REBECCA TRAISTER The first layer is can we acknowledge that in a country that has only elected male presidents throughout its history, that gender is a factor--
BROOKE GLADSTONE Peeling away the many layers of the Warren-Sanders sexism sideshow. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone, also on the show. Are you depressed by politics? This guy has a plan for that.
EITAN HERSH There's something you can do, and it's getting power for your side, for your views. And that requires you to change people's minds about whether they're going to vote and who they're going to vote for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, a journalist researching her book about the Trump and Kushner families found herself on the slippery slope of the new normal. Nevertheless, she persisted.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN There is only one thing I can do, which is to try to document and put something into a story that people will understand. The moment that I stop doing that is when I have given up hope and I have not given up hope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
NEWS REPORT Tonight, Family Feud. Progressive Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren sparring over questions of gender and electability.
NEWS REPORT And family feud going into tonight's Democratic debate, the last before Iowa, a fight breaks out between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
NEWS REPORT The rare progressive family feud coming after Senator Elizabeth Warren confirmed reports that during a private conversation with Senator Bernie Sanders in 2018, he told her, a woman could not beat president.
NEWS REPORT The de facto non-aggression pact between the two progressive senators seems to be out the door. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It started last weekend when Politico reported that the Sanders campaign had given some volunteers a script with talking points for winning away voters who were leaning toward other candidates, including Warren, then CNN reported its bombshell.
NEWS REPORT Sanders told Warren he did not believe a woman could win, according to four sources, two people Warren spoke with directly and two others familiar with the meeting. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The gossip that routinely stands in for actual election news, like one of those pasty, heroic cookies that melts in your mouth, leaving nothing behind but a sugary residue. CNN made much of its nothing.
NEWS REPORT Anderson, there is no question that we've seen debates before, we've not seen a debate like this.
NEWS REPORT We're just about an hour away. Will tension between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders finally boil over?
NEWS REPORT That's the big question. That is what everyone is waiting to see… [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As the debate was two hours long, the last before the Iowa caucus. But for CNN, it was all about that last 17 seconds.
ANDERSON COOPER They had a moment after the debate. Warren left Bernie Sanders hanging when he tried to shake her hand. And that was followed by a brief but tense exchange, including Sanders hand gestures and a return of a gesture there from Elizabeth Warren. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE What could the silent gestures have meant? Politico got a body language expert to do a move by move analysis of their exchange. News outlets noted that #NeverWarren had begun trending on Twitter.
There were Bernie supporters who were lighting up Twitter yesterday with anti-war and hashtags.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It wasn't trending because a critical mass of voters were turning on Warren, but because the algorithm had picked up on users, cautioning one another from tweeting the hashtag. Like a finger trap, the harder progressives tried to de-escalate, the more the feuding seemed to spread. Drawing more eyeballs, more clicks. And then just as the post debate news cycle had reached its natural crescendo, CNN released audio of the handshake snub during Anderson Cooper's prime time slot.
ElIZABETH WARREN I think you called me a liar on national TV...I think you called me a liar on national TV.
BERNIE SANDERS Let's not do it right now. You want to have that discussion, we’ll have that discussion.
ElIZABETH WARREN Any time.
BERNIE SANDERS You call me. You told me, alright let’s not do this… [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE CNN when a well-timed, anonymously sourced piece that produced days of TV drama. But did the feud tell us anything new about Sanders or Warren or how they govern? And given our country's history of misogyny, was it even sexist for Sanders if he really said it to suggest that a female candidate faced insurmountable odds? Writing in The Cut this week, Rebecca Traister says the question, though dispiriting, is inevitable.
REBECCA TRAISTER Can we acknowledge that in a country that has only elected male presidents throughout its history, that gender is a factor both in all of the elections of men that have preceded us and is a factor that's going to shape the path of female candidates in such a way that it certainly had an impact on Hillary Clinton in 2016. But it's like people then when they get to the point where they can acknowledge that speed right by it and get to, well, it's impossible. We'll never be able to elect a woman because everything's so sexist. It's somewhere in that middle ground that we are right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Warren, until now, hasn't directly taken on questions of whether she as a woman is electable.
REBECCA TRAISTER I have been watching her framing of gender with tremendous interest. She gave her opening speech in Lawrence, Massachusetts, talking about young women who organized in the textile mills in Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts, in the early 19th century.
ELIZABETH WARREN On January 11th, 1912, a group of women who worked right here at the Everett Mill discovered that their bosses had cut their pay. And that was it. The women said enough is enough. [END CLIP]
REBECCA TRAISTER She gave a big speech in Washington Square Park in New York in the summer about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the kind of organizing and striking that had preceded the fire there. And then specifically about Frances Perkins, who had witnessed that fire and then went on to work in Roosevelt's cabinet and without talking about herself, she was making a not so subtle comparison between how a woman can look at systems that are broken and then move inside a system and fix what's broken. And it does two things. It enables a feminist approach to her historic presidential campaign without having to engage the incredible tinderbox that is about her own experiences of bias or sexism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you said all that's over now. We're in the muck.
REBECCA TRAISTER Sure are, yes, that's, that's done.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because then on Monday, CNN reported that in 2018, multiple sources say none of whom were Warren or Sanders, that in a private conversation, Sanders told Warren he didn't believe a woman could win when he was asked about this during the debate. he was emphatic.
BERNIE SANDERS It's incomprehensible that I would think that a woman could not be president of the United States. Go to YouTube today. [END CLIP]
REBECCA TRAISTER One of the things the Sanders campaign has said in its defense in this conversation is here. Look at these videos of Bernie Sanders talking in 1987 to schoolchildren, third graders.
BERNIE SANDERS You get just as much of the boys, have a right to become president, there’s not been a woman president. [END CLIP]
REBECCA TRAISTER And then in 1988, telling C-SPAN, of course, a woman can be president.
There is a difference between saying in 1987 and 1988 that in theory, yes, of course, a woman can be president. And the question of a woman running against Donald Trump and I can absolutely imagine a scenario where Bernie Sanders says he is going to throw everything at you, he's gonna drag you through the mud. And Warren says, so do you think any woman can beat him? And I can imagine him not thinking that he was giving any kind of definitive prediction and it hitting her like a ton of bricks because it's her prospects that her friend and colleague and feminist is describing. When she ran in Massachusetts for the Senate seat that was then occupied by the very popular Republican, Scott Brown. She told me in in the summer of 2018, just a few months before this dinner with Bernie Sanders, how clearly she remembered the progressives, her friends who called her and said, “you can run for this, but you should know that a woman is never going to win in Massachusetts.” Scott Brown had beaten another female candidate, Martha Coakley, to win his seat in 2010. Massachusetts had a terrible record of electing women in politics prior to Elizabeth Warren, and Warren was so frustrated. So it doesn't surprise me at all that if there was a conversation which Bernie Sanders might legitimately not have thought, he was offering any definitive prediction of doom. But she being very sensitive to all the ways in which she's been told women can't do this in the past, heard it. I think people have exchanges like that all the time in which meaning is extracted differently.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But Twitter's gone bananas.
REBECCA TRAISTER Yes, of course it has. This is the first time in my life that there has been this kind of competition in a presidential context between two such left leaning politicians and people are driven by their passions for these politicians. And it's been a very tricky proposition for Warren and Sanders fans because they went in with a kind of truce and yet they both want to win. But the complaint that I had about Bernie's response was he said no one in this room thinks a woman can't win the presidency. No one says that. And that is simply not true. As a feminist journalist who has written about this for years, I have had thousands of conversations with people, some of whom are like jerky sexists or whatever. But most of whom are fellow feminists who are deeply worried about this question. And by the way, I absolutely believe that a woman can be elected president in 2020. I believe that there is every chance in the world that Elizabeth Warren could be elected president in 2020. But the thing that is not true is that no one would say that. We have never managed to do it before and women are more than half of the population. The only way we ever will elect a woman is if we all decide we want to elect a particular candidate who is a woman and we get over the fears that we can't do it. I mean, that's the catch 22 here. Is the more this question guides our thinking, the more it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy because we worry about it so much that we reach for what looks like the past that we know we have elected in the past. Like Joe Biden, who's literally been in power for five decades.
BROOKE GLADSTONE After Bernie made his statements, the moderator turned to Warren and said:
NEWS REPORT Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As if Sanders had never spoken at all.
