Although he did not mention Trump by name, the 43rd president gave a thorough and detailed rebuttal to Trump’s nationalist, values-neutral, anti-refugee, anti-immigration and anti-free-trade ideology. Bush also called on the United States to reject attempts to play down Russia’s interference in our democracy and warned Americans not to fall for conspiracy theories and fake news.
Bush, who made the freedom agenda a key pillar of his presidency, also called on the United States to lead a rejuvenation of the Western, liberal world order, which he described as under attack.
“The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue, and the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand,” Bush told a meeting of the Bush Institute on Thursday in New York. “We know that when we lose sight of these ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.”
He warned about “the tendency to turn inward” and the danger of relying on “raw calculation of interest.” American presidents of both parties since World War II have recognized that America’s interests relied on the promotion of freedom and democracy abroad, he said.
The former president pushed back against several policies and arguments that have been made by Trump throughout the campaign and his presidency. Though globalization has had negative side effects for some, Bush said that greater integration with the world was inevitable.
“We cannot wish globalization away, any more than we could wish away the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution,” he said.
Bush said bigotry seems emboldened in the United States now and American politics have become more vulnerable to “conspiracies and fabrications.” Support for democracy in the United States has waned, he warned, due to a failure to educate Americans about the history of tyranny. He argued in support of the United States welcoming refugees and immigrants.
“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism,” he said. “Forgotten the dynamism that immigration has brought into America.”
Bush’s speech was timed with the release of a policy paper by the Bush Institute’s Thomas Melia and Peter Wehner that lays out a detailed plan to set the democracy and freedom agenda back on track. Their “call to action” recommended four steps: hardening American defenses against external threats, reinvigorating American promotion of freedom and values abroad, educating the American populace about the history of democracy and bolstering democratic institutions worldwide.
Earlier in the conference, Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, said that the Trump administration, while supporting values like democracy and human rights in certain situations, wasn’t sending a clear message to the world.
“There needs to be an overarching narrative about what America is doing,” she said. “We need, though, a narrative that says human rights, democracy, what happens in other countries matters to us. Without that, you can’t sustain American engagement.”
Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, responded by defending the Trump administration’s policies. She pointed to Trump’s strike on Syria and his policy on North Korea as examples where the United States has demonstrated leadership.
“The country needs to believe that everything is okay,” Haley said. “They need to know we are leading, and they need to know why.”
Both Bush and Haley stated that Russian interference in the U.S. elections was a serious matter that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with. Haley called it “warfare” and said this was now Russia’s “weapon of choice.” Bush, again not naming Trump directly, warned against minimizing the issue.
“Ultimately, this assault won’t succeed,” Bush said. “But foreign aggressions, including cyber-attacks, disinformation or financial influence, should never be downplayed or tolerated. It’s a clear case where the strength of our democracy begins at home.”
Trump’s “America first” vision is supported by legitimate grievances of people all over the United States who feel that globalization has hurt them economically and believe American military interventions abroad have often failed. Acknowledging those grievances is the first step toward a real debate.
The next step is to explain and persuade Americans that greater American engagement and integration with the rest of the world are the best ways to bolster the American economy and avoid future wars. That’s the fight McCain initiated on Monday and that Bush joined today.