America’s Great Divide: Robert Reich Interview | FRONTLINE

America’s Great Divide: Robert Reich Interview | FRONTLINE

So we’re going to start off with the inaugurations of these two presidents, Obama and Trump. Give me a sense of—of who Obama is, who Trump is, what their aspirations are and how they deal— Barack Obama and Donald Trump are probably on the opposite sides of the continuum of Obama is very cool, very unruffled, very eager to reach consensus; doesn’t like conflict; feels very much a sense of responsibility to the nation as a whole. Donald Trump is just the reverse. Donald Trump loves conflict, loves chaos, doesn’t really feel any responsibility to the nation, really feels that his future is based upon his own followers; wants to divide the nation; loves confrontation. Take us to the promise of Obama. Here’s someone who sold his biography as someone who could bridge the gaps, why he appealed— what was he, how he came across and why he appealed to so many voters. Barack Obama genuinely believed that he could forge a consensus, that he could bridge the emerging, growing gap across race, across class, across rural and urban America. He appealed to many people because, I think, he touched upon what Lincoln referred to as the “better angels of our nature.” And he wanted Americans to believe that we could forge a new commonality, that we could find a— not just a consensus, but that the “We the people” had a real meaning beyond nationalism, that the ideals that bound us together were not historic but were future. His campaign about hope and the reiteration of hope was hope about the possibility of the country to be a place not just of freedom and liberty, but also hope about the possibility that the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts. Now, this appealed to a huge number of Americans, but there were other Americans out there that Sarah Palin attracted, that she tied into. What did she tap into? Explain what she understood and why there was this population that is out there that was a very different population that what was attracted to Obama. Sarah Palin understood that there were a lot of people out there who felt that the game was rigged against them. They were angry; they felt they were being left behind; that there was a kind of ruling or leadership class, mostly well-educated and coastal, that had contempt for average working people. And so she tapped into that anger. She tapped into that feeling of bitterness, and it was real, genuine bitterness… You have to understand that the financial crisis of 2008 illuminated for much of America what had been happening for many years, but people just didn’t see it. They had found ways of coping with stagnant incomes and with a game that looked to them increasingly like it was rigged for the benefit of the wealthy. But as long as they could maintain their own incomes through everything from having women enter paid work to using their homes as collateral for refinancing their homes and getting deeper and deeper into debt, they could basically persuade themselves that everything was fine. That financial crisis was a—not just a wakeup call; it was as if a curtain was opened and everybody could see the true landscape of America, which was a fairly frightening landscape. Most people were not getting anywhere. A small group at the top was basically raking in more and more power and wealth. Did Obama understand that population? Did he understand the consequence of the 2008 recession and how it affected these Americans, how it affected and how it divided America? I don’t think Barack Obama understood the degree of vitriol and anger and sense of betrayal that average working Americans felt, particularly after the financial crisis of 2008. Now remember, the median wage hadn’t increased since 1979. I mean, this was something brand-new in America. I mean, that entire generation of people expected, for good reason, that they would do better and better and better. But from 1979, 1980 onward, the middle class didn’t. In fact, if anything, the middle class shrunk. Now again, when women went into paid work and when everybody worked longer hours and when they used their homes as collateral, they could persuade themselves that this reality of stagnation was not really something that hurt them. … They could pretend that there wasn’t a vast distortion going on in terms of politics and the economy. But after 2008, they couldn’t. Barack Obama did not get that fundamental fact. How did that event, the events of 2008, define this division in America that we see as of today? I mean, looking back at that moment, how consequential, how important a moment that was? 2008 was an extraordinarily important turning point. Out of that disillusionment, anger, that sense of betrayal, came on the right the Tea Party movement, and on the left, briefly, the Occupy Movement. They were saying essentially the same thing. The famous moment when the president—President Obama bailed out the banks, the whole meeting where he said, “I’m protecting you from the pitchforks here,” did he understand the consequences of the actions that he took to salvage the economy? But did he understand that anger that you’ve been talking about that was out there and the way he was dealing with these bankers, what the long-term consequences would be? I don’t think Obama focused on the long-term consequences of the bailout in terms of the political sociology, if you want to use a fancy term, on the nation. His focus was, as I think it should have been, on getting the nation going again, preventing another depression, making sure that the financial crisis did not lead to the kind of apocalyptic economic consequences. But in ignoring the larger political fallout, the sociological fallout, the sense of fundamental betrayal, I think he lay the foundation for what we have seen today. … Everybody knew that the bankers got bailed out and no major executive went to jail, and at the same time, homeowners, many of them underwater, owing more on their homes than they could actually get for their