REBECCA TRAISTER So I thought the phrasing of that question, which just took as gospel Warren's recollection and openly rebuffed what Bernie Sanders had just said was really irresponsible. I also thought it was bad for both of them. It is obviously bad for Bernie, because the moderators who are framing the terms of this discussion in that moment, they're not even registering his differing view of events. So it's obviously bad for Bernie in that way, but it is also bad for Warren because, of course, Bernie's fans hear that, understand it to be a sign that he is being victimized in this, and these are the dynamics that are so perilous whenever you have a conversation about sexism. The power dynamics are so easily reversed so that the marginalized person becomes the aggressor and the person who in any way is asserted to profit from marginalization becomes the attacked. And so the fact that Bernie is in fact, treated badly by CNN becomes more evidence that he has been wronged in this situation. And that's not good for Warren. But we also need to talk about the timing of the CNN piece. And I want to do this without in any way impugning MJ Lee, who is a terrific reporter who wrote the piece and has been a great reporter on the Warren beat. But the timing of a piece, it didn't come out of a conversation that happened on Sunday. It didn't have to be published right now. There was a choice made by CNN to publish it on Monday before a Wednesday debate that was aired on CNN that published the piece.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The ratings for the debates have declined. The first one drew 18 million. The last one drew a little over 6 million. CNN got 7.3 million for this one.
REBECCA TRAISTER I don't think there's any way to say that there wasn't thinking that this is going to draw attention. We can't take a look at all of this that's happening between the candidates and assume it's just happening in nature.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let me pick up on women's anger. I think that there's been just as much commentary about that final moment she gave Bernie the cold shoulder. As you've observed, women in public suffer far more than men for lying.
REBECCA TRAISTER Characterizations of dishonesty do stick really hard to women, not exclusively women, but they stick really hard to women candidates. Something we saw in 2016 around Hillary Clinton, who sort of by every factual measure was actually a fairly straightforward politician. And yet got incessantly tagged as devious, conniving, untruthful, dishonest. We've seen that with Warren, I think in part criticism around her handling of the DNA question and stuff that Trump has been throwing at her for a while. She has gotten this stuck to her very early and it's not rational. I actually wrote a piece a few weeks ago about how her competitors, including Joe Biden, right, like Joe Biden, is a guy who is thrown out of the presidential primary in 1988 for plagiarism and not only that, lying about his own academic record, he's been caught in a million of these. And yet he has this like no malarkey, Joe reputation. It doesn't stick to him as a character trait, but the littlest things have gotten stuck to Warren. And again, I want to be clear, this isn't something that happens exclusively to women, it also happened to John Kerry. It happened to Al Gore. Although I would note that both of those men also wound up being feminized by the press in their presidential runs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mean the Frenchness of John Kerry?
REBECCA TRAISTER The Frenchness, the wealth parasailing, his thrall to his very powerful wife, Teresa, who was wealthier than he. Right? And Gore, who, if you remember, Maureen Dowd once described as practically lactating. There is strong associations between femininity and dishonesty that actually the very brilliant scholar Salamishah Tillet told me in 2016 in reference to Hillary Clinton, “it's almost biblical.” So the question of did Elizabeth Warren lie, it is a very perilous moment for her in that regard. The question of anger and how she presents herself is a slightly separate question. She has been relentlessly upbeat. She's got the energy of the golden retriever. Right. Like her mascot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kate McKinnon captures it perfectly.
KATE MCKINNON Hello, it is good to be here. Look at me. I'm in my natural habitat. Public school on a weekend. [END CLIP]
REBECCA TRAISTER But she's very smart and can be very cutting. And of course, she can get angry. And she's talked about anger unapologetically throughout, she was talking about it in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings. She was saying, I'm not going to apologize for my anger. I own my anger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bernie says he's sick and tired all the time.
REBECCA TRAISTER All men on campaign trails get to be angry. In men, it's a sign of passion, commitment, drive, patriotism. We know that there are these double standards. Warren has actually been pretty direct, I think experimental in her willingness to say, yeah, I am angry. And that's part of what's driving me. She talks regularly about being in a fight. And what you saw at the end of the debate was a moment I actually thought it was incredibly humanizing for both of them. They are longtime colleagues, longtime friends who are both in this election because they are so committed to trying to fix everything that is unjust and broken in this world. I really believe that about both of them. And now they're in conflict with each other and they were mad at each other. To me, it was so human about both of them. They're mad. This is ugly. This hurts. I don't think either one of them is lying. And I write a lot about how women get criticized for being angry all the time and men often get congratulated. And Bernie has been congratulated for conveying the anger of his supporters so effectively. But it is also true that Bernie is one of the men who's also been criticized for it. I mean, he is also a real challenge to the power structure. And part of how he is punished for that is through characterizations of his own bad temper. He yells and he hectors and he points and all of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've observed that getting to cry sexism is treated as a privilege, as a present. And on MSNBC, Chris Matthews was praising Warren's canny handling of the issue with his usual frenzy.
