“I open by calling Donald Trump the Joker because chaos is what Donald Trump can do,” said Joy Reid, author and host of MSNBC's “AM Joy," during our Salon Talks interview. Reid was describing the opening passages of her new book “The Man Who Sold America: Trump and the Unraveling of the American Story.”
Trump has given us so much chaos, all by design, as Reid notes. he has been so successful at stirring up chaos because he understands of how the media works and uses it to get his version of the “truth” out. Decades ago, Trump even pretended to be his own press representative to pitch juicy news stories about his personal life.
Beyond creating chaos, Trump has dangerously emboldened and championed the views of white supremacists, as Reid documents in her new book. I was sincerely shocked after the 2016 election that 62 million Americans would cast their ballot for a man who during the campaign openly trafficked in racism and bigotry — including retweeting white supremacists with Twitter handles like, “White Genocide.”
Reid makes clear that neither she nor the black community as a whole were caught off guard by the 2016 election results given what they’ve witnessed over the years: “African Americans have always been a lot more realistic about America since we’ve experienced America in its worst moments.”
It may get worse in 2020, given Trump’s continued use of white victimhood, which as Reid explained is the “door” that white supremacists use to attract white supporters. “If people feel anxious and they feel their ‘tribe’ is threatened by the other ‘tribes,’ by immigrants, it’s just a way in the door,” Reid noted. The use of victimhood by Trump has kept many of his white supporters passionately on the Trump train because they truly feel discriminated against simply for being white in today’s America.
So how does this end? Will Trump actually leave the White House in 2021 if he loses so that we can begin the healing of America? After all Trump has more than once mentioned his desire to stay as president beyond the constitutionally permissible eight years, possibly even forever. Reid, while noting that the Constitution is written in a way that Trump’s powers expire on Jan. 20, 2021, at noon, if he loses in 2020, there’s no doubt Trump will try to create even more chaos before exiting the White House.
So buckle up America, because between now and November 2020, expect Trump to use even more chaos, racism, bigotry, sexism and everything else he used to win in 2016. As I discussed with Reid, the real question is this: After Trump finally leaves office, how long will it take our nation to recover?
Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Joy Reid here, or read a full transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
Your book is a reminder of everything that happened during Trump’s campaign and puts it in context. One big part of “The Man Who Sold America,” is the way Trump sold himself to America through the media, and you cover that a great deal. He got an inordinate amount of free media coverage. Was it simply that he was good for ratings? Was it that simple?
No, he was good television. The reality is that Donald Trump and the sort of logline for the book is that it was the greatest con job, long con, in the history of the country because what Donald Trump has always been good at is selling himself as an image. When he's in New York, he was able to sell himself through the media and to the media as this successful Lothario, great builder, when in fact he was just a guy who inherited $413 million, lost it all, went billions of dollars in the hole, didn't really own buildings, he just licensed his name to them. He owned a few buildings, the Nike Building, the Trump Tower Building, so he had a few. But he made it sound like he owned hundreds of buildings, but in reality he just licensed his name to them like Calvin Klein does to perfume.
But he was able to keep himself in the press by relentlessly, relentlessly pitching. He would call the New York Post. He would call Page Six pretending to be someone else, John Baron, and say, "Hey, Trump is dating a supermodel. You might want to check it out." And so he's just a marketer. And he was able to do that same marketing job on a country that kind of liked the idea of a celebrity Lothario. It seemed benign. It seemed harmless. And there were a lot of people who just, out of 40 years of her being built up to be the worst person in the world didn't like Hilary Clinton and so they were like, "You know what? I'll go with Trump." They didn't win the popular vote, but he won among the right voters to get the Electoral College.
In your chapter on the media you have the great quote from Les Moonves, who was head of CBS, he said, "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS and Donald Trump." Trump has said that the media needs me. On some level, frankly he's helped the ratings of all the mainstream media. What do we do about that?
Right, and the thing about Donald Trump is that I open kind of comparing him to the Joker, because he is sort of a cartoon character meets a comic book villain. And because of that it's good TV, right? It creates clicks, it moves stories. You can see the ratings tick up when he's on screen and so it's catnip for the media so that's one danger is that there's a symbiotic relationship between him and the media.
