Argument

Counting Presidential Dead Is a Distraction

It doesn’t matter whether Bush or Trump was worse when the problems are the same.

New Yorkers hold a memorial march marking 200,000 COVID-19 deaths
New Yorkers hold a memorial march marking 200,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, on Sept. 20. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Former U.S. President George W. Bush comes up in the news with some frequency. He was trending on social media earlier this summer when he eulogized Rep. John Lewis. Then earlier this month, on the anniversary of 9/11, the liberal commenter Paul Krugman posted an ill-considered tweet in which he credited Bush with preventing a “mass outbreak of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence” following the terrorist attacks.

Every time Bush’s name surfaces like this, U.S. commentators in the press and social media have the same conversation. Centrists point out how presidential and responsible he is compared to President Donald Trump. Those on the left then claim that Bush’s administration in general, and his Iraq War record in particular, is being whitewashed. One common talking point is that Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in more deaths than Trump’s coronavirus pandemic response.

But arguing about who is worse, Bush or Trump, obscures their similarities. It’s not an accident that the last two Republican presidencies have ended in failure, mass death, and economic crisis. In some cases, tallying up the dead can be a distraction from preventing more harm in the future.

The main problem with comparing the number of dead under Bush and Trump is that those numbers are very difficult to nail down. Estimates of deaths in Iraq from the war, for example, range from around 50,000 to more than 750,000. A good guess is somewhere around half a million deaths, but it could easily be much lower or much higher than that—depending in part on how you reckon them, whether by direct violence or the indirect destruction caused by social and civil collapse.

There are similar problems with estimating COVID-19 deaths under Trump. Currently, official estimates put the death toll at over 200,000 people in the United States. But some researchers believe that may be undercounting deaths by 28 percent, which would put the real number at more than 250,000. And, of course, we are still in the middle of the pandemic. Experts believe there could be hundreds of thousands more deaths if the United States doesn’t reassess its virus response. Absent a vaccine or treatment, the virus could continue to kill people for years.

There are even more uncertainties when you start to factor in the massive possible ripple effects from presidential decisions. Bush reportedly disregarded intelligence about potential terrorist attacks in the United States. When a CIA briefer warned him of an impending terrorist attack by Osama bin Laden, he responded, “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now,” and then went fishing. If Bush had taken the threat seriously, he might have been able to prevent 9/11. That would have saved close to 3,000 victims. It would have also prevented U.S. involvement in the Afghanistan War. There are no good estimates of the numbers killed in that nearly 20-year conflict, but the number is probably in the tens of thousands.

For his part, Trump had significantly more direct and explicit knowledge than Bush of impending disaster. He was warned about the coronavirus spread in early January but downplayed it for months, as he unwittingly confessed to the journalist Bob Woodward at the time. This had catastrophic effects for the United States. But it may also have hampered the global response. If the United States had responded immediately and aggressively, could global institutions have helped contain the virus in China? If the Trump administration had actually focused on the problem, could the United States, with its vast resources, have come up with better tests for the whole world? Taiwan, with less than a 10th of the population of the United States, was exporting masks by March, thanks to turning over factory production early. Trump’s failures may have contributed not just to the U.S. death toll, but also to the nearly 1 million deaths and counting worldwide.

Pinning down which president is responsible for how many deaths is difficult. But it’s easy to see that Bush and Trump had a similar formula for their policy failures.

It’s easy to see that Bush and Trump had a similar formula for their policy failures.

That formula, broadly, involved lack of knowledge and incuriosity. Trump’s refusal to read daily intelligence briefings is well known, and so is his monumental policy illiteracy. This is the man who wondered aloud whether people could inject disinfectant to kill the virus. (Obligatory disclaimer: Do not inject cleaning products under any circumstances.)

Bush’s ignorance was generally less flamboyant, but it was just as damaging. “Unprepared for the complexities of governing, with little executive experience and a glaring deficit in his attention span, untutored, untraveled, and unversed in the ways of the world, Bush thrived on making a show of his decisiveness,” Jean Edward Smith wrote in his 2016 biography Bush.

Condoleezza Rice once commented that Bush hated hearing that a foreign-policy problem was complicated. He saw combating terrorism as a “crusade” and blithely disregarded or lied about intelligence that contradicted his push for war. As with Trump, for Bush, intellectual laziness, motivated reasoning, and malevolence were indistinguishable. Trump was determined to ignore the virus; Bush was determined to invade Iraq. Facts, logic, and consequences didn’t matter.

Republicans have elected two presidents in a row with little interest in facts, logic, or consequences because the party itself is not interested in those things. As the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has explained, Republicans at least since Newt Gingrich have actively denigrated expertise and policy knowledge. Spurred on by a right-wing media bubble that prioritizes conspiracy theories and vapid resentment, the Republican Party has deliberately gutted legislative policy capacity. This is why, more than a decade after Republicans set themselves against Obamacare, they still have no coherent counter health care proposal.

The Republican contempt for policy goes along with Republican dismissal of accountability. Bush dedicated his presidency to eliminating checks on his own power. He gave intelligence agencies broad leeway to wiretap people in the United States without warrants and tossed aside international and domestic restrictions on torture. He appointed Supreme Court justices such as John Roberts who gutted the Voting Rights Act, allowing Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp to steal the governor’s election for candidate Brian Kemp during Trump’s tenure. Bush also repeatedly invoked executive privilege to block congressional oversight, foreshadowing Trump’s sweeping refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas.

Executive ignorance and authoritarianism impulses reinforce each other. A president who can operate without oversight is a president who doesn’t need to respond to opposing viewpoints. At worst, authoritarian leaders can ignore the well-being of the populace altogether, shielded alike from dissenting opinions and electoral consequences. Existing Republican efforts to disenfranchise and gerrymander their way to victory is of a piece with Trump’s reported indifference to virus deaths in states controlled by Democrats.

A political party indifferent alike to facts and to its constituents’ well-being is a political party that is going to leave large numbers of dead in its wake. You can argue about whether Bush or Trump is better or worse. But based on their example, it seems likely that the next Republican president, whether Trump or Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, can also be expected to do incalculable harm.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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