Nov 18, 2016
“He’s Got The Chance”: John Hodgman on President-elect Donald Trump
Through the years, John Hodgman has been an author, a writer, and an editor for the New York Times. He’s been a P.C., a Daily Show contributor, a podcaster, and an actor. These days, he’s still writing for the Times and recording his Judge John Hodgman podcast while being a voiceover regular in Jon Glaser Loves Gear on TruTV, and, as of last Friday, he can be seen in the second season of Amazon’s Red Oaks as recurring character Travis, a crude manager of a local television station.
We’ve covered Red Oaks in depth before, and it’s a great show—the second season could be even stronger than the first, with strong acting, music, and addictive plotlines. Hodgman was already a fan, so signing on was a no-brainer. (“When they reached out, with the possibility of me doing this small, recurring part, it was pretty much an automatic yes,” he says, as he praised the show’s cast, including Craig Roberts, Paul Reiser, Richard Kind, Jennifer Grey, and Ennis Esmer).
Yet, it’s difficult when talking to someone like Hodgman to ignore the news climate that we find ourselves in today. Hodgman is, of course, an incisive thinker and one who’s not afraid to express his opinion. He wrote a powerful essay about why he was supporting Hillary Clinton in the primaries back in April, on his personal website, and continued to be vocal throughout the election cycle across social media. Now that it’s just barely in the rearview mirror, the topic remains ever present. As we found out, the Park Slope intellectual is still working out exactly how he feels about our new President-elect.
It’s still a little bit of a shock, what happened last week, but I wanted to ask you: Michael Moore has put out a plan, here’s what we’ve got to do going forward. I was wondering if you had anything like that in mind?
Well, Michael Moore is much more industrious than I am, and if he has put forward a plan, I will check it out. Personally, I’m still processing, as you put it, the shock. I think the combination of both the unexpectedness… I mean, I had grown cautiously optimistic based on the polling and what we understood about the electorate, to believe that Trump was not going to be elected president, and obviously I was not the only person to be taken by horrific surprise. You know, I’m a straight white dude in my 40s, with money in the bank from some television work and computer commercials that he made. I’m going to be OK—probably, right?—but there are a lot of people who are very worried about how OK they’re going to be, and in that regard, it’s hard to be funny. And I haven’t tried very hard to be funny, because I think I deserve a right to just feel like garbage for a while.
Because this is not just a huge loss, but a humiliation of the democratic, of liberalism, and I would say even of my Republican friends, because what we have now is not a Republican administration; what we have now is Trumpist administration. Trump used the Republicans and hijacked their infrastructure, parasitically, in order to gain the presidency, and we watched as Republicans of various levels of conservatism and moderation wrestled with what it meant to have Trump, a guy who had been a Democrat, and used to be good friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton, take their party hostage. And whether to repudiate him, or cravenly attempt to jump on the bandwagon thanks to his polls—they made a calculation that if they won, they might use him in the way that he used them, but I don’t know that they appreciate just what an incredible user Donald Trump is. There’s no question that Donald Trump activated a whole lot of bigoted paranoia in order to animate his electorate, and I’m not saying this to be divisive, it is simply stating the fact that the whole premise of the campaign was to “Make America Great Again,” and the not-so-very-subtle subtext was make it great again for white men, mostly, who feel terrified of the economic repercussions of diversity, change, the future, immigration, globalization, et cetera, with run-of-the-mill bigotry and misogyny thrown in for fun.
The whole point of the campaign was for people who feel very angry, for a lot of legitimate and illegitimate reasons, to be able to express their anger via the entertainment product of the Trump campaign. It was never intended to necessarily win the presidency. Indeed, I think Donald Trump probably feels a little bit freaked out that it worked.
