Kai Wright: Hey everybody. This is Kai. Recently I had a really fun conversation with my colleague, Andrea Bernstein and I want to share it with you as a bonus episode for our podcast listeners. Andrea is the co-host of WNYC's podcast, Trump Inc. which is about the terribly gray line between the president's company and our government but she also wrote a best-selling book called American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power.
In the final days before this election, we got together to talk about the book and to share our reflections with each other on the past four years. This was a virtual event at the Greene Space, which is our sister organization. They host all kinds of cool stuff and you should definitely check them firstname.lastname@example.org. That's G-R-E-E-N-E, the greenespace.org. Tons of live streams there that can help you stay connected in these socially distanced times. Okay, here is my conversation with Andrea Bernstein at the Greene Space. Hope you enjoy it.
Let's start with the biggest question we had of the night, which is who matters in America and you said something about Donald Trump on our show actually, the week of the Republican National Convention that I want to bring us back to here. He has said certainly in this election, he's made it fairly clear that who he's saying matters are suburban residents, particularly white, suburban residents he'd sort of changes whether he's trying to bring people of color into that or not, but he's explicitly saying, "Okay, well, I'm talking to you or white suburbanites."
It's interesting because you mentioned that he has such a long and unique understanding of the suburbs, but that it might not be right. Can you unpack that a little bit, his history with suburbs?
Andrea Bernstein: The first thing to say about Donald Trump is that he has this entirely consistent business model, which he's basically been the person he is since in his 20s when he started working for his father and so that was in the 1970s when-- We know what was going on with New York, there was decades of white flight.
There were all kinds of things to stimulate racial segregation in New York City and the Trump's really benefited from that by the location of their projects, which were out in the outer boroughs and what is called in political parlance, white, ethnic enclaves, but the Trumps who got millions and millions and millions of dollars in federally backed loans, it was the federal government and we the taxpayers that really launched the Trump business and the Trump's used that to create a housing project, which the justice department sued them for being basically whites only.
That was the moment in which Trump hired the infamous lawyer, Roy Cohn and to fight that, and eventually, they settled that lawsuit promising, as we know, Donald Trump is a man of his word that they weren't going to discriminate ever against again. That is the pattern that we've seen with Trump forever is that who is good for his business is who matters. The question about white suburbia right now is that he understands that that is the key to his election. Right now those folks matter, but it's a myth because that piece of white suburbia, as he's envisioning it is stuck sometime back in the last century and he hasn't really updated his model.
Kai: Do you think it changed between 2016 when this started and now in terms of if you're pointing out that like who matters to him is what matters to his business? Has that shifted?
Andrea: No, not really although I think that thanks to-- We've been doing this reporting for four years at Trump Inc. and there's been a lot of other great reporting out there, the recent revelations of Trump's tax returns, which was an amazing thing by the New York Times when you think that like DA's, couldn't get it, Congress couldn't get it. Various prosecutors couldn't get it.
Obviously we the public could not get it, but the New York Times got Trump's tax returns and we understand his business model is one of-- It's a failing business model, but it keeps itself afloat by constantly finding some new people to buy in and to believe that they can be part of his successful project that he's pitching, which is not really successful until the point at which that project fails and he goes onto somebody else.
In 2016, when I spent a lot more time out on the campaign trail, Trump was much more actively pitching himself to white, rural non-college-educated voters. This year he has come to understand that he can't win with just those people, which is why he's talking so much about suburbia, but on the other hand, who understands Trump's strategy, its nuts, that's what he was talking about at his convention, he's not really talking about that now--
Kai: It's true like it's still the changed.
Andrea: His actions in the debate where he wouldn't even disavow white supremacy and he told the Proud Boys or whatever he said to stand back and stand by, that was the best he could do which was obviously the opposite of what he was supposed to do is not appealing to those people that he's been told he has to appeal to. This is the last stage of the campaign, whatever comes next, this is the way it is with Trump's business, which is he desperately tries to keep the boat afloat until he can jump off and go to a new boat and everybody on the old boat can sink.
