"Shields and Brooks on the mail bombs and politics as an identity" PBS NewsHour 10/26/2018
SUMMARY: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the series of pipe bombs, extreme political divisions in America and campaigning on issues vs. values.
Judy Woodruff (NewsHour): Let's move beyond West Virginia for a look at this moment in American politics with the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
And welcome to you both.
So, clearly, a lot of relief that the suspect has been arrested in connection with these pipe bombs.
It turns out, Mark, that this is somebody who is a big supporter of President Trump. We don't know much more than that at this point. He is a suspect.
But what does this say about this moment in American politics?
Mark Shields, syndicated columnist: Well, what it says, Judy, I think, more than anything, not knowing the suspect, other than what I have read, is that Donald Trump is a different, sui generis kind of President.
We Americans are used a President, in a time of crisis or tragedy putting aside any partisan hat.
Ronald Reagan, at the time of Challenger, speaking of the deaths of the astronauts, saying they broke the surly bonds of Earth and touched the face of God, I mean, it healed a nation. It reached out to a nation.
That is missing from Mr. Trump. In fact, this morning at 3:00 in the morning — it's 3:00 a.m. Do you know where your President is? Our President was tweeting and lamenting the fact that all this bomb talk had interfered with the Republicans' early voting and had changed the political dialogue.
So, I mean, I think that's what we have learned. And it's confirming, and at the same time upsetting.
Judy Woodruff: David, what do you make of how the President's talked about this, handled all this?
David Brooks, New York Times: Well, in the last 24 hours, he's been OK. He said it's a despicable act and called for unity.
But that's following three years of friend-enemy distinctions, of us-them thinking. And it's not only Republicans. I mean, when Steve Scalise was shot, that was somebody from the left.
But we have just entered a world — and it's been increasing over the years, and I would say Donald Trump is the exclamation point of it — (A) is treating politics as a war to the death between two sides and that, for the country move forward, you need to destroy the other side.
And that's not what politics is. It's competition between partial truths, competing value systems. And then the second thing (B) is, politics for some people has become their identity for them.
This guy's truck or his van just was covered with these stickers, some of them with crosshairs on Democratic figures. And that's when — if you try to make politics your idol, you're asking politics to bear more than it can bear. And you're headed for an ugly place.
And so we have entered a spot where we have got these Manichaean distinctions, and then we have also got people catastrophizing, if the other side wins, then the country's off to ruin. And neither of those things are true.
Judy Woodruff: And, Mark, I mean, again, we don't want to make more of this than what we know.
But there does seem to be — this seems to be a moment of particular vitriol out on the campaign trail. To some extent, it's the way the President has talked about this caravan of people coming up through Mexico, migrants from Central America.
And there have been other steps that Republican politicians and Democratic politicians have taken to stir people up. I mean, are there any guardrails right now?
Mark Shields: Well, Judy, the terrible part about our politics is that the dominant rule is, if it works, emulate or try to simulate it.
And I think — right now, I'm in Ohio. And I think the Senate race is a perfect example of that. Jim Renacci, the congressman, won the Republican nomination by almost behaving like a mini-Trump, but he can't — he's going to be beaten quite badly by Senator Sherrod Brown because there's only one Trump.
I mean, Donald Trump has been doing this for 25 years. He's practiced at it. But make no mistake about it. There will be knockoff Trumps. There will be people trying to do it. There will be Democrats trying to say, this is the way to do it. And it does — it does work, until it doesn't work.
And I think it's not working, quite frankly, when the President refuses to accept the responsibility Ronald Reagan laid down, that Bill Clinton did after Oklahoma City, that George W. Bush did in the wreckage of 9/11 with the first-responders, that to heal a nation and to reach out to the other side, to offer an arm around the shoulder, rather than pointing a finger of blame.
Judy Woodruff: And, David, I mean, whether it's a negative or a positive, we have polling results that remind us again how much President Trump is a factor in these elections.
We look back. This was the "NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll. We look back at how much people said President Obama was a factor in 2014 — 28 percent said he was a major factor, compared to 44 percent for President Trump today. We're in a different time.
David Brooks: Yes. And those numbers are low. People don't want to admit they're actually voting on the President, when, in fact, they are.
And so I would say it's 80 percent is really who Trump is. And he represents a fundamental shift in what the country, how the country sees itself, how we see our foreign policy, how we see our identity. He's [Trump] a very talented cultural poker.
And so a lot of identity issues, a lot of cultural issues are poked by the way he talks about the caravan, the way he talks about men, the way he talks about women, the way talks about race. And so he's presented really a fundamental challenge, first taking over the Republican Party, and a challenge to the way either party has defined the country and defined themselves in defined morality, basically.
And so he is sort of this revolutionary force, and so it's not surprising the election would really revolve around him. I think it's a mistake, personally, that the Democrats are countering him by running on health care, on preexisting conditions and some of the Obamacare benefits.
I think the Democrats constantly make a mistake where they say, we can win elections by offering people material benefits, and then they don't understand why they lose the working class, because they say, what's the matter with Kansas? We offered these people these benefits and they didn't vote for us.
It's because most people vote on culture and identity, not on material benefits. So when the Democrats go to materialism, and Donald Trump is doing culture, I think it's playing more into his hands, because there's no response.