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Week In Politics: McCain And Bush Speeches


This has been a remarkable week in the Republican Party with elder statesmen openly condemning the direction that their party has taken without mentioning President Trump by name. Yesterday, former President George W. Bush spoke at an event in New York.


GEORGE W BUSH: Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.

SHAPIRO: Today White House Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said she does not think that remark was directed at President Trump. On Monday, Senator John McCain of Arizona struck similar themes to President Bush. McCain was accepting award in Philadelphia.


JOHN MCCAIN: To refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems...


MCCAIN: ...Is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

SHAPIRO: So nine months into the Trump presidency, what is happening within the GOP? To discuss that and other issues from the week in politics, we're joined now by David Brooks of The New York Times and Matthew Yglesias of Vox. Good to have you both in the studio.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.

MATTHEW YGLESIAS: Great to be here.

SHAPIRO: These are not new themes. David, why do you think these two party leaders are hitting them in such a pointed way right now?

BROOKS: Well, I guess my question would be, what took them so long? The Steve Bannon, Donald Trump wing of the Republican Party, if it is a wing, has been full-throated and full of conviction for two years now, and the establishment has been just cowering around, hoping they won't get attacked next. And so finally some people are making a counter-argument.

What's been striking to me is the Republican wing of the Republican Party which does believe in globalism, does believe in exerting American influence abroad through multilateral organizations has been just silent. And now finally John McCain finally says, this is what we actually believe. And he - it's the first time we've really seen some establishment Republicans on an intellectual and philosophical level standing up to Donald Trump.

SHAPIRO: Senator John McCain is fighting cancer. George W. Bush is no longer the president. Matthew Yglesias, how much sway do these men really have in the party today?

YGLESIAS: You know, I think their influence is limited, but I also think that they themselves are limiting their influence by being so oblique. I mean, I do think it's worth naming names, and it's worth trying to engage with the populist conservative media, which is, you know, where the audience that needs to engage in this debate is. In a sense, you know, speaking in veiled terms so that, you know, maybe NPR listeners will hear a segment about how George W. Bush doesn't approve only exacerbates the problem. I mean, you need to reach the conservative grassroots where they are. And I think, talk to Donald Trump. Talk about Donald Trump, and use his name.

SHAPIRO: Didn't seem that veiled to me.

BROOKS: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: I mean, I don't know, David, how you took it, but it seemed like a pretty pointed attack.

BROOKS: Yeah, I - but I do think it's a decent that people who are up for election who have done it - Jeff Flake in Arizona - are in trouble. But I think what the Republican elected officials have to look at is it doesn't matter if you're John Barrasso, who's a Republican senator from Wyoming, or anywhere else. Bannon and company are coming out to get you.

So you're either going to try to be like them, in which case you're probably going to lose 'cause you're just going to be a second-rate version of them. Or you're going to have to stand up for what you believe in. And so the idea that there's some safety, some safe hiding ground for establishment Republicans is just not true.

SHAPIRO: Trump's election was part of a populist wave in the U.S., and it is a wave that we've seen in many countries. Just this week, there were elections in Austria that gave the far-right Freedom Party more influence. I know that each of you has spent time in Europe recently during some of the consequential elections in the U.K., Spain, Germany. Matt, do you think the populist wave has crested?

YGLESIAS: I mean, I think it's pretty clear that it hasn't. I was in Germany recently. I spoke to a number of people who were supporting the alliance for - Alternative for Germany party there on the far-right. And I do think Europeans in particular have some very legitimate qualms with the way in which the sort of elite project of the European Union has come together but also that you see the establishment forces there are not really forthrightly defending what it is they've done. There's a lot of kind of me-tooing (ph) and sort of hoping that if you ignore right-wing populist leaders, that they will go away. And I do think they have to either - they have to address the concerns that people have or argue with the populists and say why they're wrong.

SHAPIRO: There seem to be real parallels with the tension in the U.S. between establishment and populist Republicans. David, what has your experience reporting on these elections in Europe shown you?

BROOKS: Yeah, well, if you think our elites are condescending, their elites are more condescending.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BROOKS: And they've sort of messed up the Monetary Union. They've messed up immigration and refugee policy or at least haven't built a consensus around it. And so what you're seeing and what's striking - first, that everyone's looking for a really meaningful form of identity. They don't feel European identity, so they may feel Catalan identity. Or if they're for Brexit, they may feel Brexit identity. So it's really a very personal fight.

The second thing - I was in Spain and U.K. this week, and everyone's having the same conversation. How do we deal with people we regard as fanatics? How do we have that conversation? And that's a conversation I find myself having here in the U.S. constantly.

SHAPIRO: And by fanatics, you don't just mean terrorists.

BROOKS: Right. And it depends on who you define as a fanatic. Are they Trump supporters? Are they the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville? How - if you're on a campus here, how do I - how much do I extend conversation? When do I wall off conversation? In Spain and Madrid where I was, a lot of people regarded the Catalan rebels as fanatics, and they said, no, you just have to wall it off. The case for engagement with the people you disagree with radically has to be remade. That's what's so clear to me after these trips.

SHAPIRO: I want to end by talking about what happened at the White House briefing yesterday where White House chief of staff John Kelly made a surprise appearance and addressed controversy surrounding Trump's condolence calls to Gold Star families, those who have lost relatives in war. And after Kelly's statement, he said he would take questions from reporters with one restriction.


JOHN KELLY: Let me ask you this. Let me ask you this. Is anyone here a Gold Star parent or sibling? Does anyone here know a Gold Star parent or sibling? OK, you get the question.

SHAPIRO: That was a really striking moment that I think highlights the divide between Americans who do and do not know people in the armed forces. Matt, what are your thoughts on how this divide informs American debates over war and the sacrifices that service members make?

YGLESIAS: I mean, I think there's no question that this divide is real and that it makes a difference. It was striking when these soldiers died in Niger - right? - how distant the experience of many Americans was from the fact that we continue to have soldiers at war far afield. I think lots of people were not even aware that there were troops engaged in combat in West Africa. At the same time, I think you saw the way Kelly addressed this problem as a kind of curdling of this divide in which, you know, military figures or former military figures now feel that they are in some sense not answerable to an isolated civilian population.

SHAPIRO: David, there is such a difference between the sense of shared sacrifice in World War II or even more recently in Vietnam and today. How do you think this is shaping American culture?

BROOKS: Well, I would of course love to see national services sort of heal this divide. And I - but I do think this was a low moment for Kelly. First of all, people who served and who have been around those who've served deserved our respect, but they don't have a monopoly on the truth. Second of all, those - anybody who's done reporting in a national level - you spend a lot of time around the military. It's not like you're a stranger to military affairs. So I thought he was using that as a bit of cheap shot in what has been an entire cheap-shot issue. This is a fight about absolutely nothing.

SHAPIRO: That's David Brooks of The New York Times and Matt Yglesias of Vox. Good to have you both here.

BROOKS: Thank you.

YGLESIAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.