homes, they didn’t get help. Millions of people lost their jobs and their savings and, ultimately, their homes. And there was a sense that this was fundamentally unfair. Leading to, eventually, Donald Trump? The sense of unfairness expressed itself on the right in the Tea Party movement, on the left in briefly the Occupy Movement. It then in 2016 expressed itself in Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. But Bernie Sanders was the direct lineal descendent of the Occupy Movement, that sense on the left that government had betrayed the people by getting too close to corporations and big banks, and the sense on the right, with Donald Trump, that government had betrayed people by getting too close to the bankers and to big business. And you see, it was essentially the same message. It was—it was articulated in slightly different language, in slightly different ways. But Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump became the oracles of this deep-seated sense of betrayal. … I was out in the Midwest doing research for a book and conducting focus groups, free-floating focus groups, all sorts of focus groups, and I remember being struck again and again by the fact that when I asked people who they were thinking about for president—and this was before Donald Trump even announced— they would say to me, “Well, somebody like either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump.” And I remember, I would say back: “What? These people, how can you even put them in the same sentence? They are—they’re different—they’re different species.” But what I got back from people, and this was Wisconsin and Michigan and Ohio and Kentucky and North Carolina, I kept on getting back from people, “Well, they’ll shake things up; they are on our side.” … So let’s talk about health care. The decision to move forward, to push hard for ACA [Affordable Care Act], did they understand the stakes? Did they understand—what were they doing? Who’s they? The Obama administration? … [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi really pushed for the Affordable Care Act. She did it because she understood that the chances of the Democrats ever having both the presidency and the House and the Senate again were, you know, de minimis. I mean, it’s not going to happen for years, and this was a window of opportunity. And you bailed out the banks and you did a lot of things that were great for business; now is the time to do something for the public. Health care and health insurance was and is still the biggest issue that people worry about. And the Democrats since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt had been trying to widen and enlarge the number of people who would be eligible for health insurance, make it accessible. And this, starting in the ’30s and going right through FDR and Harry Truman, everybody tried. Every Democratic president tried. And yes, Medicare solved some of the problem, and Medicaid solved some of the problem, and Child[ren]’s Health Insurance [Program (CHIP)] under Clinton, that solved something. And you had veterans’ insurance. But that left out a lot of people, and medical costs were getting higher and higher as percentage of the typical family’s budget. The Democrats had to do something. Now, President Obama tries to do it in a way that is palatable to the—to the Republicans. In fact, uses the same tenets that the Republicans had attempted to sell, or in Massachusetts in fact you used. But he gets nowhere with the Republican Party, and he gets not one vote. What’s—what’s the consequences of the decisions to move forward despite the fact that there was no bipartisanship, and sort of where did it lead? … In order to understand what happened with health care, you actually have to go back to the 1990s when Newt Gingrich and his band of radical Republicans took over basically the House and much of Congress. That was the beginning of a partisanship, a kind of fierce, angry, no-holds-barred partisanship that lasted all the way through. Barack Obama came into office thinking, well, I can reason with them. If I’ve got good arguments, they’re reasonable people, and we’ll come to some reasonable conclusion. Well, he was wrong. That was not there. The Republicans didn’t want to give him any victory. It had nothing to do with reason or logic; they just didn’t want to give him a victory. So he did somersaults trying to come out with some sort of a plan that would be amenable to Republicans, and he got absolutely nowhere. And the results, both on the left and the right, of proceeding forward with this non-bipartisan— I mean, the fact is for decades later, this battle has been going on back and forth about Obamacare. What were the results? What could have been? What didn’t they see, the Obama administration, that is? Ultimately, Obama got no Republican votes. Now, for those of us who had been in the Clinton administration, we could have told him he was going to get no votes, and we probably did in many ways. But he still thought the power of reason would prevail. Getting no Republican votes essentially means this is going to be a partisan issue forever, and the Republicans are going to fight it tooth and nail. I think that in retrospect, in hindsight—and everything is easier in hindsight— Obama would have been much better off using the framework of Medicare and simply making it Medicare for All, paid for through your Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, just a very simple, fundamental premise. And everybody loves Medicare; everybody loves Social Security. And so building on that would have been just utterly simple. But he creates a kind of Rube Goldberg, complicated mechanism in order to appease the Republicans and also get the insurance companies and everybody else on board. And given that it came out so utterly Republican versus Democrat, that complexity itself made the Affordable Care Act very vulnerable. It wouldn’t have gotten any more votes from the Republicans, though. He wouldn’t have gotten any more Republican votes if he had based it on Medicare, but