The former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has launched a scathing attack on George W Bush, portraying him as a buffoon whose presidency was as “destructive” as any in American history.
Bannon was responding to a speech this week in which the 43rd president denounced bigotry in the Donald Trump era and warned that the rise of “nativism”, isolationism and conspiracy theories have clouded the nation’s true identity.
Speaking to a capacity crowd at a California Republican party convention on Friday night, Bannon said: “He embarrassed himself. The speechwriter wrote a highfalutin speech. It’s clear he didn’t understand anything he was talking about … He has no earthly idea whether he’s coming or going, just like it was when he was president of the United States.”
The executive chairman of Breitbart News went on to apologise to any “Bush folks” in the audience before asserting: “There has not been a more destructive presidency than George Bush’s.”
At first, some in the crowd booed loudly at the mere mention of Bush, the architect of the Iraq war, CNN reported. There was also scattered applause and some shouts of support. Others remained silent.
Bannon was forced out of the White House in August but remains in close contact with Trump, whose mutual antipathy with Bush is little secret.
Trump assailed Bush’s legacy during the 2016 presidential election campaign, saying he failed to keep America safe on 11 September 2001 and condemning his decision to invade Iraq. He clashed bitterly with Bush’s brother Jeb, a rival candidate who was swiftly eliminated. Bush attended Trump’s inauguration in January but was reported to have said: “That was some weird shit.”
In New York earlier this week Bush, breaking from former presidents’ traditional reluctance to criticise their successors, warned of a system corrupted by “conspiracy theories and outright fabrication” in which nationalism has been “distorted into nativism.”
He said: “Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone and provides permission for cruelty and bigotry.”
He did not mention Trump by name. At the White House on Friday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders played down the issue, saying: “Our But the duelling speeches demonstrate a worsening split within the Republican party. Bannon’s remarks in Anaheim came during an address thick with attacks on the Washington status quo, echoing his call for an “open revolt” against establishment Republicans before next year’s midterm elections. He called the “permanent political class” one of the great dangers faced by the country.
A small group of protesters gathered outside the hotel where Bannon spoke, chanting and waving signs – one displaying a Nazi swastika. The protesters were kept behind steel barricades on a plaza across an entrance road at the hotel, largely out of view of people entering for the event. No arrests were reported.
Bannon also took aim at the Silicon Valley and its “lords of technology”, predicting that tech leaders and progressives in the state would try to secede from the union in 10 to 15 years. He called the threat to break up the nation a “living problem”.
He tried to cheer long-suffering Republicans in a state that Trump lost by more than 4m votes and where the GOP has become largely irrelevant in state politics. In Orange County, where the convention was held, several Republican House members are trying to hold on to their seats in districts carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential contest.
“You’ve got everything you need to win,” Bannon told them. The speech ended to a standing ovation.
Bannon is promoting a field of primary challengers to take on incumbent Republicans in Congress. But California has become a kind of Republican mausoleum: GOP supporters can relive the glory days by visiting the stately presidential libraries of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon but Democrats control every statewide office and rule both chambers of the legislature by commanding margins.
Not all Republicans were glad to see Bannon. In a series of tweets last week the former state assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes said he was shocked by the decision to have the conservative firebrand headline the event.
“It’s a huge step backward and demonstrates that the party remains tone deaf,” Mayes tweeted.
California Republicans have bickered for years over what direction to turn – towards the political center or to the right. Bannon argued that the coalition that sent Trump to the White House, including conservatives, libertarians, populists, economic nationalists and evangelicals, could hold power for decades if it stays unified.“If you have the wisdom, the strength, the tenacity, to hold that coalition together, we will govern for 50 to 75 years,” he said.
Most California governors in the 20th century were Republicans and state voters helped elevate a string of GOP candidates to the White House. But the party’s fortunes started to erode in the late 1990s after a series of measures targeting immigrants, which alienated growing segments of the state’s population.
In 2007, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger warned party members that the GOP was “dying at the box office” and needed to move to the political center and embrace issues like climate change to appeal to a broader range of voters. In 2011 a state Republican party committee blocked an attempt by moderates to push the state platform toward the center on immigration, abortion, guns and gay rights.
The decline continued. Republicans are now a minor party in many California congressional districts, outnumbered by Democrats and independents. Statewide, Democrats count 3.7m more voters than the GOP.
Political scientist Jack Pitney, who teaches at Claremont McKenna College, said he doubted Bannon’s speech would color the 2018 congressional contests, which remain far off for most voters. More broadly, he said Bannon’s politics would hurt the GOP, including among affluent, well-educated voters who play an important part in county elections.“Inviting him was a moral and political blunder,” Pitney said.