(Reuters) - Former President George W. Bush decried “bullying and prejudice” while defending immigrants and trade on Thursday in a New York speech that appeared to be a sweeping, thinly veiled critique of President Donald Trump.
Bush, 71, used a rare public address to discuss nationalism, racial divisions and Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election, all flashpoints of his fellow Republican’s nine-month White House tenure. He did not mention Trump by name.
“Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them,” Bush said at the Bush Institute’s National Forum on Freedom, Free Markets and Security.
Trump has used nicknames to demean opponents, such as “Crooked Hillary” for Democrat Hillary Clinton and, more recently, “Liddle” Bob Corker for a Republican senator who dared to challenge him.
Bush, president from 2001 to 2009, emphasized the important role of immigrants and of international trade, two policy areas that Trump has cracked down on while in office.
“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” Bush said.
“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.”
Asked whether the speech was aimed at Trump, a spokesman for Bush said the long-planned remarks echoed themes the 43rd president had discussed for years.
“The themes President Bush spoke about today are really the same themes he has spoken about for the last two decades,” said Bush spokesman Freddy Ford.
Bush touted U.S. alliances abroad, something Trump has called into question, and he denounced white supremacy, which critics accused Trump of failing to do quickly and explicitly earlier this year.
In the speech, Bush described a decline in public confidence in U.S. institutions and a paralysis in the governing class to address pressing needs.
“Discontent deepened and sharpened partisan conflicts. Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” Bush said. “We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty.”
Trump was a longtime proponent of a false theory that Democratic former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Obama, Trump’s predecessor, was born in the U.S. state of Hawaii.
Bush said Americans were the heirs of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, as well as civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
“This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American,” he said. “It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”
Trump has had a rocky relationship with the Bush family. He belittled former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who was an early opponent of Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, and has criticized George W. Bush for the war in Iraq and for presiding over the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Bush said globalisation could not be wished away “any more than we could wish away the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution.”
He also had harsh words for Russia and seemed to take aim at Trump for playing down Moscow’s intervention in the U.S. election.
“According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other. This effort is broad, systematic and stealthy,” he said.
“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.”
Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann and David Alexander; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman