The rise and (perhaps only momentary) fall of Donald Trump has gone hand-in-hand with a radical remaking of the Republican Party. As MAGA ideologues have risen to prominence in the party, so-called “Never Trumpers” such as outspoken Wyoming Congressperson Liz Cheney have found themselves on the defensive. While the Democratic leadership expends its energy squashing progressive agendas and candidates, a revitalized GOP is preparing to sweep back into full power. This time, the consequences of Republican rule could be far more devastating than anything previously seen. Political blogger and author John Nichols joins The Marc Steiner Show to discuss the right’s 50 year march to power, the GOP’s frightening agenda, and the ongoing failure of the Democrats to mount an effective defense.
John Nichols is a political blogger and national affairs correspondent for The Nation, a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times, and the associate editor of the Capital Times. Nichols is also the author of editor of several books, including the most recent Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability for Those Who Caused the Crisis (Verso). His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and dozens of other newspapers.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on August 10, 2022, prior to Liz Cheney’s defeat in the Wyoming Congressional primary.
Studio: Dwayne Gladden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. We are really living in a strange time politically in our country. The deep divide in America has reared its beastly head. We seem to be at each other’s throats. Kansans said no to banning abortions, but said yes to Donald Trump. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar barely kept hold of her congressional seat, challenged by a law and order Democrat. And it looks as if the Wild West of Wyoming is about to run January the 6th committee star Liz Cheney right out of Dodge. And House Minority Leader McCarthy threatens all out war if the Republicans succeed in capturing the House of Representatives. The right seems to be surging, controlling much of the body politic.
One man who follows this and writes about it with an astute eye and a positive outlook in the midst of a serious analysis is Nation magazine’s national affairs correspondent John Nichols. Besides being a friend and a colleague, he’s written enough books to fill a small library. His latest is Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability for Those Who Caused the Crisis. And he wrote The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics; Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America; and, with Robert McChesney, People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy. And John Nichols, welcome back. Always good to have you with us.
John Nichols: It’s a great honor to be with you, Marc, as always.
Marc Steiner: Always good to talk to you. So where to even begin? I said this the other night in a meeting that, in a conversation I had, that we seem to be in an America that is in a greater state of flux than I remember in my lifetime. That we may have grown up in ourselves, in our generation and generations around us, in an anomalous period in this country, and with the conservative and right-wing forces kind of on the verge of seizing power. So talk a bit about where you think we are and why.
John Nichols: Well, that’s a very good way to set it up, Marc. And I think that you have such a long perspective and a good perspective, that you understand that we’ve seen tough times before. This is certainly not the first moment in which our country has been deeply divided. We have been more divided than we are at this point, and certainly that was true before the Civil War. I think it was unquestionably true in the run up to and during the years around World War I, which is sort of an under-explored period in our history where we saw a real rise of authoritarianism, especially in the aftermath of the war. And I think during the Great Depression, I mean, certainly this country was struggling at a level that at one point Franklin Roosevelt felt compelled to say of the bankers in the country, “I welcome their hatred.”
So we know that divisions have been deep and that times have been tough. What’s different now – And it is distinct – Is that we have so much awareness of what’s going on on the other side, if you will, that we’re far more conscious of the developments as it regards the extreme right in America than we were in the past. In the past, people could be taken by surprise. Something could come unexpectedly. Now we see it coming, and that’s quite a remarkable thing because it allows us to put all of our historical perspective in place, as well as deal with the current moment. And obviously, knowledge is supposed to be power, but at the same time it can be overwhelming, because we know that the signs we are seeing are not good, that they lead to things that are incredibly dangerous and destructive. And yet we don’t see the evidence that our leaders or, frankly, our body politic is necessarily responding in a way that will avert the crisis.
So let’s from there burrow into the specifics and say that without a question, look, we live at a point where Donald Trump is the dominant figure in our politics. He has been the dominant figure in our politics since June 2015. That is a seven-year period. Frankly, in American history, it’s very rare for somebody to be the dominant figure in politics for that long. And whether he wins or loses, whether he’s up, whether he’s down, it’s always about Trump. It all comes back to him.
And what has he brought us? He’s brought us an incredibly divisive presidency, of course, the takeover and restructuring of a major political party, to the extent that many of its longtime members no longer recognize it. A coup attempt that, while unsuccessful, left people dead and certainly destabilized the process of transferring power after the 2020 election.
