Trump's gritty reboot of the Bush presidency
Are we living through George W. Bush's third term?
Is the glut of pointless remakes and lame sequels inexorable at this point? Personally I thought it had reached its absolute nadir with Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars in 2010, but here we are in 2018 fresh from rehashes of The Mummy and Planet of the Apes and ready to be wowed by a movie about baby Han Solo and Untitled Avengers Film (2019).
It also looks increasingly as if we are in the middle of a gritty reboot of George W. Bush's presidency. First there was the tax cut that nobody wanted except for Paul Ryan and a couple of fracking oligarchs in Oklahoma. Now on the basis of less-than-solid evidence we are bombing the heck out of a Middle Eastern republic that hawks have been looking for excuses to blow up for nearly a decade. We've even got mainstream liberal commentators who otherwise despise the knuckle-dragging right-wing president suddenly praising him for his statesmanlike resolve in making the difficult decision to launch explosives at brown people half a world away. How far away are we at this point from the little-remembered third act where the president almost manages to sell Social Security to Goldman Sachs on the eve of a major financial crisis? Larry Kudlow is probably scribbling away a draft as you read this.
It is unsurprising that not all of the serious fans are enamored of Washington's new take on their beloved political franchise. Nerds can be famously picky consumers. Bill Kristol, David Frum, and Max Boot — the George W. Bush equivalents of those Star Wars fan who saw Empire Strikes Back 47 times in theaters and will patiently explain to you why the Ewoks were actually a crucial part of the plot in Jedi — hate Trump's eclectic reimagining of Bushism for modern audiences. Like J.J. Abrams painstakingly recreating the interior of the Millennium Falcon, Trump has tried to court them with stuff only the diehards care about, like a pardon for Scooter Libby. It hasn't worked; to neocon geeks of a certain age and sensibility the original matters so much that letting someone else try to employ the same basic situations and characters — a president who ran on a humble foreign policy against an uncharismatic Democrat who was part of the Clinton administration, frenetic omnidirectional opposition from the media, the lack of good intelligence in the Middle East — to tell his own story was always going to be a risky proposition.
Which is why maybe it makes more sense to think of the Trump presidency in musical rather than cinematic terms. It is an ironic cover, like one of those insufferable acoustic guitar renditions of "Straight Outta Compton" or "Boyz-n-the-Hood" performed by bearded wanly smiling IPA drinkers on YouTube. "Bitches Ain't S--t" might be an appalling piece of music on any reading, but at least in the hands of Dre and Snoop it was a genuine expression of a certain cultural outlook, something that can be understood and appreciated in its proper context. When Ben Folds inaugurated the tradition of painfully white indie-styled readings of West Coast gangster rap classics by covering it in 2005, he was profiting from the sensibilities of people who think lines like "lick on these n — s and suck the d — " could ever be funny or cool while simultaneously acknowledging that he knew better. To the sexism of the original Folds added a neat layer of white hipster racist condescension.
Likewise, whatever you think of him, George W. Bush was being totally sincere when he stood in front of that aircraft carrier in his flight suit and declared "Mission Accomplished." Trump doesn't believe this when he casually inserts the phrase at the end of a tweet — and follows it up with a wink-wink defense of "such a great Military term." He doesn't think his mission has been accomplished in Syria because he doesn't even know what the mission is or care. He just thinks it's funny that people think it's funny that Bush said something stupid. So he rolls with it. The merely stupid but honest gives way to the laughingly nihilistic. Welcome to the first ironic major conflict in American history. Meanwhile old-school neoconservatives are nothing if not sincere; the fact that they are not into Trump's knowingly smug version of Bushism actually speaks well of them.
There is every reason to think we are going to see more of this kind of thing from politicians in the future. Trump's take on Dubya may not even be the first: Theresa May's premiership in Britain is in many ways an attempt at a more highbrow version of Thatcherism, just as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party, right down to Jezza's brilliant fashion sense, is a throwback to the endearing British hard left of Michael Foot and Tony Benn. We cannot, I think, be very far away from a Brooklynite handle-bar mustached revamping of the Chester Arthur administration, complete with a woke Vox-splained coda to the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883.
I cannot help but find this trend distressing, even or perhaps even especially from a purely aesthetic standpoint. There are an unlimited number of bad ideas in politics. A more interesting bad politician would acknowledge the influence of his awful predecessors without feeling obviously bound to them (even as objects of satire or commentary) in same way that a good Star Wars film could be made with no lightsabers or AT-AT walkers on the screen.
If we're going to let our politicians be stupid, let's at least insist they be creatively stupid.