he wasn’t going to get any Republican votes anyway. That’s the point. In other words, if he’s going to create an affordable health care system, Medicare for All, or Medicare with an opt-in, would have at least given him a stronger system that was easily explainable to people and wouldn’t be as vulnerable to the inevitable Republican attacks. … All right. So the Tea Party backlash in the summer of 2009. That blowback about the bill, where does that come from? Are the roots, again, in the economy? You know, what’s your overview of what the meaning of that was that surprised the hell out of both Republicans and Democrats when they went back home and saw these angry crowds? The Tea Party was an expression of the public’s outrage with what seemed to be a very cozy relationship between government and business. But let’s be very, very candid and clear about this. There were Republican operatives, right-wing operatives, that were out there stoking that flame. I mean, they—they wanted to pull the Republican Party even further to the right. They saw that opportunity, and … that opportunity was the financial crisis and the sense of unfairness that so many people felt about what had gone on. … The fact that the GOP started—they basically recruited Tea Party members because they realized that it was an easy way to get elected. Did the GOP understand the long-term trends that were going on? Did they understand, perhaps, what gamble that they were getting into here? I doubt that Republicans understood that they were making a deal, in effect, that would ultimately lead to a different kind of Republican Party, because they were allying themselves with a grassroots, a so-called grassroots movement that itself had ties to elements in the Republican Party that the establishment Republicans didn’t want to have anything to do with. So by allying themselves with the Tea Party, those establishment Republicans— and I’m talking about the Republican Party of the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s—that Republican Party spelled its own doom. They basically bought into a path that they would never have expected, that they would—the leadership would lose their job because of, and it would become a party that eventually would be able to pursue and work with a Donald Trump. The Republican Party did not understand—or let’s put it this way: The establishment part of the Republican Party didn’t understand that by allying themselves with the Tea Party, they would be ultimately undermining the principles and the infrastructure that supported the Republican establishment; that they were, in a sense, writing their own death certificate … in a way that would lead to the takeover to the Republican Party by somebody like Donald Trump. 2011, the failure of the grand bargain with [then-Speaker of the House John] Boehner and Obama. Number one, to get into it, what were the aspirations? Number two, what were the consequences? The grand bargain with Boehner was doomed from the start. I think the Obama administration really did believe and continued to believe that there was a possibility out there for some negotiation. I think Boehner thought, and I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, but I think Boehner thought there was possibility, too. But both Obama and Boehner still believed that their parties were capable of making that kind of a deal. But if you just look below Obama and below Boehner, you would see that both parties were getting more and more partisan, more and more polarized. Now here it’s important to note that the populist Democrats or the populist progressives and the populist Republicans, the grassroots Tea Party Republicans, had a lot in common. They felt that the establishment had shafted them and most Americans. But instead of the establishment Republicans and establishment Democrats reaching out to the populist parts of those parties and saying, “OK, yes, campaign finance reform is important; we’ll get big money out of politics; we will—we condemn corporate welfare; we will really use antitrust to break up these big monopolies; we will actually reform the system in ways that make the system respond to average Americans instead of big money,” they didn’t do it. They couldn’t do it. They didn’t understand how to do it. They were entrapped in a kind of old politics that made it impossible for them to believe that the entire political structure was being upended. By the election of 2012, Obama’s great quote or statement that he thought the win would break the fever, that there would be a new ability for him to actually get bipartisan actions with the Republicans, how badly did he misunderstand? And of course, you know, soon after that the Newtown killings happened, and the attempt to put forth gun reform took place and started a bipartisan action that went nowhere. And that, to some extent I guess, changed their mind a little bit. But what did they misunderstand? Why that optimism after 2012, and why was it—why was it sadly wrong? At every step along the way, Obama thought there was a possibility for bipartisanship. But at every step along the way, Obama, just like Republican leaders, failed to understand the underlying dynamics. … Years before, there had almost been bipartisan agreement on immigration. Years before, there had been almost bipartisan agreement on some sort of gun control, some sort of sensible gun policies. Years before, they came pretty close to some bipartisan agreement even on some health care issues that might have led to Medicare for All. But that was years before. By the time you get to the Obama administration, the entire structure of bipartisanship had been wrecked. It was wrecked during the 1990s. It’s very easy when you’re inside the political system, when you’re inside Washington, to put blinders on and not see history, not see the results of what had happened even 10 or 12 or 15 or 16 years before, and not see the grassroots, not feel where the public actually is, not understand the degree of partisan outrage and not respond to it. And—and as you said, immigration