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How Donald Trump Risks Trade War, Crosses Lines on Racism, Wreaks Havoc on U.S. Conservatism

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As Donald Trump moves closer to securing the Republican nomination, we begin today’s show looking at how he is changing the GOP. We are joined by Rick Perlstein, a Chicago-based reporter and author who has extensively researched the conservative movement. Perlstein’s books include “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” and “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.” His recent piece is, “Donald Trump’s avenging angels: How the orange-haired monster has rewritten the history of American conservatism.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Chicago, broadcasting from WYCC PBS Chicago. Donald Trump moved a step closer to securing enough delegates to win the Republican nomination. He is projected to have won 70 percent of the vote in Oregon Tuesday. Although Ted Cruz and John Kasich have suspended their campaigns, both of their names appeared on the Oregon ballot, each one about 16 percent of the vote. On Tuesday night, Fox aired a special with Trump being interviewed by Megyn Kelly.

DONALD TRUMP: Absolutely, I have regrets. I don’t think I want to discuss what the regrets are, but, absolutely, I could have done certain things differently. I could have maybe used different language in a couple of instances. But overall, you know, I have to be very happy with the outcome. And I think if I didn’t conduct myself in the way I’ve done it, I don’t think I would have been successful, actually, if I were soft, if I were, you know, presidential. OK, presidential, it’s—in a way, it’s a bad word, because—there’s nothing wrong with being presidential. But if I would not have fought back the way I fought back, I don’t think I would have been successful.

AMY GOODMAN: Donald Trump and Fox’s Megyn Kelly have been feuding since the first Republican debate last August, when Kelly questioned Trump about his history of describing some women as “dogs” and “fat pigs.” Trump later said of Kelly’s tough questioning of him, quote, “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her—wherever.” On Tuesday, the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC, Priorities USA Action, aired a television ad targeting Trump. The ad shows voters lip-syncing some of Trump’s remarks about women as they wear T-shirts bearing his image.

DONALD TRUMP: You know, you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her—wherever. … Does she have a good body? No. Does she have a fat ass? Absolutely. … Do you like girls that are five-foot-one? They come up to you know where. … If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her. … I view a person who is flat-chested—is very hard to be a 10. … And you can tell them to go [bleep] themselves.

NARRATOR: Does Donald Trump really speak for you?

AMY GOODMAN: As Donald Trump moves closer to securing the Republican nomination, we begin today’s show looking at how Trump is changing the GOP. We’re joined by Rick Perlstein. He’s a Chicago-based reporter and author who has extensively researched the conservative movement. His books include Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, as well as The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Rick. Well, talk about the ascendancy of Donald Trump and what he represents.

RICK PERLSTEIN: It’s a complicated thing for the Republicans. On the one hand, he represents a continuation and almost the apotheosis of a decades-long pattern of demagoguery, you know, playing to the reactionary rages of white middle-class and lower-middle-class Americans who feel dispossessed by changes in the society. But he turns that dog whistle into a bullhorn. But on the other hand, he represents a break from how the Republican Party has handled that, which has always been with a certain kind of delicacy. You know, you can think of George Bush visiting a mosque the week after 9/11. You know, Donald Trump isn’t going to do that. He’s going to go full bore.

But the other thing is, he really wreaks havoc about the way Republican elites think about economics. There’s a decades-long project of creating a global trading regime, you know, since Bretton Woods. And he’s willing to throw that out and risk a trade war, and that’s very scary for the masters of the universe in the Republican Party.

AMY GOODMAN: So what are they doing?

RICK PERLSTEIN: Well, they’re actually joining the bandwagon, mostly. I mean, they are riding a tiger, and they see him as the person who has achieved power in their party. And these are people who are students and followers of power, and I guess they think they can control him. But, you know, in the clip with Megyn Kelly, we heard that he equates the idea of being presidential with being soft, which of course is the greatest sin in his litany. So, I think that they might be in for a very dangerous year.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking in March 2012, Republican presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney delivered a scathing speech criticizing Donald Trump. He focused especially on Trump’s economic policies.

MITT ROMNEY: His proposed 35 percent tariff-like penalties would instigate a trade war. And that would raise prices for consumers, kill our export jobs, and lead entrepreneurs and businesses of all stripes to flee America. His tax plan, in combination with his refusal to reform entitlements and to honestly address spending, would balloon the deficit and the national debt. … Successfully bringing jobs home requires serious policy and reforms that make America the place businesses want to come, want to plant and want to grow. You can’t punish business into doing what you want.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Mitt Romney. Your response, Rick Perlstein?