CHRIS MATTHEWS I think bringing this out into the open, the issue of whether a woman can be elected president is going to help her campaign and whether she started or not, she definitely brilliantly exploited it tonight. And then Bernie clinched, I thought was very interesting. He did not want to fight it anymore, but she won. [END CLIP]
REBECCA TRAISTER This is one of the perils of ever talking about the bias that you have faced. You will be perceived as having won the lottery because you get to talk about how you've been discriminated against. It's all tied to the reactionary inverted views of affirmative action or identity politics, where it's worse to be called racist or sexist than it is to experience racism or sexism. That is such a popular, ingrained assumption, I think, in so many of the people who run our media institutions, which are still fundamentally white, patriarchal media institutions that like, the greatest danger is that somebody might call you a bigot. Not that that person might have experienced bigotry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rebecca, thank you very much.
REBECCA TRAISTER It's always a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rebecca Traister is a writer at The Cut where her recent article is called The Third Rail of Calling Sexism. Coming up, does consuming all that politics make you depressed? Our next guest has a plan for that. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. So did you tweet while you watched the Democratic debate? Did you catch the Lev Parnas interview on The Rachel Maddow Show and share something about it on Facebook to inform your friends? After all your politically active, you're civically engaged. You listen to this show, after all, Eitan Hersh is the author of a new book. Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action and Make Real Change. In 2018, a year of midterm elections, Hersh, a political science professor at Tufts University, asked a random sample of a thousand Americans how much time they spend on political activities. A third of them said they spent two hours or more each day on politics, two hours a day devoted to politics, to civic engagement. Wow. But wait. Four out of five said that the time is not spent on any real work--organizing, volunteering, anything active. And of those one in five who said they were actually doing anything, the amount of time they devoted to political work was infinitesimal.
EITAN HERSH They read the newspaper, they listen to NPR, and then they could listen to a bunch of podcasts or watch MSNBC or Fox News for hours. And even if the stuff they're learning about is, you know, gossip and minutiae, they'll say “it's my civic duty to be informed.” But if you ask them, like, “okay, well, who should I vote for in a local election?” They would say, “I have no idea. I don't know anything about the local elections. I don't know anything about the state. I really could just tell you a lot about MoistureGate, Sharpie-gate, the Mueller investigation. But I can't tell you a thing that would actually inform your vote.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE You found political hobbyism as a bigger problem for Democrats?
EITAN HERSH Well, it's a big problem for people who are college educated news followers. And right now, those people are overwhelmingly Democratic. They think about politics as their civic duty. And they're in a social network where people talk about politics. But if you ask them, oh, can you come to this community meeting where we're gonna do something, they would say. “I don't really have time for that.” The status quo, as much as people might lament it, is pretty good for people like me, for college educated white men. They don't feel particularly under threat, so they might say, oh, you know, “Trump's awful or Obama's awful or polarization is awful.” You don't see them out there doing anything about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A college grad isn't so special anymore as it was a generation or two back. We don't feel that the nation depends on us.
EITAN HERSH That's right. At the same time, as the college degree population has skyrocketed, say, since the 1950s, civic engagement has declined rapidly. Since 1952, the American National Election Studies has asked every year how interested you are in the election. And 2016 was the peak. 2016 was the high point of interest. But when it came to saying you volunteered, you worked for a party organization, you work for a campaign, 2016 was below the historical average.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You also suggest women spend less time on social media, but they spend more time actually doing political work.
EITAN HERSH Yeah. This is an amazing thing that you can see anytime if you go talk to a group on the left, say like an indivisible group or even on the right, like in church groups, the people there almost all are predominantly women.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right at the start of your book, you describe sitting on the couch, “a pile of laundry sits next to me over some two hours. I folded half heartedly as I watch TV and clutch my phone. I refresh my Twitter feed to keep up with the latest political crisis. Then toggle over to Facebook to read. Click bait news stories, then over to YouTube to see a montage of juicy clips from the latest congressional hearing. I then complain to my family about all the things they don't like, that I have seen. What I am doing,” you say, “isn't politics, it's political hobbyism.”
