tv Tavis Smiley PBS January 25, 2017 6:30am-7:01am PST
good evening from los angeles. i'm tavis smiley. so, how do progressives survive the next four years with donald trump as president? what acts of political courage should we demand of democrats and the political left? how do they go about resisting? tonight, a conversation with robert kuttner, co-founder and co-director of the american prospect and a professor at brandeis university. we're glad you've joined us. robert kuttner, in a moment. ♪ ♪
>> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. ♪ can democrats and progressives successfully resist donald trump? and if so, how can democrats beat trump on something early to show that he's not an invulnerable power or is the political left about to get steam-rolled for the next four years? robert kuttner's one of america's best-known, most respected and most outspoken progressives. he is, of course, with the american prospect magazine and teaches at brandeis. he joins us tonight from boston. robert kuttner, good to have you back on this program, sir.
>> thanks so much for having me. thanks for doing what you do. >> thank you, sir. let me jump right in. are progressives about to get steam-rolled for the next four years? >> i don't think so. i think at this point their best ally is donald trump because trump is so impulsive and so crazy that he's making so many mistakes that he's making it easier for democrats. take for example the attack on john lewis. at that point, there were only five or six democrats who were going to boycott the inaugurati inauguration. that blossomed to several dozen. look what he did to undermine his allies, his supposed allies among the republicans in congress on repeal of the affordable care act. he announced that he's for universal coverage. he declared war on the drug companies. so the republicans in congress must be jumping out the nearest window. and because the guy is such a loose cannon, he creates openings for democrats. and for instance, now democrats
can go to republicans -- there are lots of efforts in congressional districts of republicans to go to their town meetings and challenge them. look, your president, donald trump, said he's for universal health insurance. are you for universal health insurance? so, he's such a screwball that he jams his own party, and i think that creates opportunities for democrats. it helps democrats find their voice. >> it's one thing, robert, for democrats, progressives, to wait for him to make a mistake, and to your point, i suspect there will be many of those opportunities, but it's something very different to be proactive, to have your own plan for how you're going to navigate the next four years. what ought the democratic plan, the opposition plan, the progressive plan look like? >> well, i think there are so many opportunities to split the republicans. if you look at the republican party as a whole, trump's inner circle, they hate each other,
you know? they don't get along with each other. bannon and priebus and pence, they don't get along with each other. they're mistrustful of trump's family. trump is at odds with his own cabinet. the trump white house keeps undercutting the republicans in congress. and that creates opportunities for democrats to widen these splits, as in the case of affordable care act. secondly, i think -- and this is organizing 101 -- you want to deny him some victories. if they can block a few of these confirmations, that would set him back. and i think third, trump is already breaking the law. there's a law called the logan act that says that a private citizen cannot try to influence american foreign policy. well, you can influence by xraesi expressing an opinion, but you cannot try to have your own foreign policy.
