Bushism Must Go

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Bush Must Go

by Daniel McCarthy by Daniel McCarthy

A rough new ideology slouches its way toward Washington to be born. Resembling in its construction Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together from the remains of past ideologies, its skeleton is neoconservative, its heart Woodrow Wilson’s, with a compassionate face borrowed from a politicized brand of religion. President Bush spent his first term assembling these spare parts. If he’s granted a second, he may yet galvanize them into a semblance of life.

It has been a while since a new ideology was loosed on the earth but now the hour is at hand, and two British writers, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldrige of the Economist, have given the thing a name: Bushism. The rhetoric in which it comes clothed has been stolen, in large part, from what used to be called conservatism. But whatever the faults of the old conservatism, what Bush has brought into being is something else. As Micklethwait and Wooldridge say, "Ever since the Goldwater campaign of 1963—1964, conservatism has defined itself as an antigovernment creed…. But Mr. Bush has been different … the massive growth of the state during this presidency … is a deliberate strategy."

Should Bush lose — and, yes, that means John Kerry would win — this brave new worldview might yet be stopped. What a tragedy that would be, for those in the movement formerly known as conservative. The prospect fills National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru with dread. Last week he wrote, "Bush’s defeat next Tuesday would be the most crushing blow that organized conservatism has received since 1964 — or, really, ever." If true, that’s yet another compelling reason for anyone who wants government to be limited to vote against Bush. If the good of the conservative movement now depends on the re-election of a president who stands for the opposite of practically everything Goldwater once stood for — even in foreign policy, it’s hard to imagine Goldwater waging a Wilsonian crusade — then it’s past time that movement was put to sleep, as the veterinarians say.

Bush has done a marvelous job of turning the American Right inside out. To be pro-life now means supporting a president whose policies have killed or maimed thousands of children, born and unborn, in Iraq. He provides federal funding for some stem-cell research, and still they support him. He makes light of Karla Faye Tucker just before he executes her, but, hey, he’s a good Christian. Why judge the vine by its fruit, after all?

On the eve of the millennium, a number of prominent conservative organizers were criticizing in the strongest possible terms an antiterrorist measure called Project Megiddo, which they said would target religious persons, inevitably and especially including Christians. Throughout the Clinton years a number of Republican shills posed as civil libertarians, decrying Janet Reno’s lust for expanded wiretapping powers and sneak-and-peak authority. Now the weight of the official conservative movement is behind the Patriot Act which, with its provisions enabling federal agents to seize library records, seems to have less to do with a War on Terror than a War on Reading.

National Review, of course, like much of the rest of the Bushist movement, can’t get enough of the Patriot Act. These cons demonstrably have no problem with a police state, so long as their guys are the ones running the prison camps, abroad and on American soil alike. And that talk about the rule of law, which was so important for scoring debating points during the Clinton impeachment? Well, the law is whatever a Republican president says it is. Forget about the Constitutionu2014the executive can declare war and suspend habeas corpus at his own discretion.

Remember, the Supreme Court is at stake in this election. Not that it matters for Roe v. Wade: the odds of a second-term Bush nominating a determinedly anti-Roe justice are small, the odds of such a nominee getting confirmed by the Senate are smaller still, and the chance of that leading to an overturn of Roe is infinitesimal. But you can bet that there’ll be a number of cases on the docket in the next four years involving the president’s powers to fight terrorists and library patrons.

On most other issues Bush’s remaking of the American Right is plain to see. Entitlements? Bush has presided over the biggest expansion since the Great Society. Education? Instead of abolishing the Department of Education, Bush has expanded it and accelerated the federalization of K-12. Defense and national security? Bush invaded a country that posed no threat to the United States, and his invasion has led directly to the deaths of over a thousand American servicemen and a spate of videotaped beheadings of Americans and U.S. allies. How many Westerners did Saddam Hussein behead?

The New Democratic Man that Bush is creating comes in varieties other than just conservative, however. A virulent kind of phony libertarianism is flourishing in the environment the president has created as well. The Bushified Right is characterized not only by conservatives like David Frum but also the kind of "libertarians" properly called liberventionists, from Brink Lindsey on down to Max Borders. These people are flourishing and taking root under the patronage of the Bush administration and its toadies outside of government. Their fortunes rise and fall with those of their dear leader. (What kind of conservatives and libertarians will flourish under Kerry? Anti-Kerry ones. Whatever influence a Kerry presidency might exercise in alienating conservatives and libertarians — and other Americans — from executive power would be so much the better.)

At the same time as Bush exacerbates the statism of the Right, he discredits its anti-statists. It used to be I could tell whoever would listen that the so-called religious right was not in fact trying to tell everyone else what to do; these people simply wanted to lead their own lives and raise their own children according to their standards. But under Bush, support for the war and personal devotion to the president, complete with his big-government agenda, seemingly trumps whatever local concerns Christian conservatives have. In this as in so many other ways, Bush has breathed life into the very stereotypes the Left has long purveyed.

The point here is not that the Bush movement, even should it come into its own, will ever destroy America’s better traditions — principled libertarians will not disappear, not all conservatives will embrace the welfare-warfare state, a great many on the religious Right will continue to understand the difference between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s. But added to the woes faced by all of these people will be a new force, competing with the Left but more similar to it than not in its fundamental principles. Bushism, once given the opportunity to take root, won’t easily be weeded out again, even once it does lose its grip on power. Its precursors have already caused enough trouble; once fully formed it will be a blight for decades to come. Bush’s re-election will be the jolt that gives it life; without that, this warmed-over social democracy with apocalyptic overtones hasn’t got much of a chance. As Micklethwait and Wooldrige say, "the triumph of Bushism — or whatever you want to call this unusual brand of conservatism — will depend not so much on its intellectual coherence as on the success of his party building. If the GOP’s political machine puts Mr. Bush back into the White House on Nov. 2, he could be on his way to creating a new kind of big-government Republicanism; and if the machine fails, conservatism will once again be reinvented."

Reinvented it must be, in a direction opposite from that in which Bush is leading the Right. Bushism should be stopped and Bush must go. John Quincy Adams warned America to go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Should Bush win on Tuesday, we’ll have an ugly new monster to deal with right here at home.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is assistant editor for the American Conservative. Subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.

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