Matt Taibbi is a journalist and author who has covered numerous presidential campaigns for Rolling Stone and other publications. He has also reported on finance and sports, and in the late 1990s lived in and reported from Russia. He even did a brief stint as a professional basketball player in Mongolia. His latest book is Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus. He spoke with me by telephone from his home in New York City.
Q: This book is basically a chronicle of your travels on the 2016 presidential campaign. I found it evocative of Hunter S. Thompson writing for Rolling Stone during the 1972 Nixon presidential campaign.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, that’s a tough act to follow. Obviously, it’s hard not to make the comparison because I work at Rolling Stone and it’s the same magazine, same assignment, but it’s a little different. Hunter was out on the road a lot more than I was in this book. I was working on another book during the campaign, and I ended up just gradually getting sucked into this one as Trump’s candidacy started to take off.
It was pretty clear to everybody covering the early stages of the campaign, even before Trump got into the race, that this was a unique situation. A completely disorganized Republican Party had sort of coalesced around Jeb Bush. That’s where all the money was going, but it was clear that the party hierarchy was not feeling enthusiastic.
Typically, what happens with campaigns is that there’s a lot of momentum that coalesces around an early frontrunner, and the onus is on the challengers to overcome that. Trump entered this race and there was no momentum behind anybody, and, just because of the sheer nature of his celebrity, he was able to steamroll everybody else. None of them knew how to deal with how much attention he was getting. They just didn’t have a media strategy for competing with that.
Q: But you predicted this direction for political campaigns ever since you first covered the George W. Bush and John Kerry race, didn’t you?
Taibbi: I had spent a lot of time watching the campaign process and I was really interested in the idea that it was dysfunctional and that people were turned off by it. The people who did campaigning for a living, both politicians and the press, all the people who traveled “on the bus,” were wrapped up in their own little world, unable to see how disconnected they’d become from the public.
So I watched that phenomenon for a long time and saw that the campaign was just increasingly a television show and not really rooted in any political reality. Policy was increasingly irrelevant, and anybody who was smart enough to run against this process and villainize the politicians and the media and the major political parties and the donor class was going to have a really good chance of succeeding. That was one of the reasons I thought Trump had such a good chance early, because it was pretty clear that’s what he was doing.
Q: You talk in the book about how Trump actually made the reporters part of the act and used them as a foil in his rallies. Talk about how that played out.
Taibbi: Yeah, the first time I saw that was at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. Trump was sort of pointing to all of the press, and if you’ve ever been to these events, you know how it works: You’re usually in the middle of the hall. There’s a little rope line that you’re stuck behind. There’s a riser where all the cameras are, and you’re surrounded by people. So you’re very prominently part of the geography of these speeches.
First, Trump started to mention the press off-hand in some of the speeches, but then he started to overtly point at us. And he would say things like, “Look at these bloodsuckers,” or “They thought I was going to lose the debate, they were so wrong,” or “They all hate me.” People would physically turn in our direction and you would hear little catcalls and whistles. And it struck me that Trump was taking this incredibly stale and lifeless form of political communication, the stump speech, and turning it into a physical, intimate event that was menacing and threatening at the same time. He made his campaign into a class conflict and he used the media as the representatives of the class enemy, because they were the ones in the room. It was a brilliant strategy. It made his speeches really work.
Q: Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was a very different sort of speech—it cast the United States as a crime-filled “Gotham City.”
Taibbi: Yes, it was a very angry, bleak speech about how frightening and violent our future could be unless he was elected. You could really feel the energy in the arena. I didn’t think the speech really worked at the time, but in retrospect, seeing how much that anger has coalesced around Trump since, he was tapping into something. It has some of the same pseudo-fascist themes as that The Dark Knight movie. And honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump actually got those ideas from that movie, or that they kind of percolated up to his brain via somebody else from the comic-book fantasy about how to fix society’s problems.
Q: It’s interesting because I think back to the Ronald Reagan campaign of 1980 and his line was also basically, “I’m going to solve all your problems and it won’t cost you a thing.”
