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Could The Trump Presidency Lead To An Era Of Democratic Renewal?


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new book "One Nation After Trump" opens with this sentence - American democracy was never supposed to give the nation a president like Trump. The book goes on to explain the ways in which Donald Trump is different from any president who came before him and to suggest how the protests and national soul-searching he has aroused could lead to an era of Democratic renewal. My guests are two of the three book's authors.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a visiting professor at Harvard and a commentator on All Things Considered, on which he and David Brooks discuss the week in politics. Norm Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic. We recorded our interview yesterday afternoon.

E.J. Dionne, Norm Ornstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let me get to the first sentence of the book, which is, American democracy was never supposed to give the nation a president like Donald Trump. So what do you mean by that?

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: The idea is that we have had presidents that different people have disagreed with ideologically. We've had more or less competent presidents. But I think we never had a president who daily raises such profound questions about his basic competence, his psychological capacity to take on the job. I don't think we've ever had a president who spoke more warmly of dictators than of Democratic allies. And I don't think we've ever had a president who voiced prejudice so openly. And that's why I think a lot of Americans who aren't necessarily liberal, many of whom are also moderate and even now an increasing number of conservatives, say this is not a man who has any business being president of the United States.

GROSS: Norm Ornstein, in what sense was American democracy designed to prevent someone like Donald Trump from becoming president?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It was very deliberately designed that way. And it's so striking now to go back and read what Alexander Hamilton wrote, mostly referring to Aaron Burr - and you don't have to have seen the musical to appreciate all of this - his fear that we could end up with a president who was a demagogue, a president who had no real values other than his own preservation and enhancement of power. And so the original inclination, the original frame of the Electoral College was that you would have a group of people, elites in the society, who could make sure that if voters responded to a demagogue in some fashion you could screen that person out.

And at the same time, the system of checks and balances, three independent branches of government, were in part designed to make sure that if you ever did make a mistake and get a president who exhibited some of the characteristics that E.J. described, that the other institutions, starting primarily with the first branch of government - an independent Congress - would put boundaries around that president, would constrain behavior. And the same would be true of the courts. And that's worked in the past when we've had presidents who strayed. Just look at the unanimous vote in the Supreme Court on Nixon's tapes. But at least when it comes to the Congress, it's not working now.

GROSS: You describe Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, who's no longer in the administration, as having embraced ideas from the European far-right and that they seemed ready to abandon an American patriotism. What ideas come from the European far-right? And how would you compare American patriotism to other forms of patriotism?

DIONNE: The idea that Bannon and Trump have imported ideas from the European far-right comes from the notion that there's been a great historical difference between what it meant to be an American and what it meant to be a citizen in many European countries. You had that chilling moment with the far-right demonstrations in Charlottesville where some of the demonstrators started yelling blood and soil. And the definition of citizenship in other countries has always been based on blood and whether you're tied to this particular land.

American citizenship has always been based on a commitment to ideas. It didn't matter where you were from. It didn't matter what the color of your skin was, even though it took us a long time from the original writing of the Constitution to correct inherent racism in it. But we did correct it. And so what's a paradox is they say America first, but these ideas have much more in common with, say, the National Front in France or far-right movements in the Netherlands or Austria than they do with traditional Americanism.

And we talk about the need for a new patriotism in our country because I think we should celebrate our country. We should celebrate the United States. But we should celebrate ourselves in particular because we have stood up for the idea that government is based on we the people and all men and women are created equal. And that's our kind of patriotism.

GROSS: You isolate two moments as being defining moments in Donald Trump's rise to power. One of them is in March of 2011 when he started to be a birther and started talking about how Obama was really born in Kenya, challenging Obama's birth certificate, saying he was a Muslim. Why do you see that as a defining moment?

ORNSTEIN: So I think what happened with that is Donald Trump moved from being a talk show barker and celebrity billionaire right into the political arena, but into the political arena in a way that was going to grab the attention and maybe build the allegiance of a core group of people who were happy to delegitimize Barack Obama. There was no feedback or pushback given from the Republican establishment in Congress or within the party, which was happy to have Obama put on the defensive in this way.

And for a large number of people - Steve Bannon, Breitbart and others included - Trump suddenly became a viable figure. If you look to the moment when a presidential campaign or at least the possibility of running hit Donald Trump or was used to create the groundwork for doing that, his embrace and leadership in that birther movement is key.

GROSS: So another defining moment, you say, in the rise of Donald Trump was June 10, 2014, when in a Republican primary result that almost no one expected Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, was ousted by a little-known college professor named Dave Brat. And Brat was a Tea Party leader. And Cantor had supported the Tea Party. So why is this a defining moment, Norm Ornstein?

