The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Rep. David Brat

R-Va.

David Brat (R-Va.) is an economist and congressman who shocked the political establishment in 2014 by unseating former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia's Republican primary. At the time of his victory, Brat was a professor at Randolph-Macon College with no political experience. Cantor was a 13-year veteran of Congress who many considered a future Speaker of the House.

Brat won by making illegal immigration a central theme of his campaign. His victory effectively ended efforts in Congress towards comprehensive immigration reform.

"Illegal immigration didn't seem to me that controversial an issue to run on," according to Brat. "It's the one issue," he says, "that you can really differentiate between someone who's looking out for the crony interest."

In the following interview, he talks about his victory over Cantor, why he believes "outsider candidates" like himself are "on the rise," why Donald Trump understood that, and how he was able to then capitalize on it in his bid for the presidency.

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Sept. 27, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

The campaign, primary day. You're seeing the numbers. What are you thinking? What are the people around you thinking? Tell us a little bit about the day.

It was, in a sense, unexpected. At the door, we were doing well for the last two months prior to the big night. But when you have your opponent spending $5 million against your $100,000, you don't tend to get arrogant, right? We were winning at the door in 10 counties, and it was fairly consistent data and returns coming in. But you don't know. It was my first time running, so I didn't know what to expect. The night of, I had people lifting me in the air with 20 percent of the vote in, and I'm actually a true conservative. I was like: "Put me down. Until 100 percent of the vote's in, I'm not getting excited." So I just kind of waited, and then I was like, wow, that was something.

You get up on that stage, and what do you say?

First off, I said it was a miracle, which I believe, and you can see my little artwork around here. I went to seminary, so I'm in that camp. And then I said miracles happen through the people. The people of the Seventh District spoke up loud and clear. I've got Jefferson next door; Madison's in my district; Patrick Henry. I launched my campaign from his church where he gave the famous speech. So that's in our DNA in the Seventh District. They know their stuff. They're up on my votes; they're up on public policy; they read the papers; they know the politics.

I ran on principle. They affirmed those principles, and they hold my feet to the fire still. It was great. So this year, the unexpected thing is more of the country hasn't done that. You've got huge energy at the presidential level around the Republican side, 80 percent of outsider votes for the presidential candidates in the primary, 50 percent on the Democrat side. But then in Congress, money is still so dominant, very few outsiders [were] elected to office this year.

What was your stance, during the debate, during the run and when you got to Washington, on immigration?

I had to think through my position very carefully and systematically. Back when I ran, I was running pretty much just on immigration ... Illegal immigration didn't seem to me that controversial an issue to run on, right? You should follow the law of the land. That was the basic calculus. Since then, it's morphed into a lot. The first week I came in, President Obama did the unconstitutional amnesty, and that was the bomb, for me, that launched many other issues to come.

Talk about executive action. The Democrats, we've talked to people at the White House, they were saying: "Congress will not act. Republicans are stopping everything from going through, so the only way we can accomplish anything is executive action." What was the caucus' point on that?

That is a true statement, what you just said, and you couldn't have a more cynical statement or a more unconstitutional statement. So that's the White House: The House hasn't acted; therefore I'm a dictator, right? It is, in essence, what was just stated. I've got a lot of James Madison hanging on the wall here as well, Article I of the Constitution: Congress shall make all laws. Is there any ambiguity in there? Congress shall make all laws. Congress shouldn't do anything; therefore I will. President Obama is a constitutional lawyer, and he said it's unconstitutional; he said the amnesty was unconstitutional 20 times on TV as well.

So that sets up a little bit of cynicism, where he knows better. He's on the record saying it -- it's Article I, the first line that matters -- and then you're making extralegal, extra-constitutional judgments because Congress doesn't agree with you politically. And none of this has been run by the voter, right? That's the key piece, the costs. One person on welfare, just at the federal level, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, it's $37,000 per person, per year, 37 grand -- one person on welfare, all the programs you're entitled to; $47,000 if it's Title XIII housing. That's just federal. If you've got two kids in public schools, that's another 26 grand.

