America’s Great Divide: Frank Luntz Interview | FRONTLINE

America’s Great Divide: Frank Luntz Interview | FRONTLINE

January 14, 2020 90 By Kailee Schamberger


We’ve got two different presidents here. We’re going to be starting the film around the inaugurations and the speeches and the inaugurations. Just lay the groundwork here of who these two guys are, why they had— they both had enormous appeal to their voters, and how different. Just define it for us. I was there on Inauguration Day 2009 when Barack Obama came to town. It was the most amazing experience. And I got there early enough because I actually had moved into town. We were warned that so many people were coming, that the plaza was going to be so filled that you’d better get there early. So I figured I would actually move into a hotel downtown. And I’m lucky I did. I’ve never seen so many people in Washington. And everyone was excited. It didn’t matter whether you were an incredibly wealthy, 70-something woman with a beautiful mink coat that harkened back to the 1950s and a 15-year-old youth on—on a skateboard; everybody was mixing together. Everybody was talking with each other. I have never seen Washington like that, before or since. There was a camaraderie, and the lines were so long, and everybody was calm, and everybody was nice to each other. And if someone was waiting for two hours and they were on crutches, they were invited to go to the front, and everyone said, “Sure.” We were never so nice, never so kind, and never so decent as a people as we were on Inauguration Day 2009. There was a hope that just maybe this was something different. Just maybe we could actually cooperate and get along. And I watched the inauguration from about 1,000 feet away. I was up on a platform. It was a beautiful day. And everybody moved in unison, and everybody worked in unison, and then— and you couldn’t tell who were the Republicans and Democrats. Only one person said something nasty to me. I was in the museum, and someone came up and said, “Aren’t you Frank Luntz?” I said, “Yes.” And she said: “What the hell are you doing here? This is our inauguration.” That was her words, word for word. But it only happened once in those four days. And the rest of it was almost like “Kumbaya.” It’s like we were all singing Peter, Paul and Mary songs together. It was weird. And it had not been like that before then, and it has not been like that since then. And Trump? I was on stage when Trump spoke, not right behind him, but up higher. … But I’m up top. I had an amazing view at the Trump inauguration. So I could see the people gathered through the Mall. And no matter what he says, with all due respect, there were more people at the Obama inauguration than there were at the Trump inauguration. I was there; I saw it; I walked through it. I stood in the lines; I went through the metal detectors. It took longer with Obama. There were more people with Obama. What I noticed from the Trump inauguration was that during his speech, I was facing, because I was up on the— on the platform area, I watched the ambassadors. In the Obama inauguration, the ambassadors all looked like they were as happy as the Americans were. … I was watching the ambassadors as Trump was speaking, and as time went on, more and more of them were doing this, were folding their arms and looking down. Now, the one thing that I know from an inauguration, because I’ve been to many of them— Republicans and Democrats—is that you stare at the speaker. You look around at the audience, but you’re not on your phone; you’re not down here doing this. It’s such a spectacle, and you’re focused on the brand-new president. And these guys were like this, and they were looking down. And I knew this was a different speech. I knew this was a different way to communicate. And I was somewhat critical of that speech. And I had my own political challenges in the days that followed. It was a new era in Washington. It was something that I had not expected, but I felt it immediately. Not only were these two different people in tone and demeanor, not only were they different politicians, but the mood was different, and the surroundings were different; the environment was different; the tone was different. It’s like we were two different countries. Obama—and you just very nicely sort of defined this sales of hope and the belief in what he represented, his ability to bridge the divide, but when he was running, there was— Sarah Palin’s appeal was to a different part of America, but equally powerful in a way that I think the establishment didn’t quite understand. Talk a little about Sarah Palin, what she represents and what she tied in to. When people use the phrase “establishment,” I think it’s completely misused. And it’s always used as an accusation. It’s always used as a negative descriptor. There was a time when those who had experience and wisdom were respected in this country, when those who had decades of service and a record of accomplishment were appreciated, and those who were new and wet behind the ears, that they knew that they had to learn, that they weren’t so brash and so arrogant that they thought that, just because they’d been elected or just because they’d been appointed, they actually knew what they were doing. I don’t understand what it is, and I don’t know the moment that this happened, and probably with Sarah Palin, when a decision was made that it really was better to be governed by the first 100 people in a telephone book than it was by 100 people who were professionally trained and had the experience of governing. What was interesting about Sarah Palin is that, for some people, the less she knew, the better she was. … I was in the room at the convention. I saw her speak. I don’t know if you can use this, but all the men in the box that I was in, when Sarah Palin came up to speak and she had this short skirt and she looked great, the men in the box, I swear, they stood up, and they moved towards the front. They wanted to see every aspect of her. And many of them had second or even third wives, and I watched them fold their arms