Q&A: Journalist Ali Velshi on Trump, identity politics and bridging the gap

The Canadian global affairs and economics journalist and MSNBC host talked to host Stephen Quinn about the increasing use of cultural identities as political weapons.

The MSNBC host talks about how culture identities are used as political weapons

"What we're getting into is a culture war that's getting particularly angry," says journalist Ali Velshi. (CBC Radio)

Canadian global affairs and economics journalist Ali Velshi has become a fixture in President Donald Trump's America with his tough on-air interviews and outspoken style.

Of late, Velshi has been taking a closer look at how cultural identities like gender, class, and race are increasingly being used as political weapons.

The MSNBC host was in Vancouver Wednesday for a lecture at the Vogue Theatre. He spoke to Stephen Quinn from CBC's The Early Edition.

The name of your lecture is "The Weaponization of Culture." What does that title mean?

I'm talking about a movement that goes beyond identity politics, which most of us have thought of as a good thing.

The idea that you identify with a group that shares your grievances and helps you get ahead [is turned] into something whereby you weaponize it, and by that I mean a brutal use of politics and the vote to get the other guys out.

The net result of this is we have eliminated dialogue. We have eliminated empathy. We have eliminated the ability to talk between opposing groups.

There are moments of this weaponization that feel good for people, but what we're getting into is a culture war that's getting particularly angry.

In democracies, [we] are supposed to have outlets for dealing with these grievances. Instead, we're becoming tribal, we're getting into our corners and it's "Us versus Them."

Journalist Ali Velshi says U.S. President Donald Trump was able to connect to a disaffected section of the American populace. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

We're moving into extremes as well because people are trying to make this simple when it's not.

That's right. It's all nuanced. And we're treating it like it's a zero-sum game. Your gain is my loss. Politics helps us move into those extremes, certainly in the United States.

But the media has played a role in the last 25 years, generally speaking, not booking guests like me who are speaking in shades and with nuance.

Some groups are more responsible than others. But it's going to fall onto all of society to fix this problem, to start to hear, not just listen, and to figure out ways to understand how the "other" amongst us lives and maybe to stop considering them the "other."

Listen to Ali Velshi's full interview with host Stephen Quinn on CBC's The Early Edition:

The MSNBC global affairs and economics journalist talked to host Stephen Quinn about the increasing use of cultural identities as political weapons. 9:01

When we hear Donald Trump talk about crafting some sort of policy to keep immigrants out of the country, is that what's driving this or is this something happening on the ground he's acknowledging?

I think it's the latter. I think this has been going on for a long time. There are a lot of reasons for that. While we have seen advancements in the rights of African Americans, advancements in the rights of women, and advancements in the rights of gays, what a lot of disaffected white, rural Americans have seen is where is the movement for me?

But the fact that you've got a president that says that — the "Make America Great Again" slogan — tends to be code for something else.

It plays into the idea that you've been cheated for a long time and now it's time to get even.

...There are a lot of white men angry in America. We saw it in the Charlottesville rally. It's very hard to understand why in 2018, college-educated people are neo-Nazis and anti-Semites but it is real. It is a gathering of grievances that  were otherwise independent and that the internet has helped bring together and has formed the alt-right that have people saying I can fight back. "Make America Great Again" means I can get my power back from you.

The Ku Klux Klan protests on July 8, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Chet Strange/Getty Images)

Can it be fixed?

Yes, it can be fixed. Some people who have studied this a great deal have said that they're two things that we have to do. One is we've got to turn our alarms off on all sides. We've got to assume good intentions on the other side.

You can't just be empathetic to people unless you have some ability to get into their world and understand what's driving them. Donald Trump — for good or bad — was able to build a bridge into people's empathy who had nothing to with him.

We tend to be people who think we're right, you should come around to the fact that we're right and if you don't that's your loss and you'll be left behind.

We have to start thinking about not leaving people behind.

This interview has been edited for length, clarity and structure.

With files from The Early Edition