Four Years of Trump’s Foreign Policy
S1: That I am here tonight is a testament to the dedication of generations before me, women and men who believed so fiercely in the promise of equality, liberty and justice for child care was already hard to find before the pandemic.
S2: And now parents are stuck. No idea when schools can safely reopen and even fewer child care options. And the way I see it, big problems demand big solutions. What we do these next 76 days will echo through generations to come.
S3: Hello and welcome to Dreamcast, I’m Virginia Heffernan. Steve Bannon, Chief Carney has been arrested, federal prosecutors, that’s right, nabbed Bannon at everyone’s favorite Djavad joint, the Southern District of New York. Remember, that’s the oldest district in the land, a Trump cast favorite. It’s older than the Supreme Court. And it first convened on November 3rd, 1789, and has been collaring baddies like Bannon ever since. And by the way, you know, the first traitor they nabbed in SD, NY seventeen eighty nine probably looked like Steve Bannon, except in a shabby red Tory coat. And OK, I’m getting carried away because by Bannon. Oh, and they also got him for the right thing. It’s not for trying to build a wall to lock out refugee toddlers, not for crimes against humanity, because that’s just elitist snowflake kind of EU stuff. But they got him for screwing over the white nationalists who wanted to build that wall. Good old Bannon, the president’s former campaign advisor. So he’s pretty close to Trump. He is in handcuffs today, along with three other companies for defrauding donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the border wall fundraising campaign. See, it’s the corruption, not the racism that will take them down and, well, that is sick in its own way. Bannon is still in an orange jumpsuit with long pants and no cargo pockets for today. He’s also, if he ever lands behind bars for real, the only person in all this who might look better after some time in the clink, a little commissary user in for redness, relief never hurt nobody. And once again, I say this as a realization American. So no offense intended, but there’s other good news and this is good news, but there’s pain in it. Watching the Democratic National Convention last night, Hillary Obama, Kamala Harris, I was like a lot of people fighting back tears. I actually successfully fought them back. It’s a habit I learned in the last four years. It’s not the time in my case for fully felt pain. Not even now. There’s too many miles left in this. But I did realize when Obama side last night, did you catch that? It’s so rare for him. But he side that there’s a collective exhale in our future, maybe not in November, maybe not even in January, but there will be a moment one day when we can stop winding up our grief like thread on a spool about the lives lost at the border and to covid and to diseases of despair, including suicide and addiction. And in Puerto Rico and also the jobs lost in the brains lost to disinformation and Trump’s lies and the hope lost to white supremacy and a rapist president who subjugates women by calling them and the relative harmony of our whole society that’s been lost to anguish and terror and mutual contempt. With Obama side, I realized that with every suggestion that this boot might one day be off our throat, I become slightly more able to actually experience what a siege this has been. It’s not quite a hope, but I’m told that this is something hostages feel when the end is in sight. And I know this sounds dramatic, but there is a quality where some numbness and fighter pilot vigilance drops for a second and emotions begin to spool. So today, after all the repression and not crying, it seems clear that one day maybe we can all breathe out in one of those rowdy yoga sighs and begin to take stock of the losses without flinching. Today, my guest is Ben Rhodes. He’s the host of God Save the World and the new podcast Missing America.. He’s a contributor to MSNBC and author of the forthcoming The World As it Is a Memoir of the Obama White House. Ben and I are going to talk about how the last four years have been for him. Not easy and what’s coming next. And if you’re a plus member, stick around for more of my conversation with Ben Rhodes in a bonus segment after the credits.
S1: Ben Rhodes, welcome to Trump Cast. I’m so happy to have you here. I’m very happy to be here. I was worried that you might say no because I have a close relationship to the author of a piece about you. And in 2016, was it? Yes. Just a little magazine profile, right? A little magazine profile. Exactly. You came off great. It was about you eating salad at Mr. Chow’s in L.A., the typical celebrity profile. But no, it was very strange, strange piece about your I think you were like a great mastermind of selling the fraudulent and very, very dangerous Iran deal to the to the press. Yes. And the piece was was criticized and. But so were you. Yes, I was. So how have you recovered since that effort to encapsulate your role in the Obama and Obama administration? That’s what’s the Trump administration been like for you, whether you want to start at that piece or that dreadful 2016 summer or not?
S4: Well, I mean, I can start at that piece. It’s kind of interesting because, look, I mean, you know, this was the New York Times magazine piece. And, you know, what he basically did right is he turned me into a genius like far beyond my own faculties so as to then suggest that I was kind of evil mastermind behind duping everybody into accepting the Iran deal. You’re kind of like a hipster Kissinger in it. Yeah, I’m a hipster Kissinger. And he literally makes that juxtaposition. And, you know, what he ended up constructing was like lots of different things I said about lots of different topics, all shoehorned into this idea that I had misled people about the Iran deal, when in fact, actually, I believe the things I said about the Iran nuclear deal, I continue to make the same arguments. He just happened to not agree with them. But the thing is, it touched some third rails because obviously I was already a bit of a right wing villain. You know, it’s kind of like the the junior partner to Susan Rice in the Benghazi conspiracy theory. So those people already hated me. And this was like chum in the water for them. And then Obama, you know, and me to some extent had, you know, tweaked the kind of foreign policy establishment a good bit. And Obama had said some things don’t do stupid shit, which was seemingly a non-controversial statement that you don’t do stupid shit in foreign policy. And people took great offense to it, which tells you something. And so those people piled on, too. And so what ended up happening is, yeah, like that period of time, you know, I was put through the wringer both from the right wing and from kind of a lot of establishment Washington. And, you know, I was super busy at the time, so I didn’t actually fully appreciate how much that backed up on me until I left government. And then I realized I could actually that that stuff has a toll, a kind of a mental toll. And you get kind of closed off and you get distrustful and you you feel you know, you just feel like shit, you know? Yeah. And what was interesting, though, about this experience, I mean, there’s lots of ways to break it down. But just on your question, what was part of what’s interesting is that Trump basically gave life to every criticism of me and Obama, like everything they said about the Iran deal, everything he said about Paris, everything he said about the Cuba opening, well, they got to do whatever they wanted. Right. And so so, you know, the Trump presidency is the manifestation of my worst nightmare in the sense that, like, think of if your worst trouble in life becomes the president of the United States.