I have a question for you, Kai, because I have been thinking about this issue, especially the way in your podcast, United States of Anxiety, you talk about the lessons of history, you talk about reconstruction, and in the epilogue of my book back a year ago when I was writing it, I really wrote about how oligarchy, which is really the form of government that Trump has brought, which has in the oligarchs' world, only the oligarchs matter. If he matters and then everybody's going to pay him or be part of his family, which is something that he's constantly redefining and as many people have observed is mafia-like way like you're in the family if you're loyal to the family.
Then you're out of the family unless you're the actual family. If you're not and sometimes even the actual family like his niece, Mary Trump is actually an outsider, but one of the things I thought about is this issue of nativism and oligarchy and how I wrote that there two heads of a Hydra, but one of the things I've been thinking about is talking about the codes of enforcing white supremacy as the third head of the Hydra of Trumpism. I'm just wondering because I think about money and politics all the time and you think about white supremacy all the time. I'm just wondering what is the project of slaying this Hydra and how do you see it? This is small question.
Kai: I don't even know where to begin on how to slay the Hydra. I think what's interesting, what I have found challenging in thinking about the Trump era is that you do have these two explicit things happening at once. You have an explicit white supremacist project. I think you just have to name that and that's been the case since the beginning of his administration, arguably, that's been the case through much of his public life.
It is an explicit white supremacist project, which is different and new in modern politics where the white supremacist project which I think we have been in it for some time, but it hasn't been an explicit white-- He has an explicit white supremacists project and he has a fairly explicit oligarchical project. [unintelligible 00:08:28] both things are quite explicit and so how do they then relate for him?
In history the way they have related is in the history of Western culture, but certainly in the United States has been that the white supremacy was constructed to serve the oligarchy. The whole idea when Martin King said it best in one of his speeches about when the poor white man is-- I'm now paraphrasing Luther King so you'll have to forgive me. When the poor white man stomach cried out for food, the aristocracy gave him the gamey old bird, Jim Crow. An explicit project of white supremacy from its inception has been to justify and hold up theft. Theft of labor, theft of the Black labor during slavery, and ultimately.
The relationship between theft and white supremacy which oligarchy is that are inextricably tied. How do you then take it apart? We've had wave after wave after wave of effort in that, but most of those waves have been focused on rights. That's what I think is an interesting thing that we have to think about now, is that right after the civil war, the first wave of taking it apart, wasn't explicit economic project.
It was, "Hey there is white supremacy allowed a creation of wealth that was unequal for these few people. We have to redistribute that wealth." That actually happened in the country. We had an open wealth redistribution effort in the first 10 years after the Civil War. After that, it's largely been a conversation about rights, and culture. All those things are important, but they don't touch the wealth part. They don't touch the oligarchy part.
Andrea: From which everything flows.
Kai: Other scholars would argue you can't divide it that way. I hear Ibram Kendi my mind now who's saying that the two things are necessarily tied. You can't say either or it's both. Donald Trump is interesting in that he made both things so explicit. It's almost a gift. He'd made both things so explicit, that we now have to have explicit conversations about the way they're tied. That's not something we've done since the Civil War.
Andrea: I've had a set of discussions with the author, Masha Gessen about, "Can you even call it corruption when they say it out loud?" I think that is the same thing with white supremacy. I'm so used to covering political campaigns, where we're like, "Oh, look, there's the dog whistle." It's just not even a dog whistle. It's a firehose of coming at you of, "These are our beliefs." Our belief is us, we matter, those in the favorites circle, and everybody who's not in the favorite circle, which now includes the 213 and counting thousand Americans who have died of COVID and their families. To Trump they are nobodies. Nobody gets COVID he said before he got COVID.
Kai: Let me ask you this on this story, because right now, of course, we are watching a Supreme Court nomination unfold that is a raw-- Whatever we think ideologically, it is a raw use of power to move this Supreme Court nomination. It is tied very explicitly to Trump's relationship to the Christian right. He has decided that the Christian right mattered. That's somebody he decided mattered because it was good for him going back to 2016 and he's still trying to make good on that.
