How to report on Donald Trump without reinforcing Donald Trump? How to historicize Donald Trump but not normalize Donald Trump? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Joy-Ann Reid. This present conversation focuses on Reid’s book The Man Who Sold America: Trump and the Unraveling of the American Story. Reid is a political analyst for MSNBC, and the host of AM Joy. She is the author of Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Racial Divide, and co-editor (with E. J. Dionne Jr.) of We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama. She lives in Brooklyn and Maryland.
ANDY FITCH: This book condenses several years of recent journalistic history into one digestible narrative account. Did that type of compressed recap seem particularly necessary now, amid the ever-present threat for even quite critical moment-to-moment coverage of Donald Trump to end up normalizing his presidency for more and more Americans? Which specific trendlines of the story you tell here could only come into focus through this type of near-term retrospective consolidation?
JOY-ANN REID: First of all, for that threat about normalizing Trump’s presidency: absolutely. Covering Donald Trump, even for my weekend program, means watching this day-to-day blizzard of constant activity and constant negativity. It gets so overwhelming, and so much gets lost. The big banner headline on Monday disappears by Tuesday. By 10 p.m., Trump already has done 10 more bad things. So one basic goal for this book was just to remember everything I could before the next bad thing he does washes it all away. I wanted to get down a first draft of this history before that just seemed impossible.
I mean, my poor editor at William Morrow! I kept having to ask for another week’s extension, from March into April, because first William Barr came out and completely attempted to shape the narrative about the Mueller Report before we got to read the report. And then the Mueller Report (at least a redacted version) came out. You just have this constant beehive of activity, until you almost can’t remember anything.
This book also laments that narrow partisan perspectives corrode possibilities for constructive public dialogue at present. And to start sketching your own means of maneuvering within that constricted conversational space, could we first bring in your interesting take on how our modern national media, basically from its inception (often thanks to courageous on-the-ground innovators like Ida B. Wells, and to painstaking investigations by volunteer organizations like the NAACP — but also through somewhat less self-aware and self-implicating, more self-righteous and finger-pointing, journalistic incursions by white reporters from the North) foregrounded depictions of the South as a shameless white-supremacist American aberration? Within this multi-generational context of certain Southern white communities taking for granted that the media are “against” them (and now an expanded range of alienated working-class whites across the country perhaps identifying with this non-PC Southerner figure long stigmatized by America’s mainstream media), how do you, or how might one, seek to disarm partisan reactivity in Trump’s base while still getting the message across about the threat Trump poses to our collective democracy?
So this whole idea of “the media” writ large, biased against conservatism, has a very distinct history. It goes back to the late-19th and early-20th century, when lynching became the principal tool of anti-Reconstruction (Redemptionist) Southerners to control black people. Terrorism and extrajudicial murder became so common, with lynchings even advertised in local newspapers.
Ida B. Wells and the NAACP fought not just lynching itself, but benign depictions of it in complicit Southern and Northern newspapers — which covered these lynchings based on the presumption that the murdered men, women, and children had in fact committed whatever crimes the crazed mob accused them of. The press described these grisly murders (not just hangings, but also draggings, burnings at the stake, frenzied shootings, and often following considerable very public torture, often with law enforcement looking the other way or directly participating) with almost clinical dispatch. Much of the Northern media also reported these gory details without the slightest hint of humanity toward the victims.
Wells, who herself came from a formerly enslaved family, emerged as one of the leading voices demanding that this coverage change — that some humanity be deployed in these stories. Eventually many Northern papers adopted Wells’s view, and began depicting these lynchings as the villainous, ugly crimes they were. This outraged Southerners, who felt ill-depicted and propagandized against. So when Northern coverage of the mid-20th-century Civil Rights Movement picked up this narrative of black victims and white villains, that idea of Northern (New York, Chicago, and other “big city”) media “hating” and misunderstanding and lying about the South stuck.
