This is a transcript of the Slate Plus bonus segment from Wednesday's episode of the Political Gabfest, in which David Plotz and Emily Bazelon were joined by Trumpcast host (and Slate Group chief) Jacob Weisberg to ask: How do we move forward in the era of Trump? What are our civic obligations as Americans? And how will Trump’s presidency affect journalism?
David Plotz: So John had to leave us to go do some reporting and commentating for his real job on CBS, so we’re gonna do our next segment, our Slate Plus segment, without him. But Jacob is staying with us, fortunately. So let’s move on to our last topic, which is: What do you do now? You’re a citizen, maybe you’re a never-Trumper, or a fierce Hillary advocate. You are dismayed, disturbed, alarmed by Trump’s election. What is your role in the Trump universe? What’s your civic obligation, what are the things that you can do to be most effective and bring about the change that you want? Emily, do you have any thoughts on that to start?
Emily Bazelon: Yeah, I mean, it’s so important. I have to start at home in my house. My kids are really alarmed, and there’s something heartbreaking about them seeing someone rewarded for treating other people—people of color, women, disabled people—so shabbily; that just flies in the face of the values we’ve tried to instill in them and what I want them to expect from the country. And so the first task is just to reassure kids that they’re going to be okay, even though we’re not exactly sure how that’s going to play out. But to both make room for the most alarmist scenarios that we need to guard against and also not jump off the cliff before we have to so that we don’t create this sense of hopelessness and nihilism around us.
Plotz: Jacob, one of the problems that the election map pointed out to all of us is that if you look at a map, we live with people like ourselves. We spend time with people like ourselves. I don’t think at that event that you and I were at, that Slate did, the election-watching party, I doubt there was a Trump voter there in the 500, or 700 people in the audience. How, in a world where you don’t know people who support the president and his policies, how can you possibly understand it or engage with it in a useful way?
Jacob Weisberg: Right. Well, I do think there’s been a failure of understanding of Trump supporters and what they think, and why they’re upset. But at the same time, I run The Slate Group. My only positive feeling when I woke up this morning was that Slate has never been so necessary or so important that we have a group of readers and listeners who depend on us, to help them understand the world and to be rational and to be lucid, and to be fair. But also, the basic truth-telling function of journalism is going to be more necessary than it’s ever been, and more under siege than it’s ever been. I think there are these tremendous natural forces to normalize Trump and now that he’s won the presidency, to treat him and treat this like it’s an unusual but acceptable phenomenon in American politics, and I think, as a member of the press, someone who leads the business side of a news organization, I feel our role is to not be strident, not be hysterical, but to tell the truth and describe the reality. And to stand up for the idea of rationalism, and an enlightened approach to policy and ideas. Part of what Emily was getting at is, fake news is just one expression of the whole rejection of a rationalist world view. And you can’t give into that and say, all right, you have your facts and we have ours. You have to uphold rationalism and reality as a cause. And I think it’s gonna be under siege for the next few years, at least.
Plotz: That’s beautiful.
Weisberg: A little sense of what I feel my role is now.
Bazelon: David, Jacob said something earlier about the losers and the winners which is stark but true. And I think one of our big jobs as journalists is going to be thinking about who is losing and who is suffering, and in a calm, but rigorous way, figuring out the impact of this presidency. Because one thing is, Trump is going to be accountable now. He’s the president. It’s pretty hard to pass the buck and refuse to accept blame for things going wrong, when you’re actually president of the United States. And so if things unravel, if people get heard, those stories and that truth needs to be out there front and center. Because he’s going to try to deny it and pretend it’s not there, but we have to do our best to tell that story.
Plotz: Well Emily, I think your point from a few minutes ago about his possible willingness to manipulate the facts that the government creates is one that actually alarms me. Because so much of what we depend on government for is reliable tracking of how we live and how we prosper and what people do, and whether things are going well and poorly. And if you have somebody who’s unwilling to be honest about that, it makes it very hard to hold him to account.
Bazelon: Right, but how do you turn, like, the Bureau of Labor Statistics into a propaganda machine? There are lots of people who work there. They are career government employees. They know how to do their jobs. There are steps along the way to that happening and somehow we have to figure out how to help support that.
