IN 2016, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi was given a gift without a receipt — covering the campaign trail during one of the United States’s historic peaks of pure lunacy. His latest book, Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus, would have been a raucous good-time chuckle of a read had the ending not ruined the ride. But, alas, Taibbi must continue his dispatches well into 2017 and beyond. Trump is the gift that cannot be returned because he won and he’s still here.
Taibbi, himself, must have thought at some point during the campaign that this book would be, at best, a worthwhile document for future readers to be wary of TV-bred demagogues and learn about how close the United States came to electing a bankruptcy-court-bedeviled businessman whose greatest accomplishment was tweeting his way to the main stage of the Republican National Convention. Then, he kept tweeting and tweeting and suddenly he found himself inside the Oval Office (still tweeting).
At times, this can all be amusing to think about. Insane Clown President is also a funny book, and this conversation with Taibbi was punctuated with bursts of mutual laughter. We know the punch line is Trump, but what was the setup again? What, exactly, are we laughing at? Insane Clown President might not be the book he intended to write, but for anyone looking to get out of the maze we’ve stormed into blindly, Taibbi’s dispatches might prove to be a good map. Sometimes the only way to find your way out of the forest is to turn around and take a good long look at the breadcrumbs.
On a recent afternoon, in New York City, with Trump mere weeks into his presidency, Taibbi talked about comedy, tragedy, and what a journalist’s role might be in a world where the newspaper of record is Facebook and the president is preoccupied with the whereabouts of three million imaginary people that didn’t vote for him (or anyone else).
GREGG LAGAMBINA: While reading Insane Clown President, Donald Trump goes from being a carnival joke, to securing the Republican nomination, to being elected president of the United States. The book is a time capsule, documenting how you reacted to events as things unfolded in real time, but the story ended the same for everyone.
We’re on the other side now. The Trump administration is in the White House. How are you feeling?
MATT TAIBBI: Depressed! [Laughs.] You hate to laugh about it, but to me, this is so much like a Humpty Dumpty story. So many things got broken in the last couple of years, that it’s just going to take an awful lot to get us back to any semblance of normal. Don’t you think? Not to get all serious, but a lot of what the book is about is just how all of these things that we traditionally relied upon to keep the illusion of sanity going — they just crumbled. Trump just steamrolled right through all of them and now we’re just in this space where it’s not even clear if there are even any adults in the White House right now. It’s very bizarre.
In your earlier books, The Divide and The Great Derangement, you lament the massive corruption that plagues our political and legal systems and the near-terminal dysfunction of our government. Is there something good that can emerge from this story of an outsider that “steamrolled” his way into the White House? Don’t we have to break it in order to fix it?
That’s what makes this a comedy, or a tragedy. It’s both, right? On the one hand, it’s this incredible story of an iconoclastic triumph. It’s this person who charges into this fake system and wrecks it. He’s spouting truths in all directions and the people are suddenly immune to all of the evil spells that these oligarchical powers have been casting on them for years and years and years. And that’s all great. It’s all positive that people are finally seeing through all of this crap. But, the perfect anti-ending is that when we have this moment of clarity, we pick exactly the wrong person to replace it all!
It’s all so perfect, from a comedy standpoint. This is exactly what would happen if you were writing, I don’t know, Airplane 6, but it was about the presidency. [Laughs.] This is how it would end! So, you’re right. On the one hand, it’s good news because Trump — on a really perverse level — represents a triumph of democracy and it shows that our system actually works, in a weird way, because not 100 percent of the time will you get a Washington stooge who is bought off. He was the wrong person, but that doesn’t mean that the next time it couldn’t be a better person. There is a way to be hopeful about it.
Many people thought Bernie Sanders was that better person, and many of his disappointed supporters still blame the Democratic establishment for not letting their own populist candidate even get through the primary process. In Insane Clown President, you describe how Democrats misread the current political climate, writing, “It’s exactly the moment when the Democrats should feel free to become a real party of ordinary working people.” Did Trump inadvertently open the door for another Bernie Sanders the next time around — someone who could, for example, vocally support single-payer healthcare without apology — or has the Democratic Party already retreated into its old bad habits?