Try running that combination, approaching 70 grand, right, for an average family on welfare and school and hospital congestion and wage rates going down. Try running that past the voter. And no one wants to do that, right? They want to make an end run around the voter.

And it doesn't apply just to immigration. [Sen.] Mike Lee (R-Utah) has got a nice picture on his web page. He runs the Article I Project. ... In 2013, the House passed about five inches of law, right, the entire corpus of our product. The executive branch, the president and all of his agencies did 11 feet of law, right? Higher than a basketball post, right? So if the American people get a sense that things are out of whack up here, they're out of whack.

How did immigration affect [Rep. Eric] Cantor (R-Va.), and how did his position work against him? You talked a lot about that in the election.

I said back then, and it's true today, it's the one issue that you can really differentiate between someone who's looking out for the crony interest. ... It's very clear if you bring in more folks, the labor-supply curve shifts out, and the wage rate goes down, right? That's Econ 101; you learn it first week of class. On average, the wage rate for the average worker and all immigrants -- by the way, African American community, Hispanic community, have the lowest wages in the inner city, etc., so the new illegal immigrants are going to lower the wage rate.

Well, who wants this? The workers don't, and the people don't. But big business does. The big businesses want cheap labor because then they pay cheap wage rates, right? So they pay a lower wage rate, which of course jacks up their profits. That's a good thing; I'm a capitalist. But what's missing is they don't have to pay the $37,000 in welfare costs, and they don't have to pay the local and state taxes for education that's 26 grand a year.

And on Obamacare, etc., you see the crony logic unfolding, right? The same thing happens on Obamacare. Businesses no longer have to pay and the taxpayer ends up footing the bill for all these additional programs. The American people are now catching onto this game that's going on up here, and they're not happy.

Leading to the anger, which we'll talk about in a second, what did it do to Cantor? I mean, Washington was agog when you won. Why did immigration work against Cantor, and what did that mean?

Like I say, it's the one issue -- on taxes or some of these complex issues, there's competing arguments where you can hide and duck and weave if you're a politician, a trained politician. On this one, you can't, right? You've got a voting record. There's votes yes or no. People get it. He was in favor of the Gang of Eight, and that was an amnesty move. PBS did a documentary, an hour documentary, shown the date of my election. That all came to an end.

I mean, that's it, right? There was no competing argument back.

... So why did this election -- the Gang of Eight got up there, and the White House and everybody said this was the moment that immigration reform died in this Congress. Why? Why this election?

... Bernie [Sanders], Elizabeth Warren, [Donald] Trump, [Ted] Cruz, Rand Paul, etc., all these candidates made clear to the American people for the first time that they're getting the raw end of the deal, that overarching logic of "the cronies are running the country, and you're not." Then that morphs into a ton of other issues that you've seen over the last two years as executive overreach has led to everything: the EPA overreach, waters of the U.S., the fiduciary rule, the overtime rule. Obamacare still hasn't been fully exhausted in the press. I always tell the press, go interview 10 people randomly, or 100. Don't go to a politician and say, "How is Obamacare?" Just go interview 100 small businesses and say, "How is Obamacare working for you?" It will be 90 negative out of 100. If the press would do their basic job, they would catch on to the illegal immigration piece.

The average person, right -- it's a Judeo-Christian country. We all love everybody; everyone is a child of God. But the law is the law, and people have a firm split on that. Legals -- if you come into this, we welcome you, no matter where you're from. Everyone is a child of God; we want everyone here to be successful. But the whole logic of the system, right, from [James] Madison to Adam Smith and free markets, all hinges on a respect for the law and the systems we put in place and the basic institutions, right? The Supreme Court -- Americans are very liberal in ideas, but they're very conservative in institutions. So I think that cracked into "Hey, you're messing around with some of the core American institutions here."

So explain to me -- you're a member of the Freedom Caucus.

Yup.

Explain to me how the Freedom Caucus gets its energy from the anger. They're a minority within the Congress, understood this better than certainly the leadership, [then-Speaker of the House John] Boehner and Cantor and such. Why? What was going on? What does the Freedom Caucus represent, the 40 members or whatever the numbers are now? What about the Freedom Caucus do people not understand?

