The bookstands in Penn Station, in the heart of Manhattan, display this year’s most attractive publications for New Yorkers: Manuals to survive the Trump administration; legal guides to impeach him in Congress; historical lessons on authoritarianism; essays on immigrant children; guides for civil resistance… It's the sign of the times.
Since billionaire Donald J. Trump was elected President, New York is beating the drums of resistance. Its mayor declared it a sanctuary city and refuses to follow federal anti-immigrant orders; thousands of New Yorkers showed up spontaneously outside the city airports the same day that Trump signed a ban against refugees from seven countries. New Yorkers have made it a local sport to show the finger when passing in front of any of the several Trump towers around the city. In Union Square, a traditional meeting place for krishnas, hip-hopers, preachers and yoga practitioners, people gather to receive group guitar classes where they easily learn how to play, guitars and throats in a chorus, a simple song: “This is a city of immigrants… We are all immigrants”.
In downtown Manhattan, if you cross the 9-11 Memorial, you’ll find yourself in front of the Freedom Tower, built as a symbol of the resurgence, the resilience of a city that won’t give in. The 38th floor of the skyscraper hosts the offices of the New Yorker, the magazine proud of a century leading the way for literary journalism and art criticism in the city.
Like several other media crossed out as foes by Trump, the New Yorker warned throughout the campaign that Trump posed a threat Trump to the United States’ democracy… and to planetary wellbeing. It did so through long feature stories to denounce the financial and commercial interests of the candidate; his failed businesses; his work ethics; his voters. It also did through analysis, opinion pieces and cartoons.
Artists, illustrators and cartoonists submitted so many proposals for Trump covers that dozens had to be sacrificed and are still lying on the drawers of an editor’s desk. By the end of the campaign, the magazine ran a special issue with only Trump-themed cartoons.
The New Yorker has reached a legend status because of its author pieces, and has always prided itself on printing “the best writing available”. But recently its slogan has transformed to become “Fighting fake stories with real ones”. It’s a deliberate decision taken by its director, David Remnick, a Pulitzer-winning reporter well into his fifties, author and editor of a dozen books and one of the main figures of New York’s intellectual and cultural scene.
In his own words, it was a decision made in the face of the “extraordinary moment” opened by Trump’s victory.
On election night (“that same night”, he likes to remind), Remnick wrote and published an opinion piece called “An American Tragedy”, an expression representative of all those who saw in the electoral results a breaking point in the American democratic tradition. “The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.”
He warned his readers to resist any attempts to “normalize” a Trump administration. Neither despair, not abandonment, he said, were options. “To combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals—that is what is left to do. That is all there is to do.”
Half a year later, with the Trump administration well installed in the White House and producing more scandals than a society is able to digest, David Remnick agreed to talk about his President, US democracy and the role of journalism.
He is an affable man, much more serene than what his recent writings, pulsing with a sense of urgence facing a catastrophe, would allow anyone to guess. He wears jeans and a t-shirt, in contrast with the elegance of the people that work in this part of town. He looks like he has not totally adapted to the new quarters, and perhaps he never will. His office is dominated by the privileged view through a grand window, which reaches the southern tip of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, Staten Island. To the left, Brooklyn; to the right, New Jersey. Opposite the window, beyond his desk, a big bookshelf filled with books that speak of an omnivorous reader, just like the one his magazine presumes: fiction, essay, nonfiction, cartoons, musical studies, biographies… many of them written by authors that frequently write for The New Yorker.
Remnick himself has a diverse production of his own: Lenin’s Tomb, his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, about the fall of the Soviet Union which he witnessed as a Washington Post correspondent from Moscow. But Remnick has also written about musicians, athletes, writers, politicians. Among them a profile of rock legend Bruce Springsteen and a memorable piece on Leonard Cohen, published last October, a few days before the Canadian poet-singer-songwriter died. About Remnick, Nobel winner Toni Morrison wrote: “He is so completely in charge of his craft that it becomes an art”.
He also wrote a fantastic book about Muhammad Ali, called The King of The World, in which he riffs on the richness of his characters to explore English, one of the most pragmatic and democratic languages, pushing it beyond its margins and expanding it. But not even in this book about Ali, one of the most colorful and polytonal characters ever, has Remnick proportionately used as many adjectives as those he has written in the last six months to describe his new President. And none of them is flattering.