RICK PERLSTEIN: Such a revealing clip. Most of the things that Mitt Romney criticized Trump for in that speech, he himself had done in 2012. You know, he himself had baited Obama for maybe not being born in America. You know, he himself had, of course, played to those same kind of white resentments and grievances. But he really draws the distinction, very hard, at he’s not treating business in the proper way, with the popular obeisance. And Trump knows that, and, in fact, he’s just brought in Stephen Moore, of the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation, to be his tax adviser. And, you know, this is his attempt to mend fences with the traditional conservative Republican elite.

AMY GOODMAN: Sheldon Adelson at first was not going—


AMY GOODMAN: —to support Donald Trump. Now it looks like, what, $100 million?

RICK PERLSTEIN: Only $100 million, pocket change. Yeah, he—these people have decided that Trump is the guy. It’s Trump or nothing. It’s very much like in 1964 when the party elites realized that Barry Goldwater was on a glide path to the nomination, and tried to stop him, and it was far too late. In 1964, they had sort of the moral solidity to abandon Barry Goldwater, largely. In Trump’s case, who’s a much, much more dangerous figure, who basically boasts of his indifference to the Constitution, they’ve completely soiled themselves by jumping on the bandwagon.

AMY GOODMAN: During the campaign, Donald Trump has repeatedly come under fire for inciting his supporters to violence, and critics say that Trump himself is setting the tone. This is a sampling of what Donald Trump has said about protesters at some of his rallies.

DONALD TRUMP: So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. OK, just knock th hell—I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. … Throw them the hell out of here. Am I allowed to rip that whistle out of the mouth? I’d rip that and just—should somebody do that? … Ah, I love the old days, you know? You know what I hate? There’s a guy totally disruptive, throwing punches. We’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks. Ah, it’s true.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Donald Trump. Talk about what he’s doing here.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Right. I mean, this is absolutely horrifying stuff. Like I say, previous Republican elites understood that you tap into that kind of anger, but you kind of do so only to a certain point. You know, this is Barry Goldwater saying he’d drop out of the campaign if his supporters began exploiting riots on his behalf. But what’s even scarier than, you know, kind of setting his supporters against protesters is the idea of Donald Trump in charge of the levers of the American state and unleashing that attitude.

One of the striking things I found him saying that got no attention at all was that, you know, one of his litmus tests for a Supreme Court nominee—in fact, it was the first thing he mentioned—was—would be a willingness to go after Hillary Clinton on her emails. Now, whatever you think of Hillary Clinton and her emails, a presidential nominee saying his litmus test is prejudging a case and basically a pledge on behalf of that Supreme Court nominee to basically join his vendetta against a political rival is really beyond the pale. I mean, you’re not even supposed to, if you’re a presidential candidate, prejudice a criminal case—right?—on the local level. But here’s a guy absolutely traducing the Constitution’s guarantee that we have due process. And, you know, that’s worse than some guy beating up a protester, as awful as that is.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Fred Trump, of course, was a very successful real estate developer, but in Queens, you know, in Brooklyn, in the sort of the outer boroughs of New York. When I—when I learned about Donald Trump and Fred Trump a long time ago, I thought, “Oh, well, Fred Trump was kind of cool. He was developing kind of affordable housing for middle-class folks. And then Donald Trump, you know, became this kind of maniac who created luxury housing for the super rich.”

But it turns out that Fred Trump was a very dangerous and frightening figure, too. In the 1920s, there was a Klan march in Queens, and police arrested people, all of them in Klan robes. And it was reported that Fred Trump was one of those arrestees. You know, Donald Trump has tried to squirrel out of that, but more and more evidence seems to point out that Fred was one of these guys. And the proof was in the pudding, right? We know about Woody Guthrie’s song about Fred Trump’s racism, and maybe we can get into that. But later—

AMY GOODMAN: So, the song—


AMY GOODMAN: The song from the ’50s—


AMY GOODMAN: —Woody Guthrie singing:

“I suppose
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project.”

This is Woody Guthrie.

RICK PERLSTEIN: This would have been one of his big, you know, sort of middle-class housing developments out in Brooklyn or Queens. And, you know, this was obviously the case that this guy was—had a reputation as a racist. Right? But then, by the 1970s, the Justice Department goes after the Trump organization, by which time young Donald is kind of studying at his father’s knee, for gross violations of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which, you know, guarantee open housing for African Americans and minorities. And they really built a very, very impressive case. It was covered very closely in The New York Times.