ORNSTEIN: So Eric Cantor, who led the really obstructionist efforts in Congress against Barack Obama, who actually went out in 2009 and 2010, recruited Tea Party people and exploited them, was then brought down by this movement. And it was a couple of things. One, it was a spasm of outrage against a Republican establishment that a large share of voters - populous Tea-Party types and others combined - of disappointment in their own leadership because Eric Cantor and others had promised them that if they were brought into power, they would bring Barack Obama to his knees and repeal Obamacare and repeal Dodd-Frank financial regulation and blow up government as we know it. And none of that happened.

And at the same time, bolstered by an extraordinary campaign by radio talk show hosts like Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin who came down to campaign against Eric Cantor, he was portrayed as one of the strongest supporters of immigration reform. And that nativist element emerged as a backlash against the leadership. And that also, of course, as we know, very significantly propelled Donald Trump to the front of that 17-person Republican primary pack as he got to the right of everybody else on immigration, playing off that backlash against the leader Eric Cantor.

GROSS: OK, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are E.J. Dionne, who is a columnist for The Washington Post and a commentator on All Things Considered, and Norm Ornstein, who's a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and has worked with and studied Congress for decades. They've collaborated on the new book "One Nation After Trump." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are E.J. Dionne and Norm Ornstein, two of the three authors of the new book "One Nation after Trump." And E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist and a commentator for All Things Considered. Norm Ornstein has been studying Congress and writing about Congress for several decades.

Norm Ornstein, since you've been writing about Congress and working with Congress for such a long time, I want to ask you about this. You say in the book the radicalization of the Republican Party began three decades ago. And you trace it to when Newt Gingrich came to Congress when he was elected in the late '70s. What are some of the ways he changed the House? And he became the House speaker. So what direction did he set the House in?

ORNSTEIN: So Newt Gingrich came to Congress with the 1978 election. It was his third attempt. He was a small-town history professor in Georgia. But he came in with a fully (unintelligible) about why the Republican Party had not been in the majority for what was, at that point, 24 consecutive years and how to get there and a set of tactics to move in that direction. And it was basically a belief that the Democrats, who had been in the majority, were very clever. They parlayed the advantages of being in the majority and incumbency to get more money, to have the name recognition, but also very cleverly could individually go out there no matter what the national political trends and separate themselves out from it. It's not me. It's them.

And he needed to blow that up. And his idea was, I have to convince people ultimately that this is so awful, so disgusting and the people there are so bad that anything would be better. Nationalize the process. Tribalize the country, starting by radicalizing his own members, Republicans who'd gone along with the Democrats, and ultimately find the election where the wave could occur. It took 16 years. He recruited people to come to office. He gave them language to use. He obstructed as much as he could. He used the ethics process as a weapon to criminalize policy differences.

And all of that worked, ultimately, in bringing that majority in 1994. But he brought with him a large group of people who really believed all of that, who wanted to destroy their institution, destroy government. They infected, I think, a large number of actors outside, from the emerging tribal media to a lot of voters out there, that the other side was not just adversaries, but the enemy. And that began a downward spiral, I think, that ultimately culminated, especially after eight years of Barack Obama, with the kind of demonization and racial characterizations that we had in prime territory for a Donald Trump to emerge.

GROSS: OK, so you're talking about what Newt Gingrich did, like, years ago when he was in Congress. Here's what Newt Gingrich wrote more recently. And this just published on the FOX News website on May 18, 2017. And Gingrich writes, (reading) we are today in a one-sided cultural civil war. The left has picked the battlefield and defined the terms of engagement. If conservatives respond to this aggressive, sometimes violent hostility from the left with confusion, uncertainty and appeasement, we are guaranteed to lose the struggle to drain the swamp and reform Washington. Further, surrendering will destroy America as we know it. Far from making America great again, we will have yielded our country to left-wing thugs, liars and intimidators.

I'd love to hear your response to hearing Newt Gingrich say that.

DIONNE: The irony of Gingrich is that there are moments when he can be an incredibly compelling person who makes interesting arguments and doesn't sound like that at all. And then there's a Newt Gingrich who's making all these fights, who really wants to act as if we all hate each other, we have alien values on the opposite side. It is an awful way to look at a country where the vast majority of Americans, actually, on so many of these cultural and religious questions are fundamentally moderate. They don't want to hate each other. They know that somebody down the street from them whom they really love might be gay or lesbian. They know somebody else down the street from them might have a different religion or might be a nonbeliever. As - America has always been about living with them, profiting from our differences and, yes, arguing about them, but not in a way that casts one side with the devil and one side with the Lord.

