John Nichols Interview: "Trump Shows Us Where the Weaknesses Are in Our Political Process"
Image attributed to John Nichols
The Nation, America’s leading source of progressive politics and culture, marks the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration with a special issue, “The Resistance Turns One” (January 29/February 5, 2018, cover date; on stands January 22). John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, writes about politics for The Nation, as its national affairs correspondent. For this special issue, he contributed the article, “How Rebecca Solnit Became the Voice of the Resistance.”
Nichols is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and dozens of other newspapers. He is a frequent guest on radio and television programs as a commentator on politics and media issues. He is the author of Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America (released August 2017). Other books include The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism, Jews for Buchanan and a bestselling biography of former vice-president Dick Cheney, Dick: The Man Who is President, among several others co-authored with Robert W. McChesney.
"I would argue that the Republicans in Congress, in many instances, are every bit as troubling as Donald Trump. They may not say things that are quite so offensive. They may even vote against Donald Trump on an occasional issue. But at the end of the day, whether you support impeachment or some lesser form of accountability, they’re not providing that guarantee of accountability."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): John, what was the main objective for the special “resistance” issue of The Nation?
John Nichols: I think the resistance is a very strong dynamic in America. It’s something very real. However, it’s hard to measure. You may have a very large rally. You may have a huge number of calls to Congress. You may have an election result from Virginia or Alabama. There are all sorts of different signals that come through. But there are different points where you want to get an assessment in, and the one-year anniversary of the Trump presidency seems like a very good place to do that. Obviously, at the one-year point, there’s going to be measures of how well and how poorly Donald Trump has done. Because The Nation has, throughout this period, covered the resistance so intensely and hopefully, so thoroughly, we thought the magazine would be a good place in which to take that measure of the resistance.
We wanted to highlight, not just a variety of issues and a variety of different approaches to resisting the Trump administration, but highlight the individuals who have really stood out over the course of the year. The magazine asked a variety of writers to interview, follow, research different folks and to write short articles about them that would go with some of the longer articles, giving a signal of where the resistance is at and also where it might go.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I enjoyed your article on writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit. She is credited by some sources as coining the word “mansplaining.”
John Nichols: I think that is correct.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What did she say about Donald Trump?
John Nichols: She said that you have to see Trump in perspective. You have to see this moment in a historical context. What Rebecca Solnit is so very good at that she writes brilliantly about a host of issues, and the touchstone in so much of her writing has been a hopefulness, a sense of possibility, but also a realism, a sense that we have to understand all the factors that are in play, and as such, I think that years before the Trump moment arrived, began to provide perspective on the changes in society, the pressures on society and also the vulnerability. What she has also suggested is that it is necessary to resist that which is not just troublesome, but that which is damaging and dangerous. She’s written about this in many forms, of course.
I think that because Trump is a cultural and a political figure and because he has had so many controversies surrounding not only his politics but also his relationships with women and his treatment of women, Rebecca Solnit, in many senses, was the ideal person to anticipate Trump, who I think would qualify as a mansplainer, and also to anticipate the resistance to him. She’s quite a remarkable figure in that regard. Her writing anticipated this moment, and then when the moment came, she really stepped up and wrote brilliantly about the need to resist, and frankly, throughout the year, has again and again come back to describing it, giving it perspective, giving it a sense of direction. So I think she’s been a very important figure.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Trump recently made some racist remarks in an immigration meeting, according to Senators Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham. So has his slogan changed from “Make America Great Again” to “Make America White Again?”
John Nichols: Well, there was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who said precisely that. The president is reinforcing this notion that his “Make America Great Again” slogan really applies to white folks, that it’s “Make America White Again.” Of course, that’s an absurdity, if that’s what Trump thinks, because America is a country with Native Americans who were here before the Europeans came. Also it’s a country that, throughout its history, from the very beginning of European settlement, has been a country of many races, many religions, people from many different places, and some of those people came by force, slaves and people who were in different forms of indentured servitude.
Yet over time, people from all these places decided to make America into something, to try and build America, and the president’s attitude toward immigration is a deeply troubling one because it seems that he’s not fully against immigration. It’s just that he’s against immigration from the kinds of places where my ancestors came from. My ancestors came from Ireland, and when they came, Ireland was in terrible circumstance. There was starvation, hunger, dislocation and a tremendous amount of poverty, very little political freedom, very little economic freedom, and so they came to America. I think that’s been a huge part our country’s story.
To hear him use a word that that I don’t want to use around my daughter, to describe countries where, in many cases, there’s some very strong, very vibrant culture, but where there may be economic and political challenges that cause people to leave, is just deeply unsettling. I do think that as much as anything he’s done with the possible exception of his response to Charlottesville, to suggest that our president has a racial-eyed view of the world, and it is racist, is something I don’t take casually, and I don’t think many of the people who are criticizing him are saying casually. There was a resistance on the part of many people to suggest that the president was racist. There was a hope he was ignorant. There was a hope he was uninformed, at least on the part of some folks, but what we end up coming back to again and again and again is his racialized view of the world. I don’t think you can call it anything else.