Plotz: What about politically? Democrats just took a huge beating. We haven’t even talked about the fact that they didn’t get close to taking the Senate, didn’t get close to taking the House, they are in poor shape in the state houses. What, politically, should Democrats think about doing to recover?
Weisberg: We don’t have a clue, but I was going into the election assuming that we were going to have a period of Republican recriminations, where that party had to focus on its divisions, and figuring out how people who disagreed were going get along with each other. And maybe it’s a couple of days before we start to get into this, but I think that’s going to happen on the Democratic side again, and the argument from the Sanders/Elizabeth Warren–type people is that the party has given up on the working class. And in some ways, it dovetails with the Trump critique about the establishment being co-opted and identifying with the interests of the wealthy and being out of touch. And I think that type’s going to be hard to resist in the party. I don’t think that the natural successor candidate to Hillary Clinton is Tim Kaine, or a very mainstream Democrat who’s been in Washington. I think it’s someone who’s more revolutionary in the other direction. And you start to have the kind of politics that really do not resemble the politics we all grew up with, where Republicans stood for some version of Reaganism and Democrats stood for some version of Clintonism. You really could have two competing populisms, a right-wing populism represented by Trumpism, and a left-wing populism represented, probably not by Bernie Sanders just because of his age and the unlikelihood that he’d be the candidate again, but represented more by his view of the world.
Plotz: But do you think that Democrats need to focus less on the presidency and start building a grass-roots progressive party which concentrates on winning some state houses and creating a group of young politicians who can become leaders? I feel like one of the problems that Democrats have had, is that they had this obsessive focus on holding the White House because Obama held the White House. And that’s been nice, and because Congress seems so out of reach, but as a result, it’s become a party which had a head but no feet. And I wonder how they’ve addressed that.
Bazelon: Right, that’s a long-term building project though. I mean, President Obama has talked about making state races his priority when he’s no longer president, and now there’s a new urgency to that project. It doesn’t get you the revolutionary populist for the next election, though. I mean that person has to come from an office to which they’ve already been elected, presumably. Or somewhere else, who knows? There were a couple of bright spots for Democrats. Should we just mention that Nevada has a new Latina senator, and Kamala Harris won in California. So there are a couple of places across the country where you could see, because of the demographics, a different answer to this question.
Plotz: I wonder if there’s going to be a way in which, with the state of California and the city of New York, even though Democrats are really out of power everywhere and the national government’s going to be a catastrophe, they can use the influence of that state and that city and the popular imagination, and their ability to move markets slightly and to create ideas to evangelize Democratic ideas even though they’re losing, actually losing everything at the national level, the way that California having higher emissions standards influenced the whole country over the past generation, or the way that NYC banning smoking caused ban-smoking signs to proliferate around the country. Rather than thinking of the jobs of politics to be simply winning elections, but actually using your stronghold as models, then maybe there’s something there.
Weisberg: If you’re a progressive activist, you have to think locally. I mean the state level, the sort of maximum level you can think of, because there’s literally nothing you can do to try to advance your goals right now on a federal level. At the federal level, you can hope to prevent certain kinds of damage, but if you actually want to accomplish something, in terms of progressive change, you have to look to those state governments or city governments where it’s possible to create Democratic models.
Plotz: Emily, Jacob talked at the beginning of the segment about the role of the free press, and to be rational, and the importance of Slate and the importance of the work that people at Slate do. Can you think of specific actions that you could take to ameliorate what you fear?
Bazelon: First of all, it’s like, community. I live in a blue city, in which there are going to be a lot of people who are going to feel alarmed. And a lot of people who could be deported. And so, look, there are things I think we have to look out for, in terms of real breaches of civil liberties on a kind of individual, citizenship level. And then I think as a journalist, we have to pledge ourselves to keeping as rigorous an eye as we possibly can on the activities of the federal government. And also to be open to the idea that maybe this won’t turn out to be as apocalyptic and alarming as we all feel it could be. Donald Trump has had very pragmatic moments in his life, and presumably he doesn’t want to be a failed president who causes a huge recession, and you know, international instability. So it’s possible that we’re also going to have to adjust to the idea that, as you said, David, maybe he turns into a rather standard Republican president, and even if it’s galling to think about normalizing him, we have to actually look at what’s happening right in front of us and react to that. What do you think? How do you feel like you can change your life?
