Robert Scheer is the editor-in-chief of Truthdig. He’s also a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and host of the KCRW podcast Scheer Intelligence. For decades, Bob was the national correspondent, and then columnist, for the Los Angeles Times. He’s the author of many books, including The Great American Stickup, The Pornography of Power, and most recently They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy.
Paul Jay: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. On Monday night, President Trump made a speech on Afghanistan and, while I think the strategy is not just a continuation of Obama Afghan strategy, but even worse in the sense that it’s going to be another endless war and more troops and so on, and a strategy that dabbles — I would say dabble, because there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of thought in the Trump strategy — when he brings India and Pakistan closer to confrontation and thinks that somehow a solution in Afghanistan.
But all that being said and, if you watch The Real News, we’ve done quite a few stories dissecting this supposed new Afghan strategy. All that being said, he read from a teleprompter and he seemed he like he was somewhat coherent and rational in espousing the policy. The following night, Donald Trump spoke in Phoenix and, of course, his handlers were hoping he would read the script. Well, he went off-script, as Trump is likely to do. He went so off-script that it was an opportunity for all the Trump critics to pile on.
First of all, clearly his handlers, he actually says this in the speech, amongst other things, had told Trump not to go after John McCain. Senator John McCain and Trump have a lot of history together, which we’ll get into, perhaps, in the interview a little bit. But John McCain and Trump despise each other. We all know that, but on the other hand, John McCain has brain cancer, you’re in Arizona, it’s not really the time to go after him, but Trump did anyway and this was part of the indication that Trump is not listening to his handlers.
Here’s a little clip of the McCain part:
Donald Trump: Nobody wants me to talk about your other Senator, who’s weak on borders, weak on crime, so I won’t talk about him. Nobody wants me to talk about him. Nobody knows who the hell he is. And now, see I haven’t mentioned any names, so now everybody’s happy.
Paul Jay: So, of course, Trump, in the last couple of weeks has been severely critiqued about his first response after Charlottesville, where he said, yes, he’s against bigotry and so on, but he apportioned equal blame, in most people’s eyes, to the counter-protesters, anti-fascist protesters, and he was severely critiqued for that. Again, he was asked, apparently, by his handlers not to go on and on about that. He had since that time come out and said, just critiquing Nazis and racists and so on. Well, he wouldn’t let that one go either. Here’s what he had to say:
Donald Trump: He didn’t say it fast enough. He didn’t do it on time. Why did it take a day? He must be a racist.
Paul Jay: The point here wasn’t that he must be a racist because he took too much time, the point was he had given this sort of moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors, and even Republicans were denouncing that. Of course, it’s always easy to denounce an open racist and an open Nazi. It’s the more systemic racism that a lot of those same people don’t want to denounce.
At any rate, Trump was kind of out of control in terms of the tone, the messaging, the timing. I don’t think he said anything all that new, but it was more the delivery than anything else. At any rate, when the speech is over, CNN and other media, but CNN is the one I happened to see, have about seven people trashing Trump one after another, not even any semblance of journalism at all, like no analysis at all about why Trump might have done this.
For example, that day that all this happened, Bannon, who has gone, Steve Bannon’s gone back to run Breitbart, the whole day, Breitbart was actually attacking Trump for his Afghan policy, because according to Bannon, this is a reversal of what Trump had promised, which was to get out of Afghanistan. As a side note, total hypocrisy on Bannon’s point, because Bannon apparently wanted to send in mercenaries. He was going to give Erik Prince, who used to run Blackwater, a $10 billion contract to go in and run Afghanistan with 5,000 mercenaries. So this is not disengagement by Bannon. At any rate, Bannon and Breitbart were trashing Trump’s Afghan policy and I would expect this speech has to do with recovering his base there.
Anyway, later in the CNN broadcast, Clapper, former head of the National Intelligence, comes out — Clapper is his own story we should tell, which we’ll get into in the interview — but Clapper says what a lot of the elites have been thinking, and here it is:
James Clapper: This behavior and this divisiveness and the complete intellectual, moral and ethical void that the President of the United States exhibits, and how much longer does the country have to, to borrow a phrase, endure this nightmare? I worry about, frankly, the access to nuclear codes. If in a fit of pique he decides to do something about Kim Jong-un, there’s actually very little to stop him.