and trump, very obviously did that. there's a law that says it's a felony for someone in an election to take anything of value from foreigners. sure looks like trump has violated that. and if you go back and look at the impeachment of richard nixon, a lot of what nixon was impeached for was obstruction of justice. now, imagine that you are donald trump's new cia director or donald trump's new irs commissioner, and you know that there's an audit open on donald trump or you know that the cia is continuing its investigation of trump's footsie with putin in ways that will seriously embarrass trump if not show him in illegality. you're caught. so, i think as time progresses, you're going to see more and more examples of outright illegality. and before long, i think there will be some kind of impeachment inquiry, either launched by an
independent panel, which i had suggested, or launched by democrats on the house judiciary committee, and he is doing so many things that are really crazy that he leaves himself open. here's another one -- trump has said that he wants to keep his own private security detail. well, once you become president, the secret service is in charge of protecting you. so can you imagine a kind of gunfire at the white house corral where trump's private security detail shows up and the secret service says we're sorry, but you can't come in with those guns. well, how the heck does that play out? so there are going to be more and more and more of these that i think create opportunities for democrats to demonstrate to the public just how crazy this man is. >> let me go to one of the points you've just made, robert. i had this conversation last week on this program with bloomberg politics' john heilemann about this notion of impeachment. so i hear your point about how the impeachment inquiry could
get off the ground, but for donald trump to be impeached, clearly a lot of republicans would have to vote for that impeachment. so, the inquiry is one thing, but you don't really see donald trump being impeached in the next four years, do you? >> well, here are a couple of scenarios. i mean, first of all, by having a shadow impeachment inquiry, as it were, you put him on notice that he is doing more and more and more things that are grounds for impeachment. secondly, i think as his approval rating keeps going through the floor, you're going to have more and more republicans worrying about their own necks and wanting to create some distance between themselves and president trump. and i think thirdly, even though the senate is not prime territory for the democrats in 2018, the house of representatives is, and the democrats could easily take back the house in 2018, if trump lasts that long, and then you could start a formal impeachment
inquiry. so, i think it serves several constructive purposes, and i don't have a crystal ball. i can't tell you how it's going to play out. but maybe it will give him pause, maybe it will give other republicans pause. >> so, to persons who might be watching right now and would say that robert kuttner sounds a bit like mitch mcconnell in 2008 when barack obama was elected and the first thing that mcconnell did was lay out a plan for how to defeat barack obama at every turn -- for those who would say that you now sound like mcconnell sounded eight years ago, you'd say what? >> well, there's one difference difference. barack obama, whether you disagree with him as a partisan or not, was a figure of great dignity, of great probity, of great respect for the constitution, of great personal uncorruptibility and a person who took the trouble to study
public issues and be very judicious, very measured in the way he went about being president of the united states. so, if mitch mcconnell decided from day one to oppose him and try to destroy him, you could dismiss that as pure partisanship. now, you compare that with donald trump, who is a loose cannon, who is a crackpot, who got elected president through a series of accidents combined with the fact that a lot of angry people have gotten the short end of the stick economically. i say this as a citizen, not as a partisan -- i think there's a world of difference between trying to destroy barack obama in 2008 and being very alarmed for the republic because of donald trump in 2016, 2017. >> i don't know where you stand, robert kuttner, on the electoral
college, but for those who are still trying to figure this out and still beyond depressed about the fact that hillary clinton could win by millions of votes more than donald trump, vis-a-vis the popular vote, that is -- if not now, if not because of this particular outcome, when will we ever get serious about looking at the electoral college? >> i think that's going to take a very long time. i actually think the odds of impeaching donald trump are probably better than the odds of getting rid of the electoral college, because rightly or wrongly -- probably wrongly -- the electoral college protects the interests of small states by giving them disproportionate number of electors. in order to change the electoral college, you're going to have to persuade representatives, political representatives of those states to vote against their own self-interest. and of course, it takes a constitutional amendment, which is particularly hard. so even though i totally agree that the electoral college has
outlived its usefulness, i just don't see that happening any time soon. i think there are a lot of other things that could be done -- money in politics reform, gerrymandering reform that president obama is going to be working on in his post presidency -- that could make politics more accountable, but i think reforming the electoral college is a very, very long shot. >> do you think it is possible over the next two years, certainly four years -- two years, of course, being the midterm elections in 2018, four years, of course, being the presidential election in 2020 -- do you think over that period of time it is possible for democrats to win back some of those trump supporters, some of those trump voters? >> i do. i mean, trump's approval rating now is below 40%, and i think some of those trump supporters are going to have buyer's remorse. and if you think about who voted for trump and why they voted for trump, i think it's a mistake to
