George W. Nostradamus
I’ve been researching the use (and abuse) of history lately, and that brought me to “The Power of the Past,” an excellent new collection of essays published by Brookings. One essay looks at the role historical awareness played in the administration of George W. Bush. Its authors are Peter Feaver and William Inboden, political scientists who also served on Bush’s second-term National Security Council.
To lay my prejudices bare, I didn’t expect much. There’s a reason why the label “incurious George” stuck. But Feaver and Inboden argue Bush was a voracious reader of history. He may arguably (I would certainly argue it!) have drawn bad lessons from his studies, but study he did.
But that’s a discussion for another time. What struck me reading the essay — at a time when I spend much of my day gaping at the odious parade that is the Trump campaign — were comments Bush made in March, 2008.
After a speech at the Economic Club of New York, Bush was asked about declining support for free trade. He delivered a long, extemporaneous response. Feaver and Inboden quote part of it.
“The two run side by side — isolationism and protectionism. I might throw another ‘ism.’ That’s ‘nativism.’ And what’s what happened throughout our history. And probably the most grim reminder of what can happen to America during periods of isolationism and protectionism is what happened in the late – in the ’30s, when we had this ‘America first’ policy, and Smoot-Hawley. And look where that got us.”
I got a chill reading that. Isolationism, protectionism, nativism: It’s the Trump campaign. Bush even cited “America first,” which Trump appropriated for himself (whether he knew its history or not).
Granted, it’s a fairly commonplace observation about recurring themes in American political culture. But it’s true and important. And Bush grasped it, articulated it well, and simultaneously delivered some hellacious foreshadowing.