Former Clintonite David Rothkopf on how Biden and the Democrats can redeem themselves

Onetime neoliberal leader recants: Now Democrats must go "scorched earth" and embrace "voices of change"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 3, 2020 3:00PM (EST)

Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a Drive-In Rally at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 2, 2020. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a Drive-In Rally at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 2, 2020. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Election Day 2020 is more than a choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It is a character test for a nation as to what its present and future will be. Will the American people stumble into political and societal effluence as they did in 2016 by "electing" a fascist authoritarian, or will they instead choose to take the first steps toward rehabilitating their democracy?

Pondering the ominous weight of this election, Richard Ford, the Pulitzer-winning author, writes at The Globe and Mail:

In America, as you may know, we will soon be voting to determine who will be our next president. And we will also be voting to find out what kind of country America is now and will be, and what kind of people we are. If this sounds like an uneasy, precarious, possibly momentous and actually quite pathetic state of affairs, that's because it is. That a great nation should have so much riding on a single, well-scheduled, legally prescribed civic exercise is alarming. …

My country of 76 years seems to exist today at a strange and unnatural distance from me, and not at all clearly. This, as we approach the most consequential election in the lifetime of any American living. At this perplexing and virtual distance, America feels more like just any other country — any other that could fail. Even in the worst of Vietnam, or in the aftermath of 9/11, I didn't feel this way.

Ultimately, all elections matter in their own way. But some elections matter so much more than others.

Today, the American people will be answering the following questions about their country and themselves.

What type of people are they? People who believe in and embrace democracy and freedom with all of their attendant responsibilities and challenges? Or weak followers of authoritarianism and autocracy who will surrender to a political cult?

Are they ready to embrace civic maturity and hard truths about the country and the work necessary to improve it? Or will they succumb to the toddler-like simplemindedness, anti-rationality, anti-intellectualism, conspiracy theory and scapegoat solutions offered by Trumpism and the right wing?

Will the American people hold high the United States Constitution and its commandment that church and state should be separate, or instead passively slouch further toward a Christian theocracy?

Will the United States be a country where a white tyrannical minority creates a new American apartheid state to rule over the majority in an increasingly diverse and multiracial society?

Will the United States return to its status as the leader of the free world and role model for democracy, or embrace its new status as a global embarrassment, a decadent democracy that surrendered to homegrown fascism?

Will the United States stop the coronavirus or instead choose to embrace a right-wing gangster capitalist death cult where everyone but the rich is to be sacrificed to some vicious, abstract notion of "the economy"?

Will women — and working-class and poor women in particular — be denied basic human rights of reproductive freedom and autonomy?

Will migrant and refugee children be released from Trump's concentration camps and detention centers and then reunited with their families?

Will the United States confront its critical wealth and income inequality, in which the 50 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the country's population?

Is health care a human right in America?

Does the United States respect science and reason, or does it elevate lies, nonsense, mass delusion and religious fundamentalism as valued truths and reality?

Will the United States continue its policies of ecocide and omnicide, or begin to do its part to save the planet and humankind from global climate disaster?

These are just a few of the many questions to be asked and answered on Election Day — and the many days ahead.

And what about the Republican Party and the other architects and beneficiaries of the disastrous Age of Trump? Can the Republican Party somehow be rehabilitated and brought back to normal politics and some sense of commitment to the common good and democracy?

David Rothkopf, a former senior official in Bill Clinton's administration and a longtime executive at various major publishing companies and consulting firms, believes that the answer is an emphatic "no." Moreover, Rothkopf argues that today's Democrats need to evolve, becoming "scorched-earth Democrats" who will burn today's Republican Party and its policies to the ground, offering no quarter or compromise.

Rothkopf is currently CEO of his own firm, The Rothkopf Group. He is the author of numerous articles and several books, the latest being "Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump."

He is a frequent contributor to such media outlets as the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Financial Times, Time magazine and CNN. He also hosts the twice-weekly podcast Deep State Radio. 

In this conversation Rothkopf reflects on the Democratic Party's record of institutional weakness, and how that helped to enable the Republican Party's decades-long embrace of right-wing extremism and authoritarianism. But he expresses hope about the future: He believes that the Democratic Party can embrace its younger and more progressive voices, and create transformative policies that will begin to reverse the damage. If Joe Biden wins this election, Rothkopf says, our new president must be forced to become the best version of himself.

