Democratic insider David Rothkopf on Biden's historic first 100 days — and the danger ahead

Author David Rothkopf on how Biden has succeeded so far, what lies ahead in 2022 and the danger of Trump's treason

By Chauncey DeVega
Published April 29, 2021 9:50AM (UTC)
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U.S. President Joe Biden signs executive actions in the Oval Office of the White House on January 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden signed a series of executive actions Thursday afternoon aimed at expanding access to health care, including re-opening enrollment for health care offered through the federal marketplace created under the Affordable Care Act. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

To the surprise of many people, in a series of interviews last year Noam Chomsky, noted truth-teller and bold voice of the left, urged Americans to vote for Joe Biden to save the world from Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Chomsky continues to implore people of conscience to hold Biden accountable by encouraging him to adopt a progressive policy agenda.

It would appear that Chomsky's advice and wisdom was correct.

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Joe Biden will reach his 100th day as president of the United States this week. During that short time, his administration has made amazing progress in defeating the COVID pandemic, has proposed the sweeping infrastructure package known as the American Jobs Plan and has pulled the country's economy (at least for now) out of its death spiral. Biden is attempting to craft a legacy as the next iteration of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson. It appears he aspires to be a progressive and transformative president and not a mere caretaker as many observers reasonably suggested he would be.

Biden has also reversed many of his predecessor's most evil, vile, and cruel policies. The presidency was debased by Donald Trump, but Biden has already restored dignity to the office and has also made great strides in restoring America's leadership role in the world.

To this point, Biden's policies are extremely popular among the American people. Why? Because he is responding to their needs.

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At this early stage, at least, Biden has also struck a blow against critics who assumed that his age would somehow be a detriment to his capacity to lead the country. Steven Beschloss addressed this in his newsletter "America, America":

But look at him now. Just days away from 100 days in office, there's already a vigorous record of achievement that belies the notion that an old guy can't handle the rigors of the job. Quite the opposite. For all those who complained before the election about another old white guy taking the reins, whined that we needed someone younger and fresher, and worried that he was the last guy to take the country into the future, Biden has proffered a compelling (and calm) counterpunch.

Knowledge, experience and the wisdom of age — matched with the common sense to surround himself with talented professionals and experts — looks not only like the right package for this moment, but a winning approach at any time. 

For all of Biden's success, the threat of Trumpism, the Jim Crow Republicans and their neofascist assault on multiracial democracy and freedom is escalating. Across the country Republicans are enacting legislation that will make it more difficult for Black and brown people and other supporters of the Democratic Party to vote. The Big Lie that the 2020 election was "stolen" from Trump and the Republicans endures (and perhaps is even gaining momentum). The attack by Trump's forces on the U.S. Capitol as part of a larger coup attempt has been largely thrown down the memory hole in an act of organized forgetting by the American people and leaders on both sides of the political aisle. Such cowardice all but ensures that another attack on the country's democracy is inevitable.

Across the country, Republicans are also attempting to make protest and other acts of free speech and dissent by liberals and progressives — especially the Black Lives Matter movement — illegal.

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The Republican Party's war on democracy is ascendant and victorious on the state and local level, as well as in the courts. White supremacists and other right-wing paramilitaries remain the greatest threat to the country's domestic safety and tranquility.

To discuss all this, I recently reached out to David Rothkopf, who held a senior position in Bill Clinton's administration and is the author of numerous articles and several books, the latest being "Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump."

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Rothkopf is also 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 assesses Biden's first 100 days as president, arguing that "retail politics," in combination with Biden's ability to ignore culture-war issues, has been so successful (for now) in advancing his legislative agenda and overcoming Republican obstructionism. Contrary to the warnings of many other pundits, Rothkopf believes that the Democratic Party will remain in a strong position during the 2022 midterms and beyond.

Rothkopf also warns that the Republican Party of the Trump era poses a grave threat to American democracy and that the events of Jan. 6 and other crimes by the Trump regime must be properly investigated and punished.

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At the end of this conversation, Rothkopf reflects on how new information related to the 2016 Russia scandal again confirms that Donald Trump is a traitor to the United States.

Biden is approaching his 100th day as president. The threat from Trumpism continues to endure, and may be escalating. The pandemic has killed more than 550,000 people in the United States. How are you feeling?

I'm feeling good. I do not want to minimize the challenges we are facing, such as the scars that exist from the Trump presidency, the Republican Party seeking to undermine democracy in America, voter suppression, the horrific record of police departments in their treatment of communities of color and the pandemic resurgence in a number of places across the country. Those are all serious things.

