George W Bush delivered a rare, if veiled, rebuke to Donald Trump on Thursday, criticising the US president without explicitly mentioning him by name.
Speaking at a summit hosted by the George W Bush Institute in New York, the former president warned that bigotry and nativism had taken hold in America, and called for a restoration of the values that had defined the country’s history.
His speech appeared to refer to the most significant controversies that have dogged Mr Trump’s first year in office — Mr Trump’s response to a white nationalist march in Charlottesville when he blamed the subsequent violence on both the nationalists and protesters; his loose relationship with the truth; his impulse to blow up longstanding US alliances and positions on free trade and globalism; and his efforts to curb immigration, either by travel ban or a wall on the US-Mexico border.
“Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seem more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” Mr Bush told an audience, which included Mr Trump’s ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley as well as former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice.
“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’ve seen the return of isolationist sentiments . . . ”
Mr Bush added: “Our identity as a nation — unlike many other nations — is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood . . . That 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.”
Elsewhere in the speech, the former president tackled bigotry and bullying, suggesting that the behaviour of those in the public eye set the tone for the rest of the country.
“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,” he said.
Mr Bush has largely avoided criticising predecessors, in the tradition of former occupants of the Oval Office.
His comments came on the heels of a fresh controversy for Mr Trump over the ways in which he has interacted with Gold Star families, or the relatives of fallen members of the US military.
Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, criticised remarks Mr Trump made during a call to a soldier’s widow this month. According to both Ms Wilson and a family member of the fallen soldier, Mr Trump told the widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt”.
On Thursday in a rare and highly personal press conference, White House chief of staff John Kelly revealed that he had been the one to advise Mr Trump on what to say in the phone call, drawing on his personal experience as a father who had lost a son in combat.
“He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 per cent. He knew what the possibilities were because we were at war. And when he died he was surrounded by the best men on earth, his friends. That’s what the president tried to say to [the Gold Star] families the other day,” Mr Kelly told reporters.
Mr Kelly he said he was “stunned” by Ms Wilson’s decision to publicise the call and criticised what he described as her “selfish behaviour”.