And the Trump organization, Fred Trump, hired none other than Roy Cohn as his lawyer, you know, the legendary gutbucket puncher who had been Joe McCarthy’s lawyer. And he came up with a sort of a defense and a talking point, and that was pretty extraordinary in itself. He said, “We are not trying to keep black people out of these apartments; we’re trying to keep welfare recipients out of this apartment.” So this was—this was his defense. This was, you know, kind of the best-case scenario. And Donald Trump, by that time, was being interviewed, and he told The New York Times, I believe it was, that he’d never even heard of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which is, of course, you know, the controlling legislation for anyone who wants to build housing. Quite a stunning performance, and really kind of sets the tone of a guy—and I’m talking about the son now—who sees African Americans as predators, basically, polluters.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in February, Donald Trump came under criticism for wavering on whether or not he would—he wanted the support of the former KKK leader David Duke. Speaking on CNN with Jake Tapper, Trump refused to disavow Duke’s support or the support of other white supremacists and the Klan.

DONALD TRUMP: Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. OK? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know—did he endorse me, or what’s going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. And so, when you’re asking me a question, that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.

JAKE TAPPER: But I guess the question from the Anti-Defamation League is—even if you don’t know about their endorsement, there are these groups and individuals endorsing you. Would you just say, unequivocally, you condemn them, and you don’t want their support?

DONALD TRUMP: Well, I have to look at the group. I mean, I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I’d have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them, and certainly I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong.

JAKE TAPPER: The Ku Klux Klan?

DONALD TRUMP: But you may have groups in there that are totally fine, and it would be very unfair. So give me a list of the groups, and I’ll let you know.

JAKE TAPPER: OK, I mean, I’m just talking about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan here, but…

DONALD TRUMP: I don’t know any—honestly, I don’t know David Duke. I don’t believe I’ve ever met him.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Donald Trump being interviewed by Jake Tapper on CNN. Rick Perlstein?

RICK PERLSTEIN: Yeah, that was a stone lie. You know, he had denounced David Duke when he was playing with becoming the Reform Party’s presidential candidate in, I believe, 2000. And that’s another indication that he’s kind of violating these bright lines that a party, again, that was perfectly willing to kind of play footsie with racism, had maintained in the past. Barry Goldwater, you know, when Ku Klux Klan members started endorsing him, was absolutely horrified, said he wanted to have nothing to do with it. Of course, Ronald Reagan kind of made the dog-whistle move, famously, of starting his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the Klan had murdered civil rights workers in 1964.

But what Donald Trump is doing, I realized, was very different, when I read an article like last fall by Evan Osnos of The New Yorker. And Osnos happened to be doing an article about white nationalists, which is kind of the polite term for white supremacists. And he said—he was just kind of, you know, doing an article about them, independently of Trump, when Trump announced his candidacy, and he heard them saying all these warm things about them. And when I read that article, I said, “Wow! This is really like nothing I’ve seen before in studying the Republican right for 18, 19 years,” because white supremacists have always kind of considered both parties Tweedledee and Tweedledum. And the idea that they would consider a major Republican Party figure one of them is—you know, it’s a discontinuity among white supremacists. And the idea that Donald Trump would not immediately disavow them, whatever that says about what Donald Trump believes or what previous Republican candidates believe, is just a very different practice than what we have seen before. It’s a watershed moment in the surrender of a major American political party to the most rank and base kind of racism that we’ve seen in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you see comparisons between Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan?

RICK PERLSTEIN: There are some comparisons, but there are some discontinuities. I mean, there’s things that might seem at first superficial. Both of them were hosts of TV shows, right? Ronald Reagan would have been familiar at the beginning of his political career in the early 1960s to Americans as the host of General Electric Theater, right, which was one of the most popular TV shows at the time. And he played a character. He was the avuncular host, right? Donald Trump was the star of a TV show, of course, The Apprentice, not nearly as popular as Donald Trump claims it was, but certainly a lot more popular than Bill O’Reilly or CNN, right? So most Americans know him also as someone who played a character. And the character was this omniscient, superpowerful master of the universe, who had the answer to every question, before whom charismatic and powerful people groveled before. That was Donald Trump in the minds of millions of Americans by the time he entered politics this year.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue our discussion with you, Rick, but we’re also going to talk about superdelegates. Yes, Rick Perlstein is a Chicago-based reporter, author of several books, including Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, a national correspondent for The Washington Spectator, his recent piece headlined “Donald Trump’s avenging angels: How the orange-haired monster has rewritten the history of American conservatism.” Stay with us.

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