EITAN HERSH Well, in this book I follow about 7 organizers and they are people who are trying to get power. They have community associations that are designed to win over people to their side. They're clearly doing politics. That is, they're trying to get power. And the way they're getting power is by essentially serving other people so that those other people who maybe don't care so much about politics will give them their votes. The rest of us, what we're doing is not trying to really get power. Maybe we don't want it so bad as we say we do. Maybe we don't know how they know how to throw five dollar donations at a candidate. They know how to vote in a presidential election, but they don't really think about, “well, OK. What can I do locally that actually multiplies my own vote into more votes?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE You start the book with an anecdote. It takes place in a Republican stronghold in Pennsylvania. A few lonely liberals rattling around a hall trying to organize.
EITAN HERSH Yeah, there's this woman, Angela Aldous, a nurse who started this group. And at first I see this room of about 50 people who they looked like they could be, you know, a variety of mostly retired liberals anywhere in the country. And in walks this guy who sits at my table, who looks very different. He has this big, thick beard and he introduces himself. This is a liberal organization in this Republican stronghold. And he tells everyone at this table that he is an evangelical Christian and he's pro-life and he's Republican. At first you can see the people at this table squirming. And you have to understand the background is this organization is a people who knock on their doors of their neighbors sometimes they wear Kevlar vests, they're afraid to talk to their neighbors and tried to convince them to vote mostly for Democrats. And so they see this guy and it turns out that he was really upset about some of the behavior of the president. And he felt like his community of evangelical Christians in this town were going down a path that he thought was racist. And he wanted to see what this liberal organization was like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And it's no accident, you write that he showed up there. His appearance was the product of a tremendous amount of work on the ground.
EITAN HERSH And also an attitude by the leaders of this organization that this is gonna be a slow and steady organization that's welcoming to a diverse range of people, because you can't win in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, the way you can win in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And so they welcome him. And sure enough, a few months later, I get text messages from Angela, the lead organizer in this group of her canvasing with this gentleman. Getting people to vote for state and local offices for the Democratic Party. I totally changed my image of politics writing this book, because the way I thought about it as a political science professor and as a, you know, a national newsreader is what difference can any person make? We’re such a small drop in the bucket compared to the whole large country. But the organizers don't think about it that way. The organizers think, “OK, I have my one vote. How many more do I have in me to get?” In the book, we encounter this old man, Naakh Vysoky, who's been called the Ukrainian boss, who over a couple of decades influenced thousand votes. This precinct of retired refugees from the former USSR had two or three times the turnout of reelection in the precincts around it. That's one guy. One guy with a thousand votes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How'd he do that?
EITAN HERSH The same way all these people do it, which is by building rapport with their neighbors. This guy drove his neighbors to doctor's offices. He helped them study for their citizenship tests. In the end, he didn't have to persuade them that any one candidate was great. They just know that he is great and that's why they give him their vote. And this is like such an important lesson. If you're not in an organization and you don't rely on other people, then if a candidate's not a star, it's not Barack Obama. It's not Donald Trump. It's not a celebrity. Or maybe at a time where your party is down like 2010 for the Democrats. You stay home because it's the party or the candidate that's inspiring you or not inspiring you. But when you're in a community of organizers, when you're in maybe a church community, then the reason you vote in any election is not because of who the celebrity on the ballot is, it's because your buddy who you trust says, “hey, we got to go vote.” You see right now on the right among evangelical Christians say some of them really don't like Donald Trump, don't like his tweets, don't want him teaching their Sunday school kids. They say, “hey, this guy is the vehicle for our values. So we got to do it. And they push each other forward.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE So do you really believe that if people spent less time talking about politics, they would do more actual politicking?
EITAN HERSH It's a very hard question to answer. You know, I kind of put it to the reader of the book. I mean, do you actually want power for your side? Maybe you don't. And just happy kind of consuming all this information. And OK, just so you know, other people out there want power more than you do, obviously. And in the book I talk about groups like the KKK who are out helping opioid addicts saying, “hey, you're opiate addiction is not your fault and we're here to help you come visit us.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah. This was the KKK in North Carolina in 2018.
EITAN HERSH That's right. And so if you're comfortable with that. Yeah. Like, I'm happy sitting on my couch and pretty comfortable. And other people who want power will go out and do the dirty work, then fine. But I think a lot of people feel sad about the state of political affairs and they don't know what they should be doing. And so I want to show them, hey, actually, there's something you can do. And it's getting power for your side, for your views, for your issues. And that requires you to change people's minds about whether they're going to vote and who they're going to vote for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A fascinating part of your book was a description in the 1950s of what the political scientist James Q. Wilson called “amateur Democrats” which were very much like today's hobbyists.
