ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Every Friday we take a look at the week in politics. And because some uncomfortable truths have resurfaced this week, it makes sense to begin with where our political leaders were just a week ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NANCY PELOSI: We respect the value of every member of our caucus.
SHAPIRO: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was struggling to project unity among Democrats after four progressive members said she had singled them out to undermine them.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
But then President Trump singled out those same four lawmakers, who are all U.S. citizens, all women of color. He said they should go back to where they came from.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If you’re not happy here, you can leave. And that’s what I say all the time. That’s what I said in a tweet, which I guess some people think is controversial. A lot of people love it, by the way.
CHANG: Democrats immediately came together to condemn his remarks.
SHAPIRO: The president became the story, perpetuating it day after day. And what happened at a campaign rally this week suggests we’ll hear a lot more of this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Send her back. Send her back. Send her back. Send her back.
CHANG: Those are Trump supporters chanting send her back. All right, to talk about all of this, we’re joined now by David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown’s McCourt School.
DAVID BROOKS: Hello.
EJ DIONNE: Great to be with you.
CHANG: I want to first focus on the Democrats in all of this. E.J., do you feel that whatever resurgence of unity we saw this week among Democrats will actually hold or did this week only highlight how deeply divided this caucus is right now?
DIONNE: Well, I think there’ll be tension in that caucus for quite a while. But I think Trump did a horrible thing and an enormous favor to Democrats at the same time. I had actually written a column saying, why, Democrats, are you beating each other’s brains in when the real problem is Trump? And then along came Trump to show that in fact he was the real problem and not Nancy Pelosi. And over the last couple of days, you’ve actually had the more moderate caucus within the Democrats – people like the new Democratic caucus, the Blue Dogs – kind of make peace with the progressives and say, we’re going to stop this. So I think this was a significant step.
But you’ve got a fundamental divide in here because – my colleague Greg Sargent at The Washington Post wrote about this – the four – there were 43 Democrats who took Republican seats; they lost three, so for a net of 40 gains. Those 43 seats are way more conservative and way more Republican than all the other seats held by Democrats. This creates a lot of tension, necessarily.
CHANG: Sure. David, this temporary peace that E.J. talks about, do you think it’ll hold more than temporarily?
BROOKS: Not really. I do think it’s a fundamental difference. I see it more generational. There’s obviously a moderate to more left difference, but it’s the younger and the old. If you’re older, like Nancy Pelosi, you could be pretty left, but you’re basically a liberal of the John Stuart Mill variety – that you want to work within the system; you think compromise is inevitable; you believe in political dialogue, incremental reform. You’re going to take what you can get, given the realities.
If you’re younger, you’re much more likely to think, we need transformational change right away. We do want to work within the system; we want to blow up the system. And those are just not only different policy positions; they’re not – they’re different approaches to politics. And I do think that generational reality’s in Congress and within the Democratic electorate.
CHANG: Well, weigh on the other side of the political spectrum. I want to get it. What could be Trump’s strategy here? Because, in a way, the more he attacks the so-called squad, those four Congresswomen of color, and gets the squad and the rest of the other Democrats to attack him back, the conversation is no longer about actual issues anymore, like health care, the economy, right? It becomes this totally partisan conversation. Does that work to Trump’s advantage, you think, David?
BROOKS: Well, first, I always want to say the moral position before we get to the political one. What he did is immoral, and what he did was racist, and that should just be our lead. I do think he will – he wants this election not to be about health care but to be about America – what kind of country is America? And he tells a story about America which is slightly xenophobic, that the good-hearted people of the heartland are under attack from elites, from aliens, from Mexicans, from Muslims. And that’s the story he won on last time, and he wants to tell that story, and he wants America to be that kind of place that looks backward to the past in nostalgia.
And it’ll be interesting to see what the Democrats say – no, here’s our version of America. Our version is pluralism, it’s diversity, it’s forward-looking – if they can tell that kind of story. And then we’ll have it out.
DIONNE: I think it’s interesting that President Trump, he lied in the process, but he said that he really didn’t like the send-her-back cheer at his rally.
CHANG: That’s correct, yeah.
DIONNE: And what he lied about is he said, well, I talked really quickly to try to calm them down; in fact, he just sat there and enjoyed the flow of the screaming. Why did he pull back from that? I think he pulled back from that because, while a lot of people are saying he wins an election if we are divided by race and he’s trying to do all this, turns out it might be a terrible strategy. There was one poll that showed 65% of Americans thought that this – all these statements were racist, outright, that very big majorities were saying what Trump did here is wrong.
And so he can rally his base all he wants; if he alienates that big of chunk of the country, he’s got a problem. And I’m glad David began with the morality of it because I think with Trump, we too quickly move to, wow, isn’t this good strategy…
DIONNE: …or isn’t this terrible strategy, when in fact this is an outrage.
CHANG: I want to return to a point that David made about this being a conversation about how to write the story of America. One thing that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week said – he said, look – you know, Trump is not a racist. What’s happening this week is instead just a conversation about socialism, about what we want America to be like. How do you read McConnell’s remarks there, that this is actually just a larger conversation about what is the story of America?
DIONNE: I think it was a terrible evasion because he was asked about his wife, who is, I believe, an immigrant herself, or her – the child of immigrants. I can’t remember.
CHANG: Yes, from Taiwan. Yes.
DIONNE: Yeah, from Taiwan. And so he was embarrassed. And I think what the Republicans were trying to do all week is just say, this is really about socialism. Oh, really? That wasn’t where he started. Really? These are four women, young women, of color? No, it wasn’t about socialism. That’s where they want to move this story to create an alibi for Trump.
CHANG: And as this conversation has been heating up this week, I’m just curious what you both think – where does that leave moderate voters? Was there a way for either party to engage them or were they kind of ignored this week, David?
BROOKS: Yeah, Iceland’s really nice this time of year.
BROOKS: That’s where people like me are going to be headed. I – you know, just feel homeless. You know, I can’t – just speaking personally, as someone – self-declared moderate, we’re 35% of the electorate. And I could never vote for Donald Trump, but I’m not sure I could vote for the Green New Deal, either. And so I hate the thought that I’m going to have to have – I don’t know, sit it out? Do something. And I think there’s just a lot of it. I hear this every week. And it’s if – the Democrats are racing away from moderate voters as fast as they can.
DIONNE: See – and I see it somewhat differently. I think that Trump and the right wing of Republicans are leaving moderates no room, if only temporarily, to ally with the progressives in the left. Because, genuinely, moderate voters truly abhor the kind of conversation – including you, truly abhor the kind of conversation we had this week. And I think it is going to be an interesting challenge to Democrats – how can you stake out quite progressive positions but welcome moderate voters in? And that’s going to be the whole dynamic of the Democratic primary contest.
CHANG: All right, that’s E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown’s McCourt School and David Brooks of The New York Times.
Thanks to both of you.
DIONNE: Great to be with you.
BROOKS: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.