GROSS: And, Norm Ornstein, back to you. You say that, you know, after Newt Gingrich, then Denny Hastert became the speaker of the House and that he built and took further the radicalization that Newt Gingrich had started. So where do you see him as contributing to the radicalization of the Republican Party?

ORNSTEIN: So Dennis Hastert becomes the speaker and we have, before very long, an alliance between Hastert and the Republican president, George W. Bush. And Hastert saw himself not as an independent speaker of the House but as a loyal foot soldier in the president's army, but also came to define what we now know as the Hastert rule, that the way to govern under those circumstances was to govern with your party alone and not bring up measures that didn't have the support of a majority - of the majority, and certainly not try to pass things that would rely on the votes of Democrats.

And in the process of doing that, Hastert went further than Gingrich had to blow up the way the House of Representatives had operated with a set of norms and procedures of debate and deliberation, working through committees and subcommittees, responding to and relying on expertise, going to conference committees, giving a role for the minority. He eroded all of those.

And, of course, the most significant or signature moment was an attempt to pass in the middle of the night a very partisan version of the Bush plan to bring prescription drugs to Medicare recipients in which his chief lieutenant and prime mover, Tom DeLay, got chastised, ultimately, for trying to offer a campaign inducement to one of his own members to change his vote.

GROSS: Let's look at the Senate for a moment. Mitch McConnell was the Senate minority leader when Barack Obama was elected president. And McConnell, now famously, said, the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president. McConnell is now the majority leader in the Senate. And you credit him with radicalizing the Senate. So give us an example or two of that.

DIONNE: I think the prime example of Mitch McConnell radicalizing the Senate is what happened with President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. There have been fights over Supreme Court justices going back a very long way, but not to give Merrick Garland even a hearing, let alone a vote on the theory that, well, we're going to let the people decide. Well, the people decided in the last election this was an appointment for President Obama to make and that this is an example of using power not just to change something today, but to change something for 20 years going forward because by blocking Merrick Garland, Mitch McConnell opened the way for appointing Neil Gorsuch. And that way Neil Gorsuch is going to send the court in a very, very different direction. That's a prime example, but there are many others that I know Norm has written about a lot over the years.

ORNSTEIN: So if we look now at what's been happening on the health care front - blowing up the regular order, as it were - not a single committee hearing or involvement by the experts in his own party in a plan to repeal Obamacare and replace it that ultimately failed in the Senate. And now moving forward with a September 30 deadline to try and jam through another plan in which they're trying to appease John McCain, who's called for a return to committee hearings in the regular order by holding one hearing four days before the vote not in the finance committee or the health committee that have the expertise, but of all things in the homeland security committee. This is basically saying, never mind how we've operated the Senate. We're going to use brute force. And that's a really troubling long-term problem that even goes beyond what might happen in the ultimate fate of Donald Trump.

GROSS: And speaking of the ultimate fate of Donald Trump and looking at that, you compare the legislature that Trump faces with the legislature that Nixon faced when he was forced from office. You want to make that comparison for us?

DIONNE: Yes. I think that first of all, we tend to romanticize the past. And we try to be very careful about this. Republicans stuck with Nixon for a good long time before they turned on him. We remember the great bipartisan moments. We forget that are of partisanship. It's also worth remembering it's a simple fact that the Congress was under democratic control, so they were more inclined to hold Nixon accountable. But what you saw in the Nixon era ultimately is that a lot of Republicans said the abuses of Watergate were just too much to take.

In the impeachment vote, a whole group - over a half-dozen Republicans - ended up voting to impeach. There were a lot of other Republicans in the Senate who were very upset with Nixon and said, this can't be what our party stands for. And ultimately, it was Barry Goldwater, a leading conservative who went to Richard Nixon and said, you just can't stay in office anymore. And that's when Nixon knew the end was near. In this Congress, up to now we have seen very little willingness on the part of Republicans to hold Trump accountable on a broad series of fronts, whether it's his financial conflicts of interest - he's doing things that we haven't seen presidents do in the longest time - releasing his tax returns, which presidents have been doing for a very long time - and of course on the Russia story, where you had particularly in the House - a little less so in the Senate - some real games being played with what should be an honest investigation into what happened there. And so there is - I think there's been one oddly positive effect of the Republicans dragging their feet.

