Former U.S. President George W. Bush speaks at a forum sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute in New York on Thursday. | Seth Wenig/AP
Former President George W. Bush offered an unmistakable denunciation of Trumpism Thursday without mentioning the president by name, urging citizens to oppose threats to American democracy.
“Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” Bush warned in remarks at the Bush Institute’s Spirit of Liberty event in New York.
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By chance, Bush was standing in the same spot at the Time Warner Center where former President Barack Obama made a similar plea for democracy and American leadership in late September, shortly after President Donald Trump had finished a belligerent, isolationist speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
But unlike Obama, who campaigned intensely against Trump and has been taking sideways swipes at him since leaving office, Bush has said very little publicly about the current president, or about American politics at all. Thursday’s speech, in which he detailed what he sees as the causes for democratic collapse, the path forward and what were obvious references to Trump — even though, like Obama, he did not utter the president’s name — was a major departure in a speech that called on a renewal of American spirit and institutions.
“Bigotry in any form is blasphemy against the American creed and it means the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation. We need a renewed emphasis on civic learning in schools,” Bush said. “And our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.”
“The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them,” he said.
This “unique moment,” Bush said, includes described a threat that he sees as worldwide, and pervasive throughout American society and politics.
“When we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with protecting and defending democracy,” he said, adding later: “We need to recall and recover our own identity. Americans have great advantage. To renew our country, we only need to remember our values.”
Bush spoke at the end of a half-day session that included a genial discussion between Trump’s United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, his former national security adviser and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
But Bush took a wider view, acknowledging the failures of divided partisan politics, paralyzed government, the media, institutions of democracy and more that has created a “deficit of confidence.” The problems of terrorism and nuclear proliferation are real, he said, as are the economic trends caused by globalization — but that is not an excuse for going into hiding.
“People are hurting. They’re angry and they’re frustrated. We must help them,” he said. “But we cannot wish globalization away, any more than we could wish away the Agricultural Revolution or the Industrial Revolution.”
The tyrannies in North Korea and Venezuela are obvious and the fraying of democracies is clear in Europe, Bush said, but Americans must face the problems at home, too.
“We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization,” he said. “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions, forgetting the image of God we should see in each other. We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, [and] forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.”
All of this, he said, is even more important in the face of the attacks outsiders have made on American democracy. Citing the conclusion of all the American intelligence agencies about Russian interference in last year’s elections — which Trump has repeatedly dismissed himself —the former president warned against “subversion,” calling for stronger election security protections and cybersecurity, and a recognition of what is being attempted.
“This effort is broad, systemic and stealthy. It’s conducted across a range of social media platforms,” Bush said. “Ultimately, this assault won’t succeed. But foreign aggressions, including cyberattacks, disinformation and financial influence should never be downplayed or tolerated. This is a clear case where the strength of our democracy begins at home.”
Bush’s speech comes three days after his former rival and fellow Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, delivered a similar attack on “spurious nationalism” and call to rediscover American ideals and American democracy in a speech in Philadelphia.
Some of the phrases echoed each other.
“We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil,” McCain said. “We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”
Bush’s version: “Our identity as a nation, and unlike many other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility.”
That, Bush said, is why he has confidence that American will weather its current crisis, as he called on the examples of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Self-correction is the secret strength of freedom. We are a nation with a history of resilience and a genius for renewal,” Bush said. The American spirit does not say, ‘We shall manage,’ or ‘We shall make the best of it.’ It says, ‘We shall overcome,’ — and that is exactly what we’re going to do, with God’s help.”