Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Bush Before Bush

Tuesday's Oregonian newspaper carried a guest editorial comparing GWB to William McKinley, with an impressive laundry list of similarities: Karl Rove is the new Mark Hanna, Iraq, pre-"Mission Accomplished", is the new Spanish-American War, and now we're into the new Philippine conflict. And then, as now, as the war drug on it became increasingly unpopular. Both presidents' economic polices are "pro-business", meaning they generally favor large and politically well-connected businesses, with an extra soft spot for predatory monopolists. Which is clearly not the same thing as being pro-market. Cronyism ran rampant back then, and utter mediocrity was the order of the day. Sound familiar yet?

The McKinley analogy pops up a lot because Karl Rove himself is a dedicated McKinley fan. Not everyone sees this as a good thing, of course. I've long thought that McKinley was one of our most evil presidents. Others were far more incompetent, but he outdid most of the field in the evil department. I'm pleased to see I'm not the only person who feels this way; in the right city, like Arcata, California, even a mere statue of the guy can be hugely controversial. I'm sure the current controversy is happening at least in part because people are making the historical analogy the other direction, and using it as a proxy for Bush. Since we aren't yet at the point where every city and town has its own colossal statue of our Glorious Leader, the McKinley one will have to do for now, I guess.

The newspaper editorial then went on to make a common and dangerous mistake, that of using historical analogies to predict the future. Since McKinley was followed by Theodore Roosevelt, the argument goes, we're due for a new TR once George leaves the scene. The author even goes so far as to suggest John McCain as a possible TR. I'm starting to think that every history book should be required to carry a warning label, sort of like cigarettes: WARNING: All historical analogies are inexact. Contents of this book should not be used for divination. Publisher offers no warranty that the events described herein will recur at any future date.

In that spirit, several other historical figures suggest themselves as proto-Bushes. Some look at Bush's foreign policy and see him as the new Woodrow Wilson, at least in the sense that George's clearly very determined to change the world. Whether he's trying to change it for the better remains to be seen. Andrew Jackson is another apt analogy, in that he saw himself primarily as commander-in-chief, and exploited the anti-democratic aspects of the role beyond anything George has probably ever dreamed about. He was quite happy to just order the army to go do his bidding, and dare the Supreme Court to try to do anything about it. He seemed to feel that he was in charge because of the deep emotional bonds between himself and the "common man", so his job was to pander to their every whim and prejudice, and little details like the "rule of law" didn't matter all that much.

The Jackson and Wilson analogies are often offered by Bush fans, and they're intended as positive analogies. The Jackson analogy I think is the more apt of the two, and definitely not in a good way. But I'll spare you the full anti-Jackson rant this time around. Wilson has been the subject of a great deal of historical revisionism, so that of late he's been transformed into a sort of patron saint of the neocon movement. They conveniently forget that Wilson did everything he could to keep the country out of World War I, and he nearly succeeded against all the odds. While he was certainly an idealist, that didn't extend to imposing "democracy" on other countries at gunpoint. I can't imagine him favoring our current overseas adventure.

As an aside, I have to wonder whether Rove, Rummy, and friends are making the same mistake as that editorial, using the Philippine conflict as "proof" that we'll eventually succeed in Iraq. The Philippine conflict eventually petered out after a bit over a decade of fighting, and in the end we "won", so if we just stay long enough, we'll "win" this time as well, sooner or later. Ok, in real life the conflict petered out after a newly-elected Woodrow Wilson promised the Philippines eventual independence, which the US government hadn't initially intended to do. McKinley certainly had it in his head that we'd just grab the islands and keep them forever as a colony, while never extending any basic liberties to the place.

Other Bush analogies go further afield, one comparing GWB to a combo of Robespierre and Napoleon, which is an interesting notion, if a bit breathless. European history does offer us a number of people with whom you can draw useful parallels, and you can even do so without ever invoking Godwin's Law. It can be argued that GWB's ideology is similar to that of Charles de Gaulle; people in this country have been scratching their heads over the newly-minted term "big government conservative", seeing it as a confusing paradox. In our short history in this country, we've really only seen centralizing, statist impulses coming from the left side of the spectrum, but that hasn't been the case elsewhere. We're only just now eeing statist conservatism for the first time (more or less), which is why we're having such a hard time giving a name to the phenomenon. If you think of Bush and friends as Gaullists, it all makes a lot more sense, which is the whole point of any useful historical analogy. Some key Gaullist tenets are: Overarching nationalism, social conservatism, a strongly imperial presidency, and a globalist foreign policy leaning towards unilateralism. The Gaullist doctrine of the majestic, all-knowing, all-wise state extends to the economic sphere as well, a policy known as dirigisme. Now, there's no chance that GWB & Co. would ever overtly adopt the language of central planning, but they do appear to favor other elements of the doctrine. In particular, there's been a wholesale adoption of the notion that the economy works best when it's dominated by a handful of giant corporations, which exist in a close, symbiotic relationship with the government, a la Halliburton.

In the end, though, all analogies break down, and it's important to not carry them too far, which leads to seeing the whole world through a simplistic and highly misleading lens. Ever since 1945, there's been a constant, neverending stream of "new Hitlers", Saddam and Milosevic being notable recent examples. Sometimes the comparison is patently silly, like when Manuel Noriega was briefly given the label. And once you've given someone that label, the matter can only be settled through total warfare, as any other option is utterly disgraceful, a "new Munich", practically treasonous to even think about.

Oh, great, now I've gone and triggered Godwin's Law. Sorry about that. Anyway, my point was that GWB is not precisely the new anybody, a trait he shares with the rest of humanity. But that's not likely to stop anyone from playing the history game. A century from now, assuming there's no Rapture or mass extinction between now and then, it wouldn't be surprising if some ruthless, yet dimwitted politician gets labelled as the "GWB of the 22nd century". I'd be willing to bet money that when it happens, it won't be meant as a compliment.

No comments :