Where I'm going with this is it brings me to the-- it makes me think about the transactional nature of everything with him and you've written a lot about this, about for him it's all a transaction. What I'm wondering about is the people on the other side of the transaction, who for whom in your reporting, it usually doesn't work out well. [laughs]
Andrea: I feel you can take about a million examples. Let's put aside our current pandemic and the incredible loss of life and loss of livelihood that's been associated with Trump, who's basically has a non-scientific and indifferent attitude which he articulates towards the disease.
Kai: We have this figure who is so consuming, and because of the explicit nature of both the white supremacy and of the oligarchy is such a threat. That's how I feel about him. I feel very comfortable saying that he is such a threat to Black people and to the health of the country and--
Andrea: Literally. [crosstalk]
Kai: The ability to have a conversation, even myself to think about, "But what about after, what about after." Say Donald Trump is soundly defeated, then what? The interesting thing is as I have been doing if you listen to folks in the conservative thinkers, folks in the Republican Party, who are the anti-Trump Republicans, they understand that the Republican Party itself has already given up on what about after in terms of democracy that is almost a zombie party, that it doesn't matt-- Because they know that they have shrunk the party to the point where it cannot win in democracy. Thus both the courts and the census become such raw political battles.
Andrea: Away for the minority to rule the majority.
Kai: To rule the majority and for 30, 40 years. History tells us that that is absolutely 100% possible. The fact that we fought a Civil War, and rewrote our Constitution, three amendments, 13th, 14th, and 15th amendment. We wrote our constitution in order to make it a multiracial society. We did it and those are lovely amendments, as laws but are lovely things. It is the Supreme Court that proceeded to rewrite those or reinterpret those amendments, particularly the 14th to mean that the corporations had rights over labor, not that Black citizens have rights equal to white citizens.
At the same time, there was this project over the entire 20th century to make us forget what we did in those 10 years after the Civil War. That's why the remembering is so important now. Again, I keep returning to it's almost like, Donald Trump has given a gift. It's an absurd thing to say, but by making things so explicit, we have been forced into a conversation that we had avoided for 100 years.
Andrea: I think it's also just really true about talking about the influence with Donald Trump because he's made it so clear. He says it every day pay me and I'll give you something. It's corruption couldn't be more message. Go to my hotel, do a business deal with me, you will be in the family. That is the window of what matters and yes, it is very apparent. There's no way to even cover Trump with these traditional journalistic tools, sort of this, and to that because it's so clear what he's doing. Even he is acknowledging that there is no that today he's this.
Kai: You mentioned the tax story earlier, speaking of trying to cover something. What about the tax story? What in there, was there anything that you were like, "Whoa, that I did not see."
Andrea: I think that it really crystallized for me, the extent to which Trump has a huge financial stake in winning this election. He's got $400 million of debt coming due in his second term, which we knew about some of it. We knew about $350 million of it, but the extent to which that debt comes due, and then, if Trump were re-elected to a second term, he would be in charge of making macro and sometimes microeconomic policy that could affect his lender. What would you do if you were a bank? Would you default, the President, if he doesn't pay his bills, which we see he doesn't have the money to do?
That is a very real thing. The sense of he doesn't have any money, and he has a lot of debt is a problem. On top of that he has this audit with the IRS. We've seen how he'll just use the mechanisms of government. It's become so apparent that he'll use anything for his benefit. He'll use the Secret Service to take him on a campaign stop effectively while he's infected with COVID.
He'll have a political event at the White House. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, is using her Twitter feed, which she uses for official White House business to campaign for her dad. It is just really clear, not to mention, the fact that he got his Justice Department to try to dismiss the case against Michael Flynn to commute Roger stone sentence on and on and on and on. It is clear that he will use the mechanisms of government for his personal and political agenda to maintain power. That is what he will do. Why wouldn't he say to the IRS, "You must forgive this $100 million debt that I potentially owe you."
