American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

“I don’t like it. I don’t like it. I think it’s wrong. I think it’s abhorrent. I think it’s a mistake. I think it’s a moral mistake.”

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), was responding to my query on his thoughts about President Trump’s “zero-tolerance policy” and the resulting child separations along the southern border. “This is a human problem,” Brooks told me during the latest episode of “Cape Up” recorded on June 30 at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, “treating people like the other.”

Brooks is the author of “The Conservative Heart: How To Build A Fair, Happier, and More Prosperous America.” So, his response didn’t surprise me. It all goes back to the one word that he told me a week before the inauguration was the linchpin of Trump’s victory: dignity. “Like him or hate him, learn from him. Learn from him that there should be nobody who’s left behind,” Brooks told me during that January 2017 episode. “And that everybody should be treated with a sense of their own dignity.”

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Unfortunately, Trump’s supporters seem unwilling to extend that sense of dignity to others as they rally around a policy that has, among other things, put babies in jail. The argument that we must separate the economic anxiety of Trump’s base from the racism, white nationalism and xenophobia bolstered and defended by the president and his administration holds no water with me. Not after Charlottesville, or his scapegoating of African American football players, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), LeBron James — you see the pattern. But Brooks tried to convince me otherwise.

“Look, Jonathan, you have to separate out the sociological, the xenophobic, the things that you dislike about his rhetoric with respect to othering people and the economic concerns. Why? Because you want to win the country and you’re not going to win the country if you say anybody who supports him — notwithstanding the economic concerns that they have — is a racist.” Brooks told me. “If you can’t pull those two things apart, then you’re not going to be in a position to go to those people and say, ‘I see you as a better person than this and I have a better vision for America than that. And we are all brothers. I have a better vision for what is actually going to address your economic concerns.’ ”

As part of our deep-dive on the state of American politics, Brooks aptly likened our fetid political culture with a bad marriage by riffing on the research of John Gottman at the University of Washington in Seattle. “He’s the love doctor. And he finds that the number one predictor of couples getting divorced is eye-rolling, and sarcasm, and mocking,” Brooks said. “What’s bad for a marriage is bad for politics and bad for a country. The biggest problem that we have in the country today is this culture of treating each other with contempt.”


Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, talks with The Post’s Jonathan Capehart in Aspen, Colo., on June 30. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

Brooks is a devout Catholic. Christianity’s principles of helping the least of these, and treating others how you want to be treated, are the bedrock of his political and ideological perspective. “The competition between conservatives and liberals should be, how are we going to lift people up such that they’re treated like assets and not like liabilities,” Brooks said, mindful that that is not where the competition or the rhetoric lies these days.

Listen to the podcast to hear Brooks talk about his decision to leave AEI next summer and his new podcast, “The Arthur Brooks Show.” The first season is all about how to disagree with each other in the competition of ideas. He expressed the ethos of the show earlier in our conversation.

“This is our moment,” he said. “This is the moment for Jonathan and Arthur, together, to look at a better future of this country, and to disagree honestly based on the moral consensus of pushing opportunity to the people who need it the most.”

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