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George W. Bush assails Trumpism without naming Trump, warns of rising 'bigotry' and trade protectionism

  • Former President George W. Bush delivers a searing rebuke of Trumpism, arguing that "bigotry seems emboldened" today, and "we've seen nationalism distorted into nativism."
  • Bush does not mention President Trump by name, but attacks a wide array of his policies, including trade protectionism.
  • The former president also warns that the weakening of democratic institutions has made American politics "more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication."

Former President George W. Bush on Thursday warned that "bigotry seems emboldened" in America, and "our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication."

Speaking at the Bush Institute's Spirit of Liberty event in New York, the 43rd president warned against the isolationism and trade protectionism that Trump has long espoused.

"People are hurting, they're angry and they're frustrated [and] we must help them," Bush said. "But we cannot wish globalization away, any more than we could wish away the Agricultural Revolution or the Industrial Revolution. One strength of free society is its ability to adapt to economic and social disruptions, and that should be our goal."

A Bush spokesman later said the former president was not explicitly criticizing President Donald Trump, whose name Bush never mentioned in the speech. Nonetheless, the parallels were obvious.

"We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty," Bush said. "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. We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism. Forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America."

Bush's speech also appeared to be a direct rebuke to the populist, nationalist themes that defined much of Trump's 2016 president campaign, personified by the views of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Bush, a lifelong Republican, did not vote for Trump. Instead, he left the presidential section of his ballot blank in 2016.

"Our identity as a nation, unlike other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood," Bush said Thursday. "People from every race, religion, ethnicity can be full and equally American."

White supremacists at a violent protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August shouted the Nazi slogan "blood and soil."

The former president also made an oblique reference to Trump's claim this past summer that both sides were to blame following the white supremacist rally. "Bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed," Bush said.

He argued that America must strengthen its defense of democracy and democratic institutions under attack from foreign powers, and Russia in particular.

This defense, Bush said, "begins with confronting a new era of cyberthreats. America has experienced a sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country's divisions. According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other."

He added that "foreign aggressions, including cyberattacks, disinformation and financial influence, should never be downplayed or tolerated." Trump has repeatedly claimed that a Russian campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election is a "hoax," perpetuated by Democrats.

Bush said that the weakening of democratic institutions has made American politics "more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication," he said. Trump has often repeated falsehoods and promoted false conspiracies, such as the claim of widespread voter fraud during the 2016 elections.

A White House spokesman did not immediately respond Thursday to a CNBC request for comment on Bush's speech.

While receiving the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Monday, another Republican, Sen. John McCain, took issue with the nationalist and isolationist policies that Trump campaigned on to win the White House. Without mentioning Trump by name, McCain said:

"To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain 'the last best hope of earth' for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history."

Trump responded in an interview with Washington's WMAL radio, saying: "I'm being very, very nice, but at some point I fight back and it won't be pretty."