Then when that coverage moved north to depict violent white reactions to the integration of schools and neighborhoods in places like Philadelphia, Boston, and even New York itself, the game was on. Now the “hatred” wasn’t just toward the South. It was toward any white American with “traditional” views on race. Roger Ailes, who built Fox News for Rupert Murdoch, found himself perfectly placed to take advantage of this resentment — as did the early producers of right-wing talk radio, with hosts like Rush Limbaugh empathizing with white conservatives (telling them they were the real victims of a media that hated them), and making lots of money doing it.
So what can we do now about all that history? Not much. Our media have become so fragmented that conservatives can just encase themselves in their own affinity media spaces, where they always see themselves as victims, where the people they hate and fear really are frightening and violent and wrong, and where they needn’t ever confront the real history of this country or even of their own communities. We, on the outside of that conversation, can’t really penetrate it. Maybe, someday, the US will have a leader who can speak over this wall and be heard by all Americans, but I haven’t seen evidence that such a person exists.
Then returning to your book’s own compressed timeline: the media, you write, “lapped up ‘The Trump Show’” in 2016. Today the media still struggle with inherited conventions of treating whatever the president says as news inevitably worth covering (of course at the expense of other potential stories). And you even offer incisive accounts here of how certain niche-media cultures (such as an insular New York press corps, or name-dropping hip-hop performers) likely to appeal to younger, more urban, and / or more progressive audiences also have in their own ways helped to broadcast this “Trump Show” for quite a while now. So could you describe how your own book might cover the Trump administration’s first years while refraining from providing Trump yet another self-amplifying platform?
Donald Trump had the inherent advantage of being a New York media figure when he ran for president. And the whole country already knew Trump as this guy from The Apprentice. The elite media didn’t believe this absurd figure had any chance of becoming president, so they considered him pure entertainment. So for the first year of campaign coverage, from the time Trump came down that escalator in 2015, really into the convention, Donald Trump got covered as a television show — an entertaining show, even for the media. All those antics, all those bizarre neo-populist rallies made it feel like George Wallace meets Barnum & Bailey.
It reminded me of the media falling in love with Sarah Palin. As a person of color, you might have watched those Palin rallies just horrified at the racism, at the open demonization of Barack Obama, at the collective disgust with Obama — like in some crowd you might imagine from 1915, dragging a black person in front of the town square to physically abuse them or worse. People in the Palin crowds would actually scream “Kill him.” But Palin just dazzled the media with her big hair, her Alaska story. Even though every word coming out of her mouth sounded like jumbled syntax and almost unintelligible English, Palin got lauded as this bright new star.
But Donald Trump had this advantage even over Sarah Palin, because she came out of nowhere, from far away, but Trump already had been this local figure. If you grew up in New York in the 80s and 90s, you knew Donald Trump as this goofy gadfly, this supposed real-estate mogul. No one knew yet how broke he was. He successfully sold the boastful image of this self-made billionaire and this Lothario with the ladies. I mean, when Trump himself used to phone the tabloids pretending to be his own publicist, saying “This is John Barron. I just can’t believe who Donald Trump is dating now. Gorgeous women just can’t keep their hands off him,” the New York media just ate that up. And because Trump came across as bizarre but harmless, nobody thought much about reporting on the menace. Nobody had called out the menace as Trump and his father settled housing-discrimination lawsuits in the 1970s. No one warned of the menace when, in the 80s, Trump essentially called for the death of five teenagers falsely accused of raping the Central Park jogger. Nobody tied together Trump’s father being this notorious figure who tried to keep black people off of Coney Island, and tried to destroy Coney Island economically just out of his sheer raw greed.
Instead, through sheer force of personality and a knack for creating his own story, Trump manages to become this strange kind of star, making cameos in Home Alone 2 and on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The guy shows up everywhere. And that’s what started reminding me of some hip-hop artist, right? Trump has a similar sensibility, celebrating all these supposed trappings of wealth. Trump actively cultivates these relationships with rappers, to the point where he ends up in something like 67 different songs. Rap lyrics present “Trump” literally as a synonym for “wealth.” So he somehow manages to inject himself into hip-hop culture while discriminating against black people. He can do all of that because he’s in fact a really good salesman.
