Brooks and Capehart on the ‘doom spiral’ of the political culture war

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post associate editor Jonathan Capehart join Amna Nawaz to discuss the week in politics, including how conspiracy theories are enabling politicians to drive a new culture war, revelations about Minority Leader McCarthy after Jan. 6, the Biden administration’s numerous challenges and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s day in court.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    From culture clashes in Florida between the Republican Party and Disney to revelations in Washington about actions of lawmakers around January 6, it has been a busy week in politics across the country.

    To navigate all of it, we turn to the analysis of Brooks and Capehart. That is New York Times columnist David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart, columnist for The Washington Post.

    Welcome to you both. Good to see you.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Hey, Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to pick up where Michigan state Senator McMorrow left off.

    And, Jonathan, the first question goes to you.

    I just wanted to get your reaction the accusations she faced and the way that she responded to it, because it's not something we see often. What do you make of it?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Right. I'm going to ignore the accusation, because it's a lie. And it's a lie that far right Republicans have been hurling at Democrats to cow them.

    What I loved about Representative — Senator McMorrow's response was how forceful it was, how she refused to cede ground, moral ground, to people who were seeking to attack her. I loved it. I'm glad you played that clip of her saying: I am a straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom.

    And I loved what she said to John Yang when she said, we have to take our identities back.

    For far too long people on the left, elected Democrats, have — like I just said before, cowed in the face of these attacks, instead of standing up in their own — with their spines, and standing on their own two feet, and in their values and in their morals and saying, do not speak for me. Do not speak — I'm a Christian. Don't tell me that I'm not. I'm a mom. Don't tell me that I'm not. Don't tell me I don't care about my children or other children.

    I want more McMorrows out there. And she's not the only one. Last week, Ian Mackey, a Michigan state representative, went at a colleague who proposed anti-LGBT legislation and said to him directly: It's because of people like you that friends of mine decided to leave the state because they no longer — they didn't feel safe.

    And so, if we had more Mackeys, if we had more McMorrows, who are willing to be the voice of LGBTQ people, African Americans, Asian Americans, anyone who is not the straight, white, cisgender, usually male person who is attacking them, we could — we could move this country out of this horrible conversation that we're having now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We talk about all of this under this broad umbrella term. We call it culture wars, right? And it captures a lot of different issues, including the ones Jonathan just talked about, including the one that state senator talked about.

    But, David, specifically, she's not wrong. A lot of those ideas are very QAnon, dangerous conspiracy theory-related that used to be fringe. We still call it fringe. Is it fringe still?

  • David Brooks:

    I wouldn't say QAnon is fringe anymore. There's a lot — there's tens of millions of people who are somewhat affiliated with QAnon, so I wouldn't say it's fringe.

    I'd say there's two things happening here. One is the crazies, Pizzagate, grooming, all that stuff. That — we can't say it's fringe, but I can at least say it's crazy. It's lunatic. And it's not only lunatic. It's cruelly lunatic, and it's barbarically lunatic. So that's happening, and she was responding. I found her a very compelling human being.

    Then there's the culture. And I'm going to call it culture war, a cultural difference. If you look at the World Values Survey, which surveys values all around the world, what you find is that people in the English-speaking world and in Protestant Europe, our values are shifting.

    And the rest of the world's values are very different. And the same thing is happening in this country, that some of the values where people like I live, urban, educated, shifting. A lot of the rest of the country, not shifting.

    And so we're just seeing widening chasms on values on a whole range of issues, when to teach sexuality to schoolkids. And, somehow, we have to have that fight without it being dominated by the crazies, and, frankly, without it being dominated by the gotcha, screaming moments we have seen in school boards and all that.

    And we don't need to have that fight. We need to have a discussion about this stuff. And, right now, it's being submerged, because it's been hyperpoliticized. And when you turn a discussion about difficult issues into partisan politics, you have destroyed it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But when all of this is unfolding in a political arena, right, and you have even members — take it up to the national level, where you have members of Congress who sometimes say these similar things, and it's not immediately rebuked by leadership, doesn't perpetuate it?

  • David Brooks:

    Right. But they're not going to rebuke it because it's popular.

    And so Donald Trump was not a policy president. He was a culture war president. It was continual soap operas, where he would identify some identity issue, and then he would own the libs. And so that's what our politics has become. It's not, do we disagree with this or that tax rate? It's our identity has to triumph over their identity.

    And so that — we're in this doom spiral of values fought as political soap opera.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's also this ongoing sort of dehumanizing of the political opponent, right, which we have seen in studies, experts say, can lead to more violence.

    And that's part of the argument behind the examination of Marjorie Taylor Greene's role, what she said, how it led — whether or not it led to the violence on January 6.

    I saw — you were watching. I saw you tweeting about it. You were watching her in that in that courtroom today. Clearly, it's not really going to have an impact. Experts seem to say she's not going to be taken off the ballot. So what was that really about? What did you learn by watching?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, one, I'm glad someone is trying to hold her accountable, because, if Kevin McCarthy isn't going to do it, hold her accountable, the way he held Liz Cheney accountable by stripping her of her leadership post, then someone needs to.

