The Donald, According to David Roth

David Roth

Writer David Roth has been the preeminent chronicler of Donald Trump’s presidency. In an interview with Jacobin, Roth talks about four hallucinatory years and what makes the deranged president at the center of them tick.

US president Donald Trump waves as he walks along the West Wing Colonnade before departing from the White House on January 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson / Getty

Interview by
Alex N. Press

For the past four years, David Roth’s writing on the machinations and hallucinations of the forty-fifth president of the United States has been a genre unto itself. Roth, a sportswriter by trade, covers the subject like no one else: I often find myself sending his essays to family members and other panicked acquaintances because in a climate where Trump’s every utterance is occasion for a new cycle of alarm, Roth reminds the reader that for all the damage the president is doing, he is not a mastermind, but rather, a television-addicted, attention-seeking moron.

Roth’s depiction of Trump’s motivations always ring true. As he writes of the president’s response to losing the election: “This is Trump going out exactly as he governed — by telling someone whose name he’d soon forget to fix a problem he didn’t care enough about to understand, and then watching television to see how well he was doing.”

Trump is a nightmarish creature, but a pathetic one, all vanity and ego.

In this interview, I speak to Roth about the Trump presidency — a combination of theatrically outrageous rhetoric and traditionally conservative policy — the Democratic Party, and the wind down that has followed Trump’s loss of the election and subsequent efforts to, kind of, overturn the result.

Alex N. Press

Let’s start with Trump’s election. You’re a longtime Trump-watcher. But more than that, you seem cursed to have what reads like a direct line to his brain, which makes your writing on this subject so memorable. What did you expect when Trump announced his run, and when he won, how did you think his presidency would go?

David Roth

I never thought he would run, and that gave me a certain sort of confidence that obviously was not earned or deserved. I grew up in New Jersey, so I saw him on the cover of tabloids throughout my young life. Anytime I was in a store that had the New York Post, whatever divorce he was going through, whatever lady he was feuding with at the time, was the front page splash. His dumb face was the cover.

So I knew him as this guy who was supposed to be very rich, but was also this local oaf who was always getting into beefs. In retrospect, I think I really underestimated how much his cameos as one of America’s richest guys, and then The Apprentice, changed the way that other people saw him in the rest of the country.

That’s not to say that he wasn’t taken seriously, but I thought he was just an asshole clown. Not that he isn’t that — he’s done nothing to disprove that initial assessment — but when he said he was flirting with running, I thought, sure, he wants to be in the newspaper today, that’s what he’s always wanted for himself. But when he actually did run — and I remember this feeling especially during the GOP debates — I had this realization of how bad this was, that things could definitely go a way that I don’t think even he wanted them to go.

The story, as I’ve heard it, was that he was going to run, and then he was going to drop out and say “I could have won but I wanted to go back to The Apprentice.” But then the show dropped him because the first thing he said upon announcing his candidacy was racist. At that point, Trump was like the dog that caught the car.

During the debates, I remember all these prigs and dweebs, all these weird froggy governors that he was up against. And he was saying all the same stuff that they were saying, but much more clearly and charismatically than them. It’s not as if his administration was significantly more disruptive than, say, Ted Cruz’s would’ve been. In a lot of ways Cruz, or whatever goblin from the 2016 field you want to put in, would’ve done a similar amount of damage, but they were never going to be able to get past the guy because they’re stuck saying these cheesy euphemisms and run away from their unpopular policies, and Trump doesn’t.

I don’t think he understands the policies, but he also isn’t capable of the euphemisms. So, there was a sense then that what seemed like it was shaping up as a sad, pantomime election of someone neoliberal and someone pretending not to be reactionary wound up being something significantly darker.

Alex N. Press

After Trump won the GOP nomination, I remember watching one of his debates against Hillary Clinton with some friends. When it ended, I said I thought that Trump had won the debate and everyone got mad at me. This was in Boston, and the people I was with were on the Left. It seemed like it was outrageous to say that the guy who had lied on stage might be winning the election.