Even investigative reporting that's negative about him is still about him, right? He takes up all the oxygen. And so I think unfortunately that isn't going to change. He is still catnip. Everything he does, even when it's horrible, caging children, he does it so big that you can't not pay attention to him. And he makes you pay attention to him.
The second thing is that Donald Trump understands the media because he's a media guy more than he's a real estate mogul. What he'll do is if he sees the spotlight going off of him, he'll drag it back to him. He'll do something outrageous or tweet something outrageous or say something outrageous to force you to pay attention to him. He will just do the same thing again.
The third danger I think is that now media is not just the three networks. There's cable, but there's also social media. And now everyone in the world, every government, every maligned dictator on Earth now knows that there is no consequence if they decide to manipulate our election, to go into social media and use our racial and other challenges to manipulate Donald Trump back into the White House. Russia succeeded at that beyond their wildest dreams. Why wouldn't Saudi Arabia try too. Why not Israel? Why not China? Why not North Korea?
Speaking of media coverage, there will be moments where Trump will give a speech like Normandy, D-Day, and he goes off the prompter and it’s like, "Oh my God. He did so good." Remember how President Obama did countless great speeches. There was never a, "Wow, he didn't screw that up."
But he wears a tan suit and you'd think that he bombed the Pentagon.
Now we have this story about E. Jean Carroll, who said that she was raped by Donald Trump, not groped, but literally raped. Some of the media, even the New York Times came out yesterday with a story saying how we should've covered it more, but we didn't because we had our reasons.
They buried it in the book section. The E. Jean Carroll story is inexplicable to me because if any other president, any local mayor had been accused of raping a woman in a department store, like penetration, rape—not touching, not sexual misconduct—but actual rape, it would be the number one story across all media. Look, Stormy Daniels was a consensual sexual affair that got more coverage than the E. Jean Carroll story. It's hard to explain it other than the fact that I think two things are going on.
I spoke to a lot of media critics for this book, people like Jay Rosen who observe the media from outside, who note that the media has a tic where they want very badly to be in the middle. Not to be in conflict with this president, but just to cover him from the voice from nowhere and that no one wants to be perceived as liberals who are attacking the president, particularly because he's a Republican. And the Republican Party spent 50 years demonizing the media as this liberal entity that's out to get conservatives, and I think a lot of media, a lot of journalists have taken that on board, and they don't want to look like they are partisans who are fighting against Donald Trump.
There is a tendency to do things like the anthropological excursions to Trump's America where we observe Trump voters in the wild and constantly ask them, "Are you still happy with him?" No one did that with Obama. Think about it. Were there ever packages to find out, "Are you still happy with Obama? Do you still love him? Are you still as enthusiastic as you were when you stood in line?" That never happened and wouldn't have happened because Democrats haven't played the media in that way.
Donald Trump has played the victim card in many ways.
What's odd to me is, and I'm not being hyperbolic or anything to his base, when he whines it's a sign of strength. To me, it's pathetic.
Donald Trump channels the sense of victimization that his base feels as well. I looked at a ton of polling and research for this book, like one of the things that came out very clearly was that the idea of economic anxiety electing Trump was completely made up and bogus. There's no data to support it. As a matter of fact, to the extent that a white American is economically anxious, it produced either no vote at all or a vote for Hilary Clinton. Hilary Clinton is the person who economically anxious white voters voted for. Or like most poor people, white poor people don't vote.
People who voted for Trump may not have had a college degree, but they're a cop or a plumber, a fireman. They're somebody with money. They just don't have a college degree, so the nomenclature is all wrong. But the kind of person that the data shows does vote for Trump, or did vote for Trump, or really likes him is the kind of white American who feels that they are now victimized, that racism really is directed at white people. That white Americans are becoming the minority and are being besieged and persecuted by liberals, by east coast elites, by people of color. They actually feel that affirmative action is victimizing them, that their place in America to the extent that it isn't as economically robust as it used to be is not because of anything they've done wrong, it's because immigrants are stealing, immigrants are taking their jobs, people are picking their pocket who are brown or who are Muslim. Muslims are destroying Christianity. Gays are destroying marriage. Trans people are destroying the bathrooms.
