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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Trump lowering presidential bar

At a forum conducted in New York last

At a forum conducted in New York last week by his presidential institute, George W. Bush criticizes "casual cruelty" in U.S. politics. Credit: AP / Seth Wenig

One of the more ironic effects of the Donald Trump presidency has been the rehabilitation of George W. Bush.

In 2010, it was Republicans who shared the sentiments of a “Miss me yet?” billboard with the grinning visage of the much-maligned ex-president; in 2017, Democrats are joining in, and Bush is getting a warm reception in places like “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” This newfound respect is sure to increase after Bush’s speech last week in New York for the George W. Bush Institute. Without attacking Trump by name, Bush assailed Trumpian populism and contrasted it to his own conservative vision.

Bush’s speech, described as “rather eloquent” by The Washington Post, followed closely after a speech by his onetime rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that touched on many of the same themes. Together, they are a call to action against the Republican Party’s drift into Trumpism. But can Bush-McCain conservatism steer America in the right direction?

In many ways, Bush’s words were deeply refreshing for those of us who, regardless of partisanship, are appalled at the degradation of America’s public life. He lamented the “casual cruelty” infecting our discourse, the way “disagreement escalates into dehumanization,” and the rise of emboldened bigotry as well as “conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”

Bush also deplored nativism and the tendency to forget the “dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.” In conclusion, he asserted that “bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.” These powerful words echoed McCain’s statement: “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil.”

Both Bush and McCain also stressed America’s global leadership and its role as a champion of freedom everywhere. And this is where things get dicey: One person’s crusade for liberty is another’s global imperialism.

Bush was entirely right to point out that neo-isolationism ignores the dangers posed to American security by instability, violence and tyranny even in distant parts of the world. But it is difficult to hear Bush speak of foreign policy and American leadership without thinking of the Iraq fiasco.

Bush’s democracy promotion crusade was based on the assumption that most people in other countries and cultures yearn for freedom as understood in the West and need help throwing off their shackles. Today, Bush stands by that vision: “We know that the desire for freedom is not confined to, or owned by, any culture; it is the inborn hope of our humanity,” he said in New York, albeit cautioning not to “underestimate the historical obstacles” to the development of democracy.

The optimism of this claim is appealing, but also somewhat blinkered. The desire for freedom is real; but even in America with its liberal tradition, many people’s commitment to freedom quickly wanes when others say or do something they find unbearably offensive. In some cultures, the prevalent idea of freedom is the ability to impose medieval religious law unhindered by the state. The Bush-McCain approach has often led us to look for alliances with pro-freedom “good guys” where none exist.

Still, as long as optimism is balanced by realism and prudence, it is better to err on the side of faith in liberty and human potential. The Trump presidency, with its nuclear saber-rattling, reminds us that belief in American power untempered by idealism has its own dangers. True, Trump has yet to start a war; but he has not had a 9/11. Would his response to such an attack be more restrained? Would he speak out against collective blame of American Muslims, as Bush did? Imagine such a scenario, and Bush nostalgia makes sense.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.