He’s playing a losing hand, ultimately
Malcolm Gladwell on Donald Trump, race and journalism
Malcolm Gladwell sees the Trump administration through the eyes of a journalist. It’s going to be interesting: “We’re going to have fun. This is the kind of thing that you live for as a journalist — moments of upheaval and confusion. That’s when people need you the most; and it’s when the field is richest…”
ROBERT McCRUM: Malcolm Gladwell is one of America’s sharpest agents provocateurs, a New Yorker writer and the author of the cult bestsellers Blink and The Tipping Point. Gladwell’s mind is mischievous and omnivorous. Half-Jamaican, he grew up in Canada. He has an outsider’s understanding of, and love for, America and has made a career out of exploring the gap between perception and reality.
In the rewriting of America that comes with every new President, I’m asking five great writers how they will make the transition from Obama to Trump. What does Gladwell make of the all- important race question after Obama, and what is the role of the writer in the age of Trump?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: The issue of the last eight years was that so many writers and intellectuals were in sympathy with Obama and what he stood for, that we kind of lost our tongue; we weren’t needed in a certain sense. When the leader is as thoughtful and as friendly to intellectual values as Obama was, what’s the role of the writer anymore? We’ve nothing to do. And now, all of a sudden, I feel like we’re going to get our voice back and, if nothing else, it’ll be a wild ride.
ROBERT McCRUM: Do you think that there’s something about the way in which the media is operating at the moment in America that abetted the Trump phenomenon?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: No. The general position of the media — that Trump was not the candidate of the majority of Americans — is true. The man got one of the lowest shares of the popular vote in the history of Presidential winners: he might be the least popular President-Elect in American history. So in the broadest sense, the media’s general antipathy towards him, or the media’s reporting that America was not in love with this man, was correct.
RM: But as a journalist and writer, you are faced with some rather difficult choices, I would imagine, in terms of how you respond to this?
MG: Are they difficult? People like me are among the few beneficiaries of all this. We’re going to have fun. This is the kind of thing that you live for as a journalist — moments of upheaval and confusion. That’s when people need you the most; and it’s when the field is richest. I spent my first nine or ten years as a reporter on The Washington Post. I would do anything to have that job back right now. Can you imagine what it’s going to be like to be a reporter at The Washington Post for the next four years? You’re going to have the easiest time ever getting anyone in Washington to talk to you: it’s open season; it’s going to be fantastic. The cultivation of insider sources will never be easier than right now in the incoming Trump administration.
RM: Do you think the American system is — to use Trump’s term — broken?
MG: I don’t think it’s broken. I would… pick up on this idea of the American tendency to rewrite history and phrase it a little bit differently. What strikes me about America is the persistence of these cycles of backlash: what is really significant in America are not the initial attempts at reform, but rather the change that happens inadvertently in response to those. What’s interesting to me about Trump is [this]: what will the backlash to Trump look like? In response to four years of Trump, could we [go on to] have 20 years of Trump backlash in which we try to undo all of the perceived damage that he caused? Think about how long the reaction to Vietnam consumed American foreign policy: the reaction to Vietnam lasted longer than Vietnam.
Vietnam is essentially a war that at its height lasted five, six years, and results in 20 years of reaction. Look at something like gay rights: gay rights tentatively pokes its head above the surface in the ’70s and the country is then consumed for 30 years with a backlash on the part of the religious right, largely fuelled by a fear that gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage, and that their children will be taught that homosexuality is a good thing. The backlash completely dwarfs and consumes the initial attempt at reform, and you don’t see a kind of return to normalcy until five or six years ago.
RM: You’re half-Jamaican. One of the unresolved themes in American life is race; and an important part of Trump’s constituency is angry white males, so in some senses he was the candidate of those who had racial anxieties.
MG: The one interesting thing about race and Trump is that the strategy of Conservatives on race over the last 20 years in American life has been to isolate African Americans; to divide African Americans from all other non-whites, to build a bridge to others, and so to essentially segregate African Americans at the bottom of the pile. This actually parallels the way that society as a whole has treated non-white people; what America has done is welcome Hispanics and other non-white immigrants into the fold, but marginalise African Americans. And the political consequences of doing that are minor, right?
gAfrican Americans actually have nowhere near the political clout that they had in this country 30 years ago. Think about it: all the demographic patterns and political patterns are going against them. If you walked around this country 25 or 30 years ago, you would have found that many large cities had black mayors. No large city has a black mayor today. Chicago had one — doesn’t have one anymore. New York had one — doesn’t have one anymore. LA had one — doesn’t have one anymore. San Francisco had one — doesn’t have one anymore. I could go on: there was a whole pattern in which African Americans in this country wielded significant power — that era is over.