Plotz: Well, the only things I thought of where individual actions, like when you actually think, international travel, going to places and representing America in a positive way, and similarly if there are ways to take in and accommodate visitors to America from overseas, who are—whether it’s immigrants, being somebody who works to help immigrants and shelter immigrants and refugees, that’s a worthy act. That’s something I was thinking about. Can I have a refugee family in my house? I don’t know.
Weisberg: Trump’s not going to make it easy, right? But there are organizations right now that you can turn to because they both deal with this issue—the International Rescue Committee is the most important organization in the United States that helps refugees get here and helps them when they get here. I’m going to write a check to the International Rescue Committee. I would have anyway, because I believe in its work. But now it seems to take on a political connotation when in other times it would seem just like a natural thing to do when people are in need of your assistance.
Bazelon: And maybe it’s more than writing checks, too. Maybe it’s engaging in the community, and in civic life and volunteering, in a way that some of us don’t do enough of.
Plotz: Let’s go to cocktail chatter. If there’s anything that’s happened in my circles over the last couple of days, it’s cocktails and chatter, and cocktails, and more cocktails, and then chatter, then more cocktails. So I don’t know if either of you has had an opportunity to think of some cocktail chatter which isn’t directly related to the election, or you have some pleasant thoughts.
Bazelon: I have a little tiny, but sort of half—because I’m so addled, I didn’t quite figure out all the specifics of this, but from the point of view from criminal justice reformers, there was another bright spot in this election, which is that some really hard-line prosecutors lost in places like Tampa. In Texas, people who were being very harsh with sentencing and charging were being thrown out of office. And Joe Arpaio, the sheriff in Maricopa County in Arizona, who is famous and infamous for going after immigrants, came under criminal investigation himself and he was also voted out.
Plotz: OK, there we go. Jacob?
Weisberg: I’m a little less chatterless, my teeth are chattering, but that’s—I’m gonna be, first of all, I’m gonna stay away from the bottle for a while. I want to not rely on that. I do think it’s important that everyone needs to think about the things you do that make you feel better, because I think a lot of us are going to be feeling very low about this, and powerless and helpless. I’m planning on making dinner for my family tonight, and go for some long runs, because exercise is the one thing that helps me process and feel like there’s going to be a way forward after something really terrible happens. And then maybe take in some art over the weekend.
Plotz: That sounds like a really great idea. Actually, I’m gonna change my chatter. I was gonna do kind of a gloomy one.
Bazelon: Please don’t.
Plotz: I’m gonna redo a chatter I’ve done before, because I think it’s really a pro pro, per cooking and refugees, the International Rescue Committee. I’ve talked about this on the Gabfest in the past, but why not talk about it again. There is in NYC, the most wonderful organization which goes exactly against what Trumpism stands for called the League of Kitchens, and it’s a cooking school, essentially, where you go to the home of an immigrant to America, usually a woman, a middle-aged or older woman, who’s a great home cook. And you spend the afternoon with this woman, you learn how to cook, you have meals with her, you learn her life story, and share your life story, and come away with expertise and personal knowledge of a culture and food and a food culture in a very small group, half a dozen people at most in the classes. The class I did last year was with a woman named Nowida, who was an Afghan refugee, rescued by the International Rescue Committee, essentially, from slavery in Pakistan. And she’s a Muslim immigrant to the United States, she has kids, she works really hard, she’s an amazing cook, she lives in an apartment in Queens, and just creates these fabulous meals for people and shares her life and her culture, and it’s fantastic. So if you get a chance to take a class at the League of Kitchens, you should. It’s in New York City, and it really, it stands for what is best and most welcoming about this country.
Weisberg: That sounds both moving and delicious.
Plotz: It is. You should do it. You would love it.