Barbershop: 'Indivisible' Hosts Discuss Trump's First 100 Days

Apr 29, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to turn to the Barbershop. That's where we sit down with a group of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. This week a special Barbershop, and because we're dedicating this hour to President Trump's first 100 days in office, we thought we'd reach out to a couple of our colleagues who participated in a special project based at WNYC in New York that was organized around that very subject.

It was called Indivisible, and four nights each week different journalists hosted a live call-in program where listeners around the country shared their thoughts and concerns about the country and themselves. Here's a little taste of what they heard. It's a montage from the final program of Indivisible Thursday night.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "INDIVISIBLE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I can't even bring up the fact that I remotely support Trump because of the hostility that comes my way.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm not going to be ashamed of being a Democrat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm a trucker. I am educated. I'm a trucker, I'm a veteran and I voted for Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Those of us who were not in support of Trump have to remain quiet because they'll assume we're heretics...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...They'll assume we're abortion-loving, left-winging crazy people.

MARTIN: Two of the four hosts were able to join us today. Charlie Sykes is an author and longtime conservative talk show host who just wrapped up a two-decades stint hosting his own politics-based talk show in Wisconsin. And, as I said before, just to relax, he decided to participate in this project he hosted Indivisible on Wednesday nights. Welcome back, Charlie.

CHARLIE SYKES: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And Kai Wright is a longtime columnist for the progressive magazine The Nation. He's host of WNYC's podcast the United States of Anxiety: Culture Wars that begins its second season shortly in a couple of weeks. I think its May 9. Kai hosted Indivisible on Monday nights. Welcome, Kai.

KAI WRIGHT: So happy to be here.

MARTIN: And last but certainly not least, Mara Liasson NPR's national political correspondent is here with me for the hour and was an ardent listener as I was. Welcome back, Mara. Thanks so much.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So the project was interesting because it not only went out across the air, across the country, it was across platforms. For example, Kai, you were joined by writers from The Economist in London. It was also broadcast over Facebook live, so you had some very engaged audiences.

Here's what I wanted to know. What did you hope to learn over the course of this project? And did you hear from listeners - and what you heard from listeners - did that comport with what you thought you were going to hear? Kai, why don't you start?

WRIGHT: Yeah. We had a lot of folks going - not to mention all of the people that were calling in - and, you know, I don't know what I wanted to hear from it, to be honest, Michel. I was, like most people, was quite surprised by the outcome of the election. And so I was kind of like OK, what's everybody thinking? I - just let me know.

And I think the thing that stood out most, though, was something that I did actually hear before the election when we were reporting the United States of Anxiety which is that there just is widespread uncertainty and concern across the political spectrum about not just the future writ large, but where do I personally fit into the future of this country where - what is going to happen for me in the coming years? And I think that was for me the - every night whatever we were talking about that came back - it came back to that question. What's going to happen for me in this uncertain future?

MARTIN: Charlie, what about you. You're an old hand at the talk show business, you know, obviously. I was just interested in whether what you heard from these listeners was similar or different from what you've been hearing all these years that you've been talking about politics on the air.

SYKES: Not an old hand at this kind of a radio show. I think I started my first show saying that I was a stranger in a strange land, and I really was. But I was really intrigued by the idea of developing a dialogue outside of the alternative reality silos that we've created. These conversations just do not happen very often. I mean, this is, I think, one of the markers of modern political discourse is that conservatives have their own safe spaces. The left has its own safe spaces and very rarely do you have any cross-pollination.

So I was really intrigued by the idea, and, of course, I was really struck because, as Kai mentioned, I was surprised as well by the outcome. And I wanted to know how freaked out were people by this election? How much anxiety was there? And how are people going to process this first 100 days? And it was certainly - we'd never had one week where we lacked for any sort of material or entertainment. I was also quite amazed, I have to say, how many Trump supporters we have listening to public radio stations all across the country.

MARTIN: Well, I won't touch that, Charlie, I'll just - Mara, what struck you?

