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Without Mentioning Trump, George W. Bush Rebukes Trumpism

George W Bush

Former President George W. Bush was mostly silent during the eight years of the Obama Presidency, but this afternoon in a speech in New York City he stood up and clearly rebuked the politics of Donald Trump:

Former President George W. Bush never mentioned his name but delivered what sounded like a sustained rebuke to President Trump on Thursday, decrying nationalism, protectionism and the coarsening of public debate while calling for a robust response to Russian interference in American democracy.

In a speech in New York, Mr. Bush defended free trade, globalization and immigration even as Mr. Trump seeks to raise barriers to international commerce and newcomers from overseas. He condemned the “casual cruelty” he sees in public discourse and denounced white supremacy two months after Mr. Trump suggested that ”both sides” were to blame at a neo-Nazi rally that turned violent in Virginia.

“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” Mr. Bush said. “We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade, forgetting that conflict, instability and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism. We’ve seen the return of isolationist sentiments, forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places.”

The former president said these afflictions have created a crisis of confidence in the United States that has endangered its historic ideals. “In all these ways, we need to recall and recover our own identity,” he said. “Americans have great advantage. To renew our country we only need to remember our values.”

Mr. Bush addressed these issues at a bipartisan conference that his presidential center sponsored in New York to promote democracy and freedom. Since leaving office in January 2009, he has largely sought to avoid engaging in current-day political struggles, even as he promotes issues he has long cared about like the spread of democracy around the world.

His speech on Thursday seemed a clear rejoinder to Mr. Trump in various ways. Asked by a reporter as he left the hall whether his message would be heard in the White House, Mr. Bush smiled, nodded slightly and said, “I think it will.”

The Bush family has never been fond of Mr. Trump, who beat former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida for the Republican presidential nomination last year. Neither the former president nor his father, former President George Bush, voted for Mr. Trump last November. But advisers said the younger Mr. Bush has been deeply troubled by the state of the national debate under a president who routinely demonizes his adversaries on Twitter.

“Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children,” Mr. Bush said in his speech. “The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”

Mr. Bush, who issued a statement with his father condemning white supremacists after the violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August, returned to the theme. “Bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed,” he said.

Bush also made apparent note of the issues regarding apparent Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election:

 ”America has experienced a sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country’s divisions,” he said. “According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other.” He added: “We must secure our electoral infrastructure and protect our election system from subversion.”

The former president acknowledged the forces of discontent that have given rise to Mr. Trump. “We should not be blind to the economic and social dislocations caused by globalization,” he said. “People are hurting. They’re angry and they’re frustrated. We must hear and help them. But we cannot wish globalization away any more than we could wish away the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution.”

In some respects, Bush’s speech was reminiscent of the takedown that Mitt Romney delivered to Trump during the Presidential campaign, although the main difference between the two is that Bush did not mention Trump by name. Nonetheless, from the context of the speech it was quite clear who and what Bush was talking about in his attacks on leadership and bigotry. And that’s certainly the way that the media is interpreting the speech and the way that it is being received by the public at large. In that regard, Bush should be applauded for choosing to speak out even in these more guarded words than we might expect from a hardcore Trump critic, especially given the fact that it’s unusual for a former President to speak negatively about a successor except under extraordinary circumstances. It also provides a marked contrast and demonstrates that, for all of his political faults, Bush was a far more decent person that Trump can ever hope to be, something also demonstrated by his interaction with the troops that were injured under his command and the family members of the fallen. As I’ve said elsewhere, I have many problems with George W. Bush and the decisions that he made, just as I did with his father, President Clinton, and President Obama, but I’ve always believed that he was a fundamentally decent and kind person. That fact could not be more apparent now that we have a narcissist apparently incapable of feeling empathy for his fellow human beings sitting in the Oval Office.

Not everyone is cheering Bush on, though.

Over at Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilly criticizes the former President for, well, I guess for not going far enough:

For this speech be a “takedown,” though, someone would have to get taken down, and oblique remarks about being tolerant and elevating the discourse—given more than a year after Bush stayed quiet while his party nominated a candidate who openly cultivated the support of white supremacists and belittled his brother Jeb in personal terms on a daily basis—are not going to move the needle.

To be cynical, and to put it in orotund, indirect terms like George W. Bush might, you could even suggest that, for many powerful figures in Republican politics and the business community, rejecting alt-right white supremacism is more of a matter of maintaining one’s personal reputation in polite society than it is an actual political goal. Actual opposition takes time, money, and effort; saving face only requires a microphone, a few clichés about American values, and a cable news camera.

