How George H.W. Bush Gave Us Donald Trump

With my department located on the grounds of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University, I saw and heard Bush numerous times over the years. Some of these occasions were frivolous: Bush on a Segway zooming ahead of his Secret Service detail on the sidewalk. His Secret Service agents, dressed uniformly in dark suits and sunglasses, clustered around a second, stalled Segway and frantically trying to get it started again. Or a Secret Service agent chasing down the Bush family’s dog after it slipped its collar while they were walking it around the pond on the grounds of the Presidential Library.

I also heard Bush speak a number of times at TAMU. Invariably during the Q&A session, someone would ask Bush whether he regretted agreeing to raise taxes as part of the 1990 Budget Reconciliation Act after having so emphatically pledged not to during the 1988 presidential campaign. (“Read my lips: no new taxes.”) Bush uniformly defended the compromise as politically necessary and nothing exceptional.

According to the normal Washington rules up to that time, he was right. The post-WW II Washington norms held that “good” Republicans compromised with Democrats by agreeing to grow the size of government, albeit only more slowly than the Democrats proposed. This, as opposed to stopping the growth of government entirely or actually shrinking the federal budget—both were radical positions beyond the pale of polite society. Frustration with this game, however, led—significantly, but only partly—to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Of course, Reagan left the White House with the domestic portion of the “Reagan Revolution” only partly completed.

However, Bush never caught on to the fact that a growing number of Republican voters expected Republican politicians actually to change the rules. They had grown tired of Republican politicians who promised change in Washington, and time after time saw them govern when they got there according to the standard post-WW II rules. Whether he understood it or not, many Republican voters took his pledge, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” as a commitment to change the game, or at the very least to work to complete the domestic dimension of the Reagan Revolution.

Furthermore, Bush’s “no new taxes” pledge was his signature line for the 1988 campaign. He never seemed to understand or could not admit publicly that he had tied his credibility—his honor—as a politician to that pledge. The sensible and unexceptional reasons Bush could cite when he agreed to a tax increase as part of the compromise that led to the 1990 Budget Reconciliation Act also destroyed his credibility as a putative game changer.

The problem with the compromise wasn’t really the terms of compromise itself. It was ordinary, incremental policy change. The problem with the compromise was the unwillingness of a good swath of the Republican constituency to trust Bush again—and the way it conformed to a long-held pattern of Republican lawmakers adapting to Washington rather than working for change.

Data are mixed whether the tax compromise itself cost Bush the 1992 election. The economy had taken a hit and had turned around too slowly to help lift Bush in the campaign against “It’s-the-Economy-Stupid” Bill Clinton. But it diminished motivation among Republicans for his reelection. While data show that Ross Perot (an independent presidential candidate that year who drew 18.9 percent of the popular vote) pretty much took votes equally from Bush and Clinton in the 1992 election, I dare say Perot drew zealous Republicans away from Bush disproportionately to zealous Democrats he drew from Clinton. Perot tapped into voter anger against the then-current rules of the game in Washington. Bush ceded this group of voters to Perot by repudiating his no-new-taxes pledge. Ross Perot was the proto-Trump.

In repudiating his no-new-taxes pledge, Bush catalyzed the spread of anger of Republican voters against mainstream Republican candidates. It convinced voters that mainstream Republican politicians will not keep their word, and are not to be trusted to do what they promise while campaigning.

This narrative spread during the intervening decades, energizing the Republican Party’s move to the Right. It produced Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, the Tea Party, and ultimately Donald Trump.

Those who hold to this narrative may not constitute a solid majority of Republican voters, but the plurality is large enough that in competing against each other, the ordinary Republican candidates for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016 could not get leverage against Trump’s sizable minority.

This is still the part of the story that liberals and the mainstream media do not grasp. Because of the corrupt bargain of post-WW II national Republican politics—which amounted to a promise on the Left’s part: “I’ll call you a gentleman if you don’t take your campaign promises seriously”—a good portion of the Republican electorate concluded that actually to change the game, they would need to select someone who didn’t care whether the media or Democrats called him a gentleman. This is why Trump’s personal nastiness and policy line drawing—behavior that drives the mainstream media crazy—not only does such behavior not hurt Trump with his base, but actually affirms their assessment that he is the man they need. They support Trump because Trump is the anti-Bush, not in spite of it.

To be sure, George H.W. Bush did not single-handedly cause the rise of Trumpism in the Republican Party. But his repudiation of his no-tax pledge added fuel to the fire. The conflagration ultimately consumed the Republican Party that he knew. It was not what Bush wanted, but the electoral opening Trump exploited in 2016 would not have existed but for the inability, or unwillingness, of so many post-WW II Republicans to govern as they campaigned, no-new-taxes and all.