CNN's Wajahat Ali: "We knew what would happen" under Trump, but the media just played along

CNN commentator on how white privilege has warped media coverage of Trump — and how Trumpists may destroy America

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

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

Wajahat Ali (Nicola Gell/Getty Images/AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Wajahat Ali (Nicola Gell/Getty Images/AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Last week, the right-wing rage machine seized on a viral CNN clip that featured former Republican strategist Rick Wilson and commentator Wajahat Ali, who appeared to mock Donald Trump's supporters for their general ignorance and slavish devotion to their leader. Host Don Lemon started laughing so hard he had to put his head on his desk. Trump and his followers in the conservative media, needless to say, were not amused.

For all of Trump and his supporters' complaints about "political correctness" and how liberals are "snowflakes," they're the ones constantly in search of safe spaces. Trump called Lemon, not for the first time, "the dumbest man on television (with terrible ratings!)" Ivanka Trump piggybacked on her father's complaints with: "You consistently make fun of half the country and then complain that it is divided. The arrogance, mocking accents and smug ridicule of this nation's 'Real Elites' is disgusting."

Lemon attempted to deflect criticism by offering an apology on his CNN show last Tuesday night. Wilson and Ali have received death threats for the "crime" of poking fun at Donald Trump and the members of his political cult.

Of course, this is more evidence of an obvious double standard: Trump and his mouthpieces routinely mock, demean and terrorize anyone and everyone they view as the enemy. But Trump and his cabal and cult members are never to be questioned about their vile behavior. This is especially true if the critics in question happen to be nonwhite or Muslim, or members of any other group deemed by the Trump regime and its allies to be un-American.

I had the chance to speak with Wajahat Ali recently about what the Age of Trump reveals about racism, nativism, white supremacy and white privilege in post-civil rights America. Ali is a New York Times columnist and CNN contributor, and was formerly a national correspondent, political reporter and host for Al Jazeera America. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Atlantic and The Guardian. He is also an award-winning playwright who has worked as a consultant with the State Department to empower young social entrepreneurs abroad.

In this conversation, Ali discusses why too many journalists, Democratic leaders and white Americans in general did not listen to the prescient warnings by nonwhite people about the dire threat to our nation's democracy and freedom embodied by Donald Trump and his movement. He also calls out the mainstream news media's destructive obsession with "fairness" and the appearance of neutrality, which empowered and enabled the rise of Trumpism. Ali also warns that Trump's supporters would rather destroy the country than share power.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

There is so much horse-race journalism about the 2020 election, as well as Trump's daily abominations, that the mainstream media is not focusing on how all this is impacting the emotions and mental health of the American people. To that point, how are you feeling?

It's an exhausting moment for everyone who is used to some semblance of abnormal normalcy with Republican or Democratic presidents. We have our usual chaos and corruption, spin and misinformation. There are policies that we like and policies that we don't like. But with the Trump administration and all that has happened, those journalists, writers and reporters who are people of color warned of this horrible outcome back in 2015 and 2016.

We knew the character of people such as Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions. We knew their ideology. We knew Steve Bannon's racism. We knew that this would be the death rattle of white supremacy. We knew what would happen, and those of us who are people of color who have a public voice were repeatedly ignored by most of our colleagues and peers in the news and politics business. Even a few months ago a colleague of mine said to me, "Do you really think Trump is racist? Is he really racist?"

As opposed to being a pretend racist?

As opposed to "racial flareups," or being "racially charged." The idea is that Trump and his administration are not to be taken literally or seriously. For example, even at the Democratic convention [in 2016], I was talking to mostly white Democrats, and they didn't take Trump's threats about the Muslim ban seriously. They told me Trump was just proposing the Muslim ban to get elected. When it comes to my emotions, I feel a great deal of exhaustion because those of us who are not white have been warning our colleagues and others what would happen with Trump in office.