Taibbi: Yeah, absolutely. How do politicians get elected? They give people targets to direct their blame, and then they offer solutions to problems. And the solution that Trump presented was simple: Give me the power and I’ll fix it. And it was very attractive to people because I think they are frustrated by the feeling that Washington is a million miles away, and the process of getting things changed and getting laws passed is an arduous, years-long journey. And what Trump was saying is, “I’m going to fix it in an instant.” That really worked with people.
Q: You say in the book that it surprised you throughout the campaign that things would come up and you would think that Trump was finished now and the Republican Party was down the tubes and then he would just sail through it.
Taibbi: I think at various times the reporting on Donald Trump really staggered his campaign. He just happened to be running against a very weak opponent, and the election happened to come at exactly the wrong moment in the news cycle. If Election Day had been October 10, right after the Access Hollywood tape came out, instead of November 8, Trump would have lost this thing by eight or nine points. But that’s not what happened.
That’s why I think people shouldn’t get too excited about [National Security Adviser Michael] Flynn’s resignation, or Andy Puzder [withdrawing as nominee for Secretary of Labor], because this has been a pattern with Trump. He gets rocked by these revelations. They scare off some of the Republican moderates, for a little while. But that’s what’s been happening all along. It’s just the cycle.
Q: You know Russia as well as most journalists, having spent a bunch of time there. What do you make of Russia’s alleged involvement in the elections?
Taibbi: I think there’s pretty good evidence that they hacked the DNC [Democratic National Committee], and you would expect them to have an interest in sowing dissension in the American political scene, so that’s not terribly surprising to me. But the other things—the alleged contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence services—there’s a gray area here, and I worry about people jumping the gun and conflating things. The Russians didn’t hack the vote counts and lots of people believe that they did.
Q: We certainly have many past cases of U.S. presidential campaigns talking to foreign governments—Nixon in 1968, Reagan’s “October Surprise” in 1980. We also have cases of the United States directly intervening in elections. You saw the U.S. role in the Russian elections when you were there.
Taibbi: Yes, they were pretty open about it. If you go back and look, there’s a cover of Time magazine in July 1996 with a picture of Boris Yeltsin. It says, “Yanks to the Rescue,” billing a story about how American advisers helped Yeltsin to victory. I was there during those years, there were a lot of machinations that involved the privatization effort, which was kind of a gigantic kickback scheme to people who supported Yeltsin’s campaign, and we were right in the middle of that whole thing. So we shouldn’t get too much on our high horse about Russia maybe interfering in our elections.
Q: You say in the book that in some ways the election of Donald Trump was an example of democracy working, because he was an outsider who beat the entrenched party system and won the election. But when you look at all of the different people who have hopped on Trump’s bandwagon to move their own political agendas forward, isn’t it clear there was more going on than that?
Taibbi: Well, it’s morphed into something else, for sure. But when Trump first decided to run for President, you can be sure he was not the choice of corporate America. The overwhelming amount of money went elsewhere, and for good reason. Business would rather have a typically pliable Republican in office, as opposed to an unstable, irascible character like Trump. But then he defeated all of the typical obstacles that keep people like him from getting in, and now all of these traditional insider actors like Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil, and God knows who else, have all glommed onto his presidency and they’re getting whatever they want.
Q: What’s next for the American political system and have we learned the lessons of the, as you call it, “2016 circus”?
Taibbi: We have got to figure out a way to make it to the next election. That’s going to depend on people like John McCain and Rob Portman on the Republican side showing some spine if Trump tries to pull anything particularly extrajudicial or unconstitutional. And let’s hope our checks and balances actually work, as they seem to have with the “visa ban.” But whether we’ve learned our lesson in terms of how we elect people or choose nominees, and whether the Democratic Party’s learned its lesson, I don’t see any signs of that, so that worries me a lot.
But we’ll see. Americans have had the luxury of not having to think about politics for so long because our system worked relatively well without having to be paid attention to. But now, with Trump in office, we actually have to worry and pay attention and fight, and it’s a scary time.