Trump’s election, admits Remnick, raises questions about one of the mayor traditions of North American mythology: the so-called American Exceptionalism; that quasi-religious view that U.S. Americans have inherited generation after generation since their independence, according to which they are an exceptional people, morally superior, socially advanced and politically puritan. A people chosen to bring good to the world and free it. A vision perpetuated in the U.S. academy, where historians and political scientists produce massive amounts of papers and comparative studies whose main goal seems to be, precisely, to prove how exceptional the United States is. A myth that has helped bring together all U.S. Americans, but that is incongruent with the election of a man, Trump, who has been called by Remnick “a con; unpredictable; ominous; vulgarity unleashed; descendant from the lineage of the Know-Nothings, the doomsayers and the fabulists, the nativists and the hucksters; plutocrat; liar, misogynist, racist, indecent…”
In a recent piece, published in the end of June, the editor and reporter found, nevertheless, motives for optimism: “Donald Trump is not forever”, he wrote. No, but his victory also speaks about the country that elected him as President. And that country will still be there tomorrow.
It seems to me that you don't like this guy... Trump, right?…
It’s been a 100 days…
More now… I feel it in my bones.
Look, this is not the first time we've ever had an ominous president and, to be accurate, we've had presidents who managed to do far worse things that Trump has managed to do so far, right? So far he has not invaded Iraq or the Bay of Pigs or topple of the government in Iran as in 1953, etc, etc. So, you have to ask, why talk about him in such alarmist terms? Because the combination of incompetence, lying, dishonesty as a business man, which is the only way we have to know him, his careless way of conducting policy, etc. It is worthy of an alarm and he also coms as the crest of a wave of a liberal antidemocratic leadership that is not unique, unfortunately, to the United States. I do not how far he would go in antidemocratic terms. But remember, generationally, I am 58 years old, I came from a journalistic age in Moscow, I am shaped by a, maybe an overly optimistic view of what has taken place historically, which is to say that in 1970, there were 30 countries that were considered democracies, by the term of the millennium, by 2000 there were a hundred. This were imperfect democracies, they were nascent democracies. They were all kinds of things you could describe, but there was clearly a turn that you did not have to be Francis Fukuyama to be optimistic in Russia, in Easter Europe in Central Europe, in Latin America. There was an incredible trend. There were the Camp David accords. There were a lot of really promising trends, even if you were a hard headed realist, you had to take note of this. This trend is going on reverse in Latin American, in Central America, in the East of Europe and so on…
I am sorry. I will stop you for a second. I am going to get there. It is just that you did something very interesting here, trying to frame him in a global frame, which is something I guess has not been done, because of the sense of local urgency. But anyway, these tendencies have been going on before Trump.
They have. Well, it depends where you want to start. If you are standing in Budapest, there is that. If you are standing in London, there is that or parts of Western Europe, there is that…
Sure, sure. And the reasons are similar. Not all the same but similar. They have to do with all the issues you know. The alarm about immigration, alarm about the unintended consequences of globalization, anti-industrialization and then the exploitation of those issues by demagogue figures like Donald Trump. Remember, I grew up here. I grew up across that river and then made the big move across the river with some places in between. And he was a comic figure in my youth. He was just a comic blowhard, a show business.
He was a comic figure two years ago, not only during your youth, two years ago!
Yeah, but we didn’t give a shit. But it was a television show. He was a television show. And by the way, I think those television shows very extremely important in his development. If I have the time to spend just the summer watching those shows, I mean if my brain could stand it.
Yeah, I only watched it a couple of times.
I surely recommend you to go back to his wrestling TV shows.
I’ve seen that.
It’s so him ha, ha, ha…
You know, we can make jokes about all this… but he won. Yes, the FBI... Yes, Russia... he won.
How long did it take you to call him President Trump?
Oh the same day.
You have not called him President Trump yet.
Sure I did. I get it now, I acknowledge that he is president Trump. I get it. This isn’t a thing of if I get it or they don’t get it, having it fit... Do you know the term snowflakes? Snowflakes are meant to refer, supposedly, to people like me who were damp, weak and can’t take quite on board that Trump is President. I understand that.