Kai: Give it all of that, what do you think? I'm going to ask you to be a prognosticator here. This is the question [unintelligible 00:17:48]. Given what he faces if he loses, and you've seen, he's had so many lives. You've seen him with, covered what he does when he's got his back to the wall. What then do you expect? What are the next couple of months have for us? How would you expect them to react to a loss?
Andrea: Not good, not well. What happens in a normal transition is all patronage hires contracts going out to your friends, regulations being removed from your donors. That isn't a normal political administration that happens, and we've seen that Trump just wants to sort of continually help out his friends. Were he to lose, I would expect a very intense period of attempted grift of the kind that we have seen that has taken place during his administration.
There have been a lot of people who have tried to buy influence that he hasn't been able to quite deliver for them, which is a particular phenomenon of Trumpism. On the other hand, if you're a business person and you have to give $300,000 or buy a block of rooms at the hotel, T-Mobile spent $200,000 at his hotel, while they were lobbying the Justice Department for support of their merger, and then got that.
These are small sums. Even if you don't get what you think you're going to get, it's not a huge investment for somebody in business. That's the money and politics cycle that Trump has really turbocharged. It's always been there. He was somebody who played the game from the other side when he was in a private businessman. Now it's just accelerated beyond belief.
Kai: I'm totally focused on the idea that how much he will undermine the process of transition politically and democracy, his willingness to tear things down on his way out the door. That seems to be something I take from the reporting is that he will destroy things. He's very happy to destroy something if he can't have it. I hadn't thought about it as rather just a mad grab of corruption. Again, we can't call it corruption if it happens in a plain view, but a mad grab at grifting on the way out the door. Would you downplay this sort of my terrors around what he'll do with his refusal to leave office?
Andrea: I really go back and forth on this. I think he's been quite clear, and there's no reason to doubt Trump. It's the Maya Angelou quote. When, I don't think the word that she used was oligarch but she says when the authoritarian or whatever she said says something, believe him.
Kai: Believe them when they tell you about themselves.
Andrea: Right. Trump has been very clear he's like, "Well, we're going to see if it's an honest election." Of course, he's predefined what honest election is. It's extremely alarming. Judge Barrett refused to say, "Well, that's bad." Pence refuse to say that's bad in his vice presidential debate. As you say, this is the zombie party. This is the Republican Party, where they're basically saying like "We will hold on to power if it's not fair as we see it."
Things are obviously extremely unfair for people who want to vote against them. However, in American history, the response to oligarchy and we've been in moments before in our history, the Gilded Age comes to mind when there's just been an incredible rise of oligarchy and very anti-democratic systems. What's happened is that systems have come in to increase democracy. At the turn of the last century, you had the Progressive Era, you had various reforms, you had labor laws, you had the first federal income tax, you had direct senate voting, you had women's right to vote.
All of these more democratic measures were ways of checking that and it's not like we've ever been a totally non-oligarchic egalitarian society, but we've been worse than we've been better and now we're definitely in a moment of credible inequality, which Trump helped to build, even before he was in government, by having this transactional view. He would pay somebody to get something from the taxpayers. Basically, take money from the taxpayers and then not give back. What we know from history is that the antidote is more democracy. I feel like as people are voting, I have slight glimmers of hope that exercising the franchise will make it extremely difficult for Trump to not leave, but only if enough people do it. Really a lot of people do it.
Andrea: My conversation with the United States of anxiety co-host Kai Wright, will continue right after this break.
We're back. I'm talking to Kai Wright United States of Anxiety. With the end of the voting rapidly approaching, we sat down to talk about the Trump presidency, white supremacy, and the long arc of American history.
Andrea: I like to read history because I feel like it gives me hope because I'm like, "Wow, that was a shit show, but they lived through it, and we're still here." I feel like that's one of the main reasons why go back and read about really difficult times in history. I am wondering, what do you think about this moment, and just that historical lens that you've been examining or how we got here at this point make you feel like, "We'll get through it." Or "Well, like, we've just never seen anything so bad before, we can't possibly."
