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Matt Taibbi on Donald Trump’s strange appeal

“He’s what a lot of Americans would be if they had a billion dollars.”

Trump's campaign announcement, at Trump Tower.
Christopher Gregory/Getty Images
Christopher Gregory/Getty Images

“Pull a lever for me and you’ll horrify them all.”

That’s how journalist and author Matt Taibbi describes the proposition Donald Trump made to the electorate in 2016. For the past year, Taibbi has covered Trump for Rolling Stone. His latest book, Insane Clown President: Dispatches From the 2016 Circus, is a collection of long- and shortform articles drawn from that experience.

To read the pieces in chronological order is to witness a familiar journey: In the beginning, like so many people, Taibbi saw Trump’s candidacy as a joke. But then he went to Iowa and saw that something was afoot. Trump had tapped into a reservoir of resentment.

And then there was the performative aspect. The way he talked, the way he behaved, the way he treated other candidates — it was obscene and spellbinding all at once. Trump treated the campaign like a reality TV show, sucking all the oxygen out of the room. It was a perfect marriage of amorality and shamelessness.

“In a perverse way,” Taibbi wrote in August 2015, “Trump has restored a more pure democracy to this process. He's taken the Beltway thinkfluencers out of the game and turned the presidency into a pure high-school-style popularity contest conducted entirely in the media.”

The wave of spectacle-driven rage that Trump rode in the primaries carried him all the way to the White House. The people who voted for Trump knew they were voting for dynamite, Taibbi argues, and that was the point: to extend a giant middle finger to the establishment.

I sat down with Taibbi last week to talk about the seeds of this resentment. I also asked him why he still felt blindsided by the election, and why he thinks Trump was able to circumnavigate all the institutional checks that normally prevent someone like him from ascending to the presidency.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

In 2009, you wrote a book called The Great Derangement in which you talked about various fringe political movements around the country. A big theme was the loss of trust in national institutions, like Congress and the media. You even described a possible future in which politics “stopped being about ideology and … instead turned into a problem of information.”

That reads like prophecy now. What did you see in 2009?

Matt Taibbi

The main thing was that I saw people tuning out the media. A lot of us have this idea that the truth has a kind of magical power, that if the truth is out there it will convince the country to unite behind it. But this isn't so. People can simply decide to not believe a version of events now. They can shop for information the same way they'd shop for everything else, and they pick the reality they find most pleasing.

Back when I was thinking about the rapture movement or the 9/11 truther movement, what struck me was that there are bubbles now that you can stay in and you don't have to engage with reality if you don't want to. So it occurred to me that in the future, people might decide en masse to completely tune out. Even the idea of having a debate with people about a commonly accepted body of facts seemed to be slipping away at the time.

And that's kind of what happened in this election. It was one group of people believing one thing and another group of people seeing something completely different.

Sean Illing

Some of this is justified insofar as people, some more than others, feel left behind both economically and culturally. When people feel disinvested in the system, it’s a lot easier to tune out.

Matt Taibbi

Exactly. We've had this slow, suffocating decline in the real value of people's salaries. Real opportunities are shrinking. Everybody has to work more. There's more debt. There's a broad perception that the mainstream media was in league with this group of elitist forces that were hoarding all of the winnings from society and slowly squeezing everyone else out.

What I learned talking to people around the country is that the press was seen as the enemy, as part of the grinding, broken system. And that's why they didn't trust us anymore. Fair or not, that was the perception.

Sean Illing

How much does Trump remind you of Nixon?

Matt Taibbi

When Hunter S. Thompson wrote about Nixon, he was responding to a man he saw as symbolic of his time, a kind of monster of his age. Nixon's personality represented this darkness that was at the heart of everything wrong with America at the time. And Trump is an equivalent figure in that way. But he's not the same kind of person as Nixon. Nixon had many levels to his personality; he was a thinker, well-educated, a schemer. Trump is just a bundle of disorganized urges. He's what a lot of Americans would be if they had a billion dollars: They'd build grotesque castles, bang models, and grow fat.

So in that sense, Trump represents something horrible about all of us, and that's what reminds me of Nixon.

Sean Illing

I admit, I was slow to recognize what was happening last year. For months I insisted Trump would fold, one way or the other. Some of it was cognitive dissonance; some of it was pure denialism. I just got it wrong.

At what point did you say, “Holy shit, this guy can win the whole thing”?

Matt Taibbi

I went through a couple different stages with this. When he first entered the race, I thought it was a joke. And then I went through this period where I went to Iowa and realized that the field of Republican candidates he was running against were comically lightweight. At that point, I believed he was absolutely going to win the nomination. I think when he survived his attack on John McCain, it was even clearer.

But later, like everyone else, I fell victim to the popular myths about the invincibility of the Obama coalition. I ran into a Democratic operative at the RNC and he laid out all these crazy things that had to happen in order for Trump to win a general election, and I totally bought it. I knew Clinton was weak, but I believed she would win. Obviously that was a mistake.

I should've gone with what I was seeing, and what I was seeing was Trump generating an enormous amount of energy on the campaign trail, and also that Clinton was the perfect opponent for him. It was all right there, in front of us, but I didn't trust my instincts.

Sean Illing

I'm still convinced this guy never wanted to be president. Hell, he hired a bunch of actors to stand in front of him when made his campaign announcement speech. My sense is that this was an exercise in brand promotion that, at some point, exploded into something real.

Matt Taibbi

Ha! You know, Trump's foray into this campaign reminded me of this boxer, Peter McNeeley, who fought Mike Tyson right after he got out of jail. So McNeeley was this terrible white boxer with a mullet who got a chance to fight Tyson at the right time. The whole thing was like a frat dare. McNeeley got himself all pumped up and he just ran to the center of ring, right into Tyson's fist, and he just collapsed onto the mat. I thought Trump's campaign would be like that: He’d go into it with a full head of steam, and it would be fantastic for a month or two.

