SALT LAKE CITY — Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor, U.S. ambassador to China and presidential candidate, returned to the state Wednesday to speak about the nation's future in the global economy and how it could be influenced by today's political atmosphere.
Huntsman spoke before a crowd of several hundred state leaders in celebration of World Trade Center Utah's 10-year anniversary. As one of the organization's key founders, he said the U.S. is at an "inflection point," a time where decisions are as important as ever to avoid what could become a "generation of chaos."
"That's how high the stakes are in this (presidential) election," said Huntsman, a 2012 GOP presidential candidate. "And that's why I cringe when I turn on the tube and hear all the nonsensical stuff that has zero connection with the real stuff we need to be worried about."
Huntsman said the presidential candidates need to "step up" and steer political conversations to topics that Americans really care about, and to heal the political "divisiveness."
"I'm interested in how the next president governs, and will they govern in a way that brings the parties together and focuses on a goal," he said. "Because we used to focus on goals and create a pathway to achieve that goal."
In an interview after his remarks, Huntsman said if he were president, the first priority on his to-do list would be to write a speech encouraging the end of an "era of division" and urging Congress to take a "problem-solving approach."
"I don't care if you're a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, a vegetarian, whatever. We've got common American goals that we have to get accomplished," he said, specifically mentioning job creation, energy efficiency and self-sufficiency, and balancing the budget.
Huntsman said China is shifting from an exporter to a consumer, a transition that could mean great job creation in the U.S. and in Utah — if the U.S. is "engaged" and friendly with other countries to maintain its reputation as a "global player."
But GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump has made headlines for anti-Muslim remarks and extreme positions on immigration.
"If we have somebody who is elected president who is more of an isolationist, who does not want to engage with other countries for whatever reason, then we're going to have a difficult time," said Gov. Gary Herbert, who also spoke Wednesday. "Assuming (Trump) wins, I hope he doesn't govern exactly the same way he's been campaigning, because I think that might be difficult for some of our relationships with friends around the world."
Huntsman said the U.S. has "always been welcoming" to immigrants and trade, but "we're not thinking clearly right now."
According to a poll released last month, voters in the very red state of Utah would only narrowly choose the national GOP front-runner over the leading Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.
"There is a civil war that is ongoing within the Republican Party, just as there is within the Democratic Party," Huntsman said. "You can't have the rise of Trump or the rise of Bernie Sanders against the established order without concluding that people are unsettled within the party structure."
Huntsman said Trump seems to appeal to people because he's "speaking in a language that connects with a lot of the anxiety" people feel about politicians, while also engaging in "red meat" issues.
"He's doing it boldly, and he's doing it unapologetically, and he's doing it in ways that represent kind of the 'unpolitician' that people seem to be looking for," Huntsman said.
The former governor said he has not endorsed any presidential candidate, but he predicted that Trump "stands a pretty good chance" of getting a presidential nomination. To win office, Trump would have to figure out a way to repair the "fractured party," Huntsman said.
More and more people are becoming unaffiliated voters, he said, so presidential candidates aiming for a nomination must pander to smaller and smaller groups of people. To win the election, they must then "pivot" to appeal to the broader electorate, Huntsman said.
When asked if Trump could shift from his red meat rhetoric to a more broadly appealing campaign, Huntsman said, "We'll see."
"You look at Trump's past, and it isn't exactly a red meat past," he said. "He's been all over the map on a lot of major issues, and he's worked in large, complicated metropolitan environments."
In response to questions about whether he may ever run for president again, Huntsman said he "doesn't know what's around the corner."
"Life is full of serendipity," he said. "I'd like to think we have one more run somewhere in our bones in public service. I just don't know what form that would take."