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Why a Never Trumper Changed Her Mind

On Monday, Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “I never considered voting for Trump in 2016. I may be forced to vote for him this year.” Pletka, who previously served as a staff member at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, working for Senator Jesse Helms, had been a harsh critic of Donald Trump since the 2016 Republican primaries, declaring herself, in another Washington Post op-ed, both “#NeverTrump” and “#NeverHillary.” In her latest column, Pletka expresses contempt for Trump, and says that she fears his “erratic, personality-driven decision-making.” But, she adds, “I fear the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party even more,” on issues such as health care, immigration, and climate change, along with “the growing self-censorship that guides many people’s every utterance.” She concludes, “Trump, for all his flaws, could be all that stands between our imperfect democracy and the tyranny of the woke left.”

I spoke with Pletka on Wednesday, by phone, after her column sparked outrage and commentary. (On Thursday, the conservative Times columnist David Brooks rebutted Pletka’s argument, writing that the Democratic Party still has “a large, strong center that will keep it in the political mainstream,” and that, unlike the Republicans, the Democrats still practice normal coalition politics.) In talking with Pletka, I wanted to understand how Republicans in Washington who had been critical of Trump were assessing their choices in the run-up to the election, when partisanship tends to become even more entrenched. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed her concerns about a Biden Administration, whether Trump represents the Republican Party, and how she looks back on her time working with Senator Helms.

 

I read this not as a happy piece but as a sad piece.

That’s absolutely correct.

Can you talk more about that?

Yeah. I believe that everybody is better served by debate. I believe that in my classroom, I believe that at work, I believe that in everything I do. And I really am crushed by this cancel culture, by the bullying, and by the transformation of American political discourse. And, by the way, I have really been happy, actually, to in some ways blame Donald Trump for that. It started with him. What did Michelle Obama say? “When they go low, we go high.” That has not been the guiding principle here.

Trump is probably making cancel culture, however much significance you attribute to it, significantly worse. That’s why I was surprised a little bit by the op-ed, because it seems like his defeat would be good for some of the things you’re worried about.

Yes, except for the fact that I think the ship has already sailed.

And you think Joe Biden is captaining the ship? You mentioned Michelle Obama, and he obviously served the Obama Administration, and has a long history as a moderate Democrat.

Yes. He does have a long history. I wish I felt more confident that he would be the Joe Biden that I knew, and by that I don’t refer to the Joe Biden of the Obama Administration, because I think he didn’t play a terrific role in the areas that I focussed on in foreign policy. The Joe Biden of the Senate, the Joe Biden who was a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was a chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was a moderate. I don’t think that he has much to do with that guy anymore. But I would say, more importantly, that the Party left him behind, and he has had to race to catch up. And the argument that people make—that no, no, no, no, no, you are wrong, because we chose him—I think is a little bit irrelevant.

Who was nominated is irrelevant, you mean?

Yes. I think that that choice was irrelevant, because I don’t think that those voters are the people who are steering the direction of the Party.

You write, “Are there problems on the right—horrible nasties on a par with the violent protesters who have lately inflicted untold damage on many U.S. cities, businesses and lives? You bet. These execrable gun-toting racists have received too much tacit encouragement from Trump.” Would you say it’s tacit? Isn’t it more direct than tacit?

I have to think about my answer. I think Donald Trump has played an opposite and equal role in encouraging bad people in the destruction that we’ve seen this year.

I’m asking because he talked about liberating Michigan. And then what he said about Kyle Rittenhouse.

Well, again, Donald Trump’s reaction, for example, in the wake of Charlottesville was abhorrent. I find an unwillingness on the part of many to condemn the destruction that takes place. The shootings, the violence, the threatening that’s been taking place—I find that also extraordinarily troubling. Now, is it incumbent upon the President to behave better? Damn, yes. That is why, for the last three and a half years, I’ve done very little but condemn Donald Trump on these matters. I try to be fair in calling balls and strikes, as I tried to be fair with Obama. I’m a conservative, so my view of what a ball and a strike is is different from yours. Nonetheless, those things are abhorrent. The problem that I see and the problem that brought me to write this is that there is an almost equal and opposite reaction on the other side.

You follow up that last quote by writing, “But they do not represent the mainstream of the Republican Party or guide the choices of the vast mass of Republican members of Congress.” Can you explain this a little bit more? I was slightly confused, because Trump is actually the President. And so it feels like maybe that does represent the mainstream of the Party, since he is the nominee and extremely popular and the most powerful and important Republican.

It’s a reasonable question that you ask. And all I can tell you is that when I look at the United States Senate, when I look at the United States House, when I look at the people I know who are Republican—and I’ve been a conservative and I’ve been in Washington for many decades now—that does not represent who they are. Are there people who find that every utterance, no matter how abhorrent I may think it is, is golden to their ears? You bet. There are people within the Republican Party who believe that.

