Ralph Nader on Trump's corruption, "corporate state fascism" and why Democrats keep losing

Nader still says George W. Bush was not his fault — but agrees that fighting corporate power means beating Trump

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 26, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Ralph Nader VS Donald Trump (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/Mychal Watts/WireImage/Salon)
Ralph Nader VS Donald Trump (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/Mychal Watts/WireImage/Salon)

Autocracy is kleptocracy. Donald Trump has repeatedly shown this to be true as he has abused the office of the presidency to enrich himself and his family, and to reward his political allies and other agents.

Trump has at least 3,400 conflicts of interest. Investigative reporters from Forbes, Vanity Fair, the New York Times and the Washington Post, along with independent watchdog and public advocacy groups have exhaustively detailed how Trump and his family have personally profited from his presidency.

Trump's adult children have become tens of millions of dollars richer from business partnerships and other financial ventures made possible by their father's presidency. Trump's company — which he still owns and controls — has received tens of millions of dollars (if not more) from direct payments to his hotels and other properties made by foreign countries.

Trump is also personally enriching himself through direct transfers to his businesses from the American people when he charges the Secret Service and other government agencies for staying at his properties.

Trump claims to be a billionaire. Like other wealthy Americans who pay less in taxes than poor and working-class people, Trump's own tax documents reveal that he paid only $750 in federal taxes in 2016 and 2017. In 10 of the previous 15 years, he paid no income taxes at all.  

The Trump regime and the Republican Party have systematically expanded their destruction of workers' rights, unions, the environment and public health and safety more generally. Coronavirus relief efforts were intentionally sabotaged and undermined by denying resources and other support to Democratic-led states and cities

Trump's corruption and general malfeasance are indicative of a much larger problem in American society where the country's political and financial elites live by laws and norms which they created for their own benefit. Such an arrangement can be reasonably described as legal theft: There is one set of rules in America for the rich and another set of rules for everyone else.

In that way, Donald Trump represents a unique opportunity that may never be repeated in American history for the gangster capitalists, plutocrats and the other elements of what Noam Chomsky describes as the RECD ("really existing capitalist democracy") to become even richer and powerful by looting the government and further destroying civil society, the commons, and the other social and political institutions and norms that are prerequisites for a humane society.

How are such an abominably unjust set of outcomes made to appear legitimate and normal to the American people? To cite one example, benign-sounding language about a supposed "K-shaped recovery" is used to describe extreme income and wealth inequality, and the reality that America's millionaires and billionaires have enriched themselves through the human and financial destruction caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

To further legitimate such injustice, minimum wage and working-class people in the service industries are described as "heroes" and "essential workers" in the PR newspeak of the corporations, the mainstream news media and the political classes. In reality these "essential workers" are treated as disposable human beings to be sacrificed in the death cult of capitalism.

In total, "coronavirus-fascism" has shone an ever starker light on how American society in the Age of Trump has become a full-on pathocracy, one rapidly approaching a moment when it cannot be cured or otherwise redeemed.

Ralph Nader has been fighting for the freedoms and rights of the American people for six decades. He is an author, attorney, consumer advocate and activist, as well as a five-time presidential candidate. (His still-controversial Green Party campaign in 2000 has been blamed, fairly or otherwise, for the razor-thin margin of votes in Florida that elected George W. Bush.) Nader's new book (with co-author Mark Green) is "Wrecking America: How Trump's Lawbreaking and Lies Betray All."

In this conversation, Nader explains how the plutocrats and the CEO class are benefiting from the coronavirus pandemic and why America's mainstream media and other voices have largely been silent, if not complicit. Nader also warns that voting for the Democratic Party (which he describes as the "lesser of two evils") helped to create the disaster that is the Age of Trump. He offers a case for why the Democratic Party (along with "liberals" and "progressives" more generally) lacks the necessary energy and language to defeat Trumpism and the Republican Party's decades-long assault on social democracy.

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

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Given your decades of experience in politics and social change work, is there a moment when you feel like American society went off the rails? When things were truly broken and got us to where we are today, with the Age of Trump and American fascism?

