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Public shaming of Trump officials sparks debate over protest and civility

President Trump's policies, remarks and tweets have sparked new protests and roiling anger. After some high-profile public incidents targeting members of the Trump administration, it's also caused some to wonder how far is too far in political discourse. William Brangham talks to former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, Quentin James of The Collective Pac, and Chris Buskirk of American Greatness.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, President Trump's policies, and his comments and tweets have sparked a new wave of protests and roiling anger.

    However, as William Brangham reports, it's also caused some to wonder if the protests are going too far.

  • Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.:

    And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.:

    And you push back on them. And you tell them they're not welcome anymore anywhere.

  • William Brangham:

    Congresswoman Maxine Waters has become the latest leading voice in the resistance to President Trump, most recently protesting the administration's controversial zero tolerance immigration policies.

    The president, a self-described counterpuncher, pushed back on Twitter, calling Waters "an extraordinarily low I.Q. person," adding, "She has just called for harm to supporters of the make America great again movement. Be careful what you wish for."

    Those supporters were in full force at a rally in South Carolina last night.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They're only good at one thing. What's that term? Resist. It's the party of Maxine Waters. Do you believe her?

    (BOOING)

  • William Brangham:

    On MSNBC, Waters clarified that her calls for protest are not calls for violence.

  • Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.:

    I didn't call for harm for anybody. The president lied again.

  • William Brangham:

    This back and forth is just the latest in an escalating debate over political discourse and just how far is too far.

    Democratic activists have aligned with Waters' strategy, openly confronting some administration officials who implement or defend the president's immigration policies. Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was shouted out of a Mexican restaurant.

    Protesters also rallied outside Nielsen's home and the home of Trump adviser Stephen Miller.

    Over the weekend, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant by the owner, who said her staff felt angry over the impact of the president's policies.

  • Sarah Sanders:

    We're allowed to disagree, but we should be able to do so freely and without fear of harm. And this goes for all people, regardless of politics.

  • William Brangham:

    Some Democrats in Congress, including House Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, have urged more civility and a different kind of action.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    If you disagree with a politician, organize your fellow citizens to action and vote them out of office. But no one should call for the harassment of political opponents. That's not right. That's not American.

  • William Brangham:

    But Waters and others point out that President Trump has his own history of inflammatory statements, some of which they say encourage violence.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I would like to punch him in the face, I will tell you that.

    All right, yes, get him out. Try not to hurt him. If you do, I will defend you in court. Don't worry about it.

  • William Brangham:

    The president's musings are so frequent, The New York Times has tracked 472 people, places and things Donald Trump has insulted on Twitter.

    So, is there a point where these public protests go too far? Or are these moves the appropriate response to policies that have crossed their own boundaries?

    To explore these questions, I'm joined by Quentin James. He's the founder of the Collective PAC, which is working to increase African-American representation in elected offices. Chris Buskirk is a radio host in Phoenix and editor of the conservative blog American Greatness. And former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell is a longtime and prominent voice in the Democratic Party.

    Gentlemen, thank you all for being here.

    Quentin James, I would like to start with you first.

    Sarah Sanders gets asked to leave a restaurant. Protests are occurring outside Kirstjen Nielsen's home. These protesters seem very angry about what they are protesting. What do you make of all of this?

  • Quentin James:

    I think it's great. It's great for our country. It's great for Democrats.

    Listen, the administration is, you know, in the midst of working on critical issues that are affecting people's real lives. We are removing children from their parents at the borders. We are, you know, talking about taxes that are benefiting the rich. And, you know, we're talking about NFL players and their inability to protest, and, even today, the Muslim ban.

    These are real issues that get to the core of American values. And so I think it's a great show of where the country stands, where America really is on these issues, and, you know, we want to see more of it.

  • William Brangham:

    Chris Buskirk, I know you're a supporter of the president.

    What do you make of these very public protests against members of the administration?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    Well, I will tell you, more than more than a supporter of the president, which I am, and happy — and happy to say so, I am a supporter of civil discourse.

    And that is what I see being degraded daily by the advocacy of unrest, and in some cases of violence by the left. We look at — we look at the Sarah Sanders incident at the restaurant in Virginia the other day. This wasn't just the owner politely asking her to leave, saying, I don't want to serve you here, which I think would be bad enough.

    This was the owner chasing her family across the street to where they were trying to eat another meal. And, look, if Democrats think this is good politics, then I say we will see you in November, because it just isn't. And it degrades what we're trying to accomplish as a country, fellow citizens, that wants to govern themselves according to — according to our reason, and not according to our passions.

  • William Brangham:

    Ed Rendell, what do you think this? Does this degrade the public discourse or is this meaningful, vigorous democracy at work?

  • Ed Rendell:

    Well, I think you have to draw a line. If people protest outside a governmental office, outside the Senate chamber, the House chamber, or at a town meeting where a public official is called it as part of his or her business, that's absolutely appropriate and fair.

    And the left should do it and the right should do it, because that's our God-given right as Americans.

    But to interfere with someone's private life when they're going out with their family somewhere, that is uncivil discourse. And it resounds to the detriment of the people who are doing it.

    And I agree with Chris. If we keep doing this — and we're not alone in doing it. The right has certainly done it — if we keep doing this, it's going to fire up the Republican base in ways that nothing positive can. And it's going to make winning the election much more difficult.

    But I want to say one thing. The person who could solve this and who bears the greatest responsibility for creating these — this type of viciousness is the president himself, because he has been the most vicious, the most insulting, the most degrading of all the commentators, whether they be from the left or the right.

