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Week In Politics: Midterms, Suspicious Packages And The Migrant Caravan


Now, to dig into this more and the politics of the week, I want to bring in E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Hey there, E.J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times, welcome back.


CORNISH: So President Trump's response to this story has been varied, to say the least. In the last few hours, speaking about the arrest, as we heard, he had this to say.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We must never allow political violence to take root in America - cannot let it happen. And I'm committed to doing everything in my power as president to stop it.

CORNISH: Yesterday morning, he tweeted, quote, "a very big part of the anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the mainstream media that I refer to as fake news has gotten so bad and hateful that it's beyond description." David, can you talk about - help us understand how the leader of our country is leading us through this moment.

BROOKS: Well, he could have been worse in the last couple days.

DIONNE: (Laughter).

BROOKS: But it follows three years where he's basically destroyed every norm of common civility and the rules by which we used to do our politics. And so we've entered a world where a lot of people apparently treat politics as a cult, as, like, the most important form of identity, which is asking more of politics than it can bear, and then who think politics is a war to the death between two opposing sides, which is also not true. Politics is a competition between two sides with partial truths. And so we've got this catastrophizing view of politics which filters down to disturbed people.

CORNISH: E.J., I want to talk to you about this as well. Obviously we do not know right now the motivations of this suspect. But because people are talking about who received these packages, how are you thinking about how this episode has had people talking about divisions in the country?

DIONNE: Well, first of all, good for law enforcement for finding Mr. Sayoc so quickly. It shows what's happening on the right side of politics that there were already people saying, oh, this is a false flag operation by liberals. And whatever else we know about Mr. Sayoc, his van is plastered with pro-Trump and anti-liberal messages. As Ryan said, his Twitter feed suggests he's on the Trump side if he's on any side at all.

But where I disagree with David - I think he's trying to generalize it too much in saying, oh, this is all politics. There's a fundamental problem here, which is that President Trump's hold on power depends on dividing the nation. It's not just that he's incapable of being a uniter. It's that unity is a dire threat to his political standing. And, you know, at 3:14 this morning, he tweeted an attack on CNN. And then later he sent out a tweet that - complaining that this bomb stuff - that's his phrase - was hurting the Republicans in the election. There's something very specific here about our president and his party because it knows that most of its supporters support President Trump - is incapable of talking out against him.

CORNISH: David, do you want to answer that? I know parsing through the Twitter feed can take up some time, but - OK. I want to move on to something else then. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has authorized the deployment of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. And this is as this caravan of some thousand migrants is traveling north through Mexico. The response to this is clearly political right now because no legislation is being passed, right? There's no other kind of movement. David what do you see in how we are talking about immigrants, migrants and asylum-seekers right now? Is this a permanent shift?

BROOKS: I do think it is a permanent shift. If you ask working-class Americans why their incomes have stagnated, the two answers they give are immigration and trade. And so a lot more people have come to see immigration not only as a cultural shift but as an economic threat as well.

I think what strikes me about this particular episode is that - again, the catastrophic tones people are using about it. We've had waves of refugees come to our shores throughout our history as late as April. Some come ashore. Some get granted asylum - about 22 percent in this last wave. And we're a big country, and we can handle a lot of people. And the idea that this is some existential threat seems to me completely overblown. It's an issue that we can deal with. But the way it's being portrayed as some out-of-control situation is just out of proportion to what's actually happening.

CORNISH: E.J., going into midterms, what is the Democratic reply to a Republican platform that talks about these issues so stridently?

DIONNE: Well, I think one of the difficulties here besides the fact that President Trump clearly sort of focused on this caravan because he knows that talking about the threat of immigration helps to mobilize his base - the problem here is that there is a total mischaracterization of what Democrats stand for. They are constantly accused of being for open borders. And when you look at all of the immigration bills they've voted for, they call for - and with support, I should say, back in the day from some Republicans - they all spoke of obvious limits on immigration and tougher border enforcements.

CORNISH: But that's hard to sort of frame in 10 days, right? I mean, this is...

DIONNE: Well, right, but they - the - I think what they are doing - what they have to do is say, we're not for open borders, and this is an attempt to push us away from issues related to economics, to health care and to the issues that a lot of voters are voting on to the point where Republicans have had to essentially mislead - that's a terrible word - about where they stand on health care. And I think they are doing that quite effectively in a lot of local races, governors' races and I think in a great many House races, too.

CORNISH: David, the Democrats are putting a lot of stock in conversation about health care. How are you thinking about that?

BROOKS: Yeah, I think it's an incredibly stupid idea. Donald Trump - he's - represents a big change in American foreign policy, a big change in American identity. He plays on cultural and identity issues. It's really a comprehensive critique of where the American establishment has been. And what strikes me is the Democrats are not even trying to answer that critique. They go to health care. They say, you know, Obamacare gives you protection for insurance for pre-existing conditions, and we want to preserve that.

So while Trump makes a very comprehensive, mostly cultural and identity critique, the Democrats come back with a materialist response, which is, we're going to protect your benefits. And that's a decent response in normal times, but in times like this, I think the Democrats should be making an argument in defense of pluralism, in defense of diversity, a big argument against what Trump really stands for.

CORNISH: E.J., last hard minute to you.

DIONNE: I think that the voters disagree with David, that the - if you look at all of the polling, the top - of the top three issues, health care and economics rank one, two or two, one in where - where the voters come from. I think Trump's cultural message appeals to a minority of the electorate which he is trying to mobilize. And I think national unity does not come simply from defending pluralism, which, by the way, Democrats do.

I wrote recently about a lot of Democrats and a few Republicans defending being open, for example, to refugees in a way the Trump administration is not. But the way we come together is to solve problems. That's what a candidate like Stacey Abrams is talking about down in Georgia where I was this week, and it seems to be working pretty well for her.

CORNISH: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Thank you so much.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: David Brooks of The New York Times, have a good weekend.

BROOKS: Thank you. I will. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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