Today he’s still a good entertainer. He has to keep entertaining us because he still doesn’t know how else to be president. Someone asked Trump recently if he was helping to bring about the end of liberal democracy. He started talking about liberal cities in California [Laughter]. He doesn’t know what that phrase “liberal democracy” means. He just doesn’t understand the terms. And yet the media still keep trying to fit Trump into this rubric of “president.” They treat him with this over-deference, with which every president (especially Republicans) gets treated. And that vicious cycle of menace and absurdity somehow leading to legitimacy really does worry me.
Well as one antidote perhaps to New York media culture, celebrity media culture, circus media culture: could you talk about the literary from you’ve developed for The Man Who Sold America — about curating such an expansive and diverse array of voices (reminding me of classic Studs Terkel collections), about telling us our story during this Trump era by telling us such a wide range of Americans’ stories?
Well I’ll take that Studs Terkel comparison. I consider that a serious complement. And I did decide that some 300-page rant from me would not be the best way to tell this story. Everyone can see my horror at Trump every single weekend on my show. I try to present my background pretty openly. I’ve worked in politics on the Democratic side. I worked against George W. Bush’s re-election. I worked for Barack Obama’s election, and then came back into media. So I consider myself more of a David Gergen than a Walter Cronkite, right? So nobody needs to read my rant about my feelings on Donald Trump. Instead I wanted to focus on clearing up some media shorthand and misinformation about how Trump actually became president.
You often see now this idea that “the forgotten man” elected Trump, out of economic anxiety. So I wanted to make very clear (based not on my opinions, but on the data) that this particular analysis not only gets the story wrong, not only contains a whole chain of untruths, but ends up legitimating Trump — and also letting his followers off the hook, without acknowledging their real reasons for liking him. At the same time, I did want, like you said, to give voice to this very diverse spectrum of Americans (and definitely not just Americans), to let their own narratives tell the story of how we got to Trump and how we maybe get out.
Yeah I didn’t mean to neglect the international perspectives.
Right this book turns, for instance, to Zainab Salbi, who came from Iraq, who had operated as an activist, but then had to flee the country with her family. She cares deeply about women’s rights. She cares passionately about America needing to offer the world a sanctuary. She keeps watching that sanctuary close up now. She offers this painful commentary, and I felt Americans needed to hear that commentary in her own voice.
Similarly, Sisonke Msimang starts off in South Africa, with her family very much involved in the struggle against apartheid. At one point, her father in fact had to flee to Moscow because of his public opposition to the apartheid regime. South Africa offers this rich parallel culture and parallel history throughout the book. I call South Africa an upside-down America. It got founded around the same time, with the same sort of Christian zealotry imported by white people, claiming to “discover” a place that already had people of color living there. Both countries have this twisted history of using racism to allow Christian men and women to go to church each Sunday after beating and abusing and feeling like they owned their fellow human beings all week. So I wanted to show some historical overlap between these two cultures.
And then for voices talking about our present moment, I really like the interview in here with Tom Nichols, who I know as this national-security voice from the right. Nichols publicly identifies himself as one of the many never-Trumpers disgusted by the deterioration they see in their own party. He also has this personal story of his father joking about being Archie Bunker, and of his mother starting out as a Democrat working in the social-services world in Massachusetts, but ultimately drifting over to the right. In her mind, she’s watching people of color get services and benefits that (again in her mind) white people just don’t get. She’s basically watching ethnic white Americans drift away from the Democratic Party. Conservatives start pressing harder and harder against a Democratic Party that supposedly cares more about the new immigrants (the brown immigrants, the black immigrants) than about white working-class voters and their Irish Catholic or Italian forefathers. Many of those voters do feel abandoned — not in an economic sense, but literally in terms of race (again especially when the Civil Rights Movement starts bringing change not just to the Jim Crow South, but bringing school bussing to the North, and bringing new black residents to previously all-white neighborhoods). Opposition to busing, sometimes violent opposition, ends up happening not just in Birmingham but also in Boston, Chicago, Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, Howard Beach in Queens.
