It may be hard to believe, but it’s early enough in the presidential primary process that the key to success has a lot to do with staying power. With Lindsay Graham no longer running, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is one of 13 still standing. Former New Jersey Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman is taking dead aim at the lot in a blistering op ed column reserving special fury for Donald Trump. She joined NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams in the Agnes Varis NJTV Studio to discuss what she sees happening to the future of politics.
Williams: What’s the downside to not taking Donald Trump’s rhetoric seriously?
Whitman: The downside is that we start to see some really bad behavior that can affect us for years to come. You’ve already seen, there was a report that a New Jersey paper published the names and addresses of the Muslims in their community. It’s happened out in Texas, it’s not just here. It’s across the country. You see people who feel empowered by this who think, “Okay, I feel threatened. I feel threatened because I don’t know about my job security. I’m worried about things. I’m worried about terrorism. Here’s somebody that’s telling me these are the people who are the problem.” They’ll go out and act on it. We’ve seen this happen before in history and it leads to bad things.
Williams: What’s the environment that’s led to this? This is a pubic that ought to be educated, at the very least in the first amendment.
Whitman: Well, one would think, but unfortunately we aren’t all as educated as we should be in the first amendment. But it’s more than that. What it is is a time and a place where the middle income people are feeling enormously strained. The gap between the richest and the poorest has done nothing but grow. We’ve had terrorist attacks on our soil. People are really scared and they haven’t seen leadership from Washington. The kind of leadership that’s taken things on in a strong way and that makes them feel better, that we’re really taking these issues seriously and Trump’s appealing to that. I understand that, I get that, but you don’t have to do it with hate rhetoric. You don’t have to do it by identifying individual groups because of their religious belief, or when he implied that Mexico was just sending over rapists and other criminals. I mean, that starts to get people to feel like I can act out on this.
Williams: You’ve used some very strong language yourself comparing Donald Trump’s rhetoric to those of Hitler and Mussolini. Is that fair?
Whitman: I think so. I believe this is what we’re seeing. What they did is prey on the fear of people who were in these vulnerable positions and it built up so that people said, “Okay, if I take care of this, or this person is a bad person in my community I know because this is a person who’s running for president who’s telling me this. I’m legitimately taking them out.” It’s a little bit like you heard after the attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado. Some of our Republican Congressional members, unfortunately, implied that they brought it on themselves. That they brought it on themselves, and you want to say, “Well, wait a minute. What they were doing in that clinic was legal.” I mean, when is it okay to shoot people because you disagree with them, or shoot people because you don’t like the law that they’re using. I mean, I worry it’s again as you saw and I used that analogy of Neville Chamberlain — when you keep looking the other way and you don’t call out this kind of thing that it can then lead and build on itself and take us to a very bad place.
Williams: What does this portend for the Republican party?
Whitman: It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge that we have to meet.
Williams: This is not the Republican party that elected you in the 90s.
Whitman: No, it certainly isn’t. A lot of them would say I’m no longer a Republican, and I get that. I understand it, it’s moved away from me but I don’t think it has. It’s interesting because after writing that piece it engendered a lot of emotion and eventually I’ve gotten more of the positives than the negatives. The negatives are pretty interesting. They do imply that I should try some anatomical impossibilities. It’s one of those things that you want to say we’ve just got to understand language shapes behavior. We need to take that seriously, and we can’t keep saying, “Oh it will pass. We’ll get beyond this.” We need to do a little bit more.
Williams: You suggested in your op ed that the political process has changed as well. Can you describe what you mean by that?
Whitman: Fewer and fewer people unfortunately are participating, and that’s really part of the problem to me. Primaries now nationwide the average voter turnout is 10 percent, and you saw in the last election that we had here in New Jersey, for the entire Assembly, we barely made it to 20 percent. I think it was 20.01 percent or something. Those are the people that make a lot of decisions affecting your daily lives.
Williams: What takes it from a, for instance hold-your-nose-election, to an I’m-staying-home election?
Whitman: When you don’t like either of your choices. The trouble is it becomes self-defeating because if you don’t vote in a primary, which is your very first opportunity to pick your choices, you’re left with somebody else’s choices. Particularly with redistricting both at the local level and the federal level. We’ve now created these districts that are either solid red or solid blue, so that the candidates there don’t have to worry about the general election. They’re not appealing to the people in the middle who have traditionally formed the bulk of the electorate and I think they still do. They only have to appeal to their base because that’s where the challenge will come.
Williams: So the problems are money and redistricting?
Whitman: All that is part of it. Yes, they all feed into that.
Williams: Would Citizens United ever get overturned? It’s a Supreme Court ruling.
Whitman: I don’t know and I’m not a lawyer. I haven’t read the brief, but I don’t understand how you can equate business and labor unions with individuals as far as the individual protection under the Constitution and the right of association, which this was all about. I think there are ways to improve it, to work on it, to try to reign it in a little bit. I don’t know that you could ever overturn it. I even think the court is beginning to look for a way to try to reign this in because I do not believe that they anticipated the kind of enormous amounts of money that are being spent now across the country in races.