And then a denial of reality since that coup attempt that exists up to this day and has so taken over the Republican Party that now people who buy into a big lie, an absolute fantasy about democracy, are winning nominations for governorships, for Senate seats, for congressional seats across the country, and are also positioning to take over oversight of elections going into the future. All that going on one track.
Then we have the other reality, that Trump isn’t in power, that the Democrats are in charge of the White House and the Congress. And there is an investigation into Trump, there are many investigations into Trump. And we’ve seen that get to a level of something we’ve never seen before in American history: a search warrant being executed at the compound of an immediate former president of the United States, a potential candidate in the next presidential election.
And then the response of the Republican Party to that, which is perhaps, from a historical standpoint, the most dramatic thing since the coup attempt on January 6, 2021, and that is the leading contender to become speaker of the House, if Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, saying that should they come to power, they will use that power to obstruct justice, to prevent accountability for Donald Trump, and to – In a fully lawless manner – Seek to intimidate the Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies to prevent what we were taught as school children was a basic premise of the American experiment, and that is that no one is above the law. We’re in a very perilous moment. And while you noted that I am often optimistic, I have to warn that this is a time where optimism is strained.
Marc Steiner: No, no, I understand. And I feel the same way. I want to ask a bit of a question about Trump and the last 50 years. So you and some, not completely, have put some of this at the doorstep of Donald Trump, where a lot of it belongs. At the same time, when you look at our history over the last 50 years, in response to the Civil Rights Movement, in response to labor, in response to the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the changes that took place in this country, the Voting Rights Act, all the things that really transformed America, and at the same time, there was a man named Justice Lewis Powell, before he became justice, who began galvanizing others in this country and became part of a movement to bring conservatives together to say, no, we’ve got to stop this. We have to organize and end it.
And they have actually, on the larger spectrum of the right, have really organized a movement and seemed highly organized and highly funded. And it’s been a 50-year march. To me, Donald Trump is like, he was a convenient figure, he was a convenient buffoon to lead their charge for them. But this is a highly organized movement – And also well armed, I might add – And now controls at least 26 state governments and legislatures. So I mean, that, to me, is even more dangerous than Trump himself, no matter who takes over after him, DeSantis or anybody else.
John Nichols: Well, you’re exactly right. Look, that’s the important perspective to have. Nobody is a dominant figure in and of themselves. They always are a product of their times and a product of the developments that came before them. And in the case of Donald Trump, he is the latest in a long series of individuals who were put into positions of power by the Republican Party because they thought they could win elections. Mitch McConnell knows full well that he could never win a presidential election. I mean, it would be an absurd construct. He’s a very unappealing figure. And most of the people who Mitch McConnell turns to for money, they couldn’t win an election for dog catcher in their own hometown. These are literally rich people who want to lower their own taxes and redistribute wealth upwards so that they take money from the poor. I mean, they’re like characters who stepped out of a Robin Hood story, the bad characters, worse than the Sheriff of Nottingham.
And so they couldn’t win elections. So they’re always looking for somebody that they can put forward. And the classic step, and, frankly, a genius move, was they went to Hollywood. They found an actor, Ronald Reagan, to be their front man for many of their economic and foreign policy initiatives in the 1980s. And then after they lost the presidency for a period, they turned to the son of a former president, George W. Bush, who was so dimwitted that he was quizzed and couldn’t name you officials in Canada. I mean, this guy’s a relatively incompetent figure. But he had this concept of compassionate conservatism and came off as relatively likable, a guy you “could have a beer with.” And they rolled the dice on Bush for a while, thinking that they could hold him up by having Cheney pulling the strings in the background. And that came a cropper because Bush led us into an illegal and immoral war and then crashed the global economy.
I mean, by the way, it is important to understand that many of these people are, in fact, incompetent. So then you got into a situation in 2016 where Republicans were desperate to retake the presidency. And the last person they wanted was Donald Trump. They weren’t seeking Donald Trump. But because their “best and brightest” was such a clown car full of candidates, Trump was able to shove them aside and become the nominee of the party. And then here’s where the interesting thing came in, because Trump wasn’t their choice. He wasn’t the person they wanted there. So they had to figure out, well, are we going to wrap our heads around this? Are we going to embrace this? Is this going to be who we are?
And instead of taking a temporary loss and saying, okay, let’s not work very hard for Trump. Let’s let him lose because we don’t want him to be president, they were so desperate for power that Liz Cheney and all these other people united behind Trump in 2016 – And, by the way, 2020 – Got him across the line in 2016. He lost the popular vote, but he still, because of our totally unfair and dysfunctional electoral college system, became president of the United States. Was a disastrous president, led us into a crisis with the coronavirus pandemic, et cetera, et cetera, again, an incompetent put in there because the people who run the Republican Party thought he could win.