Trump’s mistake is that he has broken up that kind of malicious political strategy with something worse: that is, he has chosen to lump African Americans with Hispanics and he has marginalised both groups. Instead of having whites plus kind-of-whites, he has a whites-only strategy. That’s not a winning strategy: if you’re going to play these kinds of nasty political games, that’s the dumbest way to play it. By choosing to pick on both black people and, for example, Mexican immigrants, he’s played a losing hand ultimately. And you can only do that for so long before you cede vast areas of the country to the Democrats: you can’t keep winning Florida and Texas and all those other states when you have a policy that’s openly antagonistic to Hispanics as well as blacks.
RM: What worries me as somebody who’s admired this country for a long time, and studied it quite closely, is that when you go back to the founding fathers, they founded it, in the Declaration of Independence, with many words, many great ideas drawn from England, from France, from all over: and now we have a President who is essentially using 144 characters in a series of tweets. It’s quite a falling-off, isn’t it?
MG: It is. Although here’s the best case scenario — if you’re someone who’s unwilling to engage in any way with the normal institutions of government, one of two things happen: one is that you create a kind of revolution; the second is that the normal institutions of government govern without you. Were Trump a more dynamic, effective, charismatic, disciplined person, I would fear the former — that he might actually usurp the existing institutions. What I suspect — and this is the best case scenario — is he’s simply too lazy and ill-disciplined to have anything happen, so the tweets don’t really mean anything. You know they’re taking place at two in the morning. They’re the kind of half-baked thoughts that one has at two in the morning. I don’t think they represent any kind of clearly articulated ideology because he doesn’t have a clearly articulated ideology.
Let’s not forget, this is a man who two or three years ago was in public saying how much he loved Hillary Clinton and how he thought the economy was in fine form: [he was] in favour of the anti-abortion [lobby] and in favour of gay rights… but virtually every position he takes now, he didn’t take a couple of years ago. He doesn’t have positions, in other words. So in the absence of any kind of coherent political or personal philosophy, what happens is that the permanent government takes over. My first ten years in America were spent in Washington, much of it covering the city’s bureaucracy (I covered healthcare bureaucracy for The Washington Post); if you spend five minutes dealing with the permanent bureaucracy in Washington, what you discover is that in contradiction to their public image as being kind of hapless and ineffective, these people are the opposite: they are ruthlessly effective. They are way smarter than you. They have been around for many generations. They will get their way. So, for example, Trump has (even before taking office) completely alienated everyone at the CIA? Not just once, but on several occasions now, he has gone out of his way to essentially thumb his nose at the CIA. And if there is one thing you shouldn’t do before taking office, it’s thumb your nose at the CIA.
The CIA is not full of hapless boobies: it’s full of incredibly intelligent people who will find a way to do you in. They literally do have all the secrets. And if they don’t have the secrets, they know someone who has the secrets. A man who has a kind of murky past and who has done all kinds of questionable things all in dark corners of the world — this is the last guy who should be crossing the CIA. This just suggests to me someone who hasn’t the slightest clue what he’s up to. And trust me, we will see the consequences of him antagonising an organisation like that. Let’s just start with leaks: the American intelligence establishment is known for a number of things — chief among them is its ability to selectively release classified information when it is in its own interests to do so. They’re going to very quietly embarrass him every chance they get, to go back to my observation about backlash really being the kind of dominant mode of American political culture.
So does Trump set an example of vulgarity, coarseness and superficiality that others follow; does he lower the bar? Or does the opposite happen: that by finally exposing the kind of emptiness of that kind of politics, does he create a backlash which says it’s time for us to elevate politics once again? I don’t know. The last experience with a true American bully — somebody who was this crass and vulgar — was Joe McCarthy. And the Joe McCarthy experience is incredibly instructive. What happens is that for a number of years everyone goes along with it, and by being so coarse and vulgar and by being willing to go places that no one else will go, he has enormous political success in the short-run. And then what happens? People finally get sick of him. This kind of rhetorical strategy has a very limited lifespan. After a certain point, people long for a return to some kind of dignity. I think of this with those people on the religious right who voted for Trump and who’ve given him a kind of tentative support. And I think it’s important to say that it is tentative. They know he’s not one of them. Their patience for his vulgarity will be limited.
There is only so long that people who have been raised in the genteel culture of the Church will put up someone who is so profoundly other, and that’s what happened with McCarthy. Fundamentally decent people who were willing to put up with that for two, three years finally said you know what, I’m not doing it anymore. That same kind of thing will happen. I think someone’s going to stand up and just say you know what, enough. And my guess is that when that happens, there will be a surprising wave of public support in favour of it.
We’ve edited this transcript to make it flow a little better on the page. Read the whole conversation on the Radio 4 web site.