It’s clear who would win PBS’s vote for the Republican Party nomination: Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who in the first GOP presidential debate bowed to “reality” by declaring a federal law against abortion a non-starter.
On Friday’s edition of the channel’s political roundtable Washington Week with The Atlantic, guest host (and slanted White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour) Laura Barron-Lopez jumped off a snide point made by Todd Zwillich of Vice News about Trump fans’ attitude toward their “dear leader,” saying Trump’s supporters at the Republican debate in Milwaukee were in denial about how much a criminal conviction would hurt his election chances –“that’s a crowd that’s not contending with that reality, at all.”
Barron-Lopez seized the word.
Then the host moved to NPR reporter Domenico Montanaro using Sarah Palin’s recent re-emergence to accuse Tea Party activists and Tea Party rally attendees of racist thought, racism fully unleashed by the rise of Donald Trump.
Some specifics on what the “racist” remarks were would have been in order. Racism was a common slur against the Tea Party during the movement’s 2010 heyday. False accusations circulated in the media of racial slurs being hurled at Rep. John Lewis during the Capitol Hill protests against Obama-care in March 2010, though not a scrap of evidence emerged from the well-covered protests. New York Times reporter Kate Zernike was particularly obnoxious in sliming the movement as a racist brew.
Washington Week with The Atlantic
August 25, 2023
Laura Barron-Lopez: And definitely could impact him in the general election more than in the primary.
Domenico, as you heard, Trump suggested that his supporters could very well turn to violence due to these charges. And in response to this fourth arrest in Georgia, Sarah Palin also threatened violence.
Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK): Those who are conducting this travesty and creating this two-tier system of justice, I want to ask them, what the heck? Do you want us to be in civil war? Because that’s what’s going to happen.
Laura Barron-Lopez: Domenico, is this reflective of the base?
Domenico Montanaro, Senior Political Editor/Correspondent, NPR: Well, first of all, I haven’t heard Sarah Palin’s voice in a while. And I’m like having these flashbacks to the 2009 campaign — the 2008 campaign, you know, in covering that. And, you know, I would argue, frankly, that Sarah Palin really started a lot of this movement where we’re seeing this Republican Party having changed.
You know, I remember people ripping off the McCain part of the bumper sticker for McCain/Palin, and it was just Palin because she really had a lot of the heart and guts of the Republican Party. And then the Tea Party rose, and then we have someone like Donald Trump. It really didn’t come out of nowhere if you were covering the Tea Party at that time.
So, look, I think that the violence thing is something that is always going to be a danger. We had January 6th. That was something I think a lot of people thought. If you saw that on television happening, that you couldn’t then dismiss it, and yet where are we, right?
And we’ve seen that over and over again. A lot of Trump’s base just doesn’t buy these charges. They think that they’re made up. They think that they’re politically motivated despite the 91 counts, despite four different cases, despite the fact that you have New York and Georgia and two federal cases. That’s what we’ve seen.
You know, when we pulled on this starting in March and whether or not Trump did anything illegal, one area that it is sort of taking a toll on Trump is with Independents. Because back then, about 41 percent of people in the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll said that they thought Trump had done something illegal. When we polled on this, this past month, it was up to 52 percent now.
So, yes, his base still doesn’t buy it. They’re totally on board with Trump. He’s got a huge lead in the primaries, but he’s just made himself even more and more toxic for a general election.
Laura Barron-Lopez: On that, Daniella, you talked to House Republicans a lot, and, yes, they’ve been away the past — for these last two indictments related to the 2020 election. But are they admitting at all that this might be harmful to their general election prospects?
Daniella Diaz, Congressional Reporter, Politico: No, that’s not what they’re saying right now. And we’re seeing this flat out what’s happening even just this week. Even though they’re gone from Washington, Laura, Jim Jordan, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, subpoenaed information from Fani Willis on her communication with the Department of Justice Communication Federal Funds because he continues to be the dominant arm in Congress to defend Donald Trump. And he is kind of the voice of what these House Republicans believe needs to happen to defend Donald Trump.
And they’re using — you know, they have the majority, they have subpoena power, and they’re going to go forward and try to defend him in this way, of course, arguing that the Department of Justice should be defunded, using this as a tactic to even shut down the government when they come back in just a week. But what we’re going to see and continue to see is Trump’s strongest supporters in Congress, you know, the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, the Jim Jordans, a lot of the House Freedom Caucus members, the very loud members defend him and continue to say that this only makes him stronger.