One of the points we make in the book is that we have a certain optimism about - hopefulness about the future of the country because a lot of Americans have been mobilized into politics and public action and into action in civil society because of their fear of Trump, but also because they know that while the courts may ultimately hold him accountable - we'll see - the Congress has not been doing that. And so popular movements have taken it on themselves to create pressure on Congress to act, and also to support the investigation of Robert Mueller so that he's not fired. But this is very different than the spirit you saw particularly in the final stages of Watergate.

GROSS: My guests are E.J. Dionne and Norm Ornstein, co-authors of the new book "One Nation after Trump." We'll talk about how Trump won the evangelical vote after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with the co-authors of the new book "One Nation after Trump." E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post and a commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. Norm Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic. Their book begins with the premise that we've never had a president who has aroused such grave doubts about his commitment to the institutions of self-government and the norms democracy requires. They examine how we got here and offer plans for helping families and workers, plans they think Americans can unite behind.

E.J. Dionne, since you've written in the past about the evangelical right in America, I want to raise with you a question you ask in the book, which is, you know, Trump won the largest margin among white evangelical voters of any Republican candidate since exit polling began. So he won 81-16 percent against Hillary Clinton. And, E.J., you write one of the most important stories of the campaign is Trump's success in winning over white evangelical Christians in spite of the ways in which he violated the personal values they hold. So why do you think he was so successful in spite of the fact that - in spite of, just to name one example, the "Access Hollywood" tape about grabbing women by their private parts and then all the women who came forward and said that he sexually harassed them?

DIONNE: The support of white evangelicals for Donald Trump is very disturbing. I think, fortunately, for moving forward, it was disturbing to a lot of white evangelicals themselves. There was - a courageous voice in this debate was Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who said not only that his personal morality raised serious problems, but also, as Russell Moore said, in a time when racial tensions run high across the country, Mr. Trump incites division with slurs against Hispanic immigrants and with protectionist jargon. And he was really standing up against prejudice. But the vast majority of evangelicals voted for Trump. And I think it was for a number of reasons.

One is a real anger and fear at liberals. Their politics was more defined by anger at liberals in a sense that liberals were impinging upon their prerogatives - the prerogatives of religious people - than they were defending religious liberty. I think what's disturbing for our evangelical friends is that they really had to change their mind on some fundamental questions in order to rationalize their support for Donald Trump. They were once - the pollsters have been asking for years the question, if an elected official commits an immoral act in their private life, can they still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life? Only 30 percent of white evangelicals said that in 2011. By 2016, 72 percent had said that.

So they were willing to abandon this because they felt under siege. And I think this was also - goes to the again in make America great again. Robbie Jones, a friend of mine who is a really good writer and pollster on these matters, wrote a book last year called "The End Of White Christian America." And what he was talking about is simply the demographic fact that white Christians are no longer the demographic majority in the country.

And I think there is, combined with a dislike of liberals, a belief that liberals really can't stand evangelicals and are trying to marginalize them. There is also a sense that the culture is about to go away from them. And that's why Donald Trump said, if I am president you'll be able to say Merry Christmas again. And it was - of course we can all say Merry Christmas. But as evangelical leaders said, we knew exactly what he was talking about.

GROSS: How much do you think that Donald Trump's stated position on abortion during the campaign affected the evangelical vote? And also, he presented a short list of people who he would consider naming to the Supreme Court during - you know, for the next vacancy. And those people - I believe all those people were also opposed to abortion. Correct me if I'm wrong on that.

DIONNE: No, I think you're right. And I think what's striking about the debates, particularly the last one, is precisely because Donald Trump at some part of himself knows he is not a natural candidate for religious conservatives, he went out of his way to be more opposed to abortion than any other Republican had been in a public debate before. George W. Bush was strongly pro-life, strongly anti-abortion, but he was very careful in his choice of language. Trump went farther on this issue, farther in guaranteeing conservative justices because he knew that white evangelicals were central to his victory and he was going to do anything he had to even though, by the way, once upon a time, Donald Trump was pro-choice.

GROSS: I think a lot of people are very puzzled about Mike Pence, President Trump's vice president, because Pence is an evangelical Christian. We've read, you know, that Pence won't have dinner with a woman unless his wife is there accompanying him. And for him to be the vice president to Donald Trump seems very kind of baffling, in a way. So I wonder what insights, E.J., you can offer into that. And also, what is he doing now? You know, Donald Trump gets all the attention. What's Mike Pence been up to?

