Rev. Al Sharpton on Trump, Biden and America: "This is a hard test for the country"

Veteran civil rights leader has known Donald Trump for 30 years: He "truly does see himself as a dictator"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 30, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Al Sharpton (Getty Images)
Al Sharpton (Getty Images)

Tuesday night's debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was one of the most anticipated, and perhaps consequential, in recent American history. After it was concluded, their confrontation was memorably described as a "sh**show" (by CNN's Dana Bash) and "a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck" (by Jake Tapper). 

President Trump lied about the coronavirus pandemic for at least six months and has made choices — including active sabotage of the coronavirus relief efforts — that have killed thousands of people in the United States. Trump should be criminally charged with negligent homicide or crimes against humanity. On Tuesday, he not merely failed to show contrition but celebrated what he sees as his exemplary handling of the pandemic.

With Election Day just five weeks away, Trump still refuses to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses. Moreover, Trump, his servants, and broader movement, are actively working to circumvent the people's will and democracy by using the courts and other means, including violence, to keep him in power indefinitely. In many ways, that too is unprecedented in recent American history. In all, the future of the country's democracy hangs in the balance on Election Day 2020 and in the following days and weeks.

Further raising the stakes for the Trump-Biden debates, the New York Times has obtained Trump's tax returns which show that he owes hundreds of millions of dollars in loans that will soon come due. Trump has paid no federal income taxes in 10 of the years between 2000 and 2015. In 2016 and 2017 Trump paid only $750 in income tax each year.

The picture painted by these tax records is of a man who is fabulously corrupt and therefore vulnerable to being blackmailed or otherwise manipulated to act against the national security interests of the United States and the American people.

The Democratic ticket of Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris represents a return to relative normalcy (for better or worse) and at least the hope for a better future where the damage caused by Trumpism and its vast apparatus of racism, sexism and other forms of cruelty can begin to be repaired. In contrast to Trump's bombast, unpredictability, childishness, ignorance, malignant narcissism and other mental pathologies — all of which were on display in Cleveland on Tuesday evening — Biden offers comfort, maturity and intelligence.

But debates have little impact on average voters' decision-making, as political scientists have shown. This is likely to be especially true for the 2020 presidential election given the highly polarized environment and the fact that a large majority of registered voters have already decided which candidate to support. As such, the 2020 presidential debates will mostly influence undecided and other low-information voters, many of whom will waver between the two candidates until Election Day. Ultimately, the narrative that is generated about the first debate (and those that follow) will matter more than the substance of the political issues fought over by Trump and Biden during the event itself.

After the first debate both Biden and Trump will claim victory and their supporters will agree. Regardless of the substantive political outcome, the first debate was a political spectacle.

How difficult is it to debate someone who has no limits of morality or human decency but who is also a devious master of television and political performance art? Why have the Democrats and many members of the news media been unable to grapple with the moral and political crisis represented by Donald Trump and his movement? What motivated so many among the mainstream corporate news media to enable and normalize Trump and his assault on American democracy and freedom?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with the Rev. Al Sharpton. He is the host of MSNBC's "PoliticsNation" and founder and president of the civil rights organization National Action Network (NAN). Sharpton also hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, "Keepin' It Real." His new book is "Rise Up: Confronting a Country at the Crossroads."

At the end of this conversation, Sharpton also offers hope that outrage over the killing of George Floyd can help to forge a multiracial alliance that will ultimately defeat Donald Trump's racist and fascist movement and put the country back on a better path for the future.

You can also listen to my conversation with Rev. Al Sharpton on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

How are you feeling? There is so much despair, worry, and fear as Election Day 2020 approaches. All of that being amplified by the passing away of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  

I am worried and fearful. I have a range of emotions, really. But I use my fear to drive me to doing more of the work I care about. You can use fear to paralyze you or you can use fear to empower you. I try to use fear to empower me to fight the forces that I am afraid of in these very precarious times with Donald Trump and all that he has summoned and empowered.

Why do you think so many people, including too many people in the chattering class and commentariat, have been so afraid for so long to tell the truth about Trump and what he represents? Many of those same voices, even now, are still in denial about Trump and his movement.

Some of it was because they could not believe someone could be this corrupt, narcissistic and insensitive. Some of the fear of the truth was driven by ratings. Donald Trump was good for their media business. There was self-interest: The media business became inadvertently corrupted by the master corrupter in the form of Donald Trump. But here we are. The truth has become so blatant and ugly that the pundits and chattering class you described cannot deny it. But they are very late to the truth. This has cost a lot of people their lives and health. We tried to warn people about what would happen, and we were called alarmists, flame throwers, and the like — and now look at where we are with Donald Trump, four or so years later.

