Two years have already passed since the death of George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd of the same name (minus the H). In 1988, Bush 41 was completing his eighth and final year serving as vice president to Ronald Reagan, unquestionably one of America’s most popular presidents ever and widely considered by historians to have been among the best. Riding on Reagan’s coattails following his 1984 reelection bid in which Reagan won an astounding 49 out of 50 states, Bush was able to fend off Democrat challenger Michael Dukakis handily, the latter having gained tremendous respect – if not enough electoral votes – for running an exceptionally decent campaign.
Despite the Bush campaign’s underhanded tactics, courtesy of campaign manager Lee Atwater, Bush is best remembered for his civility and dignity, and his call for “a kindler, gentler nation.” He made those words famous in his August 18, 1988 nomination acceptance at the Republican Convention:
“It is to allow us to pursue ‘the better angels,’ to give us time to think and grow. Prosperity with a purpose means taking your idealism and making it concrete by certain acts of goodness.
“It means helping a child from an unhappy home learn how to read – and I thank my wife, Barbara, for all her work in literacy. It means teaching troubled children through your presence that there’s such a thing as reliable love. Some would say it’s soft and insufficiently tough to care about these things. But where is it written that we must act as if we do not care, as if we are not moved?
“Well, I am moved. I want a kinder, gentler nation.”
Two years later, in an interview with Playboy magazine, Donald Trump was asked “Do you think George Bush is soft?” to which he answered: “I like George Bush very much and support him and always will. But I disagree with him when he talks of a kinder, gentler America. I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist. I think if we had people from the business community – the Carl Icahns, the Ross Perots – negotiating some of our foreign policy, we’d have respect around the world.” Since that point, disingenuous media outlets have tried to portray Trump as being the anti-Bush 41 Republican, particularly since the latter was more embraced by the American people in his twilight years and especially following his death.
As for Trumpism, it may or may not survive Trump in the long run, but it certainly won’t evaporate overnight the minute Trump fades from the public eye – whenever that may be. As I see it, we need strong doses of kindness and Trumpism moving forward and yes, they can indeed coexist.
In my book Grumpy Old Party, published in early 2015, a few months before Trump’s famous escalator ride that June announcing his candidacy, I laid out a blueprint that Trump followed (coincidentally, that is; it is highly unlikely he ever actually read the book), but Trump didn’t follow the entire plan, including Chapters 2 (“Lose the Angry Tone”) and 4 (“Stop Playing it Safe!”) – the latter a critique of the “270 strategy” to divide the country and just get to 270 electoral votes.
I remember Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017 as if it were yesterday. As Hillary Clinton was introduced, some in the crowd booed and yelled some comments that, to say the least, were unflattering. Others in the crowd criticized the hecklers, to which the latter responded “freedom of speech!” True, the First Amendment does indeed guarantee people the right to be jerks, but that doesn’t mean they should exploit that opportunity. This is where kindness is sorely lacking.
Another prime example of the kindness void is comparing the national reaction to 9/11 20 years ago and the COVID crisis now. In fact, one can argue that COVID has far more negatively impacted America as a whole than 9/11 ever did (even though both were awful phenomena), and yet COVID simply stopped an angry nation in its tracks momentarily, much like a temporarily wounded predator, but once everyone learned to make the adjustments, the ugliness resumed.
It is easy to fault Trump for all of that, and surely he is not blameless. But the unhinged, venomous vitriol hurled not merely at Trump but also at his supporters by the left is at least as ugly. To modify a comment the president once made: “there are some very despicable people on both sides.”
How, then, can we separate Trumpism from unkindness? By looking at Trump’s message of “being tough.” He means in terms of foreign policy, politically, economically, and militarily. By sticking to one’s principles and making bold decisions. By not succumbing to public pressure or chasing polls. Just as Trump was wrong to have equated “kinder” and “gentler” with being weak, so too are those who attribute Trump’s steely resolve to mean-spiritedness.
I hope that whoever is sworn in as president on January 20 possesses the necessary toughness in droves to protect America’s interests and to leverage its lone superpower status to accomplish worthwhile goals. As I’ve often written: the strongest kid in the schoolyard shouldn’t bully the other kids, but should flex his muscles and strut with authority so that no one dares to mess with him.
But we need more kindness in droves too. In 2021, I plan to spend more time helping to spread the good word of the Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Foundation, whose mission is to “make kindness the norm in our schools, workplaces, homes, and communities.” Its website is randomactsofkindness.org. Another is kindcotton.com which, among other things, produces apparel and masks with the saying “Just Be Kind.” I’ve gotten so many compliments about that mask, which is truly heartwarming, as each kind word helps to bottle up a little cruelty and thrust it far away into outer space.