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The question is whether the needle is pointing in the right direction in terms of our leadership. Right now, in Washington, I think it certainly is. Biden has very quickly put in place an exceptionally competent team. The Biden administration has not made many wrong moves.

Their response to COVID-19 has been remarkable. Of course, there were bound to be missteps. We recently discovered that there was no plan from the Trump administration about how to defeat the pandemic. One of Trump's biggest crimes is probably his willful mishandling of the pandemic, which led to the loss of life of hundreds of thousands of people here in America. 

Biden brought in a team that said, we've got to get these vaccines out. They did that. Now all of a sudden, the United States, which was lagging behind the world, is leading the world in terms of vaccinations.

On top of that, of course, Biden passed the American Rescue Plan, which is a $1.9 trillion package. It got money into the public's hands and now there are estimates for economic growth in this country that are unprecedented in American history. I can't help but notice that there is hope on the horizon.

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What does accountability and justice look like for the Trump regime? There should be a truth and reconciliation committee. Trump and his inner circle and others should be put on trial for their willfully negligent response to the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, the Trumpists are not going away. They continue to menace the American people. If they are not held accountable these threats to democracy will only escalate.

When Stephen Miller offers suggestions for how we as a country should deal with migrants and refugees at the border, we must never forget that he is an architect of crimes against humanity. He has no credibility on these issues.

Is there still a threat to American democracy? Yes. Is voter suppression and other threats to American democracy a serious threat? Yes. Are we out of the woods? No, we're not. If the Republicans take back the Senate or the House, we as a country are going to have a real bad time from 2022 onwards.

These are some of the things which keep me from being as vocal in my frustration with certain missteps of the Biden administration as I potentially could be. Not advancing the $15-an-hour minimum wage is a failure, for example. They also could have done something preferable in terms of refugees. But ultimately, it is critically urgent that Democrats do not lose the sense of purpose that we had going into the 2020 campaign as we approach the 2022 campaign. Frankly, I want to direct my ammunition against the bad guys, not against the good guys.

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What are one or two the things that President Biden has done which most surprised you?

I'm an Elizabeth Warren Democrat. I make no bones about it. To me, she is the intellectual leader of the party. I think if you're looking at what was surprising about Biden, he very quickly made it clear that he was going to listen to that wing of the party. He is not just paying lip service. There are key people in key jobs that come out of the Warren camp and the Sanders camp. They are going to make a difference in the Biden administration, in terms of its policies.

This administration has also decided to go big instead of embracing compromise. The greatest stroke of genius by Joe Biden is that he is, in his own way, deaf to the culture wars. When he says, "I'm going to go bipartisan," Biden will give the folks on the Hill every chance to listen to him. But when they reveal themselves — the Republicans particularly — to be obstructionist and unwilling to collaborate in any way, Biden says, "I work for the people. I'm going to go to the American people."

The American Rescue Plan has a huge level of support among the American people. Support for the infrastructure plan is also very popular. Biden is actually president at a moment when America is very divided, yet he is forging a bipartisan alliance of voters by bypassing Capitol Hill. It is "retail politics" at their best.

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As a country we are in a situation where one side, the Democrats, are trying to do what's good for the people and the Republicans are trying to do what's good for the 1% and special interests. That is not political posturing. That is just the fact.  

How can the Democrats tell a better story about their progress, and frame their successes as a moral crusade? Where are the commercials and talking points that consistently brand the Republican Party as traitors given Trumpism, Jan. 6, the collusion with Russia and so many other betrayals of American democracy?

There are people in the Democratic Party, particularly younger political leaders, who understand how to use social media and new media in better ways than others in the party. I believe that the best messaging in the world is good results.

Here's what I know. If the economy is in good shape next year, that is good for Democrats. If the pandemic is under control next year, that is good for Democrats. If infrastructure is getting built and jobs are being created, that is good for Democrats.

As for the traitor issue? The reality is that some chickens are going to come home to roost for Donald Trump in the next 18 months. Matt Gaetz is just one example of a Republican scumbag getting called out for being a Republican scumbag. He is not going to be the only example. Where it counts, I believe the Democrats are going to have momentum on their side, because Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, the White House team, the Cabinet and others in the administration are doing a good job.

Why does the Republican Party hate democracy? 

