TAN (New York) — In a wide-ranging discussion, Matt Taibbi and Paul Jay discuss why the Democratic Party is losing large sections of the working class, and how politics has become a religion.
Paul Jay: Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. As I wrote recently, Trump may be a buffoon, but the forces behind him are serious. Trump may be gone, at least for now, but many developments are driving a section of the American elites towards a more overtly coercive and racist state. This section of the elite has been ascendant because “liberal American capitalism” is out of solutions. Had it not been for the pandemic, Trump would likely be headed back to the White House. In spite of his criminal mishandling of the pandemic, he still received 70 million votes. Obama’s economic policies favored Wall Street and produced greater income inequality. Desperation and frustration created conditions for strengthening fascist and racist ideas in segments of the working class and rural poor. It tilled the soil for Trump. People, especially in rural America, have lost faith in traditional post-war American institutions, and evangelical and conservative religions are gaining strength. At least 60 percent of the Trump vote came from very religious people. These people have lost their ideological moorings, as have people in most of the country, and demagogues from the right, from Trump to Tucker Carlson, are staking out the anti-elitist position. I think if progressives don’t learn how to talk to people of religious faith, they can’t win this battle. The oligarchy is aghast at the success of the Sanders campaign and the wave of progressives elected to office. They fear increasing public support for socialized solutions like Medicare For All, publicly owned banks, community control of police, and a growing consciousness that some form of socialism is a viable alternative. If Biden continues Clinton/Obama-era pro-banker economic policies, he will set the table for a more dangerous version of Trump in 2024 or maybe Trump himself all over again. The climate crisis makes all this even more urgent. We don’t have time for compromise and reach-across-the-aisle solutions. I said, vote for Biden without illusions, because it would be a better field of battle for progressive forces. Well, the next phase of the battle has begun. Now joining us is Matt Taibbi. Matt’s an award-winning investigative reporter, the son of a television reporter and a lawyer. Taibbi grew up admiring Russian writers, which led him to spend most of his early adult life in the former Soviet Union. Taibbi returned to the US in 2002 and soon began work as a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. At Rolling Stone. Taibbi won the National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary, and he’s best known for his coverage of four presidential election campaigns, the 2008 financial crisis, and the criminal justice system. He’s written eight books, including four New York Times bestsellers: The Great Derangement, Griftopia, The Divide, and Insane Clown President. His book, I Can’t Breathe, about the police killing of Eric Garner, was named one of the year’s ten best books by the Washington Post. Thanks for joining us.
Matt Taibbi: Thanks for having me.
Paul Jay: So, I want to dig into the article you wrote recently about, you know, just which party is going to at least call itself the working-class party. I don’t think the Democratic Party ever was actually the working-class party, but a lot of people thought it was. But where are you today? Biden is now essentially going to be president. He’s had his speech where he’s announced that Trump hasn’t given up, but even much of the Republican Party seems to be bailing on him here. So just as of today, how are you feeling about this? And then we’ll kind of dig more into your article.
Matt Taibbi: I think this is a dangerous moment for the Democrats because I think they’re going to take Biden’s victory as a validation of all of their strategy for the last two election cycles, whereas, in fact, you know, it’s really been disastrous. They lost to Trump in 2016, kind of inexplicably, and they nearly lost to him this time. And they suffered losses in the House, and they didn’t win the Senate. You know, the Democrats have become essentially an upper-class, cosmopolitan party. People outside the cities just don’t vote Democratic. It’s a party of people who are college-educated and have professional jobs. People who are more working-class and rural, even though they may not have the class sensibility, they are much more much more likely to fall into the Trump camp. So, I think it’s a starkly divided electorate where at this point you can almost tell who’s going to vote for which candidate based on where you are in the country, and you know what that person’s background is. And that I think that’s a troubling sign for the Democrats, because I think they don’t realize it. But I think they’ve lost working-class people.
Paul Jay: Well, they certainly lost rural working-class people.
Matt Taibbi: Yes.
Paul Jay: The urban working class, I think still votes for the Democrats, although I would say in this election, the urban working class voted against Trump. I don’t know how much they voted for Biden.
Matt Taibbi: Right, but even there, there was some slippage. That’s the thing that’s ominous for the Democrats.
Paul Jay: Now, they’re in this precarious position, corporate Democrats. I think both parties depend on finance and activist billionaires. So much of the Trump vote is religious that he doesn’t have to actually deliver on the economic promises. He just has to deliver on the core religious-value promises, and they forgive him for not delivering on the economic stuff, whereas the urban workers actually want something and they’re getting disillusioned. So, in fact, much more of the urban [working-class] populations turned to Sanders in the primary. And the corporate Democrats are in some ways between a rock and a hard place: like, [if we] piss off finance, [then] Sanders gains in strength, Trumpist forces gain in strength. But they don’t have a choice other than to rely on finance because that’s who they are.
Matt Taibbi: Right. The strategy that was open to them was to embrace some version of whatever Bernie Sanders was doing. And if they had done that—and if they had done that using all of the PR skill that they’ve shown over the years in marketing people like Barack Obama—I think they would have won in a walk. You know, if they’d had some kind of a message that was actually designed for kind of the “employee class” of voter. But they didn’t do that. They went in the other direction. And they actively suppressed both Sanders and the kind of facsimile of Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, who I think ran as a bridge between the two types of Democrat. And so, they ended up having to basically run on the same platform that they ran on in 2016. And they got over the line basically because of the pandemic. You know, I mean, I think they didn’t win for any [other] reason. They did have a good turnout effort. And the logistical accomplishment was significant. But politically, they didn’t make any changes. So, yeah, they navigated a thoroughfare between Sanders and Trump successfully to get to the other side. And I guess they’re probably happy with that. But I think it portends poorly for their future.
