NPR correspondent Cokie Roberts talks Trump, election


NPR correspondent Cokie Roberts spoke Tuesday night about Trump and the election. | Stephen Caruso, Senior Staff Photographer

By Rebecca Peters / Staff Writer

Cokie Roberts wants it on the record that she thought Donald Trump would win from the beginning.

Roberts, a veteran reporter at National Public Radio and author of four books about women’s role during the Revolutionary and Civil wars, appeared frequently on television during the 2016 Presidential election cycle as a commentator on ABC News’ “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” which airs every Sunday morning.

Roberts said she believes President-elect Trump won the election because of “him, her and history,” meaning Trump won because of his ability to unite discouraged citizens and Hillary Clinton lacked connection to voters, as well as the historical rarity for a single political party to be in office for more than two consecutive terms.

“I kept saying [Trump] would win. Everyone thought I was out of my mind,” Roberts said.

Lecturing to more than 150 people as part of the event hosted by the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy and the University Honors College, Roberts spoke on Tuesday evening in Alumni Hall attempting to answer a question on many people’s minds, “Why Trump and what next?”

Dick Thornburgh, a friend of Roberts and the namesake of the forum, invited Roberts to speak because of her experience as a political commentator and historical author in Washington, D.C., according to Kimberly Carson, an Honors College administrator.

Thornburgh and Roberts’ relationship goes back nearly four decades to when Roberts was covering the 1978 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race and the two sat next to each other at a cattle auction in York, Pennsylvania. Thornburgh, the Republican candidate, defeated Arlen Specter — the Democratic candidate and later U.S. Senator of Pennsylvania — in the primaries and made a lifelong friend in Roberts.

The lecture served as more than a reunion. For students who attended, it highlighted the importance of learning from history.

Emma Creighton, a junior non-fiction writing major, heard about the lecture from Pitt professor Cynthia Skrzycki. Creighton has a minor in Political Science and follows Roberts’ work with NPR.

“I see Cokie as a reliable source in an unreliable news atmosphere,” Creighton said. “Her belief in the strength of the system of checks and balances to shine through whatever political worries people may have at this moment was most intriguing.”

Creighton admires Roberts’ political experience and attended the lecture to hear if Roberts’ opinions align with what Creighton has read in the New York Times about the supposedly low chance of a Trump presidency. Creighton said they didn’t.

“[Roberts] held firm that the possibility that a Trump presidency was plausible and real. While the New York Times editorial board endorsed Clinton and condemned Trump, she kept an eye on part of the American population that was ignored,” Creighton said.

Roberts said that Trump’s celebrity status appealed to people during the election, going so far as to compare him to Beyoncé. While she disagreed with Trump’s campaign slogan — “Make America Great Again” — Roberts said she understood the emotion behind it. Roberts related the current technological revolution, such as using social media as a news source, to the industrial revolution of the mid-19th century and its societal disruptors, including jobs moving from the United States to Europe and employees switching to an hourly pay system rather than being paid by the value of their production.

“You in Pittsburgh have already gone through this,” Roberts said, referring to Pittsburgh’s steel industry decline. “Where you were 25 years ago is where the rest of the country is now.”

Imagining the situation of a Trump supporter, Roberts said union jobs that provide families with basic necessities and a good future for their children don’t exist in America anymore. That change, combined with “social and demographic changes,” makes America today unrecognizable from America 30 years ago for industrial workers.

According to Roberts, more than one-third of voters said the economy is good, but more people said the country was on the wrong track.

Juli Stresing, a senior English writing and literature major, said Roberts’ background in historical writing allowed her to draw similarities between political atmospheres during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars that translate to today’s political atmosphere.

“I search for articles that reach political or social commentary through the analysis of facts,” Stresing said. “What Cokie had to say gave the whole picture of the election as well as an understanding of why it happened.”

Acknowledging President-elect Trump’s plan to build a Mexico-funded wall along the Mexican border, Roberts said Trump supporters stand behind the plan for abstract, rather than than literal, reasons.

“The wall is a metaphor for people to say, ‘Build something around me so that I can live in the world I want to live in,’” Roberts said.

Roberts called on universities “to engage with study and research and put the findings on their websites. [Universities can] Get rid of the need for ‘post-truth.’” The Oxford English Dictionary named ‘post-truth’ word of the year.

“We’re in a strange new world where facts do not exist, according to some people,” Roberts said.

Roberts doesn’t buy it, explaining that prior to the election, policy makers were entitled to their own opinions, but now they’re entitled to their own facts, decreasing the creation and implementation of policy.

“Policy disagreements are okay. Fact disagreements are not okay,” Roberts said. “People ask me if I’ve ever seen anything like this election before, and I say every time, ‘No. Never.’”

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