And even Trump’s detractors say that. You know, I spoke to Thomas Massie, who endorsed DeSantis for president. And he said, you know, if only DeSantis would get indicted, he would become much stronger in the primary, should that happen, because it really is adding fuel to the fire for Trump in his base.
But, of course, adding to what Domenico said earlier, there is a base that is looking for an alternative, not that may be the dominant of a Republican Party, but that’s who is watching the debate on Wednesday with Trump not being in the room and seeing who do I want to support. And, you know, we clearly saw some winners.
Laura Barron-Lopez: Yes, I’ve talked to a few disenchanted Republicans who are certainly looking for someone like a Chris Christie or a Nikki Haley to emerge but don’t have strong hopes that they will.
Toluse, President Biden hasn’t uttered a word about the indictments. There seems to be somewhat of a debate among Democrats about whether or not he should. Is that going to change at all anytime soon?
Toluse Olurunnipa, White House Bureau Chief, The Washington Post: I don’t expect it to change. The president is running a Rose Garden strategy. He wants to be seen as president. He wants to be seen carrying out the duties of his office while the Republicans are in sort of the circus mode of indictments and debates that are chaotic and having people call each other names.
And so he wants that split screen to work out for him, and that’s what he’s been doing. He doesn’t want to touch these indictments with a ten-foot pole in part because Republicans are accusing him and his administration of weaponizing the Department of Justice and going after his political enemies with arrests and indictments.
And so he wants to be focused on just doing the job as president, showing what he’s done over the past couple of years and proving to the American people that if you stay with me, there’s not going to be the chaos that we have for four years under Trump, indictments and people being charged and people going to jail and people having to testify and grand juries and all the things that we’ve seen over the past several years with Trump.
Biden wants to say, I’m not doing that. I’m focusing on the work of the American people. I’m dealing with foreign policy. I’m dealing with world leaders. And that’s what we’re going to see for the next several months.
Now, other Democrats will point out the fact that, you know, Trump is indicted for undermining democracy and, you know, sparking what happened on January 6th. That is the big part of the campaign message for Democrats in 2024, defending democracy. And so they’ll engage with this, but the White House and the president are not going to touch this.
Laura Barron-Lopez: And I want to get to the debate now, because there were a number of moments there that I think are worth highlighting. One of the biggest moments of the night came when Fox moderators asked this question about Trump.
Brett Baier, Host, Fox News: If former President Trump is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as your party’s choice? Please raise your hand if you would.
Laura Barron-Lopez: So, only six out of the eight did not raise their hand or said that they would not support him. Domenico, does that sum up the state of the primary race?
Domenico Montanaro: Yes. I mean, it was only Asa Hutchinson from Arkansas and Chris Christie from New Jersey who said that they would not support him. And it does sum up the primaries, and it’s been this way for a while.
We had a question that we asked in our poll about this, and I was curious to see if you support Trump now, would you continue to support him if convicted? And 63 percent of Republican voters said that they would support Trump even if he was convicted of a crime.
That’s really astounding. It’s really stuck that way. There is, to Daniella’s point, about half of the party that seems to be open to wanting to move on. They might like Trump. They may have voted for Trump, but they feel like, you know, the chaos, the baggage that they could go with someone else.
But look at how many people were on that stage. You’re talking about eight people with Trump not even there, and no one really stood out as somebody who others could go to and get enough of the people who really like Trump to be able to, you know, win them over.
I mean, Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and former Trump U.N. ambassador, certainly had a very strong debate, but also irritated a lot of the Trump base with some of her comments. She has to hope that Ron DeSantis, who sort of like faded into the background in this debate, that maybe some of those big donors who thought he would be the guy and be the principal alternative, maybe start migrating to Haley. But we’re going to have to see over the next several weeks.
There’s not a whole lot, a whole lot of time left. It’s only, you know, four and a half months until the Iowa caucuses.
Laura Barron-Lopez: And I want to get to Haley, but, first, another striking moment came when Fox Host Brett Baier had to address the audience when they tried to shout out Chris Christie for talking about holding Trump accountable.
Brett Baier: So, listen, the more time we spend doing this, the less time they can talk about issues you want to talk about. So, let’s just get through this section.
Laura Barron-Lopez: Todd, what did that moment say to you?
Todd Zwillich: Let’s just get through this section. The moderator — this is a crowd who absolutely does not — they don’t want to think about it. They don’t want to discuss it. They don’t want to know about it at all.
