What is truly astonishing is how each Republican president makes us nostalgic for the one before.
Remember George W Bush. A mere nine years ago he was the worst president we’ve ever had. He started two wars he couldn’t win, destabilising the Middle East and leaving it in a state of what appears to be permanent multi-sided civil wars. While he was doing that, he pursued economic policies that led to a worldwide financial implosion followed by the Great Recession.
And what a liar. Remember “weapons of mass destruction” and the connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein?
But at least W’s lies were professionally produced. They were crafted and honed before he told them. Sure, they were backed by fake facts, but they were carefully selected so as not to have been refuted earlier in the same sentence. Or by a tweet the next day. They were lies a guy could repeat, smoothly, for years, and even, when the winds of reality exposed actual facts, a guy could regretfully claim that he was fooled along with all the rest of us.
George W Bush made his dad, George H W Bush, look really good – almost great – by comparison. He was a real old-fashioned kind of president, fact-based by nature, who only went the fiction route when politics forced him to. For example, he knew Reaganomics – the policies later embraced by his son – was Voodoo Economics and that the Laffer curve, so aptly named, was laughable. He only embraced these policies when his party made him swear by them. When they did what they were bound to do – produce massive deficits and a recession – he raised taxes, improving the economy and ruining his political career.
He knew how to win a war, get out when it was over, and leave the place sufficiently intact that he didn’t have to stay to keep order. He even knew how to pay for it.
Okay, I admit it, George H W Bush did not make me nostalgic for his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. But nor did he make me think his successor, among Republicans, would make me realise, ex post facto, that I have to rate him damn good by Republican standards because he didn’t leave the country worse than he found it.
Ronald Reagan takes us back to the issue of lies. He was a transformative figure when it came to dishonesty. He appears to have frequently lived in a world of fictions, good stories that served his purposes. A very Hollywood approach. Sadly, for us, not for him, he had the style and the charm that made them seem like forgivable fabrications instead of malignant mendacity. The penalties for deceit melted away. They have never returned.
Republicans loved him. They called his regime “morning in America”. There was a sharp decline in manufacturing. Income and wealth inequality made its return and they’ve never looked back.
Oh, it makes one long for the days of Richard Nixon.
I skip over Gerald Ford. He wasn’t bad. But he sort of wasn’t there. He was appointed vice president when Spiro Agnew had to resign – in those days corruption actually mattered! Then he became president when Nixon resigned. He was a dignified place holder until there could be a real election.
Ah, Richard Nixon. Tricky Dick may have been paranoid and nasty, rising in politics through slander, and somewhat criminal, but he was smart, hard-working, and knowledgeable. He lived through the New Deal and America’s victory in World War II, so he understood that government could solve problems. He opened relations with China, established detente with the USSR and negotiated the first arms control treaties with them.
He formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and supported the Clean Air Act (though he vetoed the Clean Water Act – we should breathe, but not bathe?). He also established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which contemporary Republicans hate almost as much as the EPA. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment which would have made women constitutionally the equal of men.
Can you imagine that? A Republican who is pro-environment, pro-labour, and pro-women’s rights? It’s beyond fantasy.
Of course, Nixon made us long for Dwight Eisenhower.
Eisenhower has grown ever greater in retrospect. He had a knack of leveraging the appearance of modesty and reserve to becoming Supreme Allied Commander and then president for two terms. Both of them are remembered as mostly boring.
There were only three moments of drama. When the Supreme Court ordered integration, Ike sent federal troops to walk the children to school.
He denied that the US flew spy planes over Russia. The Soviets had proof. Americans were shocked that their president had lied.
His chief of staff accepted a vicuna coat as a gift from a shady character. When it was discovered, he had to resign.
Aside from that, he continued the New Deal, ended one war, didn’t start any new ones, and gave us eight years of peace and prosperity.
How did the Republican Party move from Dwight Eisenhower – honest, veracious, and immensely competent – to Donald Trump – lying, defiantly corrupt, totally inept? It was a series of deliberate moves from the right, combined with errors on the left. Prophets of unleashed capitalism and individualism found willing sponsors with deep pockets who hated taxes and rules that held them back. After Reagan’s triumph, the left decided it had pushed leftist economics too far, and embraced minority group interests. The right seized on that, to break up any remaining sense of the Great US.
Well-funded, well-promoted, they peddled a vision of “I, me, mine”. With some religion to make it righteous. And resentment for motivation. So they morphed from Ike, to Tricky Dick, to Bush the Lesser, to the very personification of “I, me, mine”.
Larry Beinhart is a novelist, best known for Wag the Dog. He’s also been a journalist, political consultant, a commercial producer and director.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.