Writer & Conservative Political Commentator Andrew Sullivan

The writer and conservative political commentator discusses the 2016 presidential election.

Andrew Sullivan is an English author, editor, and blogger. A conservative political commentator, Sullivan is a former editor of The New Republic and the author several books including Love Undetectable: Reflections on Friendship, Sex and Survival and Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con: A Reader. He was a pioneer of the political blog, starting "The Daily Dish" in 2000. He eventually moved his blog to various publishing platforms, including TimeThe Atlantic and The Daily Beast but in 2015 he retired the blogSullivan is currently a contributing editor for New York Magazine.   


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

Last night, millions of people watched Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump participate in the widely anticipated second presidential debate. Tonight, New York Magazine’s contributing editor, Andrew Sullivan, joins us for some post-debate analysis and more.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Writer Andrew Sullivan in a moment.

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Tavis: Tonight I’m pleased to welcome writer, Andrew Sullivan, back to this program. He joins us from Washington. Andrew, good to have you back, my friend.

Andrew Sullivan: Great to be here. Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start by asking, with everything you saw last night, can Donald Trump still win this race?

Sullivan: Yes. I certainly don’t want to rule it out. What he’s riding is something very powerful and I think people have underestimated it. It’s a real movement. It’s a movement that is penned by what I have to call crypto fascist elements. And these movements are very potent in the world right now and have been very potent in the past, and you underestimate them at your peril.

When you actually put on the ballot the possibility of rounding up a whole bunch of people in your country that you may not feel great about and actually deporting them en masse, when you actually declare that you regard a whole religion as antithetical to the security of the United States and of the west, and you put that on the ballot, you’ll bring people out.

You will evoke emotions. You will summon up passions that are very hard to contain and that seem to resurge regardless of the individual characteristics of the person.

And the other thing you have with Trump is an intensely gifted demagogue. Do not underestimate his ability to communicate to people. He’s much better at it than Hillary Clinton is. He speaks in monosyllables. He sticks to very clear themes and he has emotional power in a way that, sadly, she does not. So I am not in any way complacent about this election.

And I think that Trump is riding a wave that has crashed in England, in Colombia, polls, election results, referendum results that have gone against everything everybody thought was gonna happen and that have done real self-harm to both Britain and Colombia in the last few months. So we should not be complacent.

Tavis: Clearly, I am not a Donald Trump supporter. I think my audience knows that by now. Certainly those who have followed my work over the last 30 years know that I am not a Trump supporter. Having said that, my friends keep laughing at Donald Trump and think he’s an idiot and think he’s ridiculous and think he’s a fool.

To my mind, Donald Trump performed better last night than he did in the first debate, particularly given what he was up against when that debate started, courtesy of the video tape. I thought he was much better in debate number two than he was in debate number one. Not a supporter, but I’m talking about his performance. Do you agree or disagree with me?

Sullivan: No, I agree with you, Tavis. Specifically, the last hour where he really marshaled two important arguments that he has, and they’re two very simple ones. It’s change. He definitely represents change. I think it would be a disastrous and catastrophic one, but he represents that change in a country that wants change right now.

And, secondly, he’s an outsider and people want that outsider. They’re infused by the idea of somebody completely new to the system coming in and blowing it up or seeing what happens.

And Hillary Clinton is, whatever else she is, she’s not really about change and she sure is an insider. She’s a very weak candidate in this particular context at this particular time. And once he got past the first stuff, then he was able to get on the offense on questions like Obamacare or foreign policy.

And Clinton was just not aggressive or passionate enough in defending the record of the last eight years and, after a while, let his absurd lies about the world sail over her referring people to her website or fact checkers.

Whereas, in fact, you have to take on full bore, for example, the notion that Obamacare has led to skyrocketing premiums unlike anything before when, of course, premiums were going up crazily and healthcare costs are going crazily up before Obamacare. So there were certain things like that.

I’d also say at the same time, I mean, I don’t know about you, but watching it, this man is so broken every conceivable civilized barrier in debate. By bringing the entire 1990s back in this desperate, really vicious way, when all he needed to do was apologize and become contrite. When he can’t do it even then, you realize just how dangerous and reckless this man is.

I mean, this was–he saved himself to some extent last night, but he’s also been engaged in amazing self-sabotage. And my worry is that, if he were President of the United States, he wouldn’t just be sabotaging himself. He’d be sabotaging all of us, and that should send a shiver up the spine of everybody in this country.

Tavis: And yet it’s a very minor thing, I admit, and I’ll move off of it very quickly, but I want to get your thought. It’s very minor, again, admittedly, but I thought that very last question, he was 100 times better than Secretary Clinton was when they asked a personal question, the only personal question of the evening, and the best she could do was talk about his kids.

I thought that was his best answer of the night when it comes to that category of getting inside of who he is and the respect that he does have for the fighter in her.

