18 October 2004

Faith-based presidency

Ron Suskind has a terrific long article in The New York Times Magazine entitled Without A Doubt. Suskind marshalls some evidence to support a theory that GWB very literally believes that he's on a Mission from God, something folks like me have feared but suspected might just be a projection of my own ideas.

I was spooked by this little item from the Washington Post.

Bush proudly displays ... a roughly two-foot-high cross made of steel recovered from the World Trade Center wreckage.

Then there's this quote from 16 July 2004.

I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.

And there's Frontline's fascinating documentary, “The Jesus Factor” — which has a terrific website I highly recommend checking out.

So I know Bush's faith plays an important role in his thinking, and I know that Bush's handlers often imply a divine mandate when rallying the base. That's uncomfortable for a political secularist like me, but it's a discomfort that I think I have to live with in America, the most religious country in the industrialized world.

The question is, does Bush really believe it? Does the White House, as an organization? I've worried that Bush, a deeply religious man who has lived a charmed life, might read his strange ascension to the Presidency as God's hand at work, but I've recognized that such a scenario is lefty secularist paranoia. Or is it?

Suskind opens his article with a quote from a Republican.

Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that “if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.” The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.

“Just in the past few months,” Bartlett said, “I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.” Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: “This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them ....

“This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,” Bartlett went on to say. “He truly believes he's on a mission from God ...”

As I'm fond of suggesting, I think that Bush was originally chosen by the kingmakers of the conservative movement as an empty suit with name recognition that they could use to get their team into place in government, but once Bush was President, those same kingmakers, being conservatives, felt compelled to respect Bush's authority.

Suskind goes on to show how Bush's weird certainty in fact surfaces throughout the administration.

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That's not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Now is it just me, or is that sounding awfully Focauldian?

Foucault does not see power as formal, but as the various methods that ingrain themselves by way of social institutions and the positing of a form of truth.

So, for instance, when Foucault looks at the history of prisons, he does not merely look at the ways in which guards are physically given power (i.e. security systems, batons, etc) but in the way that they are socially given power - the way in which the prison is designed to give prisoners a particular idea of who they were, and to make them internalize particular methods of behavior. He also looks at the development of the idea of "the criminal," and how the nature of what a criminal is has changed over time, thus changing the dynamics of power.

For Foucault, “truth” (that is, what functions as truth or is taken as truth in a given historical situation) is produced by the operations of power, and the human subject is simply a handle for the manipulation by power of bodies.

Josh Marshall has snuck up on the "postmodern Presidency" idea before, so maybe I'm not completely crazy.

Bonus: Cool commentary by the Decemberist, Bérubé, and Juan Cole.

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