had almost happened once. It almost happened in 2013- 2014. There was a real belief—the Senate passed it. There was a real belief that they could accomplish something. Something, if it had been accomplished, would have meant that all that we’re seeing right now would— would probably not have happened. Why the backlash in the GOP population about when [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor loses, and why is there this backlash, and why didn’t Obama see it? But more importantly, why—why the backlash? The GOP backlash against any kind of cooperation on issues like immigration occurred for a very simple reason, and that was the GOP saw in immigration a terrific issue to run on. It’s the same thing with guns. It’s the same thing with health care, if it was going to be a massive government operation. You see, the Republican Party by the 2000s had been a party that was looking for every opportunity to entrench itself and divide the country, and issues of immigration and guns and national health care, quasi-socialism, those were things that would give the GOP tremendous bargaining leverage, they thought. But in order to understand that mentality, you’ve got to go back before. You’ve got to understand that the biggest division in America is not right versus left as we’ve come to understand it. It’s not Democrats versus Republicans. The deepest division is between the vast number of people who are going nowhere and the small number of people at the top who are getting richer and more powerful every year. It is in the interest of those people at the top to keep everybody else angry at each other. But in the Republican—the “autopsy” had happened after 2012, and so the thought was we’re losing the game here long term; we need to look more favorably about Hispanic community and such. But this was turned on its head by some people like [Jeff] Sessions and [Steve] Bannon and [Stephen] Miller when they were able to turn the tide on the argument because of an anger that they saw within the GOP base. Explain that a little bit. Economic frustrations can easily be channeled into racism and xenophobia. This is not new. For 150 years, demagogues have taken economic frustrations and actually pointed to what are essentially scapegoats: the other, people who look different, foreigners, people who have different skin pigments, people who have different religions. This is one of the oldest tricks in the demagogue’s playbook. And it worked here. It worked. So Trump comes down that escalator, the famous speech about immigrants. Tie that into the argument you just made about the understanding of how this message resonates and what’s at stake playing this game. Donald Trump knew intuitively how demonizing them—the other, immigrants, blacks, people who looked and acted differently, even women on occasion—how that would help him and help build a base, because it built on frustration and anger, a sense of being left behind, a sense of unfairness. And Trump is—say what you will, he’s a marketing genius. He knows how to get at the emotional chord, the rage, and how to conduct that, how to utilize that emotional chord, that deep sense of betrayal and rage and elevate it, use it, exploit it, make it work politically. And he did it. When he announced his candidacy for president, he used Mexicans; he called them rapists and murderers… He knew intuitively that that would be a key to his success. He tied into the Sarah Palin people that we were talking about already. He calls them the “forgotten.” How his message resonates with those people, what he understood, something that Obama didn’t understand, but what he understood about the forgotten and the consequences, the effect on his ability to move forward. Remember, this is not a new Republican strategy. Richard Nixon talked about the “silent majority.” George H. W. Bush talked about Willie Horton. Ronald Reagan had talked about “welfare queens.” These were all coded messages about blacks. What Donald Trump did is he took that same framework and he applied it to immigrants and people who would be ostensibly coming across the border. He used nationalism as a vehicle for conducting hate. Again, this is not new. In history, this is not new. I think it’s very easy to forget how many demagogues have used nationalism, confused it with patriotism, and appealed to the worst instincts in people instead of the best. And bring us up to date on who are these forgotten? … The forgotten Americans are real. The median wage has gone almost nowhere since the late ’70s, early 1980s. Most Americans have not seen any gain in their own economic lives, even though the national economy is two to three times bigger than it was. CEOs who in the 1960s took home 20 times what the typical worker was taking home are now taking home 300 times what the typical worker is taking home. People aren’t stupid. The game is rigged. Washington is awash in money, and that money is coming from big corporations and wealthy people. Unions are no longer a major force in politics because they have been busted or made irrelevant or companies have moved to non-union states. So the forgotten people are basically most Americans. The question is not are they bad or good. They are decent, hardworking people. The question is, what’s being done for them? What’s being done to them? Are the major parties speaking to them? One of the problems the Democrats have had, and I think one of the problems—biggest problem Hillary Clinton had, she didn’t have a clear and forceful explanation for what happened to the working middle class. Talk a little bit about Obama’s legacy and how in the world it led to Trump. I mean, what’s the birth of this and how it relates to our first black president? … One way of viewing the journey from Barack Obama to Donald Trump is through the lens of racism. It’s very easy to say, well, we had our first black president, and then we had our first white supremacist president. I think that’s utterly simplistic. The real story is that Barack Obama was a very good and decent He did some very