Oddly enough, as much as I really like Bernie, during the campaign season, I was really reluctant to come out and say, “Hey, the Democrats should support Bernie!” Because, first of all, I didn’t want to be doing that much [in terms of an endorsement] and secondly, there was a part of me — left over from the days I spent covering Dennis Kucinich and people like that — where I felt it was being a little bit disingenuous to say, “I think he has a better chance at winning than Hillary Clinton.” But, by the end of the campaign, I actually believed that to be true, because I had talked to so many people on the Trump side, and if you asked them about the Democrats, invariably you got the same answer: they cannot stand Hillary Clinton. In the eyes of the people who are Trump supporters, she is a notch below Satan. But Bernie Sanders — there are a lot of people among Trump’s supporters who will say things like, “I totally disagree with his politics, but I think he’s honest. I don’t think he’s lying to me. He comes across as real and he’s not ‘one of them.’” It’s as if he hasn’t been podded yet, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you know? [Laughs.] I think Bernie would have done really well. The polls suggest that — not that we should listen to polls anymore, after what happened last year — but it appeared that he would have done well.
It would appear that the fear of socialism still outweighs the fear of authoritarianism. Bernie was saying unconventional things for a mainstream candidate. But on the other side, Trump was completely uncensored and saying whatever came to his mind at the moment he said it. Somehow, he was being treated with more seriousness by his party than that daydreaming socialist on the other side who was given no chance. Do we actually want “freedom,” or do we all secretly just want to be told what to do?
Well, I think it’s a universal human thing: when people are really upset and struggling, they just want somebody to tell them, “I’m going to take care of it.” You don’t see that as much in healthy societies, but certainly, when the chips are down, that’s what happens. I remember being in Russia in the 1990s. At first, everybody was pretty gung ho about the [Boris] Yeltsin situation. Even though they thought Yeltsin was comical and a drunk and probably 90 percent dead, if not all the way dead, and he was a national joke. But, by the end of his reign, people were really impatient and they were really looking for somebody like Putin, who stood up there and made no bones about it. He was what they call a gebeshnik — he was a former KGB guy and he was what they call a “strong hand.” He was going to put everything right. People were tired. They were so exhausted from having to struggle to eat that they just wanted somebody to do whatever it took to make it better. Trump offered people that route. He just came right out and said it: “I’m going to fix it.” And, they believed him. Bernie didn’t say that, exactly. Bernie said, “We’re going to give you free college — the government’s going to do a lot of things for you.” But he never said, “I, Bernie Sanders, am going to wave my magic wand and things are going to be awesome.” So, there was that — and the fact that he just wasn’t as dynamic a TV performer, and that’s why he didn’t get as much free coverage.
He also forgot an important rule: you have to tell voters that they might die if they don’t vote for you.
[Laughs.] Right! Exactly. That’s true. If you’re really serious about winning the presidency, you have to go there at least once!
In the book, it was encouraging to see you mention, “…Wall Street and Silicon Valley and Big Pharma…” all in the same breath. Let’s take the middle term: the internet, however we might define it, still hasn’t taken enough of its share of the blame for the circus of 2016, as you call it. Once upon a time, the internet was a dream where everyone would have the world’s information at their fingertips and could chat with someone halfway across the world. Instead, we’re all misinformed and live inside our own self-made virtual silos. Beyond having a commander-in-chief who tweets more than a teenager, how much did online culture play a role in delivering Trump his victory?
This election pretty clearly demonstrated that the “mainstream media” is really a secondary character in how we inform ourselves now. The media landscape is dominated by Facebook and social media. That’s how people get their news. And they also get news from each other, from bastardized versions of legacy media reports. They get their news from fake news. They get their news from conversations about news, snippets of things, memes. Donald Trump was brilliant, as an innovator, in grasping that in the internet age, the most important thing is to be trending. Whether it was negative or positive news, he used the internet to make himself a physically larger and more impactful person. He grasped what celebrity means in the internet age. You just have to be all over the place at once. I think what happened, when he did that, is that by the time he was appearing on television during the debates, next to all of these other idiots like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and Jim Gilmore. Actually, Gilmore never even got on the stage with Trump [Laughs.]. But they just looked like mannequins next to Trump. His celebrity was so huge, he might as well have been 50 feet tall next to those people. That signaled to the audience that these other people on stage are inconsequential and not worth voting for. So, even though a lot of the attention was negative, it just built him up to a degree that was amazing. And he’s tapped into the fact that nobody really watches MSNBC anymore. I think the networks are totally clueless about how un-influential they are now. They’re like a set piece: it’s performance art for a very narrow slice of the United States. They’re not aware of how little they matter anymore. And how little people like me matter, too, to be honest.
