Former president George W. Bush gave an impassioned, eloquent speech on the current moral, civil, and political climate in the United States and across the West.
John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, gave less formal, but arguably more powerful, remarks in the briefing room yesterday. Kelly scolded a Democratic congresswoman, Frederica Wilson, and, really, the entire country, much like a disappointed father or grandfather might.
Meanwhile, John Kelly is being hailed by most conservatives as a heroic champion of moral verities and a brilliantly effective defender of the president of the United States, while liberals — particularly of the piss-from-a-great-height MSNBC variety — are denouncing Kelly as, at best, an enabler of the president and, at worst, a racist.
I’m disgusted with a great deal of this, but rather than argue against any of that, I want to ask you to entertain a thought experiment. Imagine, if just for a moment, that all of you who fall into one of these camps are entirely wrong.
What if President Bush was aiming his fire at Democrats and liberals? What if Kelly was actually lecturing his boss?
If you can take off the partisan blinders and restrain your tribal instincts, it’s not all that hard to see it that way.
“Disagreement escalates into dehumanization,” observed the former president, who was infamously depicted on the cover of the Village Voice as a vampire sucking the blood out of the Statue of Liberty. “Too often,” Bush continued, “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.”
Imagine for just a moment that this wasn’t aimed at white supremacists or spurious nationalists or self-described “deplorables,” but at the legions of identity-politics peddlers who insist that white people — particularly white men — are metaphysically incapable of shedding their privilege and racism. Envisage the possibility Bush had in mind a fourth-rate comedian who held up Donald Trump’s decapitated head or a late-night talk-show host who called Trump “Putin’s c**k holster.” Or maybe, just maybe, he had in mind not Donald Trump, but Trump’s opponent in the 2016 election, who said:
“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” [Hillary Clinton] said to applause and laughter. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And, unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”
Also in his speech, Bush warned that “our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
Is it so outlandish that he had in mind the liberal and leftist icons who claimed that 9/11 was an inside job? Could this not be aimed at Spike Lee, who entertained the possibility that Bush blew up the levees in New Orleans? Might those words land with sufficient force on those already determined to turn the tragedy in Niger into an elaborate ruse? Might he not have in mind the people who started with the conclusion that Trump colluded with the Russians to win the election and worked backwards from there? Might he not be aiming his remarks at the author of Democracy in Chains (a National Book Award finalist!) — a fabulist’s work of near fiction about how free-market economics is a secret racist conspiracy? Do these slings and arrows fall so short of Jane Mayer’s ongoing effort to turn the Koch brothers into James Bond villains?
Is there nothing in Bush’s warning about the failures of socialist centralized planning and the dangers of protectionism for Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and their legions of fans to ruminate on? Couldn’t his call to revere constitutional principles find some purchase in the legions of ignorant miscreants who think the First Amendment has exceeded its sell-by date? Or perhaps in Donald Trump’s predecessor, who thinks our Constitution is a living, breathing document whose true meaning can only be found through the magical powers of empathy?
President Bush observed that our “discourse” has become “degraded by casual cruelty.” If you’re a liberal and your only response was “Take that Trump!” you really haven’t been paying attention, and you surely don’t have a Twitter account. You probably missed Joe Biden telling African Americans that Mitt Romney wanted to “Put y’all back in chains.” You missed the SNL writer who, on inauguration day, said ten-year-old Barron Trump “will be this country’s first homeschool shooter.”
Now let’s turn to John Kelly’s remarks.
I have no novel interpretation of his discussion of the sanctity of the fallen and the sorrow of their loved ones or of the gratitude we should have for their sacrifice. Those remarks were so powerful because they were rooted in every kind of truth — factual, moral, and, most movingly, personal. This man and leader of men, this father of the fallen, knows of what he speaks.
The more controversial remarks came later. Kelly said:
You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life — the dignity of life — is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.
Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. But I just thought — the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.
Many liberals increasingly despise Kelly and other members of the administration for “enabling” Trump. But among many conservative critics and skeptics of Donald Trump, there is an enormous wellspring of gratitude and admiration for Kelly, James Mattis, and H. R. McMaster. Fairly or not, it is widely believed that these patriotic military men are protecting the country — and the commander in chief himself — from Donald Trump’s worst instincts and inadequacies. It is a difficult job for all of the familiar reasons, not least among them the president’s staggering, glandular vanity. Scolding the president directly is the surest way to get him to follow the worst course of action.
So while it may not be the case, it’s nonetheless useful to imagine that Kelly’s intended audience wasn’t the press or the American people, but the president himself. The man surely knew the president was listening.
