Former president George W. Bush spoke about the perils facing U.S. democracy on Oct. 19, and appeared to weigh in on President Trump's tenure. (The Bush Center)
Opinion writer

George W. Bush’s speech this last week at a forum hosted by his eponymous institute might as well have been titled “Dear Donald.” The 43rd president all but called out the current president by name as he lamented the tone and character of today’s political rhetoric.

“Bigotry seems emboldened,” Bush said . “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”

Indeed.

Trump likes to label these theories and fabrications “fake news,” but “fake news” is Trump’s own invention — and his greatest fabrication to date. Now the rallying cry for millions of Trump supporters, “fake news” is a deflection, a decoy floated on the human sea of credulity to distract people from coverage he finds unflattering. The truth is, what Trump says and does is so often unflattering without embellishment that adjectives and adverbs needn’t apply.

One need look no further than Tuesday when, attempting to comfort the widow of a slain soldier, Trump reportedly couldn’t bother to use the deceased’s name and reminded the grieving woman that her husband had known what he was signing up for, but “it hurts anyway.” You could say that. Or not.

By contrast, Bush’s suffering on behalf of the injured and killed whom he sent into harm’s way as president is apparent in his visage, in the portraits of wounded soldiers he has painted, and in his ongoing work with troops and military families. Such actions don’t alter the pain of a deadly mistake, but they at least indicate a profound empathy that is utterly lacking in the current president.

No stranger to media criticism — crushing criticism — Bush never attacked the fourth estate. He also obviously recognizes that worse than a reporter’s or editor’s error is the undermining of public faith in a free press. Once the government succeeds in eliminating a country’s watchdogs, the government becomes the only source of information. Most people know, or should know, how that ends.

The irony is that the very people who curse the media also tend to curse government overreach.

Trump’s “fake news” charge is very much in the vein of propaganda. He has created a false narrative to clear obstacles — such as questioning reporters or the hindrance of accountability — from his path.

Russians are also very good at this. Recent revelations about fake Twitter accounts tied to Russia through which genuinely fake news was posted and distributed to influence the 2016 election remind us of how vulnerable we are to real fake news. Unfortunately, Trump has helped blur the line between propaganda and what is otherwise known simply as news.

The fact that members of Trump’s campaign and family retweeted some of these real-fake news items demonstrates how difficult it can be to recognize what’s real and what’s not. This may be the greatest challenge of our times. Disinformation combined with generalized antipathy toward the traditional press may be the toxic combination that poisons unity and condemns democratic principles to the hazardous-waste dump. One cannot overemphasize the importance of these developments or of the president’s contributions to the undermining of institutions created by our Constitution to monitor government power.

Recall that a president’s primary duty, in addition to defending the country, is to protect the Constitution. Yet, in just nine months in office, Trump has done more to challenge the integrity of the First Amendment than any other president in history, including expressing interest in making it easier to sue journalists for libel.

He would never actually push such a measure because Trump is smart and knows he’d get nowhere. But he also knows that many among his base don’t know this. No matter. He’s rallied the base with rhetoric and reinforced the infrastructure of his greatest deception. Talk about fake news.

In other remarks clearly aimed at Trump, Bush addressed bullying and prejudice in public life that “sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.” And: “We can’t wish globalization away, any more than we could wish away the agricultural revolution or the Industrial Revolution.”

One needn’t be a sleuth to infer that Bush was speaking to the man oft referred to as our bully in chief, as well as to Trump the salesman, who convinced working-class Americans that he would bring back all those jobs lost to globalization. As Bush suggested, globalization is the new age and the old one isn’t coming back.

A Republican president needed to say these things — and his name wasn’t Trump.

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