The depressing reality of this messianic President's new empire

What will he do with his second term? The one thing you can rule out is that he will seek to heal political divisions
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The Independent Online

It's over. President George W Bush has won a convincing victory. The Emperor has struck back. And the Senator - despite those magical initials, despite the turnout, despite Bruce Springsteen, despite P Diddy and despite the fact that the Boston Red Sox won the World Series - is beaten.

It's over. President George W Bush has won a convincing victory. The Emperor has struck back. And the Senator - despite those magical initials, despite the turnout, despite Bruce Springsteen, despite P Diddy and despite the fact that the Boston Red Sox won the World Series - is beaten.

For Europeans (and especially for most readers of The Independent, I suspect) the result is a nightmare. Overwhelmingly, voters in Europe favoured Kerry - in Britain by a margin of four to one. Rest assured, nearly half of all Americans are feeling as baffled as you are. And so, I have to admit, am I. Though not one of life's natural-born Democrats, and despite the fact that I supported the war in Iraq last year, I had come to the conclusion that Bush deserved to lose.

Why did I want Bush to lose? For one thing, because the occupation of Iraq has been an avoidable mess. The President and his advisers made fundamental errors of judgement about the number of troops that would be needed to stabilise the country. Second, and perhaps more important, because I've come to regard the fiscal policies of this administration as crazily reckless.

There has been no serious attempt to grapple with the looming crises in the systems of social security and Medicare; if anything, matters have been made slightly worse. Meanwhile, the Bush tax cuts had no meaningful macroeconomic justification and were shamelessly to the advantage of the very rich. Finally, I have found it increasingly hard to stomach the Republican Party's increasingly strident intolerance on social questions from social marriage to stem cell research.

At Oxford in the early 1980s, I was one of those Tory boys who cheered Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as they stood up to the Soviet Union, the trade unions and rampant inflation. For us, conservatism was about freedom in the sense of free markets and individual freedom versus collectivism. This is not what the Republican Party today means by freedom. Not so long ago, I saw one of my old Oxford friends, who now lives and works in Washington. "You know, Niall," he said to me, "I used to think of myself as a conservative. But I have learned something about myself since I came to this country. It is that I am in fact a liberal." Such sentiments help to explain why so many of us - from Andrew Sullivan to the Economist - ended up backing Kerry.

So why did he lose? After all, he put on a good showing in the three presidential debates, at times making Bush look almost as stupid as his critics say he is. And the Democrats got the voters out as they have not done since the 1960s. The simple answer is, of course, that the Republicans got their voters out too - and there are marginally more of them. Hats off, therefore, to Bush's campaign manager Karl Rove, who has pulled off an astounding feat of political mobilisation.

Yet Rove was only able to get Republican activists so fired up because they discerned a meaningful difference between the two presidential candidates on the issues. What was that difference? In many ways, the key can be found in a single quotation from a profile of Kerry that appeared just a few weeks ago in The New York Times magazine. In it, Kerry was asked how he would deal with the problem of terrorism. This is what he said: "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance. As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organised crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."

In two fundamental respects, what this revealed was that Kerry just didn't get it about the post-9/11 world. First, needless to say, it showed that he underestimates the magnitude of the threat posed by radical Islamist organisations like al-Qa'ida. But it also showed that Kerry is chronically afflicted with a moral relativism that may be the norm in Boston, but is utterly abhorrent to the Christian Americans of that heartland that now stretches all the way from Montana down to Texas and right across the once solidly Democratic South. An "acceptable level" of terrorism, prostitution, illegal gambling and organised crime is not what the majority of Americans want their president to aspire to.

And this is what President Bush, who loses no opportunity to attest to his born-again Christian faith, understands. Precisely those moral over-simplifications that have characterised his first term - typified by key phrases like the "axis of evil", the "war against terror" and the "onward march of freedom" - resonate irresistibly with a critical mass of Americans right across the country. He is, as is too seldom understood in Britain, fundamentally "a messianic American Calvinist", someone for whom all setbacks are merely a divine test to which a "faith-based" president can only react with obstinate resolve. And that was why Kerry's attacks on the war in Iraq, though they got out the Democratic faithful, weren't enough to win over swing voters. Too many Americans essentially share that religious sensibility.

Faith has secured President Bush a second term. What will he do with it? The one thing you can rule out is that he will seek to heal political divisions. As they say here: Uh-uh.

In September, Bush told senior members of the Republican National Committee exactly what he planned to do with his divinely ordained victory. First, he'll appoint at least one new - and, of course, conservative - Supreme Court justice. On energy, he promised to "push nuclear energy [and] drilling in Alaska". "I'm going to come out strong after my swearing in," he promised his audience, "with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatising of social security."

And the Middle East? No change of tack there, either. As Bush told the same audience: "Osama bin Laden would like to overthrow the Saudis ... then we're in trouble. Because they have a weapon. They have the oil."

If that gives just a glimpse of what the Republicans plan to do over the next four years, Democrats and Europeans alike have reason to be depressed this week. Let me add to their gloom. Throughout his presidency, Bush has repeatedly denied that the US is an empire. He has insisted that America is a "liberating power, not an imperial power". But earlier this year, the journalist Ron Suskind was granted an interview with someone whom he identified as "a senior adviser to Bush". It's a sobering read.

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality'. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works any more,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

Hail to the Chief, indeed.

The author is Professor of History at Harvard University, and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford. His latest book is 'Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire'