Journalist Chris Hedges

The journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning author joins us to discuss the presidential election and its aftermath.

Chris Hedges is an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning author. He has written 11+ books, including the New York Times best seller Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt. His most recent text is entitled Unspeakable. He holds a B.A. in English literature from Colgate University and a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University. Hedges has also reported for more than 50 countries, working on various news outlets including The New York Times and National Public Radio.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges about the state of our democracy and what happens after the election November 8, especially if Secretary Clinton wins with a mandate.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Chris Hedges coming up in just a moment.

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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Truthdig columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges to this program. His latest text is titled “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt”. He joins us now from New York. Chris, good to have you on the program, sir.

Chris Hedges: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: To your subtitle of the text, is what we have been witnessing in this campaign a revolt?

Hedges: It’s certainly an insurgency. I don’t know if it’s a revolt. On both sides of the political spectrum, people have lost faith in the ruling ideology of neoliberalism. We saw an insurgency during the Democratic primaries with the Sanders campaign.

And I think we can describe the Trump phenomena as an insurgency of people who no longer find the system credible or one that serves their most basic needs.

Tavis: So if not revolt, but to your word, insurgency, what are the takeaways from this insurgency about what’s going to happen in two weeks on the other side of this election whether Trump wins or Hillary wins?

Hedges: Well, the continuation of the policies of austerity, the expansion of imperial warsthese endless wars 15-plus years nowthe paralysis on the part of the ruling class to respond to the increased suffering–half of the country now lives in essence in povertythe inability to deal with the effects of deindustrialization, the failure to curb the criminal activity by Wall Street.

All of these things are the forces that are fueling this legitimate anger and frustration. And let’s assume that Hillary Clinton becomes the president and let’s assume that the Democratic Party, as it did under Barack Obama, continues these policies. Then a figure like Trump kind of becomes the dress rehearsal for a Christianized or Proto-fascism.

That failure to respond which we’ve seen with bankrupt [inaudible] and I covered the war in Yugoslavia would be a good example, or even going back to Weimar Germany is very, very dangerous. When a cabal seizes power and directs the forces of government towards furthering the interest of that cabal at the expense of the majority, then eventually there’s blowback.

Tavis: You just said a mouthful there. That’s a lot to unpack. Let me take two or three pieces one at a time and try to give you a chance to expound. So first, to your reference to Yugoslavia.

I take it from your answer that you think that what happened in Yugoslavia is a much better parallel than what happened in Brexit. We keep reading about Brexit and the U.S., but I hear you saying, I believe, that you think Yugoslavia is a better example. If I’m right about that, unpack that for me.

Hedges: Yes, and I covered Yugoslavia. I was the Balkan Bureau Chief for The New York Times, covered the war there. What you had is that period in the 90s after the dictator, Tito, died, an ineffectual liberal center that attempted–although the country had not had a tradition of democracy–to build what became an anemic democracy, an inability to deal with a faltering economy that ultimately ended with massive closures of state factories, hyper inflation.

And you saw a population turn on that ineffectual liberal center and embrace at the time these very buffoonish figures, these ethnic nationalists, Radovan Karadžić, Slobodan Milošević, [inaudible], and others. I think that that parallel is one that is worth remembering.

That when people turn on the system and turn against a bankrupt liberal class–and Richard Rorty wrote about this in his last book, “Achieving Our Country”–they not only turn against these ineffectual figures, but they turn on the supposed values that they claim to defend, tolerance, inclusiveness, you know, respect for different ways of believing and being.

And all of that goes out the window and, again, I think we’re seeing that with these nativists and Neo-Confederates and even racists that are gathering around the Trump campaign.

Tavis: Let me take Trump and Hillary one at a time. First to Trump, I thought I heard you say a moment ago that what we are witnessing with Donald Trump–if he goes down in flames as the polls are now indicating, for what they’re worth–but if Trump goes down in flames, I thought I heard you suggest that what we’ve witnessed with Donald Trump is just a dress rehearsal. A dress rehearsal for what and who will fill the Donald Trump role post election day?

Hedges: That’s difficult to tell. But up until Trump imploded his own campaign, he was running within striking distance of Hillary Clinton. A man with very little self-control, not much intellectual depth, no real policy experience, and I found that very frightening that he was taken as a credible candidate.

So if someone after this election, assuming Hillary Clinton wins and assuming that she continues these neoliberal policies that have distorted the country, forming a kind of virtual neofeudalism, assuming this continues, then we may get somebody who’s much more skilled politically, much more self-disciplined and therefore much more dangerous.

Now we saw in the Clinton campaign through the leaked Podesta emails that there was an effort on the part of the Democratic establishment to promote–they called them the Pied Piper candidates. These are the figures like Cruz, Carson and Trump. The idea being, according to the Podesta emails, that they would push the more mainstream candidates like Jeb Bush and others closer to the lunatic fringe.

Now that’s a very dangerous game to play, and I think the Clinton campaign–well, they know from the polling that they would have had a much harder time beating a mainstream Republican candidate.

So in essence, they’re culpable for elevating these kinds of figures to create a starker choice. In terms of policy, there really is very little difference from a Hillary Clinton or a Mitt Romney or a Jeb Bush. Freud used to call it the narcissism of minor difference.

So you elevate a figure as a way to make yourself more appealing and create a wider sort of gap between choices. And yet what you’re really elevating is a force and a figure that is deeply anti-democratic and has within it the seeds of a kind of an American fascism.

Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago that the person that fills the role post election that Donald Trump has played remains to be seen. We don’t know who that person is going to be as yet, but I want to ask whether or not you are familiar with this General Michael Flynn.

I’ve been reading a lot about this guy lately. I’ve been following this guy and he, to your point, is more politically skilled than Donald Trump is. But this General Flynn, if you don’t know the guy, you might want to read about him, but he concerns me. Does he concern you?

Hedges: Yeah. You know, I’ve covered politics as a reporter too long to make predictions. But if you pressed me, that’s the name I would have latched onto. And The New York Times ran a profile of him a couple of days ago, and he embodies all of those qualities. Look, we are headed eventually for another financial dislocation.

Wall Street is doing just what it did before, and the system is too weak to sustain that kind of a shock without very dangerous political consequences. The idea of Citibank and JPMorgan Chase and all these companies going back to the fed to be bailed out once again, people again seeing 30%, 40% of their 401ks cut, again massive joblessness, movements like this, totalitarian movements like this, need a crisis.

But, yes, Flynn is an example, a very good example, of precisely the kind of political entity that could tap into this rage and this despair and this–I would call it this disgust in many ways for a democratic system that is ceased to function.

Tavis: So now to Hillary Clinton. A couple of things. We’ll start with this. You said a moment ago that Wall Street–and you’re not the first person, respectfully, to predict this. Anyone watching what Wall Street is doing understands very clearly that they are doing, as you said, exactly the same things they were doing before they were too big to fail and collapsed practically the country.

So if we accept the fact that they’re on that same path again and if we accept the fact that Hillary Clinton is the presumptive next president, if one believes the polls these days, is she equipped to deal with that, given what we learned from the WikiLeaks emails?

I want to ask you more about that in a second. But is she equipped to take on Wall Street? And how might she do that if we know that what’s about to happen is impending?

Hedges: Well, I think from the leaked emails, it’s clear that she has no intention of taking on Wall Street. She’s built a partnership with Wall Street which not only funds her campaign, but has been quite generous in funding the Clinton campation just as she has built an alliance with some of the most despotic regimes around the globe, including Saudi Arabia which gave–we don’t know–exactly $10 million to $15 million dollars to the Clinton Foundation.

No, she’s a creature of the establishment. She’s emblematic of what, again, across the political spectrum, people have risen up against.

And, therefore, she’s a very weak and a very dangerous political figure because as this assault continues on the poor, on working men and women, the shrinking middle class, she will become a lightning rod for this discontent. I see nothing within her past and nothing within the leaked emails.

Of course, we saw the leaked speeches that indicates that she is going to chart a course different from what she and, of course, Bill Clinton charted during his presidency where there was a savage assault not only with NAFTA, but the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill that exploded the prison population.

And, of course, increased the sentences, the destruction of welfare, and 70% of the original recipients on welfare were children, the abolition of Glass-Steagall which created firewalls between investment and commercial banks.

All of this came out of the Clinton administration and the Clinton administration was well paid for it. So that by the 90s, the Democratic Party had fundraising parody with the Republican Party from corporations, and when Barack Obama first ran for president, he actually got more money.

But by doing corporate bidding, you created a hollow or an empty liberal establishment that spoke in that traditional feel your pain language of liberalism, but sold out its very constituency, and I think that’s where this rage and this anger and this frustration comes from.

The average person has no voice in government and there was that Princeton academic who did the study over a 10-year period of bills and said, basically, if you’re not wealthy and you don’t have lobbyists and you’re not a corporation, you’re not getting any representation of any meaning in Washington.

Tavis: For those who are watching us tonight and listening to you right now and process what you’re saying as a sort of doomsday prediction, there are two things that come to mind. One is, as they hear you, they’re either wrestling with what your argument is, trying to process it and wrestle with it, marinate on it, or they’re just outright perhaps dismissive because it is such a doomsday prediction.

Given that, one of these persons is going to win and, again, if the polls are correct, Hillary Clinton may not just win, but just run the table if the electoral college predictions are right. So two questions. One, if Hillary is the person, your doomsday prediction notwithstanding, how do we hold her accountable?

And secondly, how do we hold her accountable especially if she runs the table to such an extent that the M word starts to creep up which I saw in The New York Times already that she may win this thing and take it as a mandate.

So your neoliberal criticism notwithstanding, if she wins with what she interprets as a mandate and you don’t think she’s qualified to deal with these issues, what say you about how we at least go about holding her accountable? Does that make sense?

Hedges: Yeah. I mean, we have to build popular movements to push back. You’re seeing signs of that in North Dakota. You’ve seen it with the anti-fracking movement. You’ve seen it with Black Lives Matter. Because the system itself is not going to respond.

One of the things that worries me about the high level of violence especially directed at poor people of color in marginal communities is that it functions, I think, like lynching is a form of social control.

Because these are deindustrialized areas, so you have created in huge pockets of deindustrialized areas largely in cities, Detroit, Cleveland, Newark, on and on and on what Karl Marx would call surplus or redundant population. And that surplus or redundant population because there are no real job alternatives have to have other forms of social control which are primarily coercion.

So indiscriminant violence, I mean, these are mini police states in essence where police can serve as judge, jury and executioner and they serve that role of lynching, the same role that lynching did to create a kind of reign of terror along, of course, with mass incarceration.

So if we do not begin to address the consequences of deindustrialization and neoliberalism and the ideology of neoliberalism has lost its credibility, which I think it has, then the state is left only with these draconian forms of control in order to maintain power.

And I see nothing in the Clinton agenda that is going to chart a different course, that’s going to deal differently, so I see these problems as only being exacerbated. So it’s incumbent upon us because our elected officials essentially don’t respond to do the kinds of things that the Occupy movement did or Black Lives Matter do because it’s all we have left.

Tavis: What happens to those Bernie supporters who can’t make the turn on November 8?

Hedges: Well, I mean, I am supporting the Green Party not because I think they can win, but because I look at Syriza which is now the ruling party of Greece. 10 years ago, they were polling at 4%. I look at groups like Podemos in Spain. I think we have to build not only alternative movements, but alternative forms of political power to represent our interest.

Politics is a game of fear and, of course, this campaign is about fear, whether it’s the Trump campaign or the Clinton campaign. That’s fundamentally really all either side has to offer, although Trump kind of mouths the language of right wing populism. But I think from his record, it’s very clear that he’ll say anything. I mean, he’s an opportunist.

But I think that we have to begin to seriously stand up and confront this system, a system the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin defines as inverted totalitarianism. Because if we don’t, if we continue to allow it to run its course, then the consequence for American democracy will be very bleak and very dangerous.

Tavis: Let me ask you about WikiLeaks. I told you a minute ago or so I would come back to this. So we have seen this debate on the stage between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, in the last debate most expressly.

And certainly we have seen this written about in The New York Times and elsewhere about these leaks from WikiLeaks. What I have not seen as yet is a robust conversation about how we process what we read from WikiLeaks.

Put another way, is Secretary Clinton right essentially that we ought to dismiss this and focus on the issue of who is hacking our emails and what it means if a foreign government is doing that? Is she right about that and that ought to be our approach? Or is it that we seriously have to pay attention to what these emails say? Or is it either/or, both/and? You tell me.

Hedges: Well, I worked for many decades as a newspaper reporter, including 15 for The New York Times, and I was leaked all sorts of material by the U.S. government, by the French Intelligence Agency, even by the Israeli Mossad. And my job as a reporter was to determine whether the information that I had been leaked was true or untrue and then run it.

Now people who leaked me this stuff were not leaking it because they love democracy or an open society. They were leaking it because it was in their interest to leak it. And whoever leaked this to WikiLeaks or whether they got it, I don’t know, but that’s not the question.