like this, looking at their husbands like, “What the hell is this?” She was different. She was, for so many people, the breath of fresh air because she didn’t talk like a politician. Now, it’s because over time we learned that she didn’t know the things that politicians should know, but that really was the beginning of rewarding—I don’t know what the word is. Sarah Palin was the beginning of the complete and utter rejection of the establishment. She was the beginning of the more outside you were, the better you were. The less you knew about policy and details, the better it was; the fresher the take, the more authentic the response. The problem is, running the United States isn’t a job for a mayor; it’s not a job for someone who has had no experience whatsoever. But the more that Sarah Palin was attacked by the left, the more that she was embraced by the right. The more that they started to hit her, like the interview with Katie Couric, the more negative the right became towards the media and towards the establishment. And if you want to pinpoint the moment when the right completely rejected the left, I think it was over the Sarah Palin nomination. And it’s because she was so different. And for one brief, shining moment, the right saw her as everything they were looking for: brash, tough, independent; someone who said what they meant and meant what they said, and wouldn’t edit it for anyone. And the truth is, so much of Donald Trump’s appeal to the right could actually be seen in the appeal of Sarah Palin eight years before. Never thought of it that way, but you can, if you wanted to, you could draw a line between what Sarah Palin did and said and how people reacted to her, eight years, to how they reacted to Donald Trump. … So Obama comes in. Does he know what’s at stake? So the financial crisis has happened. … He knew that he was going to be doing unpopular things. But the fact is, the government was falling apart. But how does the base out there in Middle America see what Obama is doing, and why does it make them so angry? The Tea Party movement happened because the president forgot that while he was elected by a majority of the population, it was a relatively narrow majority. And he started to govern as though his way was the highway, forgetting that government spending is one of the key issues that unites social conservatives, foreign policy conservatives and economic conservatives. The one thing that differentiates Republicans from Democrats—at least back then, because one wonders whether it still matters today—is that they hated government spending. So you bail out the auto companies who people thought were put under the unions. You bail out the banks, who people thought were corrupt. You’re bailing out other industries, and the average, everyday person, where’s their check? The CEOs of these companies that had failed were all being protected. We were reading about the golden parachutes and the $10 million bonuses while the average individual was losing their jobs, losing the value of their stocks. And then you had people telling them, “Oh, get out of the market.” Well, if you’ve already lost 30% and you got out of the market, you never participated when the market came back. There were tens of millions of people who lost their savings. And yet they were told that their taxes were going to go up to bail out the banks and the— and the various different companies that failed. And this created a level of anger like I haven’t seen since I got involved in politics in the 1980s: Why is everyone taking my money to save themselves when I need saving? And I don’t know if he understood that. But in the polling and the focus groups that I was doing, this is the first time that people started to cry in the groups. This is the first time I ever met people face to face who lost their homes. I did a number of sessions in Las Vegas; the entire room would come apart in tears because there would be three or four in a group of 25, I’d have three people in front of me who were homeless or virtually homeless because it had been taken away, been foreclosed on. How can you bail out a bank that just took someone’s home, foreclosed on it, and they’re going to have to pay for it? … People really, really resented this president for siding with, in this case, the rich and the powerful, and forgetting them. That was the onus where the Tea Party was created. And the results long term, how does it lead us to where we are today? What happens after tears isn’t a coming together. It’s not “Kumbaya”; it’s the opposite. What comes after tears is resentment, and that resentment breeds hatred. And the same people who thought that they were punished for their bosses, and they were punished for the politicians, and they were personally punished for what went wrong are the same people who voted for Donald Trump a few years later as a way to get even. You don’t go from anger to indifference. You go from anger to hate, to those who made your life worse in order to make somebody else’s life better. And I don’t think people understand that, because I don’t know how many people go beyond the Strip. Vegas was the perfect place to study this because it was such a disaster. And everybody went to the casinos, where money is still flowing. I went 10 miles beyond the Strip to where the people used to work, and it was like a depression, and they blamed Barack Obama for it. The economic conditions had taken place under George W. Bush, but they blamed Obama because of the bailout. And they were resentful, and they wanted to punish him. And that’s why the Tea Party was created and why 2010 was such an overwhelming Republican landslide. And by the way, it would never have happened without Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck was the catalyst for the uprising. And it was his combination of moral outrage and economic conservatism. You could not have had one without the other. In order for the Tea Party to be created, you had to have that fervor. But it had to be based in some sort of moral righteousness, and Glenn had the perfect phraseology that took this