EITAN HERSH That's right. With one exception, they were involved in community meetings in their neighborhoods. Folks in professional jobs after the war, they really resisted the party machine. You know, in cities like New York, there was corrupt. And it wasn't supportive of liberal values. And so this professional class formed what was a short term movement of what was called “club Democrats.” And they they met in clubhouses and in living rooms and they had cocktails or coffee and they talked big ideas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So they had a social scene, but not one that would prompt them to canvass, for instance.
EITAN HERSH That's right. It was hard to get them to see value in organizing a neighborhood in, you know, helping a neighbor with their potholes. That's what the machines are really good at. The machines were bad in a lot of ways. But the machines were good when they were good at responding to people who maybe politics wasn't important to them, but they did care that someone was there fixing the potholes or fixing their street light. Or maybe there's examples in, say Chicago's machine of Mayor Daley, cash assistance. The amateurs hated all that. They wanted politics to be about these big ideas. They cared about liberal values, civil rights. But they didn't want to dirty their hands in grassroots organizing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because it was a little dirty.
EITAN HERSH You know, power can corrupt, but if you really want something out of politics, you have to actually make this choice, empower leaders in your community. And they might burn you. But they're also the only vehicle we have for power for good things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And when you're talking about people who feel detached or sad about politics, all the indications are that cable news or too much social media or news consumption in general will deplete you, whereas actual engagement can invigorate you.
EITAN HERSH Right in the same way that all community engagement, whether it's religious or civic, is correlated with being happier. This is too, I think if you kind of imagine an in-person version of politics based on what you experience on social media. It just seems awful and it's angry. It's antagonistic. How could a liberal convince a Fox News viewer to take their side or vise versa? But then you go to a community meeting like that one in rural Pennsylvania or one anywhere in the country, and you see something much different, much more uplifting and positive, where they slow and steady move people in their direction. So I think it's just a much more positive experience than people imagine it to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Writing in The Cut recently, the day after the assassination of General Soleimani, writer Bridget Reed described the sensation of watching the stream of reactions on Twitter. She wrote, “It was terrifying to be suddenly aware of how much time and attention given over to this strange place where everything happens but nothing happens. Convincing me I'm doing something when I'm doing nothing, risking nothing or worse, there's nothing else I can actually do or risk, when, of course, there is.”
EITAN HERSH I think politics seems so sad online often because we follow these news stories and they're big news stories, at least at any time they seem big. The Mueller report seemed so big, and the Ukraine story, and impeachment. These are big historical moments. But my role as a citizen in those moments is not important. I'm not important to what's happening in the impeachment or what's happening with the military in Iran. But I am important if I place myself in a community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Eitan, thank you very much.
EITAN HERSH My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Eitan Hersh is a political science professor at Tufts and author of Politics for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action and Make Real Change. Coming up, two families that feud with most of the nation. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. For those who were tuned in to the TV Wednesday night on any of the cable news channels, they'd have seen snippets of Rachel Maddow interviewing Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas. Wait, who?
PRESIDENT TRUMP I don't know him at all. Don't know what he's about. Don't know where he comes from. I know nothing about him life.
LEV PARNAS He lied. I mean, we're not friends. I mean, when you say friends that mean me and didn't watch football games together, didn’t eat hot dogs. But he knew exactly who we were. He knew exactly who I was. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Parnas told Maddow that Giuliani, Attorney General William Barr, Vice President Mike Pence and others were all on the president's team charged with unseating American Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, a move favored by Ukrainian oligarchs. In exchange for helping secure the president's seat by doing damage to Joe Biden. How we got to the point where the interests of company and country are brazenly conflated out there for most to see is the subject of my WNYC colleague Andrea Bernstein's new book called American Oligarchs: The Kushner's, The Trumps and the Marriage of Money and Power. We'll begin on a rainy night, September 1943 in the ghetto of Navahrudak, Poland, where a couple hundred survivors tunneled 300 meters to escape their Nazi captors. Among them was Ray Kushner, grandmother of Jared. And hiding in a hole in the ground of a nearby forest was his vengeful grandfather, Yossel Berkowitz, a carpenter. The two made their way to Hungary, married and then walked across and around borders, detained a few years in an Italian refugee camp until after strategically lying to American immigration officials about their family relations and nationality, the United States lets them in. There, Yossel Berkowitz, it's now called Joseph Kushner, begins to build the family fortune.