BILL MOYERS: Jeff Sharlet, I’m really pleased to be talking to you.
JEFF SHARLET: Thank you, Bill. Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s start with the president’s rally in Tulsa. You’ve been to a number of Trump’s rallies starting in 2016. And every report you’ve written has been a flare in the dark. Was this one any different?
JEFF SHARLET: I believe it was. The fact that he could not turn out his numbers the way he wanted to. He predicted 100,000. The arena held 19,000. And he got 6,000. That doesn’t mean those people have abandoned him. But it means that they weren’t motivated enough. And I think Tulsa could mark a turning point. He responded to that like a cornered raccoon. There’s times when he’s disappointed and he sort of comes out and sulks and then there’s times when he comes out and snarls. And this was the latter. He gave what I believe was the most rhetorically violent speech I’ve seen.
BILL MOYERS: That was my impression too. I kept writing words on my notebook that were fake news tropes – animals, referring to immigrants, bad people out there, thugs. He went right on as if he put all his arrows in one bow and let them go at once.
JEFF SHARLET: And I think that’s when autocratic tendencies are gonna become most dangerous. We forget he still has the full arsenal of the US government at his command and it is at his command. It seems extreme to say, but I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility to imagine a Tiananmen Square kind of response should the situation arise. And I think that’s because he recognizes he’s in battle. I like what you say about sort of pulling out every arrow of the quiver. All these moments have been there before, but they were combined with a kind of explicitness. I haven’t heard them all in one speech before like this. The one thing that actually really caught me was this strange phrase, “After birth execution,” claiming that if Biden was president the government would be paying for after birth execution: killing babies. And if you really believe Democrats were gonna do that, if you really believe they weren’t– we’re not talking abortion, actually killing babies out in the world — what retaliation wouldn’t be justified?
BILL MOYERS: What do you think that evoked in that audience? Because the audience certainly came alive again there.
JEFF SHARLET: I reported on Trump rallies in 2016 and then 2020. Both times I was interested most of all in what the role of religion and religious-like structures were playing in his rallies. And in 2016 one of the things that really struck me– the first time I heard it at one of these rallies was someone saying, “You know what the Democrats are really up to.” And I had heard all the conspiracy theories. The Pizzagate conspiracy theories about human trafficking, child trafficking. This took it to another level. They said, “They’re actually cannibals. They eat children.” I said, this person must be mentally ill. This person must be fringe. But then I kept encountering that idea again and again. And now that’s moved the whole range of possibilities. So when Trump says plain out Biden supports post-birth execution, he is signaling to that audience that is ready to receive the message that your darkest fears, your most twisted fantasies of what your political enemies are up to, it’s all real. This is a life or death battle.
BILL MOYERS: There was a very bizarre passage when he was obviously stoking sexual fears. You called it in your commentary on the speech, “A rape fantasy.”
DONALD TRUMP: It’s one o’clock in the morning and a very tough, I’ve used the word on occasion, a very tough hombre is breaking into the window of a young woman whose husband is away as a traveling salesman or whatever he may do.
JEFF SHARLET: That’s an old racist fantasy. The kind of racialized and racist fear in America. The idea of, for white people, of a dark-skinned man of supposedly savage appetite hurting your women. Now pay attention to who that’s targeted toward. It’s saying to the woman, “This is going to happen to you.” And it’s saying to the man, “While you’re away. You are out honorably trying to do business and this tough hombre–” he’s saying: I know the way that people say that this is a racist word and, even knowing that, I’m gonna use this word. This goes right back to the way he launched his campaign with talking about Mexican rapists. Rapist was another word that he used in the Tulsa speech. And it’s sort of a staple. It’s one of the things that bothers me about so much of the coverage of Trump speeches. They pull out the political line but don’t pay attention to the density of references to sex crimes that are such a staple of his speeches. The way he’s speaking to this sort of terror that rape is there. And it struck me as a sort of vintage pornographic scenario coming out of Trump’s lurid imagination. He’s both activating the titillating, the lurid, sexualized fantasy. And then allowing you to wallow in it if that’s your inclination, and also at the same time feel righteous because you’re opposing it. And he does throughout the speech.
BILL MOYERS: And immigrants have once again, as in 2016, animals, that description showed up several times in the course of an hour and 40-minute speech. They’re animals.
