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ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Hi, it’s Andrea, here in your podcast feed with something extra. With the end of voting rapidly approaching, I recently sat down with my colleague Kai Wright, host of the podcast — and now weekly radio show — The United States of Anxiety at a virtual event hosted by the The Greene Space at WNYC. We discussed the tattered state of democracy, the encroaching oligarchy, racism, nativism, voter suppression, and how Donald Trump’s central principle of “us” versus “them” has infected almost all of American government. These are things we think about a lot.
We called the conversation “Who Matters in America 2020,” and we talked about the Trump presidency and this campaign through the lens of my book — American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power — and through the long lens of history Kai and the United States of Anxiety team employ every week on their show.
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KAI WRIGHT: I guess let's start with the — the biggest question we had in the night, which is, you know, “Who matters in America?”, and you said something about Donald Trump on our show, actually, the week of the Republican National Convention that I kind of want to bring us back to here, you know. I mean, 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 sort of changes whether he's trying to bring people of color into that or not, but he's explicitly saying, “Okay, who I'm talking to you are white suburbanites.” And it's interesting, ‘cause, you know, 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? Like, his history with the suburbs?
BERNSTEIN: Yeah. So, I mean, I guess the first thing to say about Donald Trump is that he has this entirely consistent business model, which — he’s basically been the kind of person he is since [PAUSE] in his twenties, when he started working for his father. So that was it in the 1970s when, with New York, there was, you know, decades of white flight. There were all kinds of things to stimulate racial segregation in New York City. And the Trumps really benefited from that by the location of their projects, which were sort of out in the outer boroughs and, you know, 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 Trumps used that to create a housing project, which the Justice Department sued them for being basically whites-only.
And that was the moment at which Trump hired the infamous lawyer, Roy Cohn, [WRIGHT LAUGHS] 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 again. And that is the pattern that we've seen with Trump forever is that sort of who is good for his business is who matters.
BERNSTEIN: And the question about white suburbia right now is that he understands that that is sort of the key to his election. So, right now, those folks matter, but it's kind of a myth, because that piece of white suburbia as he's envisioning it as sort of stuck sometime back in the last century, and he hasn't really updated his model.
WRIGHT: And do you think it changed between, you know, 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?
BERNSTEIN: No, not really. Although I think that — you know, 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, DAs 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 a float by constantly finding some new to 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 when he goes onto somebody else.
So … I mean, in 2016, when I spent a lot more time out in the campaign trail, Trump was sort of much more actively pitching himself to sort of white, rural, non-college-educated voters. And, 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, like, sort of, I mean, who understands Trump's strategy? [WRIGHT LAUGHS] It’s kind of nuts, right? I mean, that's what he was talking about in his convention. He’s not really talking about that now.
WRIGHT: It’s true, right? Like, it's so changed.
BERNSTEIN: And, you know, his actions in the debate where he wouldn't even disavow white supremacy, you know, and he wouldn’t even — and he told the Proud Boys whatever he said, to, you know, “Stand back and stand by.” That that was the best he could do, which was, you know, 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. So, you know, this is sort of the kind of last stage of the campaign. I mean, whatever comes next, this is the way it is with Trump's business, which is, he sort of desperately tries to, you know, keep the boat afloat until they can jump off and go to a new boat. And everybody on the old boat can sink. [WRIGHT LAUGHS]
So I — I have a question for you, Kai, because, you know, I have been thinking about this issue and, you know, sort of — especially sort of the way in your — 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 sort of oligarchy, which is really the form of government that Trump has brought, which is sort of, in the oligarch’s world, like, only the oligarchs matter, right? Sort of he matters and then everybody's going to pay him or be part of his family, which is something that he's constantly redefining in sort of mafia-like way, like, you're in the family if you're loyal to the family, and 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 …
WRIGHT: Right, right.
BERNSTEIN: But one of the things I was — you know, sort of thought about, is this issue of nativism and oligarchy and how, I wrote, that they’re 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 sort of the third head of the Hydra of, sort of, Trumpism. And I'm just kind of wondering, because, you know, I think about money in politics all the time, and you think about white supremacy all the time, and I'm just sort of wondering, what is the project of kind of slaying this Hydra, and how do you see it?
WRIGHT: [A BIG, DRAMATIC EXHALE, THEN A LAUGH FROM BOTH] I mean, you know, the slaying …
BERNSTEIN: [JOKINGLY] Just a small question.
WRIGHT: I don't even know where to begin on how to slay the Hydra. I mean, 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 the — an explicit white supremacist project. I mean, 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 and — which is different and new in modern politics, where the white supremacist project — which I think, you know, we have been in it for some time, but it hasn't been an explicit white supremacist — he has an explicit white supremacist project. [IN A HIGHER-PITCHED VOICE] And he has a fairly explicit oligarchical project, [LAUGHS] you know, as you have documented.