Paul Jay: Yeah, I agree with that. But they had a problem with Warren, who was the obvious bridge candidate, as you’re saying. As much as the Sanders crowd got angry at Warren for not backing Sanders, they would have come around to Warren and more enthusiastically than they eventually did with Biden. But I talked to some people that know the Wall Street people pretty well, and I know you’ve covered that beat a lot. And the wealth tax was just a killer. I actually sat with Tom Ferguson, who does a lot of money in politics research, and I asked him once, “Would finance rather go with a kind of fascism that Trump’s heading towards or would they put up with a Warren?” And his answer was, “As long as the wealth tax is on the table, they’ll go with fascism.” And maybe it actually was a tactical mistake of hers. Maybe the wealth tax—it’s just not the time to do that, given how strong the rightwing forces are.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, but you have to run with some kind of plan like that, otherwise it doesn’t have any legitimacy as a working-party platform. What you’re describing with the reaction when people are asked, would they prefer Warren or Trump?—most of the people I talk to on Wall Street, they see Trump as basically a clown who is incapable of implementing any kind of real political strategy except for the things that maybe the Beltway insiders already want like the massive tax giveaway that he gave in 2017 and 2018. So, I think it’s obvious that they would have preferred Trump over a Warren because they didn’t they didn’t see Trump as a terribly dangerous figure. He gave them everything they wanted in the pandemic bailout and his tax policy and military spending. And, yeah, Warren’s wealth tax was a problem because there was no way to loophole your way out of it. That was the whole point of the proposal. It was designed to make sure that companies just paid taxes on what they actually earned as opposed to what they reported or where they reported it. And, yeah, maybe that was a mistake, tactically, but, you know, what are you going to do?
Paul Jay: No, I’m not talking about the corporate tax increase. I’m talking about a tax on individuals.
Matt Taibbi: Oh, yeah. Yes, right. But it was the same concept.
Paul Jay: I mean, it’s another conversation in some ways. I thought she should have pushed the estate tax because it’s a more acceptable way to get at a wealth tax than a straight wealth tax. I think sometimes many of us forget that we’re living in the heart of the empire. We’ve got to be realistic about what’s possible here. The forces of the right, the extent of the strength of financialization, the power of finance, including being able to just make up money from the Fed and throw it at a problem when you need to… I guess, to put it another way, the people’s movement just isn’t strong enough right now to deal especially with the threat of climate with such a narrow window. There’s got to be some maneuvering here or there’s not going to be any kind of legislation passed on climate that’s going to be effective. Not that I have any great faith in Biden. Quite the opposite.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, the only thing I would say is that if the Democratic Party actually decided they wanted to be that kind of party and threw all their institutional weight behind trying to make that happen, then I think they would have had a decent chance of getting something done because they would they would have had all the votes. Not all the votes: they would have had so much popular support, or so much more than they have now, that it would have been possible. The problem that we have right now is that the country is essentially divided into three groups. We have the Trump coalition, which is the right-populist, evangelical group. Then there’s a massive, massive section of people who are just disinterested, don’t vote and disillusioned. And then there’s a group of people who vote Democratic who I think increasingly belong to a disaffected and undermanned professional class. There just aren’t enough of those people, ultimately, to become a permanent majority in the United States. So, unless they find a way to dig into that group of people who have stopped voting, they’re always going to be kind of behind the eight-ball electorally, I think.
Paul Jay: Yeah, and they’re not going to get handed a pandemic every time.
Matt Taibbi: Right.
Paul Jay: There’s no reason—ideologically, politically—that Trump couldn’t have actually dealt with the pandemic. It wouldn’t have hurt him in any way with his base. He could have said, “Wear masks.” Nobody would have cared about it. He’s a lunatic.
Matt Taibbi: Right.
Paul Jay: He just got 70 million votes.
Matt Taibbi: If he were just slightly less insane, he would have won the election and probably going away, he would have won it. Like, if he had if he had handled things with the sophistication of, like, a 13-year-old, he would have been fine. Yeah.
Paul Jay: [Laughing.] But that’s a real scary proposition because every other part of his presidency was also a disaster, starting with climate first and foremost, Iran, and go on department by department by department, unraveling every kind of social safety net and issues of carbon emission and so on and so on. A complete disaster. And I think you’re right, he would have won the election. We once interviewed this guy in a diner outside of Baltimore, a white guy in a white area in one of the suburbs. And he said, “I think Trump is insane. I think he’s a liar. I think he’s a con man. And I voted for him anyway. What does that tell you about what I think of the other guys?” Anyway, do you see any hope that the Biden—here’s my Hail Mary about Biden; my naivete, Hail Mary. He doesn’t have to worry about running again. He doesn’t have to worry about a post-presidency career. He’s old enough that he could break his own mold. You think there’s any chance he’ll listen to the progressives? And I guess we’re going to find out pretty soon about who he appoints [to the cabinet].
