Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect new developments.
The conventional wisdom regarding Donald Trump’s staff shake-up this week—which saw the departure of the beleaguered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—was that Trump was coming into his own, surrounding himself with like-minded “America First” hawks and populists after a year of giving representatives of the Republican establishment a voice in the Oval Office. Coming a week after Trump unilaterally imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, Tillerson’s departure pulled “the Trump administration further out of the economic and foreign policy mainstream,” The New York Times wrote, adding, “It also suggests that after a year of chaotic on-the-job training, Mr. Trump has developed more confidence in his own instincts.” Other establishment figures, like National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, are reportedly on their way out.
But if this represented a break from the Republican mainstream, the names that surfaced in the headlines this week were awfully familiar. Gina Haspel, who once controlled her own CIA black site in Thailand, is Trump’s pick to lead the CIA. If confirmed she’ll replace Mike Pompeo, who was nominated to replace Tillerson. John Bolton, the hawk who was George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, is rumored to be McMaster’s replacement.
In major respects, Trump’s presidency is following outlines chalked out by Bush, the cowboy-in-chief whose populist appeal was enhanced by his belligerent foreign policy. On issues ranging from torture to immigration to abortion, Trump is reviving the bad old days of the Bush administration. (Bush even imposed tariffs on steel, a largely forgotten appeal to the American manufacturing industry that shows just how unoriginal Trump supposed iconoclasm really is.) Trump is no deviation, no mutation, no surprise. He is a continuation.
Bush has lately enjoyed a rehabilitation, though he didn’t have to work very hard for it. “Sorta makes me look pretty good, doesn’t it?” Bush reportedly said of Trump. Some politicians and pundits seem to agree with him. “I’m so sorry, President Bush,” Nancy Pelosi said after mistakenly referring to Trump by Bush’s name. “I never thought I would pray for the day that you are president again.” When Bush in 2017 accused Trump of promoting a “nationalism distorted into nativism,” CNN said that he’d given Trump “a verbal lapel-shaking.”
But nativism infused Bush’s policies. He may have called for religious tolerance, but he invaded two Muslim countries and his lackeys tortured and imprisoned and profiled Muslim men. Bush never uttered the words “America First,” but they were embedded in every policy, every speech.
Haspel was a prominent example of how Bush’s nationalism curdled into something uglier. She monitored the torture of Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, then ordered the destruction of the evidence.* Haspel wasn’t a mere administrator, not that passivity would excuse her. She was a leading figure in the torture regime. This did not disqualify her from becoming the deputy director of the CIA, her current post; with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer refusing to campaign against her nomination, it probably won’t disqualify her from leading the agency either.
To Trump, Haspel’s torture past recommends her for office. He’s insisted that torture “absolutely works,” even though it doesn’t. (Haspel herself could tell him this, since the torture of Zubaydah never gleaned any valuable intelligence.) But while Trump has certainly upended presidential norms in other ways, his rhetoric and political appointments don’t deviate much from patterns established by his predecessors in the Bush administration. They spoke in euphemisms (Dick Cheney: “We also have to work sort of the dark side, if you will”) and translated torture into official government legalese (See: John Yoo’s torture memos), but the underlying sentiment was the same.
Like Bush, Trump is comfortable with torture. Despite his anti-interventionist campaign rhetoric, he is comfortable with war-mongering, too. He loves the troops and America. Trump is louder, and crudely racist and sexist, so he casts a harsh light. Against that light, Bush seems like a relic of a better past. But it’s an optical illusion. As my colleague Jeet Heer previously wrote, Bush nostalgia enables a form of historical revisionism. Under false pretenses, Bush launched a war in Iraq that led to at least 165,000 civilian deaths by 2015. He and his administration bear responsibility for creating the power void that helped birth ISIS.
Part of the problem is that there has been little accountability for any of these crimes. Influential members of his administration have suffered no consequences at all. Dick Cheney enjoys a comfortable retirement, and so does Donald Rumsfeld. John Yoo teaches at Berkeley. Instead of being prosecuted by the Obama administration, Haspel ultimately became deputy director of the CIA. This is not a memory hole, it’s an abyss.
Liberals are happier to rage at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its draconian push to round up undocumented immigrants. But they are less likely to mention that Bush is the reason ICE even exists. ICE is one of Bush’s worst domestic legacies: Trump has only realized the agency’s fascist potential.
Liberals also wring their hands, rightly, over news that Trump’s director of the office of refugee resettlement actively blocks the abortions of pregnant teens in immigration detention. But on abortion, the Trump administration also resembles the Bush administration. Both administrations revived the Mexico City policy, which bans U.S. funding to non-governmental organizations that even mention abortion to their clients. Both administrations promote abstinence-only sex education.
Similarly, the Trump administration’s approach to LGBT rights mirrors that of its Republican predecessor. Trump’s Justice Department has argued that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect against discrimination on the basis of gender identity; Trump’s Education Department rescinded an Obama-era rule that required public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. Trump’s piety, of course, is suspect, while Bush is a true believer. But the sincerity of Trump’s Christianity is not really the issue. He is happy to let the Christian right dictate policy that does not personally interest him. The Christian right owes its current influence in part to Bush, who mainstreamed it in ways that his father and Ronald Reagan did not. Here, again, Trump is Bush’s inheritor.
Which is to say that Trump is simply a Republican. The worst excesses of his administration have traceable origins, and they implicate former presidents. We’re all still sitting in the debris of George W. Bush’s presidency. Gina Haspel is just one artifact.