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Fareed Zakaria GPS

"Fareed's Take": Politicians should find a middle ground on immigration; US government is shutdown as parties point fingers; Immigration: America's most divisive issue? Aired-10-11a

Aired January 21, 2018 - 10:00   ET



Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria coming to you live from New York. We will bring you the latest on the US government shutdown in a moment. But also -

Today, on the show, we mark one year of the Trump presidency. We'll start with immigration. It has been a main policy plank since the day he launched his campaign.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me.


ZAKARIA: And now, the subject has brought the United States government to its knees. Why is the topic of immigration so divisive? Niall Ferguson, David Frum and Margaret Hoover will explain.

Also, "Star Wars." No, not the one with Luke Skywalker. I'm talking about Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars".


RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Wouldn't it be better to save lives than to avenge them?


ZAKARIA: More than three decades after he spoke, surely the US can protect itself from a nuclear attack, right? Well, probably not. I'll explain.

Then, polls. We just entered a new election year in America. Trump's approval is at record lows. The Democrats are polling quite well. But should we believe the polls this time around? We have the answer.

But, first, here's my take. Emmanuel Macron is today the most admired world leader among liberals, centrists and cosmopolitans around the world. He has managed to win the French presidency, enact reforms and stay relatively popular, all while speaking positively about the free market, the European Union, globalization and trade. He has done this in the face of a tide of populism that is still surging. What is his secret?

Well, one key area to watch him on is immigration. On Tuesday, Macron announced yet again that his government would be tougher on immigration, expediting asylum claims and then actually deporting those whose applications were rejected.

Macron is being criticized from the left and congratulated by his former opponent in the presidential election, the populist ring-wing leader, Marine Le Pen.

The central issue feeding populism around the globe is immigration. That's why you still see right-wing populism in such countries as Germany, Holland and Sweden where economic growth is strong, manufacturing is still vibrant and inequality has not risen dramatically.

Donald Trump, remember, beat 16 talented Republican candidates because he outflanked them all on one issue. Immigration.

Meanwhile, Democrats continue to move left on economics, believing that this will make them more credible populists. But polling shows that the public is already with them on economic issues.

Where it, and the working class especially, differs with them is on immigration. And yet, the party is now more extreme on this topic than it has ever been. Positions that dozens of Democratic senators took on immigration ten years ago are now totally rejected by almost every Democratic Party leader.

Most, for example, would have agreed that America's current mix of immigration skews too heavily towards family unifications and needs to attract more immigrants with skills. Now, none will speak on the issue.

The party today embraces sanctuary cities, suggesting that local authorities should ignore federal laws or even defy federal authorities who try to enforce the law of the land. Imagine, if Republican mayors did the same with regard to laws they don't like, on, say, guns or abortion.

It is difficult to be moderate on any topic these days, most of all immigration. Donald Trump discusses the issues in ways that to me seem racist. Factions of the Republican Party have become ugly and mean-spirited in tone and temper, demeaning immigrants, encouraging nativism and bigotry. To compromise with these kind of attitudes seems distasteful, even immoral.

And yet, the issue is one that should allow for some sensible middle ground. The late Edward Kennedy was one of the most liberal senators in the country. Sen. John McCain is a staunch conservative. And yet, they were able to agree on a set of compromises in the mid-2000s that would have largely resolved America's immigration deadlock and the rage surrounding it.

Let's be honest. The scale and speed of immigration over the last few decades is a real issue. Just since 1990, the share of foreign-born people in America has gone from 9 percent to 15 percent. It's nearly doubled in Germany and the Netherlands. It's nearly tripled in Denmark.

Most of the new immigrants do come from cultures that are more distant and different. And societies can only take so much change in a generation.

[10:05:00] If mainstream politicians do not recognize these realities and insist that those who speak of them are racists, they will only push the public, in its desperation, to embrace the real racists, of which there are many.

For more, go to and read my "Washington Post" column this week. And let's get started.

