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Insane Clown President: Matt Taibbi Chronicles Election of “Billionaire Hedonist” Donald Trump

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As a new study by Oxfam finds the world’s eight richest men control as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity, the group says it is concerned that wealth inequality will continue to grow following the election of Donald Trump, whose Cabinet members have a combined wealth of nearly $11 billion. We look at the rise of Trump, and those joining his administration, with award-winning Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi. His new book comes out today, titled “Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus.”

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as a new study finds the world’s eight richest men control as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity, six of the eight billionaires are Americans, including Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos. Oxfam said it’s concerned that wealth inequality will continue to grow following the election of Donald Trump, whose Cabinet members have a combined wealth of nearly $11 billion.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by award-winning Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, who’s been chronicling the rise of Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign. In his new book, just out today, he writes, “It’s an Alice in Wonderland story, in which a billionaire hedonist jumps down the rabbit hole of American politics and discovers a surreal world where each successive barrier to power collapses before him like magic.” Yes, Matt Taibbi’s book is titled Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus. As this week, Friday, the inauguration of the 45th president, Donald Trump, is set, your thoughts, Matt Taibbi?

MATT TAIBBI: I mean, it’s unbelievable. I think this is an unprecedented crisis heading into an inauguration week. I think we never could have imagined that some—this last twist, at the end of what was already the craziest election season in history, with this Russia controversy and this sort of unparalleled intelligence crisis, in a way it’s actually kind of the perfect anti-ending to this, you know, incredible tragicomedy of the last couple years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Matt, on the title, as we hear in the news that the real circus, Ringling Brothers Circus, is about to—

MATT TAIBBI: Shutting down.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —close down after 146 years—

MATT TAIBBI: Perfect, right?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —how did you get the title, decide on the title for the book?

MATT TAIBBI: Oh, I was going for something subtle, actually. No, I mean, honestly, it’s funny. If the president-elect and his followers have complaints about the title, they should really blame Trump himself, because I actually learned a lot about marketing watching Donald Trump over the last couple years. There’s no reason to be subtle at all in the current environment. So, I thought this—that, you know, the title kind of reflected how what happened in the last couple years was a mix of kind of the extremely horrible and the extremely ridiculous. And it had that clown car theme, as well, I wanted to kind of reference.

AMY GOODMAN: So, more than 40 years ago, your magazine, Rolling Stone, chronicled Nixon’s campaign in 1972. There are parallels, because you now have an inauguration where, well, just at this point, 42 congressmembers, Democratic congressmembers, like one in five, will not be attending. And that number may certainly go up. The only thing we saw—only time we saw anything like this was Nixon, 1972—1973, inauguration, in the midst of the war. It’s also a time when The Washington Post reports that Donald Trump’s popularity rating—more than 50 percent of the people are not happy with what he’s doing—is at a 40-year low.


AMY GOODMAN: So talk about what you have found in this year, and particularly now in this rush of Cabinet members’ confirmation hearings, who these Cabinet members are, representing the wealthiest Cabinet in U.S. history—what, $11 billion, their combined wealth?

MATT TAIBBI: Sure, yeah. Just to go back to the beginning, I mean, yeah, obviously, you know, I cover the campaign for Rolling Stone magazine. It’s sort of one of the iconic jobs on Earth. It’s kind of like being the Dread Pirate Roberts. And this is a tradition that kind of goes back all the way to, you know, Hunter Thompson and when he covered Richard Nixon, and then eventually compiled it into a book called Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. And that was sort of the gold standard, I think, and always will be, for campaign writing. And I think what made that series of articles and that book art, as opposed to just kind of snappy magazine writing, was that Thompson was personally obsessed with how horrible and disgusting Nixon was, in a way that no other politician really touched him. For the rest of his life, no matter who he wrote about, whether it was Carter or, you know, even George Bush, it just wasn’t the same thing. He almost had like the opposite of a love relationship with Nixon. And that kind of obsession is something you really can’t force. You either have it or you don’t have it.