And then there’s the interesting thing, Marc. They lost control. The power brokers lost control over the monster they had created. And so now they’re dealing with a complex reality of a guy who faces multiple criminal investigations, a character who led a coup attempt, a racist xenophobe, somebody who is incredibly destructive and dangerous, and they can’t keep him away from the game.
He’s constantly making endorsements. He’s constantly campaigning. He’s preparing to run again for president in 2024. And they can’t stop him, so rather than say, boy, we’ve created something so dangerous that we can’t stop within our own party, so we’re pulling back. We’re not going to destroy the country in this regard, they have said, nope, we’ll wrap our heads around this. We’ll embrace this. And this is the fundamental reality. Kevin McCarthy knows that Donald Trump shouldn’t be president of the United States. Kevin McCarthy has even said in the past that he doesn’t think Trump is a particularly competent figure, that he is frightened by Trump on a variety of levels. This comes out all the time from McCarthy in tapes of statements and things like that. And yet here he is saying that he will use the full power of Congress to defend Donald Trump. And he’s not alone. And Lindsay Graham, who is actually a very smart member of the United States Senate, was out urging Trump to announce quicker for the presidency in 2024.
So we are on a collision course now with what the Republican Party has become. And that makes the 2022 and 2024 elections incredibly important elections. I know we always say that this is the most important election of our life. That’s a stupid thing to say. The most important elections are usually the ones that you don’t even notice till afterwards [Marc laughs]. 2016 was an important election. I mean, Trump should have been stopped there, he wasn’t, there you go. 1968 was an important election. Nixon should have been stopped, he wasn’t, there you go. Sometimes it’s only when you look back on it that you realize the importance of it.
But what we should understand is that the 2022 and 2024 elections are a critical juncture in American history. Whether we call them important or whatever word we want to use, this is the point where we will decide whether a European-style, white nationalist extremist politics that owes more to Viktor Orban than to Abraham Lincoln or Dwight Eisenhower becomes a part of American politics and is in fact the dominant reality of one of our major parties.
And in that context, we will also determine how the other party – Because we’re locked into a two-party system which is often dysfunctional – But we will see how the other party responds to that threat. And I tell you, Marc, you know history and are well aware of international history. We’re not the first country that’s come to this place. But I can tell you that how we resolve this, how we deal with this as a country, will determine everything about what this country is for, certainly, the next 20, 25 years. Incredibly important political times.
Marc Steiner: A couple of thoughts about what you said before I let you go to your next whatever you have coming up. I’m sure there’s much going on. But the question is, how do you see this in terms of the political dynamic in this country, where you see both a Republican Party that is deeply divided, but controlled more and more by essentially right-wing elements? We may see Liz Cheney in the next day or so lose her election. It seems very possible she will lose Wyoming.
John Nichols: I think it’s likely.
Marc Steiner: Yeah, I think it’s very likely. You wrote an eloquent piece about her and all the contradictions that she represents as Liz Cheney, who’s now become a hero to some. And then the Democrats are also deeply divided. You saw the Ilhan Omar race, where she just barely won against a Democrat who was a very conservative law and order Democrat. And also there’s this neoliberal-progressive divide inside the Democratic Party. So the political dynamic is really intense with no real unity anywhere. So now how do you see that playing out? You’ve seen progressives lose in these primaries as well, like Levin and others.
John Nichols: Yeah. I mean, some progressives have lost, some have won. This has been a very complex –
Marc Steiner: Yes. Yeah. Right, right.
John Nichols: …Season. Greg Casar down in Texas won a very important primary early on. Summer Lee in Pennsylvania won a very important primary. So you look across the map, you’re going to see signals going both directions. Two of the US Senate candidates who are probably the most important Senate candidates for the Democrats in 2022 are both progressives: Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin and John Fetterman in Pennsylvania. And so the progressive movement continues to be an incredibly important force within the Democratic Party. It is the dynamic force within the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, the Democratic elites and the establishment don’t like it. They don’t like the progressives. They would prefer to have a political party that is cautious and centrist and that doesn’t get much done. And it satisfies the donor class rather than the working class. And it is a real crisis at this point, Marc, because they’re so satisfied with doing so little that they went into default for about a year after the Build Back Better plan collapsed last year because of Joe Manchin. They just didn’t get anything done.
