You might say George W. Bush wants to make America great again.
In remarks Thursday, he criticized the kind of politics, sentiment and populism that led to President Trump’s rise and election — though he never named Trump explicitly.
“Bigotry seems emboldened,” Bush said in New York at a forum put on by the George W. Bush Institute. “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
He slammed a discourse that seems “degraded by casual cruelty,” disagreement that “escalates into dehumanization” and a “nationalism distorted into nativism.”
Bush, however, also criticized the kind of liberal populism that led to Bernie Sanders’ rise on the left.
“There are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned, especially among the young who never experienced the galvanizing moral clarity of the Cold War or never focused on the ruin of entire nations by Socialist central planning,” Bush said. “Some have called that democratic deconsolidation. Merely it seems to be a combination of weariness, frayed tempers and forgetfulness.”
After leaving office, the 43rd president mostly stayed out of politics. He was unpopular and was being replaced by someone whose election could have been seen as a rebuke to his presidency. Former President Barack Obama, his successor of a different party, had a very different worldview than did Bush, and Obama ran largely against Bush.
But Bush, who didn’t vote for Trump — instead opting to leave the presidential line blank — is stepping back into the spotlight and looking to take hold of the conversation around what America means at this moment.
“Americans have great advantage,” Bush said. “To renew our country, we only need to remember our values.”
Here’s a transcript of Bush’s remarks:
“We are gathered in the cause of liberty this is a unique moment. The great democracies face new and serious threats – yet seem to be losing confidence in their own calling and competence. Economic, political and national security challenges proliferate, and they are made worse by the tendency to turn inward. The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue. And the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand.
“Since World War II, America has encouraged and benefited from the global advance of free markets, from the strength of democratic alliances, and from the advance of free societies. At one level, this has been a raw calculation of interest. The 20th century featured some of the worst horrors of history because dictators committed them. Free nations are less likely to threaten and fight each other. And free trade helped make America into a global economic power.
“For more than 70 years, the presidents of both parties believed that American security and prosperity were directly tied to the success of freedom in the world. And they knew that the success depended, in large part, on U.S. leadership. This mission came naturally, because it expressed the DNA of American idealism.
“We know, deep down, that repression is not the wave of the future. We know that the desire for freedom is not confined to, or owned by, any culture; it is the inborn hope of our humanity. We know that free governments are the only way to ensure that the strong are just and the weak are valued. And we know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.
“This is not to underestimate the historical obstacles to the development of democratic institutions and a democratic culture. Such problems nearly destroyed our country – and that should encourage a spirit of humility and a patience with others. Freedom is not merely a political menu option, or a foreign policy fad; it should be the defining commitment of our country, and the hope of the world.
“That appeal is proved not just by the content of people’s hopes, but a noteworthy hypocrisy: No democracy pretends to be a tyranny. Most tyrannies pretend they are democracies. Democracy remains the definition of political legitimacy. That has not changed, and that will not change.
“Yet for years, challenges have been gathering to the principles we hold dear. And, we must take them seriously. Some of these problems are external and obvious. Here in New York City, you know the threat of terrorism all too well. It is being fought even now on distant frontiers and in the hidden world of intelligence and surveillance. There is the frightening, evolving threat of nuclear proliferation and outlaw regimes. And there is an aggressive challenge by Russia and China to the norms and rules of the global order – proposed revisions that always seem to involve less respect for the rights of free nations and less freedom for the individual.
“These matters would be difficult under any circumstances. They are further complicated by a trend in western countries away from global engagement and democratic confidence. Parts of Europe have developed an identity crisis. We have seen insolvency, economic stagnation, youth unemployment, anger about immigration, resurgent ethno-nationalism, and deep questions about the meaning and durability of the European Union.
“America is not immune from these trends. In recent decades, public confidence in our institutions…