So again you see this whole historical trajectory building up to Trump. Trump feels like an anomaly only until you start to really understand American history. The Civil War produces Reconstruction, which then produces the reactionary Redemption period, with white people using literal terror and murder and mayhem to try to forcibly take back whatever opportunities Reconstruction had offered to black people. The early-20th-century Progressive era produces all sorts of wonderful new economic opportunity for white Americans, which then resumes after World War II. But when black people start wanting to join the union, you get literal violence. You get white people in places like Ohio physically fighting against the integration of the union hall, or the factory. We’ve always had this push and pull of moral moves forward and then of vicious retrenchment.
You can palpably sense that conflicted push and pull in some of these interviewees’ voices — whether or not they directly address such subjects.
And all the way back in 1989, during an NBC News interview, Trump much more directly stated that “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market,” reflecting the “reverse racism” claims of many white Americans. Though he inherited 413 million dollars from his father, Trump added: “I’ve said on more than one occasion, even about myself, if I were starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black because I really believe that they do have an actual advantage today.”
Trump shares this mentality (this sense of victimization at the hands of affirmative action and other race-based remedies for past discrimination against black people) with his base. Trump seems to carry around with him this belief that the government is giving black people things for free, while white people pay for it out of their pockets — that businesses are being forced to hire unqualified black people for jobs white people should get, and that the unfairness of the old anti-black system has been replaced by a vehemently anti-white one. This definitely shows up in Trump’s obsessive resentment towards Obama: this Trumpian idea that Obama got into Harvard Law, which he didn’t deserve; that Obama got to be president, which he didn’t deserve; that Obama got to be loved and lauded as president, which he didn’t deserve; and that Trump himself, by contrast, got treated “completely unfairly” at every turn. Now, to a black person, this sounds just absurd, because you know that black people start off with less wealth, less opportunity. You know the difficulties when you try to get a job, when you try to get housing. You get turned away for no reason at all (including, during the 1970s in New York, by Trump and his father). You get profiled and discriminated against all the time. You get followed in the store. So what, precisely, are you “getting”?
Here just to stay on this tension between economic anxieties and cultural anxieties, your “How Trump Happened” chapter points, as you’ve mentioned, to multiple studies showing that, during the 2016 election: “Trump’s voters were motivated more by partisanship, nostalgia, and race-based anxiety than by a sense of being ‘left behind’ by a changing economy.” But your “A New American Civil War” chapter then reaches back much farther, to W.E.B. Du Bois’s incisive “wages of whiteness” formulation, “by which late-19th-and early-20th-century wealthy industrialists didn’t compensate white laborers in wages but nevertheless provided them with intangible benefits tied to their skin color.” And “A New American Civil War” then applies an updated take on Du Bois’s formulation to our own present: “This also came at a time when white people were…being confronted ‘with a level of economic insecurity that we were not used to for three generations’ and during a ‘quarter-century shift…that saw black and brown faces proliferating across popular culture, from music, to television to sports.’” So amid these various partially (not fully) overlapping interpretive models of entwined economic / cultural concerns, to what extent do you see this book making the case that we can or can’t parse economic anxieties and cultural (particularly racialized) anxieties fueling which white voters — whether these anxieties correspond to empirically measurable economic displacements and / or to subjectively perceived status displacements?
Tim Wise, who I interview in the book about his work studying white Southern sentiments, offers a useful formulation of how American conservatism has evolved into this way for very, very rich white people to keep not-rich white people on their side — and to keep the not-rich white people from ever aligning with the not-rich people of color. And that account echoes what Du Bois says about the founding of this country, when you had white indentured servants and black indentured servants. The black indentured servants ultimately became slaves for life. The white indentured servants had the chance to matriculate into whiteness, into being just as white and just as free as the white people who founded America.
A rich planter might have found himself outnumbered 400 to 1. So that planter first adopts brute force and coercion, to keep everybody in line. So in that way slavery hardens white America, requiring this brutality and ugliness and setting aside of your moral-self while you take on your brute-self. But of course a lot of white people don’t have any slaves. But the slaveowners still need these whites to co-sign on the system, and to fight for (and even die for) this system. So the slaveowners say: “Listen, I might be a plutocratic rich white person. You might not have any money. But one day, you just might be able to own this black guy. You better not align with that guy, because you still have a chance to get ahold of him and own him and own his children and grandchildren. He can become your property. He’s like cattle. You should think of him as an animal. We’ve got to stick together against these black people, to make sure all white people can achieve.”
