Rob Reiner on Donald Trump's "classic fascist" ways: "He's a con man and a criminal"

The legendary actor-director on the media's failures under George W. Bush, and how that led to our current dilemma

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 5, 2018 5:00PM (EDT)

In this May 2, 2016 photo, writer-director Rob Reiner poses for a portrait in New York. Reiner has always had an affinity for the father-son story and has explored the theme and his own life in films like "Stand By Me" and "A Few Good Men," but none have come so close as "Being Charlie," loosely based on his son Nick Reiner's struggles with drugs. (Photo by Brian Ach/Invision/AP) (AP/Brian Ach)
In this May 2, 2016 photo, writer-director Rob Reiner poses for a portrait in New York. Reiner has always had an affinity for the father-son story and has explored the theme and his own life in films like "Stand By Me" and "A Few Good Men," but none have come so close as "Being Charlie," loosely based on his son Nick Reiner's struggles with drugs. (Photo by Brian Ach/Invision/AP) (AP/Brian Ach)

In a striking case of life imitating art -- or at least being shaped by it -- Rob Reiner became a prominent political activist after playing one on TV. As Mike, aka "Meathead," Archie Bunker's left-wing son-in-law on the legendary 1970s sitcom "All in the Family," Reiner seemed to symbolize the rebellious spirit of an entire generation.

In fact, he wasn't new to either showbiz or outspoken political opinions even then. His father was Carl Reiner, a well-known comedian and actor in his own right, and during his recent visit to Salon Talks, Rob Reiner told me something I hadn't known: He briefly worked on the rodeo circuit, one of a tiny number of Jewish performers ever to do so.

In the decades since "All in the Family," Reiner has had several different careers: He was an A-list director of Hollywood comedies and dramas in the '80s and '90s, making such major hits as "This Is Spinal Tap," "The Princess Bride" and "When Harry Met Sally..." In this century he has begun to focus more on independent films driven by his obsession with history and politics.

In some respects, Reiner's new movie "Shock and Awe," about the abysmal media failures leading up to the 2003 Iraq war, is a successor to "LBJ" (2016), an ensemble work that re-examines a piece of well-worn recent history in a new light. But "Shock and Awe" is especially relevant now, as Reiner made clear in our conversation, because the media's cowardice during the George W. Bush era helped pave the way for the grotesquely divided media climate of 2018, when liberals and conservatives can't even agree about whose set of facts is actually true.

You can watch our entire conversation embedded below. The transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Salon Talks: Rob Reiner

Legendary actor and director on his new movie and the dangers of Donald Trump's presidency.

There’s so much we could talk about: The Supreme Court and the president's immigration policies, for instance, which you've been very outspoken about. But there's a reason that we're here today, which I actually think ties into all that. Your new movie, which you directed and also appear in, is called “Shock and Awe.”

Yeah, it's an ensemble piece, with Woody Harrelson and Tommy Lee Jones and James Marsden, along with myself, Jessica Biel and other folks.

A tremendous cast. Those of you who were alive and conscious in 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, will remember what the title refers to. But we have a short historical memory these days, Rob, so remind us what "Shock and Awe" means.

That was the term that the Bush administration used, basically to explained the invasion of Iraq. They said that they were going to go in with overwhelming force, and they were going to shock and awe the people of Iraq into submission. They were going to try to force a Western-style democracy into the Middle East that they would hope would magically proliferate and protect Israel.

As much as we don't really talk about that war much anymore, it has been called the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States. Some have suggested it was worse than Vietnam.

I've called it that. Vietnam, from a loss of life standpoint -- I mean, from the American loss of life standpoint -- was worse, but it didn't destabilize an entire region, which was the exact opposite of what we were trying to do. It didn't create this Islamic State of ISIS. I said it at the time, that it was the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the country.

What this film is about specifically is a group of reporters who worked for the Knight Ridder newspapers at the time, who were actually skeptical of the claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Many people in journalism have to hang their heads in shame about that. I don't think my publication was guilty of this, but the New York Times bought into that hook, line, and sinker. Saddam had chemical weapons, biological weapons, maybe a nuclear arms program, all kinds of bad stuff.

