“Pull a lever for me and you’ll horrify them all.”
That’s how Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi described the pitch that Donald Trump made to voters during the 2016 campaign when we spoke earlier this year. Roughly half the country, he reasoned, voted for political dynamite, someone who would upend Washington.
Taibbi spent all of 2016 covering the Trump campaign for Rolling Stone, eventually writing a book about that experience. He was convinced, at least early in the campaign, that Trump would flame out. But Taibbi quickly realized that something was afoot. Voters saw in Trump a total rejection of everything they despised about liberal elite culture.
We’re now six months into the Trump presidency. And though he has certainly exploded the Washington consensus, are his voters getting what they wanted?
I reached out to Taibbi on Monday, the day new White House communications director Anthony (“the Mooch”) Scaramucci was unceremoniously fired. Taibbi predicted last Friday that Scaramucci wouldn’t last long, in part because no one lasts long in this White House and also because, well, the Mooch is unhinged — even by Trumpian standards.
I asked Taibbi what he makes of the first six months of the Trump administration, and if it’s as gloriously bad as he anticipated. “We basically have a highly functioning society that is going through a lot of embarrassment,” he told me. “Trump understood that politics has been reduced to a TV show, and so he made it a kick-ass show that gets awesome ratings.”
Some of those Trump voters might be turned off by what they’re seeing, Taibbi says, but due to a fragmented media landscape, they’re just as likely to believe that “there's a coastal liberal media conspiracy out to get the president.” In the end, we’re left with a “pitched cultural battle” in which people have chosen sides and reality, however ugly, rarely intervenes.
You can read our full conversation below.
So congrats on calling it last week! Obviously you weren’t surprised by the Mooch’s hasty departure.
Thanks, I guess. It's not exactly a miracle of prognostication, though. All these guys enter Trump’s White House with a guillotine over their heads.
What do you think happened here?
Well, it's interesting. When [former Chief of Staff Reince] Priebus left, I actually thought that was a sign that Trump was going all in with a kind of bunker mentality move to expel all of the RNC [Republican National Committee] types, the Republican Party lifers. He had this weird detente with a few of them, and it clearly wasn't working for him. And when the Mooch called out Priebus as the source of a lot of the leaks, I figured an RNC purge was imminent.
But what the hell do I know? I also thought Scaramucci would hang in there a little bit more because it looked like Trump was throwing his lot in with the hardcore loyalists. But then [new Chief of Staff Gen. John] Kelly came in and canned the Mooch. So yeah, no one has any idea what’s happening.
You’ve covered Wall Street more than most. What did you know about Scaramucci before he bulldozed his way into the White House?
Well, he came out of Goldman Sachs, but he’s not a classic Goldman personality. A lot of the more famous Goldman guys have these kind of Vulcan personalities, people like Gary Cohn or Lloyd Blankfein. They’re bloodless, heartless, analytical pragmatists. Scaramucci is the opposite of this. He’s a glad-hander and a talker, the guy whose job is basically to charm people. There’s plenty of guys like him on Wall Street because a lot of what the financial services industry is about is sales and schmoozing, and obviously the Mooch was born to sell shit.
Well, for better or worse, the Mooch has flamed out, so let’s zoom back and talk about the administration. The last time we spoke, you said that part of Trump’s appeal to voters was that he would come to DC and just blow everything up. As you put it, his pitch was basically, “Pull the lever for me and you’ll horrify them all.”
We’re now six months into the Trump presidency. Do you think those voters are getting what they wanted?
Probably not so much. I think the average Trump voter, when he or she turns on the news, is more convinced than ever that there's a coastal liberal media conspiracy out to get the president. But I'm sure they would much prefer a narrative of unbridled success, as opposed to this ongoing embarrassment. Although I think the defections seem to be worse with the political class than with the voters. Even though Trump’s approval rating is down pretty low, Democrats are hardly more popular.
My sense is that the entire Trump era has just turned off most voters. I’m sure there was a large contingent of Trump voters that delighted in seeing him stride into town and blow shit up, but I don’t think he’s really delivering much on that front anymore.
It’s just an embarrassing spectacle at this point.
I’m not sure that’s true — at least not entirely. I think the Trump era has definitely turned a lot of people off from politics, but it’s also amplified our worst tribal instincts. If you’re emotionally invested in this circus, every day is another opportunity to wake up and hurl shit at your political enemies. So I think it’s invigorated as many people as it’s offended.
For sure. Politics is like sports now. I mean, how many sports fans do you know who will pick up the news one morning and say, "You know what? I'm not gonna be a Yankees fan anymore.” They’re Yankees fans for life. And that’s how people are about politics now, certainly more than they were before.