So you’re saying that, when you meet members of Congress or senators, they are as disgusted as you are by the things Trump says, and you see them as distinct from him?

I think that they do not share his vision. And I don’t think that they share his attitudes on these things. Have all Republicans been as courageous as they should have been in standing up and saying that? No, absolutely not. Nonetheless, when I talk about it, I say that I don’t believe that he represents the mainstream of the Party.

I guess one counter to that would be to say that how they act in public or what they refuse to condemn publicly would be more important than what they might say to you or other people in Washington.

I think that’s a perfectly legitimate point of view. And one of the things I’ve tried to say to people who disagree is that disagreeing is totally fine. Seeing this differently is O.K. And I more than welcome that. What I don’t welcome is having my motives questioned. What I don’t welcome is being called a racist. What I don’t welcome is people who want to excommunicate me from society because of what I think.

Who called you a racist?

I have not shared my many joy-filled messages with you, nor what I have heard from people in debates that I’ve engaged in, in Washington, over the last couple of years. It’s not my job to give publicity to people who should have been brought up better by their mothers.

When they call you a racist, is that about Trump? Is that about you working for Jesse Helms? What’s the source of that?

No, it’s about the fact that I will not sign on wholesale to the notions that are being propagated.

You write, “With Donald Trump, I know what I am getting. He wears his sins on the outside. For good and ill, he runs his administration. I worry more about his incompetence and vacillation than I do about any dictatorial tendencies.” And then you contrast that with Biden, who you feel perhaps is not going to run his Administration. In terms of competence or stability, are you saying that Trump offers something that Biden does not?

So, that’s a little bit of an invidious contrast, isn’t it? I think that the problem that I perceive is that Biden is no longer really a steady hand. Now, is Donald Trump a steady hand? Well, let’s put it this way: what you see is what you get.

He tweets too much.

He’s dreadful. I mean, I don’t accept the notion that some of my very dear friends suggest, that “you just have to put him on mute.” No, there’s a package there, sorry. And I don’t know anybody who doesn’t wish he would stop, but, that being said, you do really have a window into who he is, how he thinks, and how he runs things. This is not only an unbelievably transparent Administration in its way—this is an Administration that has been constrained by how many investigations, how many court cases?

Did you say transparent?

I said it has been transparent in the sense that it has been constrained by how many court cases, how many investigations. Has there been a moment that Congress has not demanded documentation, called hearings, pulled people up, tried to extort, sometimes with great difficulty, from the Administration—

These things happen, and then there will be whistle-blower complaints, and then we find out about them that way. I’m not sure if that’s exactly transparency.

No, I think you’re probably right calling me out on that. That’s not a great word. And not only that but I agree with you that, were it up to Trump, these whistle-blowing incidents, these disclosures, would not have happened.

What he’s done to government, what we’ve seen go on in the intelligence agencies, what we’ve seen go on at the C.D.C., what we’ve seen go on up and down every government agency, regardless of what your politics are, seems like a much graver threat to our institutions than Joe Biden. Is your feeling that Trump has not done that as badly as I’m saying he has or that Biden would be worse?

I think that what many people fail to understand is that the kind of predations that Trump has engaged in toward government agencies didn’t begin with Donald Trump. Do you remember the I.R.S. investigating conservative organizations?

I think that the story is a little bit more complicated than that.

I think all of these stories are a little more complicated than that. But, when you come from the left, you tend to want to believe one side over the other. All I can tell you is that, for those organizations that felt victimized by that, there was a government agency that was acting out its President’s particular politics. [In 2017, the Treasury Department’s Inspector General issued a report finding that the I.R.S. had unfairly flagged applications for tax-exempt status from conservative and progressive groups.]

You don’t think it’s reached a new level in this Administration?

I do. I think it has reached a new level, but I also think that there are safeguards against it. And I am more comfortable with those safeguards than I am with the notion of a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic White House. An end to the filibuster and everything that it brings with it.

And what do you think it might bring with it?

I think it might usher in an era of irreversible drift in the direction that I think will be dangerous for the country. Don’t forget, I may not like Donald Trump, and I may not have voted for Donald Trump, but that doesn’t mean that I think socialized medicine is a good idea.

Fair enough. But socialized medicine is something that exists in almost every Western democracy.

Again, your bias is showing.

Sorry, I don’t mean to make a pro or con statement about what should happen with health care. I’m saying that some version of socialized medicine exists in most European countries, and I think we would agree that they’re all democracies.

I didn’t suggest that the imposition of socialized medicine was somehow going to end our democracy. I merely said that it was going to usher in things that were irreversible that were not going to be good for our country.

You wrote, “I fear that a Congress with Democrats controlling both houses—almost certainly ensured by a Biden victory in November—would begin an assault on the institutions of government that preserve the nation’s small ‘d’ democracy.” You then list things Congress would do and include national health care on the list.

