George W. Bush and Donald Trump: Eerie Parallels


My summer reading list is largely the same as my fall list: primarily history, politics and biography. I recently finished Jean Edward Smith’s “Bush”, an examination of the 43rd president of the United States. Smith, a prize-winning biographer, has previously written presidential studies of Grant, FDR and Eisenhower.

“Bush” covers a lot of familiar ground but also provides some perspectives that may change some of your previously held views. The bottom line, documented through its 660 pages, is the book’s last sentence: “Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated, but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worse foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”

Despite that conclusion, Smith gives Bush credit for his efforts to stem the scourge of AIDs in Africa, his counter-ideological response to the financial meltdown of the economy in 2008, and even his failed initiative at immigration reform. In foreign affairs, Smith paints a picture of Bush as the “decider,” just as Bush claimed. In this account, Dick Cheney is not pulling all the strings, Donald Rumsfeld raises significant questions and Bush frequently overrules all of his military commanders.

As I was reading “Bush” in the politically charged summer of 2016, I was struck by a number of his characteristics that resonate with the current Republican presidential nominee.  Bush came to the presidency with almost no experience or, indeed, understanding of foreign affairs.  His father arranged some high level briefings in the two years before the election, but it’s clear that Bush was not a quick study or a serious student.   We all saw lots of examples of his inexperience during his presidency, but we sometimes forget the broader lesson.  Experience does matter; the presidency is not a place for on-the-job training.

Donald Trump would have us believe that his stunning lack of understanding of the rest of the world is no obstacle; that reneging on an agreement with a contractor is preparation for international diplomacy; and that his own “big brain” will guide him successfully through any challenges that arise.  If anything, Trump would come to the presidency with even less foreign affairs experience than Bush, and Bush’s lack of preparedness was a disaster for this country.

A second strain of Smith’s assessment is Bush’s resistance to learning and to accepting facts.  He never tried to understand the history of the Middle East much less the sectarian divisions within that region.  His administration concocted a link between Saddam Hussein and Islamic terrorism that never existed and saw weapons of mass destruction where there were none.  All of these examples and others were a combination of willful ignorance and a predetermined desire to go to war with Iraq.

Does that sound chillingly like Donald Trump?  Fact checkers have concluded that three-fourths of his public pronouncements are wholly or partially false.  Moreover, as a political neophyte, Trump has shown no willingness to be briefed and to learn about issues that would confront him as president.  His comments on NATO, the Ukraine, Brexit and anything he discussed yesterday keep demonstrating a mental laziness that should terrify any serious voter.

According to Smith, Bush put primary trust in his own instincts, often to the exclusion of expert advisors and factual presentations.  In his case, those instincts were in part a reflection of his own deeply held religious beliefs.  Bush often counted on God to bring about the desired outcome even when all the evidence suggested he was on the wrong path.

Absent the religious connection, that’s a theme we see constantly repeated by Trump.  He doesn’t need experts because his instincts are so good.  He dismisses evidence because he “knows” better.  And his very small circle of advisors, mostly family, do not provide the kind of environment in which opposing opinions or serious questions are welcomed.

Much of the reaction to Donald Trump up to now has focused on his theatrics, his coarse and vulgar style and his breaking of all the traditional political norms.  There’s plenty there to make you do everything you can to prevent him from ever becoming president.  However, the comparison with the characteristics of a man many believe to have been the worst president this country has ever had provides an additional dimension to ponder.  Trump is so ill-prepared, by experience, temperament and knowledge, that his presidency might make Bush 43 look like an age of enlightenment.