anger and channeled it into an organization that rose up from nowhere. And the consequence of that is that he created thousands and thousands of Glenn Becks that went to town hall after town hall and gave their members so much s—. If you remember what that was like—I was called upon by members who were scared to death when they went home: “Frank, how do I handle the heckling? How do I handle the outrage?” Let them do it, was my answer. Let them. They need to get this out. If you try to get around it, if you try damper [sic] it, then you’re missing the point. Their lives had been ruined over the last two years; give them a chance to speak, and listen to them, and respect them. And what the Democrats tried to do at that point is they tried to shut it down. First thing they did was they tried to bring security in to keep people quiet. When they found out they couldn’t, then they stopped doing town halls, which meant the Tea Party advocates had won. And what we see as the Tea Party today was not what happened. It’s revisionist. Oh, this is really important. I went to Tea Party rallies and Occupy Wall Street rallies at the same time. The Occupy Wall Street rallies were young people, teenagers, early 20s, unshaven, [unkempt], and there was dirt all around. I mean, there was trash; there were newspapers, cups, litter everywhere, and worse. You knew that an Occupy Wall Street rally had just happened because it looked basically like what a homeless gathering looks like. Go to a Tea Party rally, … and not a blade of grass is out of place. I went to a few to see what they were like, and when people were done, they put away all their trash; they cleaned up the park or wherever they were, and they would actually say that it should look like we were never here. Occupy Wall Street tried to trash every place they went; the Tea Party tried to clean it up. Occupy Wall Street used language that PBS will not air; the Tea Party used language that you could use in church. Occupy Wall Street was disheveled, intense, passionate, but disorganized; the Tea Party was just as passionate, but they were under much more self-control. And in the end, the Tea Party changed politics as we know it, and Occupy Wall Street failed. But they also came from the same place to some extent, didn’t they? They came from the same place emotionally, but not demographically and not tactically. Both of them wanted to make a statement; both of them thought their country was being stolen from them; and both of them were damned determined to bring it back. But that’s the only similarity. And the Tea Party was able to take their movement into votes in 2010, and Occupy Wall Street was not. Before we go on with the Tea Party and elections, one other thing is—so health care, ACA [Affordable Care Act]. Did the Obama folks understand pushing forward on the ACA what it would bring, what the results were going to be? … The public knew that health care wasn’t working for a lot of working Americans, and they knew that it needed to change. But probably the biggest mistake of the Obama administration was not adding just one word. If they’d added a single word to their message and to their campaign, they would have been much more effective. And that word is “insurance.” The public wasn’t asking for health care reform; they were asking for health insurance reform. And Obama’s efforts, when they heard about health care reform, people thought they could lose their doctor, that they could lose their health plan, that it would be complicated, the prices would go up. And sure enough, they were correct. The Obama administration tried to give people something that they actually didn’t want in an effort to give them something that he had thought they were begging him for. I don’t know if it’s bad polling, bad strategy, but in my job, when I would be doing the focus groups in 2009 and 2010, the public said that he had the right idea, but the execution was horrible. And I don’t know if the administration ever did that polling, if they ever heard what the public was really saying where they could parse it out. Because superficially, he thought he was doing the right thing. It was the number one issue in the country. Even Republicans were agreeing that something needed to happen. But if he had just looked a little bit more intently or closely, he would have realized that he’s missing it, that he’s off by that one word. And that really cost him the majority in the House, and eventually the Senate. … So Ben Rhodes — we saw Ben Rhodes out in California, and their attitude was: “Wait a minute. The Republican Party was the ‘party of no.’ We—we gave insurance to 20 million people. We—we did all these great things so that people couldn’t have insurance taken away from them if they lost their job or whatever. But this whole bipartisan thing of having to— we worked tremendous time, gave tremendous time over to try to figure out a way to work with the Republicans. It didn’t work because the Republicans were the party of no.” I was at the retreat. I was at the retreat that Barack Obama came. And there’s a wonderful photograph of him coming out with the members just before he went and spoke, and they all look like death. And it was the most amazing photograph, because you could see the anger and frustration. Working with someone is not the same as listening to them. “Working with someone”—I use that in quotation marks— is not the same as actually engaging them and being willing to give up 15% to get 85%. I can bring you to my home and tell you that this is what you’re going to eat, but I’m still feeding you. And in my mind, I’m taking credit for offering you food, but if you’re allergic to it, or you don’t like it, I’ve really given you nothing. What the Obama administration did not understand at the time is that they absolutely needed some Republican cover; that you cannot change something as personal and individual as health care and only do it with your own people. And so, in essence, he wrote off the Republicans. This idea of cooperation is crap. The public knew it. Yeah, he invited the Republicans to sign on