I think the people do understand us. That's why we're on the rise, and it's why all the outsider candidates are on the rise. It's not anger per se. It's just we're paying attention to the American people. Small business is getting pummeled. Go ask any small business how they're doing. All people -- see in the banking sector, a bank goes out of business once a week, right? Go look at our small-business scores. I've got two [Democratic] senators in my state, nice guys, Tim Kaine, [Mark] Warner. I've got 100 percent small-business scoring. I've got a 55 U.S. Chamber of Commerce score. How can that be? How can I have 100 percent small-business score and a 55 U.S. Chamber score when they're all doing business, and I'm a free-market Ph.D. economist?

Then you contrast that, Sen. Kaine has a small-business score of 17 out of 100. Warner has 33. They run as moderate, pro-business guys, and the American people are starting to catch on to some of these basic numbers and say, "Who's really representing me, right?" They're not mad. If they are, it's kind of a righteous indignation, like we would like this thing called justice to show up again any time in this country, where if you go to work, you get paid what you're due, and you don't have regulations beating down your business, and the big guys can navigate through all this stuff, right? The big banks can navigate through Dodd-Frank and all the onerous regulations we put on them. The small guy can't, so the small banks are going under.

Then all the small medical practices, they have to navigate Obamacare. They're all dropping out of business or finding a bigger group so they can survive the bureaucratic maze. And the people are fed up with it. We're listening. We're saying our job is to represent you, right? You're the boss; we work for you, versus up here, [the] wait for the crony crew up here is funding the deficit this year [of] $600 billion. We're overpromising too many people, right? If you look at the big bills, they're all good: education, transportation, research, military, all that. But we can't prioritize. We overpromised a lot of cronies special attention in budgets.

We have a $4 trillion budget, and we're $600 billion short on funding it, and we're doing this year after year after year. The deficit's going to be $1 trillion a year in less than a decade. We have $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities that people are starting to learn about: Medicare, Social Security, all the main systems. All federal revenues in 10 years will only go to the mandatory programs. There won't be a dollar left for the military, education, transportation, etc., in 10 years. And this is CBO, right? Congress[ional] Budget Office.

I ran on that message. The American people get that. We just went through a financial crisis which was catapulted by Fannie and Freddie and government institutions that gave mortgages to people with no income. There's a brilliant idea. Do you know any private-sector bank that would give a mortgage to someone without an income? Only the federal government could come up with that brilliant logic. So the people are ticked off. They bailed that out. They bailed out the big banks; they bailed out the elites; they bailed out all the power players. Save our country, right? And they know they got the raw end of the deal.

So when you come to town, Boehner is still in power, but there's a revolt that is happening within the party. Explain that. Number one, Cantor disappears because of you. Boehner is soon to be shown the door. [Rep. Kevin] McCarthy (R-Calif.) is not allowed to take over the speakership. What are the dynamics of the caucus that we need to understand? Because it's the truth behind how the GOP is changing, and it leads to a very different presidential election that we're watching. As an insider, as someone who was really there on the battlefield to begin with, what's going on? What happened?

What's going on is the American people gave the Republicans the Congress six years ago and the Senate a few years ago. We need the Senate to really get things done. And we made big promises: We're going to solve entitlements; we're going to lower tax rates; we're going to get business going; we're going to get economic growth going; we're going to reduce the deficit; we're going to get a strong military; we're going to take care of your kids. And Eric Cantor and some other guys in leadership wrote The Young Guns and all this, and they made promise after promise after promise.

And this year, we have a $600 billion deficit, right? And so Boehner -- I just came in. I like him personally, right? Funny guy, fun to be around. But he promised we're going to fight tooth and nail on Obama's unconstitutional amnesty, right? We're going to fight tooth and nail. So the American people go: "Hey, this is great, right? Our guy is going to fight tooth and nail." We didn't lift a finger, right? And now, on all this executive overreach, I've got businesses coming up every day in here: "I'm going out of business. What are you guys doing? When are you going to fight the fight for us? We can't make it anymore, right?" I've got businesses in my district going out of business day after day after day.

... Our side promises big, [but] hasn't delivered on the basic numbers. And part of that, I take it out on my side evenly, but the Democrats don't have a budget that passes in any window, right? At least we have a budget that balances in 10 years.

