ZAKARIA: But first here’s “My Take.” How did we get here? Why does it appear that we’re on the brink of a war in Asia, one that could involve nuclear weapons?
North Korea has had nuclear weapons capacity for at least 10 years now. Have its recent advances been so dramatic and significant to force the United States to wage a preventive war?
No. The crisis we now find ourselves in has been exaggerated and mishandled by the Trump administration to a degree that is deeply worrying and dangerous. From the start, the White House has wanted to look tough on North Korea. In the early months of Trump’s presidency before there could possibly have been a serious policy review, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that the era of strategic patience with North Korea was over.
Trump, of course, went much further this week.
TRUMP: “They will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
ZAKARIA: Trump has made clear that the United States would respond to North Korean nuclear threats, rhetoric with a massive military strike possibly involving nuclear weapons.
Is this credible? No. The United States is not going to launch a preventive nuclear war in Asia. Empty threats and loose rhetoric only cheapen American prestige and power boxing in the administration for the future.
So why do it? Because it’s Trump’s basic mode of action. For his entire life, Donald Trump has made grandiose promises and ominous threats and never delivered on either. When he was in business, he frequently threatened to sue news organization, but the last time he apparently followed through was in 1984, over 30 years ago.
In his political life, he has followed the same strategy. In 2011 he claimed he had investigators who cannot believe what they’re finding about Barack Obama’s birth certificate and that he would soon be revealing some interesting things. He had nothing.
During the campaign, he vowed that he would label China a currency manipulator, move the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, make Mexico pay for a border war, initiate an investigation into Hillary Clinton. So far nada.
After being elected he signaled to China that he might recognize Taiwan. Within weeks of taking office, he folded.
When the United States watched a Stalin Soviet Union develop nuclear weapons, it was careful in its rhetoric. When it saw a far more threatening leader, Mao Zedong, pursuing nuclear weapons, it was even more cautious. Mao insisted he had no fear of nuclear war because China would still have more than enough survivors to defeat Western imperialists, and yet successive U.S. administrations kept their cool. The world is already living with a nuclear North Korea. It has for a decade. If that reality cannot be reversed through negotiations and diplomacy and sanctions, the task will be to develop a robust system of deterrence, the kind that kept the peace with Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. Bluster from the president can increase the dangers of miscalculation.
“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” said Rex Tillerson on Wednesday.
This was an unusual, perhaps unprecedented statement. The secretary of State seems to have been telling Americans and the world to ignore the rhetoric, not of the North Korean dictator but of his own boss, the president of the United States.
It is probably what Donald Trump’s associates have done for him all his life.
They know that the guiding mantra for Donald Trump has been not the art of the deal but the art of the bluff.
These racist protesters were there to oppose the removal of a Confederate monument. The events ended with a terrifying scene as a car drove into a crowd of counter protesters injuring many and killing one.
The president responded but disturbingly didn’t single out the racists, instead condemning, quote, “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides,” unquote.
Let’s bring in a panel. Melody Barnes was director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Obama. She is now a visiting professor at the University of Virginia. Rick Perlstein is a historian of American conservatism. Also a historian, Tim Naftali was director of the Nixon Presidential Library, and before that also taught at the University of Virginia.
Melody, let me ask you, how much of this is an eruption of something that has been simmering underneath? And I mean particularly simmering ever since the election of an African-American as president. And what did you to notice in the White House? What information were you getting about these kinds of movements and these kinds of currents in America?
MELODY BARNES, FORMER DIRECTOR, PRESIDENT OBAMA’S DOMESTIC POLICY COUNCIL: Well, first of all, Fareed, thank you so much for having me this morning. And I actually want to go back further than this past election or my time in the White House. And I would say to the nation and to your viewers that we can’t view what happened yesterday as a Charlottesville problem or a Virginia problem.
That this is the American problem, that the roots of what happened yesterday go back to the 1619, to the founding of our country. And we will not only do ourselves a great disservice, but we will inflict more harm on ourselves as a country if we don’t contextualize what happened yesterday in the roots of white supremacy and entitlement that led to a young woman being killed yesterday, but it is a scene that we have seen over and over and over in our country from — through slavery and through lynchings and through the civil rights movement that led us to yesterday.
And until we have a cold, hard, honest look at our American history and the DNA of America, we will not be able to deal with these issues. They were further inflamed, I believe, as people reacted and responded to President Obama’s election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 and certainly President Trump has created an enabling environment through his statements over the last many years. But this is a history that belongs to the ages.
ZAKARIA: Rick Perlstein, you have studied and written a lot about the right in America. Is it fair to say that this has always been to take the modern version of what Melody Barnes was talking about there has always been this undercurrent within some elements of the conservative movement or is that unfair?
RICK PERLSTEIN, HISTORIAN OF AMERICAN CONSERVATISM: I think that’s very fair, and I endorse profoundly the substance of what Melody Barnes is saying. Think about this. What the people were marching in defense of in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a statute to a man who led troops into battle and treason against the United States in order defend slavery.
Starting in the early ’60s, when the Civil Rights Movement was basically challenging white supremacy with the power of people’s bodies and religious faith, that movement to basically celebrate the Confederacy enjoyed enormous resurgence in the early 1860s — 1960s. That’s when we began to see these statues being built and Confederate flags being waved.
And ever since then, that sort of lost-cause kind of wave the bloody shirt ideology and the ideology that whenever something goes wrong in your world you can blame a diabolical conspiracy, you know, this is kind of McCarthyism language. Then that’s where Donald Trump comes in. His willingness to kind of blame this diabolical conspiracy of liberal media, the establishment in both parties, jihadists, and all the rest.
