Biographer and journalist David Maraniss on Trump, Obama and history turned "upside down"

Biographer of Obama and Clinton explains why he'd never take on Trump, explores his father's resistance to tyranny

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 3, 2020 7:00AM (EST)

Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump (Getty Images/Salon)
Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump (Getty Images/Salon)

Along with global climate disaster, the global right's assault on democracy is the defining story of the last decade.

In its attacks on pluralism and democracy, the global right employs the language of populism. In practice, the right's use of that term is intentionally vague. "Populist" does not mean all citizens and other people living in a given country. Instead, it tends to be a racially and ethnically exclusive movement in which the in-group (usually white right-wing Christians in the United States) is defined as the "authentic" or "real" citizens. In contrast, the Other (usually nonwhites, Muslims and immigrants more generally) is marked as an enemy outsider and threat.

In the United States, "populist" nativism has historically been coupled with white supremacy.

At present this takes the form of President Trump and his administration's white supremacist campaign against black and brown people, here at home and around the world. The Trump regime's efforts include changes to immigration laws designed to maintain a "white" majority, detention centers and concentration camps specifically targeting Hispanic and Latino migrants and refugees, and efforts to keep African Americans and other non-whites from voting. Trump's obsession with building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is the literal manifestation of America's long, ugly history of racially authoritarian "populism."

Moreover, it is important to highlight that Trumpism does not exist in isolation. It is the next iteration of the Tea Party movement launched against Barack Obama, the United States' first black president. As political scientist Christopher Parker has shown, the Tea Party movement was mobilized by white racial anxiety and overt anti-black and anti-brown hostility against Barack Obama, as well as a more specific belief that white Americans were somehow being "replaced" and were under attack. As understood by the Tea Party — and now by Trump supporters and the Republican Party as a whole — Democrats are "traitors" who are not "real Americans." The fact that the Democratic Party is a multiracial coalition while the Republican Party is almost exclusively white is central to the latter's claims and assumptions about what it means to be a "real American."

Public opinion and other research shows that being "white" has long been associated with what it means to be an "American."  Of course, white Americans have no more of a legitimate claim to what it means to be a "real American" than do nonwhites.

In total, these debates about "Americanness" reflect how (white) American conservatives have spent many decades developing a brand name — however undeserved — as "patriots" who speak for and represent "real America." In this narrative, liberals and progressives are somehow "un-American," not "patriotic" and therefore "anti-American". In the Age of Trump, those who want a more equitable, free and just American democracy are still struggling to shed those right-wing slurs.

Questions of national belonging, patriotism, loyalty and what it means to be a "real American" are the personal lived family history of David Maraniss. He is an associate editor at the Washington Post and the author of many books, including bestselling biographies of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi.

Maraniss' new book, "A Good American Family," is clearly his most personal. It explores the life and experiences of his father, the journalist Elliott Maraniss, who stood up for civil liberties and human rights against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its agents during the McCarthy period of the 1950s. David Maraniss has won the the Pulitzer Prize for journalism twice and was a finalist on three other occasions.

In this conversation, Maraniss reflects on Donald Trump and the threat he represents to the American presidency as an institution. Maraniss also explains how Barack Obama's idealism and assumptions about the reasonableness and intelligence of other people left him unprepared for the rise of Trump and for the way Republicans have jettisoned norms of political civility and respect for the Constitution and the rule of law.

Maraniss also shares what he learned from his father's life of principle and courage and its lessons for a United States where truth itself is being assaulted by Fox News and the right-wing disinformation machine.

As is customary, this conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can also listen to my full conversation with David Maraniss through the player embedded below.

How do you make sense of Donald Trump’s presidency?

The whole world is upside down right now. I don't know quite how to deal with it as a biographer and a reporter. I'm actually glad, in a way, that I'm not covering Trump on a daily basis. And I'm certainly never going to write a biography about him because I don't think there's much there beyond the obvious. Trump is just a flaccid, self-inflated, monomaniacal person. Aside from murderers, if you were to pick the 200 worst people in the United States, one of them is our president, Donald Trump.