The Democrats are just completely big government and crony all together, right? So we should be winning. If we get small business on our side, on the Republican side. But we've got to do a better job of communicating to the average American back home: "We're really going to fight for you." When we say it, we'd better do it.

How does all that lead to a Donald Trump as the standard-bearer of the Republican Party? He takes up immigration as a primary policy from the very beginning. From the morning he came down that escalator in June of 2015, it's all about immigration. Explain to me how we end up with Donald Trump. Now, this is a Congress, by the way, which before your election, there were 150 votes, Republican, in the caucus that were going to go for immigration reform. It seems 180 degrees from what was going on with the party to where we are now with the policies that Trump is talking about. How does that happen?

... Trump has come in under the basic premise that we're getting rolled, and his issues transcend mine in some respects as president. He's got a heavier load on him. So he's going international. We're getting rolled by China, which is certainly true. We're getting rolled by Russia; we're getting rolled in the Middle East. We're not winning against ISIS. Even North Korea, which should be comic relief, right? Their leader should be in a cartoon, and we don't have the leverage to pull to tell China, "Take care of little brother over there soon, right?" This should be trivial, and it's not.

Our State Department, for some reason we've lost our confidence. President Obama has not injected leadership on the world stage, right? And so on 60 Minutes this week, we have for the first time -- and it's shocking -- B-52 bombers flying flights, and our military's telling us nukes are now in play again. ... The general said: "Well, Putin thinks we're weak. He thinks we'll blink. He thinks we will not fight," right?

So you've got some of the countries where Russian footprints [are] coming on over and the weakness has expressed itself in the Middle East. Libya, Syria, Egypt, etc. ISIS is now in 28 countries under the Obama administration watch. So Trump comes in, and the American people are going, "It is a disaster; foreign policy is a disaster," right? The Iran deal? I was one of the few who voted against the Corker-Cardin Iran deal. Most people voted for it. It was unconstitutional. All treaties are supposed to go through a Senate with two-thirds vote. It didn't.

... Then on top of that, the immigration issue. You have the Syrian refugee crisis, etc. We had the best vetting system in the world, but as [James] Comey, the head of the FBI, said, you can have the best vetting system in the world, but if you don't have any data, that's a problem. ... We all want to help the Syrian refugees, right? Aleppo is a disaster. It makes you cry when you see the pain. But then the economic data says you can help 12 people over there in their own regions for the cost of bringing one here. And then our politicians, the Democrats especially, are just overzealous on that issue. I do not understand it at all. There's national security concerns. If they want to get it straight on all that, we can work together to get that done. But those are a few of the issues where he made some hay.

Is the reaction and the rise of Trump, to some extent, and the anger out there that you're talking about, is it due to, in some ways, Obama?

Yeah.

A basic hatred of Obama? Some on the Democratic side will say racism is part of it. Is it a reaction to the Republican Party and not being able to, as you have already said, not being able to provide the change that was promised? What do you think the mix is here?

Well, first I'll strike down the race thing. It's a cynical, cruel joke, right? That is not the explanation for any of this business. So this anger -- President Obama came in, was the most unvetted president. The press didn't do any of their homework, right? So there's some work on him, and he was very cynical about -- rightly so -- about the colonial exploitation of Africa, etc.

I taught economic development in the Third World for 20 years. He makes one fatal flaw. He groups the United States in with the colonial power, right, with France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, etc., carving up Africa, etc. That's not the United States of America. For some reason, President Obama ran, "I'm going to unify this country on race," and he has not unified us on race, right? The gaps now are bigger than they were.

... But the left right now is in the business of calling people names and bringing up the race card and the gender card. I was in academia for 20 -- I'm so used to this white skin. I've got white skin privilege; I've got every privilege known to mankind. I don't know that that is useful to raising wage rates for the average kid. I think it would be much better if they'd study science and math hard, right? We've got the work ethic back, and then the kid knew what a business was when they graduated from high school. Half the kids won't go on to college, and they don't know what a business is, right?

Let's end all this name calling and this terrible political back-and-forth. The left, they don't have issues to run on, so they're, in my view, resorting to name calling because they don't have a strong policy record to run on.

