On Thursday, former President George W. Bush spoke at the “Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In The World” event in New York. There, he delivered a barnburner address taking on the ideologies of both the Left, the “nationalist populist” Right, and the alt-right. Naturally, the press focused solely and exclusively on his attacks on “nationalist populism” (the scare quotes signify that this is not an actual ideology, but a pastiche of attitudes and ideas having little to do with a thoroughgoing philosophy) — Trumpism.
And, to be fair, Bush did excoriate elements of so-called Trumpism.
Bush explicitly and cogently attacked the West’s declining confidence in economic freedom and political democracy, condemning Europe’s “identity crisis,” which he said bred “insolvency, economic stagnation, youth unemployment, anger about immigration, resurgent ethno-nationalism, and deep questions about the meaning and durability of the European Union.”
He seemed to be referring to President Trump when he stated:
We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism — forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade — forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism. We have seen the return of isolationist sentiments — forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.
But Bush did far more than that.
He led off by recognizing that the populist Lleft and populist Right had both forgotten some basic truths: that “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.” And he noted that the Left particularly had ignored the lessons of the Cold War: “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.”
He explained that the divisions of Americans into tribal classes are quashing the American spirit:
Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication. … We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions — forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.
In the end, Bush stated, all of this was a “combination of weariness, frayed tempers, and forgetfulness.”
Bush’s speech wasn’t perfect. He continued to express the unsupportable idea that “the desire for freedom is not confined to, or owned by, any culture; it is the inborn hope of our humanity.” That is obviously untrue, simply by glancing at either history or contemporary cultures around the world, many of which value purity or equality before freedom.
But Bush reminded Americans that “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.” Both the nationalist populists and the modern-day Left have ignored that moral reality.
So while the media rush to point out Bush’s opposition to so-called Trumpism, they were willing to ignore his just-as-harsh attacks on Democratic leftism. Bush clearly called for hardening our defenses, including cyberdefense against Russia; he called for renewed American leadership around the world based on principles of freedom; he talked up globalization as both inevitable and desirable in economic terms. Most of all, he talked up education in virtue:
Our identity as a nation — unlike many other nations — is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility. We become the heirs of Thomas Jefferson by accepting the ideal of human dignity found in the Declaration of Independence. We become the heirs of James Madison by understanding the genius and values of the U.S. Constitution. We become 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. And it means that the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation.
Bush condemned the media for failures of accuracy and fairness; he condemned religious institutions for abandoning the playing field; he condemned colleges for shutting down free expression.
Bush’s speech, in other words, was a ringing re-emphasized Reagan conservatism. The media ignore that the populist Left has more in common with the populist Right than with Bush’s perspective; they take advantage of the (R) next to Bush’s name to use him as a club against Trump. But Bush stood against both Trumpism and Obamaism; he stood in favor of a founding vision rather than the demagoguery of the moment.
And the media will never bother to headline that little fact. It might remind Americans that traditional conservatism is a better solution than either of the currently ascendant alternatives.