On 10th July 2002, a small team of CIA operatives entered Iraq as part of a covert mission designed to prepare the ground for what was to come. Less than a year later, in the early hours of a March morning, without any declaration of war, a quarter of a million US, UK, Australian and other aligned nation troops marched into Iraq. A decade on, something between half a million and over a million Iraqis would lie dead, their lives extinguished and their nation and region smashed, for no reason other than the financial and geopolitical interests of the US empire.
At the same time, the US regime that enacted this slaughter abroad would use its decade in power to institute a sweeping stripping of citizen rights by way of a mass expansion of secret domestic electronic surveillance; it would hasten the pace of the world’s hurtling toward climate collapse by a gleeful gutting of regulation designed to combat it and by elevating energy industry insiders to policy-adjacent appointments; and it would extend a never-more-friendly embrace towards Wall Street and the financial industry, cementing further the certainty of that fateful financial crash which would immiserate millions and come to define the political landscape of the modern day.
Of course, that’s just scratching the surface. A full accounting of the way the George W. Bush administration accelerated and amplified many of the worst impulses—both domestic and international—of the American state would be exhausting. And naturally George W. Bush didn’t act alone. The President of the United States is just one figure in the toxic tapestry of politicians, lobbyists, and business figures that is America’s ruling class. The number extends to the thousands and maybe low millions when you broaden your scope to the wealthy who may not always have a direct route to the levers of power, but who nevertheless—often purely by virtue of their status—also belong to that class and thus have sway over the direction of a nation. It is a class that shows continuously displays tremendous amounts of class solidarity.
In the latter years of his Presidency, George W. Bush was at the lower ebb of his social standing. The massacre of Iraq—initially provided with near-blanket support by a compliant media—was no longer as easy to sell as a justifiable act as it was in its early days when many were able to be made to deny clear evidence and reasonable thinking by post-9/11 shock and the rise of feverish American nationalism. His expansion of an illegal global torture program had tainted his image too—though not nearly enough by the standards of any decent society. And his retrograde and hateful domestic policies had come to define him more in many peoples’ eyes after the initial ‘war time President’ sheen had worn off—though the fact that that sheen had ever allowed to exist in the first place was shocking enough. As his term ended, George W. Bush receded away from the spotlight, and was referenced often as just an unfortunate, unsavoury stain on the conscience of a nation showing its newly enlightened status and its avatar in the shape of President Barack Obama—a man who would continue, and often expand upon, many of the indefensible policies that Bush began.
Less than a decade after George W. Bush left office, as America and the world still reeled from the state he had left it in, how would the former President find himself treated when he decided it was time to resurface onto the public stage? Naturally, it would be with a warm welcome onto the comfy sofa of an ostensibly progressive chat show host, with rapturous cheering from the studio audience.
Bush was on a promotional tour for his then newly released book of portraits and essays on American military leaders: ‘Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors’. He also appeared on—among others—Jimmy Kimmel’s show. Around that same time, you could find op-eds in national newspapers arguing for the relative decency of the Bush administration as compared to the loud hollering horror show that was the Trump Presidency. Pundits on major networks would often turn to this rhetorical device too. Social media became host to numerous photos of Bush smiling and laughing along with President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, with people lamenting how they missed those ‘simpler, more refined’ days.
A good day to pause and cherish the memory of better times. pic.twitter.com/kiKmQcktpa— Valerie Jarrett (@ValerieJarrett) September 25, 2019
I wrote about this nauseating, reflexive group-think effort at image rehabilitation at the time, saying:
We have such a visceral, emotional reaction to Donald Trump’s awfulness, that anything seems good by comparison. Nostalgia, already a sinister beast, works overdrive in its whitewashing of the past when the present is such a goddamn sh*tshow. We crave that kind of release.
That’s how you end up with George W. Bush, once a disdained and scorned figure, chatting it up on a sofa with Ellen Degeneres, all happy smiles and frothy nonsense. That’s how, less than a decade after leaving office, dominant images of the man become warm, humanising ones featuring embraces with Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. That’s how you allow the Overton Window to creep ever rightwards.
It took less than ten years from Bush’s departure from office underneath a reasonably strong cloud of media disdain to his embrace by the ‘liberal’-centrist sphere as a cuddly, lovable reminder of a ‘simpler time’ in American politics—because it wasn’t always just the conservative right who seemed keen on this transformation, but often those most passionate about this seemed to be those ostensibly on the other side of the political spectrum. Less than ten years for the sins of a man at the helm of one of the most damaging adminstrations in modern memory to be apparently forgotten. And while the naturally short-term memory of American social and political discourse and the crass nature of Trump’s hateful and dangerous administration making many cry out for any alternative play a part in this, the primary cause of this all-too-predictable turn is something else. It’s class solidarity, pure and simple.
Over the weekend, a picture emerged of Ellen Degeneres sat at an NFL game, in close proximity to George W. Bush, which provided a neat little encapsulation of what this looks like. Lainey wrote about it in Pajiba Love.