Kai: Well I'm going to start with something that is real, but not positive. You said that was a shit show but we lived through it. Not all of us lived through it. One of the things that ended reconstruction was a horrific reign of terrorist violence against Black people that went on for decades, and tens of thousands of we don't know how many people were murdered. The national memorial for peace and justice down in Montgomery, Alabama, has been trying to-- Modern effort, it just now started trying to document those murders and how many we have, but it's a terrifying thing.
If you haven't been there I encourage everyone to go and to just see the number of people that were murdered and it didn't stop there. What our history tells us and this is the sobering thing, I'll get to something positive, but the sobering thing is that at every juncture that white supremacy, that the project of white supremacy has been beaten into retreat, it has happened at gunpoint and through violence. That is not to condone either thing, but it's the reality. Ultimately, in order to pass the reconstruction amendments, one we had to go into the Civil War.
Then in order to pass the reconstruction amendments, they had to ultimately send the army back into the South in order to force it because on their own regard they were not going to accept that Black people were citizens. They had to send the army back in order to pass those amendments. Then there was this reign of terrorist violence. It ultimately took the federal government to step in and start reigning in that violence through intervention by again sending troops to the south. Again in the civil rights movement, what it required, what moved the needle for the nation was it required Black people putting their bodies on the line in front of the television screens to show the brutality that they were living through.
Right now we can see. The violence is happening, Charlottesville. We see these moments of violence as one-offs like crazy one lone wolf moments of violence, but you can also see them as part of a pattern of violent engagement to try to maintain white supremacy in the face of a changing society. We should get our heads around the fact that there are people in this country and they're not just fringe elements. There are people in this country who are prepared to fight to the death to preserve the status quo. That is what our history suggests. That's just sobering and I don't have anything to say about that other than it's true.
Andrea: Right. I appreciate the correction, and you're absolutely right. By we, I just meant that the world didn't end.
Andrea: Maybe it's the wrong way of looking at it because obviously, it was apocalyptic for an awful lot of people.
Kai: The fact is my life is better than my parents. I face less racist, white supremacist violence, white supremacy gets in the way of my life, much, much less than it got in the way of my mother and father, not my grandmother, my great grandmother, my mother and father. Progress is a real thing, but I think the challenge we have because we're such a historical society is that we think of progress as inevitable. We think of progress as a-
Andrea: Yes, that's right.
Kai: -as a direct line, but progress comes through great pain usually. In your right, there can be great change on the back end of it, but every time we've had great change on the back end of it there has first been great pain and great struggle. One of the big deciding points on whether something positive comes out of that great pain, again, history shows us, has been how long people who have something to lose or willing to sit in the pain.
Ultimately, when it comes apart, it's been when white people, men, middle-class people, those of us who have some investment in the status quo, who get something out of it say, "Enough. It's been enough, I got to move forward." When that happens, then you start-- Because the thing is that what does not happen, the people who are fighting for white supremacy, do not get tired and do not give up. That is one of the great lessons is that it's hard and it's going to last.
Andrea: To me what feels like hope is doing the thing that we do, which is doing the documenting, telling the stories, trying to create the space for the truth so that what happened-- What Bryan Stevenson says happened after the Civil War, which is that the North won the war, but the South won the narrative. For me just doing the thing that we do is an act of hope. The moment when I stop is when I lose hope and I haven't done that yet.
Kai: United States of anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. This conversation was produced for the greenspace by Sachi Azura. With help for the podcast from Matt Collette, Phil Moss, and Wayne Schumeister. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Emily Botein, Jenny Casas, Marianne McCune, Christopher Werth, and Veralyn Williams. Our theme music was written by Hennis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Karen Frillmann is our executive producer and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on twitter @kai_wright and you can as always catch us live every Sunday 6:00 PM Eastern. Just tell your smart speaker to play WNYC or stream it at wnyc.org. Talk to you soon.
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