How are you feeling, given all that is happening with the Age of Trump and the election?

It's a complicated moment. It is hard for anybody who's got their eyes open to not see all the people who are suffering from a crisis unlike any crisis any of us have ever seen in the United States. This is the public health crisis, the economic crisis, and the overall social crisis created by all that has gone wrong.

Whether we are looking at the public health crisis or the economic crisis or society-wide crisis caused by this, it breaks your heart. But this crisis also makes me angry because it was not necessary for 230,000 or so people to be dead at this point from the coronavirus pandemic. It was certainly not necessary that this government would not provide for the people of this country in the ways that other countries have. The pandemic and the economic crisis have revealed deep flaws, again, in American society about social inequality. People of color and the poorest are suffering the most. Our system is not just systemically racist but more generally inhumane and conscienceless.

It is unacceptable to have a society where tens of millions of people in the richest society in the world are afraid to go to a doctor because they do not have health care, and because going to the doctor and discovering that they have an illness could bankrupt them. We should not a system in the United States where 130 million people — a third of the people in the richest, most powerful country in the world — are living in poverty or are low-income. There are also millions of people who are hungry in America because of this ongoing crisis with the pandemic and economy. And of course all these problems are made worse by incompetence, corruption, insensitivity to human needs, racism and rejection of science and of participation in the global community by the Trump administration and other elites who are doing its bidding.

There is still this narrative about Trump and his movement and presidency being some type of "crisis of imagination," a surprise and still unimaginable. Folks in the mainstream news media and among the country's leadership who say such things are in such denial and continue to be so. They are stuck on old ideas about American politics and life.  

Sometimes people see what they want to see. They imagine themselves to be who they wish they were, and they imagine their country to be what they wish it would be. And if you look at our country right now, it seems that too many people have somehow just discovered racism. In reality, the United States was established on racist principles. People who believe that the problem is just Donald Trump, and once Trump is gone then everything will be better, are just plain wrong. I include Joe Biden among that group as well.

Income and wealth Inequality has been growing in the United States since the late 1970s. However, the period of the 40 years that began with Ronald Reagan as president have seen the minimum wage go down and the average income of the average American remain unchanged. The rich gain enormously in terms of their share of the wealth in our society, but they also gain enormously in terms of their control of the politics of our society because of Citizens United, dark money, gerrymandering and other levers on the country's democracy.  

We have been in a process not of creating the greatest democracy in the world, but rather creating a platform for big corporations to get wealthy, set the rules, reap the benefits, exploit the planet and do it with ever-greater efficiency and with absolute lack of concern for the consequences for average people. This includes destroying the environment, undermining the rights of workers, not providing adequate health and many other examples.

I had a senior role in the Clinton administration, and I regret what happened. Our innovation as "third way" Democrats was essentially to buy into Reagan-lite. We went in and said, "Why don't we do welfare reform? Why don't we give more money to the police?" Those were both racist dog-whistle issues.

We ended up being the administration that got rid of the Glass-Steagall Act. We were the administration that deregulated telecommunications.   

And then of course, George W. Bush continued along with that. Barack Obama took more money from Wall Street than any presidential candidate in history. But we have to recognize that when you meet the enemies of democracy halfway, democracy loses. And inequality is the ultimate enemy of democracy. And of course, of all the presidents, Donald Trump is the worst one.

With Joe Biden and other Democrats who share his policy background and history, how does the Democratic Party confront its own responsibility for gangster capitalism and the social inequality it causes? What does such a reckoning look like?

I wish I thought it was coming. We have got to all go out and vote for Joe Biden, and make sure that people show up to vote, because the threat posed by Donald Trump to our democracy is enormous.

Donald Trump is a traitor. I also believe that the threat posed by Mitch McConnell has been around longer and in some ways is more pernicious. For example, McConnell has transformed our judiciary, changed the way our Congress works, and essentially eliminated critical checks and balances. "McConnellism" has got to end as well.

Is Joe Biden going to be the revolutionary champion of major change? No. Is he better than Donald Trump by an immeasurable amount? Yes. Now we as a country have got to ask ourselves, how do we get to these deeper changes? As Americans we have to rule out the GOP. They're out of it. The Republican Party has bet on racism. They bet on Russia. They bet on lying. They bet on crushing democracy. The Republicans do not offer credible political options.