Matt Taibbi: Oh, there’s no way that he goes that way. Biden is a creature of the Beltway. He always has been. His personal leanings, I think, politically are probably far more conservative than he lets on. He has a persona that has been carefully crafted over the years that accentuates this idea that he’s from the working class, that he’s “Scranton Joe,” and he has that hardscrabble background. But really, if you go back and look at what he actually believes in, the things that he seems to feel most strongly about are things like very draconian criminal justice plans, free trade, and he was by Barack Obama’s side through the very aggressive “democracy-promotion” foreign policy that Obama promoted all those years with drone assassination and all of that stuff. So, I don’t I don’t have any faith that they’re going to do that. Plus, there’s already all these trial-balloon stories in the American press talking about how Biden, you know, has to resist the Warren/Sanders wing call for appointments in Treasury and places like that, which to me suggests that they’re already gearing people up for the idea that they’re going to be a whole bunch of Jamie Dimon-types in government. Maybe it won’t be exactly Jamie Dimon, but it’ll be people like that.
Paul Jay: Every rational part of my brain says you’re right. [Laughter.] I guess I’m just working backwards from climate catastrophe and hoping that some rationality will [take hold]. Because if you look at his current climate plan… Like, I interviewed Bob Pollin, the economist. We went through Biden’s climate plan that’s on his website. And phasing out fossil fuel actually isn’t really part of what he says is the climate plan. I know he kind of got off-message and said that at the last debate, and then backed out of it saying it would take decades. But it’s all based on carbon capture, his real plan, which is a totally unproven technology. On the other hand, there does at least seem to be some recognition of how serious the climate crisis is, by Biden and even some of those circles in finance. Chuck Schumer said something interesting the morning of November 3rd. It didn’t get much coverage because it got lost in how well, at the time on November 3rd, Trump was doing and everybody went into shock. But the morning of the 3rd, when the Democrats were assuming it was going to be a cakewalk, Schumer says, “We’re going to we’re going to do what FDR did in his first 100 days. We’re going to be as progressive as FDR.” Something like that—coming from Schumer. And I think what it means is that they think they can have a massive infrastructure program, label it as “green,” and it becomes a tremendous cash cow because it’s not just about how much money you spend, it’s, what do you spend it on and who reaps the benefit of all that spending. And maybe that’s part of what the stock markets are so happy about right now. Because even with the Republicans, if finance really likes the package, then all they need is a few Republicans in the Senate to come on board with it. It’s going to look FDR-ish, but whether it actually does anything effective will be the fight. Now, at least there’s a fight about what’s effective. Under Trump, you don’t even have that discussion.
Matt Taibbi: It’s possible. I’m very, very skeptical that that would be the reality given that they spent the entire 2019/2020 electoral season pouring every ounce of political capital they had into suppressing a candidate who had basically, exactly FDR’s politics in Bernie Sanders. I mean, he is a person who literally campaigned on returning to the New Deal, and they threw everything they had into making sure that that there wouldn’t be any kind of return to the New Deal. Bernie Sanders ran on that explicitly, and they expended every ounce of political capital they had in crushing him. I don’t think that this party believes in that kind of politics. I think they are a—you know, it’s the Clintonian model of politics, which is very much in sync with Wall Street. So, maybe there’s something like what you’re saying, where it’s a financialized kind of Green New Deal.
Paul Jay: Yeah.
Matt Taibbi: Maybe something like that, where there’s a ton of Fed spending for a handful of companies that are creating a basket of securities that you invest into that ostensibly would address the problem. But I am extremely skeptical that they care at all about the end result. So, you know, I apologize for being a downer, but I’ve never seen any evidence that this party cares about that.
Paul Jay: Well, the party is complicated because they’ve got an urban base that does want action on climate and they are fairly educated.
Matt Taibbi: Oh, I don’t mean the people [i.e., the voters who are Democratic].
Paul Jay: No, no. But I mean, they have to worry about that. The Republican base doesn’t care very much about it. But the Democratic Party as a party, if they want to win another election and if they don’t want to strengthen the Sanders wing, they can’t do nothing. So, just from pure electoral self-interest, they have different interests that will drive them in that direction. Finance, I think, sees an opportunity here, and not only an opportunity. You know, I interview Larry Wilkerson a lot and he’s in touch with a lot of fossil fuel people. They know that this is coming. I mean, they don’t have any doubt that the climate science is for real. They just want twenty, twenty-five years to get more fossil fuel out of the ground before anything serious happens.
Matt Taibbi: Right.
Paul Jay: But even this guy, Larry Fink, who runs BlackRock, has been paying a lot of lip service to the issue of getting off coal and some climate stuff. I mean, what he proposed is not serious, but there’s a recognition in the people that are putting money into the BlackRock investment fund that there’s some serious stuff coming down that might even threaten their assets. But there’s nothing that will get done that they won’t try to find a way to make money out of. And that’s going to be more important to them than what the most effective policy is. I just want to just add: the biggest threat of Bernie Sanders, I think, wasn’t any of his policy proposals because there wasn’t a policy proposal of Bernie that doesn’t already exist in Europe and Canada and places like that. They’re not capitalist-threatening proposals. I think the biggest threat of Sanders is that he wasn’t in the control of Wall Street. He found a way to raise money without finance and that they can’t live with.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, exactly. One of the most underreported stories of the last election cycle was Sanders was the leading fundraiser. You know, by January of 2020, he was outraising everybody in the party by a pretty significant margin. None of that money was big corporate money. So, there was a big proof of concept there, which—and I think you’re right—was what made Sanders uniquely dangerous to the Democratic Party. It threatens what their business model is. Remember, they’re essentially a commercial organization, and if they allow somebody like Bernie to become the nominee, they would be eliminating thousands of cushy sinecures for all the people who’d been working for the party for years in Washington. They’d have to bring in a whole new group of people who don’t believe in what they believe in, which is taking corporate money and pretending to be socially progressive. That’s what they do. And, you know, Bernie proved that you can be a competitive politician without the money. And that’s when I think they became particularly hostile to him: precisely at that moment when he started to pull ahead and he was raising all the money.