JEFF SHARLET: Animals. Exactly. He said, I got in a lotta trouble for using this. But I’m gonna use it. And then he talks about animals who I even feel uncomfortable sort of describing. Our victim is always an innocent young woman. And the race of the attacker is always described. It’s not the race of the victim. And in doing so he makes that person implicitly white. So an innocent young woman, that’s a white woman. Sometimes he says a blonde woman. In a lot of his speeches, he’ll say beautiful, young, blonde girl. And these animals– apparently he’s talking about a particular crime where they kill her. And then he takes some time describing this crime that these people have allegedly committed. And again, saying let’s wallow in the disgusting detail, saying that they cut these young women up with a knife to draw out the pain. That’s also a staple of his speeches or increasingly a staple. It wasn’t in 2016. Increasingly the description of really grotesque violent murders committed by so-called animals, who are always a racial other, against innocent young women. Sometimes he talks about decapitation, sometimes he talks about carving out hearts and eating them. Sometimes he talks about beatings and killings with baseball bats. I mean, it’s a horror movie. So many of my colleagues in the political press don’t really report on this kind of material because they don’t see it as politics. And they’re right, in a sense. It’s not politics. But it’s what matters in those speeches.
BILL MOYERS: But it is politics. You’re collecting a constituency. You’re organizing your followers around the tropes of hate and bigotry and the purpose is to get them to the polls in November. It seems to me basic politics. And it’s not new.
JEFF SHARLET: No, it’s not new. He’s very good at it. And after that Tulsa speech I think because a lot of people hadn’t watched Trump speeches before– so much of the press when they report on Trump rallies, he puts them in a metal pen in the middle of the arena. And it’s a prop. Why anyone would agree as a reporter to do this, I don’t know. Because you become a prop for this sort of wrestling match like moment when he points to them. They’re the heel. That’s the bad guy in wrestling. And at certain point he calls them scum, liars, the worst people on earth. And the crowd turns. And a lotta people give them the finger and they scream at CNN. It’s the biggest hate line of the night, usually, the loudest line is hating on the media. So you don’t actually get out into the crowd and experience how the speech is working. And when you do, you realize that what sounds to a rational observer like contradiction is actually what I think of as sort of a double signal in Trump’s rhetoric. He simultaneously telling you the official story and he’ll read from the teleprompter and some statistics and so on. And there’s almost a performance of boredom with these numbers. And then he looks up and he says, let me let you in on a real secret. And sometimes it’s a so-called comic routine, mocking an enemy. And sometimes it’s one of these graphic horror stories. So when people saw that Tulsa speech and they said, “Oh and he was incoherent and it was a bad speech,” that was a masterful speech. I think that was an extremely effective speech.
BILL MOYERS: I did too. The press, highly focused on the smaller crowd that turned out, people forget that seven million people watched that speech live on Fox News. There were so many code words. For example, what do you make of that sentence, “They–” whoever they is, “They,” the people who control Biden, “want to punish your thoughts.”
JEFF SHARLET: That was a real direct shout-out to QAnon.
BILL MOYERS: QAnon is what?
JEFF SHARLET: QAnon is a network of conspiracy theories that is really at the heart of Trump’s base. The idea sort of grew out of that Pizzagate conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was running a child trafficking ring out of a pizzeria in Washington. And a man took this very seriously and traveled from North Carolina to Washington with an assault rifle and opened fire. Thank God, didn’t hurt anybody. And out of this grew this sort of whole conspiracy world, how bad are the Democrats? Well, they are trafficking humans. And what is special about Trump, and here’s where it gets really interesting, the idea is that Trump knows all about this and knows more than he can say. And you can get clues to this through this figure called Q who leaves messages on these anonymous message boards like 8chan and 4chan that tell you that this everything Trump is doing is really part of this larger plan to drain the swamp. That one of these days indictments are gonna come down, Obama and Hillary will be arrested for treason as will thousands of others and that this has all been in the works. And that everything that Trump does, anything that you think is clumsy is actually a clue. That when Trump uses a typo in a tweet, this is actually his way of signaling what is to come. And that he will sometimes give signals, who knows if at this point he’s doing it deliberately, the symbol of this is the okay sign. Just the, you hold up your thumb and your finger and so on. The okay sign. Also sort of a white supremacist symbol. Trump happens to use that. He always has. That’s sort of a hand gesture he has. But, of course, they read that as affirmation. In Tulsa, really amped it up. And one thing, he said the word control 11 times. And puppet twice. Talking about these unnamed powers that control Biden. The sinister, dark forces. This is foundational to the QAnon conspiracy theory. Emphasizing, again and again and again, that Biden was under some kind of mysterious, dark control. That was fairly new.