The Republicans are afraid of democracy. They're afraid that if every American had an equal right to vote, the Republican Party would not exist. As demographic trends continue in the United States over the next few decades, we are going to be a minority-majority country. The United States will be a country where people of color are the majority. The Republican Party's message of racism and clinging to the cultural models of the 19th century will not be able to survive.

The only way the Republican Party can survive is if they gut our democracy and essentially create a kind of two-tiered system in U.S. politics, where if you are white and conservative you get more votes than if you are Black or brown and progressive.

Fox News is one of the most dangerous elements in American society and politics today. That network and its hosts and guests are mainstreaming white supremacy and fascism to their millions of viewers. Tucker Carlson is perhaps the worst offender, on a near-daily basis repeating literal white supremacist talking points. How can the Democrats, and Americans of conscience and principle more generally, fight back?

I think the first thing to do is recognize that this is not Fox News. This is American history. I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the 1960s. We went trick-or-treating, and the guy next door turned us away because we were carrying a little orange "Trick or treat for UNICEF" box, because the United Nations was communist, and UNICEF was therefore communist, and we were therefore communist.

When I was growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s, on "mischief night" they drew swastikas on our driveway because we were Jewish. Our neighbors who lived down the street in this beautiful, idyllic, green-lawn New Jersey community said, "We have a bomb shelter, but you will not be allowed to use it come the apocalypse, because you are Jewish."

If you are a Black American, this is not new. Racism has been deeply ingrained in the United States from the outset. Sexism and gender bias has been deeply ingrained in the United States since the outset. Fear of the Other is part of this country's history.

What we have got to do is call the Fox News types out. The other thing we have to do is empower the people that the right-wing "news" media is trying to silence.

The proposed "America First caucus" was another example of the ways right-wing extremists are pushing and testing barriers as a way to mainstream fascism and hate. When you heard that language of "America First," what was your response?

Outrage and nausea. This is not what we're supposed to be about in America. The greatness of America is not a given, it is a struggle. The white majority in the United States has sought to impose their will in very anti-democratic and inhumane ways throughout the country's history.

George Floyd is not just the tragic story of one person on one street corner in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He's the story of the United States since its very beginning. We as a country have still not fixed these problems with racism and other social injustice. American democracy is starting to change. We are at a tipping point, where for the first time in the entire history of this country those people who have been oppressed because of the color of their skin are entering the majority. This change will not come without struggle and strife. There will also be hope because of these changes.

There are new revelations from the Treasury Department about Paul Manafort, who was Trump's campaign manager, and had a close, direct connection with a known Russian asset, Konstantin Kilimnik, during the 2016 presidential campaign. Manafort gave Kilimnik internal polling data that he then apparently passed to Russian intelligence agents. This is more proof of collusion and treason by Trump and his inner circle. You highlighted this fact in your book "Traitor." Given this new information about Trump and Russia, what does justice look like?

Ultimately, everything that we assumed was true about Donald Trump will be borne out. Donald Trump and his campaign willfully reached out to the Russians, knew it was illegal, worked around the law and obtained Russian help. It made a difference in the election. Then Trump and his inner circle rewarded the Russians, defended the Russians, obstructed justice to protect themselves and the Russians and encouraged the Russians to intervene again in the country's upcoming elections. Donald Trump and his campaign did it because Trump wanted to win. They did it because Donald Trump thought it was in his financial interest to do so.

Some of the characters in and around Trump were highly conscious of what they were doing. Paul Manafort worked in that part of the world. He worked with a guy, Konstantin Kilimnik, who was widely thought to be a Russian agent. Kilimnik worked for a Russian oligarch who sat at the right hand of Vladimir Putin. Manafort knew what he was doing. He's a scumbag, but he's not an idiot.

Roger Stone knew what he was doing. Donald Trump knew that he needed people like Roger Stone, who were willing to color outside the lines, to get done what Trump wanted done. Did Donald Trump Jr. know that? Probably. Did Jared Kushner and Ivanka know what was going on? Probably. Steve Bannon and some of these other characters, I suspect that they did as well.

I think gradually, over time, we as a country are going to finally come to the realization that, "Holy mackerel. The Russians collaborated with American traitors to tip the scales in a U.S. election. They succeeded. They did untold damage to the United States and the world. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died as a direct result of this. And they all got away with it."

I suspect that, 10 years from now, it is going to be just a matter of public knowledge that what you think happened and what I think happened with Trump and Russia is accepted because it is the truth. I do not know if there will be justice through the courts. But there will be justice in the eyes of history.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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