'Great again'? Munk Debate to put Trump's words and America's choice to the test
JOHN LOCHER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Fewer than 40 days remain before Americans go to the polls in the most contentious and unpredictable presidential election in modern history. On Friday evening in Toronto, the semi-annual Munk Debates will feature a clash over one of the campaign's central claims: Can Donald Trump make America great again? For a preview of the showdown, The Globe's Joanna Slater spoke with two of the speakers – Republican Newt Gingrich and Democrat Jennifer Granholm – to explore the divisions roiling the United States.
The debate begins at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall on Friday night, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. (ET). You can stream it live below.
Q&A: Newt Gingrich
Globe: The rhetoric out of the Trump campaign is very negative about the state of America today.
Gingrich: Look, you can't have 3,000 people shot in Chicago this year and not be deeply concerned about what's going on. You can't have riots in Milwaukee, Baltimore and Charlotte and not have concern about what's going on. You can't be involved in a war in the Middle East for 15 years without winning and not be concerned about what's going on. You can't continue these things and think you're going to remain great.
What would you say to U.S. allies who are unnerved by the prospect of a Trump presidency?
I would say to them that since 1941 we have been the centre of trying to sustain free society on the planet and that the odds are very much that in the next 50 years we're going to be the centre of trying to sustain free society on the planet. Look, Trump is an international person. He has property all over the planet. He's married two Europeans. This idea that Trump is somehow this isolationist in the 1930s model is a fantasy of The New York Times, cheerfully picked up by all the sycophantic left-wing reporters.
How long have you known him?
Probably 10 years. We belong to his golf club in Washington.
What character trait would make him a good president?
He's very, very smart. He has enormous courage. He is used to setting big goals and getting to 'em.
Does it matter that he's the only major-party presidential candidate in history who hasn't held public office or served as a military leader?
I don't think so. If you're in a period where you need to kick over the table, break up the corruption, reform the bureaucracies and rethink all of your public policies, have a guy [like Trump]. First of all, Abraham Lincoln was a one-term House member. He had a huge advantage: He was extraordinarily smart and he was a remarkably persuasive person. So you got in Trump a similar pattern. He's a very successful man who understands communicating with the American people.
Is illegal immigration a major threat to the United States?
Well, it's certainly a factor and it depends on what you mean by a threat.
It's a signature issue of the Trump campaign.
Right, because it's an identity issue. If you think it doesn't matter that you no longer teach people how to be American, and it doesn't matter that people don't have a clue what the Constitution stands for, and it doesn't matter that people have no idea who George Washington or Abraham Lincoln are – I'm talking now about native-born Americans, I'm not talking about foreigners. And then you decide it's okay if we surround them with an uncounted number of people, so that we have, for example, MS-13, which is an El Salvadorean gang, in at least 70 American cities. If you think all that doesn't matter, then fine, you ought to vote for Hillary Clinton. She will continue the decay with enthusiasm.
Many Canadians are flummoxed by the fact that Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. How would you explain his appeal?
First of all, I'd point out that this is part of a worldwide pattern in the industrial democracies. People are dissatisfied with the status quo. … Trump is simply a part of a global movement. He happens to be a remarkably charismatic and entertaining part of it. He has an extraordinary background both in business and in mass media. People forget he had the No. 1-rated TV show.
People would also say his campaign has been at the very least divisive and potentially bigoted. How would you respond to that?
How can you be much more bigoted than Black Lives Matter?
I'm not sure what that means, actually. What do you mean by "much more bigoted than Black Lives Matter"?
Well, a bunch of people walking around saying, "Black lives matter," who get pissed off if you say, "All lives matter." Okay? You see a picture from Charlotte of a white guy getting beaten up by a gang of blacks, but that's alright because he probably shouldn't have been there, because why would he think he's allowed to be in Charlotte? I'm trying to make a point here, which is: If Donald Trump says "America first," Hillary Clinton screams xenophobic, right? If Donald Trump says that ISIS has stated they're trying to plant people in the stream of refugees from Syria and we should screen them, Hillary Clinton screams Islamophobic.
The U.S. already screens refugees.
We don't screen them. You can't believe that.
What do you mean?
You don't know enough to screen them. Look at the guy who tried to plant the bombs in New York and New Jersey who the FBI were told by his father has gone nutso. We can't even screen people who are in the United States. But you're going to tell me we can screen 50,000 people from Syria? Remember, you don't have to have many of them be bad. I am very worried about Islamic supremacists who believe that they should kill us and I get proof every day somewhere on the planet that they're sincere. Our elites would prefer to be pious up until they're killed.