S1: Right. And also very determined. I mean, not all my troubles, I think, are determined. They’re not fixated on me enough that they would want to just reverse everything I’ve done from the color of my drapes to, you know, my hairstyle. But because of Trump’s fixation on Obama as his white whale, he he did want to reverse everything. So don’t do stupid shit becomes let’s see, what is it again? Reversing it. Do stupid shit. Yeah. Too much stupid shit is possible is exactly max out on the stupid shit. And then also, you know, reverse the Iran deal because it has Obama’s name on it and so on. And I agree with you, if you know, I think I tweeted one time, like one thing we have learned from this time have been the virtues of the Iran deal now that we’re without it, that was accomplishing a lot in the region. So since since twenty sixteen, did you expect the deal to to really fall apart because it had some support on the right. And I think at the very beginning of Trump you might have thought he’s got his eye focused on the southern border or these other. Things that he’d really run on, and in spite of the Michael Flynn commitment to stamping out radical Islamic terrorism, they maybe wouldn’t do this, take away the Iran deal. I mean, what how did that evolve for you when you saw what was really going down?
S4: Well, so when when Flynn got ousted after 15 days, there was about a year when McMaster was the national security adviser and Matisses of defense were they were clearly doing everything they could to save the Iran deal. They didn’t want the risk of leaving it, which, by the way, was ironic because Mattis was critical of the Iran deal and came out. It just shows you when you’re actually in power, you might prefer to have an arms control agreement in place. Yeah. So I actually thought there was a fighting chance the thing could survive. But, you know, to Trump, it was it’s interesting how the Iran deal was so central to just kind of their narrative about Obama and his foreign policy and his weakness and his coddling of, quote unquote, radical Islam. You could tell that Trump wasn’t going to give it up. And then when John Bolton became national security adviser, then, you know, the thing is toast out of what’s been interesting in watching it play out is the arguments that we made that they called dishonest at the time were essentially that it’s either this deal or the Iranians advance their program. If you leave the deal, you’re going to strengthen the hardliners in Iran and you’re going to risk war. And and literally all those arguments that they said were so dishonest and said I constructed a totally fake echo chamber to make those arguments like they’ve all happened. You know, Iran has restarted its nuclear program. The hardliners are clearly in charge there. That’s why you’ve had much more provocative Iranian actions across the Middle East. And we’ve been at the brink of war with Iran like twice, including, bizarrely, during covid. I mean, it seems like forever ago. But in January, instead of focusing on getting this virus under control, Donald Trump was assassinating an Iranian general and literally inviting tea lams Zorya ballistic missiles raining down on an American facility in Iraq. So that’s how close we’ve gotten already. And it has been very painful to watch because it was very predictable that this is what would happen if they pulled out.
S1: Now, of course, reversing anything you did and I think I said this beforehand, but we’re on the roughly the four year anniversary of the Republican National Convention that nominated Trump, but at which also Newt Gingrich cited the piece about your I don’t know if he was very strange. And it was at the end of his you know, he cited the piece in which you were this I was going to say Svengali, but it was something more intense. Rasputin. Yes. To to Barack Obama. And that you had sold a bill of goods to the American people who, you know, were Woodvale oppose the deal. And this was part of the the thing that that Trump would rectify. OK, so turning on the Obama administration, turning all that on its head, doing stupid shit with abandon was one of Trump’s goals and getting out of the deal. What what relationship did it bear? His contempt for the deal? How did it fit into his relationship with President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation, in your view?
S4: That’s an interesting question. You know, I think that the Russians obviously were part of the Iran nuclear agreement and supportive of it to an extent. But when people always ask me, like, what did Putin want know? Like, why did he put all this investment into Trump? Did he want to get the sanctions lifted over Ukraine? It’s not that like what Vladimir Putin wants is to put the US basically out of business as a superpower. You know, he wants us divided from our allies. He wants us distracted from whatever it is that Vladimir Putin wants to be doing. And he wants us to discredit democracy generally because democracy itself is a threat to Vladimir Putin, because he doesn’t want democracy to come to Russia. And this fixation that the United States has with Iran is very good for Russia and China, because think about how illogical it’s going to look to history that the most powerful country in the history of the world, which is what the United States was after the Cold War, I think that’s it was now was completely obsessed with like a medium sized country in the Middle East and not China. Not Russia, you know, so so to see the US completely divided from our European allies and the Iran deal leaving the Iran deal was a major rupture with France, the United Kingdom and Germany. That’s in Bogner Putin’s interest, seeing the United States like fixated on Iran and and that constantly the brink of war in the Middle East. And, you know, here we are in twenty, twenty years after 9/11 and we’re still, you know, preoccupied with this one region of the world. That’s all to Vladimir Putin’s interest, because then, you know, the rest of the world is an. Open field for him, just as it’s an open field for China. What is Donald Trump done to fortify Europe against the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism? What is Donald Trump done to model democracy as something that is an attractive force so that allies of Vladimir Putin is like the guy in Belarus who’s under pressure right now to feel some heat? You know, this is what Vladimir Putin wants. He wants a discredited, demoralized, distracted America that is not setting a Democratic example.
S1: Yeah, I mean, the moral authority that we, I think, squandered on Election Day. Yeah. You know, I had Owsla Bailey, who is a friend of mine who teaches at UCLA, was, I think, my first guest when I when I started hosting the show. And she it was, you know, November 10th or 11th or something. And she said the Pax Americana is over. And, yeah, you know, we need to take a breath and say, what are our commitments now as as America, as individuals, as citizens, and what are our kind of professional commitments or, you know, political commitments now that that has dissolved? And I think Pax Americana is just a great phrase to revive there, because we know we lost a lot on that day and in the last four years. But it’s hard to put our fingers on it. Exactly right. Like like we didn’t have we didn’t have harmony in the homeland even in in 2015. You know, the idea that we’re polarized, you know, tell that to the birthers who’ve been out this a long time or the truthers or whoever else and Kris Kobach. And then the idea that we are you know, that we’ve lost moral authority. I mean, I think, you know, at least the Islamic world thought that we were, you know, morally bankrupt back then. And I think Europe was suspicious of us, although, you know, it’s hard to say. But in any case, Pax Americana is something that was just an article of faith with with us as we came of age, you and me, and does seem to be kind of gone now. So I want to just talk about the dovetailing of your own professional and political commitments since 2016. So maybe just take us back to election night. Did it instantly, Dawn, on you, as it did on Professor Bailey, that you you would have to make some changes and you’d have to find out where to be most effective? And also, what were you most afraid of?
