Earlier this summer, I was having coffee with an old friend of mine, and the conversation turned to American Presidents. I remember specifically when he asked me to compare George W. Bush and Richard Nixon. A few years ago, at the height of the second Iraq invasion (the ‘successful’ one), I would have put them on about the same level. But now, I’m not so sure.
Through the twisting webs of facebook, I discovered a blog post on Psychology Today written just after the Republican National Convention meeting officially ratifying John McCain and Sarah Palin as their Presidential nominees. Despite a hopelessly provocative title, the post described a high quality study of what psychological traits were most common among conservative thinkers. The study discovered paranoia, fear of death, fear of change, intolerance of ambiguous situations or answers.
It actually made a lot of sense to me. I no longer see a firm disconnect between one’s personality and one’s political beliefs. One’s political attitudes are shaped by personal thoughts about what people are, and how different groups of people interact. So the conservative thought patterns of hostility to foreigners, anti-pluralism, conformity, the retention of the status quo despite inequality, poverty, or counter-productive economics are the political articulations of these personalities.
I’ve been thinking about W lately because American conservatives today are so very different from him. When I compared W to Nixon in that conversation, I realized that W actually wasn’t so bad. He surrounded himself with advisors who brought out the worst in some of his policy positions, like the invasion of Iraq for the sake of ‘democracy.’ But W actually believed in democracy. He believed Islam was a religion of peace, having met people in his alcoholism programs who healed themselves through faith in Allah, while he chose Jesus.
And W understood that the repressive governments of the Middle East provoked the very radicalism they fought so violently. Of course, he completely screwed up any possible success he might have had, because the Iraq invasion was a ham-handed piece of political idiocy operated at almost every level by morons. But he was doing it for democracy, or at least that’s what he always believed.
What Cheney believed was another story altogehter.
W was never anti-immigrant in the racist way a lot of major conservatives are today. In a recent article on The Daily Beast, they quote W from his days as Texas governor speaking about Mexican illegal immigrants in a humanizing way. W understood that Mexican immigrants were sneaking across the border because Mexican workers are egregiously underpaid, and that jobs in the USA would bring much more income back to their families. It’s a far cry from Jan Brewer’s paranoid shrieking about invasions of Mexican coke mules onto every suburban street corner in Phoenix.
What fascinates me about W are the contradictions and paradoxes that inform his personality. He was a political idealist at the centre of a corrupt administration. He saw the good in many people, even though his campaign machine was based around polarizing Americans and provoking conflict among them. His universals were black and white, good and evil. But when you sat down to talk with him as a singular person, he listened and tried to understand.
The real tragedy is that the hateful American conservatisms on the rise are so much more poisonous and poisoned than the poster boy for twenty-first century conservatism. Enjoy your retirement, George.