Q&A: Defeat Trump by Any Means Necessary?
with John McWhorter
In our latest subscriber-only Q&A session, a reader wrote in asking John and I what we think of Sam Harris’s recent appearance on the Triggernometry podcast, in which he seemed to suggest that it was justifiable for the media, and whoever else was in a position to do so, to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story in order to help prevent Trump from getting reelected. (Sam has since clarified his comments.) I like and respect Sam, but on this point he is dead wrong. And the fact that he is far from the only influential person with this view is cause for grave concern.
I am not a Trump supporter. I think a second Trump presidency could prove to be quite bad for the country. But neither do I think he can or should be dismissed out of hand, and I certainly don’t think we can write off the tens of millions of people who voted for him as bigots and cranks. Trump won the 2016 election, and he came damn close to winning the 2020 election. If he decides to run in 2024, he may win again. If those who oppose Trump—especially those in positions of power in the media and the government—decide that it’s permissible to lie, obfuscate, disseminate misinformation, quash legitimate news favorable or helpful to Trump, and do whatever else is necessary to keep him out of office, regardless of ethical or democratic considerations, then they will have committed a greater crime than anything you could lay at Trump’s feet.
Trump won in 2016, and we all had to live with it. Biden won in 2020, and we all have to live with it. “We,” the people of the United States, which includes the media executives, political operatives, activists, thought leaders, and elected officials who sometimes seem to think they’re better suited than their fellow citizens to determine the course of the nation. Well, they’re not. As I say below, they’re not that clever. If they act to subvert the democratic process in order to secure the outcome they prefer over that preferred by the electorate, they will wake up one morning to find that the democracy they claim to value so highly will have disintegrated, and we are the ones who will be left to deal with the consequences.
This is a free excerpt from our September subscriber-only Q&A session. Each month, John and I solicit questions from subscribers and then pick a handful to respond to in conversation. If you want access to the full video, the opportunity to ask a question yourself, and a host of other benefits, consider becoming a subscriber today.
GLENN LOURY: Okay, John, this is a challenging one from William.
What are your thoughts regarding Sam Harris's recent controversial statements made regarding the media's influence over the previous presidential election? Personally, for the past 15 years, I have considered Sam's views and approach to be practically impeccable. But upon hearing his latest take, he seems to be saying that, since he has deemed another Trump presidency to be a true existential threat to America and civilization, then it is perfectly acceptable and even necessary for social media and news organizations to conspire in any way (e.g., unethical or even illegal) to not allow Trump's election to occur. I would have imagined that Sam would abhor this kind of rationalizing. But upon deeper inspection, if, say, an actual narcissistic psychopath whose decisions could not be predicted and who could never be reasoned with (I'm NOT saying that describes Trump) had a legitimate chance to win a presidency, would it not be justifiable, if not necessary, to uphold Sam's position?
Okay, that's well-stated, William. That's a question for our consideration, John. You, of course, have seen Sam's [statement], or seen the scuttlebutt. It was well described there by William. So what do you think?
JOHN MCWHORTER: That's the eternal question. When are emergency measures justified? And is this one of those cases? I don't think that—I'm flying blind here—but I don't know if we can be sure enough that there would be that degree of catastrophe if Trump won again that it would be justified to break those ethical and procedural rules. And I think everybody knows that I think Trump is a maleficent moron, he is quite unpredictable, and he would hire people who would allow him to be, and probably even more than he did before. But no, I don't see it.
I don't think we're sure enough of it being that bad a thing. Not to mention that maybe there are things that we could do, knowing what he's capable of the second time around, to keep things from getting that bad. I lack the imagination to actually imagine that we're on our way to a civil war. I think that there's an extent to which boys will be boys, and they like to carry guns. That way that they have of talking online, the things that they like to say to left-leaning interviewers, I've read the articles. They're scary, but I'm not inclined to imagine that revolution. And that really may mean that I just have a tendency to go day-to-day and am not a fan of action movies.
But no, I would not agree with Sam on that. Although I know where he's coming from. And it would be truly grizzly if that man were elected again. But I don't know if it'd be that grizzly. What do you think, Glenn?
Okay. That's a response. I think we come out on the same side of the question, which is that we can't support Sam Harris in his statement. But it sounded like you just said that the link between the election of Trump and the catastrophe isn't strong enough, it's not immediate, like you knew this guy was Hitler and it was gonna be a Holocaust if you didn't kill him. Right?
And I have a very different angle of vision. I'm terribly disappointed, actually, in Sam Harris taking that stance and deeply frightened by the fact that I know it's a widely held position. For two reasons. One has to do with democracy, and the other has to do with the integrity of our institutions.
So you have gotta persuade the people who want to elect Donald Trump president that that's a bad idea. You cannot preemptively exclude the consideration of that and think that you're not doing grave damage to the institution. Would Trump not do grave damage to the institution? Yeah, Trump would do grave damage.
But you are doing it! You just said people don't have a right to know the truth, because you in your fucking wisdom are gonna protect them from themselves. That's what you said. So it's anti-democratic in the extreme. You're not that clever. Your mouth is not a prayer book. You do not have a a mainline into “the virtue in truth.” You gotta persuade those people. That's the job. That's the job. The job is to not let him, not to manipulate the mechanisms of public information dissemination. I mean, that's horrible. That's horrible. That's the end of the road. Trump will have won even if he loses if you do that.