The final component of it is that the Republicans have a very long and deeply unsettling history of treating immigration as a tool to manipulate society; i.e., to refuse some people, to welcome others, and that has often been linked to racism in the past. The hope for immigrant activists, for a very long time, has been that this country can move beyond that, that his country should recognize it’s a very big country that can benefit from immigration from a wide variety of places and especially from Africa, from Haiti, from Salvador. All of these places that the president seems to be so unsettled by are places that have contributed professors, doctors, writers and leaders to this country. I think he is ignorant, and I think he is uninformed, but at this point, after so many instances where he has defaulted to this racialized view, I think he is also racist.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you think it will take for the Republicans to stop looking the other way and hold this president accountable for his divisive words and actions?
John Nichols: That is the great question at the moment. Where is the breaking point? In American democracy, we have elections, and they define our circumstance for a period of time, presidential politics for four years, and Congressional politics for at least two years. During that period, the Constitution set up a vehicle by which we could address severe problems, things that really were daunting and perhaps threatening to the American experiment. That was the power of impeachment. When you have one party in control, impeachment becomes far less likely.
At this point, because Republicans will not look realistically or honestly at Donald Trump for whatever reason, they sustain his presidency. He has committed acts of obstruction of justice, divisive actions and statements, taken a host of other steps that, in other presidencies, would merit impeachment. I think that in this presidency, the issue is not seriously entertained because there’s a sense that the Republicans in Congress will always back this president. So as a result, we have lost our system of checks and balances. We’ve lost the constitutional protection that was put in to make sure we don’t get into bad circumstances as a country.
In that sense, I would argue that the Republicans in Congress, in many instances, are every bit as troubling as Donald Trump. They may not say things that are quite so offensive. They may even vote against Donald Trump on an occasional issue. But at the end of the day, whether you support impeachment or some lesser form of accountability, they’re not providing that guarantee of accountability. They’re not doing their jobs. They’re not providing that guarantee of accountability that is outlined in the Constitution. To me, that’s a pretty serious thing.
You ask when they may wake up, or when they will recognize the danger of Trump. I feel that it may never come because there have been so many clear examples of wrongdoing, so many deeply questionable actions by this president, that at the very least deserve investigation. We end up in a situation where it looks like the response will be an electoral one rather than a constitutional one; i.e., the system of checks and balances. For the Republicans, that’s a serious matter because there’s a real chance that a tremendous number of Americans will choose to hold them to account.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What would have been your reaction if Trump had tried to ban Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse?
John Nichols: Oh, my book? (laughs) Well, I suppose I would’ve been like Michael Wolff. I think I would’ve said, “Where do I send the box of chocolates?” When a president of the United States, in what is still a free country for all of our challenges and all of our diminishment of civil liberties and civil rights, tries to ban a book or undermine its publication, that gives it tremendous publicity. There’s simply no question about that, and I think that the president made Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, far more successful by going after it.
But you ask a deeper question when you ask about this notion of the president of the United States trying to ban books or at least trying to use libel laws or other tools to control and defend against his administration to limit criticism of its presidency. That’s a very serious matter. The POTUS has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution standing, at the very least, on his bully pulpit and suggesting that banning books or barring the publication of a book is somehow legitimate. It is also, in my view, a case where you really begin to see some of the vulnerabilities in our society because, of course, Michael Wolff and I are in situations where we have more than sufficient legal protection and an ability to fight back. When you have major publishers with you and when you have some tremendous civil rights and civil liberties groups in play, it becomes less daunting.
It is important to understand that the same instinct that leads this president to imagine that he could send his private lawyers after a critic of his administration and get away with it, wields some tremendous power regarding the rights of citizens in all contexts, and so I think we should take it seriously when a president tries to do that. I think the Congress should be examining this issue. I think they should be deeply concerned about it. But it seems to have passed into the ether or the chaos of another day in Trump’s America.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will journalists, who are actually reporting the facts, survive after a president, who spouts conspiracy theories, calls CNN “fake news,” and claims Fox News is the only credible news source, is gone?
John Nichols: It’s a terrific question. We have changed a great deal as a society, as a people, with regard to how we gather information, how we consume it, how we process it. We get information from a lot of different places, and journalism is changing. I mean, newspapers are far less powerful than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Many newsrooms have a lot of commentators, but very few reporters. There seems to be a lot of “one size fits all” reporting, and in many cases, we have an immense number of people who are coming in and making their voices heard, and that’s good. But the flip side of that is there is an immense number of voices forming sometimes, so that it’s not a clear sense to go to for information.