It went off the rails when the Republicans and the right wing stole the 2000 election from Al Gore and blamed the Green Party, including me. The 2000 election was a judicial coup d'état led by [Justice Antonin] Scalia. It was one of the most criminogenic political decisions one can imagine. Scalia could not even defend his own decision. Subsequently, the 2000 election also helped to create eight years of a George W. Bush presidency. The result of the 2000 election was a huge increase in judicial power, in essence creating a group of unelected tyrants — and that problem is only going to get worse with Trump going forward.

And of course, one must acknowledge all of the public policies that resulted from Bush being "elected" in 2000. A mockery has been made out of elections and the law. There is now unchallenged gerrymandering by the Republicans. Trump, like George W. Bush, also won the election with the Electoral College. The Republicans have flattened the Democratic Party at almost every turn. The Democrats are the only political party standing in the way of massive Republican corporate domination of our society. In 1938 Franklin Donald Roosevelt described what we are witnessing with today's Republican Party as "fascism."

What do the Republicans understand about power, raw power, that the Democrats do not?

The Republicans have more energy. They go for the jugular, while the Democrats go for the capillaries. One example: Do you know any Democratic senator that has as much drive and maniacal energy as Mitch McConnell? Can you compare the Koch brothers with George Soros? The Republicans transformed the judiciary. They've elected a president in the form of Donald Trump who lost the popular vote. They've got their own "news" network in the form of Fox. Where is the counterpart for Democrats or the left and progressives?

Donald Trump and the plutocracy, in a country controlled by gangster capitalism, is a moral obscenity. There are long breadlines. The very rich have only become richer because of the coronavirus pandemic. Social inequality overall is worsening. How can the news media and other members of the mainstream media — and the Democrats, liberals and progressives — speak more clearly about these obscenities? Or are voices in the media and elsewhere just too scared to tell the truth about the depth of the crisis?

The corporate media types and as well as the Democrats need to open a dictionary and read it carefully. They collectively lack the language that can adequately describe the grotesque, vicious, cruel and omnicidal things that are going on in America today.

Here is one example. What are they calling massive unprecedented hurricanes, droughts, floods, sea level increase and wildfires? "Climate change." You see that language everywhere. I tried to get environmental groups to use better language such as "climate chaos," "climate destruction" and "climate catastrophe." Do you know who coined the phrase "climate change"? The right-wing wordsmith Frank Luntz. In 2002 he told conservatives and other elements of the right wing, "This phrase, 'global warming,' is too alarming. We got to find another phrase." They said, "What phrase?" He said, "Let's call it 'climate change'. It sounds like the seasons: Autumn, winter, spring, summer." Democrats and environmental groups lapped up that phrase like a cat drinking milk.

Another weak example of language is calling something "problematic" when it should be described as "terrible" or "grotesque." Here is another example: Instead of plainly saying that right-wing corporatists are lying, the mainstream media types and the Democratic Party will say it's "magical thinking." Instead of saying something is really obstructive and bad, they will substitute "challenging."

How is the coronavirus pandemic and this season of death an opportunity for gangster capitalists here in America and around the world? Trump, the Republicans and the right are leading a literal death cult where the solution is to go out and die for "the economy."

As things get worse in America, criminally bad in fact, big business gets stronger. That is the trend. It did not happen in the 1930s, by the way. It didn't happen in the 1960s either. But big business counterattacked and they took control of Congress. Congress is the only tool left to take on gigantic corporations and the corporatocracy and its criminal, omnicidal behavior.

One would think that more of these progressive groups would focus on Congress? No. They put out exposés. They denounce corporate crime on Wall Street. They have marches and all the energy goes up into the ether.

Those forces are scamming the American people. They began looting, stealing and cheating the public the very minute that the United States government began its so-called relief efforts. A public flood of money was released, and even the best reporters and journalists cannot keep up with all of the corruption. Big business is getting this "relief" money directly. Even subsidiaries of right-wing corporatists such as the Koch brothers are getting this money.

The corporatists have crowded out the attempts of liberals and progressives and others to focus on winning a living wage, universal health care and other policies that would help the American people. That is a sign of a crumbling society. It is when the big crooks not only get away with the obscenities with impunity, but they actually come out of the disaster stronger and more dominant.