Paul Jay: Yeah, I agree that these parties and the whole political structure didn’t have internet fundraising in mind when it was created. It’s really threatened their control of politics.
Matt Taibbi: And just as a parenthetical: I covered Howard Dean when he first ran for president. Dean actually did something very similar. He had an early fundraising lead in 2004 all through internet-generated small contributions. And that’s when all the think tanks, the big news media organizations—that’s when they all turned on him. And it wasn’t because he was a big bomb-throwing liberal, although he was anti-war. That [i.e., the independent fundraising threat] was the reason. That was what engendered all the hostility was the financial independence.
Paul Jay: Yeah, because this “democracy” has some built-In controls. One is the Electoral College, the other is the Senate, and most important is who controls the money. If you break the money control, all of a sudden it actually might start looking democratic. And it wasn’t designed for that.
Matt Taibbi: Right. And then there’s the media after that.
Paul Jay: Yeah, let’s talk about that. What the hell is going to be the new business model for CNN and MSNBC? I mean, the whole business model was anti-Trump.
Matt Taibbi: I’ve written so much about this in the last four years. These companies have transformed themselves. They’re so far from what the traditional conception of what a news organization is that they’re basically unrecognizable at this point. They created a programming slate that was really based around the character of Donald Trump. Without him as a constant to react to, I have no idea what they’re going to do because the rest of their programming is virtually indistinguishable from the stuff you would read on the Democratic National Committee website, for instance, in press releases section. There is no other independent thought that goes on in most of these news organizations. It’s been amazing to watch. I have no idea what they’re going to do. I think that they almost have to hope that Trump has this big domestic presence somewhere, like, maybe through a news network or something like that.
Paul Jay: Well, he probably will. He’s already started his fight with Fox.
Matt Taibbi: Right.
Paul Jay: And they with him with Fox calling Arizona before anyone else did.
Matt Taibbi: Right.
Paul Jay: And actually, I’ve been watching Fox more than MSNBC—
Matt Taibbi: Me, too.
Paul Jay: –and CNN because I know what they’re going to say. At least you get the odd surprise on Fox.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, wasn’t that amazing? There was stuff on Fox during the election—they had people on who were supposed to be the experts in the Latino vote and were saying things like, “Yeah, he won a lot of Cuban voters, but, you know, he really let down Puerto Ricans and that’s why he didn’t do well.” Or you had Mike Huckabee on saying things like, “There’s a time to be a candidate and a time to be president, and the time to be candidate is over, and Trump has to recognize this and he has to stop talking about, you know, not counting votes anymore,” and that sort of thing. Fox looked more like the heterodox, challenging news network—for a moment there—than the traditional CNN and MSNBC channels, which, are basically blue propaganda at this point. So, it was amazing to watch.
Paul Jay: Yeah, I mean, maybe it’s partly the influence of Chris Wallace, who also as an interviewer, I find far more interesting than anyone else on Sunday mornings.
Matt Taibbi: Absolutely.
Paul Jay: He gives his subjects a hard time. He actually acts like a journalist. I agree with that. But I think it’s partly positioning. Fox knows that there’s a Trump media empire competition coming with Fox. So, they’re getting ready to trash him. And also, the news side of Fox was more reasonable. The pundits weren’t around that much the night of November 3rd.
Matt Taibbi: No, but at least there is a news side. See, that’s what’s so interesting.
Paul Jay: I mean, normally the news side [of Fox] has been awful. But now all of a sudden—I agree with that—they sounded like news all of a sudden.
Matt Taibbi: Right. Right. Whereas, you know, the other axis—the CNN, MSNBC, Washington Post, New York Times axis—has been moving in a direction where the news is just increasingly politicized. And it’s been an amazing transformation. I don’t know I don’t know what they’re going to do in terms of going forward now that the, you know, the great dragon has been slain.
Paul Jay: One of the things that surprised me about this vote, which shows that I bought into, I don’t know, polling or whatever it was. I always thought that Hillary could have and should have won that election, and she didn’t because she didn’t campaign in the swing states. Well, now it turns out that Biden, who did campaign in key swing states—and yeah, he won, but won in Michigan by 140,000 votes. I mean, after four years of Trump, it shouldn’t have been close. One hundred and forty thousand votes is still close. So, the 70 million votes that Trump gets, it’s a real solid base. And I think what the corporate Dems either don’t care about or don’t know to do is: they don’t know how to get [the opportunity] to communicate. I’m not talking messaging here. That’s another issue. They actually don’t have a distribution channel to get to those 70 million people because those 70 million people don’t watch CNN, MSNBC, they don’t read The Post, they don’t read The Times. They either watch Fox — and even Fox is overrated. Tucker Carlson does an average of I think it’s 4.4 million, which is great for cable. It’s not even close to network news. Network news does 20 million, 22 million. Each one of them does up in those numbers. So, it’s not just Fox. I think it’s radio and it’s the pulpit. They [i.e., the corporate Democrats] are not getting that they have no way to talk to those people. And they seem to make no effort to talk to those people.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah. And this is another thing I’ve written a lot about. I’ve talked a lot about this with people like Tom Frank, the author.