LBJ once talked about how you can get to the lowest white man by telling him he’s higher than the highest black man. And America’s plutocratic class has remained very smart about keeping that fake conflict of race prevalent in the minds of white people. Today we also of course hear that the Mexicans are coming, that the Guatemalans are coming, that they’re all gang members planning to come in and rape and murder you. White people heard that same story about freed black men in the years after the Civil War. Their white leaders kept saying: “We need to hang these black men so that they don’t rape your daughter.” That white base never gets told: “You and these black laborers have the exact same economic interests, but we, the plutocratic class, don’t want to give either of you our money.” Instead today Trump, now in the highest office in the land, will tell an average white person who has seen (alongside the rest of us) this economic decline, who has seen the deterioration of opportunity from automation, and globalism, and tax cuts for the very rich: “I can protect you from the black people and brown people who want your job. I can protect you from the caravan.”
I covered a group of steelworkers during the election — many of them long-time Democrats, who had voted for Barack Obama. And we could just tell they were going to vote for Trump. And they didn’t always feel comfortable expressing it, but you could just feel the resentment of this town, with more and more Mexicans moving in. You could just feel the resentment that our steel plants have closed and now we just have this Dollar Tree. They had this real economic resentment, but not enough to prevent them from voting Republican.
And all of the studies I’ve read (I’ve read as many as I could get my hands on) show that truly broke and economically anxious white people (whose work situation really had declined) tended to vote for Hillary Clinton if they voted at all. If you placed the blame on greedy corporations and on plutocrats taking and taking, you probably voted for Hillary. If you placed the blame on brown and black people, you probably voted for Trump.
So still reflecting on Trump’s rise as a signature product of America’s distinct racialized history, could you also bring in this book’s account of Trump’s political prospects being buoyed by “the kind of populist tidal waves that have overrun governments from Europe to Asia, Africa, and South and Central America”? Where do homegrown American and contemporary geopolitical currents converge and amplify each other, or muddle things and make it harder to get a clear interpretive picture?
Right. I mean, I think of Trump as a classic autocrat, but also as a very American version. Trump could fit in with the Le Pens in France, except they express their racial attitudes a bit more overtly. Trump could fit with Duterte in the Philippines bragging about killing drug dealers with his own hands, or with Erdoğan in Turkey starting out seeming like a modernizing democrat then gradually revealing himself as a straight-up old-school autocrat. Or Trump could fit with this creeping neo-fascism coming up in Poland or even now Italy. In his own way, Trump actually has destroyed American exceptionalism — at least in terms of the US defining itself as the country that resisted fascism.
One guy I interview in this book, Nick Ackerman, has a really good institutional memory for these topics, partly because of his own family’s exposure to them. He talked to me about how America just barely escaped this fascist wave that hit Europe in the 1930s. We need to remember that the Nazis looked for inspiration to America’s institutional racism — and to how that all had gotten coded into our country’s political DNA. We also should remember (especially now) that, during Hitler’s rise, the American media would do these puff pieces about Hitler’s Bavarian chalet, putting it in the New York Times style section. So that hasn’t changed much either, right?
And then I remember sitting beside Michael Moore on Real Time with Bill Maher in June 2016, during the Republican Convention. Michael Moore predicts Trump will win the election, but I believe the data, right? I’m a data girl. I’m thinking: The data show that no Republican has won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin since 1988. I’m looking at these numbers and this history and going by that — which by the way turned out to be a bad idea. But Michael Moore then says (and later elaborated in a piece he wrote): “Trump is just Brexit.” And Brexit meant white Britons saying “We no longer even live in Great Britain. We’ve become this cultural amalgam.” And I myself can remember walking down the street in London alongside people from all over the world, and just loving how in this big, beautiful, international city you see women in hijabs talking to women in miniskirts.
