They were about President Trump. They were also about more than President Trump. Much more.
An extraordinary series of speeches this week from two former US Presidents and a former presidential candidate warned of the dangers to the nation and the world if divisive politics continues to cleave the American electorate into thoughtlessly hostile warring camps.
Former President George W. Bush talked about a rise in bigotry and casual cruelty. Former President Barack Obama observed that public life seems to be regressing from the 21st to the 19th century. Former presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona stressed the importance of an America engaged with the world and criticized “half-baked, spurious nationalism.”
None mentioned Mr. Trump’s name. To do so would have been both inflammatory and limiting. Their theme was not so much the content of Trump’s tweets as long-developing cracks in the American character. If the cracks are not to widen, voters may need to reach out to each other instead of push away.
“They ... talk about American ideals, they ... talk about the story of America, the American creed and the need to reinvigorate democracy and continue to be the exemplar to the world of democratic values,” says Martin Medhurst, a political scientist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, specializing in rhetoric and communication.
Professor Medhurst in the above quote is referencing Mr. Bush and Senator McCain in particular. Bush spoke at a conference in New York convened by the George W. Bush Institute to support democracy. McCain appeared Monday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia where he received the organization’s Liberty Medal.
But the words seem apropos for Obama as well. Obama on Thursday campaigned for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia.
Moving beyond 'politics of division'
Obama’s speech was perhaps the most reserved of the three. He made mainly state-oriented political comments. At several moments, however, he referred with alarm to growing racial strife and economic inequality.
“What we can’t have is the same old politics of division,” he said.
McCain spoke mostly about America’s role in the world, as he has many times before. As a committed internationalist he has long been a critic of the president’s stated “America First” policies.
“To refuse the obligations of international leadership ... is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma,” he said.
Bush saw McCain and raised the ante, including wide, implicit criticism of the current president’s behavior.
“Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children,” Bush said. He also spoke more broadly about stewardship of American values. “We know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed; it is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.”
Unusual break with tradition
On the surface the language all three men used is mild. No direct insults or name-calling. But taken together, especially in the context of recent criticisms of Trump by Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee and other establishment figures, they represent a highly unusual break with American political tradition.
For Bush and McCain in particular to go against a president of their own party is unprecedented. That both men are not Trump fans is no surprise; that they continue to speak about what they perceive as drift in the party and the United States at large in a new president’s first term is stunning. It is yet another indication that they see Trump’s populism as a threat to change the very nature of the GOP.
“It just means that, increasingly, long-time leaders of the Republican Party are beginning to think that they have to speak out before the Republican Party drifts so far from its traditional moorings that it can’t find its way home,” says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.
Of course, Trump supporters think that GOP drifting off its old moorings isn’t exactly a bad thing. McCain has always been a different kind of Republican, says Robert Stovall, chair of the Bexar County, Texas, Republican Party. George W. Bush and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney were another approach, representing the “nice way,” he says.
Trump, on the other hand, is a fighter, says Mr. Stovall.
“Donald Trump exudes what the silent majority – not only Republicans but middle Americans – have been looking for. Someone who’s going to stand up for this country and stand up for its beliefs,” says Stovall.
Politics as usual, but unusual timing
In that context, will this week’s speeches from establishment figures have any effect? Or will they be a non-turning point, analogous to Mr. Romney’s March 2016 speech labeling Trump a “fraud.” Trump won the GOP nomination a few months thereafter.
And like virtually all politicians, the messengers in this case are not ideologically pure themselves. Bush is decrying racial politics at the same time he is campaigning in the Virginia gubernatorial race for former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, who has been accused of racially tinged ads and rhetoric, points out Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.
“It feels like a half-measure,” says Professor Edelson of Bush’s speech. “The time for half-measures is past.”
That said, it is still not normal that national leaders of the recent past have moved so quickly to effectively renounce actions of the current president, particularly in foreign policy. The path ahead is thus unknown, particularly for the ruling party.
“Relatively few people have broken with the Republican leadership ... but some have, and as you go forward every member is going to calculate whether or not standing with Trump and [former White House strategist Steve] Bannon is better for them than distancing themselves from that, and that calculation will differ district by district and state by state,” says Professor Jillson of SMU.