Donald Trump's Perfect Foil

How the real-estate mogul's attacks against Jeb Bush fueled his rise

Andrew Harnik / AP

If Jeb Bush hadn’t run for president, Donald Trump would have had to invent him. The former Florida governor was Trump’s perfect foil. First, because Jeb was prim, proper, and incapable of expressing the rage—especially towards Muslims and Mexicans—that many Republicans currently feel. Second, because Jeb’s candidacy represented the reductio ad absurdum of the campaign finance corruption that Trump, alone among GOP candidates, calls out.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, because Jeb’s candidacy gave Trump an excuse to attack George W. Bush. When Trump began disparaging the former president last October, and then resumed his derision last week, many politicos warned that he was making a mistake. “I can’t believe the Republican nominee is going to be [someone] who said George W. Bush lied to the American people about the Iraq war. That comes from kook-land, folks,” exclaimed Lindsey Graham. “I can’t believe that we’re going to nominate someone to represent our party who said George W. Bush was responsible for 9/11. That cannot happen.” Curt Anderson, who ran Bobby Jindal’s campaign, declared that, “Everything we know about political strategy suggests that Trump’s decision to attack George W. Bush will backfire.”

It didn’t backfire. Attacking Bush proved key to Trump’s appeal.

Think about the phrase Trump’s supporters use again and again when asked what they like about him. He isn’t “politically correct.” In the professional conservative world, “political correctness” is confined to the left. But for Trump’s supporters, who are less doctrinaire, it means something broader. It refers to the things that elites won’t admit but “ordinary people” (or at least the “ordinary people” who like Trump) know are true. Liberal elites may try to conceal some of these “truths”: Mexican immigrants are wrecking the country; Muslim immigrants are potential terrorists. But conservative elites conceal others: Trade deals destroy American jobs; big donations affect government policy.

And perhaps the right’s biggest “politically correct” untruth of all is that “George W. Bush kept us safe.” The phrase is downright Orwellian. It’s Orwellian because Bush didn’t keep America safe from the greatest terrorist attack in history. He didn’t even try very hard. Bush’s own top counterterrorism advisor, Richard Clarke, and many others, have extensively detailed the former president’s indifference to the al-Qaeda threat during his first nine months in office. It’s also Orwellian because saying that Bush “kept us safe” after 9/11 ignores the more than half a million Americans who suffered either physical injury or post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their service in Afghanistan or Iraq when Bush was president. Jeb, and the donors who paid $100,000 per head to attend his fundraisers, may not know many of those folks. But Trump voters do.

In a searing column last week, the former Marine J.D. Vance, author of the forthcoming Hillbilly Elegy, recalls hearing Jeb saying his brother kept “us” safe:

I became Trump’s biggest fan. I wanted him to go for the jugular. I wanted him to inquire whom, precisely, George W. Bush had kept safe. Was it the veterans lingering in a bureaucratic quagmire at the Department of Veterans Affairs or the victims of 9/11? Was it the enlistees from my block back home, who signed their lives on the dotted line while Jeb’s brother told the country to “go shopping”—something kids like me couldn’t afford to do?

Trump’s campaign speaks to people who feel that they are losing. What better encapsulates that sense of defeat than a murderous attack on America’s largest city followed by a bungled, deceitful war in which thousands more Americans die for no good reason? And what better encapsulates “political correctness” than Jeb Bush, the ultimate fortunate son, praising the brother who allowed that attack and prosecuted that war, for “keeping us safe”?

In a bizarre twist, Donald Trump has become an instrument of class vengeance. I don’t know how many of his voters really believe he can stop the “losing” that has characterized white working-class life for decades. But he has now accomplished at least one thing for his supporters. He’s given them the satisfaction of watching Jeb Bush lose, too.