I'm not one to get really angry. I try to channel my anger into something positive. But I think righteous anger is a very healthy emotion. It's anger and frustration at the many people who should have known better. But ignorance is also reflection of privilege. It's not malice. It is, "Oh, I had no idea that this thing called racism exists."

At the same time though, I would say that I'm feeling inspired and encouraged. We have skin in the game. We can't afford to sit on the sidelines. We can't afford to be spectators. I have three babies with Muslim-sounding names. This moment has inspired me every day to just throw down in the ring because there's just no way I can let these idiotic, mediocre men who are trying to promote an ideology of white supremacy just wipe out my kids. Investing in hope is very dangerous in these days. It's very risky and it's very painful. I understand why some people choose to be cynical, but we can't afford to be cynical. I choose to invest in hope.

You have commented on this a great deal on Twitter and elsewhere. Leading voices among the chattering class love to use "we" when talking about the Age of Trump and this ongoing disaster. "We had no idea. We couldn't have seen this coming." That "we" does not include the black and brown writers, journalists, pundits and other opinion leaders who were sounding the alarm during Trump's campaign. They are systematically excluded from that universal "we."

That universal "we" is a great example and reflection of white supremacy. White people's voices and perspectives are taken to speak for all people as something "normal" and the status quo. Who's the "mainstream"? It's white. Our white colleagues in the news and opinion business benefit from the existing social and political system. They choose not to see what is happening with racism and Trump and America. They choose to be willfully ignorant.

For example, Chuck Todd, who hosts "Meet the Press," the most influential political show on TV, and a man who is NBC News' political director, where his job is literally to confront politicians, recently admitted he had no idea that Trump's representatives were intentionally using his show to lie and spread misinformation.   

First and foremost, if a nonwhite person had made that admission, they would be fired or just resign. There is no way possible that a woman or a person of color could get away with saying what Chuck Todd did and still retain their job and status in the news industry. The fact that he actually went ahead and admitted it is stunning. If he is sincere — and let's just say Chuck Todd is being sincere — that willful ignorance ties back to what I was saying earlier. Ignorance is a reflection of white supremacy because white people do not have to concern themselves with racism. They don't have to be concerned about oppression.

This leads to such things as, "Oh, black people are getting shot like crazy. Who would have thought?" "Islamophobia and the Muslim ban, who would have thought?" The rest of us, who live in America as it actually exists, understand the realities of racism and white supremacy. White privilege walls off white people from the realities of racism and white supremacy.

Because I think if they actually face it, they would in some way be admitting their complicity. If white people actually name the sin, they will actually have to confront whiteness. White people confronting whiteness should be a moment of reflection and introspection. But I believe that confronting whiteness and the myths associated with it would cause great emotional upset for many white people. It would be shattering for them. They can't handle having sacred myths such as the myth of meritocracy and "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" being shown to be fallacious.

It can overwhelm a person. It can unmoor them. The very subtle complicity of so many of our fellow reporters, journalists and writers in white supremacy is part of the problem and it helped elect Trump. Ironically, one of the slight benefits of the Trump administration is that he is so egregiously racist that the news media can no longer fully ignore it with their euphemisms.

One of the core foundations of whiteness as a cultural force is that white people must always be given the benefit of the doubt for their behavior, however horrible it may be. In practice this means that many reporters, journalists and others in the media must always seek out some reason other than racism and white supremacy to explain Trump's enduring support. To plainly state that there are many millions of white Americans who support Trump's evil is verboten.

Yes, they refuse to accept that fact. That signals to one of the other major problems in this country and that is the failure of "both sides" journalism. It may begin with some well-intended decision to give both sides, Republicans and Democrat, left and right, an equal platform. But what we have seen in practice is that both-sides journalism creates a false equivalence where there is none. In that way, both-sides journalism actually promotes confusion and disinformation.