Your magazine… But specially you have warned, maybe the next day if I’m not wrong…
…That night… you warned everybody not to normalize this presidency. I would like to explore what you saw in him, because all the adjectives you have used against him, you can find in other presidents, as you said before. But you… -When I say you, I mean this country- you normalized those actions and those presidents’ administrations…
To some extent, what choice is there? I mean he is granted the Constitutional power to sign executive orders in the same way that Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln or Dwight Eisenhower had the authority to sing executive orders. And he is the President of the United States. But I don’t wish to normalize is his history, what I don’t wish to normalize is his lack of knowledge, basic knowledge. What I don’t wish to normalize, most of all, is his demagogic used of the “Other”, with capital O, of brown people, immigrants, registered or not, and all other kinds of people as African Americans. What he is doing is a very, very old thing, he is speaking to people whose prospects are not what they hoped them to be, whose economic prospects are dim. Who look around them and see all kinds of difficult social conditions whether it’s opioid addiction or losing a good factory job and finding one self working in Walmart and saying: “I feel your pain and the reason for your pain is that person or that group over there. It’s the fault of immigrants who are raping your mothers and sisters. It’s the fault of African Americans who are living on the dole. It’s the fault of the Chinese who are manipulating currency. Is the fault of the Other”. Creating an “us” versus “them” America. And we are sitting here, and we have the corniest view possible, you and I. Ellis Island, over there, which is a great arrival place for immigrants by the turn of the century and the Statue of’s Liberty over there, and you will forgive me for my American democratic historical sentimentalism but that is… it no unshaped by that feeling, which is deeper than me. And Donald Trump represents a current that has been in American policies for a long time, but no one has ever become President using this. So, that’s why I think it’s important not to normalize our sense of who he is. He’s not Mitt Romney, He’s not John McCain. I have all kinds of problems politically with all these people. I am not republican, you know, and I do not hide it. But this is outside the parenthesis, the large inclusive ideological parenthesis in American politics. This is something more unpredictable and alarming.
I have the impression and correct me, because I haven’t been here during the last 100 days and I am not an American, but I have the impression that the sense of urgency that has aroused after he took office and the rush of things that he is signing every day, has prevented everybody from having a deep reflection about how did he come to be President of the United States.
Not sure that’s true.
I think people have talked about it endlessly. Look, there is so much to talk about all at once. I think liberals and democrats have to look deeper than their souls, about a number of issues, but it’s beyond that. Every days he brings a new tweet, a new incomprehensible statement, a new scandal. For example, The New Yorker published, I don’t know.. six weeks ago, an investigative article about Trump's investments in business in Azerbaijan, and it concluded with evidence, and no contrary evidence from the Trump people, that Trump was in business with the most corrupt family in Baku. That was one business partner. And the other business partner were some Iranian brothers who were in a front group for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, an organization that the American government considers as a terrorist group. Then the author was on CNN for a couple of nights and then it went away, because everyday he brings something like that. If that would have happened with Obama, or Bush, or the older Bush, or Bill Clinton, a financial scandal of that level… They would’ve been gone. Everyday he brings a new outrage because we’ve chosen to live with this outrage. That was part of the bargain. His electorate, his voters, many of them, find much of what he says and does outrageous but they have chosen to live with it because what they see is the good side. They go to Washington, they shake things up, they drain the swamp, they’ve made what I think is a bargain with the devil, but that’s the bargain. It’s not just good liberals who recognize that there is an outrageous aspect to Trump.
I guess, in the end the point is that, yes, he is all the adjectives you’ve used to call him. He is an egocentric, he is a liar, he is dishonest, this and that… But he is the President, what does it says about this country that elected this guy to be President?
What I hope it says is that it’s a freak. That the Republican candidates were so weak, and he was so entertaining, and Hillary Clinton was such a weak candidate, and the factors of the FBI letter and the Russian elements were so strong that this whole complex of reasons ended up to a freak. I don’t think it is limited to that thought. I think we have to admit that there were darker forcers here. How did Donald Trump become a politician at all? At all! His first political cause was to question the legitimacy of the first African American President on the basis of where he was born or not born. A conspiracy theory. It was the exploitation of a racist conspiracy theory. And some people, I’m sure they are voters for Trump, who were just out and outraged, I’m sure there are some. But I think the majority of them, not all of them, probably are not racists, but the racist aspect of Trump was not a deal breaker. They choose to overlook that, or accept it or not be overly offended by it. That’s troubling. Same with misogyny, same with his attitude toward immigrants. Same with his exploitation of any number of issues. Which by the way, when you deep down or explore it, he may or may not give a shit about them in the first place. He’s a person willing to say or do anything in order to succeed. He is a con man.
But it got him…
…elected to be President of the United States. Look, Huey Long got elected governor, he was widely popular in the state of Louisiana. He’s not the first demagogue who won a popular election. He’s just the first one to become the President. Look, I am the first one to tell you that the history of the United States is incredibly complex and filled with patches of tremendous darkness. I don’t have to be from El Salvador to recognize that in the American history. Forgive me, but I think you know what I mean.
I know, believe me.
On the other hand, I think there are glorious aspects in the American history.
Has it changed your view of this country? No, that’s not the right question… Has it changed your view of your countrymen?