It's always some other group that is hurting them. And so that sense of victimization is a real feature of base conservatism and the perfect avatar for that is the guy who feels like the ultimate victim, the ultimate white. Donald Trump used to say a thing in the '90s where he's like, you know I think I'd be better off if I was a black. I'd be better off is I was a black because then I'd get all kinds of free stuff. I'd get affirmative action. I'd have a leg up. The blacks are better off than us. That is what the Trump voter thinks.
His white victimhood does not end on our shores. You have a great chapter about traveling to South Africa and about Donald Trump tweeting about an issue in South Africa where the white farmers are under siege. Share a little bit about that and also why you went to South Africa.
I added that chapter to the book because we had traveled a lot, my husband and I, in the post-Trump era. He's from England. We've gone to England and we sort of talked Trump wherever you go, right? You go to England, we sort of apologized across England for our country even though they had Brexit. We tried to push back and say, "No darling," and they weren't impressed. But my birthday was coming up and covering Donald Trump is draining emotionally and mentally and I just didn't want to spend my birthday in the United States. I didn't want to be in Trump's America for my birthday.
I booked a vacation to go to South Africa and we knew Global Citizen [Festival] was going to be there. I just wanted to go, but then it turned out MSNBC asked me to help co-host with Rev. Al Sharpton who's revered in South Africa by the way. So we ended up spending a lot of time with Rev, my producer was down there, my husband and a few us were there and I spent a lot of time just talking to people. That's what I did for the book was just talk to a lot of people.
And everywhere I went in south Africa and the people I spoke with, whether it was academics or journalists, all had the same story which is that, Donald Trump has made us realize that a lot of what America has said about itself and a lot of what your presidents, even Obama, claimed about America wasn't true. And we always kind of suspected it was BS when you said we care about being a multi-racial democracy. We want to function as a multi-racial democracy and we are the leader of the democratic free world. We always suspected that it was really cynical and that you really just wanted our oil. You really just wanted our resources and you exploited it. Well, Trump has proved we're right and that you're not special. You know the Congo had Mobutu. Duterte's in the Philippines. Putin is in Russia and you have Trump. You're no better than we are. You're not exceptional.
That was one of the jarring things that I learned there. But South Africa has loomed large in the narrative of the far right. The white radical racist movement in the United States has long referenced Rhodesia and South Africa as the fate of white people if they don't band together, that you will lose control of your country the way the white South Africans lost control of South Africa and then what people of color will do is kill you. This narrative that black South Africans are murdering white South Africans is a huge issue that looms large in the white nationalist movement.
You hear them reference it all the time in far-right media. Tucker Carlson talks about South Africa all the time. Why is he talking about South Africa? It doesn't seem to make sense. South Africa's a whole different country. But that is a big scare tactic to say to white Americans, you'd better get yourselves organized. You better get your tribe together because those people are coming and they're going to take over and then you're going to lose.
And so Donald Trump channels it because he hears it on Fox, and then he just sort of repeats that he hears it. That same sense of doom and fear is channeled in Michael Cohen saying he drives through black neighborhoods and says, "This is a shithole." And every place black people run is a shithole. And if we let America, by extension letting Obama run America, well the risk of that is what will we be?
In your book, you talk about Donald Trump retweeting Katie Hopkins from the UK.
An anti-Muslim white nationalist who was on “The Apprentice” in the UK. Trump just re-tweeted her two weeks ago. It got almost no coverage in America. In your book, you talked about that was sort of the lead in for him to talk about South Africa.
She got ran out of mainstream British media because she kept referring to Muslims as vermin and cockroaches, and referring to black people in extremely disparaging ways. But she's particularly anti-Muslim. And this is her shtick. But then she ventured from being anti-Muslim to going into South African conspiracy theories. And she started to put forward the idea that white South Africans were being murdered. She would say it all the time in her columns and I think she got run out of her column she wrote for The Sun. She decides to go prove it.
