George W. Bush had been largely quiet about his successors since the former president left the White House nearly nine years ago. That changed Thursday when Bush took down Donald Trump without mentioning him by name.
In a speech in Manhattan, Bush talked about bigotry becoming “emboldened,” “casual cruelty” degrading our discourse, arguments turning “too easily into animosity,” and disagreement that “escalates into dehumanization.” Not a word was untrue.
Nor was his observation about truth itself in Trump’s world.
“Our politics,” Bush said, “seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
We’ve known for a while that the web of mistruth Trump spins daily is like nothing we have seen from any previous occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Legions of fact-checkers have been working overtime to maintain and expose his growing catalog of fiction. Critics have lambasted him.
His own party, though, mostly has stayed silent. Yes, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker recently noted, “I don’t know why the president tweets out things that are not true. You know he does it, everyone knows he does it, but he does.”
And, yes, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier that the president “speaks for himself.”
But no one followed their lead until Sen. John McCain, rarely one to mince words, last week spoke of “spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems . . . ”
Bush, whose alarm outweighed his respect for the convention that former presidents not criticize sitting ones, might have changed the equation. Why does that matter?
Because the damage being done by Trump’s deceptions is not partisan. As Bush noted, one casualty is that “the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned . . . ”
When you say that you and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are closer than ever, that Obamacare is dead, that it’s been established that there was no collusion with the Russians, that you deserve a perfect score for your response to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, that other presidents have not contacted Gold Star families, and none of it is true, what trust can one have in anything you say?
When you say you support a bipartisan health care fix and less than 24 hours later say you don’t, when you say you have a deal with Chuck and Nancy on the Dreamers and then say you don’t, for what do you really stand?
When Tillerson says he’ll continue diplomacy with North Korea and you tweet that he’s “wasting his time,” when Secretary of Defense James Mattis says the Iran nuclear pact is essential to national security and you say you want to cancel it, for what does our nation stand?
When you stonewall questions about why four soldiers died in Niger, when your administration quashes a government study showing that refugees are a net financial benefit to the country, when it takes down however briefly a Web page about the status of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico, what other truths are you suppressing?
Whether the president is living in an alternate reality and actually believes what he says, whether he’s trying to create an alternate reality to distract attention or deflect blame, whether he’s succumbing to a preening narcissism that requires constant deception to remind himself and convince the rest of us that he’s the best-most-only-first-greatest — matters only if you think his more-grounded advisers can win the daily tug-of-war that takes place on the reality-fantasy threshold. The evidence is dubious.
When you continually masticate the truth, all truth becomes malleable. When you casually discard facts for fiction, it emboldens others to do the same. Deception multiplies, distrust grows, cynicism hardens, divides deepen. And democracy dies, bit by little bit.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.