On some level, I suppose Mathis-Lilly has a point here, but I don’t think it amounts to nearly as much as he apparently thinks it does. Yes, it’s more than appropriate for Republican politicians and others on the right to speak out against Trump and the naked appeals to bigotry, white supremacists, and xenophobia that encompasses both his campaign for the White House and his Presidency today. George W. Bush isn’t the person to fight that battle, though. He’s a retired politician who hasn’t spoken about national politics much since leaving office more than eight years ago now. While his words will have at least some resonance, they aren’t going to become the rallying cry for an internal Republican revolt against Trump and what he represents, assuming that such a rebuke ever comes. If that role is to be played, it’s going to be others, such as Senators Jeff Flake or Ben Sasse, Governor John Kasich, or other Republican and conservative thought leaders who are going to have to lead it. What one can hope is that Bush’s words will resonate within that portion of the Republican Party that remains sane and that they will spur others to speak out against Trump more forcefully and to stand up against him, against Steve Bannon, and against the forces that seek to turn the entire party in a direction that can only mean bad news for not just the GOP, but for the nation as a whole. For my part, at least, I welcome Bush’s remarks and hope others are willing to join him.

You can read the transcript of Bush’s remarks at the link, or watch the video below:

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. MBunge says:

    I could write a whole freakin’ Russian novel in response to this but let’s keep it manageable.

    George W. Bush is “decent” and “kind?” He started a war for no good reason that got thousands of Americans killed, hundreds of thousands (at least) of non-Americans killed, did more than probably anyone else to create the Middle East mess we’ve now been dealing with for the better part of 20 years and three Presidencies, and there is an entirely legitimate argument that he is a war criminal. An actual thrown-into-prison or hung-by-the-neck-until-you-are-dead war criminal.

    People are dead because of George W. Bush. White people. Brown people. Men. Women. Children have been killed, crippled, and orphaned because of George W. Bush. People were tortured because of George W. Bush.

    “Decent?” “Kind?” I do not think those words mean what you think they mean. And that you actually think George W. Bush can be help up as some sort of moral authority now has to be the leading contender in the “”Here’s why we got Trump” contest.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 5

  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    “Sure, you can jack up government spending and deficits and send troops off to die in needless foreign interventions, but don’t be a jerk about it.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  3. Mister Bluster says:

    …hope…that Bush’s words will resonate within that portion of the Republican Party that remains sane.
    We can immediately remove Rand Paul from consideration for inclusion in this already meager inventory.
    I contend that if you support a madman to sit in the chamber of the United States Senate you are unhinged yourself.
    See: Rand Paul Endorses Roy Moore in Alabama Senate Race, Annoys Libertarians

    Roy Boy Moore:
    …is the author of the misnamed 2005 Constitution Restoration Act that would give Congress the power to remove any judge who refuses to recognize God as the source of America’s law. The bill also seeks to limit the power of the Supreme Court to overrule or punish any state official or judge acting in the name of God’s law and, instead, would impeach the judges who take on such cases…

    And Kim Jong Trump wants to force Citizens to stand for the National Anthem.
    I don’t know which is worse.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  4. Hal_10000 says:

    @MBunge:

    Bush also started PEFAR, which has saved 11 million lives, mostly the lives of people who are not his color. The Iraq War was a huge mistake, I agree. But it was not started out of malice against brown people. You can be decent and kind and still make horrible mistakes.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 2

  5. Tyrell says:

    @Mister Bluster: When I read Bush’s comments, I thought he was referring to Obama.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 18

  6. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Tyrell:

    Really. Please highlight which parts, and explain how they relate to Obama. I’ll wait.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 0

  7. CSK says:

    Well, Mangolini today awarded himself a 10 out of 10 for his efforts to salvage Puerto Rico.

    Of course he did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  8. Mister Bluster says:

    And his boyfriend Putin stroked his “ego” for good measure:
    “the president of the United States does not need any advice because one has to possess certain talents and go through this trial to be elected, even without having the experience of such big administrative work.”

    Jesus this is disgusting.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  9. Barry says:

    I’m seconding the ones who dis Dubya. At this point, publicly trashing Trump is a minimal bar to clear. If it wasn’t for Dubya, there’d be no Trump, in so many ways.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  10. DrDaveT says:

    @Hal_10000:

    You can be decent and kind and still make horrible mistakes.

    If you are decent and kind, you will admit that they were mistakes, and take such consequences as are due without quibble.

    Still waiting on that one. And not just for Iraq.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  11. Franklin says:

    From what I’ve read, his words are today are fine for the most part, and I wish that many of the people they are directed at would actually consider them.

