Pulitzer Prize winning essayist Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal joined me this morning to discuss the visit of Donald Trump to Mexico, Trump’s speech in Phoenix, and the path forward for Turkey:
HH: I begin this hour with Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens. Bret, it’s always good to talk to you, good September to you.
BS: Good to be on the show. Good September to you, Hugh.
HH: I enjoyed reading your column this morning, which begins with the great Bernard Lewis, a guest on this show a decade ago. He’s in his hundredth year. His book, What Went Wrong, one of the critical books for understanding indeed what went wrong in the Islamic world. But today, you remind us that over a decade ago, he talked about how people respond to adversity by asking one of two questions. Explain those two questions, Bret.
BS: Well, one question that countries and people often ask when something goes wrong in their lives or in their country’s lives is who did this to us? Did the Jews do this to us? Did the imperialists do this to us? Did some foreign, conniving, conspiracy do this to us? And countries that ask those questions tend to suffer poor fates. Look at the Arab world in the last 60 or 70 years. Look at Germany after World War I. Those are, it’s a question that essentially is loaded with self-pity and the evasion of responsibility. And the second question people ask, Hugh, is what did we do wrong? And if you ask that question, the follow up question, as Lewis puts it, is well, how do we put it to right? And when you ask that question, it’s a question that entails and in fact commands personal and national responsibility. So that’s the question that healthy nations and healthy political movements ask themselves. And it explains how, you know, say a country like Israel rises like a phoenix from the ashes and becomes a technological powerhouse just two generations after its birth.
HH: Now let me turn for a laboratory for the application of those two questions to the basket case of the world right now, Venezuela. White-clad opposition supporters from all over Venezuela are descending on Caracas even as we speak for rallies tomorrow intended to press for a recall referendum. Do you think those people are asking who did this to us, or what did we do wrong?
BS: I think those people understand that they’re in the latter camp. They understand that Venezuela’s agony, and it is an agony, it’s extraordinary how under-covered it is by much of the Western press. Venezuela’s agony is a self-inflicted agony. It’s 15 years of giving in to chavismo and the socialist revolution or the Bolivarian Revolution that he tried to foist on the country, and of course, on Maduro. So I mean, those people who are fighting the Maduro regime are extremely courageous, especially given the fact that Maduro is doing everything in his power, including military violence, to keep a referendum from happening, from keeping his grip on power.
HH: He’s the Papa Doc Duvalier of the new millennium, if you ask me. He is really a thug. Now what, I’m getting trouble with everyone today. I thought Donald Trump yesterday had the very best day of his presidential campaign since the Indiana primary. But I also want to relay a conversation I had a couple months ago with a Venezuelan expat who said I see in Trump Chavez. I see the same tactics on a large scale. I see the demonization of opponents. I see the demonization of the media. I see the de-legitimization of critiques, all that sort of stuff. On the other hand, I think he had a very, very good day yesterday. Is it possible that the Trump campaign is doing both of these questions, who did this to us? There’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of who did this to us in the Trump rhetoric. But what did we do wrong? In the speech last night, when he brings up the executive orders and he says he will repeal them, that’s a lot of what we did wrong. When he talked a lot about simply abandoning the visa system and allowing people to overstay, that’s a self-critique. Did he accomplish both yesterday, Bret Stephens?
BS: You know, it’s funny, I disagree with your analysis. I thought going to Mexico was a piece of brilliant, of political brilliance. And when I heard about the trip, and then when I saw that he had gone there and behaved in a statesman-like manner and held his own in a setting that was a kind of a quasi-presidential setting, I thought, and you know what a critic I am of Donald Trump, I thought that is good politics. He had, he had to meet low expectations. He exceeded them. And then he goes and gives this, does this 180 with his speech in Arizona, which I thought was kind of bizarre. I mean, it’s one or the other. If he wants to double down on the build the wall, make it tall, make it beautiful rhetoric, I get the politics of that. I disagree with the policy. But I certainly understand the politics and the appeal of it. What I don’t understand is trying to split the difference and doing so within the space of about, what, six hours. I think in the end, it makes him look incoherent and like another politician. Now to your other point, Hugh, I mean, look, I understand he’s saying you know, we did this to ourselves, but the we he means are of course his political enemies. There’s no sense of political responsibility that maybe the Republican Party or that he himself and his movement have not helped themselves. And so I don’t think he’s asking a what did we do wrong question. His candidacy is very much like what your Venezuelan friend says. It’s who did this to us? The Chinese messed with us. The Mexicans messed with us. The Washington establishment…
BS: …of corrupt Republicans did it.
HH: That last part, the most important. The imperial city did this to us, who does not care. And the…
BS: Who elected the imperial city, by the way?
HH: Agreed. Agree, but his argument is they got there and then they forgot who elected them. Now Bret, my counter argument about last night, having, and I pointed this out to Drucker last hour, I did 175 interviews with active Republican presidential candidates. I talked about immigration so much over the last 18 months, I can give you each of their platforms. They all essentially said the same thing, and that same thing is the same thing Trump said last night, except they never said build a wall. They always said establish border security, then do these ten things, including E-Verify, including biometric, including visa overstays, including criminals deported, and then we’ll talk about whoever is left. That’s essentially what Trump did yesterday. Now I realize his hard-core alt right and alt right pandering supporters have to pretend that he hasn’t changed, because they’re deeply embarrassed by the fact he’s not talking about round up mass deportation. He’s not talking about Eisenhower and the 50s anymore. And they have to pretend that he did. But it didn’t. And when Hillary Clinton says it was his darkest speech yet, they’re just ignoring the reality of what he had been saying as recently as two months ago when it came to mass deportation.