David Roth

It’s definitely not what you want. But I remember having the same feeling. I think I was rationalizing it right through Election Day because if you score it by who was more correct, or lying less, then of course, he didn’t win anything, but if you go by who made a bigger impression, or who seemed more comfortable, it was a different story.

Some of it has to do with Clinton, who felt uniquely weak to me. The metaphor is that Hillary was overseeded. It was all there — she was very recognizable and everything — but so many people hated her, and she wasn’t offering people anything. That’s who Trump can beat, less so in this recent election but in that one, where he was saying that politics is rigged but that he was saying to voters “I’m going to cut you in, I’m going to help you out.”

Donald Trump at a campaign rally during the 2016 presidential campaign. (Dario Steckley / Flickr)

If you’ve ever been around someone like that, you’d know he was lying. But even if people could sense that he was lying, they felt that he was offering them something that Hillary wasn’t.

Alex N. Press

So Trump wins the election in 2016. The past four years have been defined by his egregious rhetoric and policy around immigrants — separating kids from their parents at the borders — and early on, the Muslim ban, paired with traditional GOP policies, such as tax cuts for the rich and deregulation. How do you sum up the past four years?

David Roth

I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late because there’s been a passive attempt to rehabilitate Mitt Romney, as he’s been the most outwardly tremulous every time Trump shits on some norm.

The story I remember from 2012 is that there was some focus group, and they were telling the undecided voters what Romney’s proposed policies were. The voters they were talking to didn’t believe these were really his policies because he came across as a decent guy. But his immigration policy was Trump’s immigration policy, it was about making life so bad that people left the country on their own. I think the term “self-deporting” was used.

The takeaway from all of this is that while Trump didn’t sound like a traditional Republican or act like one — because he is too vain and because he wouldn’t speak in that language if he even understood it — he is one. His is a theatrical presentation of a very familiar administrative brutality.

I would think that an opposition party that was opposed to the party that governs like that would have been making hay off of that, and making the point over and over again that when these guys talk to you about “options” or, “restricting immigration flows,” what that actually means is camps. When they talk about “creating opportunity,” what they mean is cutting some rich person’s taxes so they can invest it in some bullshit.

But that’s not something that the Democrats have ever shown much interest in doing, at least in my lifetime. That’s not a point that they’ve wanted to make. So I worry about the lesson of this era being lost: that as uniquely gross a figure Trump is, the grossness is mostly aesthetic.

It’s about how he expresses this stuff and how he presents himself. You can look at the set of his face and how he carries himself and it scans as much more authoritarian and cruel than Romney or whoever else, like Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley, these preppy guys. Yet it’s not a difference, really, and that’s the important part of this.

You can’t vote for somebody that seems more normal who is going to do the same thing. Either you abhor the things that he does, or you abhor the way that he acts. Both are abhorrent, and that’s the point to make.

Alex N. Press

What do you think that the GOP’s next few years post-Trump will look like? There are competing wings: you mention Romney, who is one wing of the party, and then there’s Hawley and Cotton, who are in a different milieu.

David Roth

It’s interesting that even Marco Rubio can speak the language of right-populism now, the idea of “the people versus the powerful.” All this stuff that Democrats used to use in this fairly insincere and facile way, now Republicans use that same language. You have to pin people down on what they mean by “elites” before you can know the specific way in which you’re being lied to.

But I don’t know where they go from here. In some ways, Trump getting as far as he got — not just becoming president but this movement around him that’s far more passionate and devoted to him, not to any particular policy but to him and what he represents — is way more popular success than Republicans have had during my lifetime, or at least since Ronald Reagan.

The thing that will be challenging for them is that when it comes to Trump’s fame and his show-business awareness, none of the other candidates have that. As much as they try, I don’t think that Hawley or Cotton can be as aggressive and domineering in the way that Trump is.

That’s central to his appeal as I understand it, that he’s always attacking and insulting. He’s relentless, he never goes to sleep, he never stops. That’s his damage; it isn’t a way you could pretend to be. I don’t want to speak this into existence, but I don’t think even Donald Trump Jr, for example, has that ability either, though he’s one of the few people damaged in the same way Trump is, which is why he speaks that language more fluently.