So what is your game plan over the next few years? You’re the sworn enemy: you’re “the media.” You can even imagine someone in the comments of this very interview saying, “How can you believe him? He writes for Rolling Stone. They lie!” You just said about yourself that you might not even matter. So, how does a journalist cover a guy like Trump?
Well, this is going to sound super pretentious, but I’m a 100 percent purist about how the media is supposed to work. I think our job is just to respond organically to things that we think are interesting, report them, be accurate about it — even if we’re giving an opinion while we’re describing it. We just have to try and get it right. And, then, the way Jefferson and Madison and all those people had it laid out, was that if enough people were doing that, then somehow it would all be better in the end. It’s not my job to push people in one direction or another. My job is just to do this job. I try not to even think about what my role is beyond that: my role is the same as it’s always been. All of our roles are the same. But this gets back to what we were talking about before, which is that we have to find a way to recapture the trust of people. Believe it or not, I actually have some readers among Trump supporters — some of them are anti–Wall Street people because of journalists like me. Trump ended up manipulating the reporting of people like me and making an anti-establishment case because of journalists like myself and lots of others.
Not too many people seemed to get the point of your “Something About This Russia Story Stinks” piece.
[Laughs.] No, of course not. And people are always going to just take what they want to take from anybody’s reporting. You just have to hope that people will, eventually, notice that you’re trying to be careful about it. I’m really, really worried about what’s happened with people that do [journalism] for a living, because Trump has radicalized everybody. We’re all thinking that we have to change how we do things, whereas the real problem is that we lost our audience and we have to get it back. That’s the problem.
In the book, once you’ve realized the Trump candidacy had outlived the joke phase, you write, “There’s no map in the Constitution to tell us how to get out of where we’re going. All we can do now is hold on.” Since the election, the protests and the marches and the direct action — constituents organizing to call and pressure their representatives, for example — appear to be having an effect. Can’t we do a lot more than just hold on?
Sure. But the particular situation that we’re in right now is unprecedented — the Founders never imagined the internet. They never imagined huge numbers of people not having faith that the election results were real. They never thought about fake news. They never really thought about foreign interference, or hacking. We’re facing a lot of challenges right now that are Space Age, 21st-century challenges that nobody could have foreseen a couple of hundred years ago. It’s a totally new thing. And, also, we’re dealing with people who are in the White House who have a totally different attitude toward what their job is compared to what the Founders intended. The Founders never imagined that somebody would have run for president as a publicity stunt, never thinking they were going to win, and then actually winning. You know what I mean? If you read the Jefferson-Madison letters, they obviously thought about how to keep tyrants out of office, but they never thought about stupidity as a revolutionary force overwhelming the country. I have no idea how any of this gets sorted out. I mean, we have a president who is sitting up there and he has nobody who has enough influence over him to tell him not to tweet about Meryl Streep? Think about how crazy that is! The president used to be surrounded by six people at all times before they even made a hint of a public statement about anything. Now, it’s just total chaos in there and it doesn’t seem like there’s anybody in the White House that has the faintest clue as to what they’re doing. I don’t know, but it’s going to be crazy to watch.
Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus — when I see them huddled around their party’s new leader and they are all smiling, why do I get the odd sense that they are the next people he might choose to destroy?
So, that isn’t a weird thing to think about?
Because he used the Republican Party as a host to get in through the front door. He’s not a Republican.
Right. Have you ever read Gulag Archipelago? As soon as the civil war [in Russia, from 1917 to 1922] was over and Lenin consolidated power, the first thing he did was he went back and he wiped out all of the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks — all of the people who, though originally his enemies, had allied with him. They were the people he worried about the most — the ones who pretended to be his buddy and they were the ones who were lined up against the wall earliest in that whole purging episode that lasted 30 years in Russian history. I think Trump does have some authoritarian instincts and they’re actually pretty solid for authoritarian instincts. [Laughs.]
Was that a compliment?