BERNSTEIN: Right. Right!
WRIGHT: You know? Yeah. I mean, both things are quite explicit. And so [PAUSE] 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 — the white supremacy was — was constructed to serve the oligarchy.
Martin Luther King said it best, you know, in one of his speeches about that, uh, you know, when the poor white man is — I’m now paraphrasing Martin Luther King, so you'll have to forgive me [BOTH LAUGH] — when the poor white man’s, uh, stomach cried out for food, the aristocracy gave him the gamey old bird, Jim Crow, you know? And so a — an explicit project of white supremacy, from its inception, has been to justify and hold up theft: theft of labor, theft of Black labor during slavery, and ultimately …
WRIGHT: So it — the relationship between theft and white supremacy, which — oligarchy is theft — are — are — are inextricably tied. So, how do you then take it apart?
You know, 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, right, is that, throughout — right after the Civil War, the first wave of taking it apart was an explicit economic project.
It was, “Hey, you know, 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. But after that, it's largely been a conversation about rights and culture — and all those things are important, but they don't touch the wealth part. They don't touch the oligarchy part. So, I — I —
BERNSTEIN: Right. From which everything flows, right?
WRIGHT: From which everything flows. You know, but — I mean, other scholars would argue you can't divide it that way. You know, I hear Ibram Kendi in my mind now. He's saying that the two things are necessarily tied. You can't say either-or. It’s both. But — but Donald Trump is interesting in that he made both things so explicit.
It's almost a gift, you know, he made both things so explicit that we now have to have explicit conversations about the way they were tied and that's not something we've done since the Civil War.
BERNSTEIN: Right. I mean, 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?” And I think that is the same thing with white supremacy. I mean, I'm so used to covering political campaigns where we're like, “Oh, look, there's the dog whistle.” And it's just not even a dog whistle. [WRIGHT LAUGHS]
It's just a, you know — a fire hose of coming at you of sort of, these are our beliefs and — and our belief is us. We matter, those in the favored circle, and everybody who's not in the favored 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.
WRIGHT: Well, let me ask you this on this story, because — all right, so, right now, of course, we are watching a Supreme Court nomination unfold that is raw — whatever we think ideologically — it is a raw use of power, [LAUGHS] to — to — to move this Supreme Court nomination. And it is tied very explicitly to Trump's relationship to the Christian right. And so he has decided that the Christian right mattered, right? Like, that's somebody, he decided mattered —
BERNSTEIN: Hmm. Yeah.
WRIGHT: — because it was good for him, going back to 2016, and he's still trying to make good on that. And it just, it — 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, you know, about, for him, it's all a transaction. But what I'm wondering about is the people on the other side of the transaction, you know, who — for whom, in your reporting, it usually doesn't work out well.
BERNSTEIN: I mean, I feel like you can take about a million examples — and let's just sort of put aside our current pandemic and the incredible loss of life and loss of livelihood that's been associated with Trump, who has a non-scientific and indifferent attitude, which he articulates, towards the disease.
WRIGHT: We have this figure, you know, who is so consuming, and — because of the explicit nature of both the white supremacy and of the oligarchy — is such a threat. And you know, and I, 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 the …
BERNSTEIN: Literally! Literally.
WRIGHT: Literally, literally! There are 200,000 people dead. And — and so the ability to have a conversation, even myself, to think about, “Okay, but what about after? What about after?”, you know? Say Donald Trump is soundly defeated, then what? You know? And — the interesting thing is, you know, when you listen to — as I have been doing — if you listen to folks in the Republican — conservative thinkers, folks in the Republican party who are the anti-Trump Republicans, right?
They understand that the Republican party itself has already given up on “What about after?” in terms of democracy, that — that it is almost a zombie party, that — that it doesn't matter, ‘cause they know that they’re — that they have shrunk the party to the point where it cannot win in democracy and, thus, both the courts and the census become such raw political battles.
BERNSTEIN: Right. A way for the minority to rule the majority.
WRIGHT: To — to rule the majority, and for 30, 40 years. And history tells us that that is absolutely, a hundred percent possible. The fact that we fought a Civil War [LAUGHS] and rewrote our Constitution. Three — three amendments: 13, 14th, and 15th Amendment. Rewrote our Constitution in order to make it a multiracial society.
And we did, and those are lovely amendments. You know — have flaws, but are lovely things. And it is the Supreme Court that proceeded to rewrite those — those — or, reinterpret those amendments, particularly the 14th, to mean that corporations have rights over labor, not that Black — Black citizens had rights equal to white citizens.