important and good things. He made sure that the economy—the economy didn’t succumb to the great crash of 2008 brought on by the big banks. He created the beginnings of a national health care system that nobody thought was possible. But Barack Obama did not respond to the core grievance of America, and that was we’re not getting ahead; the system is rigged; big money is taking over politics. It’s all corporations and Wall Street and the wealthy, and that has to end. Barack Obama had Wall Streeters in his office all the time. He hired people from Wall Street. People from Wall Street left the administration, went back to Wall Street. Barack Obama didn’t understand the degree of anger in the population. And did Hillary Clinton? Hillary Clinton did not understand the degree of anger in the population. Donald Trump intuitively understood, but he used it for his own purposes, and he twisted it into racism and xenophobia. So a big question is how is Trump’s America different than Obama’s America? … Donald Trump has done basically nothing for the so-called forgotten Americans, for the bottom 60%. You know, their wages have grown a little tiny bit, but the big tax cut went mostly to the big corporations and the wealthy. Donald Trump’s regulatory rollbacks have hurt many people because regulations are actually protections in terms of health, safety, the environment. The big winners are the big corporations and the very wealthy who are investing in those big corporations because there are more profits. But what Donald Trump has done is transformed the anger about a rigged system into racism, xenophobia and ugliness of a sort we haven’t had in this country in my lifetime. The only way out, the only alternative, is to respond to not the racism, not the xenophobia, not the misogyny, to respond to the genuine frustrations that people have about a rigged game, about a political system that is no longer working for average people. We will see if that happens. The big question is, are the Democrats capable of responding? Bernie Sanders, as you’ve talked about, was due to the same tribal polarization that we’ve been talking about, but did the—did the left-wing divisions that you’ve talked about, did that help lead to Donald Trump? People who supported Bernie Sanders, most of them supported Hillary Clinton. About one out of every 10 Bernie Sanders voters supported Trump instead of Clinton. But basically the Sanders supporters were Democrats. They recognized the dangers inherent in Donald Trump. … The important point to understand is that minus the racism and xenophobia, the core of the populist Republican Party has much in common with the core of the populist progressive Democratic Party. Both of them talk about the game being rigged… And this resonated not only among his own base; it resonated amongst a segment of the Democratic Party as well? Look at the 2020 election. In the primaries, in 2019 in the primaries leading up to the 2020 election, almost every Democratic primary candidate has talked about the game being rigged. But what does that mean, actually? If Donald Trump can be elected not just on racism and xenophobia, but also on the game being rigged, and every Democratic candidate is either saying or implying that the game is rigged, what does that tell you? It tells you that something is resonating in the American public when politicians say the game is rigged. People know the game is rigged. And the results of this battle within the Democratic Party, what are the results going to be? I think it would be a mistake for the Democrats to see Donald Trump as the problem. Donald Trump is the consequence of years of stagnant wages and an overwhelming dominance of corporations and Wall Street and wealthy people in our politics. Donald Trump is what you get when you don’t do anything about stagnant wages and increasing economic insecurity. Democrats have got to understand that there’s no going back to before Donald Trump because before Donald Trump got to Donald Trump. When wages are going nowhere, when people are working harder than ever, when they are losing job security, when 80% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and they don’t have any faith that anybody is looking after them—in fact, they think the system is rigged—we’re going to get Donald Trumps as far as the eye can see. Help connect the dots a little bit. So the early attempt to replace, repeal and replace ACA, Obamacare, but the Republican Congress under Trump really has no plan, and they fail. And Trump attacks them. Now he attacks his own leaders, GOP leadership, if it is his own. And what we then saw was him taking even more authority over to himself, discounting the Congress to some extent, and legislation at all. And the Republicans basically go belly up and cater to every—every one of his wants. What’s going on here? … The Republican Party has disappeared. There is no longer a Republican Party. There is now a party of Donald Trump and Fox News. Let’s be honest about this. There’s not much of a Democratic Party either. I mean, the party structures have almost disappeared. We talk about the Democratic Party, but it’s a bunch of entrepreneurs. Anybody can run for president today. All you have to do is have enough money or have enough name recognition, and you call yourself a candidate. That’s why the Democrats end up with 23 candidates. So how does this help one understand the divided states of America? The center will not hold, not because there’s not a political center but because we have failed to understand that the debate is no longer the old right/left/center. When people talk about wouldn’t it be great to get back to centrism, to moderation, what they are thinking about is a 1950s, 1960s, early 1970s politics. Forget that. We now have a society divided between the bottom 60 or 70% of people who are going nowhere, or many of whom are on a downward escalator, and people at the very top who are taking home most of the goodies. This is not your father’s or mother’s politics. Left, right and center mean nothing in this world. The