to his legislation. Yes, elections have consequences, and he did win. But because he would not allow the Republicans—why not buy health care over state lines? Why not fix lawsuit abuse? Why not indemnify hospitals? There are things that he could have done that would have allowed him to do exactly what he did, And the public looked at this, and they said, “This is a partisan takeover of our health care system, and we don’t want it.” And why did the GOP win in a fundamental landslide in 2010, one of the biggest shifts in politics in modern American history? Because the American people looked at this and said, “I don’t want this.” Ben can say, “Well, Republicans said no.” Actually in 2010, the American people said no. And the fact that he still doesn’t see that today explains so much of the division. You can only be divided if you don’t understand. You can only be divided if you don’t empathize. We may not agree fundamentally, but if you have enough respect for my point of view and I respect yours, we’re not divided; we simply disagree. They did not have respect for people who opposed them. They did not understand it, and it led to a landslide defeat for them in 2010. An election which was also fascinating because of the fact that the Republicans enlisted Tea Party folk. They saw this energy out there. They saw these people that would win. Some people sort of say they rode the tiger on it because they didn’t quite understand the change in the power dynamic. Yeah, except I don’t accept that. Tell us what the truth is. What happened in 2010 with all these candidates, and some of them quite frankly weren’t qualified, but the Tea Party was energized because so many of their own people decided to run for office. And in fact, there were a whole number of candidates that the so-called establishment didn’t support. But the Tea Party was so active and so engaged, and this was a fight for the future of the country, that they participated in numbers that Republicans normally don’t do. And they won primaries that they were not thought that they would win, and they changed the Republican Party dramatically. You couldn’t see it because these were individual House-by-House races. And in fact, a number of the Senate Tea Party-supported candidates lost. The GOP did not win the Senate because it was seen as too extreme in a place like Missouri or Indiana or Colorado. But in these House races, they did overcome, first, establishment opposition within the GOP and then, second, Democratic opposition in the general election. The seeds of Trump’s success in 2016 were sowed by the Republican success of 2010. … So 2013-2014, immigration reform goes down. [Eric] Cantor loses. People like [Jeff] Sessions and Breitbart and [Steve] Bannon and [Stephen] Miller are very involved. What’s the—why the backlash, how immigration is becoming the issue that eventually President Trump understands and jumps on board with? Again, I have to challenge the question. I was involved in polling on immigration all throughout the decade. And with every passing year, a greater percentage of Americans supported the DREAM Act. A greater percentage of Americans believed that we actually should be welcoming immigrants the right way, through legal immigration, and that we ought to open that up as a way to decrease illegal immigration. On topic after topic, issue after issue, the public was moving towards a consensus that something needed to be done and that it was more than just building some sort of barrier at the border. So that’s what’s really happening, even though the heat is on the far left, who basically had started to articulate a policy of no borders or limited borders, and those on the right who began that chant of “Build the wall.” But that wasn’t mainstream America on either side. And this consensus, even today as you interview me, is greater than it’s ever been, not that you could ever tell by what’s happening in Congress. But back then in 2013-2014, how did the GOP—how was the GOP changed? … I polled in his district. People want to say that Eric Cantor’s loss is because he supported a compromise in immigration. That’s not true. His loss is because he wasn’t in the district often enough, and a number of Democrats came in to vote against him. It was mischievousness rather than some sort of ideology. But those who want to say that the Republicans were either moving to the right or becoming anti-immigrant, yes, that is on the surface; those are the people who show up at town hall meetings, but that’s not the majority of the party. The loudest person gets on television. The squeaky wheel does get the grease. But there was something much bigger underneath. 2014, the midterms. The GOP takes the Senate. What’s the difference here? The GOP wins the Senate in 2014 because they box out a number of the more right-wing candidates who are less electable, and they realize that the only way for them to win— and you can still be conservative, you can still be right wing, but up to a point. … So you had people from the business world in Georgia, David Perdue. You had the leader of the Legislature in North Carolina, Thom Tillis. You had Cory Gardner, a member of Congress, from Colorado. You had very experienced, very smart candidates who they didn’t have in 2010. This taught me that there was a role for the so-called establishment, as well as respect for those that came from a Tea Party understanding; that the way that you win a majority in this country is to—is through addition, not subtraction. In 2010, the Republicans were adding all these new people—conservatives were— in the House but not in the Senate, because the candidates were fundamentally flawed. In 2014, they were able to keep everyone voting in one—for one party because the candidates were so amazingly good. This is also at a point where Obama is basically giving up on bipartisanship. He says he just feels that he can’t get anything done now along with the laws of the Senate. This leads to executive orders. This leads to trying to get something done, trying to get something done when they haven’t been able to get anything