But then he ran into the total stupidity of America that embraced every dumb thing about him, and that chemically interacted with his narcissistic personality and it turned into this unstoppable force.

Sean Illing

Another part of this story is how craftily Trump played the media throughout the campaign. The media was the perfect punching bag, the perfect “cultural villain,” as you put it. He just rope-a-doped us all the way to the White House.

Matt Taibbi

He tuned in to the fact that all of us are slaves to ratings, even if we pretend that we're not. To be fair, individually a lot us try to do what we know we ought to do, but the reality is that we work for companies that have to make money. Trump understands that, and he understands that he was making everyone money. He knew we'd keep the lights on. He knew we needed him as much as he needed us.

Sean Illing

He was also tuned in to the rampant anti-media sentiment out there. After every offense — insulting veterans, menstrual jokes, mocking a disabled reporter, threatening to kill the family members of terrorists, offering to pay the legal fees of supporters who pummel protesters, the “grab ’em by the pussy” scandal — he attacked the press, and most of his supporters loved it. Whoever he offended or whatever he lied about was an afterthought.

Matt Taibbi

Absolutely. We see ourselves as the defenders of the public good, but so many of the people I talked to on the campaign trail see the press as the agents of political correctness, as self-important do-gooders who take every opportunity to mock and punish people who don't think and talk and act like we do. Trump was defying all of this, and peopled loved the fact that he stood up to us.

Sean Illing

You say in the book that Trump basically went to the American people and said, “Pull a lever for me and you’ll horrify them all.” And 60 million people said, “I’m in.”

Matt Taibbi

Again, you have all these people on the progressive side asking themselves, "How can all these Trump voters not be thinking about the reality of what a Trump presidency would look like?" And it just reflects a total misunderstanding of the thought process on the other side. This is about living from second to second, and they just wanted that rush that they were going to get when they saw the looks on our faces when Trump got elected.

The reality of what comes next is totally secondary.

Author Matt Taibbi.

Sean Illing

An interesting question moving forward is how do we cover Trump in a way that’s illuminating but also not counterproductive or amenable to the anti-media narrative he’s spinning?

Matt Taibbi

It's a really great question because Trump has this ability to turn everyone in his orbit into a reality TV character, and he's turned the media into one. We're starting to behave radically, more emotionally, in a way we're giving in to the demands that the public has to ditch our normal approach to things and to be more alarmist in our reporting.

That's exactly the wrong approach, though I get it. I realize this is ridiculous coming from a guy who just wrote a book with the title "Insane Clown President," but I think we should slowly, methodically focus on the hard facts of everything he's doing and not get into flame wars and distractions and soap operas.

It's not our job to take on Trump and beat him; our job is to do what we do.

Sean Illing

In the book, you write that Trump is “as likely driven by gas as ideology.” He’s got Steve Bannon, the intellectual light of the alt-right, as his chief strategist. His Cabinet is full of military generals, bankers, and billionaires — there’s really no coherent ideological thread holding it together.

What prospect worries you more: that Trump is a ratings-chasing nihilist or that he might actually believe all the things he said on the trail?

Matt Taibbi

Both of those outcomes are extremely dangerous. If he's just a tool for an evil racist revolutionary like Bannon, who actually has a brain in his head and is capable of strategic thought, that would be really bad. If he's just an amoral narcissistic lunatic, as he appears to be, that's also bad. I could easily see him hate-tweeting us into a war.

So neither scenario is terribly heartening. If it's just him being crazy, well, the president has a lot of power and that could go tragically wrong. If it's him being a puppet or a willing conspirator in this alt-right revolution, that's just as frightening.

It's like that scene in Goodwill Hunting: "Do you want the belt, the stick, or the wrench?" Shit, I don't want any of them.

Sean Illing

I talked to one of Trump's biographers recently, and he echoed something I've heard from a lot of people, which is that Trump only cares about his popularity and that he'll do whatever he thinks will boost his ratings. That's almost comforting, but every indication so far is that Trump is pushing full steam ahead on the promises he made during the campaign.

Now, signing executive orders doesn't mean things magically happen, but it's an indicator that he intends to advance policies that are popular with his base but not with the majority of the country.

Matt Taibbi

I think he's spent so much time with these sycophants who worship him and have responded positively to his loony ideas about the wall and the Muslim ban that he feels pressure to live up to the image of Trump as the savior and rescuer even though it's not winning him a whole lot of popularity among the majority of the country. He still seems to care intensely about things like his ratings, otherwise why make all this noise about mythical voter fraud or crowd sizes?

So I think the biographer is mostly right. I don’t have any idea what that will mean for the next four years, however.

Sean Illing

Speaking of the next four years, your book ends on a pessimistic note. You basically declare the dream of unified country dead. Is it that dark?

Matt Taibbi

Yeah, I think it is.

Sean Illing

Are you encouraged at all by the massive protests or the fact that Trump is historically unpopular?

Matt Taibbi

Not enough to feel especially hopeful about the future. I lived in Russia for several years and one of the things that struck me is how naive I had been growing up in the United States. If you grew up in America, you have no idea how bad it can get. The possibilities for awfulness in human experience are far beyond what we're used to.

I think we're just beginning to see how bad things can get. We have an illusion of stability thanks to our wealth and geography and the fact that we're still a young country. We take so much for granted. As Yeats said, things can fall apart. The center doesn't hold forever.

I see things starting to fray here and it's unsettling.

Sean Illing

Political order is perilously contingent, and that’s a lesson America hasn’t learned in a long time.

Matt Taibbi

That's exactly right. I’m not sure how this will play out, but it feels like we’re at the beginning of … something.