S4: Yeah, it did. And you know, the way I’d sum up kind of the version of what you said, which I agree with, is I always try to explain to Americans as someone who travels a lot, it’s not the fact that Donald Trump is president that is so problematic. It’s the fact that we elected Donald Trump president. And that’s something that can never be undone. And it calls into question everything about American leadership in the world, because we have this this awesome power. The world has kind of not only because of our military, but the world is kind of generally looked to us to set the direction, even if they don’t like our policies and they hated the Iraq war. And they they blame us for the financial crisis. Yeah. But in a way, Trump is worse because it just showed such a profound irresponsibility that we would let someone like that get to the highest, most powerful office in the history of the world. Yeah, and I knew that election night and I knew I’d seen the kind of radicalization that had taken place in the Republican Party over the eight years of Obama. How do you. Yeah, I had no faith whatsoever that these I was not I didn’t even bother trying to make the you know, well, let’s hope for his success because he was going to try to succeed, like the idea that we were supposed to pretend that he was going to he was going to somehow, you know, get some things right, but something is wrong. And this guy is an extreme authoritarian, racist force that is emblematic of the very worst aspects of America, elevated to the highest office. And that’s what I felt. And so for me, you know, it was I knew I was going to have to kind of rethink, you know, whatever. I haven’t given a lot of thought to what I was into anyway. But I knew that everything I did was going to have to add up to some form of activism. And so for me, since leaving government, I’ve, you know, helped Obama set up his international foundation, which is basically focused on training progressive civil society actors around the world. I’ve got my own podcast with Wikimedia, which is basically a weekly effort to kind of hold Trump’s feet to the fire and show people what’s happening is fantastic. We’re shoulder to shoulder on that. Thank you. Yeah, no. And well, there can be enough voices. You know, I’ve done I have an NGO necessary action that helps kind of support progressive messaging and foreign policy in the US. But also increasingly the space I’ve moved into is trying to build connections between progressive politicians in the US and Europe and other countries that are going through this, like India and Brazil right now. The idea that the far right is very well coordinated around the. And we’re not and I’m working on a book basically that tries to answer the question, how did all these people get in power around the world and and what do we need to do about it? And how do we have to think about our identity, forget our foreign policy, our identities, Americans like who are we? Because until we figure that out, we’re not going to figure out foreign policy. So. So for me, it’s been writing, podcasting, working with former President Obama and doing this progressive politics and then all these things I just kind of put together into this podcast series I just did Missing America, which is basically OK, let me take you around the world and show you what I’ve seen the last few years, which is nationalism in Europe, authoritarianism in China, disinformation everywhere, sectarianism in India, the forever war in the Middle East, climate change, refugee crisis like this is what is happening because of the complete collapse of America. So to me, I’ve done a bunch of different stuff, but they’re all about one thing. They’re about the fact that if Trump in these collection of people around the world win, then everything I care about forget the Iran deal. Everything is out the window. But if we can at least get a foothold, then we have a fighting chance.
S1: Do you think there’s a version if you accept the idea that something like Pax Americana is one of the things we’ve lost, and if not, the major thing is their version of a kind of more modest falen America? I don’t mean isolationist. Yeah, but I mean like Britain opposed to empire, that is. Yeah. If not quite protectionist and isolationist. Right. But but Britain pre Brexit. So a worldliness without any kind of empire, imperial ambitions, even for some kind of moral case. You know, certainly no nation building, but also know we must export American values or teach the world to act in our image, not just because there’s some imperial ness to it, but because it’s not possible anymore. Because you know what Shop says we lost our ethics program. We can’t teach ethics abroad anymore, you know?
S4: Yeah. So I think that there’s room for this in two ways. And first of all, one of the things was interesting to me is for this this podcast I did, I talked to a lot of progressive activists around the world, and they want America to be engaged around the world, you know, like the people on the pretty far left in places, too. And here’s why. There’s not I think the age of American hegemony is over. And a lot of that is to the good, although some of that is to the bad. But there’s not like some alternative waiting here. There’s there’s Russia and China. You know, there’s kind of a Russia once kind of a world without rules. Right. And China wants a world where they can basically, you know, build stuff, sell stuff and and and make sure that, you know, inconvenient things like democracy or kept as far away from them as possible. So there’s there’s basically a vacuum. So it’s not like with the fall of the British Empire, we were ready to step in. And frankly, so so there’s no one to take the place that America used to the world we used to play. And there’s a need for somebody. I mean, we saw with covid, like there was just nobody kind of running the play for the world, nobody saying, well, here’s what you’re going to do and here’s how we’re going to harmonize travel restrictions. And here’s the health guidelines that we want to model that other people can do. Like there is a role for the United States to be a very, if not the most influential country in the world without being a hegemon. Right. And to me, what that looks like is like no more no more of these wars. Right. Like 9/11 period is over, like dismantle the architecture of this war on terror and, yes, have a degree of humility. And I’d extend that to like let the regime change policies, you know, but the Irans and Cuba and Venezuela is like that stuff like should be over. Right. But I think there’s two things we can do. One is we can be the country that can try to mobilize collective action, you know, climate change. Right. Like how do we construct a Paris agreement, like the US had to kind of get in under the hood and do that with a whole bunch of countries or if there’s a pandemic, who’s kind of making an Ebola? What we did is essentially say, OK, we’ll build some infrastructure in West Africa. And, you know, you guys know the French. You take Guinea and we’ll focus on Liberia and the Brits focus in Sierra Leone. And then we basically went pass the hat around and got like ten thousand health care workers to fly there. And that’s the good part of what America can do.
