On October 19, President George W. Bush spoke at the “Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World” event in New York City, a forum hosted by the Bush Presidential Center promoting American values of freedom and security.
Former President Bush’s oration was met with strong reactions on both sides of the aisle, primarily because what might have been a vague, unoriginal rambling about American values took on a slightly more poignant tone. Without naming names, Bush blatantly critiqued several core components of the “Trump Doctrine” and joined the ranks of prominent Republicans in casting disdain on our current president.
“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism—forgetting the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” Bush observed, following with a critique of “the return of isolationist tendencies” in which we’ve “[forgotten] that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places.” Later, he addressed the threat of Russian election interference, our obligation to refugees, the inevitability of globalization and unequivocally denounced white supremacy to enthusiastic applause.
Trump supporters were, predictably, less than pleased. The reaction on right-leaning comment sections, usually locations of support for Bush—at least relative to others—quickly deteriorated into condemnations of Bush, labeling him a corrupt globalist, swamp-creature, sellout, etc. That displeasure carried over to the appearance of Bush alongside the four other living former presidents, his father included, at a hurricane relief fundraiser later in the week. Whereas, before Trump, the vast majority of conservatives hailed both George W. and George H.W. Bush as the best of the five, this week the overwhelming message was one of consistent disgust: all five presidents were painted with one brush—a group of globalist, “deep state” puppets who had all contributed greatly to the “swamp” Trump intends to drain.
This vehemency likely won’t faze George W. Bush, who has been called much worse, and whose political career is over and whose future is secure. But this rapid backlash shows, however, just how vulnerable even the most prominent conservative figureheads are to the tides of Trumpism. As we’ve seen with Senators Corker, Flake and McCain, criticizing Trump is a political death-wish for members of the Republican Party.
On the flip side, the resounding liberal response to Bush’s speech was equally worrisome. Many left-leaning pundits and Democratic loyalists applauded Bush with an enthusiasm that needs to be questioned. All across the mediascape, self-proclaimed liberals pined for the days of the Bush presidency. Even if slightly sarcastic or lighthearted, “Trump makes me wish for the days of George Bush” became a frequently paraphrased line for liberals and moderates across the spectrum—and it’s not the first time we’ve heard it.
I am glad to hear George Bush condemn the reprehensible components of Trump’s platform, don’t get me wrong. However, such condemnation should not become the golden ticket for our approval. On the contrary, it should be the minimal standard. Breaking ranks with Trump should not result in automatic clemency for members of the GOP—we must be more demanding of our elected officials. Republican Senator Jeff Flake, for instance, who gave a very impassioned and powerful anti-Trump speech on the Senate floor this week, still voted to repeal an important consumer protection act limiting class-action lawsuits against corporations on Wednesday. Therefore, in this context, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
Furthermore, wishing for the days of Bush, even if merely symbolic of our dark times, is a dangerous sentiment for the left to adopt. Frankly, it’s a position of privilege. Just as I lambasted some of my “never Hillary” friends for their lack of solidarity with those most vulnerable to Trump’s election, those who faced imminent danger from the tides it would unleash, predominantly white liberals pining for Bush’s metaphorical return, fail to stand in solidarity with the millions of innocent civilians across the Middle East whose lives were destroyed by irresponsible and short-sighted actions in the “War on Terror.”
It’s also critical that we don’t settle back into routine “establishment conservatism” in the name of incremental progress and recovery. Liberals who now accept George Bush are indicating they’d be consoled if the next election ushered in a Bush-esque figure, as any escape from Trump is welcome. Yet we can not accept this as the case or be complicit in its propagation.
We need to escape Trump and “Trumpism,” but we do not do that by reverting to politics that have already failed us. Taking three steps back and then only one step forward would still leave us far beyond the line of “progress” we should be collectively reaching for. Though I thank George W. Bush for speaking out, I will still not call him a friend.