Paul Jay: I just had him on. He was just on. I have a piece with him.
Matt Taibbi: Oh, really? Okay.
Paul Jay: Yeah. It’s in fact the top story on the website right now: Whatever happened to America? With Tom Frank.
Matt Taibbi: There you go. He and I have talked a lot about this. Again, there has been this transformation in the news media where the voice of the working person, which used to be an integral part of the news experience [is absent.] There was always one columnist or a couple of columnists like Jimmy Breslin, Mike Barnicle—it didn’t matter who. Every city had that person whose job it was to speak in the vernacular of the working person and to make sure that the news organizations maintained some kind of connection to regular people. And those people have been eliminated over the years. What’s been fascinating is to watch how they’ve been eliminated. Like, first they got rid of the sort of genuinely working-class people and replaced them, frankly, with people like Tom Frank and myself who were, you know, sort of upper-class intellectuals, but who were sympathetic to the ordinary person. Then they got rid of us.
Paul Jay: They got rid of both of you. Both of you don’t get on anymore.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, exactly. Or anybody like us. And we’ve all been replaced by these apostles of the professional class whose job is to constantly exalt the bottomless wisdom of, you know, the experts in America. And so, the problem with the news media now is that they don’t have any people who even have a thought about how to communicate with ordinary folks. And that’s why they keep missing things like the 2016 election and now the 2020 election, because they don’t know anybody who—
Paul Jay: Well, actually, they kind of do. But the problem is the leaders of fairly conservative unions, and that’s who tells them what the working class wants to hear. But if they bothered getting to know people in the unions, they would know that most of the members of the union can’t stand them.
Matt Taibbi: Right.
Paul Jay: They don’t like these union leaders and not because they’re progressive, but because they’re hacks.
Matt Taibbi: Right, exactly.
Paul Jay: I go into grocery stores that are unionized. And I ask, “You know who your steward is?” “No.” “Do you know the name of your union?” I think it’s the something union of something, something.” Like, there’s just no communication between the union leaders who go for these $500 lunches and eat steaks like—
Matt Taibbi: Right. At the Monocle, yeah.
Paul Jay: Yeah. And that’s who’s interpreting the working class for the leaders of the Democratic Party.
Matt Taibbi: Right. That’s exactly right. That’s how they keep their finger on the pulse of the people, right? [Laughter.] It’s that. It’s polls. I remember hearing a story during the Obama presidency from somebody in Treasury who said that they had a presentation from a bunch of high-ranking executives of big retail companies like Target and Walmart. This was in 2009. And they told them, “You know, there’s a lot of pain out there because of the financial crisis. People aren’t going to buy that much this this holiday season.” And the people at Treasury were like, “Oh, really?” Like, that’s how they found out that people we’re having a hard time after the 2008 crash: from a presentation by these rapacious retail companies. So, yeah, they don’t have any of that connection. And I wrote about this sort of as a joke, but if you look at the media treatments of this race, there were so many think pieces about who Homer Simpson was going to vote for. And the reason for that is because Homer Simpson is the only potential Trump voter that most journalists even know, you know?
Paul Jay: [Laughs.]
Matt Taibbi: It’s so embarrassing on so many levels, but it’s a very serious problem.
Paul Jay: The other thing they know, but I don’t get how they can’t get their head around what to do about it, even when they’re so close to finance and everything else. But anyway: they know, they’ve been told at least since 2004, 2005, how the Koch brothers and other billionaires allied with them have consciously, methodically, systematically created this alliance of far-right think tanks promoting hack, con-man, evangelical religious leaders. Ordinary people are not disingenuous, most of them. Most evangelicals, I think, are quite sincere in what they believe. But the leaders are hacks. And every so often there’s a sexual exposé, there’s a corruption scandal. It just doesn’t matter because the narrative is they get forgiven. I did a film once on professional wrestling, and it taught me a lot about this whole thing. You know, this idea of heroes, who are called “faces,” turning into heels and then turning back into faces. That catharsis is very meaningful for people because they go through that catharsis with the character they’re viewing and identifying with.
Matt Taibbi: Yep.
Paul Jay: So, this great network has been created of millions and millions. At least 60 percent, I think, of the Trump vote is this very religious vote. It may be as high as 70 percent. But these people believe in these values with a great deal of sincerity, even if there’s a dose of white privilege or white supremacy thrown in the mix. But a chunk of those people voted for Obama.
Matt Taibbi: And a big chunk.
