George W. Bush doesn't often go out onto the public stage, preferring mostly to paint portraits of Iraq War veterans and pretending he wasn't an awful president. But on Thursday in New York, the former president made a rare political speech in which he defended globalization and free trade and decried the current wave of "bigotry" and "casual cruelty." He didn't mention Donald Trump's name, but the implication was pretty obvious, and the "major smackdown," to quote a CNN headline, went viral faster than you can say, "George W. Bush, welcome to the resistance."
"Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children," Bush said.
Obviously those are nice sentiments. They're the sort of thing that before Trump, major politicians from both parties would say routinely. But if we praise Republicans for calling out the "bigotry" and "casual cruelty" of their party's current leader, we shouldn't forget that the GOP has both enabled Trump and paved the way for him—and that's true of Bush in particular.
Unlike Trump, Bush never verbalized his Islamophobia. He never called the 9/11 attacks "radical Islamic terror," and nine days after the tragedy, he gave a speech where he asserted, "Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war." That was an important and good thing to say. But the post-9/11 policies didn't live up to those words. In the weeks following the tragedy, the Bush administration detained more than 1,200 people—most of whom were Muslims or of Middle Eastern descent—without charge, instead holding them as "material witnesses."
"Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication," Bush said on Thursday. But the war in Iraq, which destabilized the region, killed hundreds of thousands, and helped give rise to ISIS was predicated on intelligence that Bush's administration misrepresented to the American people.
In his speech on Thursday, Bush criticized the Trump administration's immigration policies, remarking, "We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism, forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America." But when Bush was in office, he deported thousands of Muslim immigrants after the 9/11 attacks. As Glenn Greenwald noted at the Intercept in 2015, the former president also "quickly and secretly implemented an illegal scheme of warrantless domestic eavesdropping aimed largely at Muslims."
Before Trump took office, there was concern that his administration would create a database of Muslims, which he repeatedly threatened to do (before denying he made those threats). But Bush did actually create such a database, called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), that, according to CNN, "disproportionately targeted Arabs and Muslims and was a point of contention between rights groups and the federal government for nearly a decade." (Barack Obama's administration ended the system, saying it had become outdated.)
Trump has created a commission to study "voter fraud" in an obvious effort to intimidate voters and drive turnout down—Bush did the same thing. Trump has appointed unqualified cronies to important posts—Bush nominated his White House counsel, who had never been a judge, to the Supreme Court. Trump's administration denies climate change is a problem—so did Bush's.
Bush's implicit criticism of Trump's bigotry and vulgarity ignores the fact that the GOP's racism problem runs much deeper than Trump. In Virginia, middle-of-the-road Republican Ed Gillespie is currently running for a governor using race-baiting ads that claim his opponent is enabling the Central American gang MS-12. What's Bush doing about that? He's raising money for Gillespie.
After Bush finished his speech on Thursday, a reporter asked him if he thought his message would be heard in the White House. He reportedly smiled with a slight nod and said, "I think it will." It seems Trump's White House has already heard Bush's message—not the platitudes he's preaching now, but the racist and authoritarian policies he enacted during his time in office.
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