Of course, Glenn, the problem is that there's a certain kind of person out there who is no more amenable to reason than the woke racists that I talk about. It's a religion. So nothing you say will convince a critical mass of those people that Trump is not the messiah.
I don't agree with that. I'm sorry. It may be that he's the messiah. If you can't persuade [them] that he's not, it may be that he is. I'm sorry, it's a democracy. The fervency with which ... I mean, you have to go to some of these places and talk to these people in rural Texas, in Southern Indiana, in Arkansas, in Missouri. You have to actually go to Mississippi, you have to go to Florida, and you have to talk to some of these people. These are our fellow citizens.
Trump will live and Trump will die. The grounding that gave rise to this movement will not be swept away by the arrogant hands of editors and technicians and pundits, in my humble opinion. I mean, there's some really deep structural fissures here. So I disagree with Harris that ... I'm not now addressing myself to how big a threat is Donald J. Trump. I'm saying what you propose to do to our institutions on behalf of saving the country from Trump burns the village in order to save it, destroys the thing that you think you're trying to protect. And it's the lazy way out.
The lazy response to the threat that—again, stipulating the threat that Trump is alleged to propose to the country—the lazy response to it is to keep Hunter Biden's laptop story from seeing the light of day before an election. Have you any idea what that does to the integrity of the institutions? You say he's the threat to democracy? So no, no, no, a thousand times no.
Well, it's a matter of degree between us on this one. Trump didn't appall you. He never really did, did he? Or at least he didn't until January 6th. He didn't appall you. And it's almost as if you've seen something that I didn't, like there was some president before. But we both know that there wasn't. I just find it genuinely interesting. He gets my hairs standing on end. He never did that to you.
I don't wanna put it quite the way you put it, because he did many appalling things. Trump did many appalling things. Was I appalled by the appalling things he did? Yes, I was appalled by the appalling things he did. Did I react to Trump the way you did? No, I did not react to Trump the way you did. Was I as alarmed by Trump the way you were and are?
I mean, I have a dear friend, a guy I've known for many decades, whom I saw recently. The first thing out of his mouth to me is, “You're not urgently enough denouncing Trump!” And I said, man, you are crazy? My reaction to that was, first of all, Trump is not any longer president. “Oh, but he's there, he's there.” I said, can you not get over your Trump derangement syndrome? You're gonna really let that drive your conversation? And what have I always said in response to this question—I only repeat myself—which is that it's not Trump, it's the people who support Trump who have my attention. And the personalization of my reaction to that.
So for example, what is Trump? He's three, count them, three Supreme Court justices whom he appointed. That's a third of the court. The people who cheer that advent are measured in the scores of millions in this country. They like the fact that Roe vs. Wade was overturned. There are a lot of those people. We're gonna have to deal with this. The culture is in its flux, and there are political ramifications of profound changes that have to be processed through our institutions. So when people try to shortcut that—I'm just gonna be repeating my answer about Sam Harris. I'm not gonna get absorbed in Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.
Besides, he's not wrong about everything. Trump wasn't wrong about everything. Trump was not wrong about your ghettos are hellish places that have been ruined by Democratic misrule. He was not wrong, in my opinion, about if you don't have a border, you don't have a country. In my opinion. In my opinion, he was not wrong about, you cannot put a navy and an army on every continent on the planet and still think you're serving the people. In my opinion, it was at least worth discussing what he said about China is gonna become a force in the twenty-first century, and the consequences for how we deal with it are being measured in these dusty towns in the Midwest of this country, which I want to see rebuilt.
And you just made me, you forced me to give a pro-Trump speech. I'm not pro-Trump. But I hate the ossified political consensus which he challenged, just like Brexit challenged in the United Kingdom, that has a class connotation to it. Laptop classes versus people who work with their hands. College graduates versus people who “I love the uneducated.” Cultural nouveau riche who trot their transgressive styles of life out and force them down your throat versus conservative Catholics in the blue collar precincts of et cetera.
I saw and see in the Trump movement a challenge to some things in American political culture that need to be called to account. And I think the personification of evil in the person of Trump and then the supercilious, morally self-righteous, “Oh, I'm saving democracy” is a dodge. It's a dodge from answering the questions that Trump's popularity put before the governing elites of this country. That's what I think.
We're gonna return to this. Let's do. But let's leave room for another question, if we may.
Okay. We got time for one more at least.
And because the Supreme Court is on my mind lately.
Yeah, man. And the affirmative action case is coming. What do you think those people are gonna do with this Harvard-UNC case? They're gonna gut affirmative action.
Oh, it's gone. I've already got my editorial pieces planned. It's gone. And in that, they are correct. So, yes. I mean, I understand what you mean about how Trump or Trumpism is not always wrong. However, talking about his appointees? I've got some issues with this direction that the Court has gone. Or if you read the latest New Yorker piece on Alito, which is really worth reading from beginning to end.
I have not. I will take a look, though.
I recommend it. But yeah, we'll return to that.
Okay, we'll come back to that in due course. We got time for one more question, and it will not be, I repeat, it will not be about Ibram X. Kendi.