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Jonathan Alter Interview: "I Think We Will Have a War This Year"

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Image attributed to Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter is the author of three New York Times bestsellers: The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, The Promise: President Obama, Year One and The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. He is a columnist for The Daily Beast and a political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.

Alter spent 28 years at Newsweek where he was a senior editor and wrote more than 50 cover stories. From 2011 to 2013, he wrote a column for Bloomberg View and has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and other publications. Alter was an executive producer for Alpha House, the political satire series on Amazon, and he’s currently authoring a biography on former President Jimmy Carter.

“Iran is not going to stop these ballistic missile tests. They’re known to be pretty defiant, and pretty soon you get into a situation. If you’re reacting with the same level of belligerence as Iran, you’re into a put-up-or-shut-up situation, and you say, ‘Don’t cross this red line.’”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jonathan, thanks for taking the time! I’m sure you are very busy these days. Did you ever think there would be this much turmoil in the first couple of weeks of a new administration?

Jonathan Alter: Not really, not really. It’s almost mind blowing how much toxicity and turmoil there has been, and it’s very, very discouraging to me as an American.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wrote an article in July of 2016 for The Daily Beast entitled, “Donald Trump Drags GOP into Very Ugly Territory,” and you said the key line of the RNC convention came from Melania when she said her husband always believed that “you treat people with dignity and respect.” That part of the speech was allegedly, originally included in Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech. Why did you call that line fraudulent in more ways than one?

Jonathan Alter: Well, Trump never treats anyone with dignity or respect unless that person’s name is Vladimir Putin. But, what he does have is this astonishing level of malice and disrespect, lack of courtesy, insincere praise when he does praise somebody, lack of self-awareness, lack of curiosity, lack of intellectual seriousness and all the rest of it. These are things that some people, myself not included, felt would change after he was elected president. But, it’s exactly the same as it was during the campaign. That’s because people don’t change.

The presidency only deepens who you were. It doesn’t elevate you. People don’t really rise to become better people after they become president. They just get a bigger platform to show who they already are. The presidency has a way of telling us whether you’re a decent person or a scoundrel. I think we already know in two weeks that this man is a scoundrel and a con artist.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): At the recent National Prayer Breakfast, the president asked everyone to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger because the ratings of The Celebrity Apprentice are lower than when he was the star. He also spoke about the “tough phone calls” he was having to make, and both of those comments have been criticized by some as being inappropriate for this event, which began in 1953. What’s your opinion?

Jonathan Alter: The man cannot be accurately described as a good Christian. I mean, come on. All you had to do was listen to him talk at the prayer breakfast. At one point, he said that he was grateful for words of worship. Trump just has no feel at all for what it means to be a person of faith, no feel at all for religion. He attended church a few times and bought in to the idea that Jesus wants everybody to get rich, which I’m not sure most Christians think exists in the scripture.

So, to me, it’s very strange how many votes he got from evangelical Christians. It’s something I don’t pretend to understand. It would be interesting to watch whether there are Americans in red districts who are saying that there’s something about this that stinks, and they decide to get into politics, run for city council or state rep. We’ve seen a lot of people who are willing to march, but are they willing to get more politically involved? That’s a big question to look at between now and 2018, whether people are comfortable just staying on the sidelines.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): President Trump was called a xenophobe by many of his detractors during the campaign, and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, now elevated to a higher position in the National Security Council, is known for his alt-right views. Do you believe the Trump administration’s immigration ban is simply prejudice by executive order?

Jonathan Alter: No, I don’t think it’s simply prejudice. It grows out of their fear that we’re in a war with more than a billion Muslims which is a terribly dangerous mindset for the United States and the world. They believe that this is a clash of civilizations and that the despicable terrorist actions by a small group of Muslims is representative of the entire faith. That’s a pernicious idea that will very likely lead this country to war.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There’s apparently a draft of a “religious freedom” executive order which would perhaps weaken protections designed to shield LGBT persons from discrimination.

Jonathan Alter: I just saw that, but I don’t know much about it yet. It will be tested in court, and I imagine there will be a fierce reaction to that. President Trump is acting as if he has this mandate from the American people to move the country sharply to the right. He is the duly elected president under our Electoral College, but he’s a minority president, and he received nearly three million votes less than Hillary Clinton.

If he was a responsible person, he’d take that as a sign that the country was not sending a message that we should be moving sharply to the right. It would definitely be more to the center. But, he’s made a different decision and surrounded himself with people who are on the fringes about politics and who are now in the White House.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Trump has perhaps managed to alienate Australia and Mexico and put Iran on notice after they carried out a ballistic missile test. What could potentially be the consequences of those actions for America and for the world?

Jonathan Alter: I think we will have a war this year. In the case of Australia and Mexico, we’re not going to war with either of them, but it will hurt the American public because we do a huge amount of trade with those two countries. If we get into trade wars or other tensions that harm our bilateral relations with Mexico and Australia, then people of Australia, people of Mexico and people in the United States will suffer. A trade war, economists say, will cost between three and four million jobs, but that seems to be a course that the president, in his stumblebum, ignorant fashion, is driving us toward.

With Iran, we’re talking about a real war. That’s a real possibility of a real war because the National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, said he was “putting Iran on notice,” about its behavior in the region. It launched a ballistic missile, and while I think it’s right to get tough on certain Iranian behavior in the region because they are bad actors in the Middle East, that was dangerously close to a red line.

