The Central Element of The Campaign -Trump’s Ethos

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Selective parts of the David Brooks / Mark Shields PBS interview from Friday October 19. Link to interview

David Brooks:

Well, I mean, I think the major damage Donald Trump is doing to the country is weakening the norms of decency and civility.

And if you don’t have those norms, it’s all dog eat dog. And so I don’t underestimate the harm that gets done.

I just observe that, since the first presidential debate, when he went after Carly Fiorina for the way she looked, and other people, those — the ethos of World Wide — the World Wide Wrestling Federation has been the ethos Donald Trump has played on, on the campaign trail.

And there is some bit of owning the libs, as conservative say, that the desire to offend is part of the fun of the thing. And, sometimes — I totally get Mark’s point. You got to try to maintain some sense of standards of how public officials are supposed to act with integrity.

But, sometimes, I feel manipulated when I do react, because that’s sort of what Donald Trump wants.

Mark Shields:

I want David to trust his own instincts, which are good.


Mark Shields:

No, I mean, but David touched on what I think is the central element of this campaign.

Are we going to have guardrails. Are we going to reestablish guardrails in this country as to what is right, what is wrong? And I think that to a great degree is what this election is about.

But I mean, let’s remind us — our listeners that Gianforte himself publicly apologized for what he did after it happened and accepted the court’s judgment.

Judy Woodruff:

David, health care, the Obamacare, Affordable Care Act, was working against Democrats. Now they’re trying to use it to their advantage.

Do you think it’s working?

David Brooks:

I think a bit. [However] I sort of think, though, just finally, that the norms, as Mark and I have been discussing, what Trump is doing to the culture and the political culture, is actually more of an issue and more of a vulnerability. And I wonder if Democrats would win over more swing voters if they focused on that, because there are a lot of pretty conservative people who think what’s happening to the country is pretty awful.

Judy Woodruff:

David, Mark brought up the Jamal Khashoggi disappearance a minute ago, the Saudi journalist.

We have been hearing about that now for several weeks. I think, just tonight, the Saudi government is saying they’re firing people, asking people to step down. They’re detaining others in all this.

We still don’t have a clear picture of what the Trump administration is going to do. How do you see — can the president walk a middle line here, at the one — on the one hand say, yes, it was a terrible thing, but we don’t want to — we don’t want to in a serious way change our relationship with the Saudis?

David Brooks:

Well, that’s what’s going to happen.

In the Middle East, people understand you go through periods where people have to pretend to be mad at you, and then they go back to normal affairs. And I suspect that’s what the Trump administration is going to do with Saudi Arabia.

To me, the prior problem is that whoever made the decision in Saudi Arabia to do this didn’t worry about Donald Trump, didn’t worry about America. And if the U.S. withdraws its normal role as the enforcer of some sort of international decency, then the people like Putin, the people like those in Saudi Arabia, the people like those in North Korea are just instinctively and almost unconsciously going to think, well, I can get away with this, and so you get actions like that.

So it’s almost the prior withdrawal of American power and standard-setting that seems to me the core problem.

And then, when you look at the Trump administration reaction, this happens every time they align themselves with a bad person, whether it’s Putin or this or another. The bad person does something bad, they try not to react because they like the bad person, and then public opinion drags them into some grudging, meaningless acknowledgement.

And that’s sort of the pattern here.

Judy Woodruff:

Does the administration, Mark, have to take a tough line, or can they get away with trying to walk a middle ground here?

Mark Shields:

I don’t think there is a middle ground.

But, I mean, Judy, Michael Hayden, the former CIA director under President Bush and then President — NSA director as well under President Obama, remained, made, I thought, just a penetrating observation.

He said, President Trump has close personal relations with three heads of state who have on their hands the murder of a citizen in another country, Kim Jong-un, Mr. Putin, and now the Saudi royal family.

And, I mean, I know if you — you’re accused of mudslinging if you quote the president, but I do want to quote the president. Some of his ardent supporters say he shouldn’t be quoted because he doesn’t always mean it.

But he has said that: “Am I supposed to dislike them?” speaking of the Saudis. “I like them very much. They make me rich. They make millions and hundreds of million. I make them — make them — a lot of money with them.”

And this is about his values. And these are now the United States’ values. I mean, that’s what he’s embodying. That’s what he represents. And I just think it’s absolutely terrifying for United States foreign policy and who we are and what we believe in the world.

Judy Woodruff:

Does this have long-lasting consequences, David?

David Brooks:

Well, we will see.

And I guess this is why I’m a little mystified that the Democrats are not going after this issue more, why they’re going after health care and other policy issues.

To me, this is the big issue of the election, that if — frankly, if Donald — if the Republicans keep the House and the Senate, then Donald Trump will feel unleashed. He will feel that this style of politics, this style of foreign policy, this definition of our moral order, has been totally vindicated by the American people.

And so, to me, that’s the core issue. How do we see ourselves as a country? What kind of country do we say? Are we strictly a money country? We sometimes look like that to outsiders. I don’t think that’s true.

But that is pretty much the ethos that Trump is embodying in a quite unembarrassed way.

Judy Woodruff:

Can Democrats do something? They haven’t…

Mark Shields:

Will Democrats do something?

Will — Democrats willing to stand up and say, this is a matter of national strength, national character, national identity, and national values?

I mean, when Pat Robertson becomes the moral theologian of the Republican Party and says, going out to Saudi Arabia for a journalist’s disappearance is not worth risking $100 billion worth of arm sales, does that tell you about moral leadership?

I mean, that’s really what — the proposition that has been presented by this president to the country.

And the Democrats, do they have the courage, the decency and the integrity to stand up? I mean, these are the people running a civil war in Yemen and murdering children by the thousands. And we have been essentially mute and supportive of that enterprise.

Judy Woodruff:

And, on that note, I’ll thank you both.

Last Updated on November 4, 2018 by Stephen Chapel