Paul Jay: A big chunk. It’s really significant that they voted for a black guy for president. So, I’m not discounting the racist part of this narrative. It’s certainly not the whole narrative when so many of these people did vote for the first black president. But when you talk directly to a lot of Trump voters—and I’ve talked to a lot of religious Trump voters—when you start talking about, “Well, how does Trump jive with the message of Jesus?” You know, “How does Trump walk through the eye of a needle?” You know, the camel: they [i.e., the rich] have as much chance of getting into heaven as a camel does walking through the eye of a needle. When you start quoting the Bible and Jesus and they realize you’ll have a sincere conversation with them about that, nobody’s jumped and said, “Oh, I’ve seen the light because I talked to you.” No. But it shakes them a bit. And there’s been so little effort—just add one more thing. The progressive candidates, they don’t just buy some TV advertising. They’re going door-to-door in between elections. You know, they’re talking to people over and over. The corp Dems don’t seem to do that. They just think you wait till the election, then you buy a bunch of TV advertising and that’s supposed to win you something.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, I talked to Marianne Williamson about this a little bit. The inability of the Democratic candidates—not even the inability, the unwillingness of the Democratic Party to find a way to talk believably about spirituality. It’s endemic to their problem because they. They don’t have any real belief in it. They don’t have any connection to it. They don’t have anybody who knows how to talk that way. And they haven’t since, I would say, Bill Clinton. And the modern ethos of a lot of kind of progressive/liberal thinking is completely hostile to spirituality and doesn’t know how to talk about it in any way that’s meaningful. And the reason that Trump gets those votes is because he doesn’t condescend to those people. You know, he talks to them as if they’re not idiots, which they probably aren’t compared to him, right? But that’s not really the issue. When Democrats try to talk to, you know, evangelicals, there’s always this kind of condescending, like, “We’re going to start talking a little bit more slowly,” like, “We feel sorry for you, but let me tell you where your real interests are.” And they completely discount anything that they think where they might have very serious beliefs, whether it’s on reproductive choice or anything else. They just assume that they’re completely wrong and they don’t want to engage in any of those things. So, that’s a big problem. And I would also add there’s an issue that’s starting to arise with progressivism where the lack of a religious tradition, even among parents, has created a new kind of Democratic voter who has started to embrace politics as almost like a replacement for their spiritual beliefs. And they are talking about things like, you know, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or environmentalism, but they sometimes start to sound like religious people when they speak, which I think speaks to something that’s going on that is a little on the Democratic side. But ultimately the point remains that they just don’t have a way to talk to religious people, which I think is, you know, consistent with what you’ve been saying.
Paul Jay: I think what you just said is really important, and maybe that’s part of how we can talk to religious people, is that we acknowledge that pretty well all politics is identity politics. You know, I know a lot of progressives, including me, until maybe—it took me living in Baltimore for a few years to get past this—but I would look down on identity politics, and that it’s got to be about class and so on. But there’s a reason people want identity politics. It’s because they feel their identity is under threat. If their identity wasn’t threatened, they wouldn’t go there. So, yeah, I personally believe the resolution of the threat to people’s identity is a more socially just equal society and so on. Let me go further than that: change which class has power, really? But that ain’t going to happen fast. But when you start arguing religion and politics, and it’s not like it’s that different, as you say, not just for religious people, for supposedly secular people, too: you are fighting with people’s identity, not opinions. You know, it’s not one scientist who’s doing this test and another that, and let’s argue about what the results are. We’re talking the core of people’s identity.
Matt Taibbi: Exactly.
Paul Jay: And if you don’t respect that, you can’t talk. So, you got to start with finding the common ground when talking to people. And slowly, you know, like I say, we can start talking about the message of Jesus. I’m a big fan of Jesus. I’m not religious in the sense that I don’t believe in the God, the son of God, and so on and so on. But the message of Jesus, what I believe it is, is sublime. And I mean, turn the other cheek, I mean, God, the idea of that kind of forgiveness? I mean, to me that’s understanding that we’re part of a historical process. It’s not about good guys and bad guys—like, even Hitler, to me, he’s not a villain. He’s a part of the historical process. And to me, that’s my interpretation of the message of Jesus. I think if you start talking that way, at least we can have a conversation. Except that in a lot of minds, people of religion just get demonized. “Oh, they’re the deplorables. You can’t talk to them.”
Matt Taibbi: Which is a complete misread of the situation in almost all cases. And this is, I think, a result of just people not mixing enough. I did a book a long time ago where I I joined one of those megachurches you talked about.
Paul Jay: I went to one once.
Matt Taibbi: So, the leader of this church, John Hagee, is one of the biggest con men in Washington. But the people in the church were good people, you know what I’m saying? And my eyes were really opened by a lot of what I heard during that experience. Just to take an example, evangelicals came an incredibly long way on the issue of gay marriage really quickly. And they did it through the prism of their own understanding of the biblical teaching, right? Like, they got there that way. And I don’t think most progressives and most people in academia in America would have thought that was possible, you know, even ten years ago or fifteen years ago. And so, it’s frustrating to me that a lot of the people who are Trump voters, they’re so caricatured and people have this idea that they’re completely inflexible in their thinking. That’s not really true. I think the thing that is most deeply felt by those folks is a sense of, like, betrayal and hurt, and the feeling of being disrespected is what’s most profound with those people. And if we could find a way to not do that, I think that that’s where that the hope for a better future might come.
Paul Jay: Well, I think one place to start is when you look at the fact that 80 percent or 82 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump. Well, that means 20% didn’t. And that 20% goes to the same church as the 80 percent, and they have tea and strawberry shortcake or whatever the heck they eat at parties. I have a friend who’s a lefty Jewish woman, lives in Tennessee, and is married to an evangelical guy. And on most political issues, they agree. And I went down to visit them. I insisted he take me to his church, and he did. And honestly—I got to be honest—I don’t understand how a rational person can listen to the service that’s practically promising you a color TV if you believe and don’t commit these sins. But it almost doesn’t matter what the preacher says, in some ways. The experience of being in the church with all the other people that believe, as you believe, is cathartic. It’s transcendental. It makes you it lifts you up on the wings, whatever the phrase is. And I felt that even though I don’t believe really any of it. So, the experience is cathartic and people just don’t get dramatic, emotional, cathartic experiences in their lives. And, you know, it doesn’t matter what policy you’re talking about, if you can’t understand that—for the same reason professional wrestling is so popular. Like, most people can’t figure out why the hell anyone would ever go when they know—in fact, it was my film that broke the news that it’s all theater. But it’s still cathartic.
