And as the Democrats were looking for an alternative to the unions who no longer seemed like a large enough base for the party, they found the educated who veered more toward a progressive cultural outlook, who may have had – may have been working in the financial sector, in entertainment, in media, in universities. That became really the rank and file of the Democratic Party over a long period of time.
And I think it was cemented during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who was certainly not a conservative but whose policies moved the party toward the center, toward deregulation, toward an embrace of Wall Street both for reasons of campaign fundraising and also with the belief that Wall Street was the engine of a prosperous economy. And under Clinton we had a roaring economy that looked really good. Globalization looked like it was going to answer all the economic questions of class. Turned out not to be the case.
.. And I think this year we’re seeing the reaction to a long trend of the Democrats away from the concerns of people on the lower end of the economic scale and people who don’t have college and graduate educations.
.. And with the plummeting of unions came the weakening of an organized working-class voice in politics.
And – but there was also a sense among some Democrats – and Bill Clinton and Gary Hart, I think, are the key figures here in the ’70s and ’80s – the unions were sort of throwbacks. Maybe we didn’t need that anymore. Maybe those old class issues belonged in the ’30s and what we needed was a new third way or centrist way of democratic politics, which focused more on efficiency in government, on policies that helped business to create jobs, on cultural issues, on identity politics, on anything except the old-fashioned class politics, which seem almost embarrassingly out of date.
And that – that was a fateful turn that the party took because it turned out there were still a lot of Americans in that group who, for a lot of complicated reasons and not simply because of this turn among Democrats, became the base of the Republicans. It’s a dramatic shift, a huge change in our politics over the last generation.
.. You describe educationalist elitism as having taken root during the Bill Clinton presidential administration. What do you mean by educationalist elitism?
.. PACKER: That was actually a phrase that Hillary Clinton used in an interview I did with her for this article in The New Yorker. And what she meant was an attitude that said you really have to have a college degree in order to be employable, in order to be viable in our economy. And she was using the term in a pejorative way. She said we need to bring back vocational education in high school. We need to support community colleges. We need to make sure that people who are not going to finish college have a job waiting for them and the skills to do the job.
.. But I didn’t say this to her – actually, sort of – I kind of did – I said, didn’t this sort of happened in your husband’s presidency? Because that was when every American suddenly needed a college degree in order to compete in the global economy and the old industrial jobs that only required a high-school education were gone. And instead, we would focus on retraining and lifelong learning and all these cliches of the ’90s
.. GROSS: Can you compare what you think Hillary Clinton says she has to offer and what Donald Trump says he has to offer to a couple like the couple you just described?
PACKER: Trump tells them I’m going to get you your way of life back. You will be at the center of our country again. You’ll be the backbone of America. You’ll have a good job. You’ll have a good income. You won’t feel like these alien people are coming in and taking your job. And, you know, it’s all both in some ways attractive and in some ways, it’s quite a fraud. But he’s appealing to their resentment and to their sense of having been just unfairly reduced in status by a whole lot of different forces.
.. And whether either of those two really has the answer for this family, I’m actually a little skeptical. I don’t think simply job training is enough because I think there’s a whole realm of what’s called social capital. And really just morale and support that they don’t have and that they need. But Trump is even less real because playing to resentment and using a lot of, you know, grand abstract phrases like make America great again is – it just doesn’t have the answer. It’s simply a way to whip up emotion and then leave people more bitter than you found them.
.. And so he created a whole new – didn’t totally create it by himself but became part of a new landscape in which facts and arguments no longer mattered as much. What mattered was the event, the hype, the number of clicks, the sheer noise you could create, and through that noise, bringing both money and attention to oneself and pushing a cause, in his case a cause of fairly far-right conservative politics.