When Trump said last year that he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters, he was right — and I think that’s probably more true now than it was during the campaign. This entire two-year period has become a pitched cultural battle. People have picked sides, and once you’ve chosen a side, that’s it.
From my point of view, Trump looks like a historically incompetent politician. From his voters’ point of view, it's a conspiracy of elites out to get him. So I wouldn't expect to see mass defections anytime soon.
What’s the end game here? How bad will it get?
Well, we have a long way to go before we get to the bottom of how bad things could be. I mean, right now it's mostly just amusing. There is no nuclear war or constitutional crisis or troops in the street or financial bubbles bursting or a currency devaluation. Until something terrible happens, it’s just a fucking game for a lot of people.
I was in Russia when the ruble devalued in the early ’90s, and people who’d been saving cash their whole lives in their mattresses woke up one morning and it was all worthless — and it all happened in what felt like overnight. After that, there were catastrophic changes in society happening every 10 seconds. We’re nowhere near this kind of disorder.
We basically have a highly functioning society that is going through a lot of embarrassment. The country hasn’t started to disintegrate yet. Americans who haven't been through the experience of seeing a full-blown collapse of an industrial power have no idea how bad it can get.
When I talk to pundits and political scientists, I tend to hear one of two stories. The first is that democracy is broken and we’re in the midst of a mild constitutional crisis. The other story is that our constitutional system is actually working as intended — Congress is asserting itself, the courts are holding firm, the media is pushing back.
What’s your view?
It’s complicated. I know this will sound weird, but I actually thought Trump’s victory was a kind of triumph of American democracy. I mean, I’m completely opposed to everything that Trump believes in. But the notion that somebody completely outside the American political system, who had virtually no institutional support from either of the two parties, could actually win the presidency is something that I wouldn't have believed eight years ago. So I took his election as a sign that our democracy was functioning correctly.
But obviously he’s crazy and unfit for the job. And when he started nominating people whose sole qualification for office was that they weren’t qualified or that they actively disbelieved in the missions of the agencies they were tapped to run, that’s when you knew our defense mechanisms had to assert themselves.
Today, I’m not sure how healthy our system is. I know we’re in a very divided time. And we’ve got this maniac in office who probably feels like he can’t leave because he’ll be prosecuted if he does, so his best chance of staying out of trouble is to clutch power like a Third World kleptocrat.
In your last book, you talked about how politics and entertainment have gradually folded into one sphere, reaching a bizarre apogee with Trump. I’m not sure we’ll ever get out of this trap. Trump will eventually fade away — but I suspect he’s changed things forever. Politics as reality TV was always good for business, but it’s never been this good.
Trump has revolutionized the news business. He has singlehandedly saved the news business, financially. The ratings are sky-high. They normally steeply drop off after Election Day, and they've instead stayed as high as they were in the first week of November, which is unprecedented.
I see two data points that are really scary. On the one hand, ratings for cable news programs are higher than ever. And on the other hand, every poll shows that both Democrats and Republicans have less confidence in the news media than ever. They believe us less and they watch us more, so what does that mean? That means we are beginning to occupy the entertainment space more than we ever were before.
People like watching reality shows and they because they like to see what fucked-up thing will happen next. The Scaramucci saga is a classic example. Is that news? I don’t know. But it’s great TV. Will this model survive Trump? It’s hard to say.
Cable news and the internet changed everything. We’re now hostage to spectacle and theater in a way we never were before. Someone like Trump was destined to rise in a system like this.
Absolutely. It predates Trump. We’ve gradually turned the electoral process into a reality show over the last two decades or so. The only thing different about Trump is that he was better at it than everyone else. Trump understood that politics has been reduced to a TV show, and so he made it a kick-ass show that gets awesome ratings.
Who’s most responsible for this? The media, the politicians, the consumers?
It's a tough call. I think it's a combination of a lot of things. On the one hand, you have to blame the two parties, because part of what they've been doing is putting forward candidates whose job is to basically say nothing. They can’t be real about their politics. They can’t say, “I took $30 million from the financial services industry, so I’m going to repeal this or pass that.” They can’t be honest about their motivations, about what politics actually is in this country, so they’re obliged to be full of shit all the time.
So their phoniness has made the process less authentic and more vapid. They’ve made politics a contest of performers, not ideas. They want people who look the part, not people who actually have an agenda or a backbone. So voters got used to the idea of voting for someone they wanted to have a beer with as opposed to someone who is going to provide jobs or health care.
And now we’re stuck with — this.