Last week, George W. Bush delivered an address decrying the rise of nativism, bigotry, and incivility in recent years. The former president did not mention the current one by name, but it is clear that he had Donald Trump mind. Whether Bush blames Trump for the rise of all three phenomena — nativism, bigotry, and incivility — is less certain. I suspect he does.
Construing Bush’s speech as an across-the-board criticism of Trump, I find merit in the charge of incivility. Nativism and bigotry, not so much.
The term nativism has been so overused as to become almost empty. It is basically an attempt to stop conversation when immigration is debated. Bush’s speech is a case in point.
Has bigotry increased since Trump entered the political stage? I don’t know.
Has Trump encouraged bigotry? I discussed this charge in a December 2015 post. I found the charge mostly unfounded, but acknowledged that, arguably, he had manifested bigotry towards Muslims. There was no indication of bigotry against African Americans, I said.
Since then, many have argued that Trump showed sympathy for bigotry after the violence in Charlottesville. I disagreed, while conceding that he should more promptly have condemned the bigotry on display there.
As for fostering incivility and what Bush calls bullying, I think Trump is guilty beyond a shadow of doubt. During the GOP primary season, his attacks on John McCain, Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz (to give just a few examples) were disgraceful.
So too was his attack on former president Bush. During the South Carolina primary, he claimed, without providing any evidence, that Bush went to war in Iraq knowing that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction.
Trump’s presidency has featured more of the same. Recall his attacks on Attorney General Sessions, for example. In the latest controversy over calling Gold Star families, Rep. Frederica Wilson’s deplorable conduct should not obscure the fact that Trump tried to politicize such calls by criticizing Bush and Barack Obama for how they responded to deaths by American service members. He did so before Wilson criticized Trump for his call to wife of Sergeant Johnson. I found it significant that Gen. Kelly did not back his boss on that matter.
Conservatives unhappy with Bush’s speech will likely note that for eight years he did not criticize President Obama, directly or indirectly. In my view, Obama’s presidency yielded vastly more to complain about than Trump’s has.
But Obama, as nasty as he often was, never approached Trump in the incivility department. Civility counts a great deal for Bush. Thus, I have no problem with Bush being roused by Trump’s verbal viciousness to decry the present incivility.
Conservatives will probably also object that Bush was too willing to turn the other cheek during his presidency, and that his obsession with civility hurt him politically. There is, though, plenty of space between the approaches of Bush and Trump. A president can push back sharply against criticism without adopting Trump’s rhetoric and, at times, dishonesty.
Moreover, I reject the premise that Bush’s approach hurt him politically. He was reelected in 2004 despite not punching back at his critics. It remains to be seen whether Trump will be reelected.
To be sure, Bush’s popularity plummeted in his second term. But I submit this was because he prosecuted the Iraq war badly for the two years of that term and then, in his final year, the economy collapsed.
If the Trump presidency is anything close to that rocky, all the punching back in the world won’t prevent his popularity, such as it is, from diving.
By recasting the “Bush was too soft” objection to his speech, however, we can see the problem with Bush’s admonition. The problem isn’t that his approach was too soft to maintain general popularity. It’s that his approach is too soft to lead his party, given the current state of our politics and our culture.
Conservatives (and most Republicans) simply won’t accept a candidate who doesn’t punch back hard. Nor should we.
We face a media, and indeed a culture, that demonizes us and, to a considerable degree, America itself. Our voice is largely silent in Hollywood and suppressed at colleges and universities.
Bush’s “turn the other cheek” approach may have been adequate in the political wars of the last decade. It is not up to the present cultural war we find ourselves in, whether we like it or not.
As I said, there is a vast space between Bush’s approach and Trump’s. I believe conservatives can counter the mainstream media, Hollywood, various sports leagues and networks, and all the rest without the viciousness Trump consistently displays.
I recognize, though, that there are grounds for skepticism on this point.