For the last nine years, George W. Bush has largely stayed out of presidential politics; he declined to criticize his successor, Barack Obama, and he chose not to endorse but largely ignored President Donald Trump. While Mitt Romney and others spoke out publicly against Trump, Bush stayed above the fray.
That changed in a big way Thursday.
Speaking at the George W. Bush Institute in New York, Bush didn't use Trump's name, but his target became clearer as the speech progressed. Here's a sampling:
• "Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication."
• "We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism."
• "We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty . . . Argument turns too easily into animosity."
• "It means that bigotry and white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed, and it means the very identity of our nation depends on passing along civic ideals."
• "Bullying and prejudice in our public life . . . provides permission for cruelty and bigotry."
• "The only way to pass along civic values is to live up to them."
Any one of these quotes in isolation could be dismissed as highflying rhetoric aimed at the general coarsening of our political culture — or the rise of forms of nationalism and extremism that clearly exist outside the Oval Office.
But almost each of these quotes have some connection to Trump. "Conspiracy theories and fabrications?" Check and check. "Nationalism and nativism?" Check and check. A "degraded discourse?" Big check. "Bigotry and white supremacy?" Trump was criticized for not calling them out strongly enough in Charlottesville. "Bullying?" Huge check. Not "living up to civic values?" Check, definitely.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently drew plenty of attention for alluding to "spurious nationalism" in a speech this week. But Bush's comments actually hark back to a more thorough takedown of Trump's worldview that McCain delivered back in February. Here's what McCain said at the Munich Security Conference in Germany:
• "(The founders of the Munich conference) would be alarmed by an increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood and race and sectarianism."
• "They would be alarmed by the hardening resentment we see toward immigrants and refugees and minority groups — especially Muslims."
• "They would be alarmed by the growing inability — and even unwillingness — to separate truth from lies."
• "They would be alarmed that more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent."
It's possible Bush would argue that Trump is more a symptom of all of these unhealthy trends in American democracy than the root of them. But in drafting a prepared speech like that, he had to know how those words would be interpreted.
Trump, during the 2016 campaign, repeatedly attacked Bush for not doing more to stop 9/11 and for the Iraq War. More recently, he has favorably compared his own hurricane response to Hurricane Katrina, on Bush's watch.
On Thursday, Bush clearly decided that silence was no longer tenable.