The definition of cognitive dissonance is simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs. Right now, cable TV news shows feature state-sponsored cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, Trump defenders call him a “post-partisan president,” as though we shouldn’t expect the same problems of the past, and on the other hand, Trump defenders say “this is normal during a transition,” as though we should be guided by the past. Which is it?
In this scary moment for all Americans who love liberty and the Constitution, people are reaching for historical parallels. Many reach abroad to Hitler, or other totalitarians. Some reach for Richard Nixon. Some Republicans reach for Obama, as when we are told that Obama also banned refugees in 2011 (a distortion verging on a lie).
The smartest people I know reach for good old 43, George W. Bush, less as a parallel and more as a perpendicular. For example, Bush didn’t demonize Muslims or Mexicans. Bush didn’t push diplomats out of their posts on Day One. Bush didn’t ask Americans to disbelieve what they could see with their own eyes (e.g. crowd size, mocking the disabled). In his first week in office, Bush repeatedly met with Democrats in an effort to pass bipartisan legislation.
All good points. But I want to help the Trump defenders who behave as though Trump isn’t unpresidented – excuse me, unprecedented. And right now, the country doesn’t feel like it did in late January 2001. Nor does it feel like it did in late September 2001, a time that many right-wingers wistfully look back on as When the Country Was United. It so happens that they’re right, and one reason Bush got those tasty 90% approval ratings is that he wasn’t unnecessarily divisive or dishonest eight months earlier. Terrorists could lay waste to Miami tomorrow, and Trump’s approval ratings wouldn’t crack 60%. They never will.
Right now, the country actually feels like it did 14 winters ago, in early 2003. That was when the GOP first used Americans’ very legitimate, post-9/11 fears about terrorism to justify abhorrent and possibly unconstitutional policies. That was the last time right-wing radio and Fox News, which thrives on behaving as though America is constantly under siege or in crisis, made its ideological vision into political reality. And that was the last time the angry left took to the streets en masse. In both cases, the President moved from his dripping contempt for the United Nations to his sunny assurance that everything was going fine. In both cases, that assurance turned out to be 180 degrees from the truth.
The single biggest difference is social media, and sure, that’s not nothing. But a lot is the same. Our infrastructure and airports look the same. Our haircuts look the same. Our Ikea furniture looks the same. Our movies have the same amount of edits. A musical is about to win the Best Picture Oscar (like Chicago did). In fact, that was quite the season of celebrity limousine-liberal protests, culminating in Michael Moore’s hortatory oratory at the Oscars.
The most comforting thing about seeing this year as a rerun of 2003 is: we got through it. Somehow, the world didn’t end. It happened, and 14 years later we’re here.
Here we are again, with a Republican administration that demonized the outgoing Democratic one, now finding common cause with that Democrat in the name of political expedience. Bush made much of Clinton’s terrible record against terror, bemoaning “swatting flies.” In 2003, however, Bush demanded war powers partly on the basis of Clinton’s successful incursions in Kosovo. Today, Trump claims that Obama also banned refugees in 2011; beyond being wrong, it’s odd — why base your precedent on someone who you said did everything wrong?
What’s probably most discomforting is the fact that the right keeps yanking America recklessly to the right, as though no lessons were ever learned, while the left, at best, moves America to the center. In 2001 it was still possible to believe that Bush would preserve Clinton’s surplus – we once had a budget surplus people! – even while he handed us our “refund” checks. By 2003, you knew the surplus was going the way of the dodo. Bush refused to even pay for the war. Here we are again: the GOP can’t wait to blow up the deficit and demonize Iraqis (in this case, including the ones who fought for us).
We keep hearing that Trump voters felt for eight years the way Obama voters feel now. Really? If Obama had lurched to the hard left the way that Trump has swerved to the hard right, private citizens would have ceased to own guns, Jeremiah Wright would have been put in charge of the National Security Council, carbon taxes and solar panels would be mandatory, and abortion clinics and public schools would look like, uh, Trump hotels.
No, the truth is the Democrats are once again the stereotype of the long-suffering wife, left to put the pieces back together, after the stereotype of the impulsive husband destroys their life again. It’s sad, because a more normal country could have room for a third party. But as long as the GOP continues to own the “man” brand of politics, moderates like myself will be stuck aligning with the Democrats just to restore Merrick Garland-like normalcy.
Anyway, we survived 2003. And we will probably survive 2017. And social media holds the promise of swifter reaction times to actions that are both unconstitutional and unconscionable.
But while we’re doing this survival/resistance thing, can we find a way to get Michael Moore on that Oscar stage?