Two Conversations on a Great Divide: Interviews with Gary Abernathy and Linda Chavez

Photo courtesy of the Times-Gazette

The focal point of this year’s Ethics/Religion and Society lecture series has been to prod the question, just how are we to reach across the great American divide? The 2016 presidential election and recent midterms have laid bare the deep rifts that keep us from conversing meaningfully about politics and engaging across the aisle. With this past Monday marking the semester’s final installment of the E/RS series, the following are interviews with two of our distinguished guests from the previous months, journalist and politician Gary Abernathy and immigration activist Linda Chavez.

Gary Abernathy from November 13

In late October 2016, Ohio’s Hillsboro Times-Gazette made national news when it became just one of six newspapers nationally to endorse Donald Trump for president. Since that election, the paper’s editor and publisher, Gary Abernathy, has taken a prominent place in national discussions about rural America and the voters who feel forgotten by mainstream politics.

Abernathy now occupies elected office, serving as a Commissioner for Ohio’s Highland County, as well as a columnist for the Washington Post, where he writes about communities such as his that voted for President Trump. Following his lecture on Monday as part of the Ethics Religion and Society series, I sat down with Abernathy to discuss politics from his perspective as a longtime political operative and community journalist. Below is a transcript edited for clarity.

Ryan Kambich: During last night’s talk, you pointed to a seismic shift in the Republican Party in which it has moved from the “Party of Reagan” to the “Party of Trump.” At the outset of this new iteration of the Republican party, what is the fundamental vision of the Party of Trump?

Gary Abernathy: As I’ve said about the president, I’m not sure he has a real political compass. It’s more about getting deals done. I’m not sure I have an answer to that question because I think right now, it’s about disruption. It’s about getting away from the practiced and fake and focus grouped messaging, and tearing down a broken system.

What ends up getting built to replace that, I’m not sure anyone knows or have a vision of. I think for voters who like Trump, the first step is simply let’s stop doing things the way we’ve been doing them.

RK: A lot of Americans seem to be feeling that sense that they want the system turned upside down. What are your thoughts on what an upside down system looks like?

GA: I think it looks like moving away from being afraid to say what you want to say, for one thing. I think what some call “political correctness” has reached Orwellian proportions. I think political correctness is good to the point that it means being polite to people, but it stifles thought. The people who Trump appeals to, one of the things appealing about him is his very blunt way of speaking, his very direct way of speaking. Whether you like or hate Trump, you usually have no trouble understanding what he says, because he’s not using “politispeak.” I think even his supporters cringe a lot, but it’s pretty refreshing for a politician.

So I think that’s what it looks like. We all need to be a little less sensitive and a little more able to accept criticism and to hear people’s opinions, even if they’re not politically correctly expressed. This goes for both sides, you know the right needs to be less defensive about criticism from the left and the left needs to be less defensive about criticism from the right. We all need to be able to have blunt conversations and not take it personally. We’re talking about politics, we’re talking about philosophies, we’re talking about what’s best for the nation.

The other things that needs to change, and I don’t know if we’re getting closer or further away from it, is the ability to cross the aisle and work together. And hopefully a new system that gets built will encourage that. But with cable news entrenched on both sides and being so influential, I don’t know if that’ll happen.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Trump works or doesn’t work with the Democrat majority in the House.

RK: To your point about cable news, the theme of this year’s E/RS series is “conversations across the American divide.” Is there a role for “big media” in healing that divide? And furthermore, in your experience as a community journalist, is there a role for small community papers in also healing that?   

GA: I think the answer is yes to both questions. The media has a huge role and a huge ability, if they want to do it, to lead our discourse in a better direction. They started out going the opposite direction. When the New York Times decided to start labelling things Trump says as lies, that’s a step in the wrong direction. It’s good to point out if the president is lying, but reporters shouldn’t be the one doing it in the context of a story. Find someone else to say that. It’s easy to do, that’s called journalism. Find a critic or find someone else to say “what Trump said was not true.”

So the media is in danger right now of declaring itself just another branch of politics with their very open hostility towards Trump. They’ve got to recapture their journalistic roots and cover Trump just like every other politician and with the same standards applied to him. If they don’t do that, they’re just going to be seen by the general public as another branch of politics, and Trump’s claims of “fake news” are going to resonate.

RK: I’d like to briefly return to your assertions about the shift in the Republican Party. You’ve been in politics longer than I’ve been alive.

GA: You really like making me sound ancient, thank you.

RK: Experienced, I’d call it. The shift in the party caught many pundits off guard in 2016. Did this shift simply explode up in 2016 or is there a longer history behind that movement.

GA: There has definitely been a longer history. Part of the reason that (John) McCain was not successful in 2008 against (Barack) Obama and (Mitt) Romney was not successful in 2012 against Obama was because they were kind of compromised candidates. If you look back at those primary seasons, voters were very divided about who they were supporting, it took a good while to settle on a nominee. No one was really enthusiastic about them. The enthusiasm gap is very important in politics.

