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former presidents

Obama and Bush both take aim at 'bigotry' of Trump era

“Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” George W Bush said.

download Obama and Bush Van Tine Dennis / ABACA/ABACA/PA Images, Seth Wenig/AP/Press Association Images Van Tine Dennis / ABACA/ABACA/PA Images, Seth Wenig/AP/Press Association Images / ABACA/ABACA/PA Images, Seth Wenig/AP/Press Association Images

FORMER US PRESIDENT Barack Obama returned to the campaign trail yesterday, railing against “politics of division” after keeping a low profile and avoiding direct confrontation with his White House successor since leaving office.

Speaking at a rally in New Jersey to support the Democratic Party candidate for governor, Obama took aim at the fear and bitterness that marked the 2016 campaign which led to Donald Trump’s presidency.

“What we can’t have is the same old politics of division that we have seen so many times before, that dates back centuries,” Obama, 56, said at the event in Newark for Phil Murphy.

“Some of the politics we see now, we thought we put that to bed. That’s folks looking 50 years back,” Obama added. “It’s the 21st century, not the 19th century.”

Obama later appeared at an event in Richmond to support Ralph Northam, his party’s gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, at which he obliquely criticised the way Trump gained the White House.

“If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you’re not going to be able to govern them. You won’t be able to unite them later,” Obama said.

We are at our best not when we are trying to put people down, but when we are trying to lift everybody up.

Voters in both New Jersey and Virginia will decide the contests on 7 November, one year after Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton and stormed into the White House on a wave of anti-establishment fury.

The races are potential indicators of voter sentiment ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, which will be a major test for Trump and his Republican Party.

Obama has remained largely detached from the political debate since leaving office on 20 January, in keeping with presidential tradition.

Trump has meanwhile used his first nine months in the White House to methodically demolish key Obama administration policies.

After three months of taking a break Obama began writing his memoirs. He has said little in public and granted almost no interviews. The few times Obama broke his silence was to comment on issues of national importance, such as immigration, healthcare and climate change.

‘Bigotry seems emboldened’

Obama isn’t the only former president seemingly taking aim at Trump. Republican George W Bush issued a sharp denunciation of bigotry, white supremacy and falsehoods yesterday.

In a New York speech, Bush warned that the coarsening of the national tone and divisive themes are threats to American democracy.

“Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” Bush said.

Though he did not mention Trump by name, Bush offered an implicit rebuke of the current administration and the controversial politics that emboldened millions of voters who swept Trump to victory last November.

“Bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed,” Bush stated, two months after Trump said “both sides” were to blame when a neo-Nazi rally in Virginia turned violent.

He spoke the same day as white supremacist figure Richard Spencer tried to give a speech at a Florida university, but was shouted down.

Argument “turns too easily into animosity”, Bush added. “Disagreement escalates into dehumanisation”.

Unlike Obama, Bush has said very little publicly about Trump or the state of US politics this year. He declined to endorse Trump’s candidacy, and largely stayed above the political fray.

Yesterday’s speech — at the Bush Institute’s Spirit of Liberty event — marked a departure from that silence, an expression of concern by a former leader in a unique moment in the nation’s history.

“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism and forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” 71-year-old Bush said, after months of Trump’s efforts to rein in immigration and slow the flow of refugees into the United States.

We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together.

The 43rd president, observing America’s “fading confidence” in free markets and international trade, lamented the “return of isolationist sentiments” in the country.

He also chastised Russia for its alleged meddling in the 2016 US election and its effort to turn “Americans against each other” and “exploit our country’s divisions”.

“America must harden its own defenses” in the face of external attacks, Bush said.

Test for Trump

University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said the New Jersey and Virginia governor races are the only “big elections” for 2017.

“What’s at stake is bragging rights headed into the 2018 midterm elections,” Sabato told AFP.

In New Jersey, Murphy is the clear frontrunner to succeed Republican Governor Chris Christie, a Trump ally whose popularity has plummeted to record lows.

New Jersey “is a runaway win for the Democrats, so Virginia is the only competitive contest. Obama is needed much more in Richmond than Trenton,” Sabato said, referring to the capitals of the two states.

Virginia is a pivotal state and the only southern US state that Clinton won in 2016. Its importance is amplified by its proximity to the capital Washington.

“If the GOP loses in Virginia, Trump will be widely blamed since he is so unpopular in a state carried by Hillary Clinton,” Sabato said.

Should Republicans win Virginia’s governorship “then Trump will not be viewed as such a liability for the GOP in 2018″, he added.

© AFP 2017

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