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Norm Ornstein and E.J. Dionne on the American divide and where we should turn next

With divisions in the American political system deeper than ever, questions of how we got to this point and how we move forward remain. Journalist E.J. Dionne and political scientist Norm Ornstein join Lisa Desjardins to discuss their book, co-authored with Thomas Mann, “One Nation Under Trump.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now the latest edition to our Newshour bookshelf. This holiday season comes after a year that saw the nation’s political divide grow even deeper. In their book “One Nation After Trump,” journalist E.J. Dionne and political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann look at how we became so divided and where they believe the country should turn now.

    Lisa Desjardins spoke with two of the authors, Dionne and Ornstein.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

     Let me start with you, Norm, then. What do you think led to this place where we have so many disillusioned Americans who voted both for and against Trump and so much divide?

  • Norman Ornstein:

    So, the first third of the books really, Lisa, is about how we got to this place and about how Donald Trump was not really someone who emerged from the swamp on his own. There were decades that built towards the Trumpism that led to all of this. Some of it goes back to the decline of community, something Robert Putnam wrote about eloquently in the book “Bowling Alone.” To people clustering together surrounded by like-minded individuals creating greater divides, for example, between the metropolitan areas that have thrived with highly educated people and the rural areas that have fallen behind and people have grown more disillusioned and we’ve seen all kinds of bad behavior that results from of all that.

    But then we’ve got the political tribalism that emerged in the ’70s with Newt Gingrich and on through where people saw the other side as the enemy and not the adversaries and all of that, then, topped by the populism that emerged after the bailout following the financial crisis led to an anger level and a division that could enable a Trump to win a nomination against his own party’s establishment and a closely divided enough electorate that could lead us to this point where the divisions are even deeper.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    How much is the Republican Party responsible for the rise of Donald Trump?

  • E.j. Dionne:

    In the book, we quote the great line from John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address, ‘he who foolishly rides to power on the back of the tiger ends up inside,’ and I think the Republican Party was willing to play — the establishment of the Republican Party was willing to play with a lot of divisive themes over a long period of time, and they assumed that they could keep this radicalism under control. They could get votes out of it but eventually they would end up on top.

    So, for example, when Donald Trump was being a birther, was charging falsely that Barack Obama had not really been born in the United States and was, therefore, ineligible to be president, a lot of Republicans said, oh, we don’t believe that, but very few just denounced it, were willing to denounce it. John Boehner we quote in the book who certainly was not a birther but he said, well, people are entitled to their own opinion.

    No. When people did that sort of thing, when there was this very harsh anti-immigration sentiment, the Republican leadership needed to speak up and they didn’t. And I think you saw, also as we talk about in the book, that the first inkling you got of what trouble the establishment was in was when Eric Cantor lost a primary that he never expected to lose, and here is someone who welcomed the Tea Party who said this is all great stuff, and then the tea party beat him in the primary. So, the Republicans really laid the groundwork for what they got here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Eric Cantor who is the number two in House leadership at the time and was beaten by sort of an unknown professor in Richmond.

    I want to ask you, Norm, do Democrats have an answer to Donald Trump? Do they have a very strong alternative that they have presented?

  • Norman Ornstein:

    We believe and we lay out in the book, a set of policy prescriptions that could cut across a lot of divides on economics and other areas that Democrats, many have put forward, some of them, but there hasn’t been as coherent a message and a good part of that to us is, it has to be a message to, among others, the working class people of America and families. One of the things we talked about a lot as we were writing the book and E.J. pointed out, that marvelous book by the African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson, a long time ago about the decline of the black working class in cities, the problems cut across all of these lines, and if we can find common-sense policies — and we have some of them, Democrats have some of them — focus on them, then there’s a greater opportunity both to bring people together and provide a constructive alternative and not just be on the attack.

  • E.j. Dionne:

    When Tom, Norm and I were writing the book, we talked about this issue of, you know, identity politics versus an appeal to the white working class. We think that’s a bad formulation, in the first instance because as Norm suggests, the working class is white, it’s black, it’s Latino. These are all people who have been really set back by deindustrialization and economic change, and you ought to be able to bring them together.

    And the Democratic Party should be very proud of its record on civil rights and not begin to back away from its stance on civil rights or women’s rights or immigrant rights. The picture that comes to mind a lot when we are talking about this is of posters of the slogan of the 1963 march on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his famous speech. The slogan of that march was jobs and freedom, and the message was, if you care about economic justice, you’ve got to care about racial justice, and if you care about racial justice, you’ve not to care about economic justice.

    So, we’re very emphatic in opposing anyone who would put down the white working class but we were also emphatic in insisting that you don’t support the white working class by holding their pain against the pain of African-Americans. We need politicians and leaders who will create empathy across these lines, not try to drive wedges between two groups of Americans.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    How do you think you empathize with Trump voters? And do you think those who oppose the president are doing enough to understand why Trump voters supported him?

  • Norm Ornstein:

    It’s a really tricky business here, Lisa. I mean, one part of it is that there are some individuals out there, including many around Trump, who have promoted really evil things, and that includes racists and anti-Semitic things and autocratic tendencies as well. They need to be condemned.

    But the tendency to throw everybody who supported and voted for Trump into that basket, as it were, is a big mistake. There are real problems that exist in the society as families have struggled to make it in a new world with a different global economy, struggle with all of the changes taking place in the society, and what we want is a clarion call to say we need to show empathy, and we also talk about the new patriotism.

    What Donald Trump talks about is a nationalism, but the darker side of nationalism. A patriotism that celebrates what we are as Americans, which is a melting pot, a polyglot, that we are greater because of all the differences that we have, then you can argue hammer and tong over some of the policy positions but you can create a unified force in the country again.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    OK. E.J. Dionne and Norm Ornstein, you are two of the trio of premier American political scientists who have written this book “One Nation After Trump” — thank you so much for joining me.

  • Norm Ornstein:

    Thank you so much.

  • E.j. Dionne:

    Thank you.

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