Just in time for the inauguration of Donald Trump, journalist Matt Taibbi is out with a new book, Insane Clown President, which chronicles his experiences covering the traveling circus that was the 2016 presidential campaign. Gothamist spoke to Taibbi about mass paranoia in America, Trump's astonishing victory, and whether Ivanka Trump is a sleeper agent for New York liberalism.
I found reading the book to be extremely painful, even traumatic. I was laugh-weeping on the train the other day, reliving the "Ben Carson is a child molester" dust-up.
A lot of comic moments in the last couple years.
Was there a particular moment that you feel best crystallized what was happening in this election cycle?
The moment that stands out for me was at an event in New Hampshire at Plymouth State University. We were all in the center of the hall and Trump interrupted his speech and was starting to make us part of the act. He was saying, "See all those cameras back there? They've never driven so far to a location."
And there was this moment where the crowd physically turned in our direction and we were kind of surrounded, like in that battle scene in Game of Thrones, and they were hissing and booing at us. I realized at that moment that he was connecting with people on this level that other candidates had never managed to do before. He was using us as theater in a way that was extremely clever. That crystallized what the campaign was all about, it was an "us against them" thing.
Did you sense that this was not just a really ugly thing rearing its head, but that Trump could actually prevail?
I never thought that anybody but Trump was going to win the nomination, and I did think, in the early part of last year, that he had a good chance against Hillary. What changed my mind was when I saw him, I thought, changing tactics.
The real Trump who came out in the primary campaign was this unscripted, off-the-cuff, rambling figure who just said whatever came into his head. He's not a great orator, but he is effective at connecting with a room in a way that a lot of politicians aren't. But when the general election swung around, he started to change. That was under the influence of a lot of different people, from Paul Manafort to Corey Lewandowski to Bannon. They had him being more scripted and stilted, saying things he wouldn't have said during the primary campaign. What he was doing was trying to rehabilitate himself with so-called "centrist" Republicans and make himself look more presidential. It was ludicrous to me at the time, but it worked. I never thought it was going to work.
Where do you see yourself, as a journalist, fitting into the narrative of the campaign?
I'm the kind of person that Trump voters hate. It didn't take long to figure that out because I probably had a success rate in about one in five trying to get Trump voters to even talk to me. Once they heard who I worked for, I had a lot of backs turned on me, some pretty harsh words said.
This was a big difference even from four years ago or eight years ago on other Republican campaigns. There was a mood out there that, even before the Trump campaign really got started, that was far more hostile to the coastal reporter types who came out to these little towns and tried to talk to people. They hate all of us—including the conservative reporters. There's a lot of animus toward them, too.
This idea that somehow Trump was the fault of the media because we didn't call him out enough, or we didn't do enough negative reporting about him, or we didn't do enough to try to reach his voters and dissuade them from making this choice? They were lost to us before this campaign even started. They were never going to listen to anything we said.
Are you concerned that you could be in the crosshairs of a Trump administration?
Anybody who writes about politics now has to have that in the back of their minds. But I try to stay away from that conspiratorial thinking. Remember, I came from working in Russia, where you could write something today and tomorrow somebody could be leaping through your window with a hammer. We're so far away from that reality.
What's your sense of the Trump clan—particularly Jared Kushner and Ivanka? Some people are holding out hope that they're going to be a secret moderating neoliberal fifth column in the White House...
Trump's family was very much part of his primary campaign. They were there throughout. He proudly introduced them every opportunity he got during the primary campaign.
I suppose anybody's family has a humanizing effect to some degree, but I don't hold out hope that Ivanka Trump is going to be some sort of secret Manchurian candidate who's going to prevent Trump from being a disaster. I don't have any evidence to think that.
In the closing pages of Insane Clown President, you say that "presidential elections are ultimately referenda on race." That felt like a qualitative change from the rest of the book, where there's more of a focus on the stupid, deranged, or alienated nature of American voters. Is this a different overarching narrative than you saw when you were covering the campaign?
One of the problems I have with the way people have responded to Trump's victory is that when you try to make an observation about things that may have contributed to what happened—for instance, that resentment about things like NAFTA and the financial crisis and Wall Street played a role in people not trusting members of either party—in the Blue State media, there's this reaction of, "No, it's all about race." As if the two things are mutually exclusive—they're not. Race has always been a primary factor in every election.
If you scratch the surface of a lot of issues, it does end up being a racial thing. Trump mined a lot of those issues very effectively, and he went to places that other politicians in his party haven't gone to, rhetorically. But that doesn't mean that these other things—the economic problems, the resentment about Wall Street and income inequality—don't play a role.