I hate to tell people "I told you so" when I warned that Trump would win in 2016 and be a fascist and authoritarian disaster for the country and the world. But what should we do when those folks who were in denial and mocked us want help and wisdom now? There has got to be some accountability for those people who helped to make the Age of Trump possible.

I think that there does need to be accountability. I think we have to help them, but we also have to remind them of their errors so that they can tell the cynics and doubters of the future by admitting that in the past they were doubters.

You know Trump. You're from New York. What did you understand about Donald Trump that people in other parts of the country did not?

Donald Trump and his father were sued in the 1970s for racial housing discrimination. That was when Trump got on my radar as a young activist. And then in the 1980s, Trump purchased a lot of property and casinos in Atlantic City. In order to be able to draw people into Atlantic City, he got the exclusive rights to the Atlantic City Convention Center. He wanted to have fights there. He had his Miss America pageant there too.

Trump hooked up with boxing promoter Don King. Trump knew that a large part of the city council at that time was Black, and he didn't want to have any problems. So King told him, "Let me get you and Al Sharpton together." I knew Don King. He had supported our organization at the time. He supported Rev. [Jesse] Jackson as well.  I never really trusted Donald Trump, but I felt that he was the kind of person who was transactional. Trump would do what was right if it was advantageous to him. I would talk to him. Sometimes I would go to see Mike Tyson's fights and Trump and I would be at ringside together.

And then when Trump went after the Central Park Five with those newspaper ads, I marched against him. Trump called Don King and said, "Why is he marching on me? I thought we were all right." And Don said, "That doesn't mean anything to Sharpton. If he feels you're wrong, you're wrong."

Then in the 1990s Donald Trump became a Democrat. He supported Freddy Ferrer for mayor. He also supported [longtime New York congressman] Charlie Rangel. He came to my National Action Network convention twice.

Trump would later pivot to birtherism against Barack Obama. [After that happened] I got a call from someone who was a mutual friend of Michael Cohen. He wanted to set up a meeting to clear the air with me and Donald Trump. So I agreed to the meeting. I went to Trump Tower. Donald Trump says to me, "You know I'm not a racist." I said, "You know good and well this man was born in this country." I wouldn't back off, he wouldn't back off. And we argued about 45 minutes.

So I left after 45 minutes, and my friend said to me in the elevator, "What are you going to do?" I said, "I'm going on my show tonight and say what happened because Donald Trump will lie." Sure enough, he went on Fox and said, "Al Sharpton came and told me he understands that I'm a great guy."

Donald Trump is a liar. I believe that he is also a racist. I saw him not long after that, at the 40th anniversary of "Saturday Night Live," and I'll never forget it. Trump leaned over to me with this little smile on his mouth, and he said, "You got to do what you got to do, and I've got to do what I got to do." And I said, oh, he's all in on this.

Trump was committed to using racism to get political capital, and only a racist could be comfortable with that. I don't care who you are, you're not going to run with something as despicable as birtherism unless you are a racist.

He rose on racism, and he is also a dishonest person. He is also a narcissist. He does not care about the Republican Party. Everything is all about him. The country is now in limbo or some type of no man's land. We as a country are now forced to discuss if there is going to be a peaceful transition of power if Biden beats Trump. Donald Trump admires autocrats and dictators and will get as close to being one as he can. Only those people who have dealt with him, as I have for 30-some-odd years, really understand that Trump truly does see himself as a dictator.

Mike Tyson famously said that no plan survives getting punched in the face. Thinking about Tyson's wisdom, what were the Democrats not prepared for in their fights with Donald Trump? Trump is relentless. He has been winning on almost every issue for four years. But every time he breaks another norm or boundary, the Democrats and the mainstream news media act shocked. Donald Trump is not subtle. He says what he is going to do and then he does it.

That is exactly right. I told DNC chair Tom Perez and all of the primary candidates as well that when you get into a fight with Trump it is not a professional boxing match where you come in the ring wearing gloves and there are rules and a referee.

To fight Trump, you will need a broken bottle and a razor because you're in a street fight. Trump will do anything. I worry that many Democrats do not have the grit to understand that there is nothing Trump will not do. There are no boundaries to Trump's behavior. You cannot fight Donald Trump by following the rules playbook. There is an entirely different world and terrain that you have to fight Donald Trump on. Trump can be forced to back up and retreat. But you have to force him to do it. You have to back him up!

Trumpism is a moral crisis and a political crisis. If we do not summon that moral language and state plainly and clearly that Donald Trump and what he represents is evil then the understanding of the crisis and danger is already insufficient, if not wrong. If that moral language and framework are not used, then we cannot defeat Donald Trump and his movement.

