Former president George W. Bush gave a speech today — a bookend, if you will, to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) address early in the week upon accepting the Liberty Medal. Bush spoke in a tone and with substance so different from what we have become acclimatized to hearing that his address has provoked a huge, bipartisan thumbs-up, as though the country collectively could say, “Oh, that is what a president is supposed to sound like!”
Bush surely had President Trump in mind when he addressed conspiracy theories, nativism, incivility and more, but I think it’s safe to say his intended audience was the moribund GOP. We have now seen the party he used to lead decline into passivity and pure partisanship, again and again enabling Trump rather than rallying to American principles and looking to the c0mmon good. We’ve seen Republicans eschew governance in favor of divisive sloganeering. One president like Trump is bad enough; the acceptance of his inhumanity by one of the major parties is a tragedy and national emergency.
Bush began with a global view, noting a worldwide assault on liberal democracies:
Parts of Europe have developed an identity crisis. We have seen insolvency, economic stagnation, youth unemployment, anger about immigration, resurgent ethno-nationalism, and deep questions about the meaning and durability of the European Union.
America is not immune from these trends. In recent decades, public confidence in our institutions has declined. Our governing class has often been paralyzed in the face of obvious and pressing needs. The American dream of upward mobility seems out of reach for some who feel left behind in a changing economy. Discontent deepened and sharpened partisan conflicts. Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.
There are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned, especially among the young, who never experienced the galvanizing moral clarity of the Cold War, or never focused on the ruin of entire nations by socialist central planning. Some have called this “democratic deconsolidation.” Really, it seems to be a combination of weariness, frayed tempers, and forgetfulness.
He soon pivoted to the unique challenges America faces:
We have 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. 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 – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. 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 have seen the return of isolationist sentiments – forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.
Every Republican who endorsed Trump, turns a blind eye to his unfitness, or excuses his heinous language and conduct should feel shame upon hearing those words.
Bush’s recommendation is simple but hardly simplistic: “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.” He’s talking to you, Republicans, who’ve forgotten what he rightly calls the American creed:
Our identity as a nation – 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. We become the heirs of Thomas Jefferson by accepting the ideal of human dignity found in the Declaration of Independence. We become the heirs of James Madison by understanding the genius and values of the U.S. Constitution. We become the heirs of Martin Luther King, Jr., by recognizing one another not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
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 is nothing in his four basic recommendations — hardening our defenses against external threats to democracy, maintaining U.S. leadership in the world, strengthening democratic citizenship and “call[ing] on the major institutions of our democracy, public and private, to consciously and urgently attend to the problem of declining trust” — that Democrats of good faith should dispute. They’ll have differences in specifics (When should we intervene internationally? Which electoral reforms do we need?) but that is understandable and healthy.
What is critical is that Bush has identified precisely the issues that must be addressed if we are to stave off Trump and Trumpism. Democrats, including ex-presidents, would be foolish not to embrace Bush’s agenda and where possible work together. After all, we are all Americans who embrace the “ideal of human dignity found in the Declaration of Independence . . . [and] the genius and values of the U.S. Constitution” as well as the commitment to equal rights and justice for all Americans. It’s the current president who doesn’t get it, but there is a solution (several, actually) for that as well.