And now for the shutdown. Those who thought that dysfunction in America couldn't get any worse have been proven wrong once again. The United States government has now been shut down for a little more than 34 hours and each side is pointing fingers at the other.

Just listen to what happens, for example, when you call the White House comment line.


OPERATOR: Thank you for calling the White House. Unfortunately, we cannot answer your call today because congressional Democrats are holding government funding, including funding for our troops and other national security priorities, hostage to an unrelated immigration debate.


ZAKARIA: For their part, the Democrats are blaming the shutdown on Trump and his Republican colleagues, who they point out control the executive branch, Senate and the House of Representatives, and still cannot get a spending bill passed.

Let's get some historical context here with Tim Naftali. Tim is a professor of history at NYU and the former director of the Nixon Library.

Tim, so everyone is chattering and bickering. Let's step back for a moment. How did we get here?

TIM NAFTALI, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AND PUBLIC SERVICE, NYU: Well, this train wreck is the result of two different processes.

The first is the problem that our government has had for years at passing a budget. And since October of last year, which is the start of the 2018 budget cycle, there have been three continuing resolutions. At the same time, in September of last year, President Trump, without any pushing, but he motivated himself and his staff did it, I guess, he signs an executive order which ends the DACA program on March 5th.

So, you have these two trains hurtling towards each other. And the minority party, the Democratic Party, thought it had created a bipartisan compromise to deal with DACA.

ZAKARIA: Which Trump seemed to endorse at that opening -

NAFTALI: And so, if the president has accepted it, the two trains would have missed each other.

But the Democrats have decided, I guess, and some Republicans, because five Republicans voted against the budget in the Senate -

ZAKARIA: For Freedom Caucus reasons. They don't want to spend as much money.

NAFTALI: They weren't willing to fund the government. And the issue now is whether this brinksmanship on the part of the minority party will turn out well for the Democrats.

A Republican senator, Ted Cruz, and his allies, tried the same thing in 2013 to undermine the Affordable Care Act. They didn't get what they wanted, but they did win the Senate in the 2014 election.

ZAKARIA: So, when you look at it, looking back again, how will history judge who won this?

NAFTALI: History is always very good at the winners. We just don't know who's going to win yet.

ZAKARIA: So, whoever blinks loses because you right now - it's a game of chicken. Somebody is going to blink.

NAFTALI: The real mistake, frankly - I mean, looking at it - it's so easy, by the way, to be sitting here and saying this. The Democrats had a moral and political obligation, I think, to highlight DACA and say, look, the deportations are going to start March 6. You have a president who wants to solve this problem. You have enough Republicans who want to solve it. It should be a national consensus that leads to yes. And they didn't get a yes.

And so, they decided to highlight this the only way they can in our system, which is largely a win or take all system, which was to say, we can't move forward with a budget if 700,000 people are going to be deported.

The president has started digging in already. He's already made a case for not moving at all on this. So, at this point, I don't see how you get Donald Trump to yes, given his current rhetoric.

And that puts the Democrats in a tough situation because they don't want to defund the government for - on the basis of one issue. They wanted to highlight it. So, these are tough moments for the Democrats.

ZAKARIA: You said, one of the original problem is, we can't pass budgets and we have these continuing resolutions. And that feels to me like - because you've had a breakdown of a kind of governing majority in America that there used to be liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats.

[10:10:06] And, really, for 20 years now, basically, the government is funded in this very strange mechanism, continuing resolutions.

NAFTALI: Well, patronage was a useful tool. And it made it possible to wheel and deal. You didn't like an idea I had on one piece of legislation, but I would be happy with another.

Lyndon Johnson went to John F. Kennedy in 1963 and said, one of the ways to get civil rights legislation passed is to help poor whites. If you would send money to poor whites in the south, you could help senators who are not going to vote for you on civil rights, but they won't mess up the system. They won't block it. They won't support it, but they won't block it because their people benefit from government.

What has happened in this country - and it started in the 80s is that you have a group of Americans who've been elected who don't believe government can ever work and are trying to make it work.

