Republicans are fleeing the GOP because of Trump but the rot started long before he was president

george w bush trump bigotry
Former President George W. Bush Photo: YouTube screenshot

The political fallout continues from the insurrection that was the culmination of the Trump presidency. According to a report from Reuters, dozens of former Bush officials have fled the party in the wake of the deadly Capitol riot.

The flight from the GOP by the former officials echoes that of rank-and-file members. Thousands of voters in such pivotal states as Colorado, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, have decided that they’re fed up with the party and have switched their registration to independent or (gasp!) Democrat.

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While the exodus is a sign that at least some Republicans have had enough, the sad part is it took a lethal riot to convince them to go.

Moreover, Trump was not an aberration in the party. While he was different in degree, he was hardly different in kind. That’s especially true of the Bush administration. As much as Trump and his followers like to bury Bush, in several key respects, the Bush presidency was the harbinger of Trump’s.

One aspect is Trump’s embrace of the culture wars and the religious right. Bush courted some of the worst figures on the religious right, like Jerry Falwell and Lou Sheldon. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention boasted that the Bush administration actively reached out to conservative evangelicals to get their take on policy positions. As much as Trump empowered the religious right as his core base, he was only copying Bush.

In terms of dividing people through a culture war, Bush perfected that approach by using marriage equality as a cudgel in his 2004 re-election campaign. A slew of state ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriages were on the ballot that year, and they certainly boosted Bush’s efforts in key states, like Ohio.

The Bush presidency also offered a template on how to politicize science. The Bush administration dragged its heels on approving an HPV vaccine, which prevents the leading cause of cervical cancer because conservatives were afraid it promoted premarital sex.  The administration muzzled scientists working on climate change and explicitly worked to undermine the overwhelming evidence that fossil fuels contribute to climate change.

Finally, as much as people argue that cruelty was the point of the Trump presidency, Bush did a fine job of giving it the presidential seal. Nowhere was that truer than the Bush policy of torturing prisoners of war, a violation of the Geneva convention. The fact that it was ostensibly in service against terrorism didn’t make the policy any less repugnant. It just made it clear that presidents can toss aside basic principles that the nation had considered sacred.

Trump was certainly more ham-fisted and more extreme in his tactics. Bush would know enough not to recommend mainlining bleach to cure COVID. But just because Bush acted the part of president doesn’t mean he wasn’t extreme in his own right.

Apparently, a deadly insurrection was the line in the sand that a lot of Republicans couldn’t cross. But it’s not like they didn’t cross a lot of other lines already. Donald Trump was not a symptom of sickness in the Republican party. He’s the apotheosis of sickness that the GOP has been cultivating for years.

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