We are seeing huge numbers of small businesses going bankrupt in this country because of the economic devastation caused by the pandemic. Amazon will be bigger. Facebook will be bigger. Google will be bigger. ExxonMobil will be bigger. There are going to be fewer but more strong and larger giant drug companies, giant banks and giant insurance companies.

How did the social Darwinist ethic that profits matter more than people take hold in late-20th and early 21st century America?

The countervailing forces were broken. They broke the labor movement. They weakened and blocked the consumer movement. They broke the use of the tort system.

What does it mean to be a progressive or a liberal in this perilous time?

To be a liberal or a progressive in this moment means to take on giant corporations that have taken over government and used it as a type of personal bank, and turned the rest of the government against the American people. In total, it is a type of corporate state fascism. It is here right now. And it is just becoming deeper and more powerful.

If Donald Trump is defeated, his voters and other supporters are not going to disappear. Public opinion and other social science research show that there are tens of millions of people in America, almost all white, who are authoritarians. What do you think the Trumpists want? What is their vision of America?

Donald Trump's supporters want a White America. Trump has increased their numbers and power. Trump wants civil strife. Trump is the chief inciter of domestic terrorism and violence in this country. Trump has given his supporters and their racism and other antisocial behavior much more visibility and helped to grow their numbers. Many of Trump's supporters are literally white supremacists. Many of the men are angry, because in their minds, women have rejected them. They are very alienated. Many of them have lost their jobs. Trump's supporters see no future for themselves. So they get a feeling of empowerment and feel consoled for their problems by joining a cult-like group. It makes them feel powerful. These Trump supporters also have weapons. We saw what Trump's followers are capable of in Michigan.

Noam Chomsky, Cornel West and other notable voices on the left have made a compelling argument that all people of conscience must vote for Joe Biden and the Democrats as a way of stopping Donald Trump so that the country and the world can be saved. What are your thoughts on that strategy? Should the left disregard its longstanding critiques and concerns and choose to support Biden?

I am not openly supporting Joe Biden. But I am going to oppose Donald Trump. Chomsky says the Electoral College makes it simple: In the solid red and blue states a person can vote for the Green Party, but in the swing states, you have to vote for Joe Biden. I believe that people should only vote their conscience. They should only vote for the people they believe in. When you vote for the least of two evils, the worst evil ends up dominating the least evil. As an example, when you vote for a Democrat as the lesser of two evils, what has been the result? The Republicans control most state governments, the U.S. Senate and the White House. 

If Joe Biden wins on Election Day and Trump actually leaves office, I am deeply concerned that the public's expectations are going to be too high. The American people will end up depressed and spent because a return to "normal" did not solve the many problems that Trump both created and also made worse. If Donald Trump somehow manages through means illegal and quasi-legal to "win" the election and stay in power, then the American people will experience something akin to a collective nervous breakdown. Most will just surrender to Trumpism and American fascism and learned helplessness.

The premise of your observation is that you can beat the fight out of the American people. As in other countries, we have seen that happen. Unfortunately, in America more and more of the people do in fact look defeated, with a few exceptions, Donald Trump has pummeled the American people into submission. Is American-style fascism possible? Of course. There are pockets of it all over the country — and now in the federal government and elsewhere at the highest levels here in America.  

You have been a truth-teller, an activist, an organizer, a candidate and involved in social change work more generally for a very long time. How do you sustain the energy and drive?

The easy answer is that I do not like white flags. I do not like surrender. I don't like bullies. It is in my DNA. I also keep foremost in my mind images of the people who I am trying to champion, defend and protect. In my mind I always see that coal miner dying of black lung disease spitting up black soot and blood.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this interview quoted Ralph Nader, both in the text and the headline, as saying that in swing states, people who oppose Donald Trump should vote for Joe Biden. That was how both the writer and the editor understood his remarks. Nader has since clarified that he was paraphrasing Noam Chomsky's point of view but does not share it, and believes that "people should only vote their conscience." The original headline has been replaced and minor changes have been made to this transcript. Salon regrets the misunderstanding.

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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