So, how do you get compromise when you have people who are elected to Washington whose job is to disrupt the federal government, not to make it more effective and efficient.

ZAKARIA: The odd thing is, of course, for those who think, oh, great, government will shut down. Actually, two-thirds of government spending is entitlement program, social security. All that continues. People find ways around emergency services.

My fear is that the people who get hurt here are ordinary civil servants, poor people who need food. It's that kind of stuff that gets hurt. The vast majority of government actually continues.

NAFTALI: It does. And I remember, I was in the government in 2011 when it almost shut down and I saw the list of people who wouldn't be paid and who would be furloughed. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who will not be paid on Monday because of this little game that's being played in Congress.

ZAKARIA: Tim Naftali, always a pleasure.

Next on GPS, we dig deeper into the central issue that caused the shutdown, immigration, when we come back.


[10:16:29] ZAKARIA: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Does that plaque at the Statue of Liberty characterize the proper American approach to immigration? Or is it rather what Attorney General Jeff Sessions said this week on "Fox News"?


JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: What good does it do to bring in somebody who's illiterate in their own country, has no skills and is going to struggle in our country and not be successful. That is not what a good nation should do. And we need to get away from it.


ZAKARIA: This week, immigration became an issue capable of shutting down the US government. So, I wanted to dig deeper and talk about the subject in America today. Other hard issues as well on the front pages.

Joining me, David Frum is the senior editor at "The Atlantic" and author of the new book, "Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republican". Looks well worth reading. He became an American citizen in 2007.

Margaret Hoover is the president of the American Unity Fund and author, a CNN contributor and has been a citizen since birth. She is the great granddaughter of President Herbert Hoover.

And Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and also the author of a terrific new book. His is called "The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook". He hopes to take the exam to become a US citizen soon. I'm confident he will pass.

David, on immigration, where do you think - you used to be an immigration restrictionist. But I notice ever since President Trump has been talking about this, you have been somewhat reluctant to agree with him.

DAVID FRUM, SENIOR EDITOR, "THE ATLANTIC": Well, I got this question asked me by a friend of mine who was associated with President Trump during the campaign.

So, President Trump was saying many of the things about immigration that you have said, why don't you support him. And my response was, the reason I said those things about immigration was to keep people like Donald Trump out of power, not to bring them into power.

Donald Trump is exactly what I was afraid of in all those long years when I was talking about the need for a moderated approach.

The alternative - in 2016, the United States received nearly 2 million immigrants, about half of them illegal. The illegal portion is dropping a little. That is tied with 1998 as the second highest year on record.

And as you have noted, the proportion of the foreign-born of the population is reaching pre-World War I peaks. The alternative to that is not zero. The alternative to that is a different number that is more stable, sustainable within the country. And the transformation of this debate into a binary one is exactly the result that I've worked so hard to try to stop, which is a middle-of- the-road course can keep the economy growing and society stable.

Niall, you're an immigrant. Your wife is an immigrant. And yet, you're generally thought of as quite conservative. Where do you stand?

NIALL FERGUSON, SENIOR FELLOW AT STANFORD'S HOOVER INSTITUTION: Well, of course, I'm in favor of immigration. The Scotts have been the great emigrants of world history. There are Fergusons, I think, everywhere you could possibly go. I think there are more people Ferguson in Jamaica than Dees. So, we're in favor of immigration.

And the way I would look at it is with historical perspective. The last time there was this rapid surge in immigration in the United States, taking the foreign-born share of the population up to 15 percent was in the late 19th century.

And what happened was exactly what's happened in our time. A populist backlash. Nativism, populism, these are things with deep roots in American history. And in my book, "The Square and the Tower", I tell the story of a Trump of the late 19th century, Dennis Kearney.

[10:20:06] He campaigned in the 1870s with a slogan, "the Chinese must go," opposing Chinese immigration into California. And you had to take him both literally and seriously because that then got enacted with the 1882 Exclusion Act.