We need to look within the Democratic Party. Then what must happen is that we must acknowledge that there is an older generation of leaders who are responsible for the compromises that made this crisis with Trump and the Republicans happen — and that includes Joe Biden. It includes Nancy Pelosi. It includes Chuck Schumer. Are they good people? Are they better than Republicans? Yes. But are they the people to lead necessary change? No.

And so what I think you have to start to do is change the leadership in the Congress. You have to take the voices of change in the Congress and give them positions of power where they could influence President Joe Biden, influence the agenda of a new Democratic administration, and ultimately receive the torch that Biden will pass to them. There are a lot of choices out there.

Ultimately, there are many people who are ready to lead and force Joe Biden to be Joe Biden 2.0, a Joe Biden of the 2020s and not the Joe Biden of the 20-teens or the 1990s or 1980s.

Why have the Democrats been so consistently outmaneuvered by the Republican Party in terms of power and policy? The Republican Party's policies are unpopular among the majority of Americans. Yet Republicans are able to advance their agenda and run over the Democrats.

Republicans are just as subtle as a punch in the nose. In response, the Democrats are like, "Oh my God, Mitch McConnell has stolen a Supreme Court seat! That's not fair play!" It is the equivalent of falling down on a fainting couch. The reality is that the Republicans play dirty. They play at the very edge of the rules. The Republicans and the right wing realize that power is something that can help one acquire more power and can be used to protect itself from its own abuse.

History wants results. Democrats have got to stand up and say, OK, we've got power. Now that we've got power, we're done with the filibuster. Now that we're done with the filibuster, we're going to start pushing things through. If that means a couple more justices on the Supreme Court because otherwise we are going to lose our democracy, then add the justices. Likewise, with the power we should impeach justices on the Supreme Court who got their positions there by virtue of lying. We have also got to turn our attention to Trump judges and others across the country who should not have their jobs. Many of them are not qualified.

With power, the Democrats need to stop voter suppression. Campaign finance laws need to be reformed. Citizens United needs to be undone. Roe v. Wade should also be made permanent.

Is it hard to change the Constitution of the United States? Yes. But there are 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, so it is not impossible. We must become "scorched-earth Democrats" or we will never be able to defeat the scorched-earth Republicans.  

Unless we see this as an existential threat and say, we are going to play hardball, we will never defeat scorched-earth Republicans. Do we have to break the law? No. Do we have to take the low road? No. But we have to stop the Republicans on whatever road they are taking. The Democrats have got to play to win and not be on defense.

If Donald Trump is defeated by the American people on Election Day, does he accept the verdict and leave office peacefully?

There are many things that can be done by the Republicans to interfere with the results of the election and the voting process itself to help Trump. Do I think the president of the United States will hunker down in the White House and refuse to leave? Not if the electoral totals show that Trump has got to go. The United States military and others will make Trump leave. However, can Donald Trump rig the outcome by interfering with votes being counted? Yes. That is what I am more worried about.

Public opinion polls and other data seems to suggest that Biden is ahead in the polls and will win. Are you comfortable with such predictions?

First of all, I don't trust Trump. Trump has proven over and over again that the only way he knows how to win is to cheat. He cheated with the Russians before. He'll cheat with the Russians again. He tried to cheat with the Ukrainians. I'm sure he reached out to cheat with the Chinese. Russian intelligence agents are still in his orbit, through Rudy Giuliani, for example. If the election somehow gets to the Supreme Court with Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh — both of whom are hacks — if they are presented with the opportunity to do the wrong thing, they will do it. Nothing can be taken for granted in terms of the outcome of the presidential election.

One of the reasons I am optimistic is because the Democrats and Joe Biden know that to be true. Democrats have said Trump and the Republicans are going to challenge the outcome if the vote is too close, which means we are in big trouble.

It is impressive that more than half as many people have voted before the 2020 election as voted in total in 2016. It sure is impressive that the majority of those people seem to be Democrats and that the infrastructure is there to give people information about how and where to vote and to handle the obstacles being thrown up by Trump and the Republicans.

