Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
The death of George Herbert Walkr Bush had the rarest of knock-on effects in the current political climate: it united Washington and bridged the political divides that have hang over today’s political and social culture. Regardless of one’s politics, it was impossible to look beyond a lifetime of military and political service that came to an end after 94 years.
The most memorable image was that of President Bush’s service dog, Sully, laying beside a flag-draped casket. Sully will return to America’s VetDogs, a charity that provides companions for former veterans and, in no time at all, America will return to a more combative politics. Bush senior is the first President to lie in state since the death of President Ford in 2006. Only 32 people have ever lain in state in the Rotunda, including John McCain who died earlier this year.
Donald Trump visited the Rotunda to pay his respects, having clashed in the past with the former President. To say their relationship was uneasy is something of an understatement. In Mark Updegrove’s The Last Republicans, the author reports that Bush voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and called Trump a “blowhard”. The New York Times reported that ‘“at the mere mention of Trump’s name, 41 made a face. ‘He’s an ass,’ he snapped.”’
Whilst the visit was clearest manifestation of an uneasy peace, Trump’s attitude and approach to the living presidents that came before him paint a clearer picture of his attitudes to presidential predecessors.
The “Former Presidents Club” is one of the most exclusive groupings in the world. It has also traditionally been a rich resource for the sitting president to call on the expertise and experience of his predecessors. Not so for Trump, who tends to view those who came before him as adversaries who must to be sparred with. According to CNN, Trump has only spoken to George W Bush a handful of times, and has not engaged with Barack Obama directly since they parted ways in front of the Capitol building two years ago. Indirectly, of course, Trump finds reasons to attack Obama on Twitter with effortless frequency.
The current President has also found flaws with the non-presidential members of the Bush family. Trump decried Jeb Bush, a competitor in the 2016 Republican primary, as being “low energy”, while Bush in turn painted Donald Trump as a friend of Hillary Clinton. Trump has never been a fan of the Bush family legacy, and has said: “We need another Bush in office about as much as we need Obama to have a 3rd term. No more Bushes!” During the heat of the 2016 campaign, Barbara Bush, the matriarch of the family, described Trump as a “comedian” and a “showman”. It was perhaps telling that after her death, the White House announced that Trump would not attend her funeral. It remains open to debate whether that was by choice or due to the lack of an invitation.
The former President was undoubtedly different from his successor, and not just in personality and temperament. In many ways, 41’s death could be seen to symbolise the death of what the Republican Party once was. Bush was a man of free markets and the emergence of the “small government” doctrine which (until Trump) has been the foundation of the mainstream GOP. On the global stage, the Bush presidency saw the emergence of the United States as the unchallenged power in a post-Cold War world. With it came a renewed commitment to American interventionism, and the firm belief that the US should seek to mould the “New World Order” – a phrase coined by Bush in a speech to the UN. This vision is at total odds with Trump’s pre-World War Two-style American isolationism and his ‘America First’ doctrine.
To the credit of the President and the White House, the memorial events of this week have been attended with respect. But, even then, the temptation of Twitter is only a smartphone away – and so, during a week of solemn reflection in Washington, we have had tweets about the Paris climate agreement, Robert Mueller, the wall…the list goes on. It was a fresh reminder of the new normal in American politics – that civility is a rarity and combativeness is a permanent requirement.
Political anger suits both sides in a country in which party loyalty is rewarded and bipartisanship punished. The likes of George H.W Bush and Senator John McCain, both of whom died this year, have become the exception and not the rule. Their approach to politics is that of a dying breed, replaced by new ways that waste no time worrying about national unity. With our own nation divided by Brexit, it is a desperate reminder to our political leaders to maintain a level of cooperation and class even when others around them are lowering the bar.