Throughout the last couple of years, I've argued that we shouldn't think of Donald Trump as a fascist or some kind of tyrant in the mold of Vladimir Putin, much less Stalin. We should think of him as a typical American populist, offering just the same remedies that the populists of the late 19th century did. And it was predictable that there would be this kind of backlash.

The thing about immigration is a sudden increase of the sort that we've seen not only in the United States, but in other countries as a consequence of large scale migration nearly always produces this kind of backlash.

ZAKARIA: And yet, the Democrats, Margaret, have kind of lost their ability to compromise just as much as the right has moved further and further right on this issue.

MARGARET HOOVER, PRESIDENT OF THE AMERICAN UNITY FUND AND CNN CONTRIBUTOR: They have, although the place where we are now is about a very non-controversial element, the DACA agreement, the Deferred Action on Children Admission.

This is something that actually Republicans and Democrats widely agree upon. And so, this, to me, seems like - what's happened is the parties have become polarized. They have been really strangled by their populists and immigration has gotten lost in the middle. ZAKARIA: Do you agree with what Niall said, though, your book is really about how Trump is not just a garden-variety populist? Something much more dangerous.

FRUM: Trump is coming along at a moment when a lot of other American institutions are under pressure for a lot of other reasons because, back in the 19th century, immigration was a source of strain. But it was a time when wages were generally rising. They may have begun to rise now, but they're still below their late 1990s peaks.

United States is experiencing something else never before seen in its history, which is a decrease in life expectancy, at least among people without college degrees, especially among whites. That didn't happen during the Great Depression. That didn't happen in Germany during the Great Depression when they were literally starving.

The only other places in advanced countries that that has happened is in the post-Soviet republics. So, there is a larger crisis that is very unlike anything seen before in American history.

It's also happening at a time when institutions are weak and when the powers of the presidency are immense.

In 1913, the president was not followed around by a briefcase with a capacity to end organized human life on earth. Now he is. And he has all these other powers that flow from that amazing capacity.

ZAKARIA: You're a little bit more optimistic.

HOOVER: Look, I think one of the pieces missing from this discussion of populism in the United States, certainly immigration is part of it, but there are fundamental economic structural problems in the United States that are driving populism just as much.

I mean, there is wage stagnation among a certain group of white non- college educated men who helped elect Donald Trump, right, who helped get him over the finish line. There are problems with the manufacturing. There are problems in our economy that aren't going to be answered in the first year of Donald Trump and the sense of populism will continue.

I think there's this thought that populism will see its backlash in 2018, politically at the ballot box. And the truth is, I think it is firmly rooted, both in the left and the right, politically here, even if it receives - Trumpism itself receives a backlash in 2018 election cycle.

FERGUSON: Social media have changed the way in which the public sphere operates. Although, it's lovely to be on television, we all know that part of what is going on is, in this new domain of social media, Facebook and Twitter and so on, and these are engines of polarization.

They incentivize extreme views as well as fake news. And I think that's why I would expect the reaction to Trumpism, if indeed disillusion, and it's going to be one of the themes of 2018, to produce an equal and opposite populism on the left.

I mean, Bernie Sanders may be back or some version of Bernie Sanders. And we already saw just last week the kind of grandstanding that Democratic hopefuls with an eye on 2020 are going to engage in.

Corey Booker's histrionics, that seems to me to be a sign of the times of the way in which the populism of the left is going to play.

FRUM: Trumpism is not a set of ideas. It's a system of power. Donald Trump has no policy ideas. He's not even really a populist. I mean, we've all seen that he will go to these meetings and like the old joke, you're right, you're right, and someone will say, they can't both be right, you're right again.

What he is is a system of power. And that is why he's so much more dangerous than populists past because what he's deadly serious about and very effective at is enriching himself, shutting down the institutions of government that would normally catch him.

And right now, the president is receiving streams of undisclosed millions of dollars from business partners in the Philippines, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, India. No one knows how much he's receiving. And no one knows how subject those people are to pressure from their own government.