real issue is who’s going to look out for and who’s going to respond to the bottom 60% who are certain the game is rigged because it is rigged? So a couple of other areas. Charlottesville: The establishment, Republican as well as Democratic establishment, sees it as a disaster. How does Trump and his base view it and why? Charlottesville is a disaster. The Republican establishment understands it to be a public relations disaster when Donald Trump essentially equates the protesters with the white supremacists. And that’s why a lot of business leaders get off of his business councils. But they also want the tax cut; they also want the regulatory rollbacks, so they’re going to hold their noses and they’re going to go along with Donald Trump. They’re going to go along with his takeover of the Republican Party. In other words, the modern Republican strategy, if that’s what you want to call it, is business-friendly: big tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks, let the games begin, the money flowing into big corporations and into the stock market and into the hands of wealthy investors. But at the same time you’ve got this—this play, this cartoon going on, and Donald Trump is telling his base that their enemies are immigrants; he’s sounding racist alarms; he is getting people riled up. … In other words, he’s conducting this symphony of ugliness and anger while the Republican establishment is laughing all the way to the bank. Charlottesville is embarrassing for them. They have to get off the business councils. They don’t like the racism, they don’t like all of this divisiveness, but as long as the stock market continues to do well and they get the tax cuts and they get the regulatory rollbacks, they are not going to make a fuss. And to stay in this territory for a second, so you’ve got, you know, the statements about immigrants coming down the escalator. You’ve got the “shithole countries” meeting when dealing with the potential of immigration reform which goes down the drain, down the toilet. You’ve got him telling congresswomen of color to go back to from where you come from. Is this—how does this define a political strategy, a Trump political strategy? Is that what it is? What is it? Racism and xenophobia is a political strategy. Donald Trump has about 40% of the electorate. They are guaranteed to vote for him. All he needs is to attract another 10, 11, 12%. And given the way the Electoral College is organized, given the very, very big power of some Midwestern states and Iowa and Florida, that’s not going to be impossible for him to do with a strategy that essentially blames those people, “those people.” And it’s not just racism. It’s also xenophobia. It’s also a kind of perverted nationalism. It’s a fear of socialism and communism. In other words, it’s a collection of all the fears that traditionally Americans have had, but it’s used at a time when many people don’t feel that the game is fair, where they feel like they haven’t got a fair break. This economy is supposed to be good, but their jobs are insecure, and they’re making— they’re not making enough money. They don’t blame Trump for that. They blame the establishment; they blame the people who run the system. But the dependence, for instance, on immigration, on the last election and this election, the willingness to shut down the government harmed a lot of people based upon the idea that he needed to stand up for what he had said and he was going to build this wall no matter what. The establishment was preventing him from doing so. It seems central to his presidency, to the forgotten. But why? If that strategy, as you’ve sort of said, doesn’t—will probably not bring the majority that you need, if you’re only selling fear, if you’re only selling the other as the reason why you need to vote for him, why does he continue with that policy? Donald Trump continues to sell fear and xenophobia, racism and misogyny because he knows he’s got 40% of the electoral and all he needs is another 11%. And that’s all he has because the tax cut did not help anybody, and his trade wars haven’t helped anybody. And most people can look around and say, “Well, you know, in terms of where I am, the economy is supposed to be better and the stock market is pretty good, but I don’t have any shares of stock,” or, “I, you know—I’m not all that much better than I was.” So this is where he is strongest. He knows he’s strongest. And he can tweet, and he does the rallies, and he does what demagogues through history, at least the last 120 years of history, have done. He communicates directly, and he accuses the press of being “enemies of the people” and The New York Times of being “treasonous.” And he says, “Isn’t it great that we can circumvent all of the intermediaries, the media”—the word “media” comes from “intermediary”—“we can circumvent all of them and I can talk to you truthfully”? And when his supporters and others hear Donald Trump, they don’t hear the lies. What they hear is somebody who is giving them the unvarnished truth. He’s not spinning. He doesn’t sound like a politician. In fact, he sounds like the opposite of a politician. He uses words that politicians don’t use. He says things politicians don’t say. So to their ears, he sounds like it’s no bulls—. Despite that their situation is not getting—is not really getting any better. They are so willing to suspend disbelief in terms of their own situation not getting any better, they’re willing to believe him because they want to shake things up. What I heard over and over again in 2015, when I was going around the Midwest and Southern states and swing states in 2015, was people said, and the same people told me: “I’m supporting Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump because I want to shake things up. I think that politics and the establishment is just rotten to the core.” … The 2018 elections and his—his bringing up the caravans and the use— the stoking of fear about what was taking place on the borders. And what did you—what did you see when that was being done, and what