What's your sense of the people Trump is surrounding himself with? Are these just run-of-the-mill kleptocrats? People have been using the term "kakistocracy," which means rule by the worst—the gutter, bottom of the barrel, every single z-list conservative crank you can imagine...
If your chief advisor is Steve Bannon and he's this unreconstructed revolutionary lunatic, clearly they're going to push for the worst kinds of people. People who are totally ignorant and have no expertise in the work they're going to be doing. You think of Ben Carson in charge of HUD, and having to reorganize Fannie and Freddie—and this is a guy whose grasp of medicine seems even a little strange—that's hugely disturbing.
But the even worse choices are the ones he's made in the financial realm, where he's across the board picking people who are extreme deregulatory zealots, that are even beyond the crew that Clinton brought in during the '90s.
Should we be preparing full-on for autocracy and the dismantling of our democratic institutions?
That can't be excluded from the realm of possibility. People kept asking me throughout the campaign: "What would you expect from a Trump presidency?" And the problem is that it's very difficult to know. The list of possibilities is so extremely long because his stated preferences are so contradictory that we don't know whether he has absolutely no belief in democracy or whether he wouldn't go past a certain point. Or what he would do.
Clearly, he's surrounded himself with people who have very little belief in democracy, people like Bannon. And Trump himself has said a lot of things during the last year that would lead you to believe that he does not have a firm grasp of how democracy is supposed to work or much of a respect for the law, or anything.
We probably should be preparing ourselves. I think canceling elections would be extreme, but I'm sure there are other anti-democratic measures that are being contemplated.
Incidentally, we've had plenty of them in the last couple presidencies. We've gone from a country where you could never imagine something like the extrajudicial assassination of U.S. citizens to now that's something that we don't even bat an eye at—drone strikes and rendition and Guantanamo Bay, all those things. We've already gone pretty far in that direction. We should probably be preparing to go farther.
(Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
This is something I saw starting a long time ago: people increasingly get their news from sources that they know in advance are going to agree with them. And they are increasingly reluctant to view the world in any way that contradicts their preconceptions and their prejudices. People on both sides of the aisle are moving in this increasingly conspiratorial direction.
We saw it very clearly on the right going into this year, where people believed all sorts of crazy things— from Mexicans are bringing in disease to vaccines don't work to there's no such thing as global warming. This is the distrust-of-experts phenomenon that led people to make the kind of decision they made in electing Trump.
We're now seeing some of that on the other side. People are soaking up a lot of this incautious media, which is taking things that are slightly true or partially true and stretching them into these huge conspiracies. I have very high confidence in the idea that the Russians hacked the DNC, and I think it's probable that they gave it to Wikileaks. It's hard to report on anything beyond that. But there are people who are willing to go way beyond that without evidence, and that's pretty dangerous. We've seen what happens when people go too far in that direction. That's something that worries me a lot.
Have the Democrats learned anything from this?
I've been a little bit surprised by the lack of self-awareness. This is one of the things that happened to the Republicans after 2008 and 2012. They looked at their party and they didn't accurately assess what was going on with their own voters, because they don't talk to their own voters.
If you talk to politicians in Washington, you know that they don't really interact a whole lot with their constituents. And they're not really in tune with what's going on. The Democrats are making some of the mistakes the Republicans made. The blame is: "the press didn't do enough," or "Russia was interfering with the election," or "we made a few minor strategic mistakes and that if we clear those up everything will be fine."
While the reality is that they should be looking themselves in the mirror and saying, "My God, how is it possible that we lost a popularity contest to this person?" It should say something incredibly profound about how despised and unpopular they are. But they're not in that kind of panic mode right now, and they should be.
How long you think until the Tom Friedmans and David Brookses and other general nitwit intelligentsia-types are full on boosting for Trump?
Oh, it's happening. Look at Friedman's first question to Trump when they had an interview—he was like, "Mr. President-elect, can I ask a question?" And by the end of the interview you could see that he'd very much softened his tone toward Trump. When he wrote about that interview, he talked about how Trump gave critics "hope" and went on about how he could be influenced in the right direction etc. One of the reasons that people like Friedman survive as long as they do is because they have a magical ability to contort themselves into whatever shape is necessary to be pleasing to whoever is in power.
I can't sit here and tell you for sure that Thomas Friedman and David Brooks specifically are going to end up being Trump fanatics, but I do think it's a characteristic of that type of pundit—they tend to convince themselves over time that whoever is in power is making the right decisions.