Both-sides journalism helps to an increasingly extreme right-wing Republican ideology. The Republican Party has shrunk. The ideology that is being mainstreamed by the Trump administration is white nationalism. There is a reason why all the white supremacists in this country see him as their guy. There is a reason why the Christchurch, New Zealand, mass murderer name-checked Trump and said that Trump is "a renewed symbol of white identity." Instead of acknowledging the racism, white supremacy and cruelty of so many white Americans, the mainstream news media continues to search for some other reason that Trump got elected. It has to be the "economic anxiety" of the Rust Belt.

Even the phrase "Rust Belt" is a great example of how white supremacy functions. Rust Belt is code for what? White people. "Midwest" is code word for white people. "Electable" is a code word for white and male. But the reality is that the Rust Belt has a lot of black and Latino workers. Most of the workers in the Rust Belt are women. They outnumber men. "Moderate" is another example. The casual deletion of huge populations of Americans in our national conversations because they are not white is a recurring theme.

Many of the gatekeepers in the news media, even in the year 2020 are still white men along with a few white women. And they, despite their intelligence, skills and experience, have blind spots which privilege whiteness. If those blind spots and how whiteness operates through them are not confronted, an inaccurate view of the world results. That is why we need a diverse range of voices in the country's newsrooms across different levels.  

Black and brown folks, Muslims, Jews, gays and lesbians and other marginalized people know what it means to be made the Other. We understand existential angst, danger, threats and violence. We literally have skin in the game. It is not just an exercise in politics where everything will somehow be OK after Trump is gone. Because of their material and other privileges, too many political commentators and observers can deny what Trump represents and the harm he is causing to America and the world.

They can afford to intellectualize what for us is an existential threat. They can afford to see it as a game. It's an exercise for them. It's fun. Some people have told me it's good for ratings. Again, they can say such things because Trump and his movement are not an existential threat to them. It will not affect their wife. It will not affect their kids. It will not affect their communities. No one is asking to ban them. There are no surging hate crimes against people like them. It's not affecting their synagogues. It's not affecting their mosques.

For us, we had no choice, Black and brown people in this country have always been hijacked by white anxiety. We have no choice. We can't just ignore it and everything will be OK. Look at the 2020 election. It's all about: What candidate will anxious, terrified white moderates go with?

Trump is both the symptom and the disease. White supremacy is America's native form of fascism and that is why black and brown folks are uniquely equipped to understand it, diagnose it and fight back against it — even when by doing so we are often punished as a result. We must also understand that Trumpism is a moral crisis. Through inaction, most Americans — on both sides of the color line, but especially white Americans — are complicit with the evils of Trumpism. They do not want to engage in that type of critical self-reflection. It is too upsetting.

There is this delusional idea that once Donald Trump is removed from office that everything in America will be reset back to normal.

Trump is a symptom of a disease that was forged through fear, anxiety and hate. White nationalism has been deliberately nurtured by the Republican Party, from the post-civil rights era Southern Strategy forward to now. The problem with Trump is that he is a Frankenstein monster which has escaped and turned on its creators.

They can no longer control him. They always thought they could control it, use it, tweak it, but keep it "moderate." Frankenstein is free. Stephen Miller is free. Steve Bannon is free. In America and Europe, we are witnessing the death rattle of white supremacy. In response white supremacy has gone mainstream. White supremacist conspiracy theories have literally gone mainstream. Trumpism will outlast Trump, and Trump has given a model to the Republican Party that white supremacy works to win and keep power. Nativism works. Fear works. I fear that after Donald Trump a more polished and even more dangerous version of him will emerge.

Trumpism is a powerful example of the damage that white supremacy does to people's cognitive functions, their decision-making, their ethics. This is an intoxicant offered by Trump's cult. There is all this pondering by the mainstream news media where they ask the same question over and over and over again, "Why do his cultists love him? He acts so badly." Trump's followers love him precisely because he acts so badly. Trump's deviance is appealing and compelling to his cult members. They are living their dreams through him. Trumpism is in many ways the normalization of political and societal deviance.

