"Human scum" speaks out: NeverTrumper Tom Nichols on the president who despises him

One of Trump's most prominent conservative critics argues the Democrats should win easily — but probably won't

By Chauncey DeVega
Published November 15, 2019 6:00AM (EST)
President Donald Trump arrives for an event to speak with Jessica Meir and Christina Koch as they conduct the first all-female spacewalk, from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump arrives for an event to speak with Jessica Meir and Christina Koch as they conduct the first all-female spacewalk, from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The impeachment of Donald Trump has entered a new phase. Public hearings with key witnesses to Donald Trump’s shakedown operation against the leadership of Ukraine, seeking to force that country to aid his re-election campaign, have finally begun. This public testimony will corroborate what was made known during private hearings over the course of the last few weeks: Trump abused his power as president for personal gain and enlisted White House and government officials to cover up what they knew were potential impeachable offenses.

Trump’s lawlessness is the nightmare scenario the framers anticipated when they included impeachment in the U.S. Constitution as a way of peacefully removing a dangerous and irresponsible president.

Trump and his defenders have responded to the Ukraine scandal and the impeachment process with lies, distortions, excuses and conspiracy theories in which the president is a “victim,” along with attacks on the character and patriotism of the original CIA whistleblower and other patriotic public servants.

As he has repeatedly done throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has attacked individuals and groups whom he and his fascist movement deem to be “enemies.” Trump especially hates the principled conservatives and Republicans (many of them now former Republicans) who openly oppose him. Several weeks ago, the president even attacked “NeverTrump” conservatives as “human scum.” Such behavior is part of a long-pattern of stochastic terrorism and other threats by Trump, his underlings and spokespeople and the right-wing media.

Tom Nichols may be the most prominent NeverTrump conservative. He is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and also teaches at the Harvard Extension School. Nichols is also the author of seven books, including the recent bestseller "The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters," and is a columnist for USA Today.

In this conversation Nichols discussed being personally threatened and attacked by the president of the United States and explains why Trump’s attacks offer more evidence that he should be impeached, for his personal behavior as well as his abundant failures of leadership in both domestic and foreign policy.

Nichols also provides advice to the Democratic Party — whether they want it or not — about the errors they are making in the 2020 presidential campaign. In his judgment, Democrats should easily be able to defeat Donald Trump, but will likely lose because of their own poor political decision-making.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. Nichols' opinions and comments are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government.

You can also listen to my full conversation with Tom Nichols through the player embedded below.

Donald Trump attacked you and the other NeverTrumpers as being “human scum.” How does that feel?

It feels good to be called names by people who claim that you are irrelevant. What really came out of Trump’s comment was this notion that the NeverTrumpers are completely irrelevant, they're a dying breed — but they're "human scum" and Trump thinks about them every day. So it's pretty clear that the more prominent NeverTrumpers, such as Rick Wilson, Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot and others, are living in Donald Trump's head rent-free. That’s a good thing. It means they're having an impact. To borrow a line from Rick Wilson, "The reason that the Trump defenders and enablers get so mad at the NeverTrumpers is that every time we talk, they feel the pain of their souls trying to re-enter their bodies because we are a constant affront to their conscience."

For the president to say we are “human scum” is not a surprise. After three years the NeverTrump movement is as prominent as ever, and living in the president's head more than it ever has been before.

What does it mean to be a NeverTrumper? Why do Donald Trump and his allies hate you all so much?

What we're talking about here is deadly serious. This is the president of the United States. He's the chief magistrate. He is the commander in chief — until the Congress or the American people say otherwise. But it is remarkable to have Donald Trump, the person who is the embodiment of the nation, who is the head of the executive branch, refer to fellow Americans as “human scum.” That is the kind of language one hears in authoritarian regimes, and from the likes of Stalin and Latin American dictators.

The NeverTrumpers do not have a mission statement. That is one of the things that flummoxes many of the critics. We who are NeverTrumpers have not changed. We're right where we've been since 2015. Trump’s enablers, those who are close to the president, and other Trump defenders who attack the NeverTrumpers, are people who once agreed with us.

