The Gilded Rage. Interview with Alexander Zaitchik
Alexander Zaitchik is an independent American journalist whose work appears in Rolling Stone, Foreign Policy, Slate, and other high-profile publications in the USA and internationally. His latest book, The Gilded Rage, has just been published.
- Friday, 02 September 2016
CL: Could you introduce yourself in few words, and tell us what the book is about.
AZ: I've been freelancing in the world of journalism for American publications for about twenty years both here in the U.S. and abroad. Most of the reporters here as in most places are bunkered down in the capital and also in New York and there's been a kind of revolt against those establishment, kind of guardians of public opinion and the boundaries of what was considered acceptable politics in the two party system that we have.
So I went out to those places where Donald Trump who is one manifestation of that revolt - the other being Bernie Sanders, who didn't quite capture his party the way Trump captured his - I went out and I talked to people in those places where Trump was enjoying his strongest support. Places like Appalachia, West Virginia where in some counties he was polling 80%, 85%, which is pretty much unheard of.
I went to the border regions with Mexico where he's very popular: the Rust Belt, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania… places where they used to have a lot of industry and unionized labour that now has been reduced to service jobs, largely un-unionized and very low paying, and I did long form biographical interviews with people in those places to sort of take the pulse was the idea.
CL: OK I’ve read your book, and what strikes me immediately is how ordinary the people seem. You know, we're used to looking at people like the Tea Party, Sarah Palin’s amazing campaign, then the messages from Fox news and all of these right wing people and it seems that they're all crazy, but a lot of Trump supporters just seem to be regular Americans. So how do you account for that?
AZ: The first thing to note is that the Tea Party phenomenon may superficially look like a precursor to the Trump insurgency but it's important to remember that the Tea Party was essentially a corporate-funded fake explosion. They wanted to throw a monkey wrench in the Obama plans and it was funded by the Koch brothers, our biggest industrialists and it involved whipping the evangelicals into a frenzy and had a very different flavour than the Trump phenomenon which is not very religious at all.
Trump is no evangelical’s idea of an ideal candidate for a lot of obvious reasons. And it was also opposed from the beginning by the big money, the deep pockets, and the lobbyists’ networks that traditionally pick the winners in the Republican Party and also manufactured the Tea Party. Trump represents the people who feel hoodwinked by decades of Republican big money corporate politics and realize what the Tea Party was and basically it's their revenge.
They were being told from the beginning that Trump was not an acceptable candidate, anyone who voted for Trump was a bad Republican, if not a bad human being and they just said we don't care! We're done listening to you. We're not going to take Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio or any of these sorts of corporate Republican types that they've been fed for as long as they can remember and to your question about ordinary people, they are ordinary people; they're not paid operatives, they're not the sort of Evangelical nutjobs you were describing. A lot of them were conservative Democrats, worked for most of their lives in you know good paying unionized labour and now see communities that are parking lots, McDonald's, strip malls and a whole bunch of people on heroin.
It's really hard to explain how devastated a lot of these parts of the country are now and people are sliding or treading water living paycheck to paycheck and even people who have pensions or who maybe did OK during the height of the American economy in the golden age are seeing the next generations beneath them with very dim prospects constantly becoming dimmer and that's where the anger of the title comes from. It was just a lot of rage bordering on desperation and they're done listening to their Republican masters who they feel brought them to this point.
CL: I think maybe it is more familiar than you might think, because I think there are a lot of parallels with Britain; there are whole areas of Britain that are just as devastated. It's not quite as dramatic maybe. To continue with Trump, do you think that the people that you talk to actually believe his extreme messages about building the wall and sending all of the immigrants back? Or do you think they don't really care about that if as you say the main thing is just this this rebellion against the system?
AZ: Well it's a mix. I mean there are thirteen million people that voted for Donald Trump. I didn’t talk to all of them and I couldn’t speak for all of them. I don't want to replace one stereotype with another. But there's definitely more self-awareness and critical thinking in the average Trump voter as I found them than I was expecting. A lot of them especially the closer you get to the border will just laugh when you talk about the wall. They know how absurd that is and they think that Trump couldn't possibly be serious and if he is serious, once he gets in office he'll have an advisor who explains that in fact all we need is more border patrol near the actual border as opposed to a mile or two up on the main road.
They all have very practical thoughts on things like the wall and mass deportation. I didn't meet too many people who thought that was a good idea or a moral idea or even a possible project that could be accomplished.
So I think there is a lot of understanding that Trump’s kind of buffoonery and cartoonish statements especially early in the campaign were if not metaphors, kind of like a declaration of independence and not giving a shit and being willing to anger people and cross lines and it was like a part of his whole rebellion against political correctness: he's going to say these things and he doesn't care how much he gets made fun of or yelled at by the self-proclaimed guardians of the culture.
So I think that's part of what was going on, yes there were quite a few people who did not take Trump literally and understand he's an entertainer, they've watched his T.V. shows. They know he's in the world wrestling Hall of Fame here in the US. I mean people know this and I think they take his political statements with more than a grain of salt.
CL: So you've written about a lot of other subjects but with two books on right-wing American politics, it looks as if you're becoming something of a specialist on this. Do you see yourself going in that direction?
AZ: Yeah! And here in the U.S, it's certainly more interesting to me than writing about the left of which I consider myself a part. There’s also a surprising shortage of interest in doing work in the field on the right. A lot of people write blogs and columns and have pundit approaches to the conservative movement but I know getting out there and actually talking to people and collecting their voices which is pretty much what this book was: a collection of interviews along the lines of Studs Terkel who's a great oral historian out of Chicago who is famous for collecting the stories of ordinary everyday Americans.
CL: It's a revolutionary moment. I think Trump has in fact already revolutionized American politics. This week it doesn't look so likely that he's actually going to make it but whatever happens he’s revolutionized the Republican Party and he's revolutionized the voters. He’s shown them that something else is possible. So I'm going to ask you a last question which is probably one that you won’t want to answer, which is the simple one: who's going to win? Trump or Hillary?
AZ: There would have to be some huge bombshells in this new cache of e-mails that just got released for Trump to claw back into this thing. I mean it's going to have to be either a massive terror attack on a par with 9/11 or a huge scandal on a par with Watergate for him to get back in it. I mean he's losing across the board, he's losing red states, South Carolina is in play last time I checked. I mean it's he's just getting stopped.
It would be interesting to see how many of his supporters I talked to for the book have climbed down from their support since I spoke with them because he's just made a whole bunch of errors and it almost sounds like he doesn't want to win sometimes. I mean, repeatedly asking why he can't use nuclear weapons. It's all about as textbook a way to scare the pants off of everybody including your supporters.
So I don't know what's going on with that campaign but it's looking pretty grim for him.
CL: OK. So everybody, order Alexander Zaitchik’s ‘The Gilded Rage’ out now at all good websites. Let me thank you very much for your interesting insights and for spending time with us.
AZ: Thank you Chris, take care!
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Christopher Lord has lived in nine countries and speaks seven languages. His books include Politics and Parallel Cultures, and his journalism has been published world-wide.