Paul Jay: Intellectual and moral void, this is coming from a guy who lied in front of Congress about NSA spying on American citizens. Anyway, the hypocrisy is everywhere in this story. Joining us now to help analyze and discuss it is Robert Scheer. Robert joins us from Los Angeles. He is the editor-in-chief of Truthdig. He’s also professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and host of KCRW’s podcast Scheer Intelligence. For decades, Bob was the national correspondent, then commentist for the Los Angeles Times, author of many books, most recently, How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies are Destroying Democracy, speaking of Mr. Clapper. Thanks for joining us, Robert.
Robert Scheer: Hello.
Paul Jay: I personally kind of welcome this circus. It seems to me that a dysfunctional American White House and dysfunctional American Congress is better than a functional one, because they usually do bad things when they’re functional. What was your take-away from the speech?
Robert Scheer: First of all, I basically think this is a comedy of manners. What is offensive to these people like Clapper about Trump is style. He’s playing the fool. He says too much. He goes off-script. But if you think about the script itself, it’s been absurd from day one. Here’s Clapper involved in the intelligence community that has condoned a war in Afghanistan, endless war, when, in fact, Afghanistan didn’t attack us on 9-11. The people who did was basically financed and most of them came from Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, but the sensible adult position now is to back Saudi Arabia, per capita the richest country in the world and a merciless bombing attack, they just killed people in a hotel yesterday. It didn’t make much news, kills a large, families and so forth in Yemen, which is per capita probably the poorest country in the world.
So Saudi Arabia has gotten off the hook. The whole war on terrorism has gotten mystified somehow. Russia is actually helping us quite dramatically in Syria, but we have to engage in Russia-baiting non-stop on Cable news. If you ask me, is Trump, is this the first time we don’t have adults watching the store, I say no, that’s absurd. What we have is, as you indicated in your comment, the first time we’re seeing this in a long time. Usually they do a better job of making it appear rational.
Let me ask you a question, the thing Clapper said about having your finger on the nuclear button. Why does any American president, or Russian leader for that matter, have the power, unchecked power, to be, if he’s awakened in the middle of the night, to have 12 minutes, or at most 15, to decide whether to end all life on this planet? Why are our missiles or weapons on hair-trigger alert? Why are there no checks and balances? How did we get in this in the first place? The mutual assured destruction doctrine going right through the whole history of the Cold War? No one’s asking that question. How did North Korea get these weapons? In part, they got it from Pakistan. We had an embargo against Pakistan because of their development of nuclear weapons. Now Pakistan has well over a hundred of them, but they’ve been forgiven because somehow they supported us in the nonsensical invasion of Iraq, which disrupted a region.
When I say it’s a comedy of manners, the objection to Trump is that he’s the goofball salesman. He says things that you’re not supposed to say in public. He’s not acting like, put on that face that George W. Bush can put on when he lied about why we’re going into Iraq, when he lied about 9-11 and so forth. I am not with the outrage in the mass media. I would basically ask the question, why did they suffer this fool and, indeed, create this fool, all these years? I didn’t go to his wedding. The top Democrats, beginning with the Clintons, went there. They condoned this guy. They never told us he was a deranged fascist. They wined and dined with him, and the media created this monster. Donald Trump didn’t create Donald Trump.
Let me say something about the crowd that he’s appealing to. I think the really serious thing that happened in Phoenix is that Donald Trump is going to stick to what I consider to be a basically neo-fascist appeal of blaming the most vulnerable people in the society for the very real problems in the society. So you blame immigrants, you blame Muslims, you blame anyone except Wall Street, except the people who really had power. In fact, what Trump is doing is giving Wall Street everything it wants. That’s why the stock market is booming. And people who have 401Ks that are good plans and they work for companies and so forth, they’re doing quite well.
Wall Street hasn’t rejected Trump, but the game that Trump is playing is that he goes to white working-class people who don’t have good prospects, whose kids are going to lousy schools, who have no chance of being players in the society, and he’s saying, “If I build this wall with Mexico, your life is going to be wonderful.” What that tells me is he’s not the least bit interested in solving the problem of those very people of his core constituency. He’s playing the same game with them that Nixon did with his Southern strategy and Red-baiting and race-baiting. What I took from that message is that Trump is deadly serious about being that Mussolini figure. He’s deadly serious about getting a second term by throwing that red meat to basically disaffected Americans who voted for him in Arizona, but they voted for him in Michigan as well. That’s what’s really ominous, is that the message is working.
