I never thought I would say this, but I miss Dubya. Despite his myriad failings as a president, Bush had a human decency, and an inspiring vision of America, that is painfully lacking in our politics today.
Maybe it’s just that I grew up with Bush—he was president from the time I was 8 to the time I was 16—but there’s something comforting and almost endearing about our 43rd president’s political style. Even though his cowboy persona was mostly shtick, he was genuine when he searched for the right word mid-speech or laughed at his own mistakes. The flipside of Bush’s dangerous naïveté was an all-too-rare ingenuousness: he dragged us into endless wars, but no one could question the sincerity of his famous “bullhorn speech” atop the rubble of the Twin Towers.
There is a hardness in our discourse today, in politics and in culture, that did not exist 16 years ago, or even eight. “Twitter shaming,” in which people’s lives are gleefully destroyed over foot-in-mouth remarks, would have still made a good premise for a dystopian novel. Donald Trump’s habit of denouncing political opponents as “disgusting” and “animals” would have been a disquieting development, not amusing fodder for condescending liberal late-night hosts. Come to think of it, back then there were almost no condescending liberal late-night hosts.
Today, college students scream in apparently earnest anger that addressing a crowd as “guys” is a “microaggression.” Everyone seems to be at the end of their ropes, ready to explode and sputter in rage at the mildest provocation. It is not just trust that we have lost, but patience. And rather than soothe a fractured nation, our politicians are fracturing it more, hoping to rally enough identity groups to piece together a plurality of the vote.
In are naked appeals to resentment. And gone are the admittedly corny paeans extolling America that used to go something like “from the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the bayous of Louisiana to the Rocky Mountains and the fields of the Midwest.” Gone are the quotidian images of the family around the dinner table and the flag hanging from a suburban homestead. Vanished are the Bush-era exhortations that America’s essence was in the vitality of its neighborhoods, social clubs, churches, and schools, with their implicit reminder that “politics” is far more than “what happens in Washington.” America then was depicted as an ambitious and mostly-successful experiment in self-government; we were strong, and so we didn’t need a strongman.
All of that, even if much of it was window-dressing, has been swept away with frightening rapidity. Perhaps Hillary Clinton retained some of this folksy style, but style it was; her policies were bland technocracy mixed with social liberalism, a mix that gratified elites but did not particularly resonate with the American people. A party that could invite Lena Dunham—the feminist TV star who compared voting for Obama to losing her virginity—to speak on its convention stage can no longer claim to be the party of the average American.
Yet despite all of this, there is a window for healing and uniting the country—in Trumpism’s core ideas. The fact is that allowing only legal, nationally beneficial immigration; fostering strong and diverse domestic industry; building world-class infrastructure; and prioritizing public safety and social peace are perfectly reasonable policies. Stripped of Trump’s brand of aggressive demagoguery, these ideas might even be largely uncontroversial. To modify Orwell’s quip about the socialists, the worst advertisement for “far right” policies is the far right itself.
Far from somehow being at odds, the aspirational, folksy style of George W. Bush and the core ideas of Trumpism go hand in hand: while America should not be encased in amber, its longstanding, praiseworthy traditions and ways of life should not be sledgehammered merely to make way for globalized creative destruction. The core challenge for conservatives now is to implement the best of Trump’s ideas while disavowing the worst of his political style.
Bush was mocked by many conservatives for his “compassionate conservatism,” which they took to mean big-government liberalism in practice. Perhaps it was. But Bush doesn’t hold a copyright on that turn of phrase. Right now, what American politics needs is compassionate Trumpism.
Addison Del Mastro is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.