The question is, is this true? And it is a look at the inner workings of power, but I think you’re right. I think that much of the media has diverted attention from the content of the emails to speculate–and it does appear to be speculation–that this is an attempt by Russia to interfere in our elections.

That speculation didn’t take place when the Massod, for instance, leaked me information about a small airport outside of Hamburg, Germany that the Iranian government had bought to further their nuclear program which after I wrote about was shut down.

Tavis: Hillary Clinton, if she were here tonight, would take you on directly, I suppose, Chris, about your use of the word speculation. As I recall, her number was about 60 different entities who have signed on to the fact that this is in fact being done at the highest levels of the Russian government. So she might push back on your notion of speculation. Care to respond?

Hedges: Well, has anyone presented hard evidence? Has anyone given us–you know, I’ve covered government a long time and, unless that evidence is presented in front of me, I will take what government says, you know, very cautiously.

Tavis: You don’ trust a former Secretary of State and a sitting president and a sitting Secretary of State when they tell you that?

Hedges: I think, as I. F. Stone said, “All governments lie” and this government is no exception, and that’s why we need a robust press in order to ferret out what is true and what is untrue.

Tavis: Speaking of the need for a robust press, what say you as a former writer for The New York Times, of course, you’re still a journalist now, but what say you about the role or lack thereof that the press has played in this campaign? How do you see it?

Hedges: I think the press is–let’s look especially at the commercial air waves. They saw in Trump–and the president of CBS was quite open about this–a source of revenue. He brought in ratings, he was unpredictable, he brought in advertising dollars, and I saw that as deeply irresponsible.

The second thing is that political coverage in this country is all a horse race. It’s poll numbers. It’s who’s up, who did this, who did that? Actual discussion of content, of issues that matter to Americans, is very, very rarely heard on the press.

And, thirdly, I think that it is true that the establishment has united behind Clinton. I’m talking about the Republican establishment and the Democratic establishment, and this is reflected in the press coverage, again in particular, on the air waves where you may get three Republicans or three Democrats, but all of them in essence are going to go after Trump with very few exceptions.

And that has become acceptable, the kinds of adjectives that are used about Trump now within the mainstream press. They’re not adjectives that we could normally use about a viable political candidate.

So, yeah, I think the press has failed us on many levels. Of course, as you well know, they’ve rendered huge sections of this country who are poor utterly invisible, very effective at demonizing the oppressed and, in particular, oppressed people of color.

As newspapers are collapsing and their revenue is declining because of loss of advertising dollars and loss of circulation, they are catering more and more and I would have to even include my old employer, The New York Times. They’re catering more and more to these elites and I think oftentimes blunting the kind of coverage that should characterize an effective press in an open democracy.

Tavis: I made a point the other day in an interview where I was being questioned, and I want to get your take on this, not because of me, but because of the point, which is the point I made was that Donald Trump has not just been bad for the Republican Party.

They got to figure out how they’re going to rebuild or whatever they’re going to do post Donald Trump. He’s ripped that thing to shreds essentially. The GOP is no longer what we thought it was and we didn’t think much of it then, many of us, but it’s not what it was.

But he also–that is to say–Trump has also done damage on the left, which is to say that it’s hard for Progressives, true Progressives, to push Secretary Clinton–or President Clinton–it’s hard for Progressives to push her to be more progressive because of the nonsense she had to encounter from the right.

So as I said earlier, if she ends up winning with a mandate, how is it that those on the left could even think about pushing her to be more progressive when she has this mandate and, again, was the victor of a campaign that was so outrageous that she can pretty much tack anywhere and anyhow she wants to tack politically?

Hedges: Well, I think you put your finger on the most dangerous aspect of this is that she doesn’t feel threatened. She doesn’t feel insecure. I think from all the polling, it does appear she will get a mandate. I am worried that the elites will read into this a kind of support for a neo-liberal system that has done such damage to the country.

And we must not forget damage to our civil liberties, the removal of the possibility of any kind of privacy, the capturing of all of our information and storage in perpetuity in government computers.

You can’t use the word liberty when your government watches you 24 hours a day. That’s the relationship of a master and a slave. That’s my fear that they will think that they have a mandate and they will read into that mandate a kind of justification or a kind of certification of a system that I think ultimately is exceedingly dangerous.

Tavis: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Chris Hedges, from New York tonight. Chris, good to have you on. Thanks for sharing your insights.

Hedges: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Goodnight from L.A. and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: October 28, 2016 at 3:58 pm