done because, as they believe, because of the GOP in the Congress. What are the effects of that? What are the long-term results of that? The American people, with the exception of those who are watching this four-part series, really don’t know much about their government, and they don’t follow it on a daily basis. And while you had the more engaged segments outraged by executive order and executive action that went around Congress, most people didn’t know about it; most people didn’t follow it; most people didn’t, and don’t, care. I’ve seen people who have tried to say, “Well, that was the cause for the anger that led to Donald Trump’s victory.” It’s not true. If you don’t know about something, you can’t be angry about it. … I don’t believe that the executive orders and executive actions had any impact on 2016, with one exception: The Republicans desperately wanted to choose a candidate who was the polar opposite of Barack Obama. So if Obama was intellectual, they wanted someone who was more emotional. If Obama was cool and calm, they wanted someone who was alive and passionate. If Obama was scripted, they wanted someone who came off the rails. You could actually—and you can do this—you can draw a whole description of the 10 attributes that are most likely to describe President Obama, and it is the exact opposite of President Trump. And that’s exactly how the Republicans wanted it. … There’s also the media. Fox is out there and sort of banging him on the head for executive orders. He thinks he’s a king, blah, blah, blah. This added to all the other reasons that people in the base sort of hated Obama, just sort of added to the emotion of it and to the anger, I suppose, out there. I want to set one thing straight. If there’s one thing that you remember from this conversation, Fox News is not nearly as relevant as people think it is. You have ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS. You have CNN, MSNBC. You have NPR. You have The New York Times, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times, USA Today. The mainstream media is dominant, and Fox is a tiny, tiny subsection of that dominance. There are 10 people who get their news from some other place for every one who gets their news from Fox. So people who have said, “Well, Fox galvanized the hostility towards Barack Obama.” They spoke to a tiny segment. Yeah, it was angry, and it was heated, and it was passionate, and they paid attention. That is true. But the other networks and the other news outlets and the newspapers and the magazines at the time, they were all in bed with Obama. They rarely criticized him. He was the guy who went in and had them searched. He was the guy who had them wiretapped. He’s the guy who challenged them directly that way, and they still loved him, and almost all of them voted for him. I don’t believe in conspiracies. I don’t believe that the media is—I hate the phrase “fake news,” because the news—what the media does is so essential. But do not give Fox News credit for doing anything except speaking to Iowa caucus voters and New Hampshire primary voters, because that’s all Fox News talks to. And everybody else was telling us how great Barack Obama was. Interesting, OK. I mean that. And I know you don’t agree with me because even your comment, “interesting,” but you can never imagine a press conference with Barack Obama with reporters as rude and abusive as they are to Donald Trump. You can never imagine the media doing its analysis—and we had racial incidents under Barack Obama; we had economic crises under Barack Obama; we had global crises under Barack Obama, and the tone was so much different. Now, the presidents are different. Donald Trump treats the press with much greater hostility than Obama ever did, but part of that is because that’s what he’s getting back. If you look at the two presidents and how they react, because this is a story of 10 years of division, if the press treated Trump the way they treated Obama, we’d have a very different political tone right now. And people forget that. … The last State of the Union by Obama, his—his giving up on— his statement that “rancor and suspicion between the parties has never been worse,” he’s admitting the failure of the thing that he promised to come to town to do, which was to bridge the partisan divide. What’s the results of that failure? What is the admission that was made, how startling that was? What does it say about the state of politics in America? It was too little, too late. If President Obama had acknowledged in his inauguration in 2013 that the hope and change that he had sought had not come to the country and made a direct appeal and looked us straight in the eye as Americans and said, “I need your help. I will give you some of what you want. Would you please help us get what we all need? I hear you; I get it; I understand. Look, I will seek to do better. Will you join me?” It’s amazing when an elected official, particularly a president, makes a personal appeal and looks you straight in the eye and says, “I made a mistake. I got it wrong. I ask for your forgiveness, but more importantly I ask for your cooperation. Let’s make this a better country,” it is really hard to say no. So his final words in that speech, it was too late. The election was already on. People had already chosen sides. Timing is everything in this country. It matters most in politics, and it matters most in comedy. And if your timing is off, you’re screwed. He was too late. President Trump… The media attacks on Trump, as you said, are pretty extensive. The late-night comedy shows, that’s all they’re about at this point, is attacking Trump. Trump sees that, and he’s a fighter and punches back. He basically takes over his control of the message, and he downgrades everybody else, and he’s the one who does it, and he does it with tweets, and he does it in front of the press, and he does it every single day he goes out in the Rose Garden and talks to people. But he also at the same time sees it was—he starts using— February of that first year, he starts calling the media the “enemy of the