I think they’re going to try to speak that language. It’s going to sound ridiculous when some seventy-two-year-old millionaires starts saying “Cry more, libs!” during the debate, but knowing that something is ridiculous and seeing that it’s ridiculous, doesn’t means you can dismiss it. Trump was just president.

Alex N. Press

You recently wrote a piece with the headline “How Donald Trump Jr is the future of Trumpism.”

David Roth

I think he’s the future of Trumpism as something that exists online and is dedicated to triggering libs and never logging off. Trumpism as an approach to doing politics is what Republicans have. It’s that or going back to the mealy-mouthed American Enterprise Institute shit where you describe something that is not what you’re actually proposing and hope that no one notices it.

US president Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic at the White House in March, 2020. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

But in the time between when I was assigned that piece and when I wrote it, it became clear that Don Jr is not quite a threat in the sense of running for elected office right now — at least I don’t think he is. But I don’t think that the future of Trumpism is going to be four years long either.

This is something that’s loose in our politics, it’s what conservative politics is going to look and sound like now. In some ways, there’s something good about that, because you know what it is. It’s saying what it is. But the problem is that you stop it from coming to pass.

Alex N. Press

It poses a threat. In the junior leagues, Madison Cawthorn is a great example of the young version of a possible future. But on the other hand, there are limits to how far this populist rhetoric and culture war can go, because the policies don’t deliver to working people.

Now, the wrench in that analysis is the conservative media ecosystem. That’s an increasingly unhinged, self-enclosed world that is untethered from reality, and a lot of people are exposed to it all the time. Coherence may stop mattering so much in that context. Trump has accelerated that degeneration. Tucker Carlson is an example of this, QAnon is another example of this.

David Roth

I think that assessment is right. You’re right that it’s a parallel discourse. But the thing that is most salient, and most clearly explains Trump, is that it’s also very abstracted. Trump wouldn’t have been nominated, or even thought to run, if our politics worked in the most basic way.

Voters from mainstream liberal Democrats to mainstream conservative Republicans have accepted that they aren’t going to get much from the government. What it is then is a television show. This last election played out that way. Trump said, “it’s me, Donald Trump, your president.”

Then Joe Biden’s thing, to the extent that he had one was “I’m a good guy, I’ve been sad before, I know what it’s like to suffer.” However true that is or isn’t, at that point you’re basically picking the person that you want to watch on television for the next four years as they manage whatever version of decline we get.

The thing that defeats Trumpism and can undo conservative governance as we’ve known it over the last couple of decades is actual material politics. On the Left, it doesn’t mean you don’t need a top-to-bottom reimagining of society, but if people feel like the government is working for them, and it is delivering for them, then it’s not abstract anymore.

If they say “this is where I get my health care,” or “when I lost my job, unemployment insurance helped me get through,” that can be enough to take the abstraction out of the equation and make it look more like what it is, which is choosing what the state is and isn’t going to do for you.

The more perverse conservative government gets, where now the idea is the constitution forbids the government from helping you — which is the Supreme Court’s big project now — that’s infuriating. It’s going to hurt you. And I don’t think that’s a point most Democrats are very comfortable making. That’s one of the biggest reasons why this abstracted parallel discourse of politics is the one that exists in the mainstream.

Alex N. Press

I wanted to ask you about the Democratic Party. Specifically, how you see the past few years and what you think the next four years with Biden will look like. I think we both agree that the Democrats don’t pursue the material politics that you’re talking about for the most part.

David Roth

I really don’t know what to make of it. I’m astonished by their inability to do any kind of self-examination. This all comes back to a sense of abstraction. It matters to them because they want to have the presidency, since that kicks this whole patronage system into gear and then they govern to the extent that they’re capable of governing, given the other constraints that will last however long.

There isn’t a sense there that any of the lessons have been learned, let alone any urgency in facing the task of remedying it. I think that some of it owes to how old and rich and distant the people in the most powerful positions in the party are. But there’s also an element of it that feels completely checked out from the consequences of this. As if it’s just another industry and another character in this broad drama. It’s infuriating because we’re living in the damage that a failed government approach to a crisis can create, in terms of the sickness and suffering and death that surrounds us.