S1: That’s a perfect example of how America’s global values are. You know, when they’re it’s like you said, don’t do stupid shit becomes controversial. Well, when keeping people alive in West Africa who have a contagious disease, you don’t have to be you can be entirely self-interested when you’re highly contagious. Yeah, highly contagious disease and fatal when you’re fighting a pandemic. It should at least be in our baseline interest to survive as a species and yet, as we’ve seen, we should agree on that. Yeah, we should agree on that. As as we’ve seen with Trump, you know, we had Katherine Eban on the other day talking about the so-called DEMA side. Jared Kushner is kind of plan to let the blue states just implode with the disease. And, you know, when you’re not committed, you know, when you have some idea that there are like smoking sections to the country and nonsmoking sections and that the smoke won’t travel or when it comes to Africa that, you know, you can just let let countries let shithole countries burn and the rest of us are fine. It is it’s hard to even call that a value unless the value unless the value is kind of a pro death position. And you know what you all what the Obama administration accomplished with Ebola is, you know, while creative also, of course. You know. Yeah, yeah. No. Right. Obvious. Exactly. Yeah.
S4: It should be routine that you would do that. And, you know, I think part of to your point, like the Trump ism, the collection of views that add up to Trump ism, what’s so bizarre about them is, yes, there’s there’s, you know, deeply rooted kind of racism and nationalism in it. But like, it’s also just kind of a collection of of opinions that people who’ve consumed right wing media in the United States for 20 years would have. That doesn’t really add up to anything if it’s not like, you know, other than kind of this self-defeating, you know, covid is an example of this. Like, there’s nothing that suggests that a a racist nationalist wouldn’t still want to not let this many people die from a virus.
S1: But like, you know, I kind of want to push back on that because I’ve been trying to figure out why. Listening to the David Duke podcast, the latest slogan from Slate, which is fantastic, that, well, how racism and corruption and ultimately a kind of, you know, maybe a lost cause and you know. Yeah, yeah, that’s right. That that that, you know, there’s a hallmark of the former Confederacy that goes with diseases of despair and a kind of self-destruction that you see in this kind of shit life syndrome. That’s like. Yeah, right. And and the rise in suicides among middle class men and in white men in red counties, red districts. Actually, what comes to mind is Robin DeAngelis book White Fragility about these counties that are so beset with misery. And it seems like she tells an amazing story of her reason for writing the book, which is that she grew up very poor, unwashed. She couldn’t keep clean. She had food insecurity and her whole confidence, and it was it was considerable, was predicated on the idea that even the cleanest black person was dirtier than she was as actually a dirty, dirty person like unwashed clothes. And I think, you know, when Obama becomes president, there’s a little bit of I am nothing anymore, you know, in that’s all I had before this. That’s all I predicated my confidence on. And without that, who cares? It’s time for, I mean, the disease of despair, our opiate addiction, alcoholism, suicide, deep depression. And there’s a lot to further I mean, I keep thinking of what you said. Don’t do. What is it? Don’t don’t do stupid shit. Don’t do stupid shit. Turns into do stupid shit or you know, where a 50 cent, you know, paper mask against a lethal virus turns into. No, don’t wear a mask. Yeah. Yeah. You know, I do the opposite. I think it’s the death drive.
S4: Yeah. I think you’re right. And there are a couple of things I’d say about this. Like one is the collapse does matter. And part of my you know, part of what I think has happened in global politics since 2008, financial crisis is like everybody lost confidence and everything. You know, the institutions of democracy, of globalization, this, you know, the system was rigged, et cetera, and that the only belonging that was offered, particularly to white people in this country and frankly, across Europe and a lot of these places where I’m going to call populism, I call it authoritarian nationalism is gaining traction is because someone comes along and says, well, you know what? Everything is falling apart. And I’m going to offer you this this sense of belonging. Right. That is is somehow deeply familiar to you. It’s in your it’s ingrained in your memory, your historical memory, the US versus them thing. You know, like, yeah, you can be on the winning team and and everything could be collapsing around you. But at least, you know, you’re on the winning team, you know, you’re on Team Trump, you’re in team scenario, you’re on Team Auburn, you’re on Team Putin, whatever it is. Right. I think that’s a big piece of it. And then I think, you know, Obama. So I think that’s already happening right after 08. And like the. Hardy is an early manifestation of it here, people enraged about the financial crisis turned to a Koch brothers funded uptown movement because it offered the sense of belonging. And then with Obama, I think a very important point that I experienced is what drove people the most insane about Obama was when he was successful. Like if Obama had fallen on his face, that would have been fine. The first black president is a disaster. And what drove people the most insane? Obamacare, the Iran deal like big achievements, you know, the Paris climate accord, like like like his capacity to succeed as a black president was was even more offensive to Trump and a lot of his supporters than even just him getting elected. Yeah. And I think you’re right. Like, it does lead to a burn it all down approach. But it’s also the one that I think still has these these eccentric tropes. You know, I mean, yes, obviously said far right media. And because I is someone to go all the way back to where we began, like Newt Gingrich referencing like a magazine profile of me, like they all think that everybody is is in on the same conspiracy theories, you know, that that we like Obama gate. They just say a word. And I don’t mean I don’t I’m a character in it and I don’t know what it is, but they all just kind of intuitively understand that it is the thing that is terrible. And and so I think there’s like this kind of mixture of you say burn it down, but then also just like limitless conspiracy theories.