So did the Washington Post, and so did all of the major TV outlets. They all said the same thing. They were, I think, frightened because of 9/11. They were part of the group. I think they didn't want to go against the administration at the time. This is a story of these four journalists from Knight Ridder news who got it right. They figured out everything and got it right, but unfortunately, could never break through to the public for a couple of reasons: One was the Bush administration gave them no oxygen. They never refuted the articles. They never addressed them. As far as [the administration was] concerned, they didn't exist. Since the mainstream media was pushing the Bush narrative, they got overwhelmed.

I thought of this movie as an interesting and maybe ironic companion piece to Steven Spielberg's film "The Post," which I'm not bashing. I think it's powerful, but that one tells the story of a time when investigative journalism shaped the national narrative and changed history. This is a story about when journalists got it right and nobody noticed. 

I think it's very analogous to what we're seeing right now. You do have a big chunk of the mainstream media doing their due diligence, and trying to get the truth out, and working very hard. But you have another big block of media -- I refer to Fox News and Breitbart, and then Sinclair and even Alex Jones -- who are dealing with a 180-degree different narrative, and they are basically locking down 40 percent of the country.

For the mainstream media that is pushing out a different narrative, very hard to crack into that 40 percent, and the question that comes out of that is whether or not our democracy will survive. This is something we talk about at the beginning of the film. It's a quote by Bill Morris, which basically says that "If you do not have a free and independent press, you will not have democracy."

Right now democracy is really hanging in the balance, because you have an administration, again, backed up by essentially state-run television, that is calling the more mainstream part of the media the "enemy of the people" and "fake news." You're facing bigger headwinds than the media did in the aftermath of 9/11.

I think that's probably true. I mean, you've been outspoken on politics since you were a TV star in the '7os. This isn't your first rodeo. 

Also, I was a bronc rider. It literally isn't my first rodeo, because I used to bust wild bucking broncos. Very few people know that, because there are very few Jews that go into rodeo.

I would imagine that to be the case.

Jimmy Caan is the only [other] Jew I know that ever went into the rodeo. It wasn't broncs, he was calf roping. It's a little easier job.

That's amazing! I feel like we should have a documentary about that pretty soon.

"The Jewish Cowboy."

That's a fascinating tangent I was not expecting. But, OK, it seems to me like we've never had this situation before. There were newspapers with conservative opinions and liberal opinions, there were divisions between different branches of the press. Fine, that's what happens in a democracy. But have we ever had a situation before where one side was saying to the other side, "You're lying, none of it's true. It's all bullshit"?

No. In my lifetime, that's never happened. I've become very close friends with some very principled, intelligent, well-spoken Republicans: David Frum, Steve Schmidt, William Kristol, people who really care about the Republican ideals. I've said this many, many times: In order to have a healthy democracy, we need a good, strong, healthy Republican Party, and a good, strong, healthy Democratic Party. That's not what we have now. You can argue about policy, that's OK. Right now, like you say, we're arguing about what is true and what is a lie.

What the Russians were able to do was nothing new. They've been doing it for years, it's called "active measures." It's a disinformation campaign. We've trafficked in that as well at times. You get in there and spread lies to the point where you've infiltrated people's minds and confuse them as to what is true, what is not true. That paves the way for an authoritarian figure to come along and say, "OK, I alone can fix it." That's where we are. We're seeing a very slow erosion of democracy and the creeping rise of autocracy and fascism. It's very scary right now. It's not about arguing policies anymore, it's about arguing about truth and lies.

To what extent do you think the mainstream media and mainstream politics have enabled this, or allowed it to happen? I know it's a big question and I keep stumbling over it myself. Are there mistakes that people in the press made? Are there mistakes that people in the Democratic Party or in mainstream politics made?

There's blame to go around. I mean, we were a divided country long before the Russians took advantage of it and Trump took advantage of it. It does lie at the feet of the media. You have to vet each candidate. I think for a lot of the media, they didn't think Trump was going to get the nomination, and they didn't think he was going to win. We had Hillary Clinton vetted, certainly. There were 30 years of vetting Hillary Clinton, and in the current moment we had emails and the Benghazi thing, over and over and over and over again.

Yet with Trump, even though there were a lot of lies and "Access Hollywood" tapes and all that stuff, and attacking Gold Star parents, there was never any real vetting of who this guy was, who he was at his core. That's what elections are all about. It is, who are these people essentially? Who are they at their core?

I would submit to you that things might be different if the media had spent as much time as they did on Hillary's emails on the fact that a man running for president defrauded people out of their life savings with a fake university, to the point where they initiated a lawsuit that resulted in $25 million that he had to pay out, which came from other people's money and was funneled through a fake foundation into the pockets of the people that were aggrieved. Now, we said over and over again, "OK, this man is a criminal. He tries to bilk people out of their life savings, and that's who we want for president."

If we remember what happened to Mitt Romney, Bain Capital was a big deal. He was a good upstanding guy. He was a Mormon. He was the governor of Massachusetts. He was for healthcare for all and all that, but he was part of a company that did some hostile takeovers and caused people to lose their jobs. That sunk the man. He was sunk. Now, Donald Trump was throwing out a scandal or a lie every day or many of a day. There were a lot of shiny objects, and that's the "active measures" part it. You throw a lot of flashy things out there, and the media is going after everything but missing the fact that the core of who he is, he is a criminal. He's a criminal.

He's certainly a con man.

He's a con man and a criminal, and that's what needed to be talked about. Because he's doing it now to the country.

For a con man to be successful, for that kind of a criminal, in your words, to be successful, he has to sell people something that they want. Isn't that part of the problem? Donald Trump is a very skillful con man, because he is pushing a narrative about immigrants, about Muslims, about the nature of the country, and too many people want to believe it.

That's exactly right. Here's the thing, when George W. Bush, the son, ran the second time, Karl Rove said, "We can win this election if we just get Christian evangelicals. All we need to do is get them all." Because they weren't used to voting. They had their issues about gay rights and abortion and so on, but they were not galvanized as a voting bloc.

Some of them, at the time, thought it was inappropriate to be overly involved in politics. 

Yes, separation of church and state. But Rove galvanized that and he was able to bring home victory the second time for George W. Bush, in a large part. That happened again [in the 2016 election] where you had white nationalism, the alt-right and the idea that the country was moving in a different direction demographically. All of a sudden, white nationalists were frightened that their country was going to be taken over by brown people. Donald Trump milked that for all it was worth.

He started by saying Obama was not legitimate, and then he went to calling Mexicans rapists and murderers and saying that all Muslims have to be banned from the country. This is the classic fascist, autocratic way of doing it, to say, "The reason your life is no good right now is because of all of those people over there. If we can get rid of those people, and stop them from coming in and taking your jobs and raping your women and murdering everybody, then we're going to have a good America." He stoked that fear and played to that racism. That's what we have, and he continues to do it.

My last question to you is about how you perceive the overall situation, because it's hard to get a grip on, even for those of us who follow it. Until a week ago we had this policy of taking children away from their parents and locking them in cages. We just had the Supreme Court uphold the Muslim ban, and now Donald Trump gets one more Supreme Court appointment. How bad is it?

It's terrible. It's terrible because we're seeing the erosion of democracy from the inside out -- the press, the rule of law, all of these things are being eroded. If we give this possibly illegitimate president, who is under investigation for colluding with a foreign power to take this country, if we give him another seat on the Supreme Court, it could change the way America is for the next 30, 40, 50 years. It's very scary. Women's rights are at stake. Gay rights are at stake. Workers' rights, civil rights, they're on the table now. It's very, very scary. We have to fight. We have to fight hard.

We need the press now more than ever, which is what the movie's about. The press must hold this person accountable and must get the truth out. We say the line in the movie, "When the government says something, you only have one question to ask: Is it true?" That's what the press needs to keep doing. Is this true? You're seeing it sometimes in the press briefing room now. You're seeing journalists saying to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “That's not true,” when she says something. It's not enough to say, "Let's hear one side and the other side." You have to stand up for the truth. If somebody says something that's not true, you have to call them on it.

"Shock and Awe" is available now on DIRECTV, and will open in theaters beginning July 13.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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