Of course many Britons, particularly older Britons far outside London, just see that as a symptom of decline. They think: What happened to Old Britannia, where our browns and blacks stayed in the colonies where they belong? How did they end up right here? We want back our Britain that is British (meaning white). A similar reaction has played out all over Europe, driven by the ongoing waves of people from places like Syria, as Middle East turmoil increases. People are moving because that’s the history of humankind. Our history really gets made by the people who move — like the Great Migration of blacks to places like Chicago and Detroit, building this really vibrant culture coming up from the South and then becoming something new. Or I think of the people fleeing Haiti after Toussaint Louverture’s revolution, then creating this interesting French outpost in the once-Spanish city of New Orleans, right? These people who create a new world for us sometimes scare the people already there.
So now Donald Trump comes to anxious white Americans with his one main issue. He says: “Think about all of that immigration happening. Think about all those brown people trying to sneak across our southern border and steal your job. You’re right to be anxious, and only I can protect you from that.” Back even in the 80s and 90s, Trump constantly complained about the Japanese taking over, and then later the Chinese. He always has found some nonwhite foreign enemy to fear and resent and hate. More recently, he added Mexicans and Central Americans to that list. And it worked. Trump knows how to talk to white America in these ways that openly disdain our democracy, our history, our story, and definitely our people of color — again especially in a US that started off as a slave colony, and that very much encouraged its white people to hate nonwhite people, all in order to keep the very rich white people very rich.
So here in terms of contextualizing Trump’s rise within a longer history of racist American capitalism, or when you characterize a 2020 Bill Weld presidential run as “potentially offering a return to a kinder, gentler version of Trumpism…retaining the hyperlow taxes for the rich, the deregulation…and the friendliness to Wall Street, without the crudeness, vulgarity, subservience to foreign leaders, and moblike corruption,” or when you paraphrase Bruce Bartlett as arguing that “the rich have always feared democracy,” do you end up eclipsing any distinction between Trump and libertarians and / or wealthy Republicans? Do you imply that any policy advocated under the banner of present-day conservatism would amount more or less to what we get under Trump? And if so, do you yourself end up normalizing Trump — making him out to be just a bit more obnoxious than the rest? Or what daylight would you still like to draw between which conservative policies or wings of the Republican Party and which broadly unacceptable (partisan identities aside) aspects of this Trump presidency?
Well most conservatives who despise Trump have come out as the never-Trumpers. And I also did talk to a couple people still in the party. They do this work for a living. They haven’t given up on the party, and they won’t say it on record, but they do really despise Trump, for all the reasons we’ve discussed. Others I just consider cowards — elected officials who fear Trump’s voters, and therefore capitulate to anything he wants or does. So this book has a whole chapter on the Republican Party, showing that there really is no daylight. I think this shameful stain of cowardice and capitulation might never wash away from the Republican Party now. I don’t see how they recover from having allowed the Republican Party to become the Trump Party.
The Christian right especially has shown itself to be in so many ways a fraud — with a large part of this Christian right more an extension of white identity politics and of white nationalism than of anything spiritual. They give Trump his strongest support. And polling shows that people in the Christian right no longer believe that you need to act morally to be a good leader. They’ve completely divorced themselves from any sense of family values. Their leaders have emerged as just as plutocratic and money-grubbing as any standard-issue Republican. They hate immigrants, but the Bible tells you to love the immigrant. They’ve become the opposite of Jesus in every way, and they don’t even care about getting that reputation.
Robert P. Jones’s book The End of White Christian America describes how threatened many white Christians feel. They fled to segregated schools after Brown vs. Board of Education. I’m thinking of people like Cindy Hyde-Smith, who made those racist comments in her successful run for Senate in 2018. These people want their tax exemptions back. They want taxpayers subsidizing their segregated schools. They want a country so far-right that most Americans would not want to live there. But that’s what they want, and they really don’t care how they have to get it.
Donald Trump has become a convenient vehicle for cloaking all of these intentions in his distracting celebrity and absurdity. The media still give him a free pass much of the time, and let him keep his “Trump Show” running. Mitch McConnell just gleefully hands this far-right the courts, and doesn’t seem to care about his own shameful historical legacy. So yes, some conservatives with a libertarian outlook might have some slightly different fiscal priorities. But I still see them mostly playing ball with this horrible ethno-nationalist identitarian movement — with that movement indulging all of its own worst anxieties, terrified of undocumented children, watching these caged babies get paraded before the press, and never connecting with all of those real concerns that someone like Andrew Yang talks about: that AI took away your job, that globalism’s movement of capital and internationalization of labor took away your job, not the Mexicans.