I would never compare myself to Hunter Thompson. I think that’s an unflattering comparison for any writer, but I think I do a little bit understand what he was going through with Nixon. I kind of feel a little bit the same way about Trump. He’s a—you know, it was kind of hate at first sight, actually, when I first saw him on the campaign trail. He’s a fascinating, repellent, awful, epically horrible character. And in a way, it makes for this incredibly engrossing story to follow him. So, you know, I think that, to me, is what really stood out about this last year, is Trump himself, he is just such a unique figure in our time. He’s kind of the perfect foil to reflect everything that’s excessive and vulgar and disgusting and tasteless and cheap and greedy about American culture. He is the perfect mirror to reflect everything about our society.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet, the reality is that he did get such a huge number of votes. And one of the things that you’ve talked about is not only him, but the crowds that he gathered and their relationship to you and to reporters, as well.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about that? Because that didn’t get much coverage by the press of how they, themselves, were treated at these Trump rallies.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, and I think that was kind of a big oversight by a lot of the media. Trump—look, how do politicians get elected? There’s a very simple formula that people on both sides have followed for ages. They tell people that, you know, things are bad, and we’re going to give you somebody to blame. You know, on the right, they’ve traditionally pointed the fingers at minorities and foreigners. And on the left, we point at corporations, you know, the pharma companies, insurance companies, etc., etc.

Trump did all of those things. He appropriated all of those bogeymen, both the liberal and the conservative bogeymen, but he also made the campaign process itself a villain. He said, “These people, these reporters, these donors, these two entrenched political parties, they are against you.” And unfortunately for us reporters, we were the only people from that particular group who were actually in the room during these events. So what he would do is he would say, “Look at these people. Look at these bloodsuckers. You know, they’ve never come so far for an event. And they didn’t want to come. They all said I was going to lose,” etc., etc. And the crowds would physically turn toward us and start, you know, sort of hissing and booing. And he made us part of this kind of WWE act. And it was—in a way, it was brilliant theater. And I think that the people on the campaign plane didn’t understand the significance of what he was doing. He was villainizing the process. And it was really effective.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But in terms of your ability even to interview some of the Trump supporters, you had a lot of difficulty, right?

MATT TAIBBI: Sure, sure. And this is something, to be fair, that had been happening gradually for a while now. I mean, I think the reporters have been increasingly unpopular with people in, quote-unquote, “flyover America.” It’s always been hard for, you know, sort of coastal media types to interview people in red state America. But this time around, I had a success rate of about one in five in getting people to actually talk to me. You know, when they heard where I worked, it sometimes got even worse than that. So, there was a lot of abuse, a lot of anger. You know, but some of it, to be fair, was justified. I think a lot of these people felt betrayed by the media, not just the liberal media, all media. Even the people from the conservative publications and TV stations had difficulty connecting with Trump’s voters.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that anger represented at Bernie Sanders’ rally yesterday outside of Detroit. You had 10,000 people demanding that the ACA, the Affordable Care Act, not be repealed, and a number of them actually were Trump supporters, now getting extremely scared.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, and there are obviously—there’s some crossover between the anger on the Trump side and the anger that fueled the Sanders campaign. I think that was something that everybody who was following the campaign recognized from very early on. But we just were slow to recognize that some of that anger was directed toward us.

AMY GOODMAN: During a presidential debate in October, Hillary Clinton was asked about the content of a trove of emails released by WikiLeaks that were allegedly hacked from the account of her campaign chair, John Podesta. Those emails included excerpts from her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms. During the debate, Donald Trump weighed in on the leaked Clinton speeches.

DONALD TRUMP: She got caught in a total lie. Her papers went out to all her friends at the banks, Goldman Sachs and everybody else. And she said things—WikiLeaks—that just came out. And she lied.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have Donald Trump. Talk about the significance of this.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, Trump made Goldman Sachs a villain very early in the campaign. He was extremely explicit about it throughout the entire campaign season, dating back to January and February, when he used it as a club to beat on Ted Cruz, because both his wife—Cruz’s wife and Cruz himself had a financial relationship to Goldman Sachs. He said, “Cruz is totally controlled by Goldman Sachs. Hillary is totally controlled by Goldman Sachs. You know, I know those people from Goldman Sachs. I’m not going to be a puppet of Goldman.” He actually ran a campaign ad, a 30-second campaign ad, very close to the election, that specifically mentioned Goldman and Wall Street banks.

And then he turns around right after the election, and he brings five people from Goldman Sachs, or four ex-Goldmanites and a Goldman lawyer, into the White House. So this is, you know, your immediate, obvious contradiction in his campaign rhetoric. You know, he talked about draining the swamp, and the first thing he did is he filled it with people who were from that very company.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, keep talking about that. You’ve got Steve Mnuchin—


AMY GOODMAN: —who, now we know, his wealth may be well over $400 million, treasury secretary.

MATT TAIBBI: Right, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Bannon, who comes from Breitbart, the white nationalist, white supremacist website, news website, also was a Goldman banker. Some people are starting to talk about—what is it?—Government Sachs, not Goldman Sachs.