LIASSON: Well, I think it's always good when you have people getting out of their echo chambers and talking to people who disagree with them. There's too little of that in this country because we've sorted ourselves out into a kind of partisan camps, tribal politics. But I guess what interested me as a political reporter was that Donald Trump ran a very divisive campaign, and it worked for him. Even tonight as we speak, he's going to a rally in Pennsylvania. He's only visited places that he won. He seems to be kind of doubling down on this base strategy.

You know, he won - he didn't win the popular vote. He won with 46 percent, but on the other hand he does have 100 percent of the power. His party now controls everything in Washington. And what's been really interesting is many people thought he'd reach out beyond his base. He hasn't. He's doubled down on his base. He wants them to be as fired up as possible. He has kind of governed from his base, hasn't reached out to Democrats or even focused in the early weeks on things that might be kind of break up the old partisan divisions like focusing on infrastructure, things that would create bipartisan support. So that's really interesting to me that he seems to see the intense tribalism in our politics as something that's good for him.

MARTIN: You know, I want to talk about that a little bit more because, you know, there - I did hear a lot of anger, and there is a lot of anger. I have to say there have been demonstrations just about every weekend here in Washington, D.C. There's another big one today for climate change. You know, people are energized.

So, Kai, I'll go to you on this. Kai, first on this, and, of course, I want to hear from Charlie, too. Did you get a sense of that in the program the people calling in and to what end? I mean, who has the energy? And is it hopeful or is it hateful? I'm interested in what your experience with this suggests about the nature of civic discourse in this country. Kai, why don't you start?

WRIGHT: I heard very little hope, to be honest, on any side of the equation. I just heard very few people who had something particularly hopeful to say. I heard, again, a lot of concern and frustration, and, yes, anger. Though, I have to say that among Trump supporters - excuse me - among Trump supporters, one thing that was - that stood out is that people are happy with what he's doing thus far because he is waging a culture war on their behalf.

And I think that speaks to something about why he's not trying to sort of reach across the divide - is that it's not really about a set of policy fights for Trump. It's about changing the way we talk about politics to center a different set of people and their particular set of frustrations and grievances. And that's what worked for him, and that's what he's continued to do. And those people regardless of what else he does keep hearing that, and they keep - they called in week after week saying, yeah, I know. I disagree with X, Y or Z specific policy, but I really like the way he's talking.

MARTIN: Charlie, what do you say about that?

SYKES: No. He - Kai is absolutely right about all of that. I think one of the most amazing numbers, at least for me, is to look at the approval rating that Donald Trump still has among Republicans and conservatives. You know, there were a lot of Republicans that were saying, well, in the election it was a binary choice between him and Hillary Clinton. But once he becomes president, we'll hold him to a different standard. Well, that hasn't happened, and, you know, the term that Mara used I don't think can be overemphasized - the tribalism of American politics, how bitterly divided we are.

And Donald Trump, I think, does absolutely play to that. And, you know, Kai took somewhat of a pessimistic point of view, and I wish I could respond to that, but almost everything that we're seeing happening in the divisions in American politics and in media - these - the echo chambers. I think he's going to get worse because of these trends that Donald Trump is not reaching out, he is not trying to expand his base. And right now you look at where American politics might be. You actually have a large number of Americans who frankly have decided that they will go along with anything that Donald Trump says or does. And they will switch their positions based on where the president, you know, the president takes a position.

So they don't actually care that he has no legislative accomplishments. As long as he feeds them the red meat rhetoric - if as long as he gets their Supreme Court candidate - which was very big - social conservatives are happy, the NRA is happy. As long as he picks the right fights, I think that they're going to be locked solid behind him. And I just have to just mention before we get there, the one development that I want to just highlight from the first 100 days is we talked during the campaign about, you know, a post-truth political world.

And this is something that I'm increasingly concerned about that we've actually begun to normalize this post-truth era, that the fact that the president may lie, you know, hundreds of times almost seems normal now. It almost seems like it is routine that our ability to be outraged or to even keep up with it I think diminishes with every passing week.