That's a pretty strong charge. Wouldn't you say that the U.S. national security elite is doing everything it can to combat these guys?
No. By definition, they're not. A father tells you my son's gone crazy. After he told them that, [the son] went to Pakistan for 11 months. You wouldn't think that is a hint?
Would you serve in a Trump administration if asked?
No. I want to be the chief planner looking at the entire federal government on a pro bono basis.
What's Trump's main challenge between now and election day?
Being calm. If he is calm and pleasant and works as hard as he is currently working, he is going to be president.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Q&A: Jennifer Granholm
Globe: Has America stopped being great and if so, when?
Granholm: No. America is great, has been great and will continue to be great. The suggestion that it is not great is not just insulting, it's incorrect.
Who do you think Donald Trump is speaking to when he says we can make America great again?
It's harkening back to the "good old days." What were the good old days? They were good for certain people. This is part of the Donald Trump method of operation, which is that he divides people. The notion that to be great you've got to go backward in time, rather than moving forward, is very negative and can be poisonous.
Poisonous in that it perhaps harkens back to a time when there was not a Civil Rights Act. It harkens back to a time when only men were in charge, back to a time when women were at home. Those old days were not such great days for many people.
Donald Trump's rhetoric often hits on how trade is not working and on the drawbacks of trade agreements. Does he have a point?
Yeah, he does. And it comes up in Hillary Clinton's rhetoric as well – and in Bernie Sanders's rhetoric too. We've all seen the loss of these jobs. We have an enormous trade deficit. So what is Trump proposing? [imitating his voice] "I'm going to make good deals." What the heck does that mean? Hillary Clinton is going to put in place a trade prosecutor, she's going to beef up enforcement at the World Trade Organization, she's going to make sure that we create industrial clusters in the U.S. She's got very specific strategies, other than just saying, "I'm going to do deals."
He says the country has become too politically correct.
I don't even know what that means. Does that mean that he wants the country to permit him to insult people, to be able to slander whole swaths of people – Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, women, African Americans? Is that what he means? Well, that is not who we are as a nation.
Can we put this genie back in the bottle? Can we return to an earlier era in terms of conventions around decency in political discourse?
This is my fervent prayer. My hope is that Hillary Clinton takes him to the cleaners and forever puts away this horrible underbelly that he has given voice to and lets people know that it is not acceptable to demean and disparage entire groups of people the way he has. It is not acceptable for him to create a sense of fear and danger at every turn. We are nobler than this. I firmly hope that this is the last time we see this brand of ugliness. Now, I say that knowing that in Europe, Marine Le Pen is still at it. The Brexit vote was obviously disconcerting. I know that this is something that's happening around the world. I know much of it has to do with immigration everywhere and people feeling afraid. There has to be an acknowledgment of that by mainstream groups and Democrats. But there are ways to respond to that that are not so divisive and that don't [involve] such demagoguery.
Many Canadians are pretty confounded by Donald Trump's popularity. How would you explain it?
Oh lord, I wish I could explain it. It's confounding to me. It's confounding to Democrats. We can't believe this is the guy that the Republicans are choosing. I do think the way best to explain it is that the Republican Party is going through its own spasms of growth and rebuilding and it hasn't decided which way it's going to go yet. So he's left standing even though, if he had had one opponent, not a splintered series of opponents, he would not be the nominee.
Why is this race close?
It's close because ultimately Republicans have started to make their peace with him. There are many Republicans who a year ago would never have envisioned that they would be supporting Donald Trump. But ultimately, we are very tribal. It would be close no matter who was picked on either side. If it were Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush, it would be close. It would be close because we are a divided country and that 30 per cent in the middle is who we're vying for.
How would you explain the lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton's candidacy?
Well, if you had been in office or in the public space for 30 years with millions and millions of dollars being spent against you in a very concerted way, you too – as nice as you are – you too would have lots of issues in terms of likeability.
How long have you known her?
I have known her since about 1998. I was Michigan's attorney-general when Bill Clinton was president. He would have all the attorneys-general come to the White House, so I first met her there.
What is the most important trait that would help her be a good president?
She would be a good president because she is such an incredibly hard worker. It's not just that she's very smart, but she's very hard-working. She will not sleep until a problem is solved. That's No. 1. And No. 2, her values are right.
Would you serve in a potential Clinton administration if asked?
I have no idea, no designs, no conversations. I'm working on the transition team for her.
What's your biggest fear between now and November?
That he wins! I worry that he continues his con job and convinces people he's a sane alternative.
This interview has been condensed and edited.