Matt Taibbi: Right. Right. Absolutely. Yeah. No, I agree. I think, you know, from the perspective of conservative voters, a lot of them are very frustrated. Look, a lot of these voters spend a lot of time thinking about their spiritual lives and ethics and morality as something separate and apart from politics. And I don’t see the same thing necessarily from voters on the Democratic side. Like, it’s just a different way of thinking about life. And, I don’t know, it’s frustrating. Yes, evangelicals think a lot of silly things. There are people who believe in, you know, the coming apocalypse and they read books like Left Behind and they think they’re real. But, you know, there’s a lot of deeply felt stuff in there that’s important.
Paul Jay: The other thing I think is really important in this moment is not to forget how powerful that movement around the Sanders candidacy was before he lost. The movement, the motion was really electrifying: hundreds of thousands of people coming together around very progressive values, threatening the power structure of the Democratic Party. And, yeah, there’s been this tactical truce to defeat Trump, maybe a little too much in the sense that I don’t think there needed to be as much withholding of critique of the Biden forces in order to defeat Trump. On the other hand, I’ve never won an election in my life, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. I really mean that in all sincerity. It’s hard to say they should have done this and should have done that to people that have actually won elections. But that being said. And I also don’t think we should underestimate how much finance sector and much of the Democratic Party really hate the left. The way Thomas Frank says it, they don’t dislike the left—they hate the left. But I think there is a new dynamic here because of how strong that Sanders candidacy was. Take Kamala Harris looking forward to four years from now. If she really pisses off the progressive wing of the party over this next four years, there’s going to be a serious progressive challenge to her. I don’t know whether it’s AOC or I mean, that’s the way it’s looking. I mean, God, what a primary that would be.
Matt Taibbi: Yes. And Bernie did come very close, and I was pretty plugged in to the Sanders campaign. I’ve known Bernie for a long time and talked to him a lot in the last ten years. And I think, you know, one of the things that happened with his campaign that was just unfortunate and a stroke of bad luck is that he happened to run against a candidate who he liked personally. Bernie is a complicated character in a lot of ways. He’s simple on the political side. He believes what he believes, and that’s and that’s what makes him so appealing to people. They can see the sincerity. But he’s not a ruthless character in the same way that somebody like Bill Clinton might be. And even though intellectually I think he might have understood the necessity of going harder against Joe Biden, he just likes Joe Biden. Joe Biden was nice to him when Bernie was, you know, a backbencher Independent, once upon a time. And that kind of stuff has a lot of currency with Sanders. And there was a major difference. You know, Bernie did not like Hillary Clinton and he had a deep and profound personal dislike for her politics and her viewpoint on the world. And he was able to summon outrage that was easy to connect with over, you know, the things she was doing like collecting $600,000 in a day for a couple of speeches to Wall Street banks or whatever it was. He didn’t feel the same thing towards Joe Biden for obvious reasons. But that isn’t Biden’s thing. And Biden has a similar, slightly, kind of background to Bernie. So, that dulled the edge a little bit. As far as what happens going forward, though, you know, I worry about that because they were so successful in kind of throttling Sanders at the end there that it took a lot of the air out of the balloon of the progressive movement, I think, here in the States. If it’s going to be led by somebody like AOC, you know, I worry about that because the history of the party is that it always does one of two things with those candidates. It either completely crushes them so that they have no route forward and are never taken seriously again, like Dennis Kucinich. Or they bring them into the fold and kind of buy them off with influence and a voice, like Howard Dean. And I worry that that’s going to be what’s going to happen with the AOC is they’re going to make her the public face of the party and have her talk about certain issues that they don’t really care about. And with that, they’re going to make sure that she doesn’t spend all the next four years talking about all the giveaways that they’re going to give to Wall Street and to the pharmaceutical industry So, that would be an early thing to look out for if I were paying attention.
Paul Jay: Well, I’m sure you will be paying attention. [Laughter.] But I don’t know, I haven’t seen it so far from her. I’ve been—what’s the word? “Pleasantly surprised” might be the right word, but so far, she seems to stick to her guns. There’s no doubt what you say is the cautionary side of it, and they will try that.
Matt Taibbi: But I mean, they’re going to offer, you can be the next Nancy Pelosi. That’s what they’re going to do; that’s what they’re going to hold out.
Paul Jay: Oh, no way. Oh, God. She’s going to have to make a lot of capitulations before that ever happens.
Matt Taibbi: Well, it’s just something to keep in mind. I think that’s a possible plotline. So, yeah.
Paul Jay: All right. Well, just finally—and I hope we get to do this again soon.
Matt Taibbi: Mmm-hmm. This was great.
Paul Jay: But just quickly, a few litmus tests about what direction this is going in terms of transition team appointments. When he starts talking about cabinet appointments, what are you going to be looking for that will tell the tale?
Matt Taibbi: Well, I’m very concerned about whether they’re going to be bringing back a lot of the national security creeps from the Bush and Obama administrations. If we start seeing names like Michael Hayden and John Brennan and James Clapper back in the Biden administration, that, to me, is a sign that we’re in very serious trouble. It’s not just the foreign policy issues. It’s not just the kind of continuation of the Dick Cheney, state-within-a-state, War on Terrorism stuff. It’s the new stuff that I really worry about. It’s the growing union of politics and Silicon Valley content moderation. A lot of these folks were very influential behind the scenes through groups like the Atlantic Council in bringing about this new form of media distribution that’s now so heavily regulated. And I think their vision of the future is dystopian. And I think that’s where I’m most worried. Are we going to see those people back in government? And, what are they going to do on issues like media, and, you know, fake news and that sort of thing.