were the results? Every time Donald Trump stokes up fear about caravans heading to the borders, about Mexican gangs and cartels, about workers flooding over into America or about black athletes who won’t stand for the national anthem, or about congress—members of Congress, women who are of color, what he’s doing is saying to his base, mostly white, mostly rural, mostly older, mostly people who have not got to a position where they expected they would given that—what their parents did, he’s saying: “You know why? It’s because of them, and I’m on your side; I’m not on their side.” “The elites,” he is saying, implicitly, “are on their side. They have given them an unfair break. I am on your side.” And Roy Moore, backing Roy Moore in that election? What is—what statement is he making there? What’s at stake, and why he goes down that route, which seems to be a dangerous political—? The whole thing is a dangerous political route… But as long as it works, as long as it stirs people up, as long as it distracts attention from the agenda that the big corporations and the CEOs and Wall Street really want, which is tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks and keep the money rolling in, keep interest rates low so we can just do what we are doing, his financial backers come out ahead, and his base is fired up, and all he needs is 11% more of the population to vote for him. You look back at this last decade and the evolution of what has happened to both parties and how more and more divided America has gotten, and I guess the question is how you see this decade, and sort of what are the lessons that we should be learning here? I think the country faces a profound choice in the future, and it’s not a choice about Donald Trump per se. It’s a choice about whether we make this system, and I’m talking about our economic and political system, work for everyone who works hard and plays by what the rules are, or we continue down the road we’ve been on since at least the late ’70s, early 1980s, when people at the top were accumulating more and more wealth and power, which in turn gives them more wealth and power. That’s the choice. It’s not left or right as we have understood the terms. It’s not Democrat versus Republican, as we traditionally have understood politics. It is the majority, the vast majority, versus an emerging oligarchy who are not bad people, and we’ve got to make sure we don’t vilify them because they’re doing what we would expect people to do. They are simply using whatever means they have to aggregate additional power and wealth. But the entire system is off the tracks, and if we don’t understand that, and if we don’t understand that that’s what’s led to the kind of anger we now have, we’re not going to solve the underlying problem. And do you hear voices out there that understand that we’re off the tracks? I hear most voices out there saying we’re off the tracks. Most Americans believe the system is not working. The polls show that. My interviews with people all around the country confirm that. The anger in our system demonstrates that. The question is not is it understood. The question is do we have the political will to do what we have to do, which is to change the allocation of power in society. Nobody in the elites, and I’m talking about the establishment Republicans but also establishment Democrats, wants to talk about power, but that is the discussion we must have. And the core element of that, on the change of power, would be what? The core element of that is to empower most Americans politically and economically. Most people feel that they have no power; they have no agency; they have no control over their fates. They feel like the people in power are up there and don’t give a damn. And the problem is, most people are correct. … Is there any element or any event or anything that we haven’t talked about that you think is important to understand? Well, I think it’s important to understand how central the 1990s were, because Ronald Reagan came to office in 1980 as a protest candidate. He certainly conveyed hope but also channeled anger. George H. W. Bush was his vice president, a continuation. But in 1992 you had Ross Perot, the first candidate who really did say to America: “I understand you feel like you’re getting a raw deal, and you know something? You are. The political parties are rotten.” Ross Perot made it possible for Bill Clinton to win. Bill Clinton didn’t understand what was happening. In the 1990s, you had Rush Limbaugh become the biggest radio phenomenon in history, spewing anger and vitriol and kind of ugliness and making fun of everybody, but in a way that a lot of people began to say: “You know something? I like him. He’s right.” And then you had Roger Ailes create Fox News, and you had at the same time Newt Gingrich come to Washington with a gang of people. He had already been in the Republican Party, but he took over the Republican Party with his own brand of anger and vitriol and ugliness. He was channeling the same sense of betrayal, anti-establishment betrayal, that we saw flower years later after the bank bailouts and the Tea Party movement, and even in the Occupy Movement, and even Bernie Sanders. All from very different, divergent points of view. From very different points of view, but in terms of the underlying theme, that the system is not working for most people and it’s being rigged, it’s the same idea. It’s the same theme. It’s the same emotion. So we’re all together in the end, but it’s all together in division. Well, we’re all together in division, but it’s not going to be impossible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I am very optimistic. I’m optimistic because I teach young people who are absolutely dedicated and committed to making this country better, who don’t see color, who don’t see race the way my generation sees race, who don’t have the same history, and who don’t have this kind of ugly, nationalistic stuff going on. They really do consider themselves patriots in a positive way, and they are going to run the country.