And then only in the last week or so, a couple weeks, they’re like, oh my gosh, we’re about to go into a midterm election with virtually no accomplishments, in a year when you control the presidency and the House and the Senate. And suddenly they flip the switch and they’re like, oh, we better do some things. And the incredible thing is, what do they do when they realize they’ve got to get something done? They put a whole bunch of money into climate, addressing the climate crisis – Which is a really good idea – And a whole bunch of money into healthcare, and even taking on, to some minimal extent, the drug companies. So when they’re in trouble, they do progressive things, because it’s the only way out of that trouble. And yet on any given day, if the establishment of the Democratic Party has its way, they will defeat progressives in primaries, they will push them to the side, they will marginalize them, they will silence them and not listen to them. They will do everything they can to undermine them.
And so you have a deeply, deeply dysfunctional Democratic Party. It’s a party that doesn’t want its strongest element to be able to be heard, to be able to be effective. And what it tells us, Marc, at the most basic level, is that it is our electoral system that determines that we have two parties. We have set up a structure, both formal and informal in this country, that basically imposes the reality of two political parties. If we had a different system, like France, I think the Democratic and the Republican parties would probably both have been completely marginalized by this point. They would be pushed to the side. There would be new parties. There would be a party at the left built around Bernie Sanders and people aligned with him.
There would be a Trump-like party of white nationalism and extremism. There would be a center-right party, and probably a center-left party. You’d have a mix. And if we had coalition governance, you might even have another party. And people would move between them, and electoral power would move between them. We don’t have that in America. We have failed, in the post-World War II era, to do the electoral reforms that virtually every other country did. And as a result, we end up with a system that locks us into a choice between one party that is now spiraling toward authoritarianism and extreme white nationalism of a very, I think, frightening and troublesome form. And then we have another party that is often dysfunctional in responding to that crisis and in filling the void of popular sentiment and popular will. And so you and I and the brilliant people that listen to your show are stuck here watching.
And I know many folks are urban. I grew up in a small town, and so we had county fairs. And at the county fair on Sunday night, the big entertainment was the demolition derby, and you watched cars crash into each other. And to an extent, we are watching a political demolition derby and hoping that a particular driver comes out of it and gets the trophy at the end. But it isn’t something that rises to the level of highest-stage democracy. This is a real mess. And with that said, with all that said, I think that we have to take it very seriously. And we ultimately have to figure out how we can, frankly, quite pragmatically and quite practically get out of the first stage crisis, which is the threat to democracy itself. How do we make sure that we maintain democracy and then quickly move into the crises that extend beyond that?
Marc Steiner: So the final question, and you can go run off and catch a plane, whatever you’re doing at the moment.
John Nichols: I’m at your service, Marc. [crosstalk] You’re being very polite and it is a crazy schedule. But I love talking to you and I’m delighted to answer your questions.
Marc Steiner: I appreciate –
John Nichols: [crosstalk]. I really want to emphasize that.
Marc Steiner: I appreciate that. So clearly we’re not a parliamentary democracy. You’ve written a lot over the last month or two, and talking about a lot of this that we face. And so I’m really curious how you see this playing out politically in the United States. When you see this huge divide here in the United States that we have, when you see that instead of a parliamentary system, we have these deeply divided two parties that are both really deeply divided, and how this ends up playing out in terms of… How do I put this, bringing John Nichols’s kind of Midwestern optimism, left politics that is born of Debs and La Follette and more, what do you say about what that teaches where we could be going and how we get there? I’m just curious where you think this takes us.
John Nichols: Well, I love the question. And I think the answer is that we come through, we survive. I operate on the basis of hope, not hopelessness. Cynicism and a sense that it can’t work out, that’s the easy out. Because you say, well, there’s really no hope, and then when things turn out badly, you say, see, I knew it was coming. And if things turn out well, nobody remembers your hopelessness. It’s much better and much more challenging to believe in the possibility. And then you start to get into the data, because you don’t just… Hope is not optimism, it’s a big difference. Rebecca Solnit always makes this point, that optimism is saying, oh yeah, everything’s going to work out fine. Hope is a desire that things work out fine, but not a certainty that they will. And so, as a result, what we’re really talking about here is a political circumstance in which you have to believe that things can go the right way. And you ask, well, why wouldn’t they go the right way?