[10:25:05] It is a remarkable thing that the present Filipino ambassador to the United States is the man who signs Donald Trump's rent check. And Donald Trump has to shut down a lot of the government simply for self-preservation even apart from the fact that he seems to be at the heart of the burning center of the biggest espionage scandal in American history.

ZAKARIA: All right. On that tantalizing note, Margaret Hoover, David Frum, Niall Ferguson, thank you so much.

Next on GPS, President Trump may have disparaged many nations and their would-be immigrants recently. I would encourage him to watch this next segment because there is a region of the world that he ought to take a second look at.

I will tell you where there is an astonishing revolution going on right next door.


ZAKARIA: Now, for our "What in the World" segment. The Trump administration has made clear what types of immigrants it considers undesirable.

Earlier this month, when the president reportedly used a choice word to condemn a wide swath of poor African countries and asked why America needed more immigrants from Haiti. Trump denies using any profanity. He called his language tough, though.

He also used tough language about Latin America on the campaign trail in 2015. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP: They're sending us not the right people. It's coming from more than Mexico. It's coming from all over South and Latin America.


ZAKARIA: And Jeff Sessions has questioned why America should accept illiterate immigrants.

Well, the president and his attorney general might be shocked to learn that the "right people" are actually in South and Latin America, literate, college-educated and ready to work. And that region is producing more and more of them every day.

Latin America is in the midst of an extraordinary revolution in education. Across the region, young people are flocking to college campuses at a staggering rate. Enrollment of young adults across Latin America and the Caribbean has increased from 21 percent in 2000 to 43 percent in 2013, according to the World Bank. Access for the underprivileged has increased dramatically as well. In 2012, one- quarter of those in higher education were from the poorest half of the population, up from 16 percent in 2000. That's an increase of 3 million students.

Around 2,300 new institutions of higher learning have sprouted up in the region since the early 2000s. This is impressive growth. What is driving it?

Well, there are two main factors: young people who are completing high school in higher numbers and the large number of new institutions, many of them in the private sector.

So more students are enrolling in higher education in Latin America, but do they then find jobs with higher wages? Across the region, the report notes, people who graduate from institutions of higher learning earn more than double what high school graduates earn. And even dropouts earn 35 percent more.

The World Bank urges caution. It is not all rosy, and further progress will take policy shifts, it says. For example, the quality of the mushrooming institutions will need to improve, as will the preparedness of high school graduates across the region, particularly poorer students.

However, the picture on the whole is one of unmistakable progress in Latin America. Perhaps if President Trump and Jeff Sessions knew these facts -- and they are facts -- they would welcome people from these countries rather than demeaning them.

Next on "GPS," how many Americans approve of the president's performance? How many don't? Will the Dems take back the House? How about the Senate?

Polls purport to tell us the likelihood of all these things, but many think, of course, they failed us in 2016, so why should we believe them today? I will talk to two of the best in the business, when we come back.


ZAKARIA: It is a new year, 2018, and even-numbered years in America are federal election years. That means, in less than 300 days, voters will go to the polls to pull the lever for 34 Senate seats and 435 House seats. So this entire year we will be inundated with polls that tell us who's likely to win and who's likely to lose. But we all remember 2016, when most polls told us Hillary Clinton was likely to win. So will 2018 polls be right?

Joining me now are two of the smartest people writing about polls. Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for 538. And Nate Cohn is a domestic correspondent for the New York Times's Upshot.

So, Nate, I remember you wrote something recently -- or the Upshot did, for sure, about the generic ballot; that is, the ballot that tells -- that asks people, "Do you prefer to have Republicans in the House or Democrats?" And I think your point was that this is the point at which the polling is quite predictive, this far in advance.

It's difficult to imagine the Democrats not taking over the House. Do you still feel that way?

COHN: I think I agree with that. I mean, most people who have thought about the question would put the tipping point threshold for the House maybe at around 8 points. So I think that, at this point, it's probably fair to say that the Democrats are at least modest favorites to take the House.

ZAKARIA: Do you think this is more a reflection of the fact that people are turned off by President Trump and the Republicans, as opposed to being turned on by the Democrats?