S1: Yes. So I guess I want to go back to your now study for your partly for your book of rising authoritarianism in the in these other countries. And since Belarus is top of mind, do you think that, you know, when you have this crushing realization that we had elected Trump? That’s sort of true. However you define we and I know we’re not meant to dismiss the Electoral College, but there has been an uncanny ness about Trump’s an uneasiness about his legitimacy, that it sort of like like the Aaron Sorkin, like deep down, we don’t talk about it at cocktail parties. Like, you know, you start to sound like Louise Mensch or something. Yeah. If you start if you if you if you rail on about illegitimacy, appearance and Russian interference. Exactly. And also, you know, good old gerrymandering and voter suppression and some of the discontinuities in the in the in the voting and of course, the fact that the majority, an overwhelming majority, voted for Trump’s opponent. So we’re taking the temperature of the country. You know, it’s weird to say, you know, the most important thing about Lance Armstrong is he was such a great cyclist that he won all those races. You know, you’re leaving out this major thing that where, you know, there’s Hack’s there’s in this case, Russian interference. And I don’t know I don’t know what to make of that. I mean, is has the illegitimacy question sort of dogged you through this time? And also it helps me when I sort of read the country, especially now when Trump’s approval so far down, but when I sort of read the country to think. You know, he he cheated his way to power, and that means that most of us and and most of us went out for Hillary Clinton, you know. Yeah, like just when we’re trying to understand the country, maybe we should try to understand why so many of us supported Hillary Clinton. And it was a referendum on Obama. We were going to have we were all wanted another four years of, you know, Obama and that I think maybe a little harder on Russia. Yeah. And that, I think was really incredibly interesting. And, you know, somehow we just jumped in to, well, I guess the country is all red and now we need to talk to everyone about their economic and security and kind of feel their feel out there. Racism.
S4: We’ve got to go to the West Virginia diner to talk to somebody who hasn’t voted for a Democrat in 50 years. Yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, I traveled a lot around the world when my my memoir came out and I’d get these questions. And it always earnestly explained that Barack Obama had a 60 percent approval rating at the end, that Hillary got more votes, that there wasn’t this dramatic shift in public opinion in the US. You know, here’s how I look at it. One way to understand what’s happened in the US is to look at other countries. So let’s look at Hungary. In 2010, Viktor Orban gets elected prime minister of Hungary, riding a wave of right wing populism in response to the financial crisis. He then sets up a corrupt system where he enriches some cronies who then fund his politics. They buy up the media and turn it into propaganda organs for propaganda, organs for Orban. Then he packs the courts with right wing judges. Then he redraws the parliamentary districts so that even though Viktor Orban doesn’t get a majority of votes in Hungary, he has a two thirds majority in the parliament. He changes the voting franchise to make it harder for some people to vote and extending voting rights to people outside of Hungary who are ethnic Hungarians. I could go on and by the way, becomes very cozy with Vladimir Putin, who has billions of dollars of economic interest in Hungary, right? Yeah. And as I heard this story told to me by some of the Hungarians I talked to for for my podcast and my book, I’m thinking, well, the Tea Party is the right wing populist movement that gets a foothold, the collective power. We had the redistricting here. We had the complete Citizens United disaster that opened the door to unregulated, dark money. In our politics. You have the cronies, the Koch brothers and the Sheldon Adelson of the world spending billions of dollars to distort our politics. You’ve got the right wing judges like we think that we’re immune to this stuff because we’re Americans, but we’re not the same stuff that happened in Hungary happened here. And what was it about? It was about allowing a minority to govern a majority of a country because they have all these key levers of power in the courts in the way people vote and the way people get information and. You know, that’s what is happened, and I think where the the breakdown was therefore wasn’t like a massive public opinion shift. I think the breakdown was why did one political party in the United States become this radical? Why did the the institutions that were supposed to kind of be some guardrails around it, including the American media, which was not done at all? That self reflection and needs to do to to wrestle with their role in the rise of Trump is impossible without the American media, right?
S1: Mm hmm. And you mean not just Fox News, but the mainstream?
S4: You know, I mean, mainstream media. I went back and looked at birther ism. Right. And Donald Trump was not just booked on Fox. He was on Good Morning America, The Today Show, CNN. Why to to have a racist conspiracy. Like I mean, it’s astonishing to go back and look what happened to birthers and then he starts running for president. Same thing. We’re going to air his rallies. We’re going to not fact check him when he says crazy shit in interviews. We’re just going to go along for this ride, essentially. So to me, like and then, yeah, Russia. So they just see this and they’re like, well, we’re going to all we’re going to do is expose the weaknesses in America and the American system. So in 2016, what do we do? They they they just came in behind like right wing conspiracy theories and just created a whole bunch of content about Hillary Clinton. She’s sick or she’s a puppet or she’s corrupt and they’re just flooding right behind the bright parts of the world into people’s social media accounts to manipulate algorithms to make sure that people are seeing certain things on Facebook. What are they taking advantage of? They’re taking advantage of the existing right wing media structure in this country. They’re taking advantage of Facebook’s profit model, which is the more things are clicked on and shared, the more profits that they make. And they take advantage of the media’s obsession with gossip. So they’re hacking a bunch of emails that are not at all newsworthy. And there’s like New York Times stories every day about like some internal Clinton campaign email that is not at all be newsworthy. Right. So so what Russia did, yes, they they tilted the scales. They may have swung the election to Trump, but they they did so by taking advantage of this kind of rot that had taken place on top of a very methodical Republican Party project for over a decade to to manipulate. Ah, because Republicans are looking at and they’re saying this is going to be a majority minority country. We can’t govern this country unless we basically rewire the system of of everything, voting, campaign finance, what have you to to enshrine minority power in this country. And that’s what’s happened.
S1: Did you find yourself, as I did, moving to the left? Yes. Four years. Yeah, I’m not appreciably.
S4: What’s interesting about me is that I moved to the left in my years in government, which is not usually for people national security. If you look at me the last two years, I’m like normalizing relations with Cuba. I’m like throwing myself on train tracks with Iran deal in part because I was deeply disturbed by the the predominance of the war on terror in our foreign policy, but also because I saw this radicalization in the Republican Party. And like the establishment center is not calling this for what it is. And I was infuriated by it, like in part because they weren’t calling out, you know, the shit that was being thrown at me on Benghazi, which nobody can explain what it was. Right. And and so I moved to the left under Obama. And then, yeah, the subsequent years I’d moved further to the left because I think that this is an existential fight and this is not a fight that it gets resolved by trying to craft compromise. Yeah. You know, somebody is going to win here, you know, and. Yeah, and what needs to happen is progressives need to to win and they need to win in this country and they need to be organized globally to win. And that’s on both individual farm policies and also on how our democracy works. That’s pushed me further to the left. And but a lot of that’s just tactics. It’s like, why do we not at the beginning the Obama administration do something on voting rights, do something? I mean, the first thing that Biden should do is ram through voting rights. Puerto Rico state, if they want to state for D.C. and Puerto Rico campaign finance reform, like just undo the electrical wiring damage has been done to our democracy. Yeah, that shouldn’t be left right issue, you know, so some some things that are seen as left are actually, I think just like small D democracy.