We haven’t yet addressed one metaphor appearing multiple times in your book, of “the pyramid flipping” — with, as you say, aggrieved Republican base voters, “having grabbed legislative power in 2010, and increased that power in 2014,” no longer letting their two-faced leaders “abet the browning of America at the behest of…corporate donors.” And we also haven’t addressed your multiple references to former RNC Chairman Michael Steele’s frightening account of how a Donald Trump who keeps at least some of his populist promises departs from this trend of hypocritical Republican leadership: giving Trump, by contrast, an air of enduring freshness and authenticity, provoking significant enthusiasm for a 2020 reelection among his base, further stoking Trump’s own narcissistic and authoritarian tendencies. What do you see many progressives still failing to grasp about this pyramid-flipping president’s potentially persistent appeal?
I think many progressives just don’t grasp that Trump will never lose his base. That base feels this almost religious fervor of support for Trump — which I don’t think a very secular progressive movement really understands. Progressives just see Trump talking like a populist while still enacting policies for the plutocrats, like deep tax cuts for corporations and for the rich. Paul Ryan could easily retire because he had finally gotten what he most wanted. I mean, policies for the rich used to get cloaked in these lies about “compassionate conservatism.” Paul Ryan would pretend we needed these tax cuts to help the poor, because he knew that message would resonate more positively in the press. Republicans had all of these PR strategies for getting the press to look past the cruelty of their conservative policies. They wanted to cut Medicare, Social Security. They wanted to get rid of food stamps. They wanted, as I sometimes say, to repeal the 20th century. They wanted to turn back everything about the 20th century that had helped ordinary people. Look at how John Roberts’s Supreme Court wanted to repeal the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The Republicans wanted to repeal everything that helped anybody other than rich white men, right?
But today you have a robust group of really angry Republican voters saying: “Well, we have our own checklist. Okay, you rich people want tax cuts? Well we want women’s rights undercut. We want our segregated schools back, funded by the federal government. We want a gay-marriage ban in the Constitution. We want you finally to repeal Roe vs Wade.” Someone like George W. Bush would have nodded and winked at them and said: “Sure, sure, we want you guys on our team, so we’ll take care of all that. Just help us get elected.” So then they elect George W. Bush, and he doesn’t do it. And then they re-elect him, and he still doesn’t do it. So they start getting pretty disappointed. The Iraq War looks pretty bad. And then: Barack Obama [Laughter]. And somewhere in there, the George W. Bushes and Mitt Romneys of the world sort of get abandoned.
Well then Donald Trump comes along. He doesn’t just say he’ll do all of these terrible things. He starts doing them. He actively opposes the rights of LGBT people. He shrinks our legal protections around sexual discrimination. He basically slaps our transgender soldiers in the face and says: “Stop serving. We don’t want you.” That all delights the Christian right. They see Trump support and encourage and himself use this resurgent discriminatory language. They see his administration support every American’s freedom to deny service to black people and to gay people, so long as you have a religious motive. You don’t have to bake that cake or take those photos if your religion tells you not to. And now one recent study says that Republicans believe more strongly than ever that business owners have the constitutional right to discriminate against gay people and trans people and Muslims and even atheists [Laughter]. Okay, so we have all of that proliferating, and we have our president saying: “You can say what you want again. You can feel good about it. You shouldn’t feel any shame about feeling this way. I encourage you to feel this way. I’ll keep taking action to protect your freedom. If somebody else doesn’t like it, too bad for them.”
