George W. Bush ascended the podium at a forum hosted by his think tank last week and violated his family’s prime directive: Never speak ill of a successor. He said, “We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty.” Ahhh, casual cruelty. The ol’ combination of noun with unlikely adjective spoken in coy alliteration. Like “compassionate conservative.” A one hit wonder returning to the rhyme scheme that carried him to the top of the charts. Except now it sounds old and derivative. And, given evolving tastes and sensibilities, it is impossible to hear without also hearing Trump’s voice in the back of your head saying, “What the hell does that mean?” Then there is the irony of George W. Bush lecturing anyone on degraded public discourse, since choosing the right word is one of his fallacies.
He probably began to regard himself as an oracle when he read the mission statement of the George W. Bush Institute on his presidential library’s web site. Politicians tend to see themselves as on a hero’s journey because it comes with the business. Every few years they choose their best selfies and stick them on signs in front yards, with faces contorted to signal aspiration, hope and determination. Once that pose enters their self-regard, look out. They start to believe public policy emanates from the pith of their own souls, dressed in the gooberism of their superior intentions.
That’s why it is hard on them when Trump degrades their discourse. He takes the Kennedy-speaking-in-rising-and-falling-chiasmus fun out of politics and replaces it with a real estate developer’s directness. It is difficult to project aspiration and hope when the president is saying, “Drain the swamp.” Cruel, I guess. But only if it is your self-regard being punctured by the sudden intrusion of reality. What Trump is actually degrading is official Washington’s conceit that its preferences and policies are necessary for the survival of humanity. He is a living, breathing reminder that people have chosen a different course.
Bush must have gotten the memo. Everyone in Washington was disparaging the president last week for the same thing. John McCain criticized “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” President Obama came out of retirement to lament the “same old politics of division.” Even Congresswoman Frederica Wilson got into the act, accusing the president of casual cruelty for words he spoke to the widow of a slain soldier.
When the history of our times is recorded, it will be said that on October 19, 2017, Marine Corps General John F. Kelly rose to speak in the White House Briefing Room amid this onslaught and asked: “Is nothing sacred?” Thank you. Finally.
He addressed the press because he had supplied the president with the words spoken to the wife of the slain soldier. Having lost a son in combat he suggested words that had been most comforting to him. He said that the President expressed his condolences “in the best way that he could” and opined that he considered the gesture, although not required, to have been brave. General Kelly was “stunned” that a member of Congress attempted to politicize the event: “I just thought – the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.”
Although he did not discuss the Bush-McCain-Obama criticisms, General Kelly’s basic objection applies to them as well. The succession of power in America is a sacred event. Trump himself was pilloried about that when he hedged on a question posed at a debate about accepting Hillary Clinton’s election. George W. Bush seemed to understand the sanctity of democratic succession when Obama was president. He never spoke a word to challenge him.
The most annoying thing about the Bush-McCain-Obama criticisms is that they were draped in the prim language of moral superiority; i.e., the suggestion is that their policies deserve prominence because they are fundamentally correct, and Trump’s are rooted in division. These are experienced politicians who know that the democratic process ennobles division. It bridges the divide by declaring a winner who is selected to govern. They all availed themselves of the power victory provided over opponents in their own political careers.
To regard disagreement as persecution is irrational. It is what children do when they are told to go to bed. Most Trump supporters voted on economic issues and would not harm a flea. There are a small few who think the IRS is microwaving their brains, sure, but every successful political coalition has its whacks. Trump’s opposition seems to be dominated by whacks who think he disagrees with them to be mean. Two former presidents and a former aspirant to that office have now climbed under the tinfoil hat.
As difficult as it is for Trump opponents to grasp, 63 million voters sent a casino owner and reality show host to restore the sacred in America. A flawed prophet in the prototypal tradition, he has gone to the great city and preached against it. The only question now is whether Washington will turn from its wicked ways.