Trump is an expression of that change. He is POTUS because our way of communicating has changed so radically and so rapidly. My sense is that we’re in a period of adjustment. Donald Trump and others are taking advantage of that period. At some point, there will be a recognition that we’re there to be a functional democracy in America, there has to be a free and open flow of information, and that information is reliable if it is something that is grounded in some sense of truth, a sense of fairness and a sense of respect for its role in the democratic process. I think we’ll get there. The problem is that, on this journey and this period that we are passing through, we are seeing media criticism, which is a very healthy thing. But it’s being weaponized, not being used to merely to criticize the media saying they should have done a better job, but in order to strengthen a political candidate or political party.
It’s not that we haven’t had this in the past, but it really has become something very serious, and I do think that journalists and political figures really need to pause and recognize the moment we’re in and ask themselves some really tough questions. Have they allowed the infrastructure of traditional media, the sense of responsibility to cover all the stories? Understanding that some stories may not be that exciting and may be a little bit dull, they still have to be covered because they matter. It’s one thing to criticize Trump for all the damage he does. It’s another thing to figure out what comes after Trump and how we make sure that we don’t go into a future where you’ve got maybe a liberal version of Donald Trump or a conservative version of Donald Trump, both ranting and raving and condemning the media. The real struggle is to figure out where the center of gravity is.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was politics discussed at the kitchen table on Union Grove, Wisconsin?
John Nichols: (laughs) Yes, of course, it was. In fact, my mother is 86 years old, and she is still incredibly active in all sorts of things. She’s a historian, a writer in a local context, but also a very active and engaged person. I grew up learning about politics in all sorts of things, and it was generational. My great grandfather was a village official in Blue River, Wisconsin. My grandmother was a teacher who was very active in Madison.
This culture of interest in politics runs very, very deep, and it is informed by the Wisconsin progressive tradition that’s a distinct one in American politics. I grew up around people who were less interested in political parties than they were in a set of ideals and values, and as such, were interested in the whole of politics, all the competition and the governing processes because they wanted to see if certain things could be achieved if progress could be made, and it was, in many ways, a wonderful training for someone who would grow up to write about politics.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): But you never got into politics.
John Nichols: (laughs) I think that as a kid I wanted to. Like many kids, I was interested in it. But then, as I grew up, what I found was what I really enjoyed the most was understanding politics and not really understanding it for the purpose of being on one side or the other, but really just having a kind of sense about how it worked and what was happening. As I grew older, I found a lot to write about. I enjoyed interviewing political figures. I’ve had the opportunity to interview people and cover people from across the political spectrum from the right to the left, not just in the United States, but in dozens of countries around the world.
It has been a wonderful experience. I’m a commentator now, or somebody that often expresses an opinion. It’s rooted in a deep interest in a whole other thing. I’m always fascinated to talk with people I disagree with because I still believe in that cradle of American tradition that you can learn something from somebody who doesn’t share your views. When I grew up in Union Grove, which is a pretty conservative town, a Republican-leaning town, politics was viewed very much like your religion. There are people of different faiths, but you didn’t discriminate against against somebody because of their religion. You didn’t reject them based on their faith. They were different, and you didn’t necessarily agree with them on everything, but there was a sense of community.
As a kid growing up, I knew liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans, and they were all people who you communicated with and saw people make political journeys from one side of the spectrum to another. There are a lot of people at the higher levels of our politics who like the division. They prefer people to be very on edge and unwilling to listen to somebody else, unwilling to entertain a debate or a discussion, and that’s a dangerous thing in society because we start to see those who disagree with us as wrong or even evil, and that’s not the case. The fact is, I believe, those who disagree with me just need a little more information (laughs). But I’m sure people who disagree with me believe the same thing, and that’s a healthy discourse.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe that we’ve lost the healthy discourse because people who are against this president wonder how anyone could still support him after a year in office. After all, his approval rating is the lowest in history for a president entering his second year.
John Nichols: One of the things I say about Donald Trump is that he exposes their vulnerabilities. Donald Trump shows us where the weaknesses are in our political process and perhaps even in our society. We need to figure out how to deal with a Donald Trump as a society and to say, “This guy appears to be in it for himself. He doesn’t seem to have much of a set of values or ideals.” That ought to be something that offends conservative Republicans as much as it does liberal Democrats. There are some Republicans who have stepped up and said the right thing, but there’s not enough of that yet, and one hopes that in a relatively functional way, we eventually get to a point where there is a recognition, as a society, that we need much better politics than what we’ve got.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will you follow up Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America with another book?
John Nichols: Oh, yeah. Trumpocalypse had a good ride, and obviously, there’s an awful lot of people that are interested in looking below the surface into all the people who have power in an administration. Right now, I’m working on a short book about the future of political parties in America because it seems the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are experiencing an identity crisis. I’m very interested in the discussion of what comes next in our politics. Yes, I’ll keep writing. Hopefully, not just about Donald Trump though.
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