Paul Jay: I think you’re right. I think in terms of the Clapper-type of politics and even more so, Mitch McConnell and some of the leadership of the Republican Party, but also a lot of the elites, which most importantly, I would include the Koch brothers. They didn’t want Trump to come out as the nominee of the Republican Party, but when he picked Pence as the vice president, and Pence being mostly a Koch Brothers guy, but also a guy who understands real power and what the elites really want, even though he’s his own fanatical fascist, in fact, I think more committed to it than Trump is.
I think they saw Trump as a vehicle that would eventually be controlled, that eventually he would play ball with the Kochs, but with all sections of the elites, and that he would be able to maintain some veneer of the presidency. I think what they don’t like about it is not that he’s not playing ball because, as you said, he’s giving Wall Street everything he wants, all the deregulation. He’s giving the fossil fuel industry everything they want. He’s giving the military industrial complex more than they ever expected. All of that being said, they need a president that keeps the mythology. You’ve got to keep that veneer of someone that actually cares about America, cares about the world, and is not nuts.
I think they’re concerned about how’s Trump going to sell a war for these guys? Who’s going to fight and die for such craziness? Maybe there will be some that are true believers, but it’s going to be very hard for him to mobilize this country. The more overt he is in his banal motives, which includes just money-making, not just the racism, it’s so much just about banal making him money. The more open he is, the more he reveals what this system really is. He’s a legitimate face of this system. He’s not a good enough actor which, unfortunately, Pence is. Pence looks like the president.
Robert Scheer: I disagree with you, personally, on a number of things. I don’t put the Koch brothers in the most dangerous, I know this is the liberal-baiting like mad. The Koch brothers, Koch brothers, that’s all I hear about it. Their money is particularly dangerous, but money coming from Goldman Sachs and elsewhere, that’s not dangerous. I’m not saying you’re saying that, but-
Paul Jay: I’m not saying that at all. I’m talking about the real politics of activist billionaires that play in the political field, and the Koch brothers are very active in controlling Congress.
Robert Scheer: Well, not more active than Goldman Sachs, with Robert Rubin and everybody has been. They’ve been supplying the treasury secretary and everything. They’ve got the de-regulations, but leaving that-
Paul Jay: Yeah, of course they did.
Robert Scheer: It’s all right. You’ve raised a really basic question. I think Trump is being a very shrewd politician. The assumption of this establishment that is hysterical, is they want to dismiss him and they want the public to dismiss him a fool, but his base is holding. The reason his base is holding is they no longer buy the line of the best and the brightest. They no longer buy the PR. People are hurting, okay? And that is something that the Democratic leadership, the Clinton leadership and the Republican leadership refuse to acknowledge.
The reason a Mussolini figure or a Hitler figure works, and I’m not using these as meaningless labels. After all, Hitler rose to power in a country that, at one point, seemed very stable, it had the best-educated population in the world, the highest level of science, religious fanaticism was not very high, anti-semitism was not particularly high. It was much stronger in France or Poland than it was in Germany. This ridiculous character of Adolf Hitler, looking the exact opposite of the Aryan god that he was evoking, this funny-looking Charlie Chaplin figure, managed to captivate the German people, despite their science, their education, their good Christian values and everything else, because they were desperate. They were desperate and the system was not working for them.
If you look at the Trump base and why he defeated the entire establishment of the Republican Party, remember, he wiped out, what was it? Twenty-one candidates? Wiped them out. The reason he was able to do that is that there aren’t many of these people who bought the line of the Republican Party that everything was getting better, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t, so they attack trade, they attack immigrants, they attack Muslims, and that’s a traditional scapegoating line of right-wing populism which leads to fascism. It’s very simple, but the alternative is not to say, “Oh, let’s all rally around the people who created the problem in the first place. Let’s get adults back in the store,” because those are the adults that created the housing meltdown, they gave us the bad trade deals, they destroyed labor unions which provided some balance in the society, they failed to deal with an immigration issue.
The question about immigration has been with us forever. Why haven’t we had sound immigration policy, including easier passage for people from Central America and from Mexico because, after all, they used to be part of this area, and to have the same quota that you do for Switzerland is absurd. Everybody has known we needed immigration reform. No one was ever willing to be serious about it. Then Trump comes along and he can play the demi-god. That’s what he’s doing, but it’s working because, and something that Cable and FOX and all of these people who make big salaries being on the media, don’t want to acknowledge, is that ordinary people are hurting.