She gets a camera crew, she flies down to South Africa with her camera crew determined to prove that there's this mass slaughter of white people by black South Africans. She finds nothing. And not only that, but South Africans want nothing to do with her. White South Africans are even more in denial about racism than white Americans. They don't want to be seen as racist in South Africa. There was a mass exodus of far-right white South Africans, so the ones who are there really want reconciliation. And so they didn't want her. And they don't want Trump.
In your view, is there an intersection of white victim and white supremacy?
100 percent because white supremacists use white victimhood as a wedge to get in. It's interesting that if you look back at the Tea Party movement for instance, the white nationalists who are now infiltrating the Trump movement tried to get into the Tea Party. It was a big thing to try to show up and get in there because they saw well this anger among mainly white people might be a way for us to market ourselves.
You've seen the kind of cleaning up of white nationalism as the alt right and try to dress it up the way David Duke did in the '80s and '90s and saying there's ways that we can get into white America's heads without being open about we are white supremacists. And the alt right was one, but white victimhood is the door in and if people feel anxious and they feel that their tribe is threatened by the other tribes, by immigrants, it's just a way in the door.
When you talk about an issue like reparations you’ll never have Trump deal with reparations. Last week he would not even apologize to the Central Park 5 for putting up ads calling for their deaths. Is this part and parcel of Trump's play to the white supremacists, or even those who are okay with white supremacy? He actually defended Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor, last week.
Right, if you think about it, Linda Fairstein also won't apologize to them and she insists they're guilty too. The other prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer won't apologize to them. She still thinks they're guilty. The police who harassed those kids and threw them into jail cells, they haven't apologized. They still think they're guilty.
Trump is not a singular figure who's leading a movement. Trump's just a part of a movement. Trump just channels what they think. He thinks nothing different than Linda Fairstein does. She thinks they're animals who, even if they didn't do this rape, were in the park wilding and deserve to go to prison. To this day, she defends her actions as much as he does. Donald Trump isn't sorry that he's the way he is. He just is what he is. He is that guy from Queens that was at Howard Beach. And at the time all these good upstanding people in Howard Beach would chase you with a baseball bat if you were black and tried to walk through Howard Beach.
There were people like Yusef Hawkins who died in New York, not in Alabama, but in New York because racism was just as potent and vitriolic in this city or in Boston or in Chicago as it was in Mississippi or Alabama. So the thing is, there is just a part of America that is white, not the majority of white Americans, but there is a core that supported Nixon to the bitter end, that supported George Wallace and then migrated from the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. The people like Strom Thurman, who became a Republican after being a Dixiecrat. There is just a part of our country that are just with us. What Donald Trump has done is he's empowered them. He is called the God King by white nationalists. They refer to him as the God Emperor I should say. Even if he doesn't think that he's channeling them or earning their support, they do.
Donald Trump, re-tweeted someone with the name White Genocide as a Twitter handle during the campaign. It was something else. David Duke and Andrew Anglin, who runs the Daily Stormer, was out there defending Donald Trump. I actually, as you know, had to sue them because they came after me with death threats because I dared to call out Donald Trump and white supremacy before Charlottesville. So what's the future here? 2016 made me realize I don't know much about this country and my fellow Americans as I did.
I think that's one of the challenges. African Americans have always been a lot more, I wouldn't say cynical, but a lot more realistic about what America is because we experience America as it is in its worst moments. But if you have Donald Trump still at positive approval ratings with the majority of white voters—even now, even with the kids in cages—a majority of white Americans still support him. If you had someone like Richard Spencer, who I tell a story in the book about him, he and Richard Spencer and Steven Miller's relationship.
Yes, the Duke days.
Which they now deny, but that there was an independent third-party observer that watched the two of them together and no one in the media ever remarks that somebody who had any association whatever with Richard Spencer's in the White House, when you had Steve Bannon who declares that he's making Breitbart the home of the alt right, when the alt right literally is just another name for white supremacists. They decided white nationalism is too harsh, they're going to rebrand it as the alt right. And so you have somebody in there who is essentially is trucking white nationalism directly into the White House.
The guy who had a Vitézi Rend medal on, pinned on him, goes in there. You've Kris Kobach, Sebastian Gorka. You have Kris Kobach who we now know from Axios reporting was red flagged for white supremacy, given a huge job to supposedly ferret out voter suppression and is now being considered for immigration czar.