If you ask one of us, "Why are you a NeverTrumper?" — well, because I'm a decent human being. I believe in the Constitution. I don't believe in calling people "scum." I don't think it's good to put children in cages — and I thought that five years ago too. We're just being consistent. The anger directed at us is because the people criticizing us have changed. They sold out and have mortgaged their principles and decided to accept things that in another time before Donald Trump would have been completely unacceptable to them

What about the basic idea that there is dignity in the office of the president of the United States? There are some things the president simply does not do, period. Is it Trump's fault or the American people's fault — along with the news media — that his behavior has been normalized so quickly?

I always blame the public. To me that is the key. Donald Trump is who he always was. There was no mystery there. There are many Americans who chose Donald Trump and this situation. I always try to make a distinction between “Trump voters” and “Trump supporters.” I totally understand a lot of my friends who voted for Trump in 2016. I was a Never Hillary guy until Trump was nominated. I would have voted for almost any of those Republicans over Hillary Clinton, because I'm an old-school conservative and I was not going to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Just because there are people of low character in the United States government and now the White House does not mean that you have to support them. There are still millions of people who are out there fist-pumping and going to rallies and swearing that they're going to vote for Donald Trump the second time around in 2020. In 2016 it was understandable. At this point and in 2020 to be an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump is a moral failing on a very basic human level.

Given the violence of his supporters, were you afraid when Trump targeted you and other NeverTrumpers as “human scum”?

No, I wasn't afraid. I'm an American citizen and that still counts for a lot. The United States Constitution is still in operation. The First Amendment still exists. If I lived in a town full of people wearing red MAGA hats I might have been a little more uncomfortable — but even there I still have some basic faith in my fellow Americans that they understand that the president can shoot his mouth off, but we still all have to live together.

So I wasn't afraid. I wasn't even surprised. Maybe the president has worn me down and made me numb.

Dan Drezner, a professor at Tufts University who also writes for the Washington Post, has a new book coming out called “The Toddler-in-Chief.” Donald Trump is behaving like a little kids who says, “I hate you, Mommy!”

I believe that Donald Trump has gone so far off the ledge that there are now people around him who are less willing to act on his directives and behavior because they know they will potentially end up in jail.

When the president calls Americans “human scum” and does similar things, I wonder if there are people around him saying, "Yeah, we'll just leave that alone because I'd like to have a life after this president." I wonder if there's not a rift forming among Trump enablers between the people who have decided to go all in because after this, they have nowhere to go, and the people who have decided that having a career one day and maybe not being despised by their fellow citizens might be a good thing.

This administration is now being filled with dead-enders, old white guys who want one more shot at relevance. That is a very dangerous thing.

Donald Trump is a wannabe professional wrestling heel and mob boss. Does Trump really believe the things he is saying? Or is it all theater, where in private he would tell you and the other NeverTrumpers, “It’s nothing personal, just business. It is all theater.”

I disagree. I think for him it is in fact very personal. It is not “just business.” What is especially frightening is, here is Donald Trump waking up at 4:30 in the morning and tweeting about his enemies.

We should respect the office of the president of the United States, even if we do not have respect for the man occupying it. We must respect the power of the presidency and take it seriously.

I think George Conway and others have gotten this situation with Trump exactly right. I think he is a malignant narcissist. I think he takes every criticism as a deep narcissistic injury, and for him it's all personal. I don't think for one minute that if the door were closed, he'd say, "Hey, I didn't mean any of it. That's just pro wrestling. It's kayfabe."

We're in a moment when professional wrestling is resurgent. To borrow from Chris Jericho, it is all “A little bit of the bubbly.” A professional wresting heel is president. The Wednesday Night War is getting lots of attention. There is great professional wrestling from NXT, New Japan and Ring of Honor. Hell, there is even an old-school style NWA promotion. There are wonderful podcasts from Jim Cornette, Wade Keller, Jim Ross, Steve Austin and Bruce Prichard. "Busted Open" has a podcast and radio show almost every day. It really is something to behold, even when allowing for the subpar “outlaw mud show” indie promotions.