So I think that’s been building, and as I mentioned last night, I think people were growing really weary and tired of the stale and practiced talking points they were hearing. And we saw this exhibited on the left with the Bernie Sanders support. It’s a rebellion, it’s support of the outsider, the maverick.

What’s going to be interesting is to see how uniquely is the party’s identity being tied to an individual rather than a movement. I think Trump does represent a movement, a disruption movement, and what we’re changing the system to is a very good question, we don’t really know yet. When Trump goes, under whatever circumstances, can that void be filled that he uniquely represents. You can’t imitate Trump. He has a unique personality and really brilliant political instincts. But he is doubling down on enthusiasm, which is more important than sheer numbers. He is doubling down on his 45 percent and not trying to expand that by one person, really. He’s trying to have the most energized, enthusiastic 45 percent that anyone’s ever had and relying on that to carry the day.

RK: Thoughts on a John Kasich presidential run?

GA: I’ll be the most shocked person in America if Kasich does not run for president as an Independent. I don’t think he can resist it. Another guy who I think will end up in that same boat is Jeff Flake. Maybe we’ll end up with a Flake-Kasich or Kasich-Flake ticket, although I can’t imagine John Kasich taking second spot on a ticket. I believe to do so guarantees Trump’s election. If there’s a strong Independent candidate, they’re not taking a vote away from Trump. Trump has his base and they’re not going anywhere. 

Linda Chavez from September 17

Linda Chavez occupies a peculiar position. A lifelong conservative, former Reagan Administration official and once-nominee for Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush, she is an outspoken advocate for improved avenues to legal immigration into the United States. As such, she has been a vocal critic of the Trump Administration’s approach to immigration and has often drawn the ire of fellow Republicans for straying from the party line.

Following her lecture on September 17 as part of the Ethics Religion and Society series, I sat down with Chavez for a conversation on immigration. Below is a transcript of our discussion edited for clarity.

Ryan Kambich: I’d like to start with a broad question. In 2015 you published an article in Commentary Magazine where you raise the question, almost rhetorically, “what does it mean to be an American?” That’s a question that Xavier students have debated fiercely on the Opinion pages of the Newswire and I suspect a lot of Americans are asking themselves as well. To you, what does it mean to be an American?

Linda Chavez: Well I think it’s one of the most serious and important questions of our time because the definition of what it means to be an American is now under assault. And this is one of my great objections to the Trump Administration. The Trump Administration, I believe, is trying to redefine what it means to be an American in essentially what is an early twentieth-century mode. They are putting way too much emphasis on ethnicity and race and they seem to believe that to be an American means to fit a certain profile. To me, what it means to be an American means to be either born or choose to live and naturalize in a country that is based on a principle, an idea, that all men are created equal and that gives opportunity for every individual to reach his or her potential. While we have not always perfectly lived up to that ideal and principle, it’s taken us more than 200 years to overcome a legacy when that was not true for the majority of people who are Americans — women, African Americans and for other minorities — it  has always stood there as the deadlock principle.

Now we have questions about whether even being born on American soil should qualify one for American citizenship and I think there is a battle looming over the whole concept of birthright citizenship which has been part of our formal legal structure since the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted 150 years ago. But even before that [it] was one of the practices that carried over from English common law so that even in the earliest period in our history if you were born on American soil you were considered American. So this is a really dangerous time because the whole idea of America, I think, is being questioned now by some of our leaders. We are not a country like countries in Europe that are based on blood and soil and on ancestry, and to try to gravitate toward that. And it’s not as though we haven’t had those periods before, in the early part of the 20th century, that was part of the battle about restricting immigration from certain parts of the world, mainly Asia. I think that is the single most important question for Americans to be thinking about.

RK: Last night you talked about the history of anti-immigration rhetoric as it’s been employed in the United States. How do you see the rhetoric of President Trump fitting into that history? Is he simply rehashing old arguments for a new time or does he represent something new in the way we talk about immigration?

LC: I think it really is pretty much a rehash of something old. I don’t think there’s a great deal new about the way he goes about it. If you go back to the middle of the 19th century and look at some of the rhetoric of the Know-Nothing Movement, this was something Lincoln fought against. If you look at some of the “Yellow Peril” rhetoric it’s very similar. So there’s nothing terribly new about it but what seems new is that we seem to have gotten beyond that when we elected our first African American president and we’ve had enormous progress in terms of civil rights and legally we have equal rights under the law. But we’ve come a long way in making progress and suddenly Donald Trump showed up and everything from birtherism to “Mexicans are rapists,” and that kind of rhetoric has been made acceptable because he is the leader of the free world. It has been made acceptable to uncloak those prejudices and say things that they might not have said five years ago.

RK: What do you see as the most important contribution that immigrants can make to the United States?