BILL MOYERS: It is effective politics because you say that you have spoken with dozens of Trump supporters who believe that Democratic establishment primarily serves as a cover for child sex trafficking.
JEFF SHARLET: Yeah. And I have to say– I mean, over the reporting this story, and over the years, a significant minority of them were former Democrats. They weren’t high information Democrats, I’d put it that way. But they were Democratic voters who voted for Obama. And now they’re voting for Trump. And they’ve gone from voting for Obama to believing that Obama is part of a child trafficking ring. That’s a pretty radical shift. And that should tell us something about the effectiveness of Trump as demagogue. He’s good at what he does. This is what we have to recognize. What he does is repugnant, it’s crass, it’s crude, it’s evil. But he’s very good at it. And consoling ourselves by saying, oh what a moron, et cetera– that’s setting ourselves up for four more years or, as he likes to say maybe eight, maybe 16 of Trump.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a startling scene in your major piece in the new VANITY FAIR, in which you describe a Trump follower with whom you’re talking who suddenly pops up his Trump mask, bends over and begins sniffing the wet blacktop like a hound. And another supporter cries out, “Creepy Joe, creepy Joe.”
JEFF SHARLET: It was fairly new to me. I mean, I certainly knew Joe Biden’s reputation as an inappropriately handsy guy. But I had not heard before that moment this idea of Biden as a child molester. And the way in Trump world they pass around these video clips, maybe here is Biden kind of leaning over a child and they say, “Look, he’s– he’s sniffing the child.” So when this Trump supporter starts doing this imitation, the other Trump supporter who’s there immediately knows who it is. There’s no confusion. If you’re pretending to be sniffing, you’re Joe Biden. And again, we wanna pay attention to what’s happening here and one of the difficulties of that kind of violent rhetoric is that before the violence has begun, to describe it as such seems extreme. And after the violence has happened it’s too late. If we become students of genocide we notice the ways in which political enemies become dehumanized and described in the most ugliest terms as committing the most unforgivable crimes. The idea that your political enemies are not just people who have policies that you think are harebrained, but that they are child molesters or maybe even child eaters. That they are not just a threat to democracy. That’s mild. That they are absolute murderers in the most literal and grotesque and sort of satanic sense. That’s the rhetoric that mobilizes killing violence. That’s what I heard Trump doing in Tulsa. There was one line in which he says, you know, we come to November 3rd. He doesn’t quite say what happens after that. Not after November 3rd. He says, “You know what to do. You know what to do.”
DONALD TRUMP: We have to go to the polls on November 3rd and the rest you know what to do. You know what to do.
JEFF SHARLET: And his followers heard it. I can’t speak to his inner motivations. But the way that language works is to say that if on November 3rd if I’m not declared the winner, you know what to do. That’s where the violence begins. And that language has primed them. If these child molesters, these cannibals, these child killers try to steal this election, you know what to do.
BILL MOYERS: Let me pause here a moment, Jeff, and say you write that the president is making the American dream into a fetish for revenge. How so?
JEFF SHARLET: What happens when you go to a Trump rally– and this is where– it’s sort of like a ritual. It’s a combination of his tone in 2016 evolving over time. The prosperity gospel, the idea of success, of winning, of making America great again, that’s always there. And that’s the sort of right-wing, very hyper-capitalist idea of the American dream. But it’s still about in America anyone can succeed. And that premise is always there with Trump for his followers. They look at him with his own private plane and he’s so wealthy and they love trading stories about how he doesn’t even take a salary and he doesn’t need to do this. That’s evidence of his sincerity. He doesn’t need the presidential salary. He’s got so much money. And so you take that element of the American dream. He is at the pinnacle of success. And what does he talk about? He talks only about revenge on his enemies. He says you hit me, I hit back twice as hard. Ten times as hard. 100 times as hard. Always escalating it. The speech becomes more and more and more about how we hurt others. So you’ve taken this sort of thing. You’re drawn in by the get rich scheme. He must know something. And what does the successful man know? Punishment, pain, hurting the enemy. That’s how you succeed in his distorted version of the American dream.
