Trump Can’t Unite Us. Can Anyone?
Posted October 30, 2018 1:56 p.m. EDT
Frank Bruni: Ross, I would typically begin with some idle pleasantry — “Hey, it’s good to talk with you” — but this doesn’t seem to me a moment for idle pleasantries, and “good” just doesn’t cut it. Not after the massacre of 11 Jewish Americans in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday. Not after the pipe bombs of last week. Not amid ugly talk and ugly tweets. I’m hugely worried about this country, and I do not believe that President Donald Trump has it in him to unite us and heal our wounds. Please, please, please tell me I’m wrong.
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Ross Douthat: Of course you’re not wrong, Frank. In his presidency Donald Trump has shown no interest in actually presiding over the country, as opposed to just trying to mobilize his own coalition against the liberal Other. For him to respond to a pair of far-right terrorist attacks with defensiveness and partisanship is simply who he is — a self-justifying polarizer who finds the other aspects of the job tedious and prefers, even amid trauma, to just hurl rhetorical grenades from his Twitter feed.
Frank: Is that it, then? We give up on hoping for anything better from him and ... do what? It’s a serious question. The presidency has enormous moral force, quaint as that notion sounds right now, and if the president has no moral compass, what can we do so that we don’t unravel further as we wait him out?
Ross: Well, if you’re a Democrat, you try to beat his party at the polls. I’ve said before in these conversations that I think Trump has some modicum of self-control, but it’s mostly linked to self-interest. If you want him to abjure a polarizing response to tragedy, you need to show that it’s a bad political strategy. Which I think it is; I think politically the horror in Pittsburgh and the mail bombs are a gift to Democrats, because they highlight one of the most specific ways that Trump is ill-suited to his office.
Frank: As someone who wants keenly for Democrats to do well on Nov. 6, because the country needs that safeguard against Trump’s worst impulses, I find it hard to see any gifts anywhere right now. The fact of Trump’s presidency, the way he conducts it and the screaming all around it are about a reality that preceded him, is bigger than him and will survive him. I’m referring to a quickly vanishing sense of common ground and purpose in America. Hate is filling that void.
Ross: Yes, but it’s the nature of politics that you defeat hate not just by wringing your hands and bemoaning its awfulness but by offering an alternative that seems more attractive. For the Democrats right now that means casting their party as a unifying force rather than just the equally polarized answer to Trumpism.
For Republicans who don’t like the Trumpist style, it means offering a conservative politics that somehow answers the grievances Trump addresses — anxiety about globalization, mass immigration, liberal cultural power, the empty establishment-Republican policy agenda — without lapsing into conspiracy theories and worse forms of madness. That’s still the only way that the gyre will ever narrow.
Frank: Let me tell you what else it has to mean for Republicans (and then, yes, I’ll get to Democrats). They have to stop making excuses for Trump’s utter abdication of the responsibilities of leadership. They have to stop dressing that up as some unfamiliar anagram of boldness.
Over the weekend, explaining away Trump’s continued name-calling, Vice President Mike Pence said, “Everyone has their own style, and frankly, people on both sides of the aisle use strong language about our political differences.” Oh, so all’s well with the president’s puerility if plenty of other people are just as bad? I thought the leader of the free world was supposed to be a cut above. Or has that been cut from the job description?
Ross: Once you’ve decided to stick with Trump through thick and thin — as Pence certainly has — this is the only argument you can make. But the real problem with the president’s rhetoric isn’t that he uses strong language, even insults — it’s that he feeds conspiratorial and apocalyptic thinking among people who trust him because they distrust the mainstream press. That’s what carries us beyond simple polarization into more dangerous territory — beyond being angry at the media for its biases (which is fine) to regarding reporters as the “enemy of the people.”
You can see a lot of the dynamic among Democrats in this cycle as reflecting two competing impulses in response — one that tries to make politics normal again, attacking the GOP on health care and taxes and corruption, and one that wants to leap into the vortex, too, screaming about Manchurian candidates and looming fascism.