16 thoughts on “America’s Great Divide: Robert Reich Interview | FRONTLINE

  1. This interview was conducted with FRONTLINE during the making of our two-part documentary series “America's Great Divide.”

    Watch Part One here: and Part Two here:

  2. Even though the financial crisis began on W’s watch, I think Obama was blamed for the long term damage. As a new President I think he depended on the Bush economic team to advise him on bailouts because he needed to take swift and decisive action to save America. Mistakes were made and he paid dearly for them.

  3. This interviewer is awful or in over his head. Robert Reich is saying some profound things that deserve follow-up. But this interviewer sounds like he's just cranking through questions and ticking boxes.
    Reich, several times, offered historical context and explanation of how today's situation had many players over a long period of time. I'm at the point in the video where Reich is talking about how Trump was so predictable long long ago because the game is rigged, the failure of seeing Trump as a symptom and not a problem and "when you don't do anything about stagnant wages, Donald Trump is what you get."

    And what does the interviewer ask? He switches subjects and asks about the GOP trying to repeal ACA.

    I really want to watch the full documentary, but not if interviews are like this.

  4. It's disturbing that Robert Reich doesn't endorse and support Andrew Yang.
    This entire video proves that Andrew Yang is the ideal candidate we need to replace Donald Trump.
    It's not left, it's not Right, it's FORWARD!

  5. Always listed to. Political stuff. But. Busy working. Raising children. I remember watching for a bit when kids were small. Thinking Our God why did I bring. Children in this horrible world. Turned it. Good or. Bad. Raised my family. Got kids through school. 2 college out of 3. Left work when I had 5. Grand children in 2 years. Not because I’m was ready. My husband had. Passed. Other. In-laws living in other states. I have made it by. Seat. Of. Our. Pants. Of course. Just do whatever’s it. Is. You need to. Do. Your. Be. Ok. Vote. Don’t listen nothing changes. Except shit show. Still. Have my favorite president. Trump. Isn’t bad. But. His ego will be his down fall. Or. Ours. CNN msn fox. Needs to go. Why are people so far apart. Change from one channel to another. So much information. So much. But. Nothing of. Quality. Thank you front. And. PBS. I enjoy You young. People educate yourself. Use the little computer in your. Hand. Wisely It can be a gift or. Curse. Enjoy friends and love. One. Another. We need. Money out of politics. We need. Local. Papers strong. That’s all I got. Greed cheat lie. We were told. To. Tell the truth. No matter. What. And I see. There’s only one. Truth. The government nothing but of. B S. Stop. Group think. Americans don’t fight. Each. Other. While they get rich and play games. We all want the same thing. In life. Go get it

  6. Obama shouldn't have bailed out the banks. It was the transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich. Then here comes the big "F" you to the country the orange Trump clown. Bernie 2020!

  7. LOL.. How are Obama & trump Different??? Obama is HUMAN and Classy and HONORABLE .. trump is a Pathological LIAR, Con Man, TRAITOR, etc .. Nuf Said!!! LOCK him UP!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. America is in a catch-22.
    Support corporations –> income inequality/resentment/anger –> Donald Trump.
    Don't support corporations –> No campaign contributions –> Nada
    Try to pass laws to limit corporate impact on politics –> angry republicans –> Nothing gets passed.

    Honestly, I thought I would be hopeful after watching this interview, but I'm fairly sure that Trump will get re-elected again America will become an oligarchy. Good luck America.

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