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David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart on Trump’s mass shooting response

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart join Amna Nawaz to discuss the week’s political news, including whether there will be real momentum in Congress to enact stronger gun legislation, how President Trump conducted himself visiting shooting victims in El Paso and Dayton and what white supremacy means for our American national identity.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We're now nearly a week on from the two tragedies in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. But the grave questions that have been raised in the aftermath remain, and likely will remain for some time.

    How, if at all, will American politics and American society respond?

    That brings us to Brooks and Capehart. That's New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart. Mark Shields is away this week.

    Welcome to you both. Thanks for being here.

    Let's jump into the big topic for this week. Obviously, gun violence was a big topic of conversation.

    I want to go right to a poll. We heard President Trump mention earlier today that Leader McConnell is totally on board with background checks. That would bring him in line with the rest of the country. This is broken down by party support for universal background checks.

    The floor there, David Brooks, is 84 percent for Republicans.

    Do you see this as the moment that this legislation passes?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, of course, logically, you want to say yes, but we have been here so many times since Newtown and all — Parkland and all the shootings, that we haven't quite got there.

    And so how can something with that kind of support even among Republicans not pass?

    First, the NRA has a zero compromise policy, that we won't accept any compromise at all. We're just holding the line.

    And so far, for 20 or 30 years, that has sort of been working for them. Second, it's low salient issue. People care about guns on the week after something like this happens. And then you ask them, rank the issues you care about, guns start dropping down.

    And then the third, it's turned into a culture war, where, for a lot of people, it's not about guns at all. It's about my culture vs. your culture. And if you want to control my guns, which are part of my gun clubs, part of my community, you're just a bunch of coastal elites coming after me.

    And so I hope this is a week when that changes, but we have a right to be a little skeptical.

    And the one opportunity — and this is a perverse way to put it — is that we might not have — we might have the same gun debate over and over again, but what's become new this week is, it's a terrorism issue as well, in that the people, especially in El Paso, but in a lot of these other shootings, they are killing on behalf of an ideology that is a little like the ISIS ideology in some ways.

    And we could — if we had a discussion, what do we do to combat domestic terrorism, that, we might be able to have a different kind of conversation and pass some of the things we couldn't pass any other way.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The threat might be different there, you think.

  • David Brooks:

    You might rearrange the political alliances, because the gun issue, people are pretty baked in.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jonathan, what do you think?

    I mean, we do have this conversation again and again. It's usually right after one of these mass public events. You remember, back in 2012, after kindergartners were murdered…

  • Jonathan Capehart:


  • Amna Nawaz:

    … we thought, OK, this is the moment. And then it wasn't.

  • Jonathan Capehart:


    If the slaughter of 20 children in their elementary school wasn't enough to move the Senate, to move the U.S. Congress to pass even just background checks — it failed by six votes — then nothing will move them.

    To David's point about, a week we will be talking about, we will move on, but I think the momentum in this case will dissipate greatly because the president just left for vacation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is already on vacation. He's already said the Senate's not coming back.

    And so by the time they come back in September, God forbid we're not talking about another mass shooting, but it might not be until another mass shooting that you get the kind of energy and momentum that's needed to push such a heavy rock up the hill.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you think if they face — members of Congress are in their home districts. If they're getting questions about it, that could help add to some momentum?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I mean, look, again, going back to Newtown, the national outrage over what happened wasn't enough to blunt the power of the NRA.

    So I don't know how much a town hall is going to — or successive town halls will be to change the momentum.

  • David Brooks:

    The cultural issue cannot be underestimated.

    I have always loved Mayor Bloomberg, but it wasn't good for the gun issue that the guy spending all the money around the country and becoming a spokesperson for the movement was the mayor of New York City.

    This has to be led by a group of red state people who are rock-ribbed Republicans who say, I'm very Republican, I love to shoot, guns are part of my culture, but we got to change.

    And until you can get red state leaders doing that, it's going to be a tougher issue.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about something else.

    The president did, obviously, make a visit to those affected communities. And his team put out what's basically a highly produced edited video of his visit on the ground in El Paso. You're watching a clip of it right there.

    There was a contrast there between some of the reports we heard on the ground from journalists and then another video. It was cell phone video that emerged after the visit. It showed the president on the ground in El Paso talking about his crowd size at a rally back in February and comparing it to Beto O'Rourke's.

    Take a quick listen to what he said.

  • Donald Trump:

    That was some crowd.

  • Woman:

    Thank you.

  • Donald Trump:

    And we had twice the number outside. And then you had this crazy Beto. Beto had like 400 people in a parking lot. They said his crowd was wonderful.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jonathan, there is kind of a tale of two narratives there. In the moment, you don't really know which one to pay attention to.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, the narrative here is consistent.

    President Trump is at the center of that narrative, whether it's that highly produced campaign-style-like video of his visits to El Paso Dayton, or it's that cell phone video where he's talking about one of the things that is part of his greatest hits, crowd size.

    He has talked about crowd size since the day of his inauguration. And, for him, that is a marker of popularity.

    But, in that moment, what I would expect the people of El Paso and Dayton, the people in Ohio, the American people who are grieving — and also Texas — people who are grieving, what they want to see from a president is comfort. They want to see someone consoling them.

    I was in New York on 9/11. And President George W. Bush was president of the United States, and I had lots of disagreements with the policies of President George W. Bush. But when he stood on that rubble at ground zero and talked to those workers, and talked to the city, and talked to the nation, that's exactly what we needed to hear then.

    When President Obama went to Charleston and impromptu sang "Amazing Grace" at the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was murdered with eight other people in Mother Emanuel Church, in that moment, he channeled the grief of a church, of a city, of a community, and of a nation.

