announced the beginning of "World War IV," designed to democratize the Islamic world. They eventually spent about $1 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while failing to locate and kill Osama Bin Laden. They corrupted intelligence and created a myth of Iraqi WMD to make the war happen. They created, as a senior official (probably Karl Rove) told Ron Suskind, "our own reality," and most of the country bought it for several years. But the whole project turned into a disaster, because it rested on false assumptions about American power, the dominant historical trends in politics, and the specific politics of the Middle East. The fall of Saddam in Iraq unleashed a catastrophic religious conflict between Shi'ites and Sunnis that continues to this day, after taking hundreds of thousands of lives. The Afghan War, conducted in effective opposition to our "ally" Pakistan, has lasted now for 18 years without positive results. For the second time in half a century, a generation of American veterans has had to cope with PTSD incurred in a worse than useless war.
While pursuing this disastrous project, however, the Bush Administration demonstrated the characteristic flaw of the Boom generation; believing that they could have everything at once. Rather than raise taxes to pay for their crusade, like Lincoln and FDR, they cut them, turning a federal surplus into a permanent deficit. They allowed the new shadow banking system to flourish, and did nothing about the housing and subprime mortgage boom that kept the economy going until 2007. They staffed the federal government with ideologues and cronies, leading to the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. Re-elected in another close election in 2004, Bush squandered any political capital he had on an attempt to privatize Social Security that never got off the ground. The Iraq war dragged on, and the electorate had had enough. The Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in 2006. Then the housing bubble burst, and in 2008, the market crashed. It was at that moment that a large part of the Republican base deserted their establishment, even blocking the passage of the banks' bailout on the first vote. John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin did not placate them, and McCain went down to defeat.
Barack Obama came into office with larger Congressional majorities, but without ambitions comparable to those of Bush. He managed to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress and passed a moderate-size stimulus, but any hopes of an FDR-style New Deal faded away quickly when he appointed a team of establishment economists and decided not to try to break up the big banks. He failed to mobilize the anger in the country, and the Tea Party turned against him. Under the influence of the Koch brothers, I believe, the Republican Party became entirely obstructionist. Obama managed to win a comfortable re-election, and he remains the only Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win significantly more than 50% of the presidential popular vote. But like his predecessor, he squandered any re-election dividend on a hopeless cause--in his case, on tighter gun control measures. And to keep the government operating, he had to agree on tight rules on new spending that made it very hard for the federal government to take any new initiatives. In his last years he relied more and more on executive orders. By 2016 much of the public had completely lost faith in professional politicians, and a reality TV star won the Republican nomination and the election.
Donald Trump's only legislative accomplishment, of course, is his tax cut, which undid the work of seven years of deficit reduction under Obama at one fell swoop. The Democrats in the House of Representatives have now passed some important legislation, but the Republicans in the Senate refused even to consider it. Meanwhile, newspapers and web sites fill their pages with presidential tweets, endless rehashes of the Russiagate and other scandals, and stories about sex crimes. The country has lost the habit of reading about public affairs, because since Bush II's disastrous grasp at world empire the government in Washington has given them so little to write about. While the public cares a great deal, pro or con, about Donald Trump, it cares less and less about what its government is or might be doing. This, it seems to me, is largely one of the legacies of George W. Bush.