It’s a great question, a superb question. Someone in my position, job, life, location is now everyday accused of living in a bubble. We are in a Manhattan skyscraper and we are looking at the river and allegedly I live… I mean, me being an objectified person, the editor and such and such… That somehow I know nothing about this country, other than fancy dinner parties in Manhattan or fancy… But you know, I’m also a human being who has lived in a lot of places and I grew up with sick parents of no great means, I’ve travelled all around, worked as a journalist in all kinds… I’ve seen a lot! Here and abroad. And I guess what it’s done is taking a… I am trying to collect my thoughts, it’s such a good question. It has to make you think differently if you had not had before, about the question of American exceptionalism. Did you ever watched the American political conventions every four years?
A big thing is always the American exceptionalism, as if God had blessed this country in some way that didn’t bless France or El Salvador. And by the way, in so many ways, we are incredibly lucky, because of geography, because of scale, because of the appearance of a generation of Enlightment philosophers, who happened to be our founding fathers instead of tyrants or warlords or whoever might be. Also problematic periods, complex, but… But I think that a country that manages to elect Donald Trump has to ask itself some questions about American Exceptionalism and think… And even if you are willing to use that phrase, you have to use it in a much more complex and mature way. I think it was something that Obama, and I sympathize with Obama about it. People saw Obama. They saw a guy of the post 60s generation, they saw an African American and they were constantly asking questions about American Exceptionalism. And he said: if you mean American Exceptionalism in the sense that we are exceptional because we have the best weapons and we are sun kissed by God himself… No. But if you believe and look to the American history as a series of complex forces in which the evolution is a rocky road toward the evolution of something exceptional… That I can take on board. I remember interviewing him about Aretha Franklin and he said that his favorite American piece of music was not just “American the Beautiful” the song, but was Ray Charles singing “American the beautiful”, in which the lyrics were a counterpoint to the way Ray Charles sang them, which was full of the pain as well as the exaltation of American life. Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful contains the pain and the backward progress as well as the forward progress of American reality as opposed to Kate Smith singing American the Beautiful. Kate Smith is a white classic, patriotic, blend singer. And my hope is that this is one of those moments of… If history at its best is two steps forward and one step back, this is one step back and we can only hope that, for a variety reasons, it isn’t as dangerous as it might be, and that the forces of journalism, courts, maybe Congress, people changing their minds and all the institutions and forces in American life, maybe make this period not as bad as it could be. But my job as a journalist, as a voice, one voice of many, many, many is to be clear about what I think, and not afraid.
I want to get into that deeper, before we get into… I don’t know how to phrase this, but let me try…
Be blunt, you know…
As you know I come from a very small country that if someone on the fourth floor of the State Department sneezes, my country changes overnight. And this is the most powerful country in the history of human kind, this is the most influential country to determine the way the planet goes, the whole planet, and still when I see the parties’ conventions, when I see the debates, when I see the campaigns, it’s a very provincial debate.
Yes, I think part of that is a function of geography. Look in a map, I mean, part of the exceptionalism in America or part of its naïvete is that there is on one border Canada, a less threatening more benign presidency you couldn’t imagine, and in many ways it’s the same with Mexico. I think also that we are going through and enormous debate and this is not just Trump, going through and enormous debate of a period of decades probably since, at least Vietman, about how to use this strength or not use this strength. I readily confess that I’m torn about this, morally, politically and intellectually. We fully invaded Iraq and that was a disaster; we thought we were having a limited operation to help stop massacres in Libya and that kind of half invasion was a disaster; and we did next to nothing in Syria, because of Iraq. And doing nothing was a disaster. So I think people who think about America’s place in the world, and not just in the Middle East, are ripped in three different directions: people who are well-meaning as people who are… you know, that you and I would probably identify as the opposite of well-meaning. And that is not just about Trump. I mean, look at Obama’s terrible quandary about Syria. He came to… What was the thing that distinguished Obama from Hillary Clinton? Iraq. That was the one political thing were they differed. By the way, his opposition to Iraq, you know, he was a state senator representing Hyde Park, which is the equivalent of Greenwich Village, naturally. I am not saying he was insincere. But that speech he gave as a state senator, which you and I know is a very minor position, that’s what distinguished him, that and personality, from Hillary Clinton. There really wasn’t any radical policy differences between the two of them. This center left democrats and a little bit of difference on foreign policies, that is it. That is why he won. Absolutely.
I would disagree on that. I think that his power of inspiring…
Ok, ok. The power of imagination.