    And the president doesn't understand that I think the number one job of the president of the United States is to set a moral tone for the country. And the president should say, stop it. People who support me, stop it. People who are against me, stop it. We have got to get together and move this country a forward. And we're not going to do it by shouting hateful things at each other.

  • William Brangham:

    Quentin James, pick up on what Ed Rendell is saying there.

    He is arguing that, if you want to protest, protest outside a government building. Don't confront someone at a restaurant. Don't go to their home.

  • Quentin James:

    Listen, I completely respect Governor Rendell, but I disagree. And here's why.

    We saw during the civil rights movement when we — African-Americans were told, don't march, you know, don't protest. And we saw Congressman John Lewis, at the time a member of SNCC, getting beat in the head bloody with a billy club by the police, who were, you know, supposed to be there to protect and serve.

    But if we fast-forward today, I think we're hearing some of the similar things.

    It is totally lawful. Folks are not breaking the law by raising their voices and showing up, whether they're at movie theaters or restaurants or even to someone's home. These individuals are public officials, or they work for public officials. And, therefore, they are — the public is expressing their feelings and showing, again, the true American values of freedom of speech, the true American values of accountability and justice.

    We are literally, again, talking about banning Muslims in this country today with the Supreme Court's ruling. We are talking about ripping children from their families and from their mother's and father's arms.

    This isn't a conversation about civility. This is about life and death for many people. And so this is, in my opinion, justified. And, again, if Democrats want to win in November, we need to see more of this.

    We're talking about not the Trump voters we need to be persuading, but a lot of Democrats who didn't hear enough from us or see enough us from in 2016. Those are the folks we want to see turn out in November. And, again, I think we need to see more of this work.

  • William Brangham:

    Chris Buskirk, I know you disagree with this type of action.

    And — but let's put the shoe on the other political foot. Let's imagine the circumstances were changed, and there was someone in the White House who you vehemently disagreed with, someone who thought whose policies were chipping away at the very foundation of this country.

    And for many on the left who are protesting, ripping children from their parents at the border fits that bill. Let's say someone was doing those actions that you really disagreed with.

    What would do you? What would you urge your supporters to do?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    I would urge my supporters — and we — this is the exact same thing we try to do today — which is try and win the argument. Try and win the political debate. Convince people why you're right, and take that to the ballot box.

    That is the system that we have, and it's the only sustainable system if we want to live in a society that values freedom or justice. The idea that by — the idea that by breaking that boundary between the public and the private in some way advances the public good, I think it is self-evidently false.

    And I don't see Quentin putting his home address out on Twitter right now asking — inviting people who disagree with him to come by his house, nor should he. Nor should he. And that is a boundary that I think we should all respect.

  • Quentin James:

    But it's not about disagreement. It's not about disagreement.

    These people are literally making policy that impacts people's lives. I'm not a public official. So you're right. I'm not going to put my address on Twitter for folks to come to my house and show me, you know, what they believe.

    This isn't about disagreements on ideology. This is about, again, banning people from coming to this country because of their religious background. This is about banning children and removing children from their parents who are seeking asylum and coming here lawfully. Right?

    This is not about a civil discourse. And let's also not forget, this is the same party, the same individuals who were hanging up Obama effigies right by nooses in 2010. These are folks who showed up at congressional town halls in 2010 with semiautomatic rifles. Right?

    These are folks who are wearing make America great hats, going into our schools and our churches and killing people. Right? So this isn't about the left is turning to violence. No, this is about our God-given right…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Chris Buskirk:

    I remember June 14, 2017, when a left-wing activist showed up at a baseball diamond and started shooting at a bunch of Republican congressmen. That's what I remember.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • William Brangham:

    Gentlemen, can I just interrupt for a second there?

    Ed Rendell, I would like to you pick up on this issue, because this is something that the president indicated in his criticism of Maxine Waters. He said she was calling for violence. She says absolutely not.

    Do you believe that — as some do, that this is a slippery slope that could lead to violence?

  • Ed Rendell:

    Look, Quentin is wrong and Chris is wrong in part. And I say that in deference to civil discourse.

    But they're wrong in part, because, Chris, part of the Constitution gives us the right to protest, not just vote. And I agree with you, we should vote. But we also have the right to protest.

    But that protest should be done in a decent way outside of government buildings, at town meetings, where it's part of the public dynamic. It shouldn't be visited on people when they're doing private things, like shopping in a supermarket or eating in a restaurant.

    And, Quentin, if you think this helps us win the election, you're crazy. I have had a lot of independents, people who were tending to want to vote Democrat for Congress saying, I'm not voting for Democrats or Republicans. Both sides suck.

    And this type of action backfires on us, because it doesn't do anything to help us, and it fires up the Republican base, and they're going to come out in droves, whereas, a month ago, they were dispirited and they weren't going to come out. We were going to have a 10 percent lead in turnout.

    But the bottom line is, if this country is ever going to solve its problems, we have to do it together. We have to do it together. We're never going to have 61 votes in the Senate, the House and the presidency again. You're not going to be able to get things done unless we try to work together.

    And the more that we have this hateful stuff, the more difficult it becomes for us to do anything. If we don't start doing things together, we're going down the tubes.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • William Brangham:

    Gentlemen, I'm sorry. We have to end it there.

    Ed Rendell, Quentin James, Chris Buskirk, thank you all very much.

  • Chris Buskirk:

    Thanks.

  • Quentin James:

    Thank you.

  • Ed Rendell:

    Thanks.

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