Obama came in. His initial promise was there's no red America, there's no blue America; he felt that he, because of his racial mixture and experience, was able to bridge the divide and partisanship, and [he] would come to Washington and quell the partisanship fights. How did he do?

No beers with Obama. There's no fun, right? There's all those old stories about [Speaker of the House] Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) and Reagan. I kind of like that. I work out with the Democrats every morning in the weight room. We argue about -- like one of my buddies down there is a trained Jesuit. Another guy's a good Muslim from Minnesota, where I went to high school. We debate religion; we debate policy; we have fun going back and forth. Obama has never made anything fun. He never comes here at all. The White House is never here. We'd be excited about that, right? That'd be nice, to have him come visit and let's debate Reinhold Niebuhr, right? Let's debate the Judeo-Christian tradition and what economic justice should look like. I'd love to have that debate. But we've never had it, and now we're at the end of seven years and just heightened cynicism.

... It's been written that immigration still remained, after the last election, a big thing after Boehner was thrown out. [Speaker of the House] Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) comes up -- Paul Ryan, the darling of the Republican Party. One of the things that has been written, and you tell me what's true and not true, it's been written that the Freedom Caucus bartered off their support with the idea that the only thing you can't touch is no immigration. We're done with immigration; let's move on. What's the truth behind that?

No, that's not true at all. The Freedom Caucus is split on that issue, with some respects on immigration, which there's equal support, strength on both sides of that argument. The Freedom Caucus, the biggest issue we fought this year with respect to Paul Ryan was regular order. We used all our chips to get regular order in the budget process, right, to stay on track.

... There was no deal with Paul Ryan. Paul, he's a nice guy; he's very likable. And they thought that when he said we're going to get regular order, we would keep it. But leadership lost it on that, and we put all of our chips in on that one.

Interestingly, the press has gotten it right, finally. They threw us under the bus for the last few years, right? The House Freedom Caucus, 40 guys responsible for budget shutdowns -- it's just a bunch of nonsense. We're the guys who are fighting for regular order so you don't get to the dramatic Christmas surprise and omnibus, which we think is almost calculated intentionally, because then you get, oh, there's drama. You've got to fully fund $4 trillion and a disaster, and everything on the left gets thrown in at the last minute.

But they blame you --

Six years in a row.

-- for the same thing. They blame you guys for holding things up and using it as a tactic to sort of kill Obamacare or whatever, closing down the government.

Shutting down the government, right. I wasn't here for any of the shutdown business, but that argument has lost all credibility because we fought so hard for regular order and got it. We got the promise in writing. So now, finally, this year, it's these versus ours, right? The American people are now going to be able to assess who's really running the show up here, and the answer is there's going to be five people in a room this week determining the budget of the United States. Not the committee, not the budget committee, right? Five people, right? Obama will be in there, [Nancy] Pelosi, [Harry] Reid, Ryan, Mitch McConnell and maybe a couple of other folks. And five people, independent of the American people and their representatives, are going to divvy up a $4 trillion budget.

Can't the Congress or a group in Congress stall that as well?

That is what the House Freedom Caucus tried to do. We got a promise apparently that didn't cut the mustard, so now we're going to have to get a promise signed in blood or something. I mean, we're going to work on that. How can we put it in writing, put it in the rules of the House? How can we implement this into the institutional DNA so that we do what we're supposed to do, right? The budget is in the law, and so this regular order just says you follow your House rules, which we're not doing.

Where are we when the new president takes over, just the reality of a Trump candidacy within the GOP? How is the GOP evolving? What does it mean, whether he wins or loses? And we don't know now, but how does this adjust the way this party operates? It's a very different party than it was 10 years ago, five years ago, three years ago.

Right. Yup.

Where are we, and what's the effect of a Trump candidacy?

I think you could just tell when Trump gets excited, he gets excited on a few issues. I think on those, he's going to go in big. Then on the rest, I think he'll be more like a Reagan and delegate out to experts in the field. But on the border, he's going to do something, right? On immigration, securing the southern border, something's going to happen. On trade, he thinks we're getting rolled; I think he's going to do some stuff on that. A few other issues. School choice in the inner cities; he's coming in on that. I really like that. The inner cities [are] just devastated. Kids do not have hope. I hope he comes in strong. That for me is the most important, right? That's the economy 20 years from now. The education of those kids is our economy in 20 years. And if we don't prepare them, we're in trouble.