Paul Jay: And continued growth of financialization.
Matt Taibbi: Oh, of course.
Paul Jay: As that sector becomes even more powerful, which Roosevelt described as fascism. There’s this great quote from Roosevelt, where he says that when one section of capitalists is able to take control essentially of the state—I described it in this article I wrote, what you were just talking about, this kind of dystopia and the financialization, which I know you’ve written about, that’s a sort of systemic cancer. The malignant tumor was Trump and the forces behind him. And that tumor, in my mind, had to be removed because otherwise, you know, the patient is dead. But the fight against the systemic cancer? By no means does getting rid of Trump get rid of the cancer.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, and not to go on about this, but the bailout that came after the pandemic started: the argument that Wall Street made at that time was essentially, the Fed has an obligation not just to stabilize markets, but basically to prop them up. Right? Like, this was a different argument than they made in 2008 when they said, OK, well, we have to make these companies whole because otherwise there will be permanent, lasting damage, you know, collateral damage to the economy. And we’ll just fix it just this one time, and we’ll go back to a free-market system. They actually overtly made the argument this time that the Fed needs to make sure that prices in the various capital markets stay at a reasonable level so that there’s some predictability to it, which is essentially—
Paul Jay: Even higher than reasonable
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, higher than reasonable.
Paul Jay: So, in terms of, the stock market is crazy. We’ve got a pandemic and a depression and the markets are going through the roof.
Matt Taibbi: Right. Like, what, exactly, is the justification for that? Apart from, we have to make sure that people who are invested in—not in the stock markets, they didn’t do it directly there. But, you know, the money-market-funds market, for instance, right? Like, why do we have to make sure that that stays at a particularly high rate? I mean, and so, you know, twenty-five years after we had ended welfare, as we know it, under the Clinton administration, we’ve created this other thing, which essentially is, like, permanent Fed backstopping of the financial markets. And they did it through Trump, but it’s not associated with Trump. It’s a thing that kind of happened that the public doesn’t associate with him. And if that continues, I mean, that’s a pretty extraordinary development to commit so much of our resources to that. And so that’s another thing to keep an eye on.
Paul Jay: And then, Act Two. I don’t know when Act Two comes about—as soon as the economy really starts to come back. Act Two will be “Oh, the debt’s too big.” After saying, we don’t care how much money they create, then the austerity hawks are going to get their Act. And then it’s going to be back to, well, the people are going to have to pay because the debt is so high.
Matt Taibbi: Absolutely. As they were disregarding the entire concept of debt during this period. Like, you know, they literally said, it doesn’t matter at all. Right? I forget what the Fed chair’s comment was, how he phrased it exactly. But essentially, it’s like, we’re not going to run out of ammunition. So, there was no there was no ceiling to how much debt they were willing to incur to do this. But they will they will absolutely make that argument once the economy starts to come back and everybody knows what’s going to happen. You’re right. It’s going to be some version of Greece or Italy. You know what I’m saying? It’s going to be like that.
Paul Jay: They’re going to talk that way. When it comes to any legislation that’s actually going to help people.
Matt Taibbi: Right.
Paul Jay: There’s a really interesting number I saw. I think it was from 2018, The Brookings Institution. They did a study of how much wealth is in private hands, assets after liabilities. Ninety-eight trillion dollars. And in private, American hands.
Matt Taibbi: Wow. Yeah.
Paul Jay: I mean, that’s insane and, you know, the ability to tax some of that and pay for this stuff is rather easy. If you had, you know, the political will. But they’re going to claim there’s not enough money and this debt’s so horrible. I mean, they could pay off the debt in five winks if they would just tax some of that $98 trillion.
Matt Taibbi: But then the Atlases will go on strike, you know, like in the book [Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand] and they won’t permit that kind of politics. So, that’s all stuff worth watching out for in the post-Trump universe. I think we’re going to see more discussion of that because those changes were pretty profound when they started to happen after the pandemic. And we’ll see what happens going forward.
Paul Jay: Anyway, I’m a little hopeful, even though there’s a lot of reasons not to be. I think the main thing is going to be—and I think people will get this pretty soon. At least the more activist types. That is, you know, the Biden presidency is just the beginning of another battle. And people got to get organized. It’s really simple. People got to get organized because there’s no time for some evolutionary working out of this stuff. The climate crisis has just put a different window on time and, you know, what do we have? I don’t even know what time we have. I just know we don’t have time.
Matt Taibbi: Right.
Paul Jay: It may be less than a decade. I mean, some of the predictions are really dire. And I think the big battle is going to be against greenwashing. I think they are going to do some stuff. It’s just, is it going to be bullshit? Because I think the urgency is being understood even in the circles of the elites. But they can’t help themselves. They just can’t help themselves. They got to figure out a way to make money out of whatever gets done. And the most effective policy isn’t going to make them quick money. And that’s the big battle, and we better get organized for it or we’re kind of doomed. What’s Chomsky’s line? “Organized human life on this planet.”
Matt Taibbi: Absolutely. Well, we’ll see what happens. You know, they’ve only just gotten into office. So, we’ll see what takes place. But, yeah, very interesting stuff.
Paul Jay: Yeah. Thanks very much, man. Let’s do it again soon.
Matt Taibbi: Absolutely. Take care now.
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