And this was all before Twitter, but Twitter came along and Breitbart immediately took to it. And social media seemed made for him as well. And so I thought that Breitbart in many ways was the guy who figured out how to use the web to just lay waste to the old landscape of Time magazine and CBS News and to create a new – a much more fractured and raucous atmosphere for journalists to jump into politics and smash things up. And that’s in a way what links him to Trump. Trump is that figure in electoral politics as Breitbart was in the media.
.. PACKER: Well, I chose Newt Gingrich because from politics, I thought he is the single most important figure of my adult life which is kind of a remarkable thing to say. He was never president. He went through a series of scandals and disgraces. He’s kind of this perpetual candidate, this perpetual talking head on cable news. Why not Ronald Reagan? Why not Bill Clinton? Why not Barack Obama? Well, because Newt Gingrich, in a way like Breitbart, came to Congress in 1979 understanding that TV, C-SPAN, which had just started, and his own sort of archipelago of both, you know, think tanks and tapes that he recorded and PACs and other political tools could go around the institution of Congress, around the Republican Party and create a personal base for him and also could shake up the Democratic hold on Congress.
.. And in a way, he had this long almost Leninist march to power in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and he arrived by throwing enough rocks at enough leading Democrats that he brought them down and sort of shook their nerve. So that Gingrich, as I say, in “The Unwinding” was the first one to use mustard gas. It was like in trench warfare. The first person who’s going to use certain toxic weapons is introducing something to the battlefield that can never be taken away. And it is going to make the nature of the war so much more destructive and lethal and that – Gingrich didn’t have any limits. And he saw the virtue of it of sort of an extreme approach to politics that excited people. It created a direct connection between him and voters
.. GROSS: What were the toxic weapons that he created?
PACKER: He used both speeches on the floor in which he impugned the motives of Democratic leaders. For example, at one point, he essentially called…
.. in which he essentially said that Speaker Tip O’Neill was a commie sympathizer because of positions on Nicaragua and that was breaking certain etiquette. You know, that wasn’t done until then and not on the floor of the House, you know, not where you’re supposed to talk about my distinguished friend from Massachusetts. And it was certainly a nonstop inquisition into the Clinton White House
.. he was speaker during impeachment. He was Clinton’s main antagonist. They had a lot in common. They both were kind of poor kids who’d grown up a bit unpopular, kind of overweight. But Clinton somehow developed that into someone who needed love. And Gingrich developed into someone who needed enemies and needed to make trouble
.. and even now he’s on Fox News telling Megyn Kelly to say Bill Clinton sexual predator – I want to hear those words from you. I mean, this is – imagine this being sort of the normal give and take of a politician and a journalist on TV in the ’60s or in the early ’70s. It’s – he’s sort of authored this anything-goes-destroy-your-enemies politics.
.. GROSS: Do you also credit the whole approach of if you don’t give us what we want we’re going to shut down the government to Newt Gingrich?
.. now become a routine tool almost over the debt ceiling, over budgets, over even particular pieces of legislation. People in Congress are willing to shut down the entire government or to make it impossible for a Supreme Court nominee to get a hearing or for routine appointments in the executive branch to go unfilled for years because of a hold placed by a senator. No. This is what Gingrich has wrought – is a politics in which it’s very easy to destroy and very hard to build.
.. But I think she could be a very good president, but maybe not for this moment. That’s my – that’s what I keep coming back to is that she’s a strange choice for now. She’s such a classic Democratic political figure and believes so much in institutions and in gradualism in the old way of reaching compromises with the opposition in the back rooms. That’s what she did in Congress. It’s what I imagine she’ll try to do in the White House.
That’s not the America we live in right now. That’s not what a lot of the public thinks is even legitimate. So how is she going to – if she becomes president, how is she going to be able to get the country behind her when she seems like a political figure from another era?
.. And we’ve just been sort of spinning our wheels for such a long time, for decades really, with each new president being considered illegitimate by the other side. That’s been the case ever since Bill Clinton. And it’s a – you can’t keep frittering away your political capital that way and expect there not to be some long-term rot that sets in.