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Not Every Trump Outrage Is Outrageous, Tom Nichols Says


Break down the poll numbers, and it looks like many people in President Donald Trump's base approve of his first couple of weeks in office. But he also has plenty of detractors - some because of substance, some because of style. Tom Nichols sees many in a state of what he calls constant panic which he says actually undermines Trump's critics.

He's a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, and he wrote about this recently in The Washington Post. Professor Nichols, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

TOM NICHOLS: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: I wanted to ask you first about one line from your piece. You wrote that there's plenty of fuel for the president's critics in these actions, but Donald Trump's opponents, especially in the media, seem determined to overreact on even ordinary matters. What's an example of an ordinary matter that you think has brought an overreaction?

NICHOLS: Well, for example, replacing ambassadors who are political appointees. That's a normal function of the executive branch. It happens during every presidential transition. And I think people overreacted to that when they said, oh, my God. He's firing all the ambassadors. Well, he didn't fire all the ambassadors. They're required to resign on January 20th, as they were eight years ago, as they were eight years before that.

I think one problem is that Americans aren't used to transitions. They haven't seen one in almost 10 years. And, of course, because the president's rhetoric and his tone tend to be pretty in your face, people assume that there's more going on than the normal restacking of a government during a transition.

GREENE: So let me just follow along with your theory. I mean, during Bill Clinton's two terms, you know, we came to George W. Bush. And there had been almost a decade of no transition. Was there the same kind of reaction when George W. Bush came into office?

NICHOLS: Well, it's important to remember that Bill Clinton staff trashed the offices at the White House and yanked all the W's off the keyboard to the point where people couldn't go to work. It sounds funny now, but for people that were trying to get a new administration started, it was a huge pain in the neck. And it actually held things up for a while. You have to be of a certain age. I mean, that was over 15 years ago to remember just how angry and divisive a transition it was after the Florida recount and the drama of the Supreme Court and all the other things that happened. So I think that was a very difficult transition.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about one of the things Donald Trump has done - President Trump - that has caused most of the reaction. That is this ban involving people coming from seven different Muslim countries. What exactly do you see there in terms of reaction? Has it been too extreme?

NICHOLS: Look, you can argue about what's in the actual executive order or you can argue about what you think Rudy Giuliani or Steve Bannon or anybody else wanted to get out of that executive order. Again, we're having two separate arguments.

I don't think there's any doubt that a lot of the president's supporters wanted to see this as a Muslim ban. They were hoping it would be marketed that way because it's a promise the president made on the campaign trail. My argument was if you want to take issue with what was actually written down in the executive order, it's not there.

GREENE: You're saying what's written in this executive order does not amount to a Muslim ban.

NICHOLS: That's correct. It disproportionately affects people from seven Muslim countries, but it does not affect 1.6 billion Muslims in 200 other countries. And the problem is that if you keep arguing on that ground, I think you're doing two things at once. First, you're losing focus on the nature of the order itself which is being challenged in court on several grounds, but you're also creating a free advertisement saying to people who wanted a Muslim ban that they got one, when in fact they didn't.

GREENE: You're saying that this could actually backfire on President Trump's critics.

NICHOLS: I think it is backfiring on President Trump's critics. When you overshoot the mark and you turn the dial to 11 on every single issue, I think the American public starts to tune you out.

GREENE: I just want to be really careful because you're saying that the public might tune you out - when you say you, you're talking about President Trump's critics like Democrats? Are you talking about the media? Who are you referring to?

NICHOLS: Everyone, experts, the media, the White House, itself. I think that the American people will just say national security is too complicated. I didn't really vote on that. It's kind of like 1992, you know, it's the economy, stupid. And as long as I think the president's keeping the country safe, I don't really want to hear this debate any more.

GREENE: And, professor, what would you tell someone who said, look, I listened to this president during a campaign and heard some very scary things from him and people advising him suggesting that this was going to be a ban on Muslims, and then you have an executive order that, yes, just, you know, applies to seven different Muslim countries. But the taken together - that executive order with what they heard on the campaign - sounds very extreme and sounds like something that demands a reaction.

NICHOLS: I tell everybody who asks me what to do, after every election, I tell them to stay engaged. One of the problems is the average American gets their news from clicking and scanning and from leaving the television on all day like video wallpaper behind them. Read the executive order, read the criticisms of the executive order. Don't just get your news from watching six people around a table shouting at each other for 15 minutes at 8 o'clock at night.

GREENE: All right, Professor Nichols, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.

NICHOLS: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs. His latest book is "The Death Of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge And Why It Matters." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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