George W. Bush Finally Criticizes Another President
Some weeks ago, former President George W. Bush delivered a speech attacking the incumbent president, Donald Trump, and his supporters. That was the “unmistakable” thrust of Mr. Bush’s remarks, in the apprehension of virtually everyone, even though he chose not to mention President Trump by name. The address consisted largely of elliptical references to sins committed against democracy, with the guilty parties left unidentified. But all of the sins referenced -- bigotry, white supremacism, nativism, protectionism, isolationism, “casual cruelty,” Russian interference in the last election -- sounded like liberal talking points. This address, given at an assemblage entitled “Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World” in New York City, was not criticism of the Democrats.
The former President, of course, has grounds for personal animosity against Trump. As a candidate, Mr. Trump attacked the Bush Administration and, in particular, the Iraq War. He was not kind to Jeb Bush when they were competing for the Republican nomination. And yet, President Bush’s two current friends, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, denigrated him often enough. And their supporters in Congress, the press, Hollywood, and everywhere else reviled him. More significantly, this is about the future of the American people, not the personal pique of the famous and powerful.
For those of us who venerate President Bush’s leadership in the months after September 11, there is no pleasure in taking exception to what he chooses to say now. The former President, of course, is perfectly free to denigrate the present Republican Administration, having uttered not a word against his Democratic predecessor or successor, whose company he now keeps with manifest cordiality. Mr. Bush apparently deems uplifting the sight of him associating with such men as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, in bipartisan pursuit of the national good, which includes hostility to President Trump.
Internationalism is Mr. Bush’s first theme. That means free trade and the propagation of democracy around the world. All good things have come “from the global advance of free markets, from the strength of democratic alliances, and from the advance of free societies.” And it is “free trade” that “helped make America into a global economic power.” Now, however, we are afflicted with “fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade” and we forget that “conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.”
Mr. Bush acknowledges the “economic and social dislocations caused by globalization.” He has compassion for those affected. “People are hurting. They are angry. And they are frustrated.” Much of the former President’s address has to do with quelling the irrational anger of those who in their ignorance and parochialism simply do not know what is best. “We must hear them and help them,” he stipulates, but not listen to anything they say (because they don’t get it). “[W]e can’t wish globalization away,” Bush intones, “any more than we could wish away the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution.” Retraining the displaced “for new opportunities” and growing the economy are the answers.
We have no occasion here to examine the complex issues of international trade to which President Bush summarily alludes. It is one thing to say that free trade undergirded by international conventions is in the long-term interest of the country, even if there are temporary disruptions in some of our industrial sectors. It is quite another to consign to the realm of demagoguery the mere assertion that American economic policy, domestic and international, should be designed to preserve the wellbeing of Americans, the citizens of this country, whose votes give public officials their authority. Surely there may be inquiry as to whether other countries with which we trade themselves practice protectionism, or otherwise act to the disadvantage of the United States.
Thus far in the Trump Administration, there have been no actual protectionist measures enacted. There was talk of such policies during the campaign, and in the first days of the Administration the President used the bully pulpit to induce a few firms to keep jobs in America. That would not quite add up to “conflict, instability, and poverty.” Is the economy not prospering, with increased growth and a surging stock market?
America’s duty to promulgate freedom in the world is another Bush theme. There is no explicit reference to war, but the allusions to isolationism and security threats abroad suggest that armed conflict is part of what he means by the promulgation of freedom. President Bush is very certain that everyone the world over wants freedom. “We know that the desire for freedom is not confined to, or owned by, any culture; it is the inborn hope of our humanity.” Furthermore, the crusade for freedom represented 70 years of bipartisan policy, in which “the presidents of both parties believed that American security and prosperity were directly tied to the success of freedom in the world.” Striving for that success came naturally to Americans, “because it expressed the DNA of American idealism.”
Now, however, “we have seen the return of isolationist sentiments” -- a very bad thing, when your DNA goes haywire -- “forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places.” And American security indeed may be so threatened. But finding success in American military interventions since the Second World War takes a bit of looking. Inconclusive results or outright catastrophes achieved over prolonged periods and at a certain price in blood have been the pattern. The suggestion that there was bipartisan support for the war that President Bush himself initiated in 2003, or for the Vietnam War, or for any of the military measures taken by the Reagan Administration is a joke, though not the most amusing sort.
Is it really isolationism to wish that before American troops are sent to fight and die, there be a resolve to use whatever means are necessary to attain victory? Or to think that if such means are deemed immoral or impractical, the troops ought not be sent in the first place? Should the American armed forces be deployed for any reason other than that of protecting the security and freedom of the American people, or of upholding their honor, by adhering to treaty commitments constitutionally undertaken? Is it not a consummate folly to send our soldiers to fight for the sake of foreign peoples, from whom gratitude is then expected, but never in the end forthcoming? The inhabitants of this planet plainly do not all love freedom -- there are millions of them whose devotion is instead to Islam and Sharia.
Finally, there is the attack upon “nativism,” as well as “anger about immigration” and “resurgent ethno-nationalism.” President Bush patiently explains to us that being an American means believing certain things, and it makes no difference how the nation’s demography changes. “Our identity as a nation [and it would seem, as a people] … is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood.” Take the population of this country that existed in 1965, when the immigration laws were amended through the endeavors of Senator Kennedy and others, change it to one with a different majority race, and you have altered nothing, so long as the members of the new racial majority still venerate the ideas of Jefferson and Madison.
In Mr. Bush’s eyes, no Americans should be perturbed about ceasing to be part of the demographic majority in their own country and becoming henceforth of the minority. Of course, a learned paper predicting that by the middle of this century, more than half the population of Japan (or Nigeria, or Mexico) would consist of persons of Northern European descent perhaps would not inspire adulation, but that must be what President Bush means when he tells us that we are “unlike many other nations.”
President Bush closes his remarks by praising the American capacity for “self-correction,” which is “the secret strength of freedom.” And was self-correction not precisely what the American electorate sought to accomplish in 2016? In the minds of Mr. Trump’s supporters, his election was the remedy for unsatisfactory leadership on the part of some on the stage at President Bush’s gala event. They were happy neither with their jobs vanishing, their sons perishing in wars with no apparent strategy for victory, nor with the massive migration to this country, for which they did not vote. The gaze of condescension that our Washington aristocracy casts upon those who turned to Donald Trump is my idea of “casual cruelty.”