When respondents in a mid-February Pew poll were asked to use one word to describe President Bush, the single adjective offered most often was “incompetent.” Meanwhile, a recent Newsweek poll revealed not only that Bush’s approval rating has fallen to an all-time low, but also that a majority of respondents simply wish his presidency was already over. These rebukes cannot sit well with someone who has proclaimed himself “The Decider,” who has become infatuated with the title “Commander-in-Chief,” and who once told Bob Woodward “That’s the interesting thing about being the President…I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”
In short, the president and his conservative allies find themselves on very uncomfortable and increasingly shaky ground. They are beleaguered by transparent policy failures and by growing public and media scrutiny of their actions and motives. There is much irony to this current state of affairs. As I have described elsewhere, the Bush administration has thrived on manipulative appeals to our collective core concerns about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness (an online video discussing this topic can be viewed HERE.). To promote their narrow agenda, they have sought to persuade the country that we should feel constantly fearful for our safety, aggrieved for injustices perpetrated against us, distrustful of outsiders, superior to others in our values and character, and powerful enough to accomplish anything we desire. This worked for a long time. However, as the polls noted above clearly indicate, for most of us these appeals have lost much of their persuasive power (perhaps because we’ve been fooled once too often). As a result, the White House and its propagandists are now most successful at persuading themselves. This is indeed a peculiar and limited form of success—but it still makes for a very dangerous brew. Consider the five ingredients:
Vulnerability. First, Bush, Cheney, and their most devoted followers must certainly be feeling more vulnerable today than ever before. Many threats have never seemed closer to their door: disapproval from the preponderance of Americans, wavering support from some once forceful advocates, and talk of impeachment in influential circles.
Injustice. Second, the administration continues to see itself as unjustly persecuted by its critics. Bush, Cheney, and company imagine themselves as victims—victims of premature verdicts of failure and wrongdoing, and victims of unwarranted blame for tragic outcomes they personally consider unavoidable.
Distrust. Third, add to this concoction the White House’s growing sense that the truly trustworthy are ever fewer in number. Efforts to prevent or ferret out insider betrayal—of the Bush agenda and of the secrets that aid its execution—have undoubtedly proliferated during these nervous days.
Superiority. Fourth, for the true believers still left at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the opposition rising against them likely serves less as a reason for doubt than as a reminder that the administration’s exalted purpose is beyond the grasp and embrace of all but the most visionary and courageous.
Helplessness. Fifth, the administration realizes that it no longer has a “rubber stamp” Congress eager to do endorse its every move, nor a citizenry readily malleable to its bidding. Accustomed to the trappings of seemingly unlimited power—and unwilling to settle for anything less—Bush, Cheney, and company must now search for alternative and possibly extraordinary means to achieve their ambitions.
In sum, this mixture of ingredients is nothing less than a recipe for the further radicalization of what is already an extremist worldview with little patience for dissenting opinions or incomplete loyalties. One might argue that the Bush-Cheney agenda and method of operation can hardly get any worse. That belief could well be recklessly naïve. Previously, this administration viewed the American people as broadly supportive, or blissfully ignorant, or easily bullied into submission. But moving forward, the White House may increasingly perceive us as a highly problematic obstruction—or as part of the enemy itself. In short, as the president and his team circle the wagons ever more tightly, giving even greater power to the few loyalists remaining within, we must be ever more alert to their potential transgressions against the law and against the will of the people. And remember that in the wild there are few creatures more dangerous than a cornered cat or a wounded bear.