NPR’s Kelly McEvers wraps up the week’s politics news with columnists David Brooks of The New York Times and Kimberly Atkins of the Boston Herald. They discuss President Trump’s speech in Poland, the ongoing debate over the health care bill, and Walter Shaub Jr.’s resignation from the Office of Government Ethics.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
To talk more about this and the rest of the week in politics we turn to David Brooks of The New York Times. Hello there.
DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: How are you?
MCEVERS: Also with us is Kimberly Atkins of the Boston Herald. Welcome.
KIMBERLY ATKINS: Thank you.
MCEVERS: So we hear President Trump meet President Putin, and he does bring up the issue of Russian meddling. There, of course, was a lot of talk before this happened about whether or not it would happen. How do you think this is going to play here at home, David?
BROOKS: It seems almost normal. It’s like a normal presidential visit with a bilateral with the Russian leader where you raise a bunch of issues, you apparently go by the talking points. So the wheels didn’t come off the train, so let’s pop the champagne.
MCEVERS: Right. As we heard, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, you know, Trump and Putin agreed that the issue of Russian meddling is, quote, “a substantial hindrance in the ability of us to move the Russian-U.S. relationship forward.” What did you take from that, Kimberly?
ATKINS: Well, it seemed that Rex Tillerson, in making that statement and in stressing that the point now is to see how we move forward, where we go to from here – let’s not dwell in the past – is something that, you know, as a diplomat he’s going to try to do at this point, to push aside the fact that the president seems to have done a bit of a 180. He was just, you know, the other day still refusing to confirm that Russian meddling had even taken place, but if it had done so it’s President Obama’s fault. Now he’s sort of standing up to Vladimir Putin and saying that this is an important issue. So, I mean, there’s really no place for Rex Tillerson to go at this point than to try to push forward.
MCEVERS: Trump started this trip, of course, in Poland, where he has friends at least in the government. Poland is moving toward the right by refusing Muslim immigrants, putting restraints on the judiciary and the media. And Trump gave a speech in Warsaw. Let’s listen to a bit of that now.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?
MCEVERS: Western values, western civilization, protecting those things – I mean, there are many people who saw this speech as a dog whistle. I mean, this kind of clash of civilizations talk between – a clash between Western nations being superior and standing ready to fight and an enemy meaning terrorism but signifying something more broad. What did you make of it, Kimberly?
ATKINS: Yeah, I think it was definitely a return of the kind of tone that we saw in the president’s inauguration speak – speech, very nationalistic. It bore the fingerprints of Steve Bannon and Steve Miller in the White House in that it was a very nationalistic speech that spoke of the threats to Western civilization – I mean, that sounds really scary, right? – of these threats and talked about immigration and talked about, you know, Islamic terrorism and these things. So he had a very good audience, receptive audience in Poland, which, as you said, has been trying to crack down on immigration, particularly when it comes to Muslims. So I think he felt safe in this arena to return to that nationalistic tone.
MCEVERS: David, what’d you make of it?
BROOKS: I liked it, actually. You know, Samuel Huntington coined this famous concept, the clash of civilizations. And I don’t agree with that. I don’t think Western civilization is in clash with other civilizations. But I do think there is such a thing as Western civilization. There’s – you know, Donald Trump’s very good at tapping into identity sources that a lot of people think are real and define them. Other people may not think them as real. They may think we just have one global civilization. But I happen to think we do have a civilization that, you know, you can draw it back to the Bible, to Plato, through the Enlightenment.
And it stands for certain things. It stands for democracy. It stands for equality, the growing emancipation of rights of minorities, respect for minority rights. I mean, it’s a pretty great civilization. And for a lot of people, frankly including me, it means a lot. And to have a president sort of celebrate it – whether his behavior always lives up to it is another issue – but to somebody celebrate it, I think, is a good thing. And I think it’s an ennobling thing for people who want to feel part of something.
MCEVERS: At a time, though, when people see words like this as a kind of a wink and a nod to more extremist wings of Western civilization, shall we say, I mean, they might consider it as a – you know, a pass to the kind of alt-right white nationalist views.
BROOKS: Yeah, well, I don’t think so. You know, I went to the University of Chicago. We were not part of an alt-right nationalist conspiracy. We were part of the – we were educated in the realm of Western civ. And the danger for a lot of people is that they have no identities. Every identity is taken away because it might seem exclusionary. You can have an identity to be an American or to be a member of the West. And it’s not exclusionary. It’s not necessarily hostile to other identities. It’s not hostile to other civilizations. But it’s a realization that you were formed as a part of a great tradition. And so I thought Trump’s speech was sort of part of that. And there could be an ugly side. And I’ve talked about that for the last two years. But on this one speech I thought it was OK.
MCEVERS: Kimberly, thoughts?
ATKINS: Yeah, I mean, I think that this speech did – could have come across to a lot of people and did come across to a lot of people as hostile. And I think when you have that sort of sentiment, you know, you have to – that sort of tone you have to walk a fine line. We have to remember that we do need our Muslim partners in Muslim countries to fight against terrorism, that you don’t want to fan the flames of terrorist recruitment. And I think if you go too far in this nationalistic tone that can lead you there.
MCEVERS: I want to turn now back to domestic issues here. Next week, the Senate will take up its health care bill again. From some accounts it sounds like it’s in real trouble. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t usually lose battles, but here where the Senate wants to roll back Medicaid there are some problems. People do not like to let go of their entitlement programs. What do you think is going to happen to this bill, David?
BROOKS: It’s looking worse and worse. Even today, Mike Lee, a senator, came out with his own extreme position that other people are not going to accept. So the Republican party is just beginning to fracture. And I think people are getting used to that idea that there’s just no there-there. McConnell’s been very clever, more or less, behind the scenes in trying to touch everybody’s buttons. But the party is too diverse to unify around one bill. And so every day looks like a bigger slide into failure to me.
MCEVERS: I mean, does this mean that after all this time and all these years Republicans will basically be in a position to fix the Affordable Care Act rather than repeal it? Kimberly?
ATKINS: I mean, I think you’re absolutely right. We’re already seeing Mitch McConnell signal that in saying that if this doesn’t pass they have to work to try to shore up the markets. And you saw Chuck Schumer jump on that immediately and say, hey, we’re here. We’re ready to help you fix Obamacare. So I think the Republicans kind of painted themselves into a corner, and that’s the only way out at this point.
MCEVERS: I want to talk quickly about the resignation of Walter Shaub as the director of the Office of Government Ethics. You’ll hear conversation elsewhere in this program with my colleague Robert Siegel and him. But I wanted to ask you both – what did you make of his resignation? It didn’t get a lot of news here.
BROOKS: I liked it because it was a form of honest and quiet protest. He didn’t make a big, grand show of himself. But he made a point. And it was a reticent display of principle, I thought.
MCEVERS: Kimberly, quickly.
ATKINS: I thought the same. I mean, he really had a tough job leading a watchdog organization that really had no teeth. And so I think he exited the way that he could save some of his integrity.
MCEVERS: Boston Herald’s Kimberly Atkins and David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks to both of you.
BROOKS: Thank you.
ATKINS: Happy to be here.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANT REVIVAL’S “PASTURE”)
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