Trump turns George W. Bush into Cicero

Former U.S. President George W. Bush speaks at a forum sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute in New York, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush speaks at a forum sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute in New York, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

George W. Bush stayed mum for eight years, refusing to publicly criticize Barack Obama. But yesterday he publicly eviscerated Donald Trump, assailing his Republican successor as a dire threat to American democracy.

There you have it, folks: Trump is such a primal embarrassment that he makes Bush look like Cicero.

Cicero was the orator and politician who stood up for democracy at a time when his ancient Rome was veering toward autocracy. His efforts failed. Hopefully, Bush’s eloquent words yesterday will be heeded — wow, I just used “Bush” and “eloquent” in the same phrase! — but I’m rightfully skeptical. His party is being swamped by Trumpism, and many of us have beefs with Bush that date back 15 years to the Iraq disinformation crusade.

But in these desperate days, we need to grade on a curve. Bush, whatever his past faults, is perfectly capable of sniffing our four-alarm fire and sounding the alarm. He did so in the earliest passages of his New York speech:

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue. And the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand …. We know, deep down, that repression is not the wave of the future …. 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.

Gee. And whose failure might that be?

“Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”

Gee. Perchance was Bush referring to the guy whose latest fabricated theory is that FBI and Russia plotted against him?

“We [are] the heirs of Martin Luther King, Jr., by recognizing one another not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed. It means that the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation.”

Just a little reminder of what Trump should have said after the racists marched in Charlottesville. See how easy that was?

“Our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”

Because only an amoral bully is stupid and cruel enough to turn a basic presidential duty (consoling a war widow) into a four-day story. The national tone being set today is not exactly a role model for our kids.

But most importantly, Bush addressed the national security crisis that Trump never deigns to mention:

“Our country must show resolve and resilience in the face of external attacks on our democracy. And that begins with confronting a new era of cyber threats. America is experiencing the sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country’s divisions. According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other. This effort is broad, systematic, and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social media platforms. Ultimately, this assault won’t succeed. But foreign aggressions — including cyber-attacks, disinformation, and financial influence — should not be downplayed or tolerated. This is a clear case where the strength of our democracy begins at home. We must secure our electoral infrastructure and protect our electoral system from subversion.”

That passage was a stinging slap across Trump’s kisser. Evidence of Russia’s invasive perfidy continues to mount by the day (the stuff on Facebook, the army of Twitter bots, the fake protest rallies, the obvious intent to wreak havoc again in 2018 and beyond), yet the alleged POTUS still says nothing about it. So Bush did his job for him.

Think about what just happened: A former president took it upon himself to warn Americans of a clear and present danger to our national security, at a time when a successor from his own party steadfastly refuses to do it. Bush publicly rebuked Trump for being weak — the ultimate insult, even if Trump is too clueless (or too deep in the tank for Putin) to recognize it.

Actually, if we strip away all the eloquence, what Bush said yesterday was not qualitatively different from what three people heard him muttering last January, moments after Trump finished his nativist Inauguration speech:

“That was some weird s–t.”

And yeah, I know that Bush had his own presidential faults, like marching us into a war that destabilized the Middle East. But everything he said yesterday had the fresh tang of truth. And since beggars can’t be choosers these days, ask yourself whether you’d prefer him or Trump in office. If the choice was a white-bread baloney sandwich or a steaming bowl of sewage, which would you eat?

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal