Debating socialism, capitalism, Donald Trump and AOC with Fox host Charles Payne

Fox Business host on AOC, overcoming poverty, and Donald Trump's big problem: a lack of "poise and polish"

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 23, 2019 8:00AM (EDT)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Charles Payne (Getty/Don Emmert/John Lamparski)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Charles Payne (Getty/Don Emmert/John Lamparski)

When I spoke to Fox Business Network host Charles Payne last week, I had no inkling that the issue of whether Fox News should ever interview liberals would enter the headlines, courtesy of President Donald Trump.

Payne is the host of the Fox Business show "Making Money" and a frequent contributor to the Fox News programs "Fox & Friends" and "Your World with Neil Cavuto." I wanted to talk to him because he was hosting a town hall event to discuss the respective merits of socialism and capitalism. His professed goal was to have an intellectual and civil conversation about these important issues, which has essentially been my goal as well in reaching out to a number of prominent conservatives (including many from the Fox stations).

This was before Trump lashed out at Fox News for hosting a town hall with Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a prominent Democratic presidential candidate. After Trump wrote a pair of incendiary tweets on Sunday, he told a campaign rally in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, "What’s going on with Fox, by the way? What’s going on there? They’re putting more Democrats on than you have Republicans. Something strange is going on at Fox, folks. Something very strange."

This is a deeply surprising thing for a Salon reporter to say: President Trump is wrong.

While Charles Payne and I disagreed on important issues during our conversation, I learned a lot from talking with him. His ability to overcome unexpected poverty during his childhood in order to have a successful Wall Street career is inspiring, whatever your political views may be. Payne readily admitted that liberals with whom he disagrees — whether lifelong friends or prominent Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — can come from a place of intelligence and good intentions. As we discussed history (a mutual favorite subject), I tried to understand his reasoning behind feeling  reservations about the "fourth freedom" advocated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, "freedom from want."

Trump is wrong about this stuff because we need to be able to engage with those who don't share our views in a thoughtful and civil way. This doesn't mean we will be persuaded by them — I don't think Payne and I convinced each other to change our views. What it does mean, however, is that we send a message that those who disagree with us aren't villains and that we are confident enough in our own beliefs to go toe-to-toe with opposing points of view.

If Trump is truly confident that he is correct, he shouldn't balk when Fox News invites someone like Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders on their programs. Similarly liberals shouldn't tune out people like Payne simply because his views may not be in accord with their own. If we want to find the best solutions for our problems, all ideas must be tested and challenged, including the ones we cherish most — and we can't afford to engage in personal attacks against people with opposing points of view.

My conversation with Payne has been edited for length and clarity, as usual.

What groundwork did you lay out for creating this debate and establishing the idea that, on the one hand, people should be respectful to each other, but on the other hand they should be able to articulate disagreements in a robust way?

Well, as far as the debate itself, I personally thought this was going to be an issue quite a long time ago. In fact, right before the re-election efforts of President Obama [in 2012], I presented a 20-page proposal to Fox News to do a documentary special on this topic. So it's something I've been watching and thinking about, and I'm a quasi-student of history. And I kind of saw this — or sensed it coming — for a very long period of time, as far as the thoughtfulness or the groundwork for how we want to have this debate in a conversational way, that's respectful. Also, there is a real curiosity factor. That's the way I try to approach every day, even on my own show.

What specifically came up during the Obama era that pointed you in this direction?

Well, the disenchantment with America. The disenchantment with capitalism. The notion that government should play a bigger role. That really started to take on more life. The idea of getting more than just the basics from a government — things like cell phones. And also just personal conversations. Most people in my family are not conservative. My friends, my best friends that I've known for 30, 40 years, zero of them would acknowledge that they are conservatives. They're all registered Democrats, would never vote for a conservative.

But I think in real life when we have our conversations, ironically often they sound like any of the conservative friends I may have. My background is in the stock market and my success in the stock market is paying attention to trends or catching them early. So I'm a pretty good observer of individuals and people and society, and I'm always asking questions and looking to the future.

I'm thinking when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, that was the same year that the economy tanked. And at that point, I was in my early twenties. I know a lot of millennials like myself became disenchanted with the system because they felt they'd been betrayed by financial elites. Do you think that could have played a role in the trend toward more left-wing economic views?

Absolutely. There's no doubt about it. What Wall Street did, and then on top of it being bailed out, that was the ultimate one-two punch to the gut of a lot of people, particularly millennials who have now come to believe that this unwritten promise of America where each successive generation does better than the prior generation has been broken. I obviously understand the resentment there.

I'd like to discuss your childhood in Harlem. You grew up in poverty and you worked very hard in order to become a success. What were the main lessons that you learned that you think could be applied to others who are also struggling with poverty?

Well, I will put an asterisk on it because I had two childhoods and I think that gave me an advantage. My first childhood, up until I was 12 years old, was growing up on military bases. So we lived all over the world. I never even went to the same school two years in a row. I was born in New York, lived in Pittsburgh, moved to Texas, back to Pittsburgh, to Germany, back to Pittsburgh again, to Japan, back to Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. And one day I came home from school, my mom said, "Hey, we're leaving." My mother and father, whatever, they broke up. That day me and my mother and my two younger brothers got on a bus and we left Fort Lee, Virginia. Two-story house, never locked the doors, on a beautiful army base, an extra spare room, a staircase like the Brady Bunch.

Never thought about money a single day in my life. Never had an ounce of fear a single day of my life, and we get on the bus and we go to New York, Harlem in the early '70s. The most violent neighborhood in America at the time. And all four of us live in a room. That's where my epiphany began. That's when I had to think about money because you know what? We finally got an apartment, but despite all of those places we had lived — I thought everywhere we moved in, that heat and hot water was part of the deal. I didn't know I could go into an entire winter without heat or hot water. I didn't know I'd have to climb over junkies to go to school, or winos. I didn't know that I would watch people get stabbed and shot to death. And I certainly didn't think I would get beat up, viciously beaten up almost on a daily basis, because I sounded like a white kid and wore the wrong clothes. Or because I reminded the social studies teacher that we were supposed to have a test and I studied for it and it was my favorite topic. I didn't know I could viciously be attacked.

Now with all that said, I had to get out of there. I was the oldest. So for the first time in my life I've thought about money and I equated money with the stock market and I started reading the Wall Street Journal. When I was 14 years old, I told my mother I was going to work on Wall Street. Now, the things I saw in Harlem that I appreciate even to this day was what you could call the hustler mentality. The people that I admired were the person who worked at the post office but also sold weed on the side. The lady that worked at the manufacturing plant, but sold French fries out of her first floor window. The people that had regular jobs but also ran the numbers. Back then we called it scrambling — people who scrambled. I looked up to those people. So the notion of working hard to overcome obstacles, I was able to watch that firsthand and I appreciated that. And that's still a cornerstone of my life.

What lessons do you think you would have for people who are in similar situations in terms of poverty, whether it's in Harlem or in Appalachia — for that matter, whether it's even in a different country? What advice would you give them?

I didn't accept my circumstances. I did not accept my circumstances. I didn't even think they applied to me. One day, I used to go to the laundromat and we took turns going to the laundromat. I had two younger brothers and it was tough. We lived on the fourth floor, no elevator. And we'd pile up all these clothes and you have to take them down the stairs and go six blocks to the laundromat. So one day I was there and I'm the one of the last people there. And there was this guy working. I think he was an immigrant, I don't know where he's from, but he found this doll that some kid was playing with earlier. But the doll was old raggedy and it was all broken up. The arm was off. And so he's putting it all back together.

And so that night when we were eating dinner, my mother saw that I was pensive. She said, what's wrong? And I started to tell her this story about this guy. And I started to cry because he was so poor. And the irony is, of course, we were all in the same circumstances, but I never saw myself that way. I think when people accept their circumstances or accept a future that others have foisted upon them or that others have succumbed to, that's the first major mistake. And particularly in this country, I'm not going to say around the world, but I think in America anyone can overcome their circumstances, especially if they believe they can. I is partly a self-fulfilling event. You don't really become successful with pure dumb luck.

Part of it is you have to think you can be. You have to be able to believe that you're going to do it. No one becomes president of United States by accident. They believe they can be president and everyone around them tells them they can't. Same thing with any kind of success. When I told my mother I was going to work on Wall Street, I told all my friends I was going to work on Wall Street. I told all my relatives I was going to work on Wall Street. I told my father. I spoke to him on the phone. He said, "There's no black people down there." Every time he sees Wall Street there's a bunch of white guys throwing paper in the air. The only person that believed in me, was myself and my mother, so that's where I began. That's the No. 1 thing. If you don't believe it, it's not going to happen.

I'd like to pivot to a moment for history because that's actually  my favorite subject too. Where do you see the trends of American history in terms of our political paradigm? More specifically, we tend to swing from left to right and back again. Most historians would agree that in the early 20th century we swung left, in the 1920s we swung right. From Franklin Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan, we were to the left. Then we moved back to the right. Do you think we're heading back to a leftward shift or do you think Donald Trump and his election and mandate indicate that we are still essentially in the Reagan era?

I think it's a hybrid, honestly, because President Trump is not a typical conservative. A typical conservative would not have perhaps done prison reform, would not have entered into a tariff war, and a lot of other things that President Trump is doing. He won as a Republican, but he also won that swing vote. So many voters who voted twice for President Obama voted for Trump. And that's why I think he's something of a hybrid. Overall, particularly when you talk about the biggest voting bloc, the millennials, we certainly are drifting back left. And I think, if you think about history, I go back to the Chicago World's Fair in 1891 or whatever.

I think it was '93.

Right, '93, OK. That's when we have the birth, in my mind, of American consumerism, of American-style capitalism. The skyscraper. The Ferris wheel. Now we're spending money because we want to. We've got extra. We want to have fun. And that I think put some octane in our tank as a nation and we overtook Great Britain as the most powerful economy in the world.

But at the same time, you had the socialists, particularly in Europe, and they were doing pretty well, right? You had Eugene Debs who did  OK in the election. You had scores of mayors in this country who are socialists. You had over a thousand elected officials in 300 cities, they were admitted socialists. So the fight was there. But the Roaring '20s — ironically, as much as people criticize tariffs, no one talks about the McCumber Tariffs that may have sparked the 1920s. Anyway, to your point, it was all about a good time, making a lot of money and having a lot of fun. When that blew up [in 1929], people saw a lack of accountability and the pendulum swung the other way. So I think since the Wall Street blow up that you referenced earlier, the pendulum has been swinging the other way, but this is an interesting hybrid that could be called the Trump factor, that makes it tough to say we're one or the other right now. I think that's in part what 2020 is about and that's what this town hall was about.

With Trump, the main thing I feel that makes him a policy outlier, as you referenced earlier, are his views on tariffs. He's the first president since Herbert Hoover to be essentially a protectionist. Every president since Franklin Roosevelt, Democrat or Republican, and for that matter, every major party nominee has been in favor of free trade. I almost feel that Trump being an outlier on trade reflects this populist desire to blow up the status quo, regardless of whether that status quo may have actually been more beneficial than harmful. What are your thoughts?

Well, definitely it's blowing up the status quo. One thousand percent. There is a revolution against elites on both sides of the Atlantic, and that's just there. I think [Narendra] Modi in India was a Trump-type candidate. I think [Shinzō] Abe in Japan was also the same thing. Where you had a lot of prosperity that stalled, and the only folks who still are seeing prosperity are the elites — and by the way it's on both sides of the political aisle. People are seeing through that. You just had a socialist get a majority in Spain. You see what happened with the Five Star movement in Italy. You see what's happening in Bavaria. So, yeah, it's a massive revolt against the status quo, against the elites who control all facets of communication. They get to create the message and hammer it home, but people are seeing through it right now. I happen to applaud personally. I love it.

So within that context of this revolution against the elites, and this goes back to the debate that's occurring now between capitalism and socialism, you have a free market of ideas, and the best ideas can prevail based on their merits. But when you have people throwing vitriol at each other — when everyone on the left says that if you're on the right, you're pro-rich and you're racist and you hate everyone, and everyone on the right says that if you're on the left, that you hate freedom and you hate business — that shuts down conversation. But at the same time you want people to be able to rigorously disagree. I guess, to paraphrase William F. Buckley, how do you make it about the objective consequences of someone's ideas rather than trying to subjectively attack the person?

For me, it really does come naturally. Again, being someone who's right-leaning in an environment where everyone is left-leaning, I've learned personally how to have these conversations for a long period of time. It gets a little more difficult on television, particularly with people who have an agenda, particularly with people who are coached. And it's not easy. I mean, it really is difficult, but I don't allow that kind of stuff when I can stop it.

I have railed against it privately to people that I know in the media. When I hear someone say that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is dumb, for instance, I cringe — just like I can remember when there were conservatives who used to call Obama voters "low-information voters." It's the worst insult in the world. They're not low-information. They're just getting information from different sources that you are.

For me, the irony here is that you talk about the best ideas on the merits. One of the problems is of course, is that it's not just that the ideas are different, but the merits are different. How we grade these things are different. If we get a jobs report, the next jobs report, and there are 500,000 jobs created, someone's going to find something in there that's going to make that a bad report, or the head line is going to say "500,000 jobs created but even so ..."

So that also makes this whole thing more complicated. There's no way of actually scoring who's winning the debate. Unemployment used to matter. Higher wages used to matter. But even now, when Joe Biden had his first speech as a presidential candidate, he talked about how people felt as a metric — not how they're actually doing, but how they felt as a metric. So it's tough. It's a tough situation. Personally, I try to make sure that most of the people will come on my show, particularly the regulars, know me and they know that I want to have a strong, smart, honest discussion without any of the talking points. And certainly without the vitriol.

Let's go back to what you said about AOC: When  people call her dumb, it makes you cringe. I'm pretty sure that you and she do not see eye to eye on a number of issues. Do you acknowledge that she's coming from a place of good intentions even though you disagree with her?

Yeah. And let me tell you something also, Matthew. I thought she was going to win.

Against Joe Crowley [the incumbent New York congressman she defeated in the 2018 Democratic primary]?

My wife and I watched every one of her videos the day before the election. I have relatives. I have a ton of relatives in her district. I was in a board of a non-charter school in the South Bronx for many years. I wasn't surprised at all that she won, and I thought she hustled and worked hard for it. Yeah, I think she's trying to do in her mind what she thinks is the right thing.

One document that she's mentioned in her speeches is one that I happen to love, Franklin Roosevelt's Economic Bill of Rights. Are you familiar with it? It basically is a list of eight rights that he said he was going to strive to codify during his fourth term, which was then cut short by his death. I'm curious, as a student of history, how you would see those. They included the right to a job; the right to adequate food, clothing and recreation; a right for farmers to sell their products and earn a decent living; the right of every businessman to trade in an atmosphere of freedom; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to medical care; the right to protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment; and then the right to a good education. Would you say those are things that the government should provide people?

No, I don't think so. I'm more familiar with FDR's "Four Freedoms":  Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear. But I was always worried about the freedom from want. And a lot of those things you just mentioned come under the auspices of the freedom from want. Because the freedom from want, the idea that all of those things are guaranteed, would mean that there's no impetus for us to dig in and take those God-given seeds of greatness, whatever they might be, and then build upon them and let them flourish.

The freedom from want I thought was dangerous in the way I interpreted it. So I think some of those things that you talked about, we need to be able to go out there and get them ourselves and in the process of doing that, we will make the jobs better. We won't need a million people on a farm that a hundred years later could be farmed by 12 people. So with that atmosphere there's zero growth as a nation and there's zero growth as an individual. So I do have some issues with that.

This is an area where I will respectfully disagree with you. That fourth freedom has been the subject of a lot of contentious debate. What Roosevelt explained in the State of the Union message was, and I'm quoting from it, "We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence." So while some people are able to pull themselves up from out of poverty, others who work hard and are intelligent can't. Removing the want from that equation will increase their freedom. What is your rebuttal to Roosevelt's underlying logic?

I just think that he's underestimating American capitalism and the rugged individualism that made America the most successful country in the world in a very short period of time, leap-frogging nations that have been established for thousands of years. I just think that the individual resolve of Americans is what got us, propelled us to this point. I think you take it away and I think we fade into history. So I just disagree.

That's fair. Let's go on to the next president who was a New Yorker, Donald Trump. You described his hybridized view on policy matters, and you said something that I found intriguing. We were talking about whether this is a continuation of the Reagan era and you said Trump's version of conservatism is a little different. Aside from trade policy, where do you see those differences?

Maybe militarily? I think Reagan embraced the notion of America being the policeman of the world. I don't think that Trump necessarily does. More recently, this morning there was talk about him even having some frustration with Mike Pompeo maybe moving too quickly towards a war scenario with Iran. I think that's a key area of conservatism where some of the old-school hawks may have issues with Trump. Listen, the purists out there, the Trumpians out there think he has moved too much on that side anyway. But I think as far as his own personal feelings, his own intuition is concerned, I think he's less about America being the policeman of the world. So again, that gets back into a gray muddled area.

Reagan did use tariffs and [U.S. Trade Representative Robert] Lighthizer is actually involved with the Japanese, and he leveled the tariffs against Japanese motorcycles in an effort to level the playing field for Harley. I think the issue now, honestly is about poise and polish more than anything else. I just think that the Never Trumpers out there who say he's not Ronald Reagan are looking more at style than substance, even though there are some distinct differences.

Do you think that the style that Trump has used during his presidency has been effective? Or simply corrosive in terms of creating this kind of civil dialogue that needs to exist between both sides?

I think it's been reflective. What I mean by that is I don't think that Trump is setting a tone. I think he's reflecting a tone that already exist in the real world. The way real people talk to each other, which I think is why he was so appealing to so many people, because he was a non-politician and he didn't go up there buttoned down like Mitt Romney. He just comes out and he blurts out what people say when they're at the laundromat, what people say when they're waiting in line at the DMV, what people when they're stuck in rush hour traffic or they hit a pothole and they wonder why the city won't fix these potholes. He's saying what people say to each other, and he's saying it in a way that no politician in my lifetime has said it before.

So there's not the poise there. But I don't think it's corrosive. I think it's reflective, and I think the elites who say statecraft is done a certain way and diplomacy is done a certain way have recoiled, but they own the headlines. They get to write the stories and they get to say it's corrosive. But I really think it's just honesty and he is not trying to be a phony.

He's not the guy who's going to run for office and then we find he had blackface in his yearbook or that he used the N-word when talking behind closed doors to his people: "Hey, I represent a district full of N-words." He's not these phonies that we find out about time after time. To be quite frank with you, I think most Americans consider most politicians to be phony without any revelations or proof.

I just think that he's an honest reflection of America. And I think on the Democratic side that's emerging as well. These younger Democrats are expressing themselves sometimes in a very angry manner are reflecting the anger of their own constituents.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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