ENTEN: Yeah. I mean, look. When you have a midterm election, it's all about the president who's in the White House. It's a referendum on the president. We know this going back since elections since, like, 1866. I think there have been three elections in which the party that was in the White House actually gained seats in those House of Representative midterm elections. So, yeah, this is a big referendum on the president of the United States. And his approval rating being in the high 30s and basically being pretty stable there over the past few months -- that's very, very bad news for Republicans.

ZAKARIA: And the president's approval rating: how seriously should we take it?

I think a lot of people feel like, you know, it does look low, but on the other hand, he did seem to win when, you know, he was pretty unpopular with a large segment of -- of society. Is there something hidden in here that could surprise us all?

COHN: Well, I think that the point is fair. I mean, the president's favorability ratings today are higher than they were when he was elected last year. So I appreciate that...


... that concern, to say the least. But, you know, our midterm elections, and in general our elections, are referendums on the party in power. And Trump is now the president. That wasn't the case a year ago. And that completely changes the salience of that number to -- you know, the way that you should think about the likely outcome of an election.

Could the polls be off again, as I think we're going to get to? Yeah. Are there advantages that he had last time might affect it again, like the possibility that he'll do better among the voting electorate than among all adults, which includes a lot of non-citizens who don't vote? Yeah. I think that even the most optimistic take on his approval rating would still indicate that the Republicans are in a lot of danger this November.

ZAKARIA: So the errors -- the two big errors that I think you guys, in fact, came on this show and talked about were the underestimate of the number of non-college-educated whites in America -- because it turns out there isn't a -- you know, a single place where you can get that number -- who tended to vote more for Trump, and the number of undecideds who it was assumed would break, kind of, 50/50 and broke more heavily for Trump. Have pollsters adjusted their models to take this into account for 2018?

COHN: Some have. But on balance, they haven't. There are -- I can count the number of pollsters who have changed their methodology to increase their representation of less educated white voters on one hand. And in terms of undecided voters, there's really just not much you can do about that. You know, in the end, pollsters can ask voters what they're going to do, and if they choose to do something else in the voting box, that's their call. The voters have the final say. But I think that that doesn't necessarily mean that the polls are likely to be wrong in the exact same way this time.

ZAKARIA: The Senate seems tough for the Democrats, correct?

ENTEN: Sure. I mean, look, what is it -- it's 26 Democrats, 8 Republicans who are up. Democrats need a net gain of two now, in order to take control of that chamber. And the fact that there are a ton of red seats that are up -- now, it should be said that incumbents who are in the party that's not in the White House at midterms overwhelmingly tend to win.

But, you know, you're going to Missouri; you're going to Indiana; you're going to West Virginia; you're going to North Dakota; you're going to Montana. These are all states that Donald Trump won by 18 percentage points or more. So Democrats have to defend all those and then pick off both Arizona and Nevada. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is the possibility much higher than it was at the beginning of the year? Yes, but I think that most people would agree that Republicans have a better chance of holding on to that chamber than Democrats have taking control. But the chance that Democrats take control is significantly up than it was from the beginning of the year. ZAKARIA: What is the chance that the Senate will go Democrat?

ENTEN: I would say it's probably between 30 and 40 percent. I think there's some people who would argue, perhaps, differently on the edge. But I think that those odds are about right.

ZAKARIA: You say in, I think, one of your pieces that the polling at this point is pretty indicative of what's going to happen. In other words, can we just stop looking at the polls...


... and, you know, what we have now is a pretty good indicator?

COHN: Well, the generic ballot, as both of us have pointed out, is pretty stable. And I think that's in part because there are not specific candidates. The news doesn't change your overall view of Democrats or Republicans as quickly as it might in a race with two individual candidates, where, you know, news might break on Trump that causes people to react very strongly one way or the other.

And historically, if you were to try and make a prediction about the result of a midterm election based on the generic ballot polling now, you would do a pretty good job of it. That doesn't mean it's perfect. you know, at this time in 2010, the generic ballot polls were pretty close and the Republicans ultimately opened up a nine-point lead, which is on the bigger end of the kind of swing that you would expect.