All right, but remember, he was nobody! He was a senator for ten seconds… Ten seconds! He gave a great speech, there is no question. Look, I was for him not for her. And so he comes to office and he rachets down our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan with complicated results, let’s just say. And in Syria he does basically almost nothing. Certainly, when it comes to using military, and what are the results? And again, I am not suggesting just one thing or another, I am just analyzing what happened. 450 thousand people dead, massive dislocation, cities in ruins, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of immigrants all over the world, particularly in Europe, which has an effective destabilizing in Europeans politics. The empowerment of Vladimir Putin, the empowerment Iran in Syria… That is what we got for not doing anything, and the results of doing everything in Iraq are equally disastrous. These are complex questions. So into the picture comes somebody with zero preparation, zero capacity for thought, independent, moral, strategic thought, and that is alarming. The world is dark enough. The world is complex enough. I don’t think that everything we talk should be about Donald Trump. Not you and me, but in general. My friend the late Murray Kempton, who was a great columnist for The New York Post, used to say that the great thing about the mafia is that you could blame them for everything, not just for their sins but for everything, because, how could they respond… ha, ha, ha …
Ha, ha, ha… Exactly.
So, Donald Trump is to be blamed for many, many things and most of them in the future tense.
Most of them in the future tense?
You know, we are only a 100 days in. There is a fantasy that somehow he’s going to be impeached in the next 100 days. But that’s not going to happen.
Ok we’ll get back to this. Let me go into journalism first. How has Donald Trump changed your view on the mission of journalism and the vision of the New Yorker Magazine?
Not one bit. No. The magazine always allowed a point of view. The magazine, when it comes to politics, has always… Are you talking about the New Yorker in my time?
Yes, of course.
There is a prime value and pressure on power when appropriate. Writers have to earn their point of view with evidence and argument and fairness. We are not primarily a polemical magazine. We are not primarily a polemical magazine. And we’ve always been interested in the highest possible level of facts and depth. When I say not one bit, I mean that our values are the same. Are we more alarmed than we were six months ago? Yes, that’s true. That’s true. Is one’s feeling of the journalistic mission heightened by this situation? Absolutely. That’s true.
So it has changed…
I’m just saying that our values are the same. I hope our practices are the same. But if you are driving at one’s sense of alarm it’s hard.
Let me try to address this from the shallow point of view. The New Yorker used to be sold, or advertised, or marketed as the best writing available, the best writers, and the most exquisite pieces of journalism…
I wouldn’t want to say... I think the massacre of El Mozote was in its way exquisite. It was not meant to be a primarily esthetic experience, Although, I think that Mark Danner did a great and brilliant job as a writer. But I think that the values of depth and truth and the pressure on power and in that case on the American Government and as well as more local things is very much there. And that was published in 1992 or 1993?
Yeah, 1993, I think. Of course I’m not saying it did not happen. It always happened in this magazine, it’s just that the caricature…
I know what the caricature of the magazine is. The caricature of the magazine is a little defeat. Nose up in in the air a little bit.
I am not going to play as the Truman Capote version of the New Yorker. What I mean is that there…
But even Truman Capote, by the way! Truman Capote most famous piece of writing for this magazine was about a murder. The murder of an entire family, there was not anything delicate about that story either. I am talking about Cold Blood.
Truman Capote publish image was something different but Truman Capote as a writer was vigorous.
Yes, I am not debating this. I am just saying that you used to sell your magazine like that. It was your offer. Now, your offer is “fighting fake stories with real ones”.
Yeah, guilty as charged.
But I mean, this did not come from nowhere. This came out of a…
Yes, I agree. I agree. I hope we’re just still well written. We still publish fiction at the very highest level, I hope that the writing of the nonfiction is at the very highest level. Last month, our theater critic got a Pulitzer prize. This is the first time that magazines have ever been eligible for Pulitzer prizes. The year before we won two Pulitzers prices for writing. Not political reporting. Writing! That is a value that’s still there. But what you just pointed to… Sure. It is a way of pointing out the differences between us and a lot of things that have emerged.
Yes, I am not judging this…
I understand. You made a good point.
And you have been writing… I mean… I am not an expert on David Remnick’s work but...
You’ll live longer ha, ha, ha…
Ha, ha, ha… But what I’ve read from you before the Trump era, I never saw you used so many adjectives as you are using now, for example.
And angry ones.
I do not want to judge them, but it’s just
I think that’s true.
You have a collection of adjectives that you’ve used against Trump.
Well-deserved or not, that is not something that…
Look, I’ll tellyou this. I hope I am wrong. I hope that some combination of American opposition and maybe even the eventual internal development of Donald Trump leads to a more normal presidency. Look, I’m a patriot. I love my country despite its endless complexities and darkness. It’s not like I… Hmm I don’t want disaster.
I understand. I just want to ask you about… It’s obvious that you see this as an extraordinary moment. Right?