Sullivan: Yeah, and he was able to show himself just for a minute in some kind of appealing way. It just shows you that, if he weren’t sabotaging himself, he’d be a very lethal candidate. And it also shows you that she is actually one of the weakest Democratic nominees in many, many years. We’ve forgot that.

We forgot Obama represented something passionate and new and positive. Clinton seems to be unable to connect with people, to even look at us like a human being. She couldn’t do it last night even, and I think that’s incredibly hard for a president. I mean, a president has got to be able to communicate and connect, and she hasn’t and she can’t.

Tavis: She did not smash him. She did not crush him last night on the video tape. I thought she was very measured in the way that she handled it. It was clear to me that her campaign advisers had suggested to her this story is what it is.

You’re not gonna gain anything by piling on because the American people have already made up their minds what they think about him vis-à-vis the video tape. Was that the right strategy for her not to crush him, not to pounce on the video tape?

Sullivan: I think it was actually the right strategy, however frustrating it was, because I think the story tells itself and I think it’s indefensible. Even he can’t defend it. The fact that he couldn’t immediately apologize for it, he couldn’t take control of that issue, he had to turn it into another attack, was eloquent enough about how damaging and how awful a person he seems to be.

And the moderators did a good job in pressing him on the key question there, which is not did he use vulgar language. Everybody accepts that vulgar language in private is not disqualifying. What he was doing was bragging about assaulting women, sexually assaulting them, and that is a whole different category. It’s not locker room talk. It is confession to a crime.

Tavis: His press conference just moments, frankly, before the debate started. Was that bush league or was that brilliant strategy? Because Donald Trump was on every network for an hour and a half or so before the debate ever began, so he got more TV time last night. Was it bush league or was it brilliant strategy to do that press conference?

Sullivan: Look, I think part of what he does is throw so many outrages at you, say so many awful things, promise to do so many foul things in office, that you become disoriented and you don’t quite know how to respond because it’s one thing after another. I mean, one thing, he’s just completely making stuff up about Syria.

It’s another time last night when he was telling her that he was going to jail her were he to become president which, again, is an attack upon a very basic constitutional system and an attack upon our liberal democracy. And yet you can’t summon up the outrage at any single one of these things because he’s already readying the next.

This is a kind of attack mode that is suited to our digitally addicted, instant gratification, Twitter-friendly culture. And he’s mastered this era of mass distraction by constantly distracting us with more and more outrages and with more and more rhetoric, and more and more just unbelievably foul acts in his own life.

And I think that keeps you all bewildered all the time and it’s important to him to keep that up. I don’t know how he does it, but that’s how he keeps everybody off their equilibrium. And he succeeded last night with Secretary Clinton. She clearly was a little flummoxed by all of that, as I think is perfectly understandable.

Tavis: So I want to play–I’m hesitant to use the word “devil’s advocate” since he called her a devil last night, which I thought was a bit over the top, but let me use the phrase anyway, Andrew. Let me play devil’s advocate. And I’m only doing this because I really want to push you to get your take on this.

So that you basically have rendered somewhat laughable this notion that, if he were president, he would jail Hillary Clinton. I saw that moment a little bit differently. I don’t think he handled it right. I certainly wouldn’t have gone there the way he went there.

But I, quite frankly, am sick and tired of the new president letting the old president off the hook when we know they broke the law. Gerald Ford did it with Richard Nixon. Barack Obama said nothing about George W. Bush and those war crimes that he committed. Many of us believed those were war crimes. So these presidents–it’s a boy’s club and I’m not naïve.

I get that, but no administration, no new administration, wants to go after the old administration no matter what crimes they may have committed and I saw that moment as something different in my lifetime. I’ve never seen a debate where a candidate for president said to the other person, “If I’m elected, I’m coming after you because you broke the law, you need to stand trial.”

Now, again, the way he went about it, I think, was bush league, but the very notion that finally someone in a presidential debate wants to hold someone accountable who was in office struck me in a way that I’ve never felt or seen that in my entire life.

Sullivan: Well, yes. Except, of course, he was prejudging the course of justice.

Tavis: He was, he was.

Sullivan: He was violating a core part of our Constitution which is the Attorney General on non-partisan, certainly not directed by the president, does not prosecute anybody. He was ignoring the fact that this person has already been subjected to an investigation by the FBI, by a Republican Attorney General, one should point out, and been exonerated.

So to then say that I intend to overrule what the current investigation has said and make you go to jail was an attack upon our system of justice in this country. And it’s one reason why people are legitimately afraid of him. I mean, I was interested. There was a New York Times story about business leaders who are not in favor of Trump, but none would go on the record.

When asked why, they said they fear personal retribution. We know that he’s already threatened the Washington Post with launching an antitrust investigation against Jeff Bezos and Amazon and their ownership of the Washington Post as retribution for their coverage of him in this campaign.