I don’t think that Trump is a racist, per se, I think that Trump believes that there are two kinds of people in the world: a full human being called Donald Trump, and then billions of slightly less-human, weird, faceless mannequins that surround him, that are meaningless to him, except as so far as they can enrage, please, or flatter him. So, I don’t think that Donald Trump will be controlled, in any way, by the Republican party. I think he’ll do just what he wants to, and they’ll continue to be terrorized. And I feel bad for them! And I feel bad for his voters! Because I appreciate the anger with which they voted. And if their message was to hurt liberal elites like me, and to lash out at the forces of change that make them feel upset and powerless, and to make my daughter cry, because she saw—whatever you may think of her—a highly qualified, long-experienced, civil servant, who happened to be a woman, lose a job to a cartoon of a white man who openly bragged about groping women? Yeah, message received. I get it. You’re mad, and you wanted to hurt us, and guess what: it hurts. It hurts a lot. I’m still processing that hurt. It takes a while after you have been thoroughly kicked in the private parts, to get your breath back and figure out how you’re going to walk home with some dignity.
But I think we’ll get there, and I think it’s hard, as we can see, to figure out what our position should be with regard to Trump, because we don’t know who he is. We don’t know which version of Trump is going to show up at any given moment. He is almost, by definition, a non-rational actor, and we don’t know how normally we can treat him, and there is the danger of normalizing him, and normalizing the things that he unleashed. So I think right now—by the way, I’m sorry none of this is funny…
No! Totally. By all means. I wanted to know your take.
Yeah. It’s really, like, it’s a struggle between moral obligations to acknowledge that this is not normal, and that this is not just a normal presidency, and a normal transition of power, and that the bigotry and misogyny and intolerance, the animating elements of his campaign, have to be rejected, at the same time appreciating that he is the executive branch of a government that is controlled exclusively by the Republicans at this point. If anything, we need to rely on the fact that Donald Trump is so mercurial, and changeable, and malleable, that he seems to really believe what the last person told him, and we need to maintain a channel of communication to him in order to prevent the worst things from happening.
Do I think that he was highly irresponsible and inflammatory on the campaign trail? Yes. Do I think that if I told him that my daughter has experienced horrible depression—she’s 14—horrible depression and sadness, and has really had the scales lifted from her eyes about what’s allowable for men to say and think about women? I bet Donald Trump would feel bad, as far as he’s capable of feeling bad. You know what I mean?
Yeah. Very much.
I think that that’s where we need to keep an open mind. I think we need to take a structural and principled position of opposition against bigotry of all kinds, and the Republican party trying to use Donald Trump to rewrite our american institutions for generations to come. But we also need to keep a back channel open to Trump to say, don’t let them control you.
That’s where I’m at today. Chuck Schumer gave that interview to the New York Times which is a lot different from what I’m saying. The Times headlined it by saying ‘The Democrats’ Secret Strategy Is To Work With The Trump Administration.’ Obviously, you need to legislate for good when you can, but I don’t think it makes sense to publicly pre-surrender, and not acknowledge what’s happened, because Hillary Clinton did get one million more votes than Donald Trump, and you make common cause with Donald Trump too closely, you’re making common cause with bigotry that he unleashed to get where he is, and that is not OK for our more vulnerable population and constituents.
So, as you can see, I’m just going on and on, because for myself, I’m still figuring it out. I would absolutely say that one of the things we need to do is donate to and shore up institutions like Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU, and other non-profits who will be able to offer to help shelter any legal backup to those communities who might see a lot of governmental policies shift against their favor, if the Republicans have their way.
You touched on it a bit, and we could talk about this forever. But it seems like there have been two schools of thought in the aftermath of the election with looking at Trump: Dave Chappelle on SNL ended his monologue by basically saying We’ll give Trump a chance as long as he gives us a chance. And then another school, where it’s like, he said so many unacceptable things on the campaign trail; we refuse to wipe a clean slate. There’s a lot of room for nuance between the two, but I’m curious where you might fall.
