In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson forecast that the young nation would “unite in common efforts for the common good” after the bitter election of 1800.
“Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” he said in the new Senate chamber. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Americans have, at our best, upheld that creed over two centuries. We are all republicans. We are all democrats.
George W. Bush reminded us of those sacred ties in his magnificent speech Saturday contrasting the warm courage of national unity after the 9/11 attacks with the domestic terrorism Donald Trump has unleashed.
“We have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within,” the 43rd president said from the Pennsylvania field where Flight 93 crashed. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
The days of post-9/11 solidarity “seem distant from our own,” Bush continued. “A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”
On cue spoke the Malign Force himself. Trump, rejecting invitations to attend 9/11 memorials with other former presidents, used the solemn anniversary to stoke resentment. “We won the election,” he told firefighters in New York. “The election was rigged.” He lashed out at President Joe Biden — “surrender,” “disgrace,” “total embarrassment” — and Democrats: “They only do bad stuff. You wonder whether or not they love our country.”
Even Fox News cut away, as the anchor noted that Trump was “claiming that the election was rigged, which it was not. It has been proven in court multiple times.”
On Monday, Trump issued a written response to Bush. “So interesting to watch former President Bush, who is responsible for getting us into the quicksand of the Middle East (and then not winning!), as he lectures us that terrorists on the ‘right’ are a bigger problem than those from foreign countries that hate America,” he wrote, with trademark misrepresentation and vitriol. “Bush led a failed and uninspiring presidency. He shouldn’t be lecturing anybody!”
It was a stark reminder of how the Grand Old Party has corrupted itself over the past 20 years: from Bush to Trump, from a party of conservatism to a violent faction that refuses to honor free and fair elections and the rule of law.
Jefferson could not have imagined this. The 1800 election was animated, he said in his inaugural address, “but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law.” Warning against a despotic “political intolerance,” Jefferson boasted that, in the United States, “every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern.”
Now we have a former (and aspiring future) president, leader of a major political party, who is himself invading the public order and rejecting the standard of the law. He is neither a democrat nor a republican.
There’s much I disliked about Bush’s presidency — contorting intelligence to justify the Iraq War, politicizing the war on terror, making the rich richer — but I never doubted that Bush believed in democracy and a civil society. He was also, in those frightening early days after 9/11, a force for unity.
“At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know,” Bush said Saturday. “At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know,” he continued.
This America, Bush said, “is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been — nand what we can be again.”
Embracing Muslims? Welcoming immigrants? This is the antithesis of Trump’s Republican Party. Bush, the only Republican to win the presidential popular vote in 32 years, has no place in that party. Neither does Dick Cheney, nor Liz Cheney — nor anybody else who still believes that being a Republican also means being a democrat.