This is a new zone. We live in a nation of laws. We do not live in a nation where one tyrant actually manages to do what used to be called Bills of Attainder, attacking individuals, prosecuting individuals, seeking revenge against individuals.

But, however, Tavis, one of the things I agree with you on with this is that one of the things that’s fueling Trump is the fact that the elites in this country have been, you know, absolutely free of accountability, have never been held to account or responsible for massive failures and/or crimes. The failure of the 2008 crash, who on Wall Street was really held responsible for that?

Tavis: Exactly.

Sullivan: And in fact they’re doing better than ever. The Iraq War, a catastrophe that no one fully took responsibility for and in which Hillary Clinton’s still running for office, having supported it. As you say quite rightly, a whole different category about mishandling emails, actual war crimes, the most serious crimes anybody could commit, just brushed under the rug by the Obama administration.

So I get where you’re coming from and I totally think accountability is what’s fueling his rise. And I think people behind him are right to call these elites unaccountable and want to hold them to account. But the way he’s doing it would destroy our entire system altogether.

Tavis: We agree. I just wanted to push you on that to see what you thought. Brilliant answer. I didn’t expect anything different, but I think we agree on that. Since we’re talking about accountability, something else that’s been on my mind in watching the happenings of yesterday.

It is laughable to me–I do mean I literally sit back and kick my legs laughing–at how the media now is nearly universally condemning–the mainstream media–now condemning Mr. Trump.

I told some folk the other day, somebody said to me, “Well, you know, the media builds you up and they tear you down.” I said, “Well, that’s right, but not really. Your conjunction is wrong. The media doesn’t build you up and tear you down. The media builds you up to tear you down. They make money coming and going. They make money both ways. It’s a game.”

So my question is, how complicit has the media been, the mainstream media, in helping to make Donald Trump and now that complicity has turned to condemnation? I’m bothered by that.

Sullivan: I’m bothered too, Tavis. Look, when leading network chief, Leslie Moonves, could say, “Donald Trump’s been really great for business. He may be awful for the country, but great for business, great for CBS”, there you have an example of an elite, a member of elite, utterly trashing his own country, utterly abdicating any civic responsibility.

No one who cared about the news and cared about our democracy would have given Donald Trump’s neo-fascist rallies complete 24/7 airing on major networks, would interrupt actual news events to give us those spectacles because they knew simply that ratings is the only criterion they care about.

I mean, at some point, our republic is in deep disrepair because these people are not acting as citizens before they’re acting as profit makers. You know, when you go back to Plato’s account of how tyrants emerge out of democracies, the one thing he said that is also essential to that is that the elites become more interested in making money than in the fate and the character of their republic.

Tavis: Yes.

Sullivan: And into that breach a wannabe tyrant will arrive and can destroy democracies overnight. I mean, Plato didn’t believe tyrants came out of aristocracies. He thought they came out of a chaotic democratic system in which virtue had disappeared.

And I’d also say this. You know, reality television. We live with it. It’s ubiquitous. It became essentially part. Donald Trump would be unimaginable without that as a rubric behind him. What we saw last night was a classic conflict-driven season finale of a reality television show.

And he has helped bring us down to that level and the media has been utterly complicit in fermenting it for only one purpose, and that is money. And it is disgusting and some of us have to start speaking up against it.

Tavis: So speaking of the media, our friends in the media after every one of these debates spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the optics which, again, I find funny because I can’t understand how it is that we spend so much time talking about the optics when his antics haven’t pushed him out of this race. Do we really think the optics are gonna trump the antics that he’s engaged in?

Sullivan: No, I don’t. I mean, optics–I mean, look at him [laugh]. He looks ridiculous. If you met that person at a dinner party or in the street or in a coffee shop, you’d be like, “I don’t know who that person is. He looks so weird. What’s he got this strange tan on, this ridiculous hair and this absurd manner? And why is he molesting all the women around him? And why is he making fun of a person with disability?”

He’s an absurd character, but we have to remember, when you go back to the 30s and you look at similar characters from the past, Mussolini looks absurd. Hitler looks absurd. At the time, people thought they were buffoons, thought they looked stupid, thought their uniforms and their grimaces and their optics were all absurd.

But the optics don’t matter when you’re riding this kind of anger and you’re tapping into these kind of resentments, and that’s what we learn at our peril.

Tavis: So what does it say then, Andrew Sullivan, about a good slice of the demos that he is the guy that they’re with? What does it say then either about the deep-seated hatred or the pain that’s too much to grapple with that so many fellow citizens are feeling that Donald Trump becomes their choice? What’s it say about us?