A significant number of Americans see the world as professional wrestling. It is increasingly who we are as a people. They love this stuff. They love the insults and the cheering because they really don't care what it takes to actually run the country. And I don't think that's limited to the United States. I also don't think it's limited to Republicans. I think there is an element of the Democratic Party that is not as bad but does have the same kind of tribalistic joy about this situation.

In both the United States and parts of Europe, people have really become part of a huge entertainment culture where there just aren’t enough serious people anymore.

People yelling, “Lock her up!” is a sign of an American culture that is not serious about government and what it takes to make government work properly. They are not serious in terms of thinking about public policy and such issues as how to take care of other people, providing safe borders, clean water and strong national defense or any of those things.

People who yell “Lock her up!” at Trump’s rallies are people that are basically bored with their lives and want politics to be an ongoing WWE match. I think it says something very bad about us in the affluent, spoiled developed countries that we have basically become overgrown children who just want government to be entertaining rather than effective. We want everything to be fun and fascinating.

It’s one of the reasons we see so many conspiracy theories gaining currency, because conspiracy theories take people with boring lives, and their lives are made more interesting by searching the Internet all day and telling themselves, "I am unlocking the secrets of the Deep State and Q" and other such nonsense.

What were your thoughts on Trump’s speech after the Delta Force commandos killed the ISIS leader al-Baghdadi several weeks ago? He was almost ghoulish in his gleeful recounting of those events.

George Conway took a lot of unnecessary heat for his great piece for the Atlantic where he makes a strong case that there's something deeply wrong with Donald Trump. Conway starts from a very simple proposition, which is that compared to any normal interaction with other human beings, you would look at Donald Trump and say, "There is something really, really wrong here.” On any given day, dealing with Donald Trump, there is no way one could reasonably conclude that he is a normal, well-adjusted human being. With Trump, because of his enablers and defenders, deviancy has been defined downward.

So what does a presidential statement sound like? Well, there are some 60 million Americans who think it's a complete hoot every time the president says something completely insulting or off the wall. Let's give the president some credit for the killing of al-Baghdadi. No matter how this happened, Trump had to give the order. Good for him. But only Donald Trump could completely step on that story by then having to add this deep sense of narcissistic injury by saying, "This is more important than what Obama did. It's bigger than bin Laden. I predicted 9/11 and nobody believed me. I'm smart." With Trump there is a terrifying, childlike sense of narcissistic injury.

I believe that Donald Trump lacks two of the most important things that we used to take for granted in a president, which were dignity and detachment.

Ever since Bill Clinton played the saxophone and talked about what kind of underwear he wears, America has been sliding down to a level where too many Americans want to pretend that the president should be a regular person, someone relatable. Donald Trump is the apotheosis of a long narcissistic slide in our culture that has led to taking a person who has an actual emotional disorder and putting them in the office, because we're no longer capable of distinguishing between unhealthy and normal behavior.

You took a lot of heat for your recent criticism of adults who bring children to Trump’s rallies — events where they are being taught fascism, demagoguery, hatred, racism, sexism, bigotry and violence.

And of course, I've received thousands more tweets because I'm not a fan of what's being done to Greta Thunberg, where a teenager is being put out in public to become the patron saint of political movements. I am a firm believer that there should be a big, bright, shining line between adulthood and childhood.

Instead of taking kids to rallies or propping them up as icons of wisdom, let children be children. The idea of taking a 10- or 12-year-old to a political rally and pointing at the media and saying, "That's the enemy" is just really horrible parenting. I don't like it no matter who does it. I didn't like it when people brought small children to the Women's March, because in my opinion there were signs and other things going on at the Women’s March, which as a father of a young daughter I did not think was appropriate. I also don’t like it when parents bring children to pro-life marches where the kids are made to hold up signs which say things like, "I'm glad my mom let me be born."

Childhood is short enough as it is, especially in the modern world. Let kids be kids a little while longer. Kids don't need to have a deep opinion about climate change at nine years old. They don't need to have an opinion about abortion while they're still too young even to know what sex is.