assume that everybody who voted for trump was a racist or a hater. i think most people who voted for trump were very frustrated because they've been getting the short end of the stick economically and they saw hillary clinton as more of the same and trump was able to pose as kind of a fake populist and to channel some of that anger. but then a lot of these people who voted for trump because they didn't like hillary or because they wanted to send some kind of a message of disaffection, they start looking at what he's actually doing. he's climbed into bed with vladimir putin. he's appointing more billionaires to the cabinet than anybody else has. he baited hillary clinton for taking speaking fees from goldman sachs and he's gone ahead and appointed two goldman sachs people as his two top economic officials and on and on and on and on. now, there is such a thing as cognitive dissidence, defined as the ability to hold two
contradictory beliefs at the same time, but at some point, trump's behavior starts breaking through cognitive dissidence. and i do think it's possible to win back some trump voters by showing how trump is acting against everyone's self-interest, beginning with social security and medicare and medicaid and the affordable care act, and at some point this starts taking a toll. and even the people who think that, well, trump is a bully, but ha's our bully and he's standing up for us, we've been disrespected all these years -- at some point, that starts turning around. i don't think this was all racism. i mean, you think about the fact that barack obama got a larger percent of the white working-class vote than hillary clinton did. and so, that tells you that when somebody stands up for working people, they're going to get support, and when they don't seem to be doing that, which hillary clinton the last did not seem to be doing, it opens the
door for someone like donald trump. and i also think that the clinton era is over. love it or hate it, it's over. and the next generation of democratic leaders are going to be from the progressive wing of the party. you've got two progressives, actually, three duking it out for head of the democratic national committee. they're all more progressive than hillary clinton was, and that means you're going to have the democrats in the hands of people who are better able to make an appeal to black voters, white voters, hispanic voters, men, women, based on pocketbook frustrations. and that was what elected donald trump. so, that combined with trump's sheer craziness i think does create an opportunity where democrats can win back a lot of these voters. >> don't chuckle at the question before i get it out, but if for no other reason, robert, than
the fact that donald trump wants to be successful, what everyone thinks of his business dealings, he has built a brand that clearly has some value to it. we don't know what that value is because he never will release his tax returns, but he is by a certain set of standards, a certain set of criteria, a successful businessman. so, what if we assume that just based on the sheer fact that he wants to be successful at this venture of being president of the united states, that over the next four years he moderates, he changes his tune, he becomes, pardon the phrase, a kinder, gentler sort of president? you don't see any of that potentially happening over the next four years? [ laughter ] there's the chuckle that i thought was coming. >> no, i deeply believe in redemption. i believe that even a 70-year-old is capable of redemption. i think this man is diagnosably
psychotic, and i think he is really characterilogically incapable of change. i would be very happy if i were proven wrong, but he honestly can't remember what he says from one day to the next. he spouts something off of the top of his head that contradicts something that he said last w k week. and if he starts getting beat up on, his habit is more to lash out at people indiscriminately than it is to rein in his impulses. but you know, never say never if -- >> do i hear you saying you think he lacks the moral -- the intellect -- he lacks the moral or the intellectual servitude to be president? >> well, he has a kind of narcissism combined with a kind
of impulseivity that makes him very, very reckless, and he's also a know-it-all. so, because he has such a short attention span, he doesn't bother to get briefed on what are really, really complicated issues. so, whether you agree with him or disagree with him ideologically, if you can figure out what his ideology is, those personal traits make him very, very, very dangerous. one of the really interesting questions is going to be whether the trump administration is going to engage in what i call situational federalism where you are for states' rights when it comes to suppressing the votes of black voters, but you are for federal preemption when it comes to changing the ground rules so that california can't have its own environmental standards or its own labor standards. and we're going to see that play out. i think the state attorneys general, several of which are democrats, several of whom are democrats, have independent
sources of legal authority. and you're going to see them going after some of trump's illegalities. so i do think there are some fortresses, if you will, some bases of real political and institutional power the democrats can use to fight back. >> it's been clear to me, and i suspect clear to anybody else who has watched any of these confirmation hearings, and even if you didn't watch it, you could have read "the new york times" or any number of other publications that pointed out on a regular basis the disconnect between what donald trump has said consistently over the last year on the campaign trail and what these various nominees have said in their hearings, and it could not be more different. how concerned are you that in the coming months and years that our government will not be speaking with one voice because there is a disconnect between what trump thinks and how he behaves and those who will be in his cabinet?