You must summon the moral language. You have got to have the strong, moral, internal fortitude to know that this struggle is bigger than you are, bigger than one person. You might get bloody in the struggle, but you have got to keep struggling and holding up against the attacks.

Otherwise, you will be defeated because there is nothing that Trump will not do. You call Trump any name you want. He enjoys that. You have got to face Donald Trump head-on. I don't care what the polls say. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris need to run like they're 20 points behind, because we do not know what Trump is going to do between now and the election. We also do not know all of the games and tricks that Trump and his campaign are going to try with voting before and on Election Day. Nothing stops Donald Trump. To win, you have to go all in and swing with all that you have at all times.

How does your background in the Black Christian prophetic tradition inform your understanding of the Age of Trump and what must be done?

We are in days of reckoning. We will see what people's commitments really are. How much are they willing to suffer and struggle? The harder the test, the higher a person can go. This is a hard test for the country and one that I take very personally. To have been around giants in the civil rights movement who paved the way in the 1960s, those experiences and that mentoring helped to prepare me for what I'm doing today. The elders of the civil rights movement, such as John Lewis, so many of them are gone. If we are not prepared to keep the fight going, we should not have wasted their time.

We are in worse shape now than we were 20 years ago with social justice and economic justice. This is a time for me and us to work overtime. Put your foot on the gas and don't stop until we get out of this disaster.

Black people are the miner's canary for American democracy. We keep struggling to fight for and improve it even though we as Black people have been stigmatized and marginalized in American society. Is there a point where Black Americans, and other people committed to the freedom struggle, can and should say, "Enough! We are done"?

We as Black Americans and Black people cannot say "no more," because then what happens to those that are dependent on us, even if they don't know it? What happens to all the work that has been done by those before us? It is not up to us. I believe we were born to do this service, and this is what we must do. You've got to risk your reputation in order to build a nation. We have to be committed. If you're not willing to do that, you need to get off the field and let somebody that is sincere do what must be done.

How do we better explain to our white brothers and sisters how white supremacy and racism hurts them too?

We have to explain the results of racism. It denigrates their morality and their character. Many white people, because of racism, do not enjoy the genius and the creativity and the innovations that nonwhite folks, Black, brown, Asian, Native American, have contributed to the country and world. Racism robs white folks of that excellence which they can enjoy.

Some white people will never come along, but others will. One of the things that has been very encouraging to me is that in this summer of activism, we have seen as many white people as Black people. I go to marches and sometimes I have seen more whites than Blacks. And I've never seen that before in all the years I've been out here. I believe one of the reasons we are seeing so many white folks at these marches is when the George Floyd murder happened it was at the height of the pandemic. Most of the country was under lockdown.

And because of that lockdown and fewer distractions, white people and others kept seeing the images of this cop with his knee on this man's neck while he was begging for his life.

Let's be honest, all Black people did not support Dr. King. But enough did to break down the walls of Jim Crow. And if enough Black and white folks get together, we can take the country out of the era of Trump and get on the right road. As I write in my new book "Rise Up," we are at the crossroads. We've got to force this country to the correct road, knowing that the majority will never march or be socially and politically active. But we can get enough people to help save the country and put it on a better path.

If Joe Biden came to you and said, "I need some advice about how to deal with Donald Trump in these debates," what would you tell him to do?

I would tell Joe Biden not to go tit-for-tat with Donald Trump. Biden needs to rise above Trump but address him directly in an aggressive way so when Trump goes with that street-fighter approach Biden can then say, "See, you have no class. You are beneath the office of the presidency." Then Biden should go right into his policy positions. You need to hit Trump back, put him in context, but don't become him. Biden should not try to out-lowball Trump or call him names. Address Trump's attacks. Don't try to duck them. Call it out for what it really is.

Biden can say, "Do you want this clown to be president? Let me tell you what my health care plan is." Biden should not spend all his time trading insults with Trump, but instead should explain who he is and what he knows. Biden has to show the audience that he is not afraid of Donald Trump. But he should also show the American people that he is strong but not a street bully like Donald Trump.

What is your greatest hope right now? What is your greatest fear?

My greatest hope is that we can get the country back on the course of where it was headed. We were doing that with a lot of pushing during the Age of Obama. Obama wasn't perfect, but he was a step in the right general direction. And my greatest hope is that we can see a intergenerational, multiracial movement that will push it that way and maintain it. If Biden wins, I am going to keep him accountable. I told him that: I'll be up there the next day, pounding on the White House door, holding him accountable as I did with President Obama.

My greatest fear is that we become so dismayed and discouraged that we give up and we lose, not because we couldn't win, but because we wouldn't fight.

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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