ZAKARIA: We will ask both of you back. Probably, we won't wait six months.


We'll see how things go.

Up next, a frightening 40 minutes in Hawaii last weekend, as cell phones in the state buzzed, alerting their owners that a ballistic missile was headed right for them. It made us think here at "GPS," just what could the United States do to thwart a real attack if there were one? Find out when we come back.


ZAKARIA: "Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill."

That was the message sent out by the State of Hawaii last Saturday. It took 38 minutes for a second alert to be sent out saying there was in fact no missile threat to the archipelago. But it raised serious questions. What if there were a real missile headed to Hawaii, or L.A., or New York, or D.C.?

Could the U.S. government, say, shoot the missile down? What should people do?

Well, joining me now to answer all that and more is Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear weapons historian and an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

So, let's first talk about how it would work. Do we think, for example, that North Korea has the capability to hit Hawaii today?

WELLERSTEIN: The North Koreans have tested a lot of different types of missiles and they've tested a lot of nuclear warheads. And it's not like they've tested one or two. They've tested literally hundreds of missiles over the last decade or so.

Do they have that capacity? Experts debate whether or not, well, is this test the same as what would happen if a warhead was on top? Would it all work as planned?

I tend to feel like we should assume they have that capacity, because if you are wrong, and you assume they don't, the consequences are horrific.

ZAKARIA: How long would it take for a missile to get from North Korea to Hawaii?

WELLERSTEIN: Make -- you know, you have to make some assumptions about what kind of trajectory it would be on. But 30 minutes is a pretty good estimate.

ZAKARIA: And how long would it be before the United States would know that such a missile had been fired?

WELLERSTEIN: The United States should be able to know relatively quickly. A missile is a very, from a data point of view, noisy thing. There's going to be a lot of heat. If you have a infrared sensor on a satellite, you're going to see a ballistic missile taking off. You're going to know, and especially if it's in North Korea, where you can be sure there's a lot of satellites looking.

So I can't say for sure; I'm not sure that's even knowledge that people have in the open world, but it's going to be relatively quickly. It's not the old days of the Cold War where you won't know until it's halfway to its target.

ZAKARIA: So that gets to the crucial question which I think many people wonder. The United States has the world's most advanced military; we spend $600 billion, $700 billion a year if you put everything together. Why can't we just shoot that missile out of the sky?

WELLERSTEIN: Shooting missiles with missiles is very difficult. And this is not the fault of, you know, bad military contractors or bad scientists. It's just a fundamentally difficult technical feat. You are trying to shoot something that is, relative to the size of the sky, very small and going at speeds that are very hard for, I think, us to comprehend. So when this missile is moving, through most of its trajectory, it's going to be going about 5 kilometers per second. And to put that in the units that might resonate a little more, we're talking about 11,000 miles an hour. That's a very fast thing.

So the phrase they used to use in the Cold War for talking about missile defense was, "shooting a bullet with a bullet." You can -- the fact that we can even shoot some of our test missiles down is, kind of, miraculous in and of itself. But this is just very hard to do. It's always going to be pretty hard to do, and that's no slur against anybody.

ZAKARIA: Why is it then that the much more local versions seem to work, whether it's the Patriot system, THAAD, or am I wrong that actually they don't work? Because that's the one place where people do seem to want them, and the Israelis, South Koreans, et cetera.

WELLERSTEIN: There's a very hot debate about how effective those actually are. When you see either the Israeli army or the American forces showing you some interception, they are not showing you when it missed. And, again, that's not surprising...

ZAKARIA: During the first Gulf War, there was a very, very important debate that took place after it which said that, actually, the Patriot missile defenses which they claimed had worked very well had actually worked very badly.

WELLERSTEIN: There's -- Theodore Postol, MIT, has done a lot of work on this. It's very hard to know. The -- these missiles, it should just be pointed out, these smaller missiles, things like Scuds, they are not the same speed; they are not the same distance, the same problem. These are -- if we have a hard time shooting those down, we're going to have a very hard time shooting down an actually long-range intercontinental ballistic missile.

