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.
That possibility is a lot more easily contemplated, however, when considering somebody else's president. So let us strip away these obstructions to visual clarity, let us begin with a fresh piece of paper, and let us recast this presidency on the basis of its record. And let's do so without biasing suppositions of any sort influencing our vision, much as we might were we to observe the leader of a foreign state of whom, and of which, we know little.
Say, Zimbabwe, for example.
Imagine that you knew nothing about the president of Zimbabwe, but that you were informed that he liked to steal elections.
Imagine that you also learned that he was destroying civil liberties in his country, jailing people without charge, without legal counsel, without habeas corpus rights. And spying on tens of thousands of citizens without warrants.
Imagine that you found out that this Zimbabwean president was torturing and even murdering innocent captives in illegal prisons.
What if, additionally, you found out that he was kidnaping foreigners and dumping them in secret jails elsewhere, so that they could be tortured even more egregiously?
Suppose you also learned that this president refused to fight for his homeland when he was a young man, but was now fabricating from whole cloth justifications for sending his countrymen off to war.
And that he talked all day long about what great heroes these soldiers were, and how anyone who criticized his policies was not supporting the troops, while simultaneously failing to provide sufficient armor and equipment to protect them.
But that he was nevertheless doling out heaping scoops of the public treasury (and borrowing more) to well-connected mercenary and construction companies who do nothing and are paid exorbitantly via no-bid contracts.
What if you heard that this president staffed his administration with cronies who would do anything he asked of them, but nothing for the people?
Imagine that these cronies stole everything in the country that wasn't bolted down, and gave it to the president's already über-wealthy supporters.
What if this president rearranged the tax structure so that in the future the middle class would have to pay today's and tomorrow's taxes for the wealthy, plus interest?
What if he told the most outrageous lies about the environmental destruction he was supporting, in order to protect the profits of massively rich oil companies?
What if he was too lazy to do anything about the warnings he received prior to his country being attacked, and instead remained on vacation for a solid month?
What if he remained on vacation again, when one of his country's greatest cities drowned, and was left to struggle on its own thereafter?
Suppose his policies made Zimbabwe one of the most reviled countries of the world.
What if those policies encouraged the international proliferation of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction?
Imagine all of these things, and then ask yourself: What would you call someone with a record like that?
No matter where he lived, you'd call him a predatory kleptocrat. And a traitor.
If this president lived in Zimbabwe, you'd call him Robert Mugabe.
But he doesn't. He lives here.
So call him American Mugabe.
And what is more, he knows it, too. Americans may be fooled (by him), but this president knew exactly what he came to Washington to do, and exactly what would happen if he got caught at his pillaging of the commonweal.
Anyone who thinks the latest scandal concerning the firing of the US Attorneys is some random anomaly of some sort hasn't been paying attention. It is perfectly of a piece with everything this administration has done since coming to office.
Before they had even located the men's room of their new office suites, they had already withdrawn the United States from the International Criminal Court treaty. Not content with that, they then began hammering vulnerable countries throughout the world to exempt Americans within their borders from jurisdiction of the Court, using extortion racket techniques any two-bit thug from Brooklyn would find painfully familiar.
Next, Bush unilaterally changed the traditional rules for the handling of presidential papers, issuing an executive order giving himself complete control of his papers, and those of every other president, for as long as he wants.
Then this junta proceeded to conduct the affairs of their administration with probably more secrecy than any presidency in American history, making the regime in North Korea look like a battered information-leaking sieve by comparison.
Since then they've loaded up the courts with right-wing Borkians whose main qualification for office is a fawning adoration of unlimited executive power (as long as Bush is the executive, of course). Does anyone seriously question that that was Harriet Miers' only real 'qualification' earning her a Supreme Court nomination?
Now they're firing US Attorneys who aren't quite Bushist enough, and replacing them with any unqualified hack who can be found, provided they possess unshakable loyalty to the Dauphin.
Hmmm. Anybody seeing a pattern here?
If Americans could get beyond their training, beyond Rove's marketing campaign, and beyond the psychological horrors of first degree cognitive dissonance, what they'd see is a president who - like Mugabe in Zimbabwe - came to town to fill his pockets, and just as fast as he could.
And they'd see a president who knew precisely what he was doing, and as such took every conceivable precaution to make sure his tracks were covered, and that no criminal justice institution could touch him.
But justice might just find him, after all.
I don't think the American public is in any mood now to make him Senator for Life, with full immunity privileges, like Chile did to buy out Pinochet. And I don't think the next president - even a Republican (yeah, right) - is going to be much inclined to throw a pardon in the direction of this radioactive sinking ship of a larcenous former president, this Enron of the Oval Office.
Watch out. With any luck, American Mugabe might just become American Milosevic.
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 (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.