And — and you know — and at the same time, there was this project over the entire 20th century to make us forget what we did —
BERNSTEIN: Mhm. Yeah.
WRIGHT: — in — in — in those 10 years after the Civil War. And so that’s — that’s why the remembering is so important now. And again, I keep returning to — it's almost like Donald Trump has given a gift. I mean, 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. And — and —
BERNSTEIN: I mean, I think it's also just really true about sort of talking about the influence with Donald Trump, because, I mean, he's made it so clear — [EMPHATICALLY] so clear. He says it every day: “Pay me and I'll give you something.” I mean, it's just sort of — Corruption couldn't be more message, you know, “Go to my hotel, do a business deal with me, you will be in the family.” And that is the window of what matters. And yes, it is very apparent.
I mean, there's no way to even cover Trump with the sort of traditional journalistic tools, the sort of “the this and the that,” because it's so clear what he's doing and even he — even he is acknowledging that there's no “that” to his “this”!
WRIGHT: Well — so, what have — you mentioned the tax story earlier, speaking of trying to cover something. What — what about the tech stories? So what — what in there — was there anything that you were like, “Whoa, that I did not see that coming!”?
BERNSTEIN: I mean, 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 — we knew about some of it. We knew about, you know, $350 million of it.
But the extent which that debt comes due, and then — if Trump were reelected to a second term, he would be in charge of making macro- and sometimes microeconomic policies so they could affect his lenders. So 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)?
So that is a very real thing. I mean, the sense of, like, “He doesn't have any money” and “He has a lot of debt,” is a problem. On top of that, he has this, you know, audit with the IRS, and we've seen how he'll just use the — the mechanisms of government. I mean, it's just become so apparent that he'll use anything for his benefit. You know, 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.
I mean, it is just, uh, 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’s 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. So why wouldn't he say to the IRS, you must forgive this a hundred million dollar debt that I potentially owe you.
WRIGHT: So, given — given — given — given all of that, I — you know, what do you think? So I'm going to ask you to just to be a prognosticator here. I mean, this is the question on a lot of our minds. So given what he faces if he loses — and you've seen, I mean — he’s had so many lives, you've seen him with you — you know, you’ve covered what he does when he's got his back to the wall.
What, then, do you expect, what is the — what do the next couple of months have for us? Like, what — what would you — how would you expect him to react to a loss?
BERNSTEIN: Right. Not good. Not well. I mean, what happens in a normal transition is all kinds of patronage hires, contracts going out to your friends, regulations being removed from your donors. That is in a normal political administration, that happens. And we've seen that Trump just wants to sort of continually help out his friends.
So 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.
WRIGHT: Oh, wow.
BERNSTEIN: Now, there have been a lot of people who have, you know, tried to buy influence that he hasn't been able to quite deliver for them, which is a sort of — a particular phenomenon of Trumpism. On the other hand, you know, if you're a businessperson and you have to give $300,000, or buy a block of rooms at the hotel, or, you know, T-Mobile — T-Mobile spent $200,000 at his hotel while they were lobbying the Justice Department for support of their merger and then got that. So these are small sums.
So even if you don't get what you think you're going to get, it's not a huge investment for somebody in business. And that's the sort of money-in-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. And now he's just, you know, it's just accelerated beyond belief.
WRIGHT: I am totally focused on the idea that he will, you know — 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.
And I hadn't thought about it as rather just a sort of mad grab of corruption, or — I mean, again, we can't call it “corruption” if it happens in — in — in plain view — but a mad grab at — at — at grifting on the way out the door. So, I mean, would you downplay the — sort of my terrors around what he'll do with his refusal to leave office?
BERNSTEIN: You know, I — I sort of really go back and forth [LAUGHS] on this. I mean, I think he's been quite clear and there's no reason to, you know, doubt Trump. It's the Maya Angelou quote, right? When, you know, the — I don't think the word that she used was “oligarch,” but she says, you know, when the authoritarian — or whatever she said — says something, believe him!
WRIGHT: “Believe them when they tell you about themselves.”
BERNSTEIN: And Trump — it’s been very clear. He's like, “Well, we're going to see if it's an honest election,” but, of course, he's predefined what “honest election” is. I mean, it's extremely alarming, and — and Judge Barrett refused to say, “Well, that's bad.” And Pence refused to say, “That’s bad,” in his vice presidential debate.
So, I mean, it's sort of like, you know, it is — as you say, it's sort of, “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 the — and we've been in moments before in our history — the Gilded Age comes to mind — when there's just been, like, an incredible rise of oligarchy, and very anti-democratic systems. And what's happened is that systems have come in to increase democracy. So you had — 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. So all of these sort of more democratic measures were [A BEAT] ways of checking that.