    We didn't get that with President Trump.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David, how do you look at this, really? He's such a divisive figure anyway. There is the standard of the consoler in chief. He hasn't done it yet. It's not who he is. Right?

  • David Brooks:


    Well, there's a photo, a still from that visit where he's with the orphan baby and two family members, with his wife. And Melania is holding the child. And he's got this grin and the thumb up.

    And when I looked at that photo, I thought, the Democrats are having a debate: Is he a racist? Is he a white supremacist?

    And I look at that photo, I think, well, he's a sociopath. He's incapable of experiencing or showing empathy.

    And, politically, it's helpful for him to target that lack of empathy and fellow feeling toward people of color. But how much have we seen him show empathy for anybody?

    And so I look at that as someone who is unloved and made himself unlovable and whose subject is himself, is his own competitive greatness. And so he doesn't do the consoler in chief just because he doesn't do that emotional range.

    And that's a burden and a cost for any of us.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned the white supremacy line there. We have obviously been talking about that a lot in 2019 now.

    And Lisa Desjardins was reporting earlier too on the ground in Iowa there. Candidates are being asked about that: Do you think this president is a white supremacist?

    Is that sort of a litmus test now for candidates moving forward?

  • David Brooks:

    It's an easy emotional inflation, it seems to me.

    I thought Biden's answer and Kamala Harris' was pretty good, which is, I don't know, but he's certainly enabling them. And he's certainly speaking the language. He uses the language of invasion when talking about immigration.

    Now, I read a lot of the manifestos this week and those who have actually killed in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso. They start with invasion. They go many more steps. They believe that racial mixing really is a cancer. And they have this deep separatism.

    I don't know if Trump has that. But he has certainly set an atmosphere where it's easier to talk about human beings as an invasion.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What do you make of all this right now, Jonathan? It's a big topic. This is nothing new in America. And yet it's new in terms of how prevalent it is.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Right, because — and it pains me to say this, but we're talking about it because the president of the United States is a racist with a white supremacist policy agenda.

    He began his political career questioning the legitimacy of the first African-American president. He started his campaign within the first two minutes saying that Mexicans were — quote — "rapists."

    He called for a complete and total ban on Muslims entering the United States after the San Bernardino attack during the campaign in December 2016. He's used words on the campaign trail from the midterm elections and continued, invasion, caravans, infestation, animals, to what David was talking about.

    In policy and in rhetoric, he is feeding into this environment, this atmosphere, where people such as the shooter in El Paso who has — we have seen the affidavit. He's confessed in doing what he's done, and confessed to targeting — quote — "Mexicans."

    That — these things don't happen in a vacuum. Did the president order this person to do this? No. But that person heard in that rhetoric — and we have seen it from New Zealand, around the world, but particularly here, where we are dealing with a domestic terrorism problem, where the primary people committing these terrorist acts are white supremacists.

    We're dealing with a situation here where the president of the United States is feeding into it with the rhetoric that's coming out of his mouth, whether it's from a podium at the White House or from a podium at a campaign rally somewhere in the country.

  • David Brooks:


    I hear you talking, and I think I basically agree with it. Then I — my next question is, well, how do we then do democracy for the next 16 months? Like, there is a presumption that we're all Americans together. There's a presumption of goodwill, that we can have a conversation.

    And maybe Donald Trump — but how do we address ourselves to Donald Trump supporters, many of whom are very realistic and are supporters of him for good reasons having to do with their own lives and the dissolution of their own communities.

    It's going to be hard to have a conversation once the president has been declared sort of really beneath contempt. And I'm not saying I disagree with you. I'm just saying this is a problem we have to deal with as we try to have a national conversation over this election.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is there a way — and we just have a couple minutes left. It's a big question. But, Jonathan, try, if you can.

    Is there a way to take politics out of this to explain why these kinds of ideas are so dangerous? Obviously, they're not new. They have been around for a while. They have just been mainstreamed to some degree because they're being spoken from the highest office in the land.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    You know, gosh, we have got a minute or so left? Thanks. Thanks for the question.


  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I think what — there's no way to separate politics from this.

    I think Vice President Biden and Senator Cory Booker in speeches on the same day told the story of America from two different perspectives. Vice President Biden talked about — talked about the country and the problems that it has, about America as an idea.

    And Cory Booker — or Senator Booker talked about the same thing, but coming at it from the perspective of, America is an idea, but we have deep-seated issues that go right back to white supremacy being woven into our founding documents. And we have to — we have to talk about that, we have to address it, we have to acknowledge it.

    And, once we do that, then we can take the steps to reconciliation.

  • David Brooks:

    And I would say I'm a pluralist. We're probably all pluralists, who we see good people around like ourselves, cool, like, let's eat different food, let's meet different people, let's have wide experience.

    And a lot of us are conservatives, whether you're on the left or on the right. But there are a lot of people who are anti-pluralists. When you present them with something different, they clam up, they shrink in, they become more fearful.

    Just — Conor Friedersdorf had a piece in "The Atlantic" today. And it was about people being interviewed by an African-American interviewer. And some people, they stopped talking, because it's different and they're afraid.

    And those people don't see it as an adventure. They see it as a threat.

    And so we have to have a defense of pluralism and a critique of anti-pluralism, and, frankly, get a lot of anti-pluralists involved with a lot of people unlike themselves, so they can see it's not that scary.

    But that's the big cosmic debate I think I see here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just the big cosmic debate we all have to engage in.


  • Amna Nawaz:

    David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart, big questions. I'm grateful to you both for being here today.

    Thank you.

  • David Brooks:

    Thank you.

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