Trump really is a human cartoon character. How do you write the biography of such a person?

I do not know the answer. That is one of the reasons why I would never do it.  There's no depth there at all. The one thing that one could perhaps explore are the forces that shaped Donald Trump, meaning his father and his life before he got to the presidency. But when you're looking for anything inside of Donald Trump, I do not think there is anything there except for incredible neediness. All presidents are needy. I've written about one of the neediest, Bill Clinton. But Bill Clinton is nothing in terms of neediness as compared to Donald Trump.

What of so-called “presidential temperament?” How does the office shape the man, and in turn how does the man shape the office?  

The institution has not shaped Trump at all. If I recall correctly, Trump promised that he would be “presidential.” What a joke that was. But the question is whether Trump has exploded things so much that we can never get back to the way it was. Previous administrations were nowhere near perfect, but there were certain expectations of presidential behavior. Those expectations are gone now. The presidency has not shaped Donald Trump. I believe that Trump is unshapeable except in his own needy mind. The only circumstances that impact Donald Trump are if somebody likes him or doesn't like him.

Toward the end of Barack Obama's second term, I was at the barbershop. As is common in the black community at the barbershop and hair salon, there was a conversation about politics. Everybody was so excited about Hillary Clinton winning the presidential election. But one older gentleman there had been actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. He said to the rest of us in the barbershop, “Are you guys idiots? How are you going to have a black president twice and then not have Donald Trump?” Of course he was right.

I do not know if that outcome was obvious to the rest of us. That gentleman was definitely right. Race has been the American dilemma from the country’s inception, and it still is. Barack Obama had a special capacity to appeal to people's better instincts. But Trump has the opposite ability, to appeal to people’s worst instincts — and those worst instincts are racist.

Now Hillary Clinton was no Barack Obama. Barack had his own flaws, of course. But in terms of dignity, intelligence, reliability, and honesty, he was at the top in all of those categories. That probably infuriated people who were racist even more. The whole attack on Obama began with the most racist claim of all, that being “birtherism.” Trump was at the root of those claims and he certainly took advantage of them.

Am I being too hard on Obama? I was disappointed that he was not more forceful and direct about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He knew what was going on but chose not to be more public in his intervention. 

Obama was playing by rules that the other side was not. That has been a dilemma for the Democrats for a while now. The Democrats are still playing by normal standards and the Republicans have only one thing in mind, and that is to wield and hold onto power, period.

I’ve analyzed Barack Obama. He grew up, came out of nowhere, and out of dysfunction. He spent about nine years of his young adult life, from age 17 to 27, really trying to figure himself out. Who he was politically, racially, philosophically and emotionally.

I think Obama did a pretty good job of figuring out how to become an integrated personality. That journey helped to propel him to the White House. But it also got Obama in trouble politically because he sort of reasoned, “Well, if I can figure out all the contradictions the world threw at me, why can't everybody else?” That led to his famous 2004 speech about blue America and red America and a mentality that did not allow Obama to see the full dimensions of the power that was being used against him and his idealistic notion of humanity. This lack of understanding was going to lead to trouble in different ways — even though Obama has a very honorable way of looking at the world.

Who is Barack Obama in his own narrative?

I believe that President Obama thought of himself in a heroic context. He came to think of himself that way when he started getting into politics. It was a type of savior mentality. I have talked to several people who know Obama and they told me they have seen him come close to saying such a thing a few times in unguarded moments.

There are so many connections between the Age of Trump and the HUAC hearings and the Red Scare. Trump and his minions believe that they are on the right side of history while they harass people and assault the rule of law and democracy. The same can be said of those behind HUAC and the Red Scare. They too thought they were “patriots” while they were destroying the lives of other Americans.