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN He starts by working on houses in New Jersey as a carpenter. And it is a great time to be in carpentry because there's so many houses that are being built for the returning guys and there's so much federal money flowing into suburbia. And he becomes a millionaire many times over through his own moxie, certainly, but also with a great deal of help from the government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk about Friedrich Trump now, where we start his story earlier, basically at the turn of the 20th century.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN It's the Gilded Age. So as now, huge inequality of wealth and monopolists control the government. One of the things that's different, though, between now and then is that there was a lot of land which the U.S. had seized from the native populations, but they were giving it away and there was a lot of immigration. And those two combined things meant you could still change your social class. So Friedrich Trump gets in the hospitality business locating his establishments where there are a lot of gold miners and he sells liquor, food and access to sex.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How did they find their way back east?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN So he gets back to New York at a period where Queens is about to get a bridge and it's about to get very easy to get to Queens, which means all the land is going to have a lot of value. He buys land in Queens right before this big government infrastructure project. And that is hugely beneficial to his real estate business. Friedrich dies of the Spanish flu and the Trump family did suffer during the Great Depression. Donald's father, Fred Trump, is building houses, but it wasn't until he really learned how to work the system in the mid 1930s and develop political ties that the Trump family business as we know it was born.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Kushners and the Trumps benefited enormously from the New Deal programs of FDR and from institutional racism.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN We know the story of what happened. White people were fleeing cities that flow of population to the suburbs helped the Kushner family, also the Trump family, Fred. Trump's real estate projects worth what is known in political circles as “white ethnic enclaves.” It's an active practice in the Trump family to keep black families out. The Justice Department at one point brings suit against Donald and Fred Trump. They settle, but they admit no wrongdoing. But they say, OK, we're actually not going to discriminate going forward. Dubious whether that promise was kept.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Both Charles Kushner, Jared's dad, and Fred were active participants in local Democratic politics. Charlie Kushner at one point was New Jersey's top Democratic donor.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Really big money in those days.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what do they get for that money?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN First and second generation immigrant families of Holocaust survivors had a group called the Holocaust Builders in New Jersey that made a lot of money but didn't talk about it. Charlie wanted the attention, but he also wanted the government benefits in much the same way that Donald Trump's father, Fred Trump, had sought. When you're in the real estate business, your entire business model depends on government favors. It depends on zoning, perhaps tax givebacks. So it's very important that you cultivate politicians. What was different about Charlie Kushner is he did it so aggressively that he actually got in trouble for it. Which is a rare thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Well, Charlie Kushner's older brother, Murray, objected to the fact that Charlie Kushner was using their corporate accounts to write checks to politicians to pay for entertainment, things that you're not supposed to pay for from a corporation in America, because that is tax evasion. So Murray sued him. A person that notices the lawsuit is the U.S. attorney of New Jersey at the time--
CHRISTOPHER CHRISTIE I’m Christopher Christie and the United States attorney in the district of New Jersey. The six indictments, including three rico indictments that were brought today in New Jersey…[END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN He’s trying to build his own career as this corruption busting Republican U.S. attorney. And here comes this case of a Democratic donor doing blatant wrongdoing and it proves irresistible. Charlie Kushner does what rich people do--hires a white collar lawyer, to make it go away. And the lawyer cannot make it go away. So Charlie decides to take matters into his own hands. He hires a sex worker to entrap his sister's husband, who he also thinks is working against him. And there is an encounter in a motel that Charlie has videotaped. Some months later, he learns that Christie's prosecution is going forward and he has the videotape sent over to his sister on the eve of her son's engagement party. His sister brought it to the U.S. attorney's office. And Charlie was subsequently charged with witness tampering, tax evasion, campaign finance violations.
NEWS REPORT Kushner's high profile defense attorneys say their client is innocent of the charges.