Yeah, I guess so. [Laughs.] I mean, apart from his reality show talent, he definitely knows which people should be distrusted. And clearly, the Republicans who abandoned him after the “pussy” episode and who never wanted him to be president in the first place, and, for instance, who were probably behind hiring the guy who did that golden shower dossier — he’s going to find a nice logging camp for them to spend the next four years. Even if it’s just a metaphor, they’ll be gone somehow, if he manages to consolidate power. So, yes, I think you’re right about that.
What does the next election look like now that the process has effectively been broken? As you mention in the book, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was actually using expensive advanced technology to measure people’s feelings, while her opponent was basically winging it. And he won. What happens next time? Trump rewrote the playbook for both parties. Will Democratic Party elites maybe start listening to voters instead of just pandering to them?
Well, that would be the logical conclusion, if you’re just sitting down and soberly looking at what happened. Theoretically, if you’re a Democrat and you look at the results from the last year, how could you not come to the conclusion that the next generation of Democratic voters is very concrete about what it wants? And it just so happens that a lot of the things people like Sanders were proposing, would also — theoretically — be very attractive to Trump voters. Sanders and Trump crossed over a lot. They talked about a lot of the same things. Sanders, in a way, sounded a lot of nationalist themes. For example, he thinks the person who is elected president should be more worried about the economic future of somebody in Wisconsin than about poor people in China. That’s a revolutionary concept in the post-NAFTA era. The new economic hegemony is that we should be lifting all boats everywhere, that’s what globalism is going to do, and the Sanders view doesn’t hold with that. He still believes that we’re a country and that we should take care of our own and I think those themes would resonate with ordinary people, even if they hate the socialist aspect of it. And I’m not a socialist myself. I just think the overwhelming support that he got was with young people, and mixed in with that is the fact that people are just tired of a government that doesn’t give them anything and promises them these 14-point plans that are going to pay off 20 years from now. I think listening would be really successful; that would be the logical thing to do. That means, of course, that it’s not going to happen. What they’re going to do instead is try to do something that looks like that, but is the opposite — a hired mannequin for the same financial interests that have always run the party. If they were smart, they would do the other thing. Don’t you think?
Well, sure, but I thought you were headed toward a hopeful place to end on and then you managed to steer us right back into the doom.
[Laughs.] I’m sorry! This is such a Murphy’s Law situation. When everything that could conceivably go wrong goes wrong, there’s no way to look at it and say, “The obvious solution is that they should start being a populist force on their own.” Of course they won’t do that. They’ve already decided not to do that. They’re still blaming it all on Russia and James Comey.
[Note: Writing about Trump is like trying to photograph a shanked golf ball. Once you think you have the subject in focus, it flies out of frame again. Our conversation was wrapped up after the previous exchange, but then the story about Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn broke, quickly followed by Flynn’s resignation. It only seemed appropriate to reach out to Mr. Taibbi again to see if he would prefer to end on a different note, especially with the renewed interest in the Trump–Putin connection. That recent email question and answer appears below.]
It has been many weeks since you published “Something About This Russia Story Stinks” in Rolling Stone. Considering recent events, is the smell still the same, or have you picked up any new, interesting odors?
I remain very skeptical of these news stories whose sources are almost entirely unnamed and from intelligence services. The meaning of them is absolutely unclear still. The bombshell New York Times piece on this subject reports that “current and former American officials” say conversations were intercepted as part of investigations whose aim was to determine if cooperation or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia had occurred. The third paragraph of that very story says they found no evidence of that collusion. So what are we talking about? What does contact with Russian intelligence officials mean? I’ve had contact with Russian intelligence officials, many times, as part of my normal reporting work (I’ve even called some of those agencies for comment!) and I’m surely not a traitor. Virtually everyone who has done any kind of high-level business or reporting in Russia has had contact with intelligence agencies, whether they knew it or not. In the extant case, was it knowing or unknowing contact? What are we talking about? Here’s the thing: If this conduct really was treasonous — and I don’t rule out that it was — why didn’t the agencies act in real time? Why aren’t they acting now? Why is this being litigated in the media? I think this is a very dangerous story for reporters. Please understand that I am not saying I don’t find it possible that collusion or compromise of Trump occurred. But the Flynn episode aside, it still feels long on insinuation and short on detail. It could equally be treason on Trump’s part, or meddling in domestic politics by our intelligence agencies. I’m scared of both possibilities.