[10:10:07] And this is the kind of rhetoric you see in right-wing media, both kind of the bottom-feeding media and Breitbart, but also in places like FOX News and the National Rifle Association, whose basically model is to terrify people to believe that America is on fire, that liberals are out to get you, that both parties are out to get you, that Donald Trump is out to protect you, and that you need to march through the streets with guns, which is exactly what happened in Charlottesville, in order to protect their family, in order to protect your identity.
And when we see Donald Trump saying something like the problem that is revealed in Charlottesville is that children can’t go out in front of their yards and play, this is a direct signal to the worst most corrosive white supremacists who by the way are calling their rally a rally to Unite the Right. They see this as a unifying issue.
So, yes, it’s great that Marco Rubio has denounced the president, it’s great that Ted Cruz has now denounced the president, but it would be great to hear Republicans who don’t have presidential ambitions against Donald Trump denounce the president.
ZAKARIA: Tim Naftali, the extraordinary thing here is how this has really come out, and as Rick Perlstein says, they’re being quite open and blatant about what it is they’re talking about. It used to be quieter, right?
TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: It used to be. But I want to make a point about that statue, OK, because one of the problems we have in America is we don’t deal with our history very well. We have these moment where liberty expands and when a country undergoes real social change, and it’s at those moments that you get this reaction.
That statue is from the ’20s. They were for — I still live in Charlottesville. The four Confederate statues from ’20s, not from 1880. Why the ’20s? Because this was after World War I and there had been enormous social change in the United States. This is the time when you had the second coming of the KKK.
The 1960s we saw the return of the Stars and Bars. Why? Because of a fear among white supremacists that they were losing their country, and we’re getting it again. So the one thing to keep in mind is we have this cycle in this country of terrible reaction. And each time it’s a test of moral courage on the part of our leaders.
Senator Orrin Hatch is not running for president. He showed real courage. President Trump showed moral cowardice yesterday.
There are moments in our history when we need our president to stand up to the reaction and say that is not who we are.
In the 1960s, the Republican Party, and Rick knows more about this than I do, was better at policing the fringe — they called it the John Birch society — than they are today. They are not able to police the fringe. This fringe seems to be mainstream in the Republican Party. That’s the fear for the country. That’s the problem.
ZAKARIA: We will be back in a moment to talk about the big questions of the future. Where do we go from here? What is the way out of this deep polarization in America?
I’m wondering where you see this going forward? How does one begin to re-knit some of these kind of unraveling threads for America?
BARNES: I think that’s the important question of the day, and I would say there are at least three things that have to happen. First of all, yesterday President Trump said that we need to study what happened in Charlottesville. And yes, we have to understand for legal purposes what happened in Charlottesville yesterday, but we don’t need more studies, more commissions, or made-for-television conversations about race. We know what has happened in this country and we have to have an honest contextualization, and understanding, fact-based of American history 1619 to 2017, and put what happened yesterday in context. Secondly, we have to deconstruct issues around our economy and around our laws, and that deal with and perpetuate issues of inequity so that we can create opportunity for everyone, and that includes both people of color and Americans who are white, low-income white. Race has been used as a great wedge to divide insidiously and we have to, as you say, knit people back together. And finally, we also have to deal with issues of culture in America and American identity and broaden American identity so that we actually address the founding ideals of our country, breathe life into them, and make this a country for everyone who lives here and deconstruct the issue of — and the myth of American supremacy and entitlement that led to what happened yesterday.
What makes America great is also something that’s quite fragile. It is the American idea of individual rights and liberties, and we have to today go forward to protect that but also to breathe life into it.
ZAKARIA: Rick Perlstein, is there a way you think to get these groups to stop feeling so scared that their world is being overwhelmed? I mean, you know, because it does seem to me this comes from a kind of insecurity and paranoia that they’re —
ZAKARIA: That they’re being overrun in a country in which, you know, still 75 percent white, dominated in almost every — you know, in every respect. I think of the Republicans who control the White House, both Houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and almost two- thirds of the state legislature acting as if they are in some way kind of a besieged minority.
PERLSTEIN: Right. Well, there will always be an extremist reactionary fringe in America. You’re never going to get rid of that. What you need to do is disempower them.
And I’m afraid to say, you know, it’s fashionable to say we need to knit the country together by ratcheting down polarization, but I think prior to that we have to defeat the anti-American thugs who have taken over operational control of one of our one major political parties. So basically these people are kind of barking in the wilderness instead of being amplified by the president of the United States.
ZAKARIA: Tim Naftali, is this domestic terrorism?
NAFTALI: Absolutely. This is a defining moment for the Republican Party. Let’s talk about domestic terrorism. Let’s talk about our concern about foreign terrorism, ISIS, and domestic terrorism. Let’s not make it seem that we take one seriously as a problem and the other one we treat only as a law enforcement issue.
The FBI has a good record on going against the KKK. What we don’t have a good record of as a people is using our soft power, our rhetorical power to say that this is unacceptable to be a white supremacist and a neo-Nazi in America. It may be legal to express those repugnant views, but it is unacceptable.
It is time to ostracize those groups and also to use counter terrorism methods to penetrate them where it is clear they are considering the use of violence. By the way, I’m willing to say the same about antifa. If they’re going to consider violence, they should be penetrated, too, but right now the big problem is the alt-right.
ZAKARIA: Tim Naftali, Rick Perlstein, Melody Barnes, fascinating conversation. Thank you, all.
Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN (partial Transcript)