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Story highlights

"It was clear he didn't understand anything he was talking about," Bannon during speech

Bush has rejected the kind of populist nationalism that Trump and Bannon have espoused

(CNN) —  

Steve Bannon delivered a withering attack on George W. Bush Friday night, bluntly questioning the former President’s intelligence and his grasp of the concepts that he outlined in a speech that he gave New York this week.

“There has not been a more destructive presidency than George Bush’s,” Bannon said during his dinnertime address at the convention banquet of the California Republican Party. He said Bush had “embarrassed himself” with a “high falutin” speech.

“It was clear he didn’t understand anything he was talking about,” Bannon said.

“He has no earthly idea of whether he’s coming or going,” Bannon said, implying that Bush had mindlessly given a speech written for him by a speechwriter, “just like it was when he was President of the United States.”

Bannon’s sharply worded takedown of the 43rd President, who disappointed many of his GOP supporters with his huge increases in government spending and lengthy military entanglements abroad, illustrated the deepening divide within the Republican Party, and foreshadowed what Bannon has described as a “season of war” on the Republican establishment a year before the 2018 midterm elections.

It was prompted by Bush’s speech Thursday rejecting the kind of populist nationalism that President Trump and his former top strategist have espoused. Without mentioning Trump’s name, Bush alluded to recent controversies that have engulfed Trump’s presidency – namely his puzzling response to the violence in Charlottesville after a gathering of white supremacists.

In the speech, Bush decried trade protectionism, as well as the “conspiracy theories” and “outright fabrication” that have crept into the daily political discourse. And he quoted the famous line from Martin Luther King Jr. that people should be judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.

“This means that people from every race, religion, ethnicity can be full and equally American. It means that bigotry and white supremacy, in any form, is blasphemy against the American creed,” Bush said.

Bannon defended economic nationalism, and said that many people don’t understand it.

“It’s not about your race, your color, your gender, your religion, your ethnicity, your sexual preference,” he said. “It’s about one thing – are you a citizen of the United States of America? Because if you’re a citizen, there are certain responsibilities and obligations that come with that – but as a citizen also you should have preference for jobs and economic opportunities.”

The reaction to Bannon’s scathing criticism of Bush was mixed. At first, some in the crowd had booed loudly at the mere mention of Bush’s name. There was also scattered applause and some shouts of support. But others in the crowd remained quiet.

Asserting that his wing of the party is in the midst of assembling a grassroots army, Bannon issued a call to action to those who share his point of view.

“The permanent political class that runs this country is one of the great dangers that we face in this country,” he said.

He cited the September victory of Judge Roy Moore in Alabama’s runoff for U.S. Senate as evidence that his brand of politics could triumph even when up against money from the “donor class” and money raised by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. When you merge economic populists and evangelicals, he said, the combination is unstoppable.

A call for unity

Ironically, Bannon’s speech began as a call for unity within the Republican Party. He urged his listeners to try to replicate the victories notched by Trump, which he said were a result of a convergence of populists, nationalists, libertarians, evangelicals and conservatives.

“If you have the wisdom, the strength, the tenacity to hold that coalition together, we will govern for 50 to 75 years,” he said to loud applause.

He noted that Republicans have control of the House, the Senate and the executive branch: “There’s absolutely nothing we can’t do… if we do one thing, if we move with urgency.”

Bannon also seemed bullish about Republican chances of maintaining control of the 23 districts that Hillary Clinton won that are represented by a Republican.

His optimism stems in part, he said, from the fact that the Democrats have moved so far to the left. Alluding to the “good folks” who were protesting his speech outside the Anaheim Marriott, he said “they are going to drag (the party) so far to the left that we’re going to hold those districts,” he said. “And Nancy Pelosi is not going to get the chance to impeach the President of the United States.”

Bannon also dispatched an arrow at Karl Rove, who wrote what he called a “very unfriendly” piece about Bannon’s plans for recruiting mid term candidates in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal.

After an offhand reference, Bannon explained that he hadn’t meant to utter Rove’s name Friday night: “I don’t like punching down,” he said of Rove, “so I’m not going to say anything.”

Correction: This story was updated to correct Bannon’s reference to protesters.