Let me just give you one example of that, and that’s this medical, Affordable Act reform and so forth. If it was such a wonderful program, okay, you wouldn’t be able to make hay by attacking it. The reason it’s easy to attack is because there’s no cost control, the deductibles are outrageous, they’re unaffordable to many people and yet, they’re forced to buy it. The healthcare reform of Obamacare delivered a market to the insurance companies with no accountability, forcing the insurance companies to lower rates. We know it was a bad program, so he’s able to attack the senator from Arizona because he wasn’t strong enough against or so forth.
That plays well with the crowd, not because they’re irrational and he’s crazy, it plays with them because they’re desperate. If we can’t acknowledge that, this pain out there, that’s why you’ve got this madness. It’s not that you suddenly had an effective demagogue like Trump come along. Plenty of demagogues have come along who could sell you snake oil, they didn’t work. This guy works because he’s hitting home with a big rump of voters who are hurting.
Paul Jay: I’m not sure where you were disagreeing with me, because what you’re saying is what we’ve been saying since the first election of Obama. Yeah, of course, the neo-liberal and corporate Democrats, they created the conditions for all of this.
Robert Scheer: My disagreement is not with you, my disagreement is with most of my friends, who get their rocks off by telling me the latest horror from Trump. I get it. The guy scares the hell out of me. I know more, I wrote books about nuclear war fighting, okay? I covered the Reagan Administration for the LA Times when they were talking about winnable nuclear war. I understand just how dangerous this situation is, North Korea, okay? But you know what makes it even more dangerous? The playing the Russia card against Trump. Russia-gate, Russia-gate, Russia-gate, when in fact, you will not cool out this Korea situation without having the active cooperation of Russia and China pressuring North Korea.
Paul Jay: And you know, one of the things that was interesting about that speech in Phoenix, and while most of it, I think, was kind of out of control and from the interest of Trump himself, he had one line in that speech. We don’t have the clip right now, but he actually said one line about North Korea that was quite rational. He said, “I think Kim Jong-un is now respecting us and I appreciate that.” He actually threw a bit of an olive branch to North Korea versus the hell and fire. It’s an interesting note that I haven’t heard too many people comment on.
Robert Scheer: Bad inferences, which are so easy to make fun of and attack and trust me, I have no doubt at all that these folks would like to put someone like myself in a concentration camp, okay? I’m not naive about the radical right, all right? They scare me personally, they scare me for the country, so I don’t need lectures about how dangerous … I call them neo-fascists because that is an indication of how dangerous I think they are. But that doesn’t mean they get everything wrong. When Bannon said it’s a non-starter to just go attack North Korea and go for regime change, which is a big issue here. Are we demanding regime change or are we demanding an end to the nuclear program? They’re very different. That was the issue in Syria. Were we demanding regime change the way Hilary Clinton was, or were we demanding some increase of human rights for people and what have you? Those are different things.
What Bannon said is absolutely right. You force a war with North Korea, and just with conventional weapons, they can take out ten million people. We’re not kidding around. This is adult stuff, and you don’t play with it for politics because you’re angry about the election and you want to demonize the current incumbent. Yeah, he’s awful. We’ve had awful guys before, you know? The people who gave us the mutually assured destruction policy, right? The people, by the way, what about good old Democrats like Harry Truman, who now is seen as a lovable figure.
We just celebrated the anniversary of the greatest act of terrorism in human history, which is the dropping of the bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, done in broad daylight to maximize the damage, civilian damage, kids going to school. The plans were drawn up by the University of California, which controlled the labs in the program, they were approved at the highest level, why? Because we wanted to send these two cities that were not significant military targets a message to the rest of the Japanese that, no, they better settle fast. You can argue about that, but that was an act of terrorism. It was using civilians as the collateral damage. That’s how we define terrorism. We never discuss that.
So what Trump inherited was basically a system that was nonsensical from top to bottom, the whole war machine, the whole emphasis on nuclear weapons, the whole indifference to serious trade agreements, the whole indifference to serious border problems and how you deal with it, immigration, and on the basic economic issue, how do you share the wealth the country? Sounds radical, but how do you share the wealth sufficiently that we have enough stakeholders that they don’t go for a lunatic like Trump? What we’ve learned is there are plenty of people in this country who think they have nothing to lose. They don’t believe their kids are going to do well, they don’t believe their lives are improving, and they are desperate. You can’t dismiss them all as just racist or lunatics or crazy or they went for the snake oil salesman. No. If they turn their back on John McCain and Senator Flake and so on, it’s because they don’t think they’re speaking to their urgent needs.
Paul Jay: Okay, lets do this more often, Bob. Thank you for joining us.
Robert Scheer: Thank you.
Paul Jay: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.