    But for those complaining rightly about GWB’s “adventures,” yes it’s easy to say that at least Trump hasn’t started two wars yet, but … give him time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Anonne says:

    Bush was a weak man and the Republican Party ran him. He is ultimately responsible for a lot of damage, but I don’t believe that at heart he was a wholly unreconstructed racist like Trump. He was incompetent at a lot of things, incurious about a lot of things, and weak but I don’t get him as being hateful and full of bile like Trump.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  13. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Mister Bluster: I believe the accurate term is “reach-around”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. Kylopod says:

    In this debate I tend to come out on the side of resisting the temptation to praise Bush in relative comparison to Trump. To me, the story of the modern Republican Party is one of ascending awfulness. But over the years there has emerged a style of liberal and centrist concern-trolling in which you take an earlier figure and rhapsodize about how good he looks compared to whatever is happening at present. I always find this genre to have an air of absurdity to it, like praising Bernie Madoff for never having killed anyone. Before people did this with Bush, they did it with Reagan. Reagan was president before certain elements of modern conservatism had hardened into dogma (on taxes, immigration, and gun control, among other things), and so it’s easy to seize on the irony that he’d be viewed as a RINO today looking at his actual record. People then forget how much of what’s terrible about the party today originated or was popularized with Reagan: the ardent anti-intellectualism, the winks and nods to racists, the corporate takeover of the party, the rise of the Christian Right.

    And now it’s happening with Bush. Yes, even now, Bush still stands as the worst president in modern history. Trump is the president most obviously unfit for the office, but he’s still got a way to go before achieving the long-term damage that Bush wrought.

    I think, also, that people are going way too easy on his character. “At least he was not a racist.” True enough. He may have visited Bob Jones University on the campaign trail in 2000 while his minions whispered about McCain’s illegitimate black daughter, but no, he was no racist. It was just politics, and that’s the game he played. In fact, that’s precisely what he told McCain at the time in a private conversation that was reported later.

    This is a man who presided over 152 executions as governor, and reportedly made fun of one of them in a conversation with Tucker Carlson. (Karen Hughes denied Bush really did that, and I suppose whether you accept the story depends whether you choose to believe Tucker Carlson’s word. In this case, I do.) All this led Frank Schaeffer, in 2009, to describe Bush as “our nation’s first sociopath president.”

    Now, you might be thinking, “Come on. With Trump, we’ve seen what a real sociopath sounds like.” But sociopaths come in different flavors. Most sociopaths are in fact very good at mimicking normal human emotion. It’s part of what enables them to manipulate other people so effectively. What makes Trump stand out among politicians isn’t his absence of empathy but his pathetic inability to hide that trait. The business and entertainment world that he was bred in is one where you can get away with overtly behaving like a pig. That isn’t the case in American politics, or at least it wasn’t until now.

    It’s like that George Burns quote I’m always citing: “The secret to acting is sincerity, and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  15. JohnMcC says:

    Well, as nice as that nice young Mr Ex-Pres Bush appears at the Foundation that has his own name on it, it’s completely irrelevant. His particular brand of so-called-conservatism passed from the stage several cycles of Republican/Conservative revulsion ago. Remember the “Tea Party”? Not the Boston one a long time ago. The True Conservatives who overthrew the Republican establishment back in ’10? Those folks? And they’ve been overturned by the Nationalists or whoever.

    Can the Directorate be far behind?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  16. KM says:

    This whole thing is damning by faint praise. You should not get a cookie for trying to be a decent human being but here were are with the Thin Mints, ready to reward someone for pointing out the obvious.

    I was never a fan of W but I never thought he was evil or deliberately malicious. Just…. kinda dumb, trying to punch about his weight and made some really bad cabinet choices that enabled his own bad impulses. He was however, an enabler of the dumpster fire that gave us the current mess burning down the WH. He did nothing to stop the horrible elements of his party and they flourished under his reign. The unhealthy worship of the military and rabidly toxic definition of patriotism we still suffer from came the whole “You hate America!” crap, culminating in the stupid NFL flap we see today. He gave the nuts licence and free reign.

    Still…. have a cookie W. Thank you for at least admitting there’s a problem. That’s always the first step. If you want more, though, you’re going to have to step it up.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  17. DrDaveT says:

    @Kylopod:

    Yes, even now, Bush still stands as the worst president in modern history. Trump is the president most obviously unfit for the office, but he’s still got a way to go before achieving the long-term damage that Bush wrought.

    Thank you for making that important point.

    In many ways, the silver lining of Trump’s self-absorption and incompetence and short attention span is that he accidentally gets in the way of the GOP agenda. President Ted Cruz would by now have done far more lasting damage to America than Trump has. Trump’s downside risk is higher, but Cruz was a guaranteed disaster. Pence is not as bad as Cruz, but would still be mightily unfortunate for 99% of us.

    This is not to minimize Trump’s awfulness, of course. It’s a comparison of the “an unstable high explosive in your living room might turn out to be better than a rapidly-spreading oil fire in your basement” kind of comparison.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. Franklin says:

    @Tyrell: 24+ hours and nothing to back up your claim. Still waiting.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. An Interested Party says:

    It’s a comparison of the “an unstable high explosive in your living room might turn out to be better than a rapidly-spreading oil fire in your basement” kind of comparison.

    Jesus…now there’s a hell of a choice…of course, that is the only silver lining of having this buffoon in the White House…well, that and whatever damage he does to the Republican Party…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0