It was a wholesale takedown of Trumpism – and it didn’t even mention “Donald Trump.”
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Former President George W. Bush today sought to reclaim the Republican Party, along with the broader national political discourse, from the current occupant of the Oval Office. In one sweeping speech, delivered with little advance fanfare in New York City, the 43rd president made clear the disdain he holds for the forces exposed and unleashed by the 45th.
“We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism,” Bush said. “We need to recall and recover our own identity. Americans have a great advantage: To renew our country, we only need to remember our values.”
Bush never said who he was talking about, and never specifically called on President Trump to heed his words. But in touching on immigration, trade, white supremacy, Russian cyber-meddling, the free press, and even bullying in the public arena, he left little doubt about his intended targets.
“Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone -- provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children,” he said. “The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”
Bush barely touched political topics during the eight years that a president of the opposite political party was in the White House. Except for campaigning for his brother, Jeb, during his ill-fated run against Trump for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he has steered clear of day-to-day politics almost entirely since leaving office in 2009.
A Bush political adviser said Thursday’s speech was long-planned, and did not mark an effort to inject himself into the news cycle. In outlining his position on issues such as trade and immigration, and putting it in the context of the global pursuit of liberty, he broke no new policy ground.
But the context is unmistakable.
Just this week, Trump seemed to call out his predecessors with a casual mention that they did not always call the families of fallen service members. That drew fierce rebukes from former aides to Bush and former President Barack Obama –- who, coincidentally, is hitting the campaign trail in New Jersey and Virginia today, for the first time in 2017.
In Florida today, a prominent white supremacist, Richard Spencer, is giving a speech –- his first major public appearance since an August rally in Charlottesville, Va., ended in a riot and with the death of a protester. Trump famously said “some very fine people” were among the white nationalists marching in Charlottesville, and he expressed support for keeping up statues of Confederate heroes.
Also today, just minutes after Bush finished speaking, Trump said in the Oval Office that it was a “disgrace” that the “fake news” won’t cover real stories regarding Russia because of a fixation on what he said is a “hoax” regarding collusion with his campaign.
The rhetoric and policy being churned out of the Trump administration, in everything from the border wall to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to the travel ban, the former president made clear that he believes the current president is off-course.
“Our identity as a nation –- unlike many other nations –- is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood,” Bush said. “This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”
There will be no lost love between Trump and the Bush family, with echoes of “low energy” Jeb Bush and scattered critiques of the Iraq war lingering even now, nine months after Trump joined the presidents club. In the war on the GOP establishment being waged by Steve Bannon and his allies, Trump is on one side, with the Bushes clearly on the other.
But for one day, at least, a former president who once epitomized the divide between the parties took off the red team’s jersey. A man who knows something about the presidency delivered a lecture on what he believes it means not just to be a president, but to be an American.