Many observers will say, "Why are they voting against their own interest?" No, they were voting for their interests. If your interest is white supremacy, you are voting for Donald Trump. He is their battering ram. He is their flawed instrument. According to the white evangelical Christians, Donald Trump is God's "chosen one." He's the Persian pagan King Cyrus. Right-wing Christians believe that God used him to do good things and that is why God has chosen Donald Trump to be our avatar. He will help us win the culture war. He will help us attack the liberals, the modernists, the secularists, the evil people. He will give us conservative judges. He will roll back Roe v. Wade. Donald Trump will be the one who delivers us the Rapture because he will help Israel.

Trump's white voters were not motivated by economic anxiety. They voted because they believe that white men are somehow losing out in America. In their minds, this is no longer the "white man's country." This is no longer their dad's country. Things are moving too fast. The center is not holding. If you've been in power your whole life, equality looks like oppression. For the rest of us, nonwhite folks and others, when we see more "diversity," this means we can finally have a seat at the table. What racially resentful white people see is, "They took my meatloaf! They took my pie!"

Trumpism, like other forms of authoritarianism and fascism, is a form of infantile behavior on a society-wide scale. Do you think that once the Age of Trump has been defeated a new maturity in America is possible?

This is a very dangerous time. Don Lemon always, to his credit, allows me to ask questions on his show. I recently asked, "What happens to democracy when one of the two major political parties abandons all restraint, norms and decency, and is willing to use and abuse their power for the sake of an ideology?" Because democracy and institutions only work when the people that we have trusted or elected exercise restraint and good faith. When one of the two parties has abandoned all good faith, morals and values, what happens to a democracy? What happens to the United States? That's a question I don't think people are really confronting.

Black and brown folks said, "Donald Trump is going to be racist." The mainstream news media and too many white Americans didn't take us seriously. We said, "Take him literally and seriously." They said, "You're just being hyperbolic." We said, "He has all the traits of authoritarianism." They said, "Oh well, whatever. He'll be fine. It'll normalize. The Republicans will keep them in check."

Everything that black and brown folks warned about has come true. Yet the white reporters and journalists and other professionals in this business who were wrong continue to fail upwards.  

In America under Donald Trump, instead of fighting fascism and authoritarianism, what we have is a flabby moderate majority that is watching Netflix, while a small, very tightly incestuous, ideologically committed right-wing minority is playing for all the marbles. If we don't stand up and fight — I'm talking about people who get off the sidelines and stop being spectators — the American democratic experiment will be over. America will become a fake democracy, like Russia or Turkey, where superficial democratic norms are used to prop up a dictator, an authoritarian, who has the veneer of democratic validation but everyone knows the system is rigged for him. In America with Trump, we are seeing how a white supremacist minority could rule over the majority.

In terms of Trumpism as a moral crisis, how do we make sense of his supporters and why they are in league with such a destructive and immoral force? When I watch these plutocrats, the American fascists and right-wing Christians and others who are literally destroying the planet I often say to myself, "Don't they care about the children? Don't they care about the next generation? Don't they care about the future and how history will judge them?" I know the answer is no. But the question won't leave me.

For many of them it is the Rapture. White right-wing evangelicals believe that the end is near, and they want to actively help make it happen. For white right-wing Christians, the end is the beginning where Jesus returns and there will be a rapture and they are so confident — and I would say arrogant and ignorant — in assuming that they will end up in heaven. Based on their actions, I think they might end up in the wrong place. So for some of them, if this is ideological, the world is going to end anyway. Who cares?

For other Trumpists, it is pure greed. They're like, "I have a limited life. I don't care." Rudy Giuliani basically said such a thing.  And then for others, and this is very important, they think that they are saving the world. To these Trumpists, American fascists, white right-wing Christians and others in that cohort ,they believe that liberals and progressives, Democrats, etc., are the enemy. Their "enemies" are to be dehumanized. Their dehumanization of the rest of us is so extreme.

And there are some of the Trump voters who realize that it's done. The jig is up. They've lost full power and control in America. This world no longer belongs to them, so if they're going to go down, we're all going to go down. They're going to burn it all down, but they're going to make sure they take us down with them.


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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