Donald Trump is more of a reality show contestant engaged in the simulacrum of a presidential candidacy than an actual candidate for president. But this comes with an advantage: He can tell the truths that are inconvenient to Republican dogma.
This was evident many times during the Republican debate earlier this week. Showing both a talent for getting under the skin of Jeb Bush and a firmer grasp of the fundamentals crucial to winning elections, Trump observed in an exchange with Bush that his brother's presidency had been such a "disaster" that Abraham Lincoln couldn't have won on the Republican ticket in 2008. Bush rose to his brother's defense in a highly revealing way. "You know what? As it relates to my brother there's one thing I know for sure," Bush asserted. "He kept us safe. You remember the — the rubble? You remember the fire fighter with his arms around him? He sent a clear signal that the United States would be strong and fight Islamic terrorism, and he did keep us safe."
Bush's defense of his brother is so obviously self-refuting it would be funny if the subject wasn't so serious. Bush's invocation of the ruins of the World Trade Center while claiming that his brother "kept us safe" is reminiscent of Alan Greenspan's legendary argument that "with notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global 'invisible hand' has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates." With the notably rare exception of the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil, George W. Bush kept us safe!
In the GOP's warped view of its national security record, you would think that the Supreme Court had allowed a fair recount to proceed in Florida, Al Gore had assumed the White House, then was replaced by the manly action hero George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks. It's not even true that there were no further terrorist attacks after 9/11 — in fact, there were anthrax attacks after 9/11 that helped contribute to a climate of fear in which too many civil liberties were dissolved.
Nor is it true that the 9/11 attacks were a simple matter of force majeure, beyond the responsibility of the White House. When Bush assumed office, he and his foreign policy team were convinced that the Clinton administration placed too much emphasis on al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Most of Bush's foreign policy team believed that rogue states, not stateless terrorists, were the biggest threat to American security. Presented with a memo titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." during a month-long vacation a little more than a month before 9/11, Bush dismissively responded, "All right. You've covered your ass, now."
To be clear, I'm not arguing that Bush could easily have prevented the 9/11 attacks by taking Islamic terrorism more seriously. The attacks may well have happened with Al Gore in the White House. But he wasn't merely a helpless bystander. His choices made stopping the 9/11 attacks less likely — and they happened. He cannot escape some measure of responsibility for them.
Worse, the Bush administration's fallacy that states, not stateless terrorists, were the fundamental threat to global security persisted after 9/11, leading to the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Some of the Republican candidates — not only Trump but Rand Paul, Ben Carson, and John Kasich — have argued that the decision to invade Iraq, so immensely costly in human lives and resources, was a horrible mistake.
However, none of these critics of the war are going to be the Republican nominee. And most Republicans, as we could see at the debates, still haven't learned anything. "We lost friends [on 9/11.] We went to the funerals," blustered Christ Christie. "And I will tell you that what those people wanted and what they deserved was for America to answer back against what had been done to them." The answer, apparently, was to attack a random country that had nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks, because this would accomplish…well, it never made any sense.
The invasion of Iraq, as Paul attempted to explain, was counterproductive, creating anarchic contexts in which brutal terrorists have flourished. The defenders of Bush's foreign policy — particularly Marco Rubio — attempted to blame this on that meddling Barack Obama for pulling troops out of Iraq. War cannot fail for mainstream Republicans — it can only be failed by not becoming perpetual. This isn't so much a policy doctrine as a mediocre 80s action movie. And Republicans will go to any length to defend it, even if it means wiping 9/11 from Bush's record.
Did Bush "keep us safe?" Absolutely not. Indeed, one would have to go back to James Buchanan, if not James Madison, to find a president with a worse record for protecting American civilians. What's scary is that the most plausible candidates to head the Republican ticket in 2016 think that Bush's security policies were a smashing success.