S1: Yeah, I absolutely agree with you and I don’t think I knew the extent of the rot with our I would never have called it that. McConnell, Graham, McCain rest in peace would have. I just thought that they would stop this, you know, and then Corker and Flake and even Ryan that I thought that they would I just thought they’d stop it. And instead, you know, half of them fell in line and half of them dropped out, you know, and and no one except maybe Justin Amash. Has really done much more than be concerned, I mean, it’s just seeing all those people, it’s like, you know, it’s like all those tobacco executives are standing in line lying about tobacco or honestly, like seeing Nuremberg or the trials, like just how many people in a one party went insane, you know. Yeah. And that sort of does seem like what can happen here. And I had some fear. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but I had some fear that if Biden’s elected, he will let Glad hand with some of his old senators and McConnell. And I just don’t want to see it anymore. They should not be rehabilitated. Let’s go back to something else from 2016. One of the disappointments that I wouldn’t have had at the time with Obama, but that I increasingly had was that he knuckled under to McConnell in not announcing the Russian interference in name and specifically that Russian interference for Trump. It’s just hard to imagine, you know, what would have happened. Maybe we would have been spared this, maybe not. Yeah, but what was I mean, just the appearance of impropriety or the appearance of partisanship. You know, it was just we were so cautious then about, you know, kind of exerting our privilege as the party that had the Oval Office and seeming to be gentlemanly with the other side. And Obama, I don’t know if you remember this piece in the Atlantic, but was faulted for his absence of neurosis. Yeah. Yeah, you did that. Like, he never thinks someone’s following him. You know, he’s like the you know, and and he wasn’t neurotic at that point either. You know, he I think he wouldn’t have thought, you know, better, but he wouldn’t have thought that McConnell would want to cover up that the Russians were interfering in our election on behalf of one candidate against the other. You’d be questioning his patriotism. You’d be questioning more than his patriotism. Like, you know, maybe he has other interests, you know? Yeah, maybe maybe Rousselle is is already in the works. But anyway, so tell me what you thought in that period.
S4: So this will sound like ass covering, but it’s not. It’s actually answering your questions, which is OK. I was cut out of the that summer from from the DNC hack through kind of September. There was a very small group of people meeting in the White House trying to figure out how to respond to Russian interference. And I was not in it. And I’ll never forget the day that Susan Rice called me in her office and basically laid it all out to me. And it was right as the McConnell thing was breaking down. And the reason I wasn’t in the room, though, is I think there were two reasons that highlight the problem with the response. And the problem with the funds wasn’t that I wasn’t there. It’s the structural issue I’m going to identify. One is the people in the room were cyber people like cybersecurity people and people who understood hacking, you know, and like the Russian experts, not communications people. Right. So the Russian attack was seen as how do we protect the election infrastructure? How do we get to the bottom? This DNC hack who hacked, you know, like Colin Powell’s email and all the stuff and the information war, which was actually more consequential, wasn’t getting attention because structurally it was being viewed as a cyber security issue. Right. I think a secondary reason I was in the room is because I was a guy who, you know, was this villain and they wanted this, you know, since it was totally apolitical and people like me or even Jen Psaki was the White House communications director, Josh Earnest was the press secretary. We’re not in these discussions to kind of keep it out of the communications lane. This is about national security. And this is like the intelligence community’s in this in these rooms and that’s it. And that’s us bending over backwards to adhere to norms that the other side had tossed out. And I think those two things, the the this is a cyber threat and we need to be above reproach on this stuff. Limited what we could do and I frankly don’t know that would have made a difference, because, frankly, if if Barack Obama was going on on about Russian interference all summer, like I you know, knowing our politics, I don’t necessarily think he would have reached like the people that were consuming Russian propaganda.
S1: But maybe if McConnell had, you know, McConnell.
S4: So then. Yeah, then the McConnell thing, you know, after Merrick Garland, like the idea that McConnell had any there was any line he wouldn’t cross was clear to me. But you’re right. I mean, I do there was, I think, genuine surprise among some in the White House said, like, he didn’t sign that statement. And so that by the time it kind of came out, it was. And then nobody wanted to put their name on it. You know, the the intelligence community put it out from then. Yeah, this is tied to something else about Obama. That’s interesting that I think because, you know, I always tell people it’s like I felt like I was working for Jackie Robinson. Right. Like Jackie Robinson had to play baseball perfectly. He had to like he couldn’t take the bait. He was going to be not only a better player than anybody else, but he was going to put his head down and they’re going to heckle him. He’s not going to pay attention. He’s not going to spike. He’s not going to play dirty. Obama went above and beyond, I think. Yeah, it was like Tannishtha Coates had a line that I’m not going to fully remember now, but basically something around like walking a tightrope on ice or something like that. But like Barack Obama was so non scandalous, you know. Yes, I think he he integrated this view that as the first black president, he could not do anything that was anti institutional or that violated norms, you know, and and so he was always the guy who was going to stick to the way that everybody should act. And so he did it by the book on Russia. He did what you are supposed to do, which is separated from politics, briefed to Congress, let the intelligence community take the lead, because that’s how our system is supposed to function. And the challenges when one half of the system have become completely radicalized lunatics who are willing to subjugate the American national interest to Vladimir Putin’s in order to win an election, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, not just Mitch McConnell, all of them, for whatever reasons, they each individually had to do that. Then playing it by the book doesn’t work in that.
S5: That’s the difficulty. I mean, that is brilliantly put. I am so glad to have had you on the show, Ben. It’s like exceeded my greatest expectations for talking to you. And I hope we’ll do this again sometime. Ben Rhodes, thanks again for being here. Thanks for talking. Ben Rhodes is the host of God Save the World on the new podcast Missing America.. He’s also the author of the forthcoming The World as it Is a memoir of the Obama administration. So that’s it for today’s show. What you think if it’s a healthy, robust reading on your podcast app and then come to us on Twitter, come at us on Twitter if you want. I’m at page 88. The show is at real time cast. Our show today was produced by Melissa Kaplan and engineered by Richard Stanislaw. I’m Virginia Heffernan. Thanks for listening to Tramcars.