BILL MOYERS: So, the enemy becomes not just Democrats, but demons.
JEFF SHARLET: The enemy is Democrats, demons. I think one of the things that it’s sort of taken me a while to understand, the media have a special role in the demonology of Trumpism. I think, given the centrality of racism to Trumpism, I think most of us had sort of assumed that the enemy within– and authoritarian systems always need an enemy within, that’s how you can sort of justify control – that the enemy within was immigrants, undocumented people and so on. They are certainly hated. But the real enemy within is in this demonological system is the media, is the press. Partly because if you have a racialized view of the world, you imagine immigrants as being identifiable. Well, the norm– an American you think is white. And you can tell an other because they’re not white. CNN reporters could look like anybody. Anyone is vulnerable to becoming a reporter. They are functioning in that demonology much the way that Jews functioned in Czarist Russia or gay people, but at a heightened level as this sort of invisible enemy. And that anything that you hear from them, of course, is false. Literally the devil whispering to you, sort of in this very cult-like way, narrowing down who can you trust. You can only trust Trump. He’s the only one who is doing right by you.
BILL MOYERS: I was born in Oklahoma and I have to tell you it did hit me every time they responded almost with a collective orgasm when he referred to fake news. And then he came right out and said the press includes the most dishonest people in the world. And the crowd went nuts. And as you’ve wrote in one of your pieces that one of the most popular t-shirt at these rallies is a cartoon of Trump urinating on the CNN logo. And then there’s another that reads, according to you, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.” And in this particular time of heightened racial tension, that imagery is so ugly and so mean-spirited, it just shook me a little bit as I watched my fellow Oklahomans seem to take joy in it, seem to salivate over it. What’s your own sense of why people who love Trump hate the press?
JEFF SHARLET: I mean, Trump has taken to denouncing Fox News lately too. Ultimately, you can only trust Trump and everything else is gonna be fable. You saw in that Tulsa rally, he came out, he was sticking to the teleprompter at first. He didn’t have the crowd really moving too much. I think he realized he was losing them. So he starts doing a very cruel, mean-spirited imitation of a CNN reporter. And the crowd just roars. And now he’s got ’em and he never looks back. There’s a way of looking at this– and I don’t wanna give any positive connotation. But there’s a way of this is sort of building communion and community. I hate the press, you hate the press. Let’s hate them together. That’s something we can do together as an expression of our identity. So he’ll go on for a while. It gets the loudest response. Number two is guns, number three is God. But loudest is hating the press. When he says, “They’re the enemy of the people,” he means it.
BILL MOYERS: And your reporting expresses so vividly what I felt watching on television this rally that he was filling them with fear of what’s happening around them. And then presenting him, himself, as the one who could deliver them from all evil. That he’s the one who has come to deliver us from this evil of pedophilia and cannibalism by Democrats with children and raping of women and all that. Look to me, I’m the one who can lead you to the promised land. Am I overstating that?
JEFF SHARLET: You’re really not at all. The con-artist in Trump understands that if you say “I’m the only one who can do this,” there’s gonna be a certain number of people who are gonna respond by saying, “Well, really? Well, okay, if you say so.” You and I hear that and we think what an absurd claim. But the conman knows he doesn’t have to persuade everybody. He just needs a percentage. A percentage. He says, no, I’m the tallest. I’m the biggest. I’m the bestest. And they say, okay, well, you wouldn’t lie. So it must be true. He’s so effectively set up a horrifying space. That’s also I think why he wanted that rally. He wanted the rally inside the arena ’cause he likes to have the camera sort of swiveling around and so on, but he also likes a suggestion that he’s creating a temple, a sanctuary. Let me describe to you the horrors that are happening outside. I went to a rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania, not that far from Philadelphia. And he’s describing how these Democrat cities are deliberately finding rapists and so on that they can release from their prisons and they can send out into the countryside to harm, quote, “Real Americans.” But don’t worry because right now you are in the arena with Trump. Right now, the great man will protect you. So let me heighten the danger out there to also heighten your sense of security under my protection.