So, if you are the director of a magazine such as this one, well, I am sure you have given a lot of thoughts about the role of this magazine in an extraordinary moment. I guess that’s what I want to know.
I do. I do. Yes, we’ve had more political pieces in the last, I do not know, four or five months than we had in the previous, you know, same period. And there’s a certain level of urgency and alarm underlying those pieces because of the nature of the moment. I mean, you can’t be shallow all the time. And by the way I think I have to be careful not to write like that too often, because after a while, you become the alarm that nobody can hear anymore.
I get your point, right.
Is not an esthetic decision. By the way, this for us is an extraordinary thing. I’ve taken up the whole section… Normally comment goes for a thousand words, but this is five thousand words. And… I don’t want to crowd out other voices here, but I do think that one of the problems journalistically, not just the New Yorker, but just in general, is that most political currents, left or right, come with an intelligentsia attached to it. There is a conservative intelligentsia in this country. Almost all of it has been anti Trump, which is an interesting thing. There’s a small pro Trump intelligentsia that has announced itself, like the Claremont Independent, this is a magazine that comes out of a university in Los Angeles, Claremont McKenna College. But, for example, if I am a cable TV producer who wants to arrange those kind of debates that you see every night on CNN, it’s very hard. There is absolutely a conservative intelligentsia: The National Review, The American Conservative and all kinds of magazines in universities and so on. Pro Trump? No. Very little.
But how did we come to talk in this terms, “pro Trump” or “against Trump”?
You have currents, you have intellectual currents that are pro-nationalists, not in here but in other countries. But it’s hard to know what Trumpism is, because it seems to change all the time. He throws out ideas and then gets rid of them in the most chaotic way. Chaos is one of the principles of Trumpism. Is not as coherent as Le Pen or Putin.
You said it’s not as coherent as Le Pen? Now I’m more worried!
It is my job ja, ja, ja…
But let me bring you back to journalism.
It’s obvious that is a huge sense of alarm that you feel, and probably a lot of people in the country, for the moment that you are living trough. Do you think it moves a bit the borderlines of journalism?
Which borderlines? The borderline of what?
You are the director of the New Yorker, you’ve called for the resistance, from these pages…
Well… Yeah, I have a point of view. You know, I don’t go to demonstrations. I’m not apolitical… I’m an editorial voice in the great big American argument. I am that. And I’m also someone who is directing, much more important than that article that we’re talking about, much more important, I’m figuring out what we as a magazine should do. I’m not writing, I do not write very much at all. Mostly what I do is encourage, direct and support the activities of the magazine and the website. It has to do with investigate journalism, with who we profile. This is a minor part of what we do, this is not The Nation magazine, where the opinion is the most important thing. I also want us to be writing about why people in West Virginia or Western Pennsylvania or rural Ohio, etc., etc., are for Trump and not report on them as caricatures or as if everybody feels the same way or everybody is a racist.
Do you think media failed to do that before?
To some extent, sure. Sure. Look, I don’t run a poll here, the big question is: Did American journalism blow it? I think polls blew it. I think there was plenty of coverage of people who were Trump supporters. George Saunders, do you know this novelist? George Saunders wrote a brilliant piece for us about Trump voters. It was quite openhearted in a certain sense. Evan Osnos wrote a brilliant piece and when I say a piece, I don’t mean a little piece, I mean a big thing, very early on about the currents of white nationalism. Larissa Macfarquhar wrote an extraordinary piece of reporting from West Virginia about Trump, ProTrump voters and why they felt that way and the complexity of why they felt that way. Did the magazine predicted that he would win? No.
No, no, but this is not about predictions.
I don’t have a poll, I don’t run a poll… all the polls said that she was most likely to win. And you know what happened? At the end there was a series of events that may or not have tipped the balance. So, in retrospective, should we have had even more? Well, maybe… I don’t mean to be defensive. I’m just…
No, I’m just trying to understand what happened in the American mainstream media, the traditional accusation against the American mainstream media is that the arrogance of the coasts always made them turn away of what was going on in what you call flyover states.