Sullivan: It says that we’re in a terrible state. I think that whatever happens this election, we have to look very carefully in the mirror at ourselves to see what’s going wrong. Now some of it, I think, is completely understandable. We’re living in an age where technology is revolutionizing all of our lives and destroying countless jobs.

The creative destruction that’s been going on in this country and around the world the last few years seems to be accelerating and people are rightly bewildered by this. It’s also important, I think, to recognize the social changes we’ve experienced.

I mean, the racial demographics of this country which you see in the demographics behind the election, the increasing power of Black and brown and voters, of racial minorities of all types, that has also been a bewildering shift especially for people in their 60s and 70s who are Trump’s core base of support.

And when they don’t feel they’re living in the same country that they grew up in, they’re reacting in emotional ways. And they’re seeking things to blame and they are seeking elites to attack.

Then there’s also the deep partisanship in this country. You know, it feels to me this election a bit like a really bad marriage where one side is now, one person is now, one spouse is now, doing things that don’t really want to do, supporting something they don’t really want to support, but they’re doing it to spite the other person.

And it seems to me that, since the mid-90s intensified by the 2000 election, intensified by the Iraq War, we’ve had this incredibly polarized country in which even someone like Trump, even someone manifestly unfit, will get to a 40% threshold just because he’s not the other side.

And then Hillary Clinton specifically is the most partisan emblem of all this and she evokes loathing the very few other politicians on the Democratic side, evoke among particularly the Republican base.

So that’s what propels this forward. Disorientation and partisanship. And also, of course, economic stress. It’s not as stressful as one might think it is. Certainly, we’re not in the crisis like the 1930s, but it is destabilizing.

And I think trying to understand that, I’ve been reading Arlie Hochschild’s new book which is called “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning” in Louisiana where she’s trying to understand and talk to people, and people go to these rallies, you know.

I have followed these reporters. Some of them have had horrible times. Other people have told me the people there are really great. They’re welcoming, they’re sweet, they want to be understood. And I think defanging and deescalating that polarization should be number one task after this election.

Tavis: Tomorrow night, we’ll be joined by a former federal judge, Shira Scheindlin, who was the judge at the center of the stop and frisk case in New York City. And Donald Trump made some comments about that in debate number one that I’ve been wanting to get to.

So the judge is finally coming out to L.A. this week, so we can have a one-on-one deconstruction with her about what really did happen with stop and frisk and, quite frankly, what’s happening across the country now in this era where too many people are still being shot and killed by cops in the era of stop and frisk.

I raise that, Andrew, only because it took us two debates to get to one question about the Supreme Court. What say you about why Hillary isn’t using that more as a tool or why it hasn’t come up in the debates more often? Why it’s not being talked about more on the campaign trail?

Here’s an issue where there’s a vacancy right now and, clearly, this issue impacts all of us for 30-plus years to come. To my mind, at least, it hasn’t gotten the kind of traction or attention that I think it ought to get. Do you feel similarly or differently?

Sullivan: I feel differently a little bit because I think when you enter the right wing media sphere and when you listen to the Republicans you really know better that are still supporting Trump, the court is the critical issue that’s still doing it.

In other words, I think that the fact that we’re at this pivotal moment with the Supreme Court with several rather elderly Justices and one actual open vacancy, has concentrated the minds of the religious right particularly.

One of the staggering things to me, at least, and one of the things that this has completely unmasked certain elements of the religious right, is their support for this person who is clearly not just not Christian, but clearly in his attitudes and his mind and his actions, anti-Christian.

They can still support him and they’re still supporting him even after he’s admitted to sexually assaulting women because of the court. So I think the court really is playing a role in this election, but it’s playing it primarily on the right.

And look at this way. This is what I always say. If Trump wins, he’s almost certainly likely to get the House, Senate and the court. He runs the whole table. If Hillary wins, well, who knows at this point what’s gonna up the result being, but it’s likely the House will remain Republican.

In one case, you have one person getting total control in the government. The other, you have some shared powers. I know I prefer, as a small c, conservative to have those powers shared. But I do think the court is a crucial question, obviously. That’s why the Republicans held this vacancy open.

Tavis: And that’s precisely my point. You made my case better than I could. I think it ought to be discussed more. I think if I were advising Mrs. Clinton, I would tell her to talk about it more. Because I think you’re right.

These Republicans, these Conservatives, are holding their nose and they will vote for Donald Trump if for no other reason because they know what happens to the U.S. Supreme Court that it interprets the law for the next 30-plus years. That is the one reason you hold your nose and vote for Donald Trump if you’re Conservative.

My point, again, is I think it ought to be talked about more if I were her, but I digress. Andrew Sullivan, I am always honored to have you on. I’m always moved by your insightful take on these issues and I’m  delighted that you took the time to do it. Thank you, sir.

Sullivan: You bet, Tavis. Lovely to be here.

Tavis: New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: October 11, 2016 at 4:42 pm