The Myth of Pre-Trump Civility


I’ve discussed the topic of civility before, but I’ve realised I could have gone further. Here goes…

So, I really don’t like Trump.

I see a lot of people nostalgic for Obama. To them he represents a better time, when Americans were less divided and reasonable discourse reigned. People look back to charismatic Obama, then think, ‘how did we get here?’ I can understand that.

I can understand the nostalgia for Obama – though I think his administration needs to be viewed much more critically. What I can’t understand is nostalgia for Bush.

As Nathan J. Robinson says:

This view of Bush as a “likable and sincere man who blundered catastrophically” seems to be increasingly popular among some American liberals. They are horrified by Donald Trump, and Bush is beginning to seem vastly preferable by comparison.[…]

Nostalgia takes root easily, because history is easy to forget. But in Bush’s case, the history is easily accessible and extremely well-documented. George W. Bush did not make a simple miscalculation or error. He deliberately perpetrated a war crime, intentionally misleading the public in order to do so, and showed callous indifference to the suffering that would obviously result. His government oversaw a regime of brutal torture and indefinite detention, violating every conceivable standard for the humane treatment of prisoners.

Robinson says elsewhere, I think rightly, that ‘The Bush presidency caused the deaths of 500,000 Iraqis. I don’t miss it, I’m never going to miss it, and nor should anyone else.’

(As a Brit, Blair also belongs in prison. Please don’t think I’m just savaging the US and exempting my own country. My underlying points apply on both sides of the pond.)

But what about Obama? Obama was surely better than Trump… but I think an excessively rosy view of his administration is quite disturbing. He was a capable figure who said and did some good things during his time in office, but the bad things ought to be shocking to anyone with a conscience.

For example, a ‘torture ban’ sounds great, but the approach doesn’t quite square up under scrutiny. As Allan Nairn wrote at the time:

When President Obama declared flatly this week that “the United States will not torture” many people wrongly believed that he’d shut the practice down, when in fact he’d merely repositioned it.

Obama’s Executive Order bans some — not all — US officials from torturing but it does not ban any of them, himself included, from sponsoring torture overseas. […]

What the Obama dictum ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system’s torture, which is done by foreigners under US patronage.

Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so.

His Executive Order instead merely pertains to treatment of “…an individual in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government, or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States, in any armed conflict…” which means that it doesn’t even prohibit direct torture by Americans outside environments of “armed conflict,” which is where much torture happens anyway since many repressive regimes aren’t in armed conflict.

And even if, as Obama says, “the United States will not torture,” it can still pay, train, equip and guide foreign torturers, and see to it that they, and their US patrons, don’t face local or international justice.

This is a return to the status quo ante, the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more US-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years.

And any criticism of his administration has to mention the looming beast of drone strikes and assassinations. Obama dropped the equivalent of a bomb every 20 minutes for 8 years. Here’s Chomsky commenting on this enormous topic:

Military analyst Yochi Dreazen observes in the Atlantic that Bush’s policy was to capture (and torture) suspects, while Obama simply assassinates them, with a rapid increase in terror weapons (drones) and the use of Special Forces, many of them assassination teams. Special Forces are scheduled to operate in 120 countries. Now as large as Canada’s entire military, these forces are, in effect, a private army of the president[…]

Jo Becker and Scott Shane, reporting on drones and the ‘kill list’ in the New York Times in 2012, disclose a staggering piece of information:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.[…]

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

Obama was better than Trump, sure. But can’t the moral bar be raised above the level where torture and extrajudicial assassination are acceptable so long as you aren’t a blatant bigot, so long as you ‘act presidential’, so long as the body count isn’t too high?

As Trump points out, ‘anyone can act presidential’. Here he is putting on the gentleman act. He’s an awful idiot, yet he’s recognised something that seemingly escapes the entire liberal media class. Does the civil mask really make a difference? No.

Many liberals see Trump as a diversion from previously respectable norms – ‘this isn’t normal! This isn’t America! Cheeto Man bad!’ But I don’t see Trump as an aberration from ‘normal, civil, respectable’ presidents before him. His recent predecessors followed a broadly similar right-wing economic programme abandoning citizens to poverty for the sake of Wall Street, and oversaw similar imperial and domestic crimes. The difference is a matter of scale and civility. He doesn’t have the grace to keep the mask on, he says the quiet part loud, he’s that notch more outrageous.

The Trump spectacle is utterly reprehensible. But turning back the clock to what came before him is not the answer. It wasn’t so great, and after all, it led to him!

America, when Trump leaves office, please don’t settle for a neoliberal warmonger who performs bipartisan civility, sigh in relief, and say ‘things are back to normal’.


4 thoughts on “The Myth of Pre-Trump Civility

  1. Yeah, Naomi Klein argued down the same line: Trump being exactly in line with the nature of politics. He is representative of its wrongs as opposed to standing outside of it.

    Also, the nostalgia goggles always sanitise people when political figures are always very complicated persons.

    Tl;dr: you’re bang on the money. As usual.

    Liked by 1 person

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