I grew up on then-President George W. Bush jokes. “Is our children learning?” “Do we struggle to put food on our family?” At that time, it appeared we had perhaps weathered our worst president — a well-meaning Good Ol’ Boy cornered and manipulated by factions, family and then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who would have sadly made such a terrific baseball commissioner but instead became such a dangerously misguided leader. Still, I do truly believe that W. meant well; I do believe he held his country — and his role as the president — in high regard; I do believe he was interested in making the right decisions, even if he was so often incapable of doing so. Thus, it appears we may have dearly “misunderestimated” what the worst American president could and would really look like.
So it comes almost ironically to see Bush, in his most recent speech, characterize the country as one in which “bigotry seems emboldened,” referring of course to the recent vitality of populist outrage from President Donald Trump and his base. But more importantly, Bush’s Thursday speech was an interesting choice for broader reasons. It reflected what seems to be the national ethos among many conservatives who find themselves dismayed at the growing extremism of the ideology.
To observe Bush as he returns to the front pages is to remember a time when a president who himself was distressing to the nation still stood for a conservatism far different than the brand we observe today. To sympathize with our own conservative classmates, family members and co-workers who believe in the core of that ideology but still do not buy into the circus that is the Trump administration is to recognize that polarization has less to do with the ideology itself, and much more to do with the movement of its leadership into the extreme.
Of course, a return to centrism, as I have said before, is necessary to create even the most incremental change and continue to advocate on behalf of important reform. Nonetheless, I do not consider both major American political ideologies to command equal weight either of effectuality or principle.
But the crisis of the one party attempting to rule alone is evidence of its choice to embrace extremism, and with it, its extreme president. It is alarming to remember the multitude of crises the congressional GOP has allowed to go by the wayside: Sexual assault admitted on tape; multiple conflicts of interest, most of them remaining to this day; inept handling of national disasters and crises; goading of a dangerous military dictator; praising of other dangerous military dictators; daily gaffes and national embarrassments; disappointment of our overseas allies; ties to enemy foreign operatives; international interference in sovereign elections; and the list goes on.
And Bush, a true conservative, especially compared with the president and our ultra-pragmatic, vengeful, short-sighted congressional leadership, recognizes it.
The best thing about Bush — and about his comments — is that he arose out of a time when conservatism did not bend so strongly to its Tea Party ends, when it was more concerned with its Burkean roots than its desire to make dimwitted attempts at exacting a vicious revenge against social progress. He has witnessed and recognizes that shift.
“We have 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.”
Bush’s comments are important in the conversation around returns to centrism, especially in the wake of 2016 — mostly serving to point out that American conservatism has not always been characterized by the lunacy we see today, and to conflate true conservative values with Trumpian populism is deeply unfortunate in the long-standing political traditions of this country. At the same time, however, when the party leadership seems to be ordering full speed ahead toward a strange quasi-religious, anti-intellectual extremism, it’s hard to see how conservatism is not just being bastardized in the moment, but evolving toward its eventual future.
It also goes to show that the reaction against Trump and his movement, and Trump and his party’s congressional politics, is not simply the reaction of a progressive America bucking against the leadership of someone with whom they only artificially disagree — in a way, Bush has always maintained very quietly his place as a dissenting true conservative observing the populist wave.
It is always refreshing to see a seasoned American politician, especially a former president, use their voice to shift the public narrative toward a recognition of extremism rather than its embrace. Until we observe a time when the pendulum swings back, and our politics do not always appear so shocking and somber, we can all remember and hold dear W.’s words after Trump’s inauguration, a line more eloquent than any of his presidency: “That was some weird sh-t.”
Lily Vaughan is a junior majoring in history and political science. Her column,“Playing Politics,” runs Fridays.