The anti-immigrant white nationalist end of the anti-immigration movement is in the White House and white Americans are still in a majority in favor of Trump, widely in favor of Trump. It's tribe. He is helping the tribe and most white Americans are Republicans. He's a Republican, ergo whatever he does they're for it. And so we have a problem in that there is a clear majority that opposes Trump. He is the most disliked, despised president in modern history, but when you break out voters by race, the majority consists of about four in 10 white voters and nine in 10 non-white voters. That's the Democratic coalition.
In your epilogue you write about this idea “After Trump, who are we?” How do we address Trumpism? I've had authoritarian experts on my show and you've had them on your show. This is Trump. This is not a joke. He's priming his base. He's telling them this is where I want to go.
There is an authoritarian streak in the right wing of the United States and it's embedded in the Republican Party right now, so there's that. The second thing is that the Republican Party itself has given up on the idea of small D democracy. There's actually an anti-democratic strain in the Mitch McConnells and even the Paul Ryans, where they say if we have to choose between tax cuts, a far-right wing Christian Supreme Court and democracy, we're going to choose tax cuts and a far-right wing Supreme Court, that democracy's less important than our eternal control over the government.
And that means voter suppression, massive voter suppression which will get worse. It means denying women equal rights, because women are the majority and they vote wrong when you add in non-white women. And it can mean an incredible tilt towards authoritarianism because who would stop Trump if he said, "I'm not leaving office." I asked a bunch of experts including Lawrence Trott, let's say that a Supreme Court ruled against Trump in some major thing, turning over these documents. The Supreme Court says turn them over and he says no. Who's going to make him do it? No one can answer this question by the way.
It's tough to answer.
I've asked Paul Butler, I mean smart people. I asked Nick Ackerman. Nobody answered this question. What would happen if Donald Trump says, "I don't accept the results of the election. I just don't accept it." I asked them that question. No one really answered it. Who's going to get him, the Capitol Police is going to escort him out?
I would volunteer. I’ve got a lot of Muslim cousins. We could go over there in a second. I mean the good thing, it's slightly good, the 20th Amendment says his term expires at noon in January 21st, so he'll be a man without power living in the White House. That's a squatter.
And it's not even so much that Donald Trump could be Xi Jinping, right? We don't have a system like China where Xi Jinping changed the constitution so he could be president for life which Trump praised. He's not Kim Jong-Un. And the presidency of the United States is very powerful and getting more powerful particularly when you have a partisan party that's willing to let you do whatever you want, right?
Congress is doing great, but it’s just the impeachment thing they're not doing.
Right, they're not stopping him. And the Republicans are essentially saying blank check Donald Trump as long as you give us the judges and the tax cuts for the rich, do whatever you want, right? Destroy the soybean farmers. We truly don't care. But just give us our tax cuts. Give us our money and give us our Supreme Court Justices that are all far right wing. You can do whatever you want. They're not stopping him.
The problem is, let's say he loses the election and he just decides to sow utter chaos as a result instead of accepting dutifully the results of the election like every other president who has lost. We don't know what kind of chaos he could actually sow, but we should anticipate that he will sow some.
What’s your prediction? In 2016, Donald Trump was openly white supremacist, openly anti-Muslim, anti-woman. 2020 he's down in the polls. If he stays down in the polls, it's almost what unthinkable things could Donald Trump do. Is anything off the table that he would do to try and stay in power?
I think nothing's off the table. I think that William Barr, and I devoted a whole chapter to this, has signaled that he's Trump's lawyer not our lawyer and that nothing Trump does, he won't stop it. He's certainly not going to stand in the way. Mitch McConnell's not going to stand in the way. The Republican Party, they're either terrified of his base, or they love what he's doing. They're not going to stand in the way. So there's nothing really stopping him and so I think what you can look for is for Donald Trump to repeat what works.
He also is a show biz guy, so he plays the hits. The hits are anti-immigration. He just threatened to round up, to have millions of immigrants rounded up for the delight of his fan base. Just sheerly to delight them and to keep them on board. And so I think if you're an immigrant in this country, if you're undocumented, just be very, very vigilant because Donald Trump is going to use immigration again because it worked.