So here again, Donald Trump has turned the subtext into text. And for many white conservative Christian men, Trump’s their guy. I sometimes refer to Donald Trump as the bizarro world’s Barack Obama. What Barack Obama did for the psyches of black folk, Donald Trump does for the psyches of white Christian men. He tells them: “This is your country. Everyone else is secondary. I’ll say that openly, and you should say that openly. If you want to mistreat that Spanish speaker in front of you in the CVS line, do it. If you want to call the cops on that black family barbecuing where you don’t want them barbecuing, it’s your world — get them out of it. If you don’t like those black kids in the park, call the police and tell them to take the gloves off.” I mean, Trump actually told the police: “Stop being careful with people’s heads.” He encourages that kind of violent social reaction, with people indulging their worst possible selves.
No president ever has done that. Even the really racist ones like Woodrow Wilson never overtly encouraged that kind of violence against their fellow American citizens. Even Richard Nixon didn’t do that, and we now know from the Nixon tapes how he felt about black people. Nixon never openly said “Go get them” the way that Trump does, which I find just terrifying. We’ll soon lose whatever moral force we might have left in the world if we let Donald Trump have his way. We’ll watch him dismantle our liberal democracy while entertaining the press. We’ve never had a more dangerous president.
Well finally then, could we take your epilogue’s foreshadowing of a pivotal near-future moment in which “the youth bulge among America’s nonwhite and immigrant populations will have to pay for an aging America’s Social Security benefits, keep our safety net afloat and our tax base flush, and could, or should, power our high-tech future,” and your epilogue’s assessment of a flailing political present in which “rather than figuring out how to emerge into that future as a stable, functioning, participatory, multiracial democracy, we’re arguing about whether gangs of rapists are storming our southern border and fighting among ourselves in serial episodes of the Trump Show”? Could we frame this book as a potential primer for a 2020 first-time voter, or for somebody who hasn’t voted in a while? If you now have an expanded forum for speaking specifically to such voters, what do you most want to say?
I would tell them to pay attention to the great irony of this aging part of the country (this part that most hates the influx of brown and black immigrants) soon arriving at a complete dependence on those very immigrants (as well as on brown and black Americans) for its own survival. Those resented and feared and hated immigrants and black and brown folks will pay, with their labor and taxes, for this older conservative population’s Social Security and Medicare (if Medicare still exists after McConnell, Trump, and Mick Mulvaney have finished plundering our system, and heaving money into the hands of the super-rich).
With America aging as rapidly as Europe, we won’t have enough laborers to pay for older folks’ retirement — unless people of color do that work. I don’t care how feverishly the Christian right tries to ban abortion and birth control, or to force women to leave the workforce and pump out more Americans. And a rational country would want to raise the best educated, healthiest, most tech-savvy, most culturally cohesive young generations possible. But if we let a scared angry minority demonize and marginalize and neglect our brown and black and Asian American kids, if we let American kids’ health atrophy because a resentful white minority would rather lose their own healthcare than let people who don’t look like them have it, if we refuse to fully fund public schools because only “those kids” go to them, and if we devote tax dollars to deportation and militarism rather than to research and technological development, our economy will eventually collapse. In the short term, the super-rich will get a lot richer, while the rest of us will stay caught up in our tribal wars. Then eventually our economy will collapse, and I guess the rich will just have to build higher walls and lock themselves inside.
But we also do have choices here. We can just wait around for artificial intelligence to finish replacing truck drivers and coal miners and farm workers and call-center operators and retail workers. We can just wait for millions of unemployable people to hit their wits’ end, and we can accept the social collapse that will follow. We can wait around as fossil-fuel-based industries die and our outdated infrastructure crumbles, while other countries build green technologies and produce the next Apples and Googles and Amazons. Or we can recognize our people as our own greatest resource.
So to those voters spending their lives resenting some of their fellow citizens, and resenting people from around the world who love the idea of America enough to come and work here and pay taxes and try to build a future here, I’d say: “What a tremendous waste of energy and time. America is browning. You can’t stop it. You can’t deport it away. You can’t lock it all up in cages, or sick the police on it and throw it all in prison. What you can do is figure out how to create the best educated, most technologically capable and prepared younger generations possible — not just for their sakes, but for your own.”
And to those who simply have checked out, and don’t choose to use the power of their vote? I’d tell them that the people who have made your life harder and more miserable do vote, and they’re voting against you, and they’re desperately hoping you’ll keep opting out from voting on your own behalf. Stop giving them that satisfaction.