Frank: Democrats continue to grapple with, and to be divided about, the proper response to Trump. And to look at the midterms is to see different Democrats behaving differently, often in accordance with the dynamics and demographic profiles of their districts.
But I wish that all of us would stop speaking of this as a tactical question. It’s a moral one. It’s vital and urgent that a better kind of politics be modeled, before we all sink any deeper, and I’d implore Democrats to do that, because Republicans certainly won’t, not as long as they’re quivering before and genuflecting to Trump. Know what else is vital and urgent? That we in the media give that better politics as much coverage as we do whatever new insult Trump flings.
Ross: Maybe, but I’m a little wary of that formulation because there’s a constant media temptation to use positive coverage as a kind of wish-casting, where the definition of “better politics” is just “politics as liberal journalists wish it to be.” The 17,000 profiles of Beto O’Rourke, who’s interesting enough but not nearly as relevant to a possible Democratic revival as a less liberal candidate would have been, are a case in point. So was all the hosanna-ing over Emmanuel Macron, the great centrist hope (current approval rating: 29 percent) when he ascended to the French presidency.
Journalists don’t need to cover Trump wall to wall, but they also shouldn’t feed liberal delusions about how easily the populism tide will be turned back.
Frank: Ross, there have been only 16,423 profiles of Beto. But seriously, what I’m saying isn’t about Beto or French Beto, liberals or conservatives, populism or socialism. When I mention “a better politics,” I’m not talking about Medicare for All or whether the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency should be preserved or the wall or any policy or partisan stripe. I’m talking about the nature of our conversations, the quality of our interactions. I’m talking about a fidelity to truth. I’m talking about an emphasis on inspiration over fear.
That can come in many ideological guises. That can come from politicians old or young, male or female, white or black, straight or gay, etc. But it is what Trump has tugged us ever farther from. It’s what, honestly, I think he’d be content to destroy forevermore, because he thrives in its opposite.
Ross: I’m not going to argue with your high-mindedness, but I just want to put in a plug for journalism that helps us understand where fear-based politics comes from. The latest Trumpian figure on the world stage is Jair Bolsonaro, a not-so-crypto-authoritarian who just won an absolutely crushing victory to become Brazil’s next president. Our colleagues put together a video on the roots of his unexpected-to-liberals support among many Brazilian women, and I highly recommend it.
I think generally that’s what we need more of from journalists — a way for the kind of people who find the success of populism simply incomprehensible to see the world as it looks to the people voting for populists. That’s the beginning of the kind of wisdom that will help us leave the darkest parts of Trumpism behind.
Frank: I am in no way arguing against that kind of journalism! We agree on that. I’m arguing against a constant aghast (but not really), scandalized (but not quite), censorious (but titillated) rehashing of Trump’s tantrums. And I’m urging politicians who want to better us not to traffic in fear. You brought up Beto: All the profiles stem partly from his amazing fundraising and crowds, which in turn reflect an approach by him that is almost steadfastly uplifting and optimistic.
Since this is our last chat before the midterms, let’s pivot to those. A few specific predictions?
Ross: Dear God, man, you want predictions? Didn’t 2016 cure you of that malady? And with a whole week of twists and turns to go? OK, fine: In addition to a boring, safe prediction that the GOP loses the House and keeps the Senate, I think Republicans will win close races in Missouri and Indiana and actually increase their Senate majority — launching, in turn, approximately 17,000 liberal think pieces urging the abolition of the Senate. Your turn.
Frank: Again with the hyperbole! And again with the 17,000 number! I promiseyou there will not be more than 14,913 such think pieces. I agree on the Senate: Republicans will probably get North Dakota, too. An interesting twist in the House is that two states crucial to Trump’s election, Michigan and Pennsylvania, will be sites of red-to-blue pickups of seats for Democrats and will also see Democrats win the governor’s races, in my humble and reckless opinion.
Ross: I buy that: I think Trump’s campaign populism won him the Midwest but his deference to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell’s unpopular economic agenda once in office has cost his party the chance to seal that realignment. But we’ll know for sure by the next time we convene, so until then, Frank.
Frank: Until then, Ross. And now I’m off to write a Beto profile.
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