>> well, i think it's actually good that our government is not going to be speaking with one voice because the republicans in his cabinet are so right wing, and trump is so crazy that if they ever did start speaking with one voice, they would have more power to do really bad things. the fact that trump and his defense secretary nominee, his hhs secretary nominee contradict each other, that's probably good. it's a kind of unintentional separation of powers, if you will, that reins in the ability of these people to do bad things. >> i recall, robert, and i suspect you may have had the same experience -- i mean, i don't know, you tell me -- but i recall when george w. bush was elected president, and i would travel around the globe to various places, and everywhere i went, the minute they discovered that i was an american, i got asked the same question -- how
could you? how did the american people elect this guy, george w. bush president? how did you re-elect this guy? i got asked that question time and time again. i suspect that when i start traveling again around the world, i'm going to get asked, how did you americans elect this donald trump guy? when people start to ask you that question around the globe, not inside the country, but around the world, how are you going to answer that question? >> well, and let me preface that answer by saying compared to donald trump, george w. bush looks like jefferson. so, he's a whole order of magnitude more bizarre and more unqualified than george w. bush. i think you have to look at three things. i think in the shortest term, you have to look at the sheer interference with a democratic election. you have comey, the head of the fbi, not once but twice
impugning hillary clinton. you have putin, of course, interfering with the election. you have the whole trumped-up -- no pun intended -- e-mail mess, and then you have avoidable errors that hillary clinton made that predispose the public not to like her, beginning with the goldman sachs speaking fees, but a lot of other stuff. i mean, if you are going to make an issue of identity politics, and i think to some extent that's the right thing to do, you have to be damn sure that you're also speaking out on behalf of ordinary working people of all races in a fashion that recognizes the fact that they've been getting the short end of the stick for 30 or 40 years, and hillary clinton did not do that. so you've got short-term,
avoidable errors, you've got various evil forces finagling the election, and then you've got a longer-term frustration on the part of working people of all races and national origins that hillary was not in touch with and in some weird, feral way, donald trump was. we were talking about this at our editorial meeting, and bill sprigs, who's on our board -- howard university economist, chief economist for the afl-cio -- said it's a mistake to see this as white working class. it's the whole working class. the working class is 45% non white. and they were not excited about hillary clinton either. so we have to get back, if the democrats are going to prevail, to being a party of work-a-day americans of all races. so i would try to explain to my foreign friends -- i've had this conversation with foreign
friends -- that there is a very short-term reason for why hillary blew the election. there's the fact that the election was fiddled with. and then there's this longer-term harm that has been done to ordinary working people that the centrist clinton wing of the democratic party was just not in touch with that trump had this uncanny ability to connect with. >> how are you personally going to sustain your hope over the next four years? >> you know, it's interesting. i'm glad you asked the question. like every progressive in this country, i went through a period of being shellshocked. i think the democratic party went through a period of being shellshocked. for the past couple of weeks, i have been in a mood to fight. first of all, it's better to fight than just be dazed and confused.
and secondly, we need people to fight back to save our country at the most elementary level to save our country from turning into a dictatorship and to save the world from being blown to bits. in a more philosophical level, we need to take back a decent america that can finish the unfinished business that we've been trying as progressives to accommodate. so, i am very much in the mood to fight back. it energizes me. i'm in the same mood i was when i fought back against the vietnam war as a young man and when i fought against nixon and reagan, and there are times when you just have to do this. so, i think it was a little bit harder to recover that sense because this was such a shock. but i think what you're going to see is more and more progressives, more and more democrats recovering their sense of fight and their sense of strategic coherence. in the beginning phases of a
movement, things are kind of scattered. it doesn't really come together. you saw it with the civil rights movement. you saw it with the antiwar movement. and then it starts to co-here. and i think that's what's going to unfold over the next weeks and months. we at the american prospect hope to be very much a part of that. i personally hope to be part of that. and i won't say i'm feeling good, but i'm feeling energized. >> you are an agitator extraordinaire and have been for many decades. thank you, sir. good to have you back on this program. >> thank you. >> that's our show tonight. goodnight from los angeles. thanks for watching. and as always, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. >> hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time as we take a deep dive into what's grabbing the country's attention. that's next time. see you then. -- captions by vitac -- www.vitac.com
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