people.” Talk about the dynamics of what is going on there and the results of it. The leaders of American culture despise Donald Trump. I don’t think that they realize that to a great extent they’re the cause, the cause because they did not understand him. They didn’t understand the impact of what they were saying on how people view Trump. To this day, they don’t understand the hostility that so many Americans have to them because they don’t see these Americans. In New York, in Washington, in Seattle and Los Angeles, it is a completely different country. They’re respected in those places, the people who make the movies and the television shows and who write the songs, and everyone listens to them because they’re famous. What they did not understand is that their protests of Trump and how they did it and how they communicated it actually created a shield around him that allowed him to say things that no other person could say, allowed him to do things no other person could do. As much as they didn’t like what Trump was doing, they were even more outraged by what his critics were saying, and they made it possible for Trump to win, and they’ve made it possible for Trump to survive. I’m going to give you an example. You’ll never use it, but I went and studied how the media covered Trump, and this is in the first five, six months of his presidency. And what the press would do is, they would begin their report by condemning him, by saying, “It was the most outrageous press conference we’ve ever seen,” or, “Donald Trump—some people say Donald Trump sunk to a new low today when he did this.” And so the public is watching this, and they decide before they even get to the point that the media is biased or that it’s fake and that it shouldn’t be trusted, and therefore whatever criticisms they have will not be heard or will not be believed. If they had said, “We’re going to play you a clip of Donald Trump; you decide what this is,” and then you play it, the reaction was completely different. … The media did not realize that by their editorializing, they were actually undermining and in the end destroying their credibility. And so as we do this interview now, the media has never had a lower level of trust, a lower level of people paying attention, believing them, actually reacting to the news as they get it in modern history. Never. And it’s their own fault by letting their own personal bias affect how they reported what the president was saying and doing. And how does Trump use that? … President Trump would have made a great political consultant because he understands how the average person thinks. He’s a brilliant marketer, and he knew that with the drop in credibility of the media and the increase in skepticism and cynicism from the public that he was able to get away with much more. He was able to say things that no other president had said and to be able to challenge the press directly. This whole phrase, “fake news,” is not just American anymore. When I travel across the globe, I have people saying it back to me. They talk about fake news in Austria. They talk about fake news in the Ukraine. They talk about fake news in Russia, China. He’s changed the entire lexicon of the globe. And he’s been able to do it because the public already had that point of view. They already felt that way, and he just confirmed it. And you’ve got a situation now where there are two Americas. It is very divided, even to the point, like the Mueller investigation, the Mueller investigation, which again, Trump was very good at using against his enemies and attacking the Mueller investigation. And even when the report comes out, you have two different views of what’s in the damn report. We don’t trust anything anymore, and I think this is really dangerous for the democracy. We don’t trust the media to tell us the truth. We don’t trust the government to—to manage the economy or to be involved in a positive and uplifting way. We don’t trust business to treat its employees with respect and decency. We don’t trust culture to play to the best parts of us rather than to appeal to the worst parts. We have so low a level of trust, and a democracy requires at least some faith in the future and some faith in the people who lead us. No democracy can survive when wrapped in skepticism and cynicism, and that is where we are right now. And our politicians on both sides have created an environment of acrimony and partisanship and division that is not just poisonous; it is genuinely toxic. It is killing this country. And everyone who speaks in that language that dismisses a community or dismisses somebody else, we are not just trashing them. We are dehumanizing them; we are delegitimizing them. And when you get that far that you have no right to exist, that you have nothing to contribute to society, when we make that decision, there is no recovering; there is no coming back because you cease to exist. And that is where we are right now. And it scares the s— out of me because you can’t show me a time when a democracy recovered. The Weimar Republic did not recover. The brief experiment in democracy that happened in 1917 led to the biggest revolution in Russia. When you lose all legitimacy because you’ve lost all credibility, you don’t recover, and that’s where we are right now, and we have a lot to be angry about for our politicians for taking us here. This is not what was supposed to happen when Barack Obama got elected. This was what not was supposed to happen when we drained the swamp. We were supposed to remove all this stuff. We were supposed to clean everything up, and all we’ve done is muddy it. And don’t tell me that, well, it’s difficult or it’s messy. It is. But people have made it more difficult and made it more messy, and they have a lot to answer for, all of us— the pollsters, the media, the politicians, the business leaders, the cultural leaders. They’ve let us down, and we have the right to be angry, but we don’t have the right to be poisonous. Added to that, you talk about the media and the social media involvement in all of this, that the public has slid from