Well, where are all the big newspapers? We also have this very interesting phenomenon that has to do with the press, this is a big country and a lot of the regional newspapers have closed and they have not been replaced. So, for example, I am pointing to Newark, New Jersey. It’s a big city, 700 thousand people. It would be the second largest city in your country. Its newspapers have shriveled to website covers for the local things. Every mayor used to go to jail ja, ja, ja… every single one of them. Who sent the mayors to jail? The judges he appoints? probably not. The police he put in place? Probably not. It was the press! So, if I lose that newspaper, who is going to send the next dishonest Mayor to jail? In Newark. In Amarillo, Texas, you know, places that suck, so the press is getting smaller, more defensive, more worried, less confident, its resources are shriveling and in the way the importance of the big obvious ones as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker… any number, not that many… does not decrease, it increases, because of the way it influences the local coverage. I mean, television to a large extend, what are they doing? They are reading The New York Times in the morning and they are putting their covering around those stories, accordingly. A tremendous responsibility. And yelling about the press, as cut off, as not authentic… This is an old game. Do you remember Spiro Agnew? He had a great phrase, he was Nixon`s Vice-president, “nattering nabobs of negativism”. Nattering is someone who chatters, nabob is an idiot, of negativism, but it sounds as… It is just beautiful. So this move of making the enemy the tribunal, you know, the editor... These people are all flawed. I readily admit, beginning with me, but they make mistakes of arrogance, of accuracy, all the things that human beings can do, but this is what demagoguery is all about.
For Donald Trump to describe me as a cut off from the heartland of the United States is comical. He is a billionaire who lives in 5thAvenue in a golden palace that would make the Peron family embarrassed…
And yet he manage to convince millions…
Tens of millions…
Of disenfranchised people…
This is not a new story. It’s an American new story.
Yes, I get that.
You and your country are used to political alarm, my Russians friends are used to political alarm. My Israeli friends and Palestinian friends, where I go quite often, are used to live in an atmosphere of political disappointment. To say the least. We had 8 years where we went from a gigantic recession to a rescue… You know, liberals are alarmed because they probably relaxed too much under Obama, including Obama. Democratic party is in terrible shape, terrible shape.
Who have said that, Jane Mayer? She has a great book called Dark Money. It starts saying that when Obama was celebrating his first week in the office the Koch brothers organized a secret meeting in California, because they were really afraid that Obama getting to the office would mean 40 years of progressive agenda. Eight years from there you’re telling me that the Democratic Party is…
Incredible weak. And old.
So if those guys were very alarmed, these guys were very comfortable. Let me go back to media, because you mentioned the media crisis and this is my opinion David. It might be wrong, but my opinion is that we are all confusing a media crisis with a crisis in journalism, which is different, they share some spaces but they are different, one is a business model crisis and the other is a journalism crisis. I don’t think that I have never seen a better piece talking about the journalist crisis than one of your colleges that I just love Jill Lepore, she talks about this. How we have lost the roll as fact establishers or arbiters. I don’t know if you remember this piece but it is brilliant. Do you think there is a journalism crisis?
Of course I remember it, I published it.
There have always been fake news, bullshit was not invented yesterday. American newspapers in the 19 century used to be owned by political parties, most of them, and they were full of shit. They were propaganda sheets for the Whigs, the Democrats, and Republicans, whatever. Conspiracy theory was not invented yesterday. When I was a kid, I worked as a house painter and my boss used to tell me that Franklin Roosevelt was still alive and that the astronauts did not land on the moon. That it was fake. What’s new is the internet and its capacity to spread bullshit, fake news at the speed of light for free. That’s what’s new. So in the 18th century it was possible for species to get extinct, what’s new is how fast they extinct. So I had the most alarming conversation with an English college from the BBC, one of our colleges who comes here and we were having a conversation like this one, and at one point he said: Do you think the Enlightenment is over? And I thought he was teasing me, I thought he was warning me that I had gone too far with my rethoric, but when he finished the interview, when he turned off the camera, I said Jesus, Ian, the Enlightenment is over? Are you crazy? He said: No, I actually believe it. And I think it had to do with his alarm about the negative consequences of and the exploitation of the internet. Where truth and bullshit are concerned. It is a legitimate worry, so when you ask me, has journalism changed or my attitude toward journalism changed? The values have not changed, my sense of alarm has changed, our sense of… and I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but our sense of mission and importance of what we are doing when we wake up in the morning and before we go to bed at night is stronger, because there is a sense of peril. Bullshit always existed.
Jilll Lepore puts it better than anyone: Look, there is global warming. Well, that’s what you think. No, this is science. Well, that’s science that you believe in, but I don’t believe in that… We used to debate around the fact, the fact was not in doubt, we had different opinions and perspectives around the fact. Now, there is no fact in the middle.
Well, we’re having this argument… You’ve seen this in The New York Times, The New York Times wanted to hire another conservative columnist and I understand why.
