Jeb Bush says Donald Trump's supporters aren't a bunch of idiots

Story highlights

  • Although Bush was not aggressively critical of Trump, he showed no signs that he was warming up to him
  • Trump, he said, has "been phenomenally good at using the new way of communicating" to gain free media coverage

Washington (CNN)Jeb Bush on Saturday said Donald Trump is a skilled politician with a "very powerful message" about shaking up Washington, but he argued the presumptive Republican nominee is campaigning in a way that's "preying on people's angst rather than offering tangible solutions."

At a three-hour event in Amsterdam hosted by the Nexus Institute, the former Florida governor and GOP White House hopeful delivered a speech and took part in a panel discussion about the changing dynamics of American democracy. The discussion, in part, explored trends that have paved a path for the rise of candidates such as Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running as a Democrat.
    Although Bush was not aggressively critical of Trump, as he had been during his campaign, he showed no signs that he was warming up to the presumptive Republican nominee, like some other establishment Republicans have started doing.
    Still, Bush said, he doesn't blame voters who are supporting Trump.
    "What I fear is that people, kind of looking down their nose, will say the people that are supporting Donald Trump are a bunch of idiots. They're not. They're legitimately scared. They're fearful. They're not as optimistic for legitimate reasons and there should be respect for that," he said. "And on the other side, a similar respect needs to be shown."
    Bush recycled many lines from his stump speech as a former presidential candidate, but he concluded that economic struggles, globalization, shifting demographics and a change in culture -- along with the "inability to deal with these great challenges" -- have led to the emergence of populist candidates.
    Back when he was a rival of Trump's, Bush routinely preached a message that squarely opposed Trump's tactics. He called Trump a "jerk" during the Republican primary season and accused him of insulting women, minorities and people with disabilities. After Trump became the last Republican candidate standing, Bush said he couldn't support him in the general election -- nor would he vote for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.
    Bush reiterated what he often said on the campaign trail: Trump is appealing to disaffection and pessimism among the American public "rather than offering them hope." He said Trump has "this amazing talent to be able to just dominate the news cycle" and he went on to note in a critical tone that cable companies are profiting off of the "increased attention" to politics by viewers.
    Trump, he said, has "been phenomenally good at using the new way of communicating" to gain free media coverage.
    "He can literally wake up -- I have this vision of him in, you know, silk pajamas, with his little slippers on with a 'T' on his emblem. He wakes up and he sends out a tweet ripping, you know, someone a new one," Bush said. "He's the first guy that's ever been allowed to call into everything but 'Meet the Press.' I think they even relented. So he has been a master at how you get into the media, the new media, the diverse media that exists today in a way that had never been done before."
    While he said voters are more engaged in this election than in previous cycles, he argued that in general, people feel distant from the governmental process. It's a sentiment, he said, that Trump has successfully tapped into.
    "People look at the political system and they think of it as a foreign object. They really do. They talk about politics and government as though it's something removed from their lives. And that makes it harder to change our political system and to restore our democracy if people are disengaged from it."
    But, he argued, both voters and politicians need to be more "warm-hearted."
    "If we were warm-hearted as a people, my guess is our political system would look dramatically different. And politicians that would prey on peoples' angst and their fears would not gain the kind of support that appears that, at least temporarily, that they're gaining in the United States today."
    Asked if the message he gave was similar to his stump speech as a candidate, Bush said it was a version of it.
    "Now, I'm not living proof that it's successful," he joked.