MATT TAIBBI: Right. And let’s be fair. Goldman has always had a major presence in government all over the world, not just in America. They’ve been presidents of the World Bank. They’ve been presidents of, you know, the EC Bank and Bank of Canada. You know, they head a lot of the Federal Reserve branches, etc., etc. But now it’s not just—it’s not just Mnuchin. It’s not just Bannon. There’s also Gary Cohn, who was the number two at Goldman Sachs behind Lloyd Blankfein. In fact, they were sort of co-heads of Goldman Sachs for all the relevant crisis years. Cohn is now the chief economic adviser to Donald Trump; he’s the head of the NEC. There’s Jay Clayton, who was Goldman’s lawyer. He worked for Sullivan & Cromwell, but he represented Goldman. Anthony Scaramucci, who’s another ex-Goldmanite, who is now a principal Trump adviser. So there’s at least—at least five high-ranking people already in the White House who have a relationship with Goldman Sachs. And again, this is a company that he specifically denounced during the campaign.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about Russia. Over the weekend, we’ve had the controversy with John Lewis saying that he believes that Trump is not a legitimate president, in part because of the Russian meddling in the election. Your take on that? But also, you’ve raised the issue that Americans are forgetting about the United States’ role in meddling in internal Russian politics in the past.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, I think people, they might want to look back at July 1996, at the cover of Time magazine, actually. There was a cover that said “Yanks to the Rescue.” And it was all about how we sent American advisers over to save Boris Yeltsin’s re-election campaign. We openly talked about how we participated in helping Boris Yeltsin get past his communist challenger, not only in 1996, but in 1993 during the referendum. I was there throughout that period, so I know we had an enormous influence on Russian politics, not just during the election campaigns, but also in terms of advising the Yeltsin government on how to do things like privatize the economy. So, there were a lot of people out there in Russia, all over the country, who, when they think about things like how I don’t have health insurance anymore, or I don’t have free education, they point the finger at us for that, because some of that was due to policies that we recommended. So, it’s a subtext that probably a lot of Americans don’t—aren’t conscious of, because it wasn’t heavily publicized here, but it’s certainly something to think about.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your reaction to the allegations of Russian meddling here?

MATT TAIBBI: Sure. Well, I mean, I’ve talked to people who have a pretty high degree of confidence that Russia did hack the DNC, and then they do think it’s probable that they also passed it to WikiLeaks. But beyond that, I think, is where we start getting into this grey area, where it’s very, very dangerous for reporters to start making statements and insinuations about what may or may not have happened, because Russia hacking and trying to influence the election, and Donald Trump being in on it, there’s an order of magnitude of difference between those two things. And I think they’re being conflated a little bit in the media, and we have to be careful about saying that before we know what the facts are. I mean, it could very well turn out to be true, but I think we need a full investigation to know why people are saying that they believe that.

AMY GOODMAN: You recently ripped The Washington Post for what you considered one of the worst investigative jobs ever. Explain.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. You know, they ran this story about how a group called PropOrNot had—which is a sort of a private cyberteam, I guess. They claimed to have identified 200 independent new sources who they called, you know, “useful idiots” in support of the Russian state. And coincidentally, or maybe not coincidentally, almost all of those sites were pretty well-known alternative media organizations. You know, it was a very sloppy piece of reporting that the Post did. And their excuse was they didn’t openly recommend these allegations and didn’t endorse them, but they linked to them, and anybody could look at them. And, of course, that’s how—that’s an end run around, you know, the usual factual standards that we have in the media. And I think that’s the kind of thing that I’m worried about with a lot of this Russia talk, is that we have excesses when people believe things that maybe aren’t true.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Donald Trump speaking at a news conference, saying it was probably Russia that broke into the DNC’s servers and also hacked John Podesta’s emails.

PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people. And I can say that, you know, when—when we lost 22 million names and everything else that was hacked recently, they didn’t make a big deal out of that. That was something that was extraordinary. That was probably China. We had—we have much hacking going on.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Trump later insisted he had no loans or business dealings with Russia. Of course, the real question is the amount of Russian money in his development projects even here in the United States—


AMY GOODMAN: —from Trump SoHo downtown, when banks—what, he owes something like a billion-and-a-half dollars to 150 financial institutions, as it’s been reported. And when he couldn’t get lines of credit, Russian oligarchs were a good place to turn. But this issue, this—in the last few days, he’s announced perhaps, you know, NATO should not be around. He has said that—talked about lifting the sanctions against Russia. Talk about all of this.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I mean, I think we have to get to the bottom of it. And clearly—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he’ll be leading an investigation?