disagreement to disdain to dehumanization. How does—how is that part of it, and why is it important to understand? Social media just makes a bad situation even worse. … We already are a country at war with each other. Now overlay that with social media, which takes that criticism and puts it into every person’s home immediately, without reflection and without—without editing. A negative tweet is so much more likely to be shared than a positive tweet. A hostile Facebook posting is more likely to be liked than something that’s positive. And we now have direct democracy so that anyone can criticize anyone at anytime, and they do. I challenge people who say, “Oh, this is just a stage that we’re going through.” I’ve seen so many great nations and cultures rise and fall: the Brits, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Egyptians, the Italians, the Greeks. Again and again, societies rise, and societies fall. There’s nothing permanent. And there’s always something that’s been introduced into that system that undermines and eventually destroys that system, something that comes from the outside. If you study history, it’s like it’s a disease that comes in, and there’s no cure for it. For us, that disease is social media, because it actually rewards not just negativity, but there’s no differentiation between fact and fiction. There’s no differentiation between those who know what they’re saying and those who are just making it up. And because it is instantaneous, you can’t fix it when you’re wrong. And so we now live by the latest tweet. The president shows that. More people get their information from Donald Trump’s tweets than The New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times and Wall Street Journal combined. We have a responsibility to understand that kids are reading it, not just adults; that first-generation immigrants are reading it, not just those who have been here for 300 years. But we don’t. And there’s no control over it. We have no self-censorship anymore. The politicians create the poison, but social media is the system by which it is delivered. And make no mistake, it is in all of us now. And it’s destroy—it’s wrecking us; it really is. … Critics are tying Donald Trump’s rhetoric specifically into the mass-murder rampages, that the rise of white supremacists is due to some extent about stirring the—stirring the muck up. And critics, of course, blame him for using it all for political reasons. What’s your take? Take any piece of that you want. Every time I heard that a young black male had been shot and killed, I cringed, fearing that it was a white cop, because I knew what would happen: the recrimination, the protests, the division— the greater the division between black and white. And it was every time. But this was under Barack Obama. White cops—a tiny, tiny fraction; you couldn’t even see it in a pie chart— had killed black youth under a black president, and nobody blamed him for being unable to bring the country together. Nobody blamed him for being unable to find a solution. He was given a pass. And I think that is one of the greatest tragedies, is that he had a special voice in that situation and people would have listened, and he actively chose not to be that voice. Trump has a very loud voice today, much louder than Obama’s. But it’s an excuse. It’s a convenient excuse. I don’t blame the guy who quoted from Bernie Sanders for almost killing the Republican whip in the House at the baseball game. There’s something that’s wrong in this country. And I do wish that the president’s day-to-day language would be much closer to his State of the Union language— much higher, much loftier, much more inspirational. He says what tens of millions of people believe, and he reflects them. I think he’s more of a reflection than he is a creator. I think he reflects their point of view more than he changes it or impacts it, because they were there long before him, and they’re going to be there long after he is. But hopefully at some point there will be someone who can speak the American voice. This is not an answer to your question, but this is what I hope; this is what I’m working for— that there is a voice in this country that can speak to you regardless of what ethnicity you are, what gender you are, what age you are. This whole identity politics, which is becoming more prevalent as we divide even further— I think there is an American voice that can speak to all of this, and it’s not in politics, and I don’t know if it exists today, but that voice needs to speak. It does exist. It does exist. Why doesn’t he get the fact that when he goes after four minority women in the Congress that that has ramifications and is seen by some people in a very different way than other people see, it and it broadens the divide? Donald Trump’s blessing is also his curse: that he is such a strong personality that he can withstand criticism, and he believes passionately in certain aspects of what this country is about. The problem with that is that he doesn’t understand his critics. He doesn’t empathize with them; he doesn’t—and he doesn’t seek to. And so what makes sense to him, and to tens of millions—this is not a minority point of view— when he’s critical of those four Democratic congresswomen, it made perfect sense to him, but he doesn’t realize how their supporters, how they and their supporters will hear it. … I teach at NYU Abu Dhabi, and so my classes are filled with non-American students. I was one of those guys who, at a sporting event across the globe, would start chanting “USA, USA, USA,” and I had no idea how offensive that was to the local populations. And even though I’m a proud American, I have no desire to offend people from a foreign country. I’m a guest, and I’m grateful to be there, and I want to further these relationships. I’m a pollster, and I didn’t know this. I don’t think Donald Trump knows that some of what he says really deeply emotionally, passionately bothers people. And maybe the difference is, I care, and so I’ll change my behavior. He’s very strong-willed, and I’m not convinced that he