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With new book on political divisiveness, former GOP official rings an ‘alarm bell’

Peter Wehner served in three Republican White Houses. Now, he's written a book about the current state of national political discourse. In “The Death of Politics,” Wehner analyzes the tone and rhetoric used by President Trump, and how it’s fraying the American republic. Wehner sits down with Judy Woodruff to discuss tribalism, evangelical Christians and why his work is still a “book of hope.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The next item on the "NewsHour" Bookshelf, "The Death of Politics: "How to Heal Our Frayed Republic" after the current period of deep divisiveness.

    Author Peter Wehner served in three Republican White Houses and writes about the tone and rhetoric of President Trump and its effect on the polity.

    Pete Wehner, welcome back to the "NewsHour.

  • Peter Wehner:

    Thanks. Thanks for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So even though the title is "The Death of Politics," I think it's clear from the book you don't think politics is actually gone.

  • Peter Wehner:

    Well, that's right.

    I mean, there's an alarm bell quality to this book, because I feel like politics is at a low moment, and that there are a lot that has to happen isn't happening. And there is danger that there could be a death of some of the best of the American political tradition.

    But, ultimately, it's a book of hope. It's a book that argues against cynicism, corrosive cynicism, against fatalism, and a reminder that the public can change the nature of politics, and make it better and higher, and that it can once again stand for things that politics should, which is really justice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, before we talk about the prescriptions, talk about why you think politics has been so damaged in this country. What has gone wrong?

  • Peter Wehner:

    Yes, that's a good question.

    I think there are a whole confluence of factors. There's been a tremendous amount of cultural and economic change in this country, dislocation, which I think has caused people to become unsettled.

    I think there have been failures of the political class, which has left people discouraged and frustrated. I think that our political culture has gotten angrier. Social media has been introduced. That's a new phenomenon which has amplified the angriest voices.

    So I think a lot of things have happened. I think our political leadership has not been up to the task. And the country itself, I think, is in a state of disrepair, a lot of loneliness, a lot of lack of connection.

    I argue in the book that our politics is angry and broken because, in some measure, our country is angry and broken. And politics is a stage on which that plays out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you do write about, Peter Wehner, how this all started years ago.

    And yet you do spend time, a lot of time in the book, focusing on how President Trump, in your view, has made it worse.

  • Peter Wehner:

    I do. I do. I don't blame him for all of these situations, because a lot of these trends predate him, but I think he's made all of them, virtually all of them, worse.

    You know, we have had divisive and polarizing presidents in the past. What's different with Donald Trump, in my estimation, is several things, one of which is, I don't think we have ever had a president in American history who seems to take such delight in inflaming the body politic, a person who seems to get a kind of psychic satisfaction out of antipathy, creating antipathy, anger, and divisions.

    He seems to thrive on that, and he keeps going back to it again and again and again. And I don't know that anyone has ever controlled the public conversation like Trump has. And the fact that he uses that bully pulpit to divide us is, in my estimation, a terrible thing that has to be corrected for politics to get better and for the country to get better.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what also comes across is that you, as a Republican and as a Christian, that it's been very painful for you to watch this happen, because you feel Republicans have enabled it and the Christian evangelical community.

  • Peter Wehner:

    That's exactly right.

    I have been a Republican my entire adult life and a Christian for most of my adult life as well. My faith is more important than my politics. They're both important to me.

    And it has been both a dispiriting and a painful time for evangelical Christians. What's been most painful for me is that I think they have — many of them, not all, but many of them and their leadership have discredited the Christian witness.

    What I think that they have done which is shameful is that they haven't spoken truth to power. They haven't held him accountable. They have not only gone silent with his moral and ethical transgressions. They have defended him.

    And that, I think, is a kind of intellectual and moral mistake of tremendous dimensions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when you look at Christian leaders, how do you explain their enthusiastic support for the president?

  • Peter Wehner:

    Well, you know, I think part of it is a kind of political tribalism. I think they view Donald Trump as the general of their army, the leader of their cause.

    And he's under attack, and they have decided that they're going to defend him, no matter what, because he needs their defense. I think, frankly, that, for some of them, there's the seduction of political power, that the idea that, if they are at all critical of Trump, they're going to lose access to that power, and they don't want to do that.

    I will tell you, Judy, the other thing that's important for some evangelical Christians, not all, is that precisely the thing that ought to bother them the most, which is the cruelty, the crudity, the dehumanization that characterizes Donald Trump, I think they not only are not troubled by it. I think, for some of them, they appreciate it, because they feel like, this guy will figuratively bring a gun to a knife fight.

    And there's a tremendous amount of anger and frustration and grievances that Christians have felt, and they look at Donald Trump as someone who is going to fight for them. I think it's a huge mistake. I think it's led them to very dark places, but I think that's part of what's going on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So there's a lot here that you write about to despair over, in your view.

    But you also write that you think this country can come through it, that the American people can come through it, but it's going to take effort by not just people in the political realm, but by citizens, by the press, that a lot of people have a role to play.

  • Peter Wehner:

    That's exactly right.

    This is a self-governing country, and we have it within ourselves to write wonderful new chapters in the American story. But it does require will and persistence. And it requires reclaiming an appreciation for values and virtues that matter, that maybe over time we took for granted and forgot about, things like honor and integrity.

    And there is something of what I argue in the book about the mantle of citizenship, that we have take control of our lives and our politics. But we can do it. If — one person acting alone may not make a difference, but a lot of people acting together can create a culture, and that culture can fix our politics, which can make our country better and more decent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Peter Wehner.

    The book is "The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump."

    Thank you very much.

  • Peter Wehner:

    Thanks so much for having me on.

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