Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
You know the Republican Party has really gone off the rails when even George W. Bush is being rehabilitated as a reasonable moderate – and even a progressive hero. But that’s how far the GOP has fallen, and how reactionary it has become, particularly on an issue like immigration.
By his second term in the mid-2000s, Bush was viscerally hated by political progressives, who saw in him a uniquely dangerous combination of right-wing zealotry and dim incompetence. He had launched an illegitimate and disastrous war in Iraq. His administration was condemned for a wide range of misdeeds, ranging from the problematic to the abominable (including torture and other human rights violations). Immigration was merely one on that spectrum.
But compared with today’s Republicans, on immigration he looks downright liberal. That isn’t a credit to him – it’s a huge mark against today’s GOP.
Now, the former president is speaking out, making media appearances to promote his book of paintings of immigrants and calling on Congress to tone down the “harsh rhetoric.” He wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post encouraging his party to be more humane and sensible on immigration – immigrants are, after all, human beings, and also people who are vital to the American economy.
Bush expressed his support for DACA – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – which gives undocumented people brought to the US as children a path to citizenship. He also proposed increasing the number of legal immigrants permitted to enter the country.
While president, Bush indeed accepted a record number of refugees and asylum seekers and supported a bipartisan immigration reform effort that, while highly imperfect (and eventually killed in the Senate), at least included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, in exchange for stricter enforcement of border security and laws mandating legal work status.
The bill didn’t pass, largely because Republicans were divided on it – a harbinger of things to come.
Today’s Republican Party, as Bush himself has noted, is as nationalist, xenophobic and nativist as any political movement has been in decades. Donald Trump has become the party’s head, even out of office (the GOP didn’t even have a platform in the last election, simply pledging allegiance to the whims of the mercurial former president). And Trump is not only intensively xenophobic, he proved himself terrifyingly willing to treat immigrants as if they were something less than human.
He has compared immigrants to vermin, separated immigrant children from their parents (and lost hundreds of them), and even turned the US from a place that took in more refugees than the rest of the nations of the world combined into a nation that accepted record low numbers of desperate people seeking safe haven.
To be sure, Bush’s op-ed was far from progressive, and stopped well short of what just about any immigrant rights advocate would say is necessary. It’s a conservative proposal, and Bush is no radical, or even a liberal. But his proposal doesn’t dehumanize, insult or inflame resentment of immigrants – and how sad that we’re in a moment that dehumanization, insult and the inflaming of anti-immigrant sentiment is the GOP status quo.
Bush also went on NBC’s “Today” show and told host Hoda Kotb that the GOP today is “isolationist, protectionist and, to a certain extent, nativist.”
He’s right – and his own conservative leadership during his terms didn’t exactly send the Republican Party in a positive direction. But even the GOP of the early 2000s, which was already cynically shifting toward the reactionary, has veered farther to the right under (and after) Trump, who exploited the party’s worst racist impulses.
There’s a temptation here to draw a clean line between the before-Trump GOP and the after-Trump GOP, as if Trump was an unforeseeable force that fundamentally changed the nature of the party. But that’s not true.
Leaders like Bush, and his father before him, saw the Trump base all along – the racists keen to latch onto a demagogue, the folks who voted to act out white male resentment rather than promoting their own (or anyone’s) best interests. Researchers have found that for decades now, rates of racial resentment haven’t shifted, but the Americans who are the most racially resentful have become increasingly tied to the Republican Party, its presidential candidates and its policy positions.
And scholars were raising the issue of increasing authoritarianism on the American right during Bush’s tenure as president.
The difference between the Bushes and the Trumps of the party is that the Bushes dog-whistled to the base – they made Bible references that went over the heads of secular Americans while implying fealty to white evangelicals, for example, which they only partially delivered on – and perhaps even decided to live with the discomfort of knowing they were leading a party that was increasingly banking on racial and gender resentment to achieve power.
But Trump spoke the previously unspoken, and embraced the resentment not just as a path to power, but as a real battle cry. He drew what was previously intentionally obscured and denied to the center of his movement.
That Bush is now speaking out is certainly laudable, but also conveniently underplays his role in laying the groundwork upon which Trump built. Certainly Bush seems horrified by the end result – as we all should be. But while he’s pointing to the ugly thing his party has become, he should pause and reflect on his own contributions.