I mean, you’ve ever seen a moderator turn around and tell the crowd, just get through this. I will pull this car over, Republican base. Now, that’s one — granted, that is one auditorium. It’s not the entire Republican base, but it’s our anecdote for now, and let’s take it for what it’s worth.
It goes right to your point, I think, Toluse, which is this is a party that doesn’t even want to discuss it and they’re going to have to contend with the fact that their favorite, their champion, their dear leader, if I can say that, may well be a convicted felon.
NPR had a poll, Reuters, Ipsos had a poll that said 52 percent of Republicans said they wouldn’t vote for Trump if he were a convicted felon. Even if it’s 63 who say they would, can you win an election by losing 37 percent of your own party? You cannot come close. And that’s a crowd that’s not contending with that reality at all.
Laura Barron-Lopez: Speaking of someone who’s trying to get Republicans to contend with reality, for the first 50 minutes of the debate, there was policy discussion about climate change and on abortion. Former Ambassador Nikki Haley took a different position than most of the people in her party.
Nikki Haley, Republican Presidential Candidate: Republican president can ban abortions any more than a Democrat president could ban all those state laws. Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue when you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes in the House.
Laura Barron-Lopez: Daniella, that’s more of a general election strategy.
Daniella Diaz: It is. And she — I thought she really won the debate on Wednesday. She was the one that was being very rational, even criticized Trump, Trump’s administration and the spending that they had with. And she had data to back up everything she said, including saying that there’s not enough Senate votes to pass a federal abortion ban.
She seemed to be incredibly rational when it came to policy, when it came to anything having to do with just what her experience in foreign policy, in foreign relations. And I found her to stand out the most when it came to actually trying to separate herself from Trump and criticize his administration.
Now, is that going to work right now? Who knows?
Laura Barron-Lopez: Probably not.
Daniella Diaz: Probably not. People considered her to be a winner from the debate on Wednesday. Whether that last as a long-term strategy, we’ll see. She talked a lot, but so did some others on the stage who, you know, defended Trump, like Vivek Ramaswamy, who really took a lot of the oxygen from the room. And you mentioned climate change. Laura, they did ask about that. And he was the first one to say it was a hoax.
So, there was, you know, some moments that didn’t feel like true discussions of policy when that was what one candidate on the stage was saying.
Laura Barron-Lopez: Just on that, Toluse, the debates about policy were somewhat substantive on abortion, on Ukraine, a little bit on climate, on deficits. But Republicans aren’t really talking about that when they’re out campaigning. So, what are the issues that are actually defining this primary?
Toluse Olurunnipa: Yes. It was interesting that the crowd in the auditorium seemed to say, like, move on from Trump. Let’s talk more about policy. But when you talk to voters out on the trail, when you see the fact that Trump is leading by, you know, pretty significant margins, he’s not talking about policy. He’s talking about these culture war issues. He’s talking about himself being this grievance candidate, being someone who’s being persecuted. He said multiple times that I am being indicted because they want to go after you. And he’s used that to great effect in the presidential primary.
And so when you look at the policies and you look at the areas that are actually motivating voters, it’s Trumpism, it’s, you know, these culture wars, it’s this idea of grievance, it’s this idea of protecting you and going after your political opponents.
And so, you know, discussion of crime and taxes and the ins and outs of climate change and different policies doesn’t seem to be having as much impact as these cultural issues.
Laura Barron-Lopez: And, Domenico, you’ve been talking to Republican base voters quite a bit. What patterns are you hearing when you talk to them?
Domenico Montanaro: Well, you know, I mentioned earlier talking about having covered the Tea Party. And, you know, when I was out on the campaign trail and talking to Tea Party activists and whatever, people who would attend these things, sometimes they would slip and say something very offensive.
And often they’d say, oh, you know, that was off the record. You know, make sure that’s that my name’s not attached to that. I am not finding that to be the case anymore. Trump has won the case against political correctness. As he — you know, we don’t hear about it anymore because he’s really kind of taken down that wall.
I mean, just a voter that I spoke to earlier this year, someone who had participated in one of our surveys, you know, started talking about something that really wanted to being pretty racist and was totally fine and out there and talking about it.
And I was just like, this is a total change. This is not something that is has been traditionally the way things go. This shame factor in being able to feel like we’re part of polite society, and I shouldn’t really feel that way, and I get it. It’s just Trump has given license to a lot of people to feel a lot of ways and be able to say what they want to say. And when you hear people talk about free speech online, this is part of what they’re talking about.
Laura Barron-Lopez: They’re feeling more emboldened to say racist things in some cases.