ZAKARIA: So if somebody -- if that had not been a false alarm and somebody heard that, what should people do? There are still signs for fallout shelters. There's -- is there anything to do? I mean, I realize, in the '50s, people would hide under their desks, which is absurd, but is there anything non-absurd to do?

WELLERSTEIN: It's less absurd than you'd think to hide under your desk. It depends on where the bomb is going to go off and what kind of attack you're expecting. It's absurd to hide under your desk if you're expecting eight missiles to hit your city and they're all multi- megaton-range, which is, sort of, the Cold War situation. At that point, your desk is not going to help you that much.

If you're thinking about one nuclear missile and it isn't going to -- doesn't land on you, some of the effects of a missile are things like things -- windows breaking, ceilings collapsing, things of that nature, similar to earthquakes and tornadoes. In that case, a desk is probably better than nothing. A shelter, a basement may be better than a desk.

You can't with any reliability say, if you do something, you're going to survive a nuclear attack. What you can do is say, we have studies that say that, if certain behaviors were carried out over a large number of people, the likelihood of those people surviving changes quite a bit. And even at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the people who were inside did much better than the people who were outside. The people who were in concrete buildings did much better than the people who were in wooden houses, things of that nature. So in some sense, the old duck-and-cover rule, or, you know, take shelter -- that's a pretty good strategy.

ZAKARIA: That was very useful, actually. Thank you. So you heard it here first. If there is a missile coming, do hide under your desk.

Next on "GPS," what is the most pressing problem facing the world in 2018? The World Economic Forum has an answer. I'm guessing it will surprise you. Find out when we come back.


ZAKARIA: President Trump's first physical examination as president took place last week. The White House physician did not find any issue with his cognitive state. The president's weight indicated that he is very close to being officially obese, a common and costly problem in the United States. And it brings me to my question. What percentage of American adults are obese: less than a quarter, more than a third, more than half, or about two-thirds? Stay tuned and we'll tell you the correct answer.

My book of the week is Max Boot's, "The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam." In every American war over the last half century, military success has always foundered on political failure. And the central question has become how to win hearts and minds. Max Boot answers this question through a brilliant, beautifully written biography of a forgotten man who worked for the United States government as it battled insurgencies in the Philippines and then Vietnam. It's a big, long book but it is well worth the effort.

And now for the last look. A new year often brings with it a sense of optimism. But it's also a good time to take stock of the globe's most pressing issues. From war to refugees, from income inequality to economic strife, from weapons of mass destruction to cybersecurity concerns, the planet's problems are plentiful, but the gravest threat that we are likely to encounter this year may surprise you.

The World Economic Forum's annual global risk report, out this week, concludes that the biggest threat the world is likely to face in 2018 is extreme weather. This is the second year in a row that the report has reached such a conclusion. This is not to say we shouldn't concern ourselves with other problems like WMDs. In fact, the authors say such problems could have an immense impact on our world. But climate is key for 2018, as our planet continues to be pushed to the brink.

And the report notes that, as nations turn inwards, it will make it more difficult to combat climate change, stressing the potential importance of subnational collaboration or public-private partnerships: food for thought for many around the world, and inside the Trump White House, we hope.

After all, this report comes before the president delivers a speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland this week, where he will surely advise countries to put themselves first.

The answer to my "GPS" challenge question is B; 36.5 percent of U.S. adults are obese, according to the CDC, making it the country with the highest percentage of obese adults in the entire developed world. A University of Washington study estimates America spends $149 billion a year on related medical costs. Trump's doctor said he discussed diet and exercise with the president, who was less enthusiastic about the latter.

If you like the "GPS" challenge here on TV, you will love the "GPS" challenge that we have launched online. Every Sunday we will post 10 questions that will challenge your knowledge of the world. I encourage you to see how well you do. Go to and try your hand. Thanks to all of you for being part of this program. I will see you next week.