The answer to that is not to tweet “believe science.” You have to act. There has to be an approach that is about action — not just for reasons of winning elections, but because that’s obviously what’s right. The idea that you know we have no choice but continued decline and widespread cruelty writ large, that the only options are between a version of that which seems excited about it and a version of that which is sad about it, is an incredible abdication of responsibility.

I think there are elected officials at various levels in that party that get it, but the institutional Democratic Party does not seem to be attacking these problems with the requisite level of urgency.

Alex N. Press

It’s fitting that you used a sports metaphor earlier. There are differences between the two parties but as far as how electoral politics and governance in general are experienced by most people in the United States, it’s not so different from sports.

David Roth

Right, and as with sports, you can care about it a lot too. I see this to some degree online, and to a certain extent within my family — I don’t have a lot of conversations with them about their policy positions, but they’re Democrats — that they are loyal to their team. They get frustrated when the team is bad, but it’s that sort of thing.

It’s like being a Jets fan: you already have all the hats, and you know the team sucks, that the people in charge are stupid and the guys they’re putting out there are obviously not ready for primetime, but if you went to the trouble of getting a jersey, you’re going to wear it.

The way sports are now at the professional level is a little bit different than they were when I was a kid. The thing that justifies baseball’s antitrust exemption, for example, is the idea that it regulates itself, all the teams are going to be competitive because the strength of the product depends on it. If every team is trying, you’re going to get something like a self-cleaning system. That’s not the way things work anymore.

Now, there’s a third of the league tanking at any given time, another third of the league is so incompetent that it’s sort of hard to tell what they’re doing, and then there’s maybe eight teams that are trying to win a World Series in a given year. The way that fans have come to understand that is that even fans of teams like the Cubs are going to go into this year, if the Cubs succeed in trading a bunch of their stars, and say OK, we’re not going to try to win a lot of games this year. We’re in a building phase, or we are in year one of a three-year tear down that will eventually yield a championship competitor.

Sometimes that works but at some point, like when you’re cheering for payroll flexibility and some vision of what the future might be a few years down the road, you’ve accepted a shittier experience of being a fan.

To a certain extent, to be a hardcore Democrat now? This is an organization that was trying to win the presidency, but I don’t get the sense that they have been competing in a way that suggests that they want to win a World Series. I haven’t seen any sense that they’re out there to get power, govern, and keep power. But who else are you going to cheer for?

Alex N. Press

To the extent that there are any alternative visions, this was one of the suggestions of the Bernie Sanders campaign: you’re no longer just a fan, but instead there’s the possibility of a state that works for you, you could be a part of building that project.

David Roth

You could be a part of making that happen, and then benefit from the work that you put into it. How simple is that? The way in which the Democratic Party mobilized against Sanders is the most impressive mobilization on the part of that party that I have seen.

After the Nevada primary, I wrote something for the New Republic about what was happening with Bernie. At that time, places like MSNBC were saying Sanders is the Trump of the Left: “he’s hijacking our party and he’s making it seem like something that the party should not be.” The point that I tried to make was that to the extent that that is true, he’s the one candidate that anybody gives a shit about.

The reason that he’s having such an easy time dispatching all of these bright, young things, or visible Democratic Party icons, is because he’s expressing a politics that is pitched at voters and designed to improve those voters lives, as opposed to impressing donors or reliving triumphs of a generation or two ago.

Donald Trump removes his mask upon return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

I really thought at that point that, in the same way that Trump’s rise reflects a vacuum of ideas and energy at the heart of the Republican program, I really believed it was going to happen with Bernie. I supported him very much, and I was really excited for that. I thought OK, this is it; I suppose the Democrats could have prevented this if they did a better job implementing the policies that they supposedly supported, but they didn’t.

What you get now is someone calling their bluff. Obviously the most heartbreaking part of Sanders’s defeat is we all have to pay a bunch of money for health care every month, but the other heartbreaking element was it felt like there was this faction of people who had this idea of what the state could do for you, and what this project was going require to let the country flourish. That faction was just overtaken by more of the same.