BS: Yeah, I mean, he’s been saying that, but the fact is the headline, the headline comments are the ones that grab attention. I mean, what his position essentially seems to boil down to today, or in the last, I don’t know, week or so, is a kind of slightly tougher version of what Marco Rubio and the Gang of 8 were proposing.
BS: And by the way, you know, I have to say, when I think, I don’t know if this is your next question, but I think it’s very telling the margins by which guys like Paul Ryan, John McCain and Marco Rubio won their primaries against Trump-style opponents. It means that the immigration question isn’t such a loser for reform advocates in Congress.
HH: Oh, it’s not. And Bret, I’ve long argued that 90% of the Republican Party agrees on regularization for every non-law breaking, and I don’t mean the entry into the United States, but if you’re here without documents and you haven’t broken the law, 90% of the Republican Party thinks you ought to be allowed to be regularized. They don’t think you ought to be able to vote, and they do believe in the wall and the fence, and I think the Republicans got into trouble by never building the fence, that they could have easily addressed this issue. It could all be behind us. But it’s a very moderate position. And I, especially here in California where everyone lives amidst people who are here without permission and are illegal immigrants, and they just don’t lose any sleep about it. There is a fringe, and that fringe is very noisy, and it’s amplified by politics. But I just don’t think, I think Trump basically played to both sides of the room last night and got away with it. But let me ask you this. You brought up Turkey’s Erdogan. We have a minute left. Erdogan is taking Turkey in the path of Egypt and every other strongman in the Middle East. Are we going to make peace with that and let him into NATO? Or has he joined the Arab world, and obviously, they’re not Arab, but has he joined that part of the Arab world with which we have traditionally made alliance but not NATO alliances?
BS: You know, it’s funny, I didn’t mention this in my article, but about five or six years ago, I interviewed Bernard Lewis on stage in New York City. And he made a prediction. He said ten years from now, Turkey and Iran will switch places. He thought that Turkey was going to become a theological Brotherhood, theocratic regime, and that Iran would move back to where it had been during the days of the Shah – secular and Western-leaning. At least half of his prediction seems to be coming true. And so there’s going to have to be some serious thinking in the next few years about whether Turkey belongs in NATO, because Turkey clearly doesn’t belong in the West.
HH: And my guest is Bret Stephens. I don’t know if he can stay. I’m going to try and see if he can stay over the break.
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HH: I began the show by saying probably the most important story of the day for most people in the world in real terms is a front page story in the Times of London about a new Alzheimer’s drug which actually has potent effect in trials on halting, maybe even reversing the disease. That’s a real world story that will impact lives. Turkey is a real world story that is impacting lives. They invaded Syria this week, and I know Americans get confused by the Syrian civil war and by the Kurdistan, Kurdish triangulation in Turkey. But would you lay out what is going on in Erdogan…Erdogan’s view of the world right now, what is it?
BS: Well, Erdogan’s view of the world is defined by one thing only, which is his personal paranoia and his bid to assume absolute sultan-like powers in Ankara and Istanbul, his traditional power base. But look, Turkey is a country where thanks to him, there is massive civil unrest. Thanks to him, there’s a massive terrorism problem, because he essentially allowed Turkey to be transformed into a transit point for jihadists on the way to fighting the war in Syria. Thanks to him, he has a civil war against the Kurds which was wholly unnecessary, which he started. And so thanks to him, the very foundations of the Turkish republic are now under threat. So his response, and again, as opposed to saying gee, you know, I need to moderate, I need to be a more inclusive leader, is to lash out, to invade, to repress. And that’s what we’re seeing now. But look, it also has to be said that the vacuum that President Obama allowed to be created in Syria is, has turned into a, if I can mix metaphors, is a cancer that’s metastasizing. And in that sense, a lot of the blame lies with the United States. We created this hole in the Middle East which is spewing out instability. And now we wonder why the leaders of neighboring countries, why people in neighboring countries are reacting in ways which are profoundly unsettling. So there’s some joint responsibility at work here.
HH: Well, he is almost the opposite of Ataturk as I understood Ataturk. You know, I’ve been to turkey only a couple of times. I’m sure you’ve been there often. And Ataturk is everywhere, and it’s all about secularization. On the other hand, Erdogan recently reached rapprochement with Israel. And I thought, and he’s led this incursion into Syria with Turkish tanks, which is I think welcome. At the same time, he seems intent upon destroying all Kurdish ambition for autonomy even outside of his country. So stepping back, are we in a position that we’re stuck with him, because he does seem to me, after the last coup, to have effectively destroyed any real possibility of opposition to him. Am I overstating that?
BS: Well, for now, we’re stuck with him, because he is going to consolidate his power. I still think that Turkey is inherently, profoundly unstable and moving in a deeply anti-Western direction not only in terms of its policies, but more fundamentally in terms of its values. He’s conducting the single largest political purge that we’ve seen in the 21st Century, something approaching the levels that Stalin undertook in the late 1920s, early 1930s. But I want to make one point. I think this is important. The only solution in the end to serious agony is to divide the country. And a large part of that solution is for us to recognize that we have been well-served by the Kurdish people, by their leaders, in stopping ISIS and saving the Yazidi people in setting up an autonomous region in Northern Iraq that’s the most stable and secure area in the entire region, and that at some point, a Kurdish area outside of Turkey that combines the Syrian side of Kurdistan and the Iraqi side of Kurdistan should be in the American interest. The next president should work towards that. And we should work towards a Syria which is not a zero sum game, that has an Alawite region for the Alawites, provided the Assad regime isn’t leading it, and a Sunni region, provided the Arab League provides us with the ground forces to maintain some kind of security there.
HH: so partition for Syria. Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, thank you for joining me.
End of interview.