It's a slow process and I think that's what everyone's worrying about with this idea of "normalizing" Trump. I do believe that after a few years, you're going to see some of these pundits who are so up in arms about him being elected come around and start to act like it's normal that this guy is president.
What got you so fascinated in Friedman?
I'm a failed novelist. I pay a lot of attention to a thing like how a person writes. And Thomas Friedman has always been fascinating to me because he has a lot of unique literary characteristics that are really interesting. Like his ear is perfectly wrong. He always chooses the exact wrong word. He picks the wrong word and the wrong image and then he piles images on images and wrong words on wrong words and it becomes this kind of beautiful thing to look at.
I feel kind of bad. I met him once. He came up to me and he said something very gracious and self-deprecating and that made me feel terrible and I didn't write about him for a while after that. But I can't help it. He's funny. In the old days, when he was a cheerleader for war, there was a darker element. Now it's just funny. Don't you think?
I have an email thread with some friends devoted to this. "This feels like beating a very, very, very dead horse..."
Like anything else, if you beat a dead horse twice it may not be funny. But if you beat it 5,000 times, it's funny. It's a subtle thing.
Were you disturbed that he was gracious?
I've heard behind the scenes that he isn't so gracious, that he wishes that I would be hit by a car. I'm sure he's less gracious when we're not meeting in person.
Beyond the usual suspects, what respectable-ish pundits or writers should we be chucking into the garbage can?
God, I don't know. There's a lot of people who have been consistently wrong about everything going back 20 years or so. There's literally no accountability for people in our profession. We can be wrong over and over and over again and it seems like nobody really cares. Think about the people who made predictions about the Iraq War and were completely wrong for years and years and years on end and are still somehow respected in Washington.
I do think this election eroded some of the faith in polls and poll-driven analysis of elections. The overriding lesson of this election is that you have to physically talk to people to figure out what's going on. In recent years, there'd been a trend away from that, where we're kind of looking at politics like something you can do from 10,000 feet. You just can't do it. You have to be able to take the temperature of how pissed off people are, and you have to hear it in person to really understand it.
(This illustration by Victor Juhasz was originally published in Rolling Stone and appears here by permission of the artist.)
Do you have a preferred conspiracy theory or paranoid fantasy about Trump?
I really do think that a lot of this was accidental, that Trump probably originally ran for president on a lark. He probably thought it would be fun, it would be promotional activity. I didn't get the sense early on that he really thought that he was going to be president. What happened later on in the campaign is that he began to surround himself with people who saw the possibility of what could be if he won, and this kind of accidental, tragicomic, absurd campaign morphed into something more serious.
It's very much like what happened when Bush came into office. He surrounded himself with people like Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, who had some really wacky ideas about how to remake the world. And they did it, and it was a disaster.
That's what we have to worry about with Trump, that this accidental turn of fate is going to provide the opportunity for some really nutty pseudo-intellectuals to wreak tremendous havoc in Washington.
How do you stomach the day-to-day of your job? I went out to Staten Island on election day to report back from New York Trumpland. I thought I was going to die after four hours of listening to people claim that Hillary was endorsed by the KKK. How do you get out of bed on the campaign trail, having to go to these Klan rallies?
My basic philosophy about life is that human experience is a mix of the extremely horrible and the extremely absurd. Once you make your peace with that, it's the job. You try to see that for every horrible thing that goes on, there's something either funny or beautiful as well. This happened to be an extremely dark chapter of our history. It was difficult as the campaign went on to keep a sense of humor about it. It was funny at the beginning.
That comes through in the book: I was very amused at the beginning by all these developments but then as it got closer to reality, I got depressed along with everybody else. It was a progressively darker story as time went on.
You seemed to relish the total abasement of Jeb Bush...
Watching the conflagration and the self-immolation of the Republican Party was hilarious on one level. I never saw the insane next step of it, which is that this would result in actual victory.
Is the situation in America salvageable?
I have no idea if it's salvageable or not. Certainly, things are not trending in a positive direction. And I think the fracturing of the landscape into a million little groups that all believe their own little conspiracies—that's a very difficult thing, to have a nation of 300 million people that doesn't have a belief system. If you can't even agree on a common set of facts, that's pretty hard to reconcile. Once we've gotten to this point, it's pretty hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again... It doesn't look good for the near term, that's for sure.
Any final thoughts? Words of wisdom for people raising children in this world?
Good God, no. If people are taking parenting advice from me, they've got serious problems.
Insane Clown President comes out in bookstores on January 17th. It is available for order on Amazon.