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American Mugabe

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Message David Michael Green

Most Americans really don’t understand their president.

And, no, I’m not even talking about the thirty percent or so who still give him a positive approval rating. I’m not sure those folks understand anything.

Among the remaining seventy percent, however, I would estimate that the vast bulk still have not fully apprehended what we’re dealing with here. Because what we’re dealing with is nothing short of an American Mugabe.

Even among the vast majority who disapprove of Bush’s performance as president, the typical sentiments expressed toward him are exactly that – essentially characterized by a disapproval of his performance. It’s easy to see Bush as inept, unintelligent, stubborn, lazy and dogmatic, because he is certainly all those things, and he should therefore be seen in that accurate light.

But this view of Bush is also, paradoxically, highly inaccurate, because it is so radically incomplete. It is as if one were to observe a vicious dog once only, while it was at rest. Since it is true that the animal sometimes rests, the perception of it as a (sometimes) peaceful creature would in one sense be quite accurate. But, by virtue of what was omitted, that perception would also be simultaneously woefully incomplete, and therefore woefully inaccurate.

Bush is an arrogant and incapable buffoon, ridiculously puffed up with his rigidly held assurance of his own greatness by definition (as in, "I know I’m doing the right thing – and God agrees when I talk to him – so therefore I am, any and all evidence to the contrary.") Most Americans now see that, even if they were embarrassingly slow to get there (and they were).

But what is more distressing is that the crimes of this president run infinitely deeper than this, to the point where, ironically, his more mundane failures actually serve as something of an alibi and a cover for what ‘surges’ powerfully below.

Failure, laziness, arrogance – these are crimes of character and ability. And while most Americans wouldn’t want a casual acquaintance – let alone a president – to possess those qualities, they still don’t come anywhere near to defining the essence of George W. Bush, because they ignore the question of motive. To see only these aspects of Bush, however unflattering they truly are, is to see the dog at rest. There is much, much more to observe.

But Americans are well-positioned to not make those observations, for at least three powerful reasons.

The first is our training. We are raised to revere our presidents, generally. Americans have no equivalent to the British Queen or the German president as head of state. There is no symbolic position here that sits above politics and embodies the hopes and aspirations of the nation. All of that, along with the more tangible governing powers of a chief executive, are invested in our president, and while we may often disagree with the president, or disparage his moral failings, most of us are quite unprepared to imagine that his motives are other than pure.

Very few of us could conceive of a president who was unpatriotic or, worse yet, a traitor, unless faced with massive empirical evidence which was undeniable. (And which many of the thirty percent would, in fact, nevertheless still continue to deny – provided, of course, that the president in question continued to mutter the proper religious shibboleths, and bought-off the right members of our pathetic Pantheon of Piety.)

The second reason that we are unable to fully perceive the true nature of George W. Bush is because Karl Rove has picked up from where the default starting place of this presumptive presidential reverence leaves off and pumped us to the gills with a full-court press Madison Avenue mega-campaign, extolling the fabricated virtues of this particular president. Every other reference, in every single speech, is to 9/11. Every photo-op has soldiers and flags in the background. (Though maimed troops are carefully excluded. But thanks for your service, guys. Really!)

If you didn’t know better (which is precisely the intent), you’d think that George Bush was a tough combat veteran (he’s not) who flew headlong into danger on 9/11 without regard for his personal safety (he didn’t), in order to begin his undaunted mission to guarantee America’s security (he isn’t). You’re also meant to believe that he bravely went to Iraq to fight terrorism over there rather than here at home. Never mind that there wasn’t any there before, and that our own intelligence agencies have concluded that we have created the world’s most efficient terrorist factory by our invasion of the country.

In fact, the only reason Dear Leader himself ever went to Iraq was to get his picture taken holding a plastic turkey, before getting the hell out of there as fast as he could. It would not surprise me in the slightest to learn that the man holding the plastic turkey was a plastic presidential stand-in as well. Don’t forget that this is a president who ran from Vietnam to the Texas Air National Guard, ran from 9/11 to Nebraska, and had to have his presidential debate responses radioed in to him. Like Strawberry Fields, when it comes to this guy, nothing is real. Forever. Rove has this faux hero pumped full to the brim with patriotism enhancement drugs, the political equivalent of Barry Bonds.

As if all that doesn’t make it hard enough, there is a third reason we don’t think of Bush as anything more than inept, foolish and arrogant, and that is because many of us just can’t go there. When very young Americans experience their initial political socialization, their first awareness is of the president. And, as we know from research findings, that apprehension is of a daddy figure who will keep us safe and protected.

In much the same way, therefore, that a father molesting his child represents the deepest possible violation of the trust that the vulnerable invest in their supposed protector, few Americans are psychologically prepared to imagine their president as something far, far worse than a fool. That scary possibility cuts deep, right to the existential core, and too many of us have too many layers of psychological Kevlar protecting that vulnerable center to ever penetrate. Cave, hic dragones.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
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