In total, it is all a way that children have become narcissistic extensions of the parent. “My children are just little versions of me, so I have to make sure that they have the right politics and they think the right things and they hate the right enemies.”

How would you explain to the average American why Donald Trump’s Ukraine scandal is so important?

Donald Trump, the president of the United States, used the power of his office for his own personal gain. It's no different than your local mayor saying, "You can have this waste disposal contract as long as I get a kickback." That is the easiest way to explain what is wrong with what Trump did to Ukraine. To make matters worse, the United States once cared about who our friends and enemies were in the world. Donald Trump is screwing over one of our friends to get dirt on his opponents — while hanging them out to dry with one of our worst enemies, Russia. It's that simple.

There is this kind of louche dismissal of corruption by Republicans, purely because it's your guy on your team. And it's disgusting, it really is a kind of moral implosion. But I don't think Trump created it. We were always heading toward this kind of tribalism. My guy does it, it's OK. If your guy does it, it's wrong. But I think Trump has really forced the issue by being so corrupt, by doing things that are so obviously unethical and illegal.

What advice would you give the Democratic Party and its leadership about how to defeat Trump in 2020?

There are a lot of Democrats who don't particularly welcome the advice of people like me or other former Republicans. They seem to forget that we were members of the party that was beating the pants off the Democrats for 30 years at all levels of government.

Keeping that experience in mind, I would advise several things. The Democrats are focusing too much on who can beat Donald Trump. Almost any Democrat can beat Trump if they stop saying the things that will suppress their own vote.

People keep getting on me with some claim that, "You're telling us to court Trump voters." No, I'm not. In fact, it's the other way around. Trump voters are a cult. You cannot peel off the Trump voter. It's a waste of time. There are no truly undecided Trump voters.

There is no point in trying to turn a Trump vote into a Democratic vote. What I'm worried about is that the Democrats, through their own ineptness, are going to turn winnable Democratic votes into a no vote. There are Americans who are just going to say, "You know what? This is too weird. I don't want to lose my private health insurance. I hate Donald Trump. I don't understand the Ukraine thing. I don't want to be yelled at by Bernie Sanders anymore. I'm just going to stay home. I'm just staying out of this and whatever happens, happens."

If 100,000 people in five key states become that fatalistic because the Democrats have alienated them enough, Trump will win again. One of the biggest things I would say to Democrats is: Stop obsessing about the popular vote. The popular vote doesn't mean anything.

I wrote a column about this for USA Today. The LGBTQ town hall? Was this necessary? Likewise for the town hall on climate change. I'm sorry, was there some big mystery about where Democrats stand on those issues?

I think the Democratic presidential candidates should compete with each other by saying, "Look, I can beat Trump and I can repair the damage to our country more effectively. But everybody on this stage, as far as I'm concerned, is a potential president and cabinet appointee in any Democratic administration.”

This whole Democratic primary process should have been winnowed down to saying, “Here are five or six serious human beings who can beat Donald Trump. Now let's hear each of them explain how they can beat Trump and how they will repair the wound to our country that Donald Trump has opened over the past four years.”

Instead we've got Elizabeth Warren promising a big wonky report on Medicare for All, and Bernie Sanders shaking his finger at us about free college, and Joe Biden losing his place and trying to keep up with the clock.

To borrow again from Rick Wilson: The Democrats are just so holistically bad at politics. Republicans are pretty much going to win most offices by default because Democrats don't show up, because they're bad at these issues and their candidates alienate people. My biggest single concern about 2020 is that it's going to look like 2016 all over again, with just enough people throwing up their hands and saying, "Screw it. I'm staying home."

Every one of those Trump voters comes out. Trump’s voters will crawl over broken glass to vote in November. If I hear one more Democrat say, "Well, I really need to feel energized. I need to feel inspired," you deserve to lose. The words “Donald Trump” should energize Democrats enough. The problem is, I don't deserve for you to lose and you're going to take me with you.

I wish we could just stomp that out right now. "I need to feel energized. I need to feel inspired." Donald Trump is president. Get out there and vote in a way that's going to bring that to an end through our constitutional means of government, and stop whining about how you need to feel inspired.

Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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