Alex N. Press

Biden’s ascendancy means there will be an attempt to put the lid on the political crisis of the past few years, both the growth of the Right with Trump and of the Left with Sanders as well. Democrats can’t actually erase the conditions that created that crisis, but they can try to steer things toward a return to what they see as normalcy.

David Roth

That’s the part of it that I never really understood about the Democrats, as far as a long-term play — and it may not be a long-term play, maybe they aren’t making one at all — but the idea that you’re just going to turn the clock back to 2015 by having a third term of the Obama-Biden administration with many of your favorite friends administering policies that makes 13 percent better by 2030 for people in certain brackets. 2015 is when Trump came down the escalator. That moment made this one.

To turn the clock back to that one and then expect it to be different shows a striking lack of insight, and a lack of ideas of how things might be better. If they stay nibbling, and being stymied, and looking ineffectual, then even if it’s not Trump himself again — although I do expect him to run again if he’s healthy enough — then we’re just going to have to do all this shit again.

Alex N. Press

The last thing I want to ask you is about the past few months. In your latest column on Trump, you wrote the following:

This is Trump going out exactly as he governed—by telling someone whose name he’d soon forget to fix a problem he didn’t care enough about to understand, and then watching television to see how well he was doing. It’s axiomatic that the man doesn’t really understand what he’s mad about; Trump never really knows anything about anything. As wildly irresponsible as his behavior has been since the election, and as queasy as it is to watch him flail and fume and feint his way through what is either an exceptionally oafish attempted coup or the single most tasteless fundraising gambit in the history of American politics, the spectacle has mostly just been confounding. All these endlessly bruited breakthroughs-to-come and all that clock-killing bluster collapses at some point into a defiant and incoherent sheet of noise. Nothing about Trump ever improves or even changes; the end was always going to be a parodic reprise of the beginning.

So there are, first, the efforts to change the election outcome, to discard votes in certain places while adding votes in others, with these efforts being led by the likes of Rudy Giuliani. These are earnest attempts to overturn the election but in a half-assed way, led by incompetent people.

How do you make sense of all this when combined with the fact that Trump didn’t push to send out a new round of checks before the election, which would have possibly won him the election?

David Roth

I think it would have won him the election too. This is a lesson that you literally have to be a high-ranking member of the DNC not to get: when people got checks from the government with the stupid letter that said, basically, “From Donald J. Trump, don’t spend it all in one place,” that’s governing, it’s giving people what they need. That really did help people, and it was understood as coming from Trump.

Him not pushing on the checks may be because the institutional Republican Party thought they were out of luck at that point; as a general rule, they air on the side of not giving people money, as a general principle. They might have felt they’d gotten as much from Trump as they could, or they were simply exhausted by all of it, much like a majority of American voters were.

That’s why this attempt to overturn the election is being run by weirdos, Giuliani and so on. If they were close enough, if this was the sort of thing where they could’ve done something like Bush vs. Gore — if it was about changing the outcome in one state, getting one thing to happen — the guys the GOP has dispatched to win cases like that in the past would’ve tried it.

In this case, because Trump didn’t run strong enough, the things they were asking for were contradictory: in one state, you want to stop the vote, in another you want to audit it, you want to disqualify votes and add votes. It’s an incoherent argument, and I don’t think the long-time lions of reactionary lawfare want to pursue that, because they’d lose.

Giuliani and the true believers who have slotted in below him in that hierarchy just want to be on television, which is an appropriate end to this moment. The big takeaway for Democrats about Trump is how coarse his approach was, personally and politically, and what a bad guy he was. And none of that is exactly wrong: it was a hugely corrupt administration and they looted and subverted institutions for four years. But that corruption was never a point that the Democrats seemed especially inclined to make.

But that’s how you wind up here: everyone bailed on it, while Giuliani continues receiving his billable hours. They never believed in anything beyond enriching themselves and at this point, everyone but Trump has realized that they’ve gotten as much out of it as they’re going to get right now.