Iran is not going to stop these ballistic missile tests. They’re known to be pretty defiant, and pretty soon you get into a situation. If you’re reacting with the same level of belligerence as Iran, you’re into a put-up-or-shut-up situation, and you say, “Don’t cross this red line.” You know how critical some Republicans and Democrats were of Obama for drawing a red line in Syria, and then when it was crossed with chemical weapons, President Obama did not respond militarily. A lot of people thought, “You can’t do that if you’re going to set a red line. If the other side crosses it, you’ve got to go to war.”

I don’t think this crowd is going to set red lines and not follow through. That means we will have military hostilities sooner or later, if not in Iran, then in another region, because that’s just the way they roll. They’re belligerent.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): President Trump has apparently not alienated Russia at this point, however, or at least there has been no evidence to speculate that has happened.

Jonathan Alter: Except for Russia, yeah. Exactly. Everybody but Russia. Well, you know something interesting. Trump went after Obama and Hillary for not calling it “Islamic terrorism.” There’s somebody else that doesn’t call it “Islamic terrorism.” That would be Vladimir Putin. It’s just harmful to our interests to call it radical “Islamic terrorism,” to link the words “terrorism” and “Islam” and make it seem that we’re going to war against a whole religion.

That’s what makes it easier for the bad guys, for the terrorists to recruit. That’s what makes it harder for us to have solid intelligence for which we need the cooperation of Muslims around the world. It makes us less safe. So, people who believe that Trump is making us more safe have it exactly backward. He is making us less safe every day by alienating Muslims we need on our side and by moving away from diplomacy and engagement and toward confrontation. That doesn’t make us safer.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will President Trump completely remove the Russian sanctions Obama put into place over the election hacking?

Jonathan Alter: I think he’s already trying to soften the sanctions. He can’t do it all himself, but he’s using some administrative powers to soften the sanctions. He’s indicated, in every way, that he’s not supportive of these sanctions. There are other Republicans that might stop him from lifting the sanctions. I’m not sure he’s going to be able to do that. That’s going to be a very interesting thing to watch.

To give Putin a free hand in Eastern Europe in the Ukraine where he seems to be dealing is very harmful to NATO, and anything that weakens NATO weakens our security. NATO is what has prevented us from having general war in Europe since the end of World War II. The NATO alliance remains key to collective security which is a different conception of the world order than the nationalism that Trump and Bannon believe in. But, collective security has kept the peace and kept us out of world wars since World War II. It’s a brilliant system that, even with the presence of nuclear weapons, it has kept us intact and in one piece. It’s threatened if you undermine NATO, and kissing up to Putin undermines NATO.

Why is Putin the only person in the world for whom Donald Trump doesn’t have a nasty word? Well, we don’t know the extent of the financial ties between Putin and Trump. What we do know is that Trump’s son said that the Russians have had a “disproportionate” investment in the Trump organization. But, because he won’t release his taxes, we don’t know the exact nature of that relationship, which is above and beyond the fact they were intervening in a presidential election with fake news or hacking on behalf of Trump.

Even if that had not occurred, as several different federal agencies have confirmed, just the businesses alone pose a huge conflict of interest that makes it much harder for us to have a foreign policy that is for the benefit of the country as a whole, not just one individual. So, this is a big problem, and I think we’re going to be talking about it for the rest of the time Trump is in office because we’ve never really had a situation with a foreign entanglement that George Washington and other presidents warned against. We’ve never had a situation quite like this, and this no transparency is really where investigative reporting comes in. But, they’re very hard stories to uncover.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): If the Democrats had been in control of the Congress, could Trump have been forced to submit his tax returns for all the world to see?

Jonathan Alter: No, and there is no law on that. Other presidents did it because they thought it was the right thing to do. It made them open and transparent, and Trump just wasn’t willing to do that and he got around it. He got elected anyway. I don’t think there’ll ever be a law requiring it, even after he’s gone.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a journalist, in the current atmosphere, and with an administration that frequently slams the media and calls some outlets “fake news,” are you worried that freedom of the press is in jeopardy?

Jonathan Alter: I’m not as worried as some people about that because I don’t think that he has the power to muzzle the press. I don’t think that the press is intimidated by him … most of the press. But, it is a very tricky situation to have a president who lies as promiscuously as he does. All presidents brag and fib, and sometimes they lie, but they don’t lie every day like this person. That’s a big difference. If you say, “Well, he doesn’t lie every day,” I can actually point to you every day on a calendar when something comes out of his mouth that’s simply not true. It happens over and over and over again.

It’s very hard for the press to keep track of all these lies. Then, they’re built around a system of fake news, and whenever they are criticized, they call that fake news, undermining what people’s understanding of fake news means. Fox News has become just a propaganda outlet for the Trump administration. They’ve actually purged some of the voices that have been critical of Trump from the right like George Will, the legendary Conservative columnist. He was fired by Fox News because he was critical of Trump. So, they will continue to tell a different narrative to their audience, and that’s a pretty large chunk of people who are being lied to on critical issues.

Now, is everything always true that comes from the other side? Of course, not. News organizations are going to make mistakes, certain commentators are going to twist facts, but it’s very unbalanced right now, and there’s a lot more twisting of those facts in an Orwellian way on the right than on the left at this particular juncture in American history. There have been other times when there has been more lying from the left. We’re just not in that phase right now.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How’s the biography of Jimmy Carter coming, Jonathan?

Jonathan Alter: I should be working on it right now (laughs). It has been slowed down by all of this that can be described as a tragedy in recent American history. But, I’m working on it. It’s still supposed to come our next year, but it’s a little slow going right now.

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