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Donald Trump

Former US presidents Bush and Obama denounce bigotry and ‘politics of division’ in speeches aimed at Trump

Both past leaders have largely stayed out of the political spotlight since leaving office … until now

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 October, 2017, 7:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 October, 2017, 11:27pm

Former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama came out of the woodwork on Thursday to take aim at Donald Trump’s leadership, warning of bullying, bigotry and that America’s democracy is under threat.

In a rare political speech from the former Republican leader, Bush offered a blunt assessment of a political system corrupted by “conspiracy theories and outright fabrication” in which nationalism has been “distorted into nativism”.

Bush opened by speaking in both English and Spanish and noting that refugees from Afghanistan, China, North Korea and Venezuela were seated in the audience.

“We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” he said a New York forum. “Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone and provides permission for cruelty and bigotry. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”

Bush did not mention Trump by name, and former aides insisted his message echoed words he had spoken before. But that a former president was sounding the alarm about American values and the country’s role in the world at a time when Trump has unsettled allies abroad and provoked political backlash at home injected his remarks with greater urgency.

“Bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed,” Bush said in a line that drew the most applause.

Bush has largely remained out of the political spotlight since leaving office amid low popularity in 2009 and made a point not to criticise or second-guess his Democratic successor, Barack Obama.

Just hours after Bush completed his speech, Obama also made a veiled critique of the Trump era, calling on Democrats at a New Jersey campaign event to “send a message to the world that we are rejecting a politics of division, we are rejecting a politics of fear”.

“We’ve got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry, to demonise people who have different ideas, to get the base all riled up because it provides a short-term tactical advantage,” Obama said. “So the question for you tonight for the next 19 days: Do you want a politics of division and distraction, or do you believe in a better kind of politics?”

That Trump’s two most recent predecessors felt liberated, or perhaps compelled, to re-enter the political arena in a manner that offered an implicit criticism of him is virtually unprecedented in modern politics, historians said. Trump has been harshly critical of both Bush and Obama – calling each of them the “worst” president at one time or another.

Robert Dallek, a presidential historian and author, said Bush was taking aim at Trump’s “roiling of the traditional institutions of the country and, in particular, demeaning the office of the president by a kind of crude or vulgar bashing of opponents”.

“I think this is Bush throwing down the gauntlet and feeling that this is a man who has gone too far.”

The discretion former presidents traditionally afforded successors “is now sort of fading to the past because of the belligerence of Trump”.

Bush’s speech came just two days after Republican Senator John McCain lambasted “half-baked, spurious nationalism” and suggested the US was abandoning its leadership role, which he “unpatriotic”.

McCain’s critique prompted Trump to warn him to “be careful” because he is prepared to “fight back”.

The common thread among Bush and McCain’s words was a defence of the post-second world war liberal order that America helped build which supported security alliances, defence of human rights and an open economic system of free trade, said Richard Fontaine, who served on the National Security Council under Bush and was a foreign policy adviser to McCain.

“The hallmark of McCain’s and Bush’s speeches was to try to re-centre us on what have been, since 1945, these traditional ends,” he said.

Before leaving office, Obama had said his goal was to remain out of the political spotlight in part to afford his successor the space to govern. But he cautioned at the time that he would speak out if he saw “core values” at risk.

Since Trump took office, Obama has spoken out on occasion to defend his legacy against Trump’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, unwind US participation in the Paris climate accord and impose new limits on immigration.

Jennifer Psaki, who worked as White House communications director under Obama, said the unifying themes between Obama and Bush are “humanity and empathy towards the American public”.

She said the two leaders are not weighing in on the political news of the day, but are instead “speaking to the conduct, the empathy, the leadership qualities that the American public needs of someone in the Oval Office”.