The trends Kelly alludes to are real and lamentable, and they predate Donald Trump’s arrival on the national political scene. But it strikes me as indisputable that Trump personifies these trends, and if Kelly were not trying to do his job, he would acknowledge that.
Perhaps Kelly was criticizing the Gold Star Khan family in his remarks about the convention. But he could just as plausibly have had the president in mind. We need not rehearse all of the ways in which Donald Trump — who has bragged of his adultery and sexual assaults and who has insulted women’s looks — has less than an exemplary record of honoring the sanctity of women.
I understand that many Christian groups have convinced themselves that Trump is an instrument of God, but let us not delude ourselves that he is also a man of God.
“Why do I have to repent?” Trump once asked Anderson Cooper. “Why do I have to ask for forgiveness if [I’m] not making mistakes?
As for the dignity of life, if Jane Mayer is to be believed — admittedly a big “if” — the long-time pro-choice president mocks Mike Pence for his views on abortion.
And then there’s the larger theme of Kelly’s remarks: the role of sacrifice, particularly the ultimate sacrifice paid by our military. President Trump has said he always felt like he served because he went to a military academy for high school (one strains to contain laughter at the thought of Trump’s boosters accepting that answer from a Democrat). But when the call came, he discovered bone spurs in his feet. Trump is hardly unique among politicians in getting deferments. But he is unique in how he talks about sacrifice.
At the Democratic Convention, Khizr Khan echoed some of Kelly’s sentiments when he said, “Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump used the occasion to criticize Khan’s wife for staying silent. When Stephanopoulos asked Trump what sacrifices he had made, this was the best he could offer:
I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.
I’m no expert, but it seems to me that boasting of one’s success is a poor substitute for the Christian virtue of humility and an even poorer analogue to the sacrifice of the Khans.
I am open to the argument that Khan should not have politicized his son’s death, though it is hard for me to second guess a father in such circumstances. But even if you think Khan was in error, can you deny that Trump took a bad situation and made it worse? (Spare me the four-dimensional-chess explanations).
Again, it may just be a fanciful thought experiment, but I would like to think that Kelly was, in his own subtle way, appealing to Donald Trump’s own conscience and saying “Enough” in the only way he could. But here’s the important point: Even if that was not Kelly’s motivation, even if Bush was not aiming his fire solely leftward, the wisdom in their remarks stands on its own and should have purchase across the ideological spectrum.
I hope readers can appreciate that this has not been an exercise in “whataboutism.” What I am trying to do is illustrate that both Kelly and Bush had something important to say to the people cherry-picking the bits they want to endorse or take offense at. When I praised Bush’s speech on Twitter yesterday, the immediate response from scores of people was, in summary: “Bush has no credibility because he didn’t denounce Barack Obama’s transgressions.” Others, predictably, bleated about how “Of course a Never Trumper would like that speech!”
If one takes this partisan myopia seriously, one cannot call for civility, for the rule of law, or for civilizational confidence and the free market unless one first makes it clear that the current president is both blameless and awesome. One cannot denounce “white supremacy” — on the day an avowed white supremacist spoke in Florida — without Trump’s cheerleaders saying, “How dare you say that about me?” Well, if you’re not a white supremacist, then maybe he wasn’t talking about you? But you cannot deny that such people exist. And if you take the position that denunciations of white supremacists are attacks on all Trump supporters, how does that help your cause?
I have no doubt that I have made my own contributions to the crappy state of American politics. Some longtime readers of mine write me every week to complain that they miss the “old” me who always went for the jugular. I think I still do enough of that where warranted, but if I’ve learned anything from the last few years (particularly while working on a book about all the themes Bush talked about on Thursday), it’s that my “side” isn’t immune to the zero-sum logic of tribalism.
On Thursday, I recorded a podcast with Jeffrey Goldberg (no relation) for The Atlantic. He wanted to know what it’s like to be “ideologically homeless.” I told him I’m not ideologically homeless at all. I’m more ideologically grounded and confident than I’ve ever been. What I am is politically homeless, and that’s something new for me.
As a conservative, I certainly believe that most of our problems today have their roots on the left. But as a Republican by default, I also believe that the blame for our woes is fairly widely distributed. George Bush has his flaws, and I’ve pointed out many of them over the years. But conservatives, of all people, should understand that there are no perfect messengers, because there are no perfect people. Bush’s speech — and Kelly’s remarks — can be read on their own merits, and we all — all — have something to learn from them, not least Donald Trump.