They thought that my father and people like him were treasonous. These people imagined themselves to be the “good Americans” and that my father was not. My father had belonged to the Communist Party USA for a while. He'd also believed in racial justice and was against the evils of Naziism and fascism. My father witnessed the troubles with the capitalist system during the Great Depression, and those are the issues that drew him to radical politics.

But my father loved this country and wanted to make it better. He did not want a violent overthrow of the government — which was the lie that the other side spread about him and others. My father was being called “un-American” by a chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, a racist from Georgia who had voted against every civil rights bill and once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. That man had even driven the car that carried the body of a Jewish industrialist after he was lynched in Marietta, Georgia, in 1913. Who decides who's American? That's the central question of the book.

How did the Republican Party develop this narrative where they are the country’s “true patriots” — even when their behavior, especially under Trump, has very often betrayed and undermined America’s democracy, security and freedom?

It's still with us. It started decades ago and the Democratic Party in particular has been on the defensive ever since. During that post-war period of, say, 1946 to 1957, everything was defined by the Cold War and its accompanying fear and hysteria. Fear was used as a political weapon, much as it is today. The Democrats and/or liberals found themselves walking this fine line between their belief in civil liberties and their fears that they would be pushed out of power because of being defined as soft on something — be it “soft on Communism” or “soft on socialism” or “soft on patriotism.” And the Republican party seized that issue in a way that has been dominant ever since. With a few exceptions, Republicans and conservatives have been able to get away with doing that.

Who gets to define what it means to be a “real American”?

You see that thread from then to now. From the Muslim ban and the treatment of human beings at the Southern border to the disparagement of Hispanic judges. The racist voter suppression laws which are only aimed at preventing minorities from voting. All of these are way that Trump and the Republicans and their supporters are limiting the definition of “American.” “Make America Great Again”? Great toward what? To the days when the country was racially segregated? When women couldn't vote? When black people couldn't vote? This is a story of white male dominance.

What does it mean to be a “good American”?

I think the way I try to do that is to not to look at people through a dominant ideological lens. There are conservative people that I disagree with in every possible respect, who I nonetheless respect as human beings. I don't view them ideologically unless someone tries to impose their ideology on others in a restrictive way and not in an opening way.

Who was your dad to you?

I'd spent my career studying strangers, from Roberto Clemente and Barack Obama to Vince Lombardi and Bill Clinton. After years of research, they became familiar to me. And here I was starting with someone, my father, who was intimately familiar to me. I was afraid I'd end up seeing a stranger. That did not happen. I had a pretty close relationship with my father. He did not talk about that horrible period when he was blacklisted for five years. I was only two when it happened.

It was a shadow over our lives, but I saw my father as an optimistic survivor all along, and that's what he proves to be in this book. I saw him in a good marriage and with children who thrived. I saw my father mainly as a newspaper guy. I mean, he just loved everything about newspapers and the First Amendment and freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. My father oozed that in every ounce of his body. So, when I think of my dad, I think of him at an old-fashioned manual typewriter, banging something out or editing some copy.

What did your father teach you?

He taught me through his words and speech not to fall for any rigid ideology. Search for the truth, wherever it takes you. Root for the underdogs. Don't trust people in power. Hate racism more than the racists. Hate the institutional power that shapes people more than the people themselves.

I think I inherited the ability to write from him because I'm pathetic at everything else. All my siblings are scholars and I was the ink-stained wretch among them. I’m glad I got the gift to write from my father.

 We need more dangerous thinking and dangerous truth in America. It is essential to fighting back against authoritarianism. Your dad seemed to internalize that principle and calling.

It was dangerous then. It's dangerous now and it requires a certain amount of courage, which I wish more people had. My father had that courage and he invested it in his children.

How did your father make his decision not to snitch on his friends and colleagues to the HUAC committee? Was it a dramatic decision? Something that was a given because of his principles?

