Former president George W. Bush gave a speech in New York on Thursday during which he took clear aim at the shifts in political thought that brought Donald Trump to the White House.
“We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” Bush said. “At times it can seem that 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,” he continued. “Forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.”
It’s a demand for a political environment that seems long-lost, with a focus on respect, comity and a faith in the ideals on which the nation was founded. It’s the sort of rhetorical effort that we’ve seen repeatedly over the past 18 months, an effort by more moderate Republicans to both distance themselves from Trump and to call for Americans to aspire to something higher.
What’s happened in the Trump era, though, is that the old Mario Cuomo adage has been reversed. While politicians were once said to campaign in lofty poetry and govern in grinding prose, the leaders of Trump’s party seem to be torn between the desire to offer poetic descriptions of ideals and the need to throw elbows to appeal to an agitated base as Election Day approaches.
Earlier this week, Bush appeared at fundraising events for the candidacy of Republican Ed Gillespie in Virginia, entertaining attendees at one luncheon with “vintage George W. Bush,” in the words of one attendee. Gillespie (who once advised Bush) faces a tough contest against Democrat Ralph Northam, who leads in most polls, though often within the margin of error.
Why’s this relevant? Because Gillespie’s candidacy has been criticized for fomenting precisely the sorts of divides that Bush disparaged Thursday.
The ad’s connotations are clear. Northam supported sanctuary cities, which provide cover to criminal immigrants like MS-13, who’ve been linked to brutal murders in Virginia.
That summary skips over a lot of important caveats, including that Virginia doesn’t have sanctuary cities, that sanctuary cities don’t actually have more crime than other cities and that MS-13 is a domestic gang that includes both immigrants and native-born Americans. Trump’s focused on MS-13 because it’s a convenient way to link illegal immigration and crime, a line he drew explicitly during an event on Long Island this year.
What Gillespie’s ad hopes to do, explicitly, is foment fear about immigration to his political advantage. It isolates one vote from Northam on sanctuary cities (which The Washington Post analyzed) to tie him and immigrant populations to violent crime.
To put it another way, Northam is being judged by his worst examples. Gillespie’s ads clearly don’t seem to recall the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.
In one sense, this is just politics. Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, won election in 1988 after running one of the most notoriously racially divisive ads in U.S. political history. The elder Bush then went on in his inaugural address to describe the optimism of the “thousand points of light” that community organizations working around the country represented. In other words, there’s always been tension between what a campaign does to win and what the winning candidate does once in office.
But Bush’s speech Thursday wasn’t offered in a normal political moment. It was a deliberate condemnation in the very real shift in American politics that Trump both leveraged and fostered. It was a call for a higher sort of politics. Bush has largely stayed away from politics since leaving office. Trump has clearly inspired him to jump back in.
Gillespie’s ads, similarly, aren’t just normal political mudslinging. Gillespie barely won the Republican primary against Corey Stewart, an unabashed advocate of Trumpism who leveraged that position to great effect. That Gillespie won was certainly a relief to the Republican establishment in the state. But Gillespie’s embrace of Trump’s rhetoric in his efforts to unseat Northam is a sign of how that establishment is incorporating the sorts of divisiveness that Bush just condemned.
Few candidates represent only one idea. Bush endorses Gillespie because he is judging the candidate by his best intentions, recognizing that getting an establishment/more moderate Republican into power in Virginia may mean you have to break a few eggs, including using tactics that you find unpleasant. Maybe, as with George H.W. Bush and his “Willie Horton” ad, Gillespie and Bush would argue that he’s simply using Trumpism to win his race.
The difference between using Trumpism to win an election and dispersing and endorsing Trump’s arguments, though, is a subtle one. It also seems like something that the George W. Bush speaking Thursday fervently advocated against.