Politics

George W. Bush Delivers Scathing Rebuke of Trump Presidency

'The health of the democratic spirit is at issue,' 43rd president warns

Former President George W. Bush makes remarks during a ceremony honoring former Vice President Dick Cheney in the Capitol Visitor Center in 2015. On Thursday, he delivered a warning about Donald Trump’s presidency. (Tom Williams/Roll Call)

Former President George W. Bush on Thursday delivered a scathing warning about Donald Trump, saying his “America first” philosophy portends a dangerous inward turn that is eroding democracy at home and threatening stability around the world.

“The health of the democratic spirit is at issue,” the 43rd president said during a speech in New York. “And the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand.”

“Since World War II, America has encouraged and benefited from the global advance of the free markets, from the strength of democratic alliance and from the advance of free societies,” Bush said. “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 also warned of the dangers of a worldwide pattern of countries — including some in Europe — “turning inward.” And though Bush did not call out Trump by name during his remarks, his warning about the current U.S. chief executive was clear.

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“America is not immune from these trends,” Bush said. “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”

Several hours before Bush spoke, Trump delivered a conspiracy theory via a remarkable tweet in which he suggested Russian officials, the FBI and the Democratic Party worked together to create a dossier of potentially incriminating information about him during the 2016 presidential election.

One line of Bush’s speech appeared pointedly aimed at Trump: “And we know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed, it is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.”

It contained two words — “preserving” and “protecting” — that appear in the oath of office both he (twice) and Trump have taken.

The opening of that pledge reads this way: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The former Texas governor and son of the 41st president, George H.W. Bush, also spoke of a “casual cruelty” that has seeped into American politics and culture. Trump’s critics have slammed him for what they view as cruel comments about individuals from Mexico, Central and South America and African-Americans, as well as women and his political foes.

“We’ve become the heirs of Martin Luther King Jr. by recognizing one another not by the color of their skin but by the content of the character,” he 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.”

The audience, which remained silent during most of the remarks, cheered after that portion. Trump has given cover to white supremacist groups that organized a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August that turned violent and left one counterprotester dead, saying that both sides were at fault and that there were good people among the white supremacists. 

Bush, a pro-trade and pro-immigration Republican, also went after Trump on those policy issues.

“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,” he said. “We’ve seen the return of isolationist sentiments, forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair in distant places.

“[Past] presidents of both parties believed American security and prosperity depended on success of freedom around the world. They knew that the success depended, in large part, on U.S. leadership,” Bush said, later adding: “We need to recall and recover our own identity. We only need to remember our values.”

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