    I found her demeanor on the stand to be insulting, as if she were — knew she was going to get away with saying, "I don't recall," even after being shown video of her saying the words she said she couldn't recall.

    Yes, she might not be taken off the ballot, but, again, at least someone is trying to hold her accountable, because that's — no one in elected leadership seems to care.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is that accountability going to happen?

  • David Brooks:

    No.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Will it have an impact?

  • David Brooks:

    No.

    I have never interviewed her, but I know people who know her. And they say she knows exactly what she's doing. She's a sophisticated soap opera player playing the game of getting attention and getting on TV, which generates money for her. Attacking her generates money for her opponents.

    And so this is not legislative politics the way it used to be practiced, where you run for office to do something. This is, you run for office to manipulate attention. And she's a master at it.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Manipulate attention, and I completely get that night. And I understand the theater of it all.

    But, at some point, someone is going to have to recognize that the rhetoric of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the rhetoric of that Lana Theis, and these other Republicans are — who are using LGBTQ kids and African Americans as props in their play, they have consequences.

    We're talking — when McMorrow speaks, when Mackey speaks, when other folks speak out against this stuff, they are fighting for the dignity of real people. This isn't just, I take it, a moral play or just political theater. People's lives are at stake. And people's lives are being played with by people who don't have those worries, don't have to worry about — aren't marginalized, don't have to worry about their safety simply because of the way they look or the way they identify.

    And that is the problem I have with what's happening right now. And to know that Marjorie Taylor Greene actually is sophisticated and knows exactly what she's doing makes it even more insulting. She's playing with all of our lives.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We have seen Leader McCarthy face a number of questions about why he hasn't done more, right?

    In the past, she's attended a white nationalist conference. And you talk about consequences. We don't really see them.

    But I want to ask you about that audiotape that was, of course — as she was on the stand there, that was being played out across the news networks. What did you make when you heard that?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, you can exactly predict Kevin McCarthy's position based on where the winds are blowing that particular half-hour.

    And so he — there was a long period where Trump was riding high, and he was pro-Trump. There was a brief little window where Trump was — seemed to be maybe things were shifting, and Kevin McCarthy zoomed over. Then the winds shifted back. Kevin McCarthy shifted back.

    And what you see is the corrosive effect first of Trumpism, which is, only the current moment matters. We don't have any long-term memory, and, second, the corrosive effect of so many Republicans in the Congress saying one thing in public and believing another thing in private.

    And when you do that long enough, you erode any sort of sense of conscience of who you are, and you wind up with Kevin McCarthy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I need to ask you both about President Biden, because there was a lot of attention this week. We have hashed over these numbers about those dips in approval ratings.

    And this week in particular, you saw really come to a head the conflicting crises, compounding, for sure, but really conflicting crises in a lot of ways that they're facing. There's pandemic weariness. They're trying to maintain authority for the CDC. They want to keep Russia from winning Ukraine, but they have to try to keep gas prices down.

    Jonathan, when you look at that, are they doing everything they can?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Yes, I think they're doing everything they can.

    Maybe they could do a little bit more in one area or another. The problem for the president is, the message can't break through. Perry Bacon has a great column in — had a great column in The Washington Post, where he talked about, we're at this point where, no matter who the president is, about half the country is going to hate him, or her, perhaps one day.

    The other thing is, the right-wing echo chamber is so strong that, no matter what the president does, they're not going to report on it, or they're — they will spin it in a way that makes him look as horribly as possible.

    So, I think that what the White House has been doing — and I'm the nerd who pays attention to the White House press releases that says who's going where.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's why we love you. Nerds welcome.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    And so the president and the vice president have been getting out more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    But unbeknownst to many people, the first lady and the second gentleman have been traveling around the country for months.

    And they're not just going to safe blue havens. They have been going to Mississippi and I think also Wyoming, but to red states, to talk about either the infrastructure law or the American Rescue Plan.

    But when you do that, when principals like that do that, they get local media coverage. And what — so, what the White House does, as White houses have been doing for a very long time, leapfrogging Washington and going directly to the people.

    Whether that is going to work, we won't know until the midterms.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, so White House official said the other day there's enough time. They get out. They message. They show people they're doing the work, it will work.

    Do you think it will?

  • David Brooks:

    I'm a little dubious about that.

    But I give them credit. What was — we're like, this week, Ukraine — like, what happens in the war in Ukraine maybe this month will determine a lot of how our kids live and what kind of world they inherit. China has a security deal with the Solomon Islands, showing China is on the move. Like, big important things are happening.

    And then, somehow, the political world is Marjorie Taylor Greene. And it's just — and I give the Biden administration a lot of credit for sticking to what really matters, so, once again, a big new arms gift to Ukraine. They're very focused on China. They're focused on climate change.

    And it's — it may not work, because we're in social media, media circus, but I give them credit. Even on the masks issue, I think Biden's instincts are exactly right. Masks should be an individual issue at this point. It's just masks are no longer that effective at preventing the disease. Vaccines are effective.

    And so I think they have focused on the big things. But in a post-Trump era, I don't know. They don't get a lot of attention, a lot of credit for it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes. Well, we could certainly use more time to talk about all these things as well, but it's always good to see you both.

    David Brooks, Jonathan Capehart, thank you.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Thanks, Amna.

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