S1: OK, so McConnell would do anything to stop Merrick Garland, but that’s, you know, that’s the Supreme Court, that’s always going to be a partisan issue. That’s a re-election issue. Those are the central I mean, someone in Kentucky was just telling me, you know, as long as abortion is legal, no one will ever vote for a Democrat or, you know, that the country won’t go for a Democratic president. So that at least I could just say, you know, that’s just like hard line Republican politics. But at the time in 2016, I really did think even when Comey was fired once again, when Mueller was appointed and of course, all through the impeachment or when the Mueller findings were made public, I really thought Republicans would would come to their senses. I didn’t know. And I think, you know, I’m guessing Obama didn’t know the extent of the complicity, the extent of you know, you listen to Adam Schiff, you know, it kind of brilliant speech at the end of the impeachment. And it’s just an appeal to common sense and an appeal to to to like baseline decency. That’s what he does. It’s OK. It’s not OK. You know, it’s you know, and I mean, just you begin with this don’t do stupid shit thing. I mean, who, as you say, who would have thought that was controversial? You would have thought there was pro fascism and anti fascism planned. Yeah. Who would have thought that you could be pro election interference as long as it’s for your guy when it comes from a hostile foreign power by Russia, former Russia hawks. Who would have thought that this would happen? And I sometimes I still can’t believe it. So the fact that you all didn’t apprehend that they had this far gone, uh, Republicans, you know, four years ago, I certainly don’t blame anyone.
S4: I think I did, because and it’s not that I’m like a genius or anything, it’s because I kind of experienced it. So I’d like to be revisited, like the New York Times magazine profile and now because of Benghazi. So this isn’t usually leading with my strength, but, um, and we don’t to relive the whole thing. But basically, you know, the the Benghazi thing, you know, was the whole premise. Right. Is it that we, like, lied and said that there were protests because of video that that escalated into an attack, whether versus it being a premeditated terrorist attack to this day, by the way, I don’t think the answer to that question is clear. The guy who was prosecuted said he was there because of this video. Right. But what is indisputable is at that time and trust me, this is going to answer your question. Hopefully at the time there were protests in every Muslim majority country, certainly in the Middle East, North Africa, because of this dumb video that, you know, basically kind of Skinemax rip off about the Prophet Muhammad and the Republicans. Literally, once they started spinning themselves up about it, started to say that we had literally invented this video, and if you go and look at the kind of online like you would think that the video itself did not exist and that that the Ben Rhodes and Susan Rice and Barack Obama invented the idea of this video to justify this attack, and then conspiracy theories kind of mushroomed off of that. And to me, what was interesting was the first time that objective reality didn’t matter. I mean, I literally had people who were going to Lindsey Graham and saying, hey, you might want to just dial this back a little bit, because, frankly, there was this problem with this video. And in frankly, you want the US to have this robust foreign policy like you’re making as you know, like you’re creating a reality when we can’t even have consulates in dangerous places because there’s such a political cost to the risks that people have there. And I started kind of diving deep into like Breitbart and then to like the online conspiracy world of like just 20, 13 and 14. And what was interesting to me is reality itself did not exist there. Like there was no set of it. It was not a debate about a set of facts. Know it wasn’t. Yeah, yeah. Well, these guys seem to think that there were protests that escalated into a an attack. But actually, we believe that this was a premeditated attack. It was like, no, they they were up to no good in Benghazi. They were, you know, pick your conspiracy. They’re running guns to somebody or what have you. And they therefore had to invent this video to cover for it. And they believe this. And like people like Lindsey Graham were saying stuff like this, this is long before Trump. Right. And I don’t know why they all went so insane. All I can think is that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 after the financial crisis and catastrophic presidency of George Bush was an existential threat to the Republican Party. You know, there’s a 60 seat Democratic majority in the Senate. They just basically crashed the car of the American hedgeman with Iraq and the financial crisis. And if if if objective reality continues to be the the basis on which people make political decisions in this country, they have no capacity to have any power, you know, because all their theories are dead, their limited government, anti government, you know, what have Iraq imperialism, their governing philosophy had collapsed. And so they reconstructed the party on a bunch of conspiracy theories and hatred and nationalism, you know? Yes. And underneath that, they still have the tax cuts and all. But like, yeah, they can’t win an argument rooted in reality, in facts and data, and so that the entire party has to make all politics about something that is totally divorced from reality, you know, and when you do that, you you can end up with Trump, right. Who’s someone who’s literally like entire you know, being is a rejection of the concept that there is objective reality that government has to respond to.
S1: You know, so I’ve written this before and I feel maybe unsuccessfully inspired, but to put my cards on the table, I think that the Weimar, the crisis that happened, you know, Weimar hyperinflation is a crisis with symbols. It’s you know, it’s when when money when currency loses its value. And so the thing you thought was valuable isn’t, I think, the crisis that preceded this and you’ve put your finger on it was the trauma to the brains of some unprepared people of digitization. Yeah, I really think that, you know, I think of I think of it it’s amazing to think that Facebook was barely, you know, embryonic when when Obama first ran and that and that, you know, Mark Zuckerberg four years ago a little bit a little bit less than four years ago said, you know, that it was a crazy idea, that fake news on Facebook had influenced the election. Pretty crazy idea. And then he also added, people vote on their lived experience. As you point out, Benghazi is very far from lived experience. It’s an artifact of message boards and, you know, obsessive forensic scrutiny to videos and then moon landing style, you know, analysis of things that like dissolve it, disintegrate while you’re talking about them and rabbit holes and that are constructed. I mean, really, instead of, you know, build a wall, what Trump has this time around is Kuhnen and, you know, just an absolute fictional universe. But I but I also doubt the power. And I was talking to Dr. Barbara Bollier last night, who’s running for Senate in Kansas and only a few points behind Democrat and. You know, she said the same thing, that we need to reassert facts and I just don’t know when you have a proliferation of things online that there’s you know, facts are not as arousing as some of these stories. And, you know, some people I think Rick Wilson has said, you know, a lot of Republicans didn’t have because they had come out of this whole decency discourse, had no immunity. It’s very interesting to porn. And so, like, they could watch Fox News and the leggy hosts and everything and tell themselves that they were watching the news and get increasingly aroused by the angry men cortisol charged Sean Hannity and the sexy women and just lose track of what reality was. You know, they just they hadn’t inoculated themselves against, you know, it’s nineteen ninety eight. I wrote a story, write a story for Slate and, you know, the fray, the message section. You knew you saw this. If anyone who’s ever read the comments on a YouTube video know that there is just like a total, you know, threads of nutjob, but you could shut it down, you know, the same way Republicans used to tune out fascist tune out David Duke, you know, or or kind of quarantine him, rope him off and you could say, well, YouTube comments, you know, that’s just a thing. That’s just a way that people talk that they don’t vote that way. And then we had it put talk on people’s actual experiences of the world and that, you know, in your careful study of how this happened, studying disinformation online, studying, you know, how Breitbart began to kind of chime with the darker rabbit holes. That’s the kind of thing. And then this video, which is an extremely interesting point. You know, it’s like we had as if we had, you know, four million Zapruder videos, you know, for people to pass forever.