MATT TAIBBI: No, I wouldn’t imagine that. I wouldn’t hold my breath for that to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Rex Tillerson, the CEO of—

MATT TAIBBI: No, I don’t—I don’t think so.

AMY GOODMAN: —Exxon, whose company has a huge amount to gain—


AMY GOODMAN: —if the sanctions against Russia are lifted?

MATT TAIBBI: Of course. I mean, look, it’s an oil company. And the subterranean dealings between ExxonMobil and whatever, you know, the Russian oligarchy, I’m sure that’s a tangled web that we need to get to the bottom of. But I think, somehow, someway, there has to be some kind of independent investigation. Whether, you know, some people in the Senate can be prevailed upon—you know, we do have this joint intelligence committee in the Senate that is allegedly going to have subpoena power and is allegedly going to be able to interview people about what went on. But, you know, it’s an urgent question.

Clearly—one of the things that’s been clear in the last couple of weeks is that our intelligence services either believe that Trump has some kind of a relationship and that there was some kind of quid pro quo in the last year. They either believe that that’s true, or they’re putting that out there for some reason. And we have to get to the bottom of it, one way or the other. If it’s a disinformation campaign, we have to know that. And if it’s true, we need to know that, because there’s really nothing more serious than a compromised person becoming president of the United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Matt, I wanted to ask you—your book basically is a chronicle of your time on the campaign trail, but you were surprised, as well, by the victory of Donald Trump, weren’t you? Talk about that and the—how so many people got it wrong.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, it’s kind of the big flaw in the book, is in the second half, because I actually saw from the beginning—I had been waiting for something like Trump to happen for a long, long time. I mean, there’s actually an excerpt from a book I wrote 10 years ago, in this book, about how, you know, people were tuning out the mainstream media, and they were turning to more conspiratorial directions, and there was going to come a time when they were going to shut us out completely. And I kind of saw that coming. And I did see, early on in the campaign, that Trump—I never thought anybody else was going to be the nominee.

But I was fooled, I think, in the second half of the campaign, like a lot of people were, by the poll numbers and also by—there was a little bit of a change in his strategy, where he seemed to be moving away from themes that had been successful for him during the primary season, and he was trying this crazy new thing, talking about how he was going to rescue—be the rescuer of the African-American community and all that. I thought that was a terrible, disastrous move and that it was going to lose him the election. It turned out it won him the election, because it rehabilitated him with, quote-unquote, “mainstream Republicans,” who didn’t want to think of themselves as racists. So, it turned out to be this brilliant move that helped him build a coalition, which he himself, you know, wouldn’t have been capable of alone. He needed Steve Bannon’s help to do that.

And I just never saw that result coming, and I think a lot of reporters didn’t, because—and this is the main problem with campaign reporting. We just—we aren’t out there enough talking to people. We tend to spend all of our time with other reporters and other politicians and other pollsters. We don’t—we’re not out there physically taking the temperature of voters enough, and that’s why things like the Trump phenomenon can happen and take us by surprise.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Matt Taibbi, final thoughts, as you reflected back on all your work of this past year? We are in this inauguration week.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, I mean, this is the most extraordinary political story, I think, in our history. I don’t think anything has ever—on this scale, has ever happened before. Trump—what people need to remember about Trump is—they’re overwhelmed by the horror of it right now, but they have to remember also that this was an extraordinary story about how democracy, in a weird way, does work. He penetrated all of these different layers, these barriers to power that had been thrown up to ordinary people. And he was a true outsider, who somehow made it past all those barriers, through all these loopholes that we had left open. And I think that’s an amazing story that we need to focus on. How did that happen?

AMY GOODMAN: You covered occupy in your book The Divide. We are seeing a kind of mass movement developing now. Yesterday in New York, a major meeting planning the inauguration sendoff of Donald Trump on Thursday night—


AMY GOODMAN: —outside Trump Tower. We saw thousands of people rally around the country on all different issues, massive protests. Women’s march is planned for Saturday, the day after the inauguration.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, no, I think this is a moment when people have to do that. This is a—again, it’s an unparalleled crisis. If any of this stuff about Russia is true, people need to do whatever they can to prevent him from becoming president, or at least try to get him impeached as quickly as possible. And, you know, again, we have to take the example of what Trump supporters did. They defied the odds to get him in office. And I think it’s a demonstration that if people are organized enough, they can accomplish anything. And then, they—people on the other side should take that lesson.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine. His new book, just published today, Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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