The way the liberals, centrists, and never-Trump Republicans in the media decry Trump now, the idea that they’ll ever speak favorably about him in the future may seem ludicrous. But let’s look at the pattern.
Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. All Republican presidents. All committed crimes. All broke norms. All but Reagan were deeply unpopular by the end of their presidencies. And all have, to varying degrees, been rehabilitated not just by the conservative media but by more centrist media and supposedly liberal politicians, from “reevaluations” of Nixon to false statements praising Reagan to the North Korea levels of pomp and propaganda that accompanied the Bush Sr. funeral to cheers for a war criminal sharing a piece of candy with a former first lady.
Gore Vidal called the USA the United States of Amnesia. In his review of Vice, Jon Schwarz described our national psyche as follows:
In the novel “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” the Czech novelist Milan Kundera famously put these words in the mouth of one of his characters: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” And on “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver famously said, “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.”
Every society’s memory is continuously being rewritten on the fly by the people at the top so that it better serves their needs. You might think you remember that George W. Bush lied us into a huge, disastrous war, the consequences of which everyone on Earth will suffer for the rest of our lives. But on television in 2018, the former president was transformed into Michelle Obama’s rascally “partner in crime.” This is what Kundera meant, playing out right in front of us.
With all that in mind, the obvious question is: will future Democrats and liberal (as opposed to leftist) and centrist pundits and historians rehabilitate Trump’s image they way they did these other presidents?
This might seem impossible, but let’s think of how it could be done. The most obvious way would be to compare Trump favorably to a future Republican president who’s seen as even worse. After all, that’s what got Nancy Pelosi to speak favorably about Bush Jr. But since the idea of a president worse than Trump is such an unpleasant thought, let’s put that aside and see if there’s anything else that could do the trick.
It’s not yet clear how things will turn out, but at least as it appears now one of the few positive results of the Trump administration has been improved relations with North Korea. If someday North Korea, like China, gets integrated into the global world order and economy, and especially if multinational corporations (which donate to politicians and often own the publications that these pundits write for) can gain access to some of the $10 trillion in unexploited mineral resources in North Korea, then just like with Nixon and China future pundits may give Trump credit for getting the ball rolling and we’ll start to get “re-evaluations” of Trump just like Nixon.
But regardless of how they go about it, at the end of the day centrist Democrats and the liberal pundit class need to rehabilitate these Republican presidents; they need to because at the end of the day their presidents and their policies aren’t so dissimilar. That’s not to say that the Democrats aren’t better, but only by degree. They can pretend these Republicans are anomalies while we’re in the middle of their presidencies, but as time marches on it becomes increasingly clear that they’re merely extensions of trends already present, especially when once the Republican is gone their successor fails to hold them accountable or reverse the trends that the Republican precipitated or accelerated, thereby setting the stage for future abuses by the next Republican.
In the case of Bush Jr., Democrats enabled his worst abuses, and Obama failed to prosecute any of the criminals in his administration while extending his civil liberties violations. Bush committed torture, but Obama decriminalized torture, which is arguably worse. Bush harmed our democracy, but it was Obama that made that harm irreparable, or at least showed that it wouldn’t be repaired. This inextricably links the legacies of these two presidents, so in the end Bush‘s image had to be rehabilitated in order to preserve Obama’s. When Michelle Obama called Bush her “partner in crime”, she was nearly being literal.
Similarly, 10 years from now, when we’re no longer obsessing over every tweet, it will become apparent how, outside of rhetoric, the differences between Trump and Obama and Hillary, let alone the “good” Republicans, are much smaller than one would think given how the people who praise Obama and/or Hillary excoriate him. So Trump will be rehabilitated as well.
To do so, they’ll take the opposite tack of today, where we hyperfocus on rhetoric at the expense of actual substance, and say that in spite of his rhetoric Trump mostly behaved “responsibly”, by which they mean continuing to advance the interest of the military-industrial complex and national security state, some exceptions notwithstanding.
The only peculiarity of Trump’s that might stop this from coming to pass is that, unlike the other Republican presidents I’ve discussed, he’s a Washington outsider. For that reason, future pundits may not feel the need to praise him and will instead congratulate the “adults in the room” for keeping him under control.
You might think you’ll never view Trump favorably, but I bet during the last years of the Bush administration you never thought you’d see Nancy Pelosi saying a kind word about him. Let’s hope that this time the United States of Amnesia gets some of its memory back so we can finally start reversing these harmful trends and correcting our past mistakes.
P.S. I got to the end of this article and only just now realized that in my analysis I completely forgot about Gerald Ford. He’s the only Republican president who, at least as far as I’ve seen, hasn’t been rehabilitated, but only because the rest of the media has forgotten him too. This is despite the fact that he should go down in shame for pardoning Nixon and kickstarting the trend of the powerful not being held legally accountable for their crimes in this country.