Bush: 'Nationalism Distorted Into Nativism,' Bigotry are 'Blasphemy Against the American Creed'

george w bush speaks in new york

Former President George W. Bush today called for moral leadership to steer America away from trends such as nativism, isolationism, bigotry and "casual cruelty."

Bush spoke at the "Spirit of Liberty: At Home, in the World" Bush Institute forum in New York, which included former secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice as well as UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.

He warned of the "tendency to turn inward" as economic, political and national security challenges proliferate, stressing that the "desire for freedom is not confined to, or owned by, any culture; it is the inborn hope of our humanity."

"Parts of Europe have developed an identity crisis. We have seen insolvency, economic stagnation, youth unemployment, anger about immigration, resurgent ethno-nationalism, and deep questions about the meaning and durability of the European Union," he said. "America is not immune from these trends."

As "public confidence in our institutions has declined," Bush said, "bigotry seems emboldened; our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication."

"We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. 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," the 43rd president continued. "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 have seen the return of isolationist sentiments – forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge."

America needs to "recall and recover our own identity," he said, and to do that "we only need to remember our values."

Bush noted that U.S. intelligence services indicate "the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other -- this effort is broad, systematic and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social media platforms."

"Ultimately, this assault won’t succeed," he predicted. "But foreign aggressions – including cyber-attacks, disinformation and financial influence – should not be downplayed or tolerated. This is a clear case where the strength of our democracy begins at home. We must secure our electoral infrastructure and protect our electoral system from subversion."

He also confronted anti-globalization voices. "We should not be blind to the economic and social dislocations caused by globalization. People are hurting. They are angry. And, they are frustrated. We must hear them and help them. But we can’t wish globalization away, any more than we could wish away the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution. One strength of free societies is their ability to adapt to economic and social disruptions."

"And that should be our goal: to prepare American workers for new opportunities, to care in practical, empowering ways for those who may feel left behind," the president added. "The first step should be to enact policies that encourage robust economic growth by unlocking the potential of the private sector, and for unleashing the creativity and compassion of this country."

Bush emphasized that American identity "is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood."

"We become the heirs of Thomas Jefferson by accepting the ideal of human dignity found in the Declaration of Independence. We become the heirs of James Madison by understanding the genius and values of the U.S. Constitution. We become the heirs of Martin Luther King, Jr., by recognizing one another not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," he said. "This 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."

Young people need a "renewed emphasis" on civics in school and positive role models on the national stage, Bush continued. "Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children," he said. "The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them."