MARTIN: I want to hear what Mara has to say about that, but I just want to jump in briefly to say that if you're just joining us, we are with Charlie Sykes and Kai Wright. They are two of the hosts of WNYC's Indivisible. It was a national call-in program tracking the first 100 days of the Trump administration. The project just wrapped up on Thursday. NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson is joining our conversation, too. What do you say about that, Mara, as a person who has been covering this for a long time and do you think that that's true?

LIASSON: Well, first of all, I've been giving this a lot of thought, and this whole idea of the fact that he tells so many lies or says so many things that are inaccurate and we kind of - it's so overwhelming that we're numb to it. My question is is this something that is a permanent change and now any politician can get away with this? Or is this something unique to Donald Trump? He is so unique. His personality is so unique. He has a complete absence of shame or a filter, whatever you want to call it and that, no, it's not going to be able to be replicated. I don't know the answer to that.

The other thing I want to say about this stunning thing in the polls that everybody's been talking about that his base has not wavered that - what is it? - 94 percent of his voters say that, yes, they'd vote for him again. But he still has dropped in his - well, from his ballot to his approval rating, 46 percent of the vote to now hovering around 40 percent. Somebody has fallen off there. And to talk about the high approval ratings he still gets from Republicans - yes, he gets them, but they're not that high historically. They're only around 80 percent. A president should have at this point in his term something like 95 percent approval from his own party. So he actually has slipped there historically. And - but I agree with everything that's been said. He is 70 years old. He won an unexpected, but completely decisive and stunning victory. Why would he change?

MARTIN: Just a couple of minutes left, so let me ask all of you - have we learned anything in the past 100 days that we did not know about the country or about the political leadership of the country, about ourselves? So, Kai, maybe I'll start with you on this.

WRIGHT: You know, I struggled - this was actually our question for callers on our last night, you know - excuse me. Have you - has anything changed for you? Have you - is there anything that you didn't think before that you think now? We didn't get any very clear answers. I'm not sure that I can answer it for myself.

What is striking to me, though, I'll say, that's different is that I did not expect this much belligerence internationally from Donald Trump. I really didn't expect that. And I think that that has startled - the military families, we talked to in particular, were some of the most shaken and concerned people. And I think it's - they probably - most of us just didn't expect this amount of belligerence.

MARTIN: Charlie?

SYKES: A couple of things - number one that Donald Trump turned out to be exactly who we thought he was as president. He is very much like he was as a candidate, erratic, governing by a whim. The other thing we've learned is that our institutions - at least so far in the first 100 days - are holding firm and holding this president in check. And that's - put asterisks behind it - however, I'm not sure the damage that's being done to our political culture by some of the trends that we've been talking about - the divisions, the coarsening of political dialogue - all of those things. The institutions are still holding, but I think that there's real potential for damage.

MARTIN: Mara, final thought?

LIASSON: Yeah. I was going to - that's what I was going to say. I can't - I - one of the things that I've kept in my mind covering Donald Trump is that he is a stress test for Democratic institutions, and I agree with Charlie. When you go down the list - the press, the judiciary, Congress - I give them mixed grades - citizen engagement - they're holding up pretty well. Even though he said all sorts of authoritarian things, he's made immoral equivalence between the United States and Russia, he's attacked judges, the other day he told Fox News that he thinks all those frustrating checks and balances protections for the minority party are archaic - that hasn't happened. But I would say right now his administration looks like a xenophobic version of what a Mitt Romney administration would look like. And maybe that is just not as bad as a lot of Trump opponents had feared.

MARTIN: Well, we will certainly have a lot more to talk about in the next 100 days and beyond. Mara Liasson, NPR political correspondent, Charlie Sykes and Kai Wright two of the four hosts of Indivisible, a special project based at WNYC in New York, a national call-in program tracking the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. Charlie Sykes, Kai Wright, Mara Liasson, thanks so much for joining us. Mara, sticking around. I appreciate this.

SYKES: Thank you.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

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