These pictures of lines go on for miles. People standing in the rain, being willing to do that to vote, is so moving. That's the Resistance. That's people recognizing that our Department of Justice doesn't work anymore and won't hold the president accountable. Our Senate doesn't work anymore and won't hold the president accountable. That there is only one mechanism in our system to hold the president of the United States accountable, if they get up off of their couches, go down to their polling place, wait as long as it takes and make sure that their vote counts. And so far, it looks like that's what is happening.

I am prepared to be disappointed. If Trump wins, that would be catastrophic for the country. But right now, looking at the polls, the long lines of voters willing to wait as long as it takes to make sure their vote counts, the outpouring of energy and commitment, it does give me hope.

There are some influential voices, as in Jill Lepore's recent essay in the Washington Post, who reject the idea that if Trump is defeated, a truth and reconciliation commission and similar investigations should begin. The claim is that historians and journalists should be the ones who expose the truth and that punishing the crimes committed by Trump and his agents would create a dangerous precedent. What are they afraid of? Why not hold the Trump regime accountable for its apparent crimes?

My response to such people is, "Nonsense". To make such claims and stake out that position is not only an egregious error, but it is repeating a mistake that has been repeatedly made in this country.

If Nixon had been held accountable, we would not have Donald Trump. If the Iran-Contra wrongdoers had been held accountable, we would not see the same people around Donald Trump. If Dick Cheney and the people around George W. Bush who advocated torture and the violation of human rights at Guantánamo and around the world had been held accountable, we would not see so many of the abuses with Trump.

In America no one is supposed to be above the law. The only way to prove that is true is to hold the president and the powerful people around him to the same standards of the law as everyone else.

Now, as for a truth and reconciliation commission, I have no desire to reconcile with supremacists and others of that ilk. I have no desire to reconcile with people who would throw the country under the bus or embrace the Russians.

But without accountability, there will be another Donald Trump. There will be another Bill Barr. We, the American people, will live in a world in which, if the president wins and has a majority in the Senate, the message will be clear: They are above the law. You can break the law. You can ignore subpoenas. You can ignore statutes. You can ignore norms. You can steal. You can work with our enemies. You can screw the American people. You can violate human rights on the border. You can throw children in cages. And you can do all that with complete impunity. If there is no accountability for the president and his party, then there will ultimately be no democracy in the United States.

Should Donald Trump be prosecuted for crimes he's committed while president or before being president? Yes. Should members of his cabinet? Should members of his staff? Should members of the Senate and Congress who took money, who violated the law, who violated ethics guidelines, who adhered, aided and abetted to foreign powers? Yes! It has to happen. If it does not happen, regardless of how big a majority the Democrats win the election by, we will see such criminal behavior again because there will be a precedent. At some point in the future a president will say, "Look what Trump did. He didn't get held to account." Look at how they quashed the investigation into the truth of Trump's obstruction of justice, which was there for all to see and which Mueller detailed. Or Trump's collusion with the Russians, or his cooperation with other foreign dictators. It will happen again.

Truth and reconciliation is not for revenge, it's for our children and our grandchildren. It's to say no one is above the law. It's to prove you can't bury it. It's to guarantee that if you are in power, somebody, someday is going to hold you accountable. Without that, the United States is a failed state.

Let's assume that Biden defeats Trump and a friend or relative calls you elated with joy. What do you tell him or her?

One of the things that created Donald Trump was apathy. Too many citizens stopped and started to believe that what happens in Washington does not matter. They bought into the right wing's notion that government was evil and that the less government we had the better, and that Washington was just a problem that offered no solutions.

We must get engaged. You do not get rid of Trumpism by beating Donald Trump at the polls. We get rid of Trumpism by getting rid of inequality, by getting rid of racism, by embracing and celebrating demographic change in the country, by updating our institutions, by recognizing our flaws and fixing them, by throwing away idiotic notions like American exceptionalism, and recognizing that the rules of civics and a good society apply to us all.

And then if Trump somehow wins the election and someone calls you overwhelmed with despair, what do you tell them?

The answer, if we win or lose, is the same. We have got to keep working. As citizens our responsibility is to fix what is broken in society. If that means working with your political party within the system, great. If the system has been taken over by corrupt forces and it means going into the street and protesting, dissenting and applying pressure by any means available that are legal, then we as citizens must do that. If a leader or party poses a direct threat to American democracy, then we have to heed very carefully the words of the founders of this country about the necessity for doing whatever it takes to fight for our democracy.

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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