LC: I think immigrants by nature of who they are, they’re risk takers, they’re people who plan ahead and know what they want in life. They contribute human capital and reinvigorate us. Also because they choose to be American there’s something that is a renewal in terms of the American spirit. For most of us, it’s an accident of birth that we’re American. But for an immigrant who comes here and in particular naturalizes, this is a positive choice that’s being made, and I think that breathes new life into us.

They also have a great deal to contribute in terms of their individual capital. Whether it’s reinvigorating some of our moral values — our sense of family and the importance of family — to being brilliant scientists or engineers. When you look up the number of Nobel Prizes that are given, it’s unbelievable the number that are immigrants or first generation Americans. They have a lot to contribute to the economy, but the most important thing they contribute I think is character, they help restate the character of America, and that is their most enduring contribution.

RK: It’s interesting that you bring up character, and I’m glad you did. It seems as though much of the discourse surrounding immigration is founded on economic arguments about the skills, labor and monetary contributions that immigrants can make to the US economy. It seems as though missing from that debate are philosophical and moral arguments in favor of some of the civic contributions that immigrants can make to the United States. Do you think there is room in the immigration debate to transcend questions of economic policy and talk about an ethical dimension? Or is this simply a question better settled on economic grounds?  

LC: I think the reason you hear so much about the economic arguments is because the arguments against immigration center mostly on economics. There is this notion that immigrants somehow steal American jobs that Americans are entitled to. There’s no evidence of that whatsoever. The fact that immigrants come with different skill sets than Americans and fill niches in the labor market suggest they aren’t in direct competition with the native born for jobs. But that I think is one of the reasons you hear so much about that is it is trying to beat back the arguments that seem to motivate people to be anti-immigrant.

But the cultural dimension is an important part. And I think here it’s mixed. I think we have to be careful that simply saying “well let’s add all these new cultures and languages and mix of people in” actually heightens the cultural anxieties that native born Americans feel in terms of immigration. So while it’s absolutely true that they do bring a culture dimension, and that has in the course of our history been enriching, in my view one has to be careful about promoting the idea that the reason we should take immigrants is simply on humanitarian grounds or on cultural grounds and we just need to be more open and cosmopolitan. That plays into the fears of the people who are most opposed. I’ve spent my life in politics and I’m all about trying to have arguments that are going to win politically. This is a policy debate that’s going to be settled by law so I try to make the winning arguments.

RK: I want to shift our talk towards framing the conversation around immigration. How do you think media representation of immigration issues plays into some of the rhetoric used in the way the debate is currently shaping up?

LC: Well there’s no question that media representations of America being invaded by hordes of illegal immigrants has had an enormous impact. Fox News has I think been responsible in large part for creating this image, and there are figures within the media such as Lou Dobbs who used to be on CNN who have certainly played into aggravating those fears. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and if you’re constantly showing pictures of people crossing the Rio Grande in the middle of the night, these dark grainy images of people who don’t quite even look human, you build fear. So I think the media has played a very big role. On the other hand, now we have the countervailing images of children in cages and children being ripped from their mother’s arms. That also has helped focus the debate. 

What’s missing, though, is a picture of what immigrants are like as families — the struggles and the successes. A woman who works for me is a housekeeper. She came here from Colombia many years ago, her husband is from Ecuador. She’s a citizen now and she has two children and one of them is now in master’s program at the University of Virginia and the other is about to graduate Georgetown University. The mother has basically a primary school education in Colombia, and this is an example of the success here. And we don’t see those images as much, we don’t see a nuanced view of the experience of immigrants in America, and also their integration into communities. I wish we could see more of that.

RK: This year’s Ethics Religion and Society series themes is “Conversations Across the American Divide.” In these hyperpolarized times how do you think we can reach across the divide, and is there a way we can reframe the way we talk about immigration to have those conversations more meaningfully?

LC: I think it is a polarized issue and there are people at polar opposites. There are the people who say we don’t need national borders at all and then there are those who say we have to have a wall and we have to keep all people out because they are a threat to us. For those people on polar opposites there’s probably not a lot we can do, but most people are in the middle. And so the conversation to me has to be among those who are skeptical of immigration but are not just viscerally anti-immigrant, and those who are almost polyamorous about immigrants and don’t realize that there are costs, and that’s where the conversation needs to take place.

What I think is important is to have theseconversation without making moral judgements of people who have different viewsfrom me. If you want to have a conversation you have to give the other side thebenefit of respecting that they may have a position that is different fromyours but is legitimate. The crisis in Europe is very different than it ishere. I think we’ve been much more successful at assimilating people andbringing people into our society than they have in Europe. And so a debateabout the refugee issue in Europe and a debate about immigration policy in theUnited States may be very different. But I think you have to give benefit ofthe doubt to your opponent if you want to have a real conversation. You have tostart with the premise that we disagree but you may have valid reasons, and I’mhere to persuade you, to comfort you and to tell you that some of the thingsyou fear aren’t true, but I also have to listen to you when you tell me thatyou are fearful of what’s happening and I can’t totally dismiss that.

By: Ryan Kambich | Opinions & Editorials Editor