One thing that makes me angry about liberal longing for the days of so-called “moderate” Republicans is that the moderation is always on social issues. This longing is reflective of the fact that too many liberals really aren’t that enthused about worker power either and so basically can live with the anti-labor aspects of the Republican Party so long as they aren’t trying to demonize gays or throw the entire black population in prison.
Of course, George Bush was in fact destroying labor unions, demonizing gays, and throwing the entire black population in prison, but that hasn’t stopped the inevitable nostalgic eulogies for the better days of the Republican Party. And let’s be clear–George Bush was horrible for American workers.
Bush also fought against raising the minimum wage. In 1989, he vetoed a bill raising the minimum wage to $4.55 an hour. His own version of the Fair Labor Standards Amendments which he signed into law that year, raised the minimum to $4.25, significantly lower than the original legislation.
Bush’s greatest assault on labor rights came with the passage of NAFTA, which he spearheaded and signed just a month before he left office. The trade deal faced widespread resistance from progressives and labor unions, but Bush’s commitment to neoliberal trade policy was unbending. In the Latin American Perspectives essay “NAFTA and the Corporate Redesign of North America,” Kim Moody explains that the “Bush administration, backed by a number of authoritative think tanks and business organizations, attempted to mute opposition to NAFTA by producing an expert consensus that the agreement was a win-win solution.”
According to Moody, the pro-NAFTA studies from think tanks like the Brookings Institution, the International Trade Commission (ITC) and the Heritage Foundation used an incredibly flawed econometric model that assumed conditions like full employment and no shifts of investment from one country to another. As originally reported in the United Auto Workers’ Washington Report and cited by Moody, the ITC even went so far as to provide fake numbers on auto job loss.
In Mexico, NAFTA coincided with structural adjustment programs and massive cuts to social welfare, resulting in the privatization of state industry, displacement of farmers, rise of consumer food prices and expansion of low-paid work. In the United States, NAFTA and other “free trade” apparatuses like the World Trade Organization contributed to privatization and the decline of environmental protections, jobs, wages, and workers’ rights. Along with offshoring one million manufacturing jobs from the United States and Canada to Mexico, NAFTA bolstered transnational capital by limiting regulations and opening new markets to private investment, helping to enshrine corporate power.
President Trump’s path to the White House rests in part on the working-class misery engendered by decades of neoliberal trade policies. During the 2016 campaign, Trump ran on an anti-free trade platform. Rather than proposing the dissolution of the entire existing trade system, Trump told voters he’d use his expert negotiating skills to secure a “better deal” for them. He cast the blame for inequality not on the greed of capital, but on “illegals” desperate and eager to take away jobs away from Americans.
While Trump’s rhetoric is appallingly racist and his policies have only benefited the rich, his ascent—along with the rise of far right populism in Europe—helps illustrates the extent of the damage dealt by Bush and other architects of neoliberal trade policy.
Many pundits are attempting to divorce Bush H.W. Bush from Trump and use the late president’s memory to invoke a kinder, gentler era of politics. But Bush Sr. bears plenty of responsibility for the uncivil world we live in today, and for the indignities visited on the working class across the globe.
Bush absolutely helped pave the way to Trump–through Dan Quayle (who is oddly forgotten when we talk about Republicans clowns that led to an idiot like Trump), through Clarence Thomas, through the War on Drugs, through the promotion of capitalist triumphalism after the end of the Cold War and through NAFTA–and don’t let a bunch of nostalgic liberals and Never Trumper pundits lead to a different conclusion.