Because, again, I think that if you have a unitary executive and legislative branch with absolutely no safeguards other than the courts, that they will usher in—like they did Obamacare, like they did the Iran deal—things that are fundamentally anti-democratic, or at least in anti-democratic spirits, things that will be bad for our country.

I can understand not liking the Iran deal or not liking Obamacare, but I’m confused about how they violate some democratic spirit of the country. Whereas some of the things that we’ve read about with Trump, about Ukraine, or about saying nice things about the people in Charlottesville, violated something we would hope is the spirit of our country.

I’m not a huge fan of what-about-isms, since they’re easy to apply to almost everything. On the other hand, just because I didn’t like the Democrats doing it doesn’t mean I do like Trump doing it. And I don’t like the President of the United States calling up his counterpart in Ukraine and saying, “Hey, buddy, got some dirt on my opponent?” You see one as worse. I see them all as dangerous.

Obamacare and the Iran deal seem to me like fairly predictable policies of a Democratic Administration, just like tax cuts and the health-care plan Bush tried to get through were features of a Republican Administration. What I was wondering is why these things were threats to democracy, rather than just normal Democratic policies you don’t like?

Some of them are normal Democratic policies that I don’t like, that I think are dangerous for our country. And some of them I think are anti-democratic. When I say anti-democratic, I mean small-“d” democracy. I think racial prejudice is despicable. I think racial prejudice against Black people, brown people, and white people is despicable. And I don’t want to see a country in which people are told that they are guilty for being white.

Saying this now about racial issues, how do you feel in hindsight about your work with Senator Helms? [Helms was known for decades of race-baiting campaign tactics and vehement opposition to the civil-rights movement.]

I did foreign policy for Senator Helms. I worked for the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As far as I was concerned, in my work with him, he never uttered a racist statement, never betrayed a racial bias. To the contrary. And believed more than many of the people I worked with in human freedom, human rights, equality of opportunity. He fought for people who were disadvantaged. So there may have been a Jesse Helms one day who did things that were wrong.

You know things that were wrong. This isn’t a “may.”

But I worked for him on the Middle East and South Asia, and I was very proud of what we accomplished.

You know his record on South Africa, though, correct? [Helms opposed any sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela visited the Capitol in 1994, soon after he was elected South Africa’s first post-apartheid President, Helms turned his back on him.]

I didn’t work on South Africa. I worked on the Middle East and South Asia.

I understand that. But I’m saying you must know about the guy’s career? I mean, the Civil Rights Act, the Martin Luther King holiday, his interactions with Carol Moseley Braun, his ads, his comments about South Africa and African National Congress. This stuff isn’t completely unknown to you.

I’m not quite sure what this has to do with my article.

You said that you were opposed to racism and all its forms. And I was just asking whether you had—

Are you questioning whether I’m opposed to racism and all its forms?

I was questioning whether someone who is opposed to racism in all its forms has any second thoughts about Jesse Helms. Yes, that’s what I was asking.

Interesting question.

O.K., so we’re not going anywhere with that. Do you think that’s an unfair question? You’ve spoken out against Trump’s racism, and you’ve spoken out against racism of all sorts. I thought it was fair to ask about Helms, that’s all.

I think it’s fair to ask me anything you’d like. I’m assuming you think that it’s fair that I won’t answer certain questions, because you seem to want to trap me and discredit my views. So I’m just going to leave this topic alone, if that’s O.K., Isaac.

You supported the Iraq war, but you wrote a piece about how things went wrong, saying, “Looking back, I felt secure in the knowledge that all who yearn for freedom once free would use it well. I was wrong. There is no freedom gene, no inner guide that understands the virtues of civil society.” Do you feel that we’re valuing civil society and our democratic institutions as well as we should?

No. Oh, my God, no. I mean, this is something that we don’t talk about enough, and that my colleagues at A.E.I. work on a great deal. I try and talk about this in a way that is coherent and meaningful. What people have fought for, not just in this country but in the world, has been forgotten. When I hear somebody called a fascist, I think to myself, Do you know what a fascist says? When I see people from their perches in universities talking about America being a country that wreaks nothing but ill in the world, failing to understand what we’ve done, what the American people have contributed, how our society has improved, how our society has consistently gotten better . . . Sure, we’ve made horrible mistakes. We’ve done terrible things, but one of the best things about the American people is that ability to debate it, to discuss it and to redeem ourselves. And I feel like all of those questions of civil society, and of the great things that this country has done for immigrants like me, is remarkable. All of those things I think are forgotten. And it makes me sound old, Isaac. I don’t know how old you are, but I think you’re younger than I am.

I’m thirty-seven—no, no, I’m thirty-eight.

You can’t even add. I’m not that much older than you, but enough that it makes me sound old. And I know that it does, but at the end of the day, unfortunately, because we’ve had it so good, so much better than so many others—think about Syria, for example—we have forgotten to stop a second and appreciate and try to conserve the good things that we stand for.

 

Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with major public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.

 

 

 

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