Let me stipulate something upfront: it is a fool’s errand to attempt to determine what, at any point in time, motivates President Donald Trump to either blurt out or tweet out the things that he does. That said, I have a theory on why he took a jab at President George H.W. Bush during a campaign rally in Montana Thursday night. Seemingly out of nowhere, Trump spewed this (as reported by CNN):
“You know all of the rhetoric you see. ‘Thousands points of light.’ What the hell was that by the way?” Trump said.
“Thousand points of light,” he said. “What does that mean? I know one thing. ‘Make America Great Again’ we understand. Putting America first we understand. Thousand points of light, I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out? It was put out by a Republican, wasn’t it?”
Yes, it was a Republican, Bush 41, who said this at his inauguration:
I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding. We will work on this in the White House, in the Cabinet agencies. I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.
I would argue that Bush’s call was downright biblical: to serve and not be served. It is not in the least surprising, based upon his behavior in all his years in the public spotlight, that Donald J. Trump would be befuddled by such a concept.
As for they why: it was revealed in 2017 that Bush voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. I’m guessing that, and some things Bush said about Trump, were the motivation for this attack. Only Trump knows why he chose that moment to lash out. And it is telling that the only thing he could find to criticize about Bush is something about which he apparently knew nothing. He likely was unaware that there is a Points of Light Foundation. Its mission statement from its website:
At Points of Light, we help millions of volunteers change the world. We mobilize people to take action on the causes they care about through innovative programs, events and campaigns. Points of Light is creating a culture of volunteerism, one that celebrates the power of service.
George H. W. Bush, of course, embodies that mission statement; a lifetime of public service including heroic service in WWII. Former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer was among those firing back:
This is so uncalled for. Going after a 94-year-old, former President’s promotion of volunteerism. I don’t mind potus being a fighter. I do mind him being rude. https://t.co/Hr0d20Wuzz
— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) July 6, 2018
While I don’t disagree with Flesicher, I also don’t think Trump’s rudeness is the biggest issue here. I believe his complete and utter ignorance of what “points of light” meant is. President Bush was calling on Americans to have a sense of service; to each others as much as to their country. That the concept was lost on a president who seems to consider himself the center of the universe is deeply saddening, while unsurprising. A friend of my says, pointing out how we all tend to focus on ourselves, sarcastically: “I may not be much, but I’m all I think about.” President Trump has taken that sentiment to an art form.
A small consolation here is that the crowd seemed to respond with mostly confused silence. Trump seemed a bit at a loss when the crowd didn’t reflexively cheer, as his crowds often do. Small consolation but a glimmer of hope nonetheless that perhaps Trump’s even most rabid fans recognize a moment when the president should feel embarrassed. Of course, that glimmer is dulled by the fact that it appears few, if any, Republicans currently serving in public office are willing to call out Trump on this.