Because you should not have everybody writing the same damn thing. And the theory of their OpEd page is that you have a debate about several things. So they hired a guy from the Wall Street Journal named Brett Stephens. They hired him from the Wall Street Journal and he is conservative and his first column was exactly what you said. Yes, I think that global warming is caused by man, but I think there are some extreme opinions about it. And he was clearly… Epater le bourgeoisie. He wanted to poke the liberal reader of The New York Times, and people went crazy. Crazy! He is the second columnist in the newspaper today. Catch up with this controversy, he’s not doubting global warming at all, but at the same time he is doubting the details, the bases of global warming. He is asking readers to question and people are on guard about this.
That’s a very good example, this is not about what you think or what I think. There is science…
There is also a scientific debate. I’m not saying that Brett Stephens is right or wrong. What he is doing is trying to provoke a debate about things that are debatable. That’s scientist debate. There’s some people that think that cancer is caused by X; and some people that think cancer is Y. But there are some things that are still for grabs. I think he was trying to get some attention to. And there’s people who are just deniers, climate change deniers. And there are people, and this is very controversial to say, because I live in a largely religious society and I am therefore cut off, I am a coastal secular, communist… whatever…. But people believe in angels too. The majority of Americans believe in angels and a large percentage of the people believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Do I respect that? Shouldn’t I respect that? How do I put my arms around that?
Because we have a journalistic method, we do not go by beliefs.
I understand, but beliefs exist in this world.
Yes, we can respect that, but we publish things that we have put through a journalistic method of verification. Would you agree on that?
Yes, of course.
I imagined that ha, ha, ha.
Ha, ha, ha... I have 18 overeducated people on their twenties, who we call fact checkers, on the other side of the floor.
That’s why I was asking this.
But still we make mistakes, I’m sure. I know we do. Look, all of this has been treated as if it’s a new debate, but it’s not. I think it’s being made more intense by a combination of recent events, the internet, Donald Trump, fake news… Look, I have something in my country and I think you also do: tabloid culture. I have The New York Post, a lot of what it prints is bullshit. There is The Sun in London. A lot of things that come out of mouths of people in Fox News is bullshit. I lived in Moscow for God’s sake, where there’s Pravda, it’s bullshit, fake news. That’s not new.
You always had Izvestia ha, ha, ha…
Izvestia, ha, ha, ha… Exactly. When I go to Moscow, I go online now. I mean there is a lot of nonsense. The Russian television.
But maybe the thing is that we are all worried about this. And when I said “we are all”, I mean me, a Salvadoran guy living in San Salvador.
Because you think it will make Americans go crazy and affect you?
Not only the influence of this country but the role of media in the most powerful democracy.
Here’s the good news, I would tell you this and I hope you can tell your readers this: If the last 100 days have taught me anything to be optimistic about is that American democracy was not invented 10 years ago and you would be telling me no secrets or news when you informed me about the darkest parts of American history. I hope you understand that. But there are institutions in this country, there are traditions in this country, there’s variety of opinions in this country that has displayed itself in the past several months that are encouraging. Look, Trump is President. I’m publishing, The New York Times is publishing, The Washington Post is publishing, CNN has gotten better. CNN did things in the campaign that I think were terrible. Now it’s better. And many other places I could count on. The courts have done their job, there are people in Congress who have acted honestly and decently. There are Republicans who have battled with the President. Are there cynical actors? Yes. Are there people who believe in Trump? Yes. Are they going to be defeats in the months and years ahead? Yes, and it might happen this afternoon. It may happen. I have no great optimism that we are going to have a lot of forward motion but I also have some optimism that there are forces to keep this in check. And it may affect him?
Let me finish with resistance and social movement.
I’m sorry that I am throwing my own prejudices, but it’s my impression that civil society as such was kind of dormant and comfortable as we were talking about during the Obama years. It’s surprising that they have awaken faster that anyone could have expected…
Maybe, because they weren’t so dormant in the first place. I think they are more awaken and louder because they have more to resist, but there is a big tradition… Look, what is Black Lives Matter? That is a movement born in the Obama years. Black Lives Matter grows out of a situation in which something has being going on forever: young black men being subjects of violence by police at a far greater way that anybody else, but now we have a new invention, a new technology: The phone with video camera. People couldn’t avoid it anymore. They have watched a black man who ran away from a police officer and was shot in the back. They saw the same thing happened in Louisiana, Detroit, elsewhere and a movement was born called “Black Lives Matter”. That’s civil society. These are all aspect of civil society. So when I talk about the optimistic side, the richness of American democracy these things are in place. The problem with my Russian brothers and sisters is that democracy was so young, so fragile that it was easily overrun, it was easily crashed. And so flawed by the way too, because of privatization and all the issues we know about. Look, I think that not only we have a Constitution from 1789, but we also have deep democratic roots from that period and that’s not so easily defeated. You need laws and people and traditions and confidence. And it’s still difficult, and it’s still fragile.