I wish I could ask him that question, as I can only go by what I reported through the transcripts, the archives, his letters and his writings. I think it was partly the context of the times and who he was with. But more than that it was my father’s internal DNA, his makeup. My father was not going to snitch. It was built into my father to stand on your principles and not to blame what happens because of that choice on anybody else.

What lessons would you glean from your father's example? What does it mean to be a person of conscience who is self-aware of their principles and doing the right thing?

It's easier to say than to do, but I've tried to live by a standard of doing things that will never make me have regrets and never leave me not proud about where I stood and why I stood there. Too many people act out of fear. That is what the bullies want you to do. So, again, overcoming fear and realizing that you will be in a better place if you stand by your principles, always. Again, it's easier said than done, but that's what I try to live by. People have to find their own way, but I just want them to find their own way and be themselves and not what other people want them to be.

Many people, especially young folks, may only recently have learned about HUAC and the Red Scare because of the Oscar-winning film "Trumbo." What lessons does that period hold for the Age of Trump?

Aside from the political manipulation of fear and hysteria? The use of a narrow definition of what it means to be an American. The strongest lesson from then to now is the importance of civil liberties at the root of our democracy.

What is your greatest anxiety about this moment?

What's scaring me the most — and this is a personal thing — is how these events have threatened my own optimism. I've been an optimist my whole life, maybe naively. But I am feeling very vulnerable right now in terms of that optimism and the march of humankind. Perhaps more so than I ever have in my life before this time.

We're struggling with a similar type of cynicism. We as a people have survived much worse than Donald Trump. That being said, matters are going to get much worse than the average American is willing to accept.  

Yes, we have survived far worse in this country. My optimistic statement is that the short term is iffy, but I think the long term is better. I hope that's true, but I'm not sure.

What was it like to get to know your father through researching your new book? Was it a profound moment of discovery? Confirmation of what you already knew of him and the man he was?

It was both. When I saw the editorial he wrote for the Michigan Daily in 1939, rationalizing the Nazi-Soviet pact, I shook my head and said, “Come on, Dad, what are you thinking?” I think it was a pretty indefensible position.

And then, when I came across the statement that my father wanted to deliver to the House Un-American Activities Committee, that they would not let him read — I found it 60 years later in the National Archives — a three-page statement that was really a powerful expression of his belief in freedom of speech and freedom of the press and what he felt it meant to be an American. That was overwhelming. That statement washed over me in a way that I'd never experienced before. I was finally putting myself in my father's shoes after all that time, understanding and feeling what it must have been like for him when he was in the crucible.

How did your father survive that crucible?

It certainly was a test and he did not avoid it. He survived it. I don’t know that I would have had the same strength. My father had this great survival instinct and optimism which he gave to me. His motto was, “It could be worse.” He knew that millions of people were going through worse things than he had. He knew that every African American in the country had gone through worse things than he had. He knew that was true for every Native American. And he knew that a lot of people had suffered personal tragedies far greater than him being blacklisted for five years.

A through line across your work, and certainly your father's life, is the question of truth. What is the importance of truth in this moment?

That is a complicated question because what is truth? I know what facts are, and I know what lies are. But I think there is a common sense of truth out there. It is complex, but always there for the finding. The manipulation of the truth is the Orwellian horror that we are living through right now with Trump in the United States and other countries as well.

Why are there so many people in the news media — journalists, reporters, the chattering class  at large — who are afraid to tell the truth about Trumpism and how we as a country and people arrived at this moment? 

Some people in the news media and press are afraid of being called “biased.” Everything does not have two sides. There are certain things like global warming which are undeniably true. There are others who are intimidated by that tradition of “fair and balanced.” And there are other people in the news media and elsewhere who do not even care what the truth is. All they know is what they want to portray. That is Fox News and Breitbart and other places like that. So much of the Republican establishment right now has fallen down that rabbit hole.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics 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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