Trump has done more to demythologize the presidency than to build up the cult of the commander-in-chief. That’s hardly because he’s a modest man, but his immodesty leads him to speak truths that were unsayable in American politics just a few years ago. Trump has not let the Jimmy Carter of the 21st century, Barack Obama, bask in unearned glory in retirement: Obama’s “hope” and “change” were failures on every front, foreign and domestic, leaving a country with rising homicides in major cities (including his not-quite-hometown, Chicago), a torpid economy, and spiraling epidemics of opioids and despair. Trump has been no mere partisan score-settler when it comes to the reputations of Presidents past, however; he has also refused to perpetuate the myth of the “man who kept us safe,” under whose administration, in fact, more Americans died from terrorism than under any other President.
The cult of personality surrounding George W. Bush was not the imaginary thing that the Trump cult is. There were serious career consequences for conservatives who spoke out against Bush in the way that Bush’s longtime defenders now speak out against Trump. My colleague Donald Devine was nearly fired by a previous employer because he did not give Bush 43 a standing ovation; Devine, who had served as Reagan’s director of the Office of Personnel Management, failed to see what was “conservative” about a President whose early acts in office included the largest expansion of entitlements since Lyndon Johnson (Medicare Part D) and a bipartisan scheme cooked up with Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) to expand the Department of Education.
I began working in conservative journalism in 2003, and I can attest to the night-and-day difference between the oppression of the Bush years and the openness of today. Now the largest-circulation conservative print publications are known for having been Never Trump in 2016, and they still feature many writers who fit that description. In their pages there is debate about the merits and vices of the new administration. By contrast, in the early 2000s practically the only way to get serious criticism of the Republican President into a conservative magazine was to start a new one.