BERNSTEIN: And it's not like we've ever been a totally non-oligarchic, egalitarianism society, but we've been worse, and we’ve been better.
BERNSTEIN: And now we're definitely in a moment of incredible inequality, which Trump helped to build, even before he was in government, by sort of 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.
But what we know from history is that the antidote is more democracy. I sort of feel like, as people are voting, I have, you know, slight glimmers of hope that sort of 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
BERNSTEIN: My conversation with United States of Anxiety co-host Kai Wright will continue right after this break.
BERNSTEIN: And we’re back, talking to Kai Wright of The United States of Anxiety. With the end of voting rapidly approaching, we sat down to talk about the Trump presidency, white supremacy, and the long arc of American history.
BERNSTEIN: I like to read history because I feel like it gives me hope, because I'm like, “Wow. Like, that was a shitshow, but they lived through it, and we're still here.” [WRIGHT LAUGHS] So I feel like, you know, that's one of the main reasons why I go back and sort of read about really difficult times in history. I am wondering, what do you think about this moment, and does that historical lens that you've been examining or, sort of, you know, how we got here at this point, make you feel like, “Yeah, we'll get through it!” or, “Wow. Like, we've just never seen anything so bad before. Like, we can't possibly.”
WRIGHT: Well, I'm gonna say — I’m going to start with something that is, you know, real, but not positive. You said, you know, “That was a shitshow, but we lived through it.” Not all of us. Not all of us lived through it. You know, one of the things that ended reconstruction was a horrific rain of terrorist violence against Black people that went on for decades.
And tens of thousands of people — we don't know how many people were murdered. You know, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice down in Montgomery, Alabama, has been trying to — a modern effort, this has just now started — trying to document those murders and how many we have.
BERNSTEIN: Hmm. Yeah.
WRIGHT: 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 — and it — it didn't stop there. I mean, 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.
WRIGHT: And I don’t — I — 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 to the Civil War and 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. And so they had to send the army back in order to pass those amendments. And then there was this reign of terrorist violence, and it ultimately took the federal government to step in and start reigning in that violence through intervention with — by, again, sending troops to the South.
Again, in the Civil Rights movement, what it required, what moved the needle — needle for the nation was, it required Black people putting their bodies on the line in front of the television screens to show the kind of brutality that they were living through. And right now we can see, right? The violence is happening: Charlottesville.
We — we — we see these sort of 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 violence engagement to try to maintain white supremacy in the face of a changing society. And so 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. So — and that's just sobering, and I don't have — I don't have anything to say about that, other than, “It's true.”
BERNSTEIN: Right. Yeah, I mean — right. I mean, I don’t — I — I appreciate the correction, and you're absolutely right. By “we,” I just meant that, like, the world didn't end.
WRIGHT: And so, yeah!
BERNSTEIN: But — but — but you know, maybe it — maybe it’s, like, the wrong way of looking at it, because, obviously, it was apocalyptic for an awful lot of people.
WRIGHT: The fact is, you know, my life is better than my parent’s.
BERNSTEIN: Hmm. Yeah.
WRIGHT: That, you know, I face less racist — 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. And, so, progress is a real thing, but I think what — the challenge we have, because we're such an ahistorical society, is that we think of progress as inevitable. And we think of progress as a —
BERNSTEIN: Yeah. I think that’s right.
WRIGHT: — as a — as a direct line. But progress comes through great pain, usually. And you're 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. And one of the — 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 are willing to sit in the pain, right?
WRIGHT: You know, like, ultimately, when it comes apart, it's been when white people, men, middle-class people: those of us who have some sort of investment in the status quo, who get something out of it, say, “Ah! Enough!”, you know? Like, “It's been enough. Like, we gotta — I gotta move forward.” And when that happens, then you start — because the thing is that, what does not happen: the people who — who are fighting for white supremacy do not get tired [LAUGHS] and do not give up.
And so, that is one of the great lessons, is that it’s hard, and it's going to last.
BERNSTEIN: 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 [PAUSE] space for the truth. So that what happened, you know, what Brian Stevenson says happened after the Civil War, which is that the — the North won the war, but the South won the narrative.
BERNSTEIN: So for me, just doing the thing that we do is an act of hope.
BERNSTEIN: And the moment when I stop is when I lose hope. And I — and I haven't done that yet.
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BERNSTEIN: This conversation was produced for The Greene Space by Sachi Ezura with podcast help from Matt Collette and Bill Moss. You can listen Kai on The United States of Anxiety on WNYC every Sunday night at 6 PM Eastern, or download the latest episodes every Monday. And you can listen to Trump, Inc. at TrumpIncPodcast.org or wherever you get your podcasts. My book, American Oligarchs, is out in paperback now.
I’m Andrea Bernstein. Thanks for listening.