NEWS REPORT Everyone knows Mr. Kushner is one of the most successful businessmen in the United States and one of the great philanthropists of this century. We are taking…[END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN He pleaded guilty in August of 2004.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We talk about tax evasion, the Trumps actually made quite a hobby of this.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN So interesting because in America, in the middle of the last century, people believed in paying taxes. FDR said:
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT Taxes, after all, are the dues that we pay for the privilege of membership in an organized society. [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN People believed that. You can look at the data and you can find there is actually not that much tax evasion except, the Trumps did. Fred Trump, when he wants to get federal mortgages, he says, look how much my property is worth. But when he wants to pay taxes, he says, look how much it's not worth. By the end of his life, he has given over a billion dollars to his children tax free, including 400 million to his son Donald.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A few times in your book, you have some variation on the phrase “largest fine in xyz commission history.” So some of the taxpayer money was clawed back.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN The Trump Taj Mahal Casino was twice given the largest fine for loose money laundering controls in the history of the U.S. Treasury Department twice. Trump because of a scheme that he developed with Roger Stone. We all know Roger Stone was given the largest lobbying fine in the history of New York state. But these were business expenses, if you will. They didn't actually deter him from his business practices because they weren't enough. It's like the theory of somebody who wants to drive fast and gets a speeding ticket now and then and understands, “Okay, I’m gonna take that speeding ticket because it means the rest of the time I can drive fast.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how about the process of reporting this book? You've noted that in the 20 years that you've investigated political corruption, it's become harder and harder to trace.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN I cannot overstate what a challenge this reporting project was. There are so many shell companies. Sometimes it's like being in a nightmarish hallway where there's a million closed doors and you think, which one should I go into? It used to be not that hard to cover money in politics because people would disclose their donations somewhere. You could find the numbers and line them up with maybe a contract or some other government benefit. What's happening now is money pours into government through dark money committees, super PACs. It's sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court that you don't really have to say how money is getting into elections. You can spend a year figuring out, as some people have done, who is behind the LLC that gave a million dollars to the Trump Inaugural Committee. One of the reasons why we have set up the collaboration that we have in our podcast, Trump, Inc, is because it's a force multiplier. The Trump, Inc podcast is a collaboration of WNYC and ProPublica but we've worked with a lot of journalists. We've worked with The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, Times. Forbes
BROOKE GLADSTONE and listeners.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN citizen journalists, tipsters. There is so much to look at. And one of the things I found is, OK. Just read everything, read every document, read it at least twice so you retain it. And that is one of the ways to overcome systems that are deliberately designed to keep us from learning about the Trump and Kushner family businesses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rae Kushner, who had escaped with her life just barely from the Nazis from Poland, with the help of some lies strategically designed to mislead immigration services. Rae’s children for one of her birthdays, compiled a book about family lore, The Miracle of Life. And you drew from it a lot in your book. It begins with a quote from Proverbs. “Hear me, my child, the instruction of your father. And do not forsake the teaching of your mother.” What lessons did Rae’s children and grandchildren ultimately take?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN This is the central conflict of the Kushner family. There are a lot of lessons that can be taken from the Holocaust experience. One lesson is flout authority, break rules. That is certainly a lesson that Jared Kushner and his father, Charlie Kushner, have embraced. Jared Kushner had to amend his disclosure forms 40 times. He communicates with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia via WhatsApp and doesn't tell intelligence agencies. So that is one lesson. Don't follow rules. Another lesson is wall yourself off. Don't let anybody in. Kill anybody that is trying to threaten you because otherwise they'll get you. But there's another set of lessons from the Holocaust. Jared Kushner's grandmother, Rae Kushner, had a very specific warning.
RAE KUSHNER If he's not gonna tell now, in 20 years, I don't know who's going to tell. And now we have the strength and we have the power to do this and to warn the rest of the world to be careful. Who is coming up on top of government? [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN And of course, her grandson is on top of a government that is presiding over the most restrictive refugee and immigration policies in generations in many ways. I want to be clear, we are not living in the Holocaust. It was a terrible and unique time in history. But one of the things I learned from The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt was the way the Nazis constantly assaulted the idea of truth, not just what was right and what was wrong, but the idea that they could say one thing and then say another thing and everybody would understand there were lies. You know, there is a connection between eroding, a sense that there can be a truth and what is allowable and what can happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You quote Hannah Arendt saying, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world is being destroyed.” So, Andrea, how did you keep your bearings while reporting this book?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN I did rely on the old saws of journalism, asking, asking, asking, asking. Trying to get everybody who could explain something to me and every document that related to any aspect of the story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But what about the notion that that it's not so bad? There are worse things. Did you at any point fear that slippery slope?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN I mean. Yes. And, you know, then also all the people who are sort of, you know, why are you covering this? What's it going to do? But I'm a journalist. There is only one thing I can do, which is to try to document and put something into a story that people will understand. The moment that I stop doing that is when I have given up hope and I have not given up hope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's a really good book, Andrea.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Thank you. Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Andrea Bernstein is co-host of WNYC Trump, Inc. And the author of American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps and the Marriage of Money and Power.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, and Jon Hanrahan, and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Anthony Bansie and Eloise Blondiau. Our engineers this week were Josh Hahn and Sam Bair. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
UNDERWRITING On the Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.