S4: Well, I think you’re right about digitization because, you know, it’s a crisis of meaning. And you had the nation had no purpose after the Cold War for a while. Right. And at the same time that you had the onset of digitization, displacement, the kind of empty late stage capitalism that is displacing people and upending their communities. George Bush comes along after 9/11 and the media offers people the entire national purpose. Is this war on terror? And if you watched Fox News after 9/11, you thought we were going to march into these countries and vanquish these people just like we did the Nazis and the Communists. That was the language used using that, that this is just on par with World War Two and the Cold War. And guess what? We didn’t win those wars. You know, we lost those wars or they ended in a in a quagmire of sorts. And and think of how. And then on top of that, the bottom falls out of the global economy because of basically American your responsibility. And and so talk about a crisis of meaning here that the Republican governing project has the two twin pillars of it have completely collapsed. Right. The kind of imperial foreign policy and the unregulated capitalism. And it’s just wreckage, you know, at the same time that social media sorting people into kind of socially isolated cocoons of information and people can’t hold a job. And and, you know, meanwhile, there’s cheap fentanyl’s getting on the market here. This is a dark, dark place that that that, you know, less well-off white people are finding themselves in, you know, and some they need meaning somewhere and and they’re finding it online and they’re finding it in these rabbit holes and in these conspiracy theories. And because if you can’t tell a story that motivates people positively, then you only do it through hate, you know? So it’s like the meaning that is being offered to you is that you hate the black president or you hate radical Islam or you hate Hillary Clinton or you hate the immigrants at the southern border or you hate antifa. It doesn’t matter. Know, it was a caravan, one of Mexicans, and then it was Antifa. It just dropped. Anybody in there? George Soros, by the way, this is the same shit that Putin does that all these people do. It’s just the kind of late stage capitalist crisis and meaning is just filled with hate. And yes, we as like earnest liberals would like to to to to fill that with data and facts. But you’re right, that’s not enough. You need a store. You need to tell a story that people can identify with. And and I do think there’s something in the explosion around Black Lives Matter.
S1: Yes. That is I’m so glad you said this. Please go on.
S4: Yeah. No, it’s even bigger than Black Lives Matter. And that’s that’s really, really big. It’s this idea that. No, like the meaning I find is that I actually think this is all bullshit and that, yes, that the meaning I want to find in life is ending structural racism, the meaning I want to find in life in America. What’s great about America is that there are people from all over the world here. So it’s about black lives and it’s about immigration, too, to you know, it’s like, yeah, that’s my meaning. My meaning is like I don’t want hate anymore. I’m sick of hate. You know, there was this explosion.
S1: Right. And then you see Derrick, is it Shervin, the you know, the murder of George Floyd, you know, do you really want to be him? You know, do you really want to be him? And I feel like the combination of just seeing George Floyds, you know, neck pressed in this such scary, unnatural way. And we all have throats and windpipes and then with coronavirus, we all have lungs, you know, and just this fundamental idea that I don’t want a boot on my throat, you know, I you know, I nobody wants to boot on the throat. Yeah. And that I identify with George Floyd. I don’t identify with their Jovan. Just simple, simple decision. But that launches a whole set of better stories, you know, of more ennobling stories that, you know, you don’t even need facts. I mean, facts about how many how many unarmed black men are shot is is can be motivating, but nothing is going to be as motivating. This was true in the Vietnam War as pictures. And and I think that that’s right. That the you know, even some of the so-called KARREN videos that are holding a mirror up to certain kinds of entitlement, you know, these are really good. That’s and some of the project Lincoln ads that, you know, tease out some of the worst themes of of the Trump Trump administration, make them moving. You know, I know you you’re you know, when I call up your name on on Google, the first thing that comes up as writer and, you know, as a communications expert, you know, about telling stories and and these are really motivating stories. And, you know, aside from coronavirus, you know, who would have known that you’d get I mean, the same way you got the me two stories all through the Trump presidency and then the Black Lives Matter stories. You know, there is right under the surface or now over the surface an incredible upsurge in progressive movements. And and that’s and that’s inspiring.
S4: That’s hopeful. And, you know, because to me, you’re right. Like, if covid proves the need to govern based on facts, Black Lives Matter offers the story because the feeling I had when that was happening all around me here was like, what a miracle that despite the Trump presidency, despite all of America’s. Just awful missteps the last few decades, never on top of structural racism, that this many people still give a shit about each other, that they’re coming out like this, that’s an incredibly hopeful thing. That’s a story. That’s a good story. That’s a story that what this country is about, people who don’t accept, like the apathy that that they’re they’re the people want them to have that Mitch McConnell wants them to have. Right. That’s a that’s where you build back from. Like you build back from that not not Joe Biden winning an election. You build back from what happened this summer because that’s a story about like what kind of country people want this to be. And yet we’re not going to get there real quick. But the pursuit of that is is worth it. Thanks so much for being here, Ben. Now, it’s fun as a lot of fun.