President George W. Bush and Ellen Degeneres at the Cowboys Packers game today pic.twitter.com/b1gxkXnc4G— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) October 6, 2019
Around the same time, a quite remarkable video was making the rounds on social media, made by a supporter of the Bernie Sanders campaign and aimed at showing the discrepancy between the media’s coverage of Sanders and the mass movement of ordinary people that has risen up in response to the Senator’s tireless fight for greater social and economic justice. This is it:
I don’t know who the Democrats will nominate in 2020, but I do know that when we look back at this moment many years from now, we will remember how @BernieSanders was treated simply for pushing us to be a more decent and compassionate nation. pic.twitter.com/G4YSRX0JGf— Walker Bragman (@WalkerBragman) October 4, 2019
And here is its original YouTube version on its creator’s page:
What’s interesting isn’t just the content of the video—which truly does a great job of showing how well-off pundits sat in newsrooms treat a mass movement asking for a measure of justice with disdain, scorn, or dismissal, based often purely on entirely superficial things like a politician’s hair or tone of voice; all a manifestation of an establishment taking stock of, and trying to deal with in any way it can, an existential threat to a status quo that benefits it handsomely—but also the reaction to it. Not to dunk on anyone in particular, but British comedian Noel Fielding’s tweet in response to the video proved illuminating:
I wish this country had a Bernie. Every country needs a Bernie x x https://t.co/2B6AEQ0re4— noel fielding (@noelfielding11) October 5, 2019
The response from the left was predictable:
Sanders is quite vocal in his admiration for Corbyn & says he draws inspiration from his approach to politics.— rob delaney (@robdelaney) October 6, 2019
Both Sanders and Corbyn have their strengths and weaknesses. They are each other’s political equivalents, however, relative to their respective different political contexts.— Owen Jones🌹 (@OwenJones84) October 6, 2019
Ridiculous for @noelfielding11 to talk up Bernie but not Corbyn when they are the most alike politicians in the West today, openly admire each other & are both attacked and belittled in eerily similar ways by comfortable people like Noel Fielding https://t.co/fbkPVpLNHd— René #rentcontrolnow (@rcmoya84) October 6, 2019
I could take any of Bernie Sanders policies and show the exact same thing from Jeremy Corbyn. Noel wants you to believe we don't have a Bernie Sanders. He's lying, we have better. https://t.co/OhU9WpDNcb pic.twitter.com/5b2mD70JUU— Badrick Super socialist🇵🇸🇾🇪🇸🇸🇻🇪🇭🇹🇨🇺 (@SocialistSuper) October 6, 2019
Noel Fielding has never come across particularly political, but he has paid lip service to progressive causes over the years and is certainly seen by many to be, broadly speaking, on the left of the spectrum. Which is why this tweet—if taken at face value and treated as sincere—seems to have taken many by surprise. It shouldn’t have. It’s easy to be supportive of social change when that social change doesn’t threaten your status quo. Noel Fielding lives in London. Bernie Sanders and his message may well be tremendously inspiring to Fielding. Yet none of the material changes proposed by Sanders would ever impact him, so why not elevate and celebrate when you stand to lose nothing. The apparent blindness shown to Corbyn—a figure so obviously Britain’s parallel in so many ways to Sanders, from his political positions to his treatment by the media—speaks volumes.
Whether it’s actively damaging, complicit nonsense like Bush appearing on Ellen and Kimmel or Fielding’s more subtle erasure of an establishment-challenging politician close to home, these behaviours reveal the inner workings of wealth and power. The rich inhabit a different world to the rest of us. It’s a world that plays by an entirely distinct set of rules, and there is an unspoken yet wildly powerful, often purely subconscious allegiance that those who live in it have for each other. They go to the same ball games. They holiday at the same resorts and attend the same parties. There is a reason wealthy celebrities in America line up to endorse empty centrists like Cory Booker or Pete Buttigieg. Whether they realise it or not, they have a vested interest in things staying the same. Structural change is not on the menu. These candidates represent—at best—a minor tweaking of the status quo. Wealth is the language all these people speak, and every rich person knows how lucky they are to live the gilded life they do—and they carry a tremendous amount of proportional fear at the thought of ever losing that privilege.
Due to a recent socialist insurgency represented by mass, grassroots movements centred around Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US, there is a lot of that fear going round at the moment. One of the new, young, proudly socialist working class MPs who entered Parliament in the Corbyn wave of 2017 and who serves in his Shadow Cabinet is Laura Pidcock, Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Upon entering Parliament one of the most striking things Pidcock noticed was the chummy nature that existed there between many members of parties that were apparently meant to be at odds, but which nevertheless showed many signs of the anything of the sort. Tories and Lib Dems and Labour Party MPs socialising with each other, joking and drinking together. Pidcock addressed this in an interview in which she touched upon the different types of Tory politician she had noticed, and whether she felt she could ever be friends with any of them:
Whatever type they are, I have absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them. I have friends I choose to spend time with. I go to parliament to be a mouthpiece for my constituents and class - I’m not interested in chatting on.
I feel disgusted at the way they’re running this country, it’s visceral - I’m not interested in being cosy.
The idea that they’re not the enemy is simply delusional when you see the effect they have on people - a nation where lots of people live in a constant state of fear whether they even have enough to eat.
Sums it up, really.
On both sides of the Atlantic there has been a decades-long war against the working class, and it has brought not just those people but the planet to the very brink of collapse. It has been waged by governments fully captured by capitalist interests, and perpetuated by a cultural sphere obsessed with individualism, greed, spectacle, and consumerism. Even ostensibly ‘progressive’ celebrities are so far removed from reality, cushioned from the worst excesses of capital by the zero-sum privilege provided by that capital at the opposite end of the class spectrum, that they reveal their true colours when push comes to shove. Whether spoken or not, class solidarity among the rich is very real, very powerful, and it’s complicit in bringing us to the dire straits we now find ourselves in. Don’t be surprised if in a few years after he leaves office, Trump—if somehow still alive—finds himself nestled comfortably on that Fallon sofa again, grinning along with the host and being cheered by the crowd.
Image sources (in order of posting): YouTube, The Ellen Show, The Washington Post