Well, the answer is not that the American people are on the wrong side of these issues. This is an important thing to understand. Polling shows us that the American people don’t want authoritarianism. They don’t want totalitarianism. They want a Medicare for all type system. They understand the need for a Green New Deal. They, frankly, know that Trump is a horrible player. And in fact, remember, Trump has never gotten anywhere near a majority of the vote for president of the United States. So on balance, there’s a lot of things that are on the side of light, if you will. And, intriguingly enough, you have a situation where one of the issues that’s come into play, the issue of a woman’s right to choose, the right to choose, where we’ve got polling that shows huge majorities of Americans believe in reproductive freedom. And so, as a result, when you put all this together, progressives should be winning, the left should be winning.
And so it is only the incompetence of the leaders of the Democratic Party that makes this not a win, in combination with a very unfair and dysfunctional system. So can it turn out okay? Absolutely. It could turn out great. Will it? That really falls, I think, to us, the great mass of people to rise up and say, it’s got to be better than this. And my sense is that what we have to do is put aside punditry, because as you know, Marc, everyone has become a pundit. Everyone talks about polls and everyone talks about what’s possible and what isn’t possible. Put it aside, and instead of talking about punditry, talk about what’s necessary, what we need to do. And that’s a big difference. Because instead of saying what you can’t do, it’s what needs to happen. And the fact of the matter is we need to defeat Trump and Trumpism.
This needs to be dealt with in a political context. And that can happen. It happened in 2018, it happened in 2020; we’re on a streak here. Can it happen in 2022? Well, to do that you have to undo the patterns of midterm elections, where in a midterm, the party that is out of power generally does better. If that happens, because of the narrow divides in the House and the Senate and in the states, then Trumpism is on the march and it comes back in a major way, not just in the Republican Party, but in our politics in general. If it doesn’t happen, then we turn the corner in the right direction. And so here’s where it gets really interesting. And that is, can we have an election in which the issues are made so crystal clear that people cast the vote that they have to vote, the necessary vote, even if that causes them to go out of their comfort zone a little bit, if you’re a suburban Republican or a suburban independent or something like that. Can that happen?
It absolutely can. It did happen in 2018 and in 2020. It has to happen again this time. And so I don’t want to reduce everything to electoral politics because I think it is much more than electoral politics. But what I will tell you is, in this circumstance, this is where, in a sense, it’s the easy way out. Beat these guys, beat them in a strong and powerful way. The last time that happened was 1934, and it was under Franklin Roosevelt. And Franklin Roosevelt knew that to take on the challenges of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe and the threat that it posed even to the United States, that Franklin Roosevelt had to get a bigger victory in 1934 than he had gotten in 1932. He went out, traveled the country, and he won it. He didn’t win it by going to the right or going to the center or pulling punches.
He went to the left, very bluntly. And he spelled out the threat. He talked at every turn about the threat of authoritarianism, about the threat of economic imperialism at home and abroad. And it yielded a victory that was epic. And that’s why we got the New Deal. We didn’t get the New Deal because of 1932, we got the New Deal because of 1934. And similarly, we’re not going to get any of the benefits of the 2020 election because of 2020. We will get them, if we are lucky, because of 2022. And that’s how important this election is. That’s how necessary it is. And if the Democrats fail us in delivering that message, then we’re in dire straits. If they deliver the message, then the possibility is that we can make the pivot at this critical moment and actually get ourselves, as a country, moving in the direction that we have to move.
Marc Steiner: You said it succinctly. And I think of it as in the 1870s, 1930s, the 2020s, there are many connections between those eras and what we face, and it can go either way.
John Nichols, I always appreciate the time you take to talk with us and with me, and I look forward to many more conversations, and what you write next.
John Nichols: Well, I’ll be writing a lot [Marc laughs] and I’ll remind you in the last moment of Tony Benn, the great British parliamentarian, who said in the 1930s that as a young man, he would look around the world and pick up a headline every day and ask, which way did this country go? Or, which way did that country go? I think that we’re really at a similar time today. Different politics, and I’m not naive or even apocalyptic. I’m just saying that I just would like to pick up the paper in November and see that the United States went the right way.
Marc Steiner: John Nichols, thanks so much. Take care.
I hope you enjoyed that conversation with John Nichols. We’ll link to his works here on our website. And if you have an extra minute, please go to www.therealnews.com and become a monthly donor. Support the future with us. Only you can do it. And once again, thank you all for joining us today. Please let me know what you thought about what you heard today, what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll write you right back. So for Stephen Frank, Dwayne Gladden, Kayla Rivara, and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.