cares to change. But it does have an impact. And it’s part of why we are so angry with each other. So you’ve had two different presidents, “change-oriented,” quote/unquote, presidents— By the way, there is—we do have a solution. It’s Oprah. And I mean that. What part of Oprah? It’s because Oprah Winfrey talks to everybody. Oprah Winfrey is heard by everybody. She cries with you; she laughs with you; she cajoles you. She—everything about her is America—the physical challenges she has, the emotion, the inspiration, the disappointment. She is the only person left who could unify this division. … The two presidents, change-oriented. Where are we now? Where are we going? I know where we are, and I know where we’re headed, and you really don’t want me to answer that question. Because? If I answer that question, everybody watching will turn off their TV and just go grab a bottle of something incredibly strong and drown their sorrows. I don’t know if this is recoverable. And remember, the people you have sitting in this chair have much more important jobs than I do, have been in places I’ve never been. But what they haven’t heard are the voices of so many thousands of Americans who have told me just how unforgiving they are, how bitter they are towards the other side. Everybody wants to speak; nobody wants to listen. Everyone wants to be heard; nobody wants to learn. And these aren’t just cute sound bites; it’s real. There are two senators who I brought to prove this when I was arguably depressed, because I wanted them to see what I saw and hear what I heard, one Democrat, one Republican. Both of them left after half an hour; they couldn’t take it anymore. Women who had never met each other, women who are supposed to be—this whole thing about women get along; they compromise; women can save the world; men want to fight; women want to work together. Bulls—. These women were more vicious to each other, and they knew nothing of their backgrounds; they’d never met each other before. And the ugliness was impossible. I know what the future is, and if we do not change this course right now, our children will grow up in an environment where there is no compromise, where there is no cooperation. Our children are being taught to be judgmental at a time when we should be more open than we’ve ever been. They’re taught that their opponents are stupid or destructive or even worse. Our kids are taught to bully. Our kids are taught to ignore. It’s not just how adults treat each other; our children are watching. Our kids are watching. There was a wonderful Clinton ad that had some of Trump’s most angry language, and they said, “Your kids are watching.” The problem is, it neglected how ugly their language had been. The idea of calling a Trump supporter “deplorable”? That’s not happened before. Don’t insult your opponent’s supporters and just negate them and wash them aside. That’s where we are right now, and that’s where we’re headed, and it’s going to really suck. And I don’t want to live in a world like that. And the cause of all this? All of us! Do you not see that? In the questions that we are asked; in the answers that we give; in the language that I create; in the language, either in the words that Donald Trump uses or the words that Barack Obama should have used but didn’t. One of them probably says too much; one of them probably didn’t say enough. There was a common ground in this country on Jan. 20, 2009. And it wasn’t quite what Barack Obama said it was, but it wasn’t what the Republicans had said it was for the previous eight years. It was somewhere in the middle. There was a common ground, and there’s no common ground anymore. There’s no center. … I went into politics because someone had said to me, someone had said to me when I was 17 years old that I was a great American. And it was Jim Buckley. And that made me so proud, because I loved this country and all that it stood for. F—! And when people say that now, I don’t think we’re great now. This idea of “Make America Great Again,” we’re not great because of our economy. We were great because we had nice people who didn’t hate, who would help those— you came here because of the Statue of Li. My family members who did not come to America because they weren’t allowed to in 1941 were killed in the Ukraine in that execution. And I went there, and this is what happened, because I realized what—God, f—! This is your fault. Take a moment, you know, because it’s important, I think, what you’re saying here. Politics isn’t a game. And it’s not just for who’s alive today; it’s for what we will be 50 or 100 years from now. And I don’t think we think of the consequences. I don’t think we consider them when we think about what we say and how we say it, that we are so drawn into separate camps, that our camp can say anything and their camp is always evil. And that’s wrong. We need referees of decency and a willingness to call out our own side, because in the end it isn’t our side; it’s everyone’s side. We were far more divided in the Civil War, far more divided during the Great Depression. But we’ve always had hope in the future, and that hope, we’re losing it with this division. And as someone who has to listen to this every single day, I feel the poison. It’s in me. And it’s hard to survive. If you listen to what people say, you really take it in, I don’t know how you could sleep at night. It really is that bad.… … The coming election? I mean, what—where do we go from here, basically? What’s going to run it? What’s going to control it? I’m expecting this to be the most negative election that America has experienced since 1800. I’m expecting every ad to be negative with the exception maybe of the very first Trump ad when he talks about the economy. I’m expecting the debates to be a free-for-all. I’m expecting the rallies to become increasingly loud and potentially violent. I’m afraid that there will be violence in 2020 and that there will be little or no substance, and everything will be accusations and ad hominem attacks. Man, I can’t wait! If you hated politics now, I suggest you move to New Zealand.