... The rest of the conference is going to have to adjust when it comes to the immigration issues. The crony tendencies are going to have to be curtailed. I think Trump is going to win on that one. And then on other issues, on taxes and whatever, Ryan's very good on budget stuff, and he knows all the entitlement stuff. So Trump, we don't know where he's going to be on the debt issue. He says he doesn't want to get near entitlements, but when he finds out that entitlements will drown out any military increases, etc., there's going to be some hard choices to be made. That's what will be in play.

The politics of the caucus, though, because of the reality of whatever the movement is that created Donald Trump, again, whether he loses or wins, how do you see the party itself and the caucus as being different than it has been in the past?

That's a hard one. That's a tough one. I don't know, we're 240. Right now, you can kind of analyze it and look at votes and leadership votes and who's voting with leadership on the budget. A hundred and fifty folks voted against the budget last year. That was kind of an interesting eye-opener. But going forward, that's going to be hard. I think it depends. You just see some of the early support for Trump from members hinges on how Trump is received in their district. So right now, that's the best predictor, right?

But as his polls are going up, there's a lot more folks coming onboard within the last few weeks even. You can feel the tide changing. On issues, it's harder to break down, right? Because again, that goes back to your constituents, your local issues that matter, and they'll have to probably weigh, but he's a big new variable that will come into play, the negotiating. And then our fun joke will be -- even in our own conference, right, Cruz versus Trump on some issues. There's a lot of tension there, on first principles of the Constitution.

But the fun part is we're all cracking jokes at the Democrats, [that they're] going to become intimately familiar with the pocket Constitutions, right? We fully think the Democrats are going to be pulling out their Constitutions checking Trump, and they're going to be quoting us in a year, right? "Article I, Congress makes all laws, you guys. Don't you know this?" So exactly what we're saying right now, right? Congress shall make all laws. Really? OK. So that will be part of the fun tension coming up.

The partisanship of Washington, which we've all seen grow and which everybody argues about constantly these days, what is the next president -- again, no matter who wins -- what are they inheriting in Washington? Is this a Washington that is broken? The tensions even within the GOP and sort of fighting between the Freedom Caucus folks and the leadership and such and within themselves, the fight, and then the inability of the White House to work with Congress in the last few years -- what is the next president inheriting?

I don't buy the premise, this partnership thing, right? That's the media construction. I don't buy it at all. I met Bernie at the Christmas party, right, presidential candidate, Democrat side. Great guy. We're in front of 30 people. My wife's with me. We're at the White House Christmas party. I say, "Hey Bernie," I said, "I'm a freshman, Dave Brat from Virginia." I said, "I'm up here," and then we talked about this partisan, left/right stuff. I said, "I honestly don't see it." I said, "I see the middle of both parties controlling $4 trillion of the budget, and a few people making that decision at the end of the year." I said, "I don't see this partisan stuff, right?"

... You show me where the right wing is winning on whatever, or the left wing. It's nonsense. All the bills are passed right in the middle, the establishment on the left, the establishment on the right, and there's your number. Wait until you see the budget vote. That's exactly what's going to happen this year. And so they're inheriting a crony system that is built on a power nexus in the city that the American people want to see busted up. That's what they're inheriting.

The argument that people make is that the middle, as you just defined, has been disappearing. It's like the Republican Party is becoming more right; the Democratic Party is becoming more left. All the people in the middle get thrown out in the primaries, thus causing a problem, because if you're left and right and you're going at each other, you don't get to the middle. I mean, what are your thoughts on that?

... This language that there's this bipartisan war, it's not true. The fact that we don't get together is because everyone's fundraising. We all like each other in the weight [room]. We all get along great, right? That's never reported on. The reason you don't get together is because you work from 7:00 in the morning until 11:00 at night, and then you're fundraising and going back home to do the politics, and it's a war. It's a tough business.