DIONNE: Well, Mike Pence has been playing a strong supportive role to Donald Trump. And I think that if - you know, if Donald Trump were pushed out of office before the end of his term, I think Mike Pence would be called upon to answer for an absolutely resolute support for Trump across the board on practically everything. And I think that, you know, the fact that Donald Trump's Cabinet is so conservative - which I think will complicate this opening, by the way, that he has to Chuck and Nancy, as he likes to call the Democratic leader in the Senate and the Democratic leader in the House.

This right-wing Cabinet - and the other thing we're not paying much attention to is the Trump deregulatory agenda where he is throwing out all sorts of regulations from the Obama era to protect the environment, on climate change, to protect workers, to protect consumers. This is very much a Pence-style agenda. And so Pence represents the very - the right and hard right of the Republican Party in his administration. And he helps keep the congressional Republicans on side, in a sense, and that's the critical role he's playing for Trump.

ORNSTEIN: I've known Pence since his time in Congress. He's an affable man. This is not a man who would use Twitter, who would likely use the kind of divisive and inflammatory language that Trump has used, including in response to Charlottesville. This is not a man who would get into a kind of contest of insults with Kim Jong Un. But as E.J. said, he's a very different person than Donald Trump. He is a genuine, radical idealogue. He was that way in Congress. He was that way as the governor of Indiana. He has had a major imprint on this administration. Many of his friends from Congress and outside are in these key positions. Mick Mulvaney, who proudly calls himself a right-wing nut job, is the budget director. Tom Price, the secretary of Health and Human Services who's been the architect of the health care plans that they've proposed, Ryan Zinke at Interior, Scott Pruitt at Environmental Protection Agency, Betsy DeVos - these are Pence people. And I think Pence is trying, as a general matter, to walk a very difficult line that every vice president has.

When I would teach about this, I used to say that there's this critical moment in every presidential administration early in the term when the president and vice president are having their regular weekly lunch in the family quarters. And they're left alone by the stewards. And as the president is cutting his steak, he looks across the table and realizes that if he begins to choke on a piece of that steak, the person across from him is going to be thinking, do I apply the Heimlich maneuver?

GROSS: (Laughter).

ORNSTEIN: So loyalty becomes a key question. And for Trump, loyalty is everything. And Pence, I think as E.J. said very correctly, is doing everything he can and doubling down on trying to show that he is utterly loyal to the president. And along the way, he's stained himself a little bit, I think, with some of that support.

GROSS: You know, in trying to explain Donald Trump's presidential victory, you write that government isn't representative anymore of American demographics. And one example of that is the Senate. So explain what you mean on that.

DIONNE: Well, by 20 - I think it's by 2050 - 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. That means that 70 percent of Americans will have 30 senators and 30 percent of Americans will have 70 senators. The Senate, which unfortunately is very hard to change the way it was written into the Constitution, radically underrepresents populous states. And it does so more now than it used to. The ratio when the Republic started between the smallest and largest state was 13 to 1. Now it's around 70 to 1 or more.

And this refracts back into the Electoral College. One of the things we point out in making this case that we're becoming a non-majoritarian democracy, which of course is a kind of oxymoron, is that we - when we went through our history from 1824 when popular votes really started to matter all the way to 1996, you only had three elections where the popular vote was out of sync with the Electoral College. And two of those were a very peculiar - a four-candidate race in 1824 and a contested race in 1876. And no one knew how certain states really voted. There was so much fraud on both sides.

Since 2000, we have already had two elections in which the Electoral College vote's out of sync with the popular vote, and this time, the biggest gap in the popular vote we've ever had in such an election. And I think that speaks to the fact that the country is reorganizing itself. And more and more Americans are moving into metro areas. We have some numbers in the book that show this metropolitanization of America. So the overrepresentation of non-metro America in our system is becoming even more profound.

And so we really talk about steps to democratize. If we could - and we know it's a long shot - we would get rid of the Electoral College. But we talk about other things that we could do. Ending or reigning in gerrymandering would actually help bring about a more majoritarian democracy. We also talk about reforming the role of money. Money can tilt the balance against majorities. And we have other reforms in there. But this is something we don't talk about enough, I think. And we just act as if if you're worried about the Electoral College it's 'cause your side lost. But it will create over the long run an illegitimacy in the system if we any time soon have yet another election when these are out of line. And I think we should do something about it before we have a series of such elections.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. E.J. Dionne, Norm Ornstein, thank you.

ORNSTEIN: Well, thank you, Terry.

DIONNE: Thank you so much for having us.

GROSS: E.J. Dionne and Norm Ornstein co-wrote the new book "One Nation Under Trump." The third author of the book is Thomas E. Mann. After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review Matthew Sweet's first new album of new songs in six years. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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