Those are the two poles, it seems like, but I feel like they’re a false position. No one has to give Donald Trump a chance; Donald Trump has a chance. Right now. He’s got it. He seized it, and he seized it in a particularly odious way, by activating actual bigots, and unconscious bigotry within a certain, and I will say it with great empathy, vulnerable population: a white working class people who are hurting, largely because of a) inevitable economic trends, and b) Republican policy. But those who voted for Donald Trump voted because either they were bigots, or they were OK with bigotry, if it meant opposing a woman that they hated, or sending a message to the elites, or whatever it was they thought. And there, I feel like that cannot be erased. That slate can never be clean. It’s like when you write on a whiteboard on your college dorm room door with a sharpie. You can’t erase. That’s a permanent stain on that slate.
I love what Chappelle did, and in some ways, there’s nothing else to say. Unless you’re a monster, unless you’re going to become the pure, obstructionist nihilist of the Republican congress under two Obama terms. If you’re a human, you’re going to have to say let’s try to go forward together. I think it’s critical for the Democratic opposition, first of all, to negotiate from strength, by laying a clear line of this will not be forgiven. You have your chance. We will wait and see what you do with it. Both for political strength, and also to send a message to non-white working class voters who make up a huge portion of the democratic party, and non-white straight male working class voters, all those people who were written off, purposely, by the Trump coalition, to say we stand with you. We will not abandon you.
That, I think, is really important. So, where I take issue with Let’s give Trump a chance, that’s nonsensical. He’s got the chance. He’s the president. As they say, he took it by odious means, he’s got it now, but I will wait and see. I will wait and see, because I do want to have faith in people, and in our republic, and hope, and I also wait and see, because Donald Trump is a different person every day. I don’t know who will show up as President. We’re asked to feel empathy for his voters—which, by the way, I feel empathy with everybody, especially people who are hurting in this country—but guess what, not a lot of people are writing articles about how we need to feel empathy for millions and millions of Clinton, and for that matter, Bernie Sanders supporters who at this point constitute an electoral majority of the United States.
So, when I feel empathy for his voters, my empathy is also to the very small minority of Trump supporters who actually believed in the dumb stuff he was saying. Who actually believed that there is going to be a golden superwall on the southern border. That there are going to be mass deportations of Muslims, and that Donald Trump is personally going to take Hillary Clinton to jall. Most people didn’t believe that; it was open within his campaign. I think Newt Gingrich called them “campaign devices.” Most people who voted for Donald Trump are not active racists or bigots, nor do they believe that those weirdo ideas were going to come to pass. But they still voted in bad faith, because essentially they had to trust that he was lying in order to get to the place where they could vote for him, and you can’t trust a liar. That’s just not what’s going to happen.
So, when he gave that victory speech, which was profoundly conciliatory, I remember listening to it in the car, on the morning after, as I was driving into work, and it almost got me! I was like, maybe this guy’s isn’t so bad. I’m like, Wait a minute! He just spent two minutes complementing Hillary Clinton and talking about what a debt of gratitude he owes to her public service. This is the same person that he called a “nasty woman,” who ought to be in jail. And for the Trump voter who believed everything he said? I felt profound empathy and sympathy in that moment. Because that was the first inkling, like, Oh, he was lying. I was really looking forward to her going to jail. What happened to that? I think they’re going to end up seeing that President Millionaire Wizard Daddy is not going to bring back mining, he’s not going to bring back steel, he’s not going to bring back manufacturing. Those industries, and those communities that relied on them that are hurting so badly right now, they’re profoundly altered forever, if they continue to exist at all, and there was never a magic wand that Donald Trump could wave.
I feel bad for them, because—and I agree with this critique of Hillary Clinton—I think we could have reached out and offered them more hope than we did. I think a lot of them never would’ve come over to our side, because I think there’s just too much anger, and too much feeling of frustration and powerlessness-ness. I don’t know how many would’ve come over to her side, but I do feel like we need to send a clear message both to our non-white working class, that we stand with them, and we will protect them, and we want them to try, but also to those white working class voters that the magic daddy isn’t going to fix it, and we need to find a way to work together and fix it, and get everyone into an economy that works for them.
All right, well, that’s me announcing my candidacy for… school board? I guess?
Yeah, there it is.
I’m going to say school board.
Whatever it takes.
This interview was condensed for content and clarity.
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