Former US presidents can no longer opt for silence

Time for change: When George Washington stepped down in 1797 after two terms in office, he set a tradition of polite withdrawal.
Time for change: When George Washington stepped down in 1797 after two terms in office, he set a tradition of polite withdrawal.

They never mentioned Trump's name, but in the past week, two former presidents began building the case for Donald Trump as a growing problem for American democracy.

“We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism,” George W. Bush lamented in a speech in New York. “Bigotry seems emboldened.” Barack Obama, appearing the same day in Virginia, likewise denounced “the politics of division” offering a frustrated reminder that “it's the 21st century, not the 19th century. Come on!”.

Though neither issued an outright attack, the sight of two former presidents from different parties appearing on the same day to criticise a sitting president is a striking sign of how much politics has changed. It's not only because the former presidents spoke out, which is itself quite unusual. Rather, it's striking that the comments about bigotry, nativism, division and the weakening of American democracy were understood as attacks on President Trump. The tradition of post-presidential deference is about as old as the country itself. When George Washington stepped down in 1797 after two terms in office, he not only set a tradition of self-imposed term limits (not made an official rule until 1951) but also one of polite withdrawal. Returning to his home at Mount Vernon, he avoided commenting on the actions of his successors. For the most part, other presidents followed his example.

Which is what makes the current situation all the more alarming. Not only are former presidents feeling the urge to speak out, they are finding it almost impossible to avoid doing so. Even the blandest defences of civility and democratic norms are rightfully seen as rebukes of the current administration.

Take, for instance, the comments about Charlottesville, site of a deadly white nationalist rally in August, that Bush and Obama made in their addresses. “We saw what happened in Charlottesville,” Obama said. “But we also saw what happened after Charlottesville, when the biggest gatherings of all rejected fear and rejected hate.” Bush was more direct, saying, “Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry.” These statements contrast sharply with Trump's unwillingness to distance himself from white supremacists after Charlottesville. Where Trump offered shocking claims about “very fine people” within white supremacist groups, both Bush and Obama opted for moral clarity. 

It's true that none of this is likely to weaken support for Trump. In fact, Trump's supporters will almost certainly cling tighter to the president, who has long positioned himself as a warrior against the establishment. But even if these speeches have no impact on the country's current political configuration, they lay down an important historical marker. In a Trump administration, some traditions must be set aside. Deference for the office of the presidency can in fact come into conflict with a proper defence of it, if the occupant is someone powerfully unfit for the office.

Bush and Obama's speeches highlight the difficulty of avoiding debate over the Trump presidency. Even the most routine displays of empathy and kindness read as rebukes of a president who has difficulty conveying either. Even if former presidents wanted to stay above the fray, they would find themselves drawn into it. Which is why they should set aside tradition and dive in.

In a country lacking any real leadership from the sitting president, former presidents have a newly important role to play.

Nicole Hemmer is a US-based Fairfax columnist.