RELATED: Democracy & Government
BY BillMoyers.com Staff | June 25, 2020
BILL MOYERS: And there’s that moment in the speech when he waved his hand over the crowd, almost as if he were blessing them, and he said, “You are the elite.”
DONALD TRUMP: By the way, you’re the elite. They’re not the elite. You’re the elite.
BILL MOYERS: What did that say to you?
JEFF SHARLET: That’s part of why I wanted to describe this as a kind of distorted American Gnosticism, that very old Christian heresy which was also built on an idea of simultaneously denouncing the elites of the worldly church, supposedly corrupt, and constructing a new elite of those who have secret knowledge. So if you’re a follower of f QAnon, you don’t experience yourself as someone who just accepts what you’re told. The idea is that you have participated in what they call the Great Awakening. That your eyes are opened and that you understand the way things are through the power of your perception. You have looked hard. And many of these people have. Many of these people have devoted more hours to research – it is research of a variety – than they ever have before. It’s an intellectual awakening for them as much as anything else – this idea that you can learn things. Now what they’re learning is problematic. But they’re still in this process. So when he’s saying new elite, he’s now speaking to that evolution and QAnon core of his base. This idea that you know something that other people don’t. That’s also I think a way of him mobilizing what he needs to hold onto power, which is not the majority. He needs 30% to hold onto power. A very, very active 30%. I would argue to favor someone who is canny enough to manipulate a minority of the population, then 30%, 40% will do it. And it’s increasingly become a mainstream question to ask, whether he wins or loses, how do we know will leave the White House? And I think he’s leaving the door open for that possibility now. You know, the very day after Tulsa he said the 2020 election will be rigged. He’s setting it up right now. So any result that doesn’t favor him is a false result. And perhaps enables him to say, I’m not leaving. Make me.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve given an extraordinary insight. You’re talking to this pastor in Bossier City, Louisiana right across the border from Texas, 14,000 people waiting for another rally to begin. And this guy, very friendly, apparently, starts talking to you about his belief that Trump is on a mission from God. And you remind us that the Christian right movement is mightier now than it was under Bush or Reagan. And you say he has promised them, quote, “The thrilling promise of ‘spiritual war’ with dark and hidden powers.” That Trump will lead them to the “eradication of America’s enemies within.” Once upon a time, I would’ve laughed at the prospect of a political leader in this country could do it. But not now.
JEFF SHARLET: In 2008 I wrote a book called THE FAMILY about a long-standing kind of genuinely elite Christian conservative political movement. I title a chapter in that book called “The F Word.” Now this is a group that back in its early days openly collaborated with Nazis. The F word was fascism, of course, and I argued, you know what, there’s more than one kind of bad under the sun. And I don’t think fascism is actually possible in America. And actually, one of the reasons I said I didn’t think fascism was possible in America is evangelicalism is too strong. Evangelicalism might have an authoritarian streak. But you can’t have the cult of personality around a human leader because there’s always Jesus. I was wrong. I do think that what Trump has shown is that fascism is possible in America. And by fascism I don’t mean in the general sense, you know lefties and liberals like myself sometimes describe anyone bad. You know, George W. Bush wasn’t a fascist. He just wasn’t. I don’t even think Trump was at the beginning, but now he is approaching it. That’s been transformational for the American Christian right which always did have this sort of circuit breaker that prevented them from going full-fascist which was their reverence for God as a supernatural being. And now they’re willing to put their money entirely on an actual person, Trump, and to build it around his personality, and to build it around this man and his capability for violence and revenge. That’s a theological transformation. That’s a big, big step. Everyone has emphasized the transactional nature of Trump’s relationship with the Christian right. They even have a parable about it. This parable comes from a man named Lance Wallnau who’s one of Trump’s evangelical advisors who says, you know, most Christians misunderstand Christianity. They look at Jesus and he came for the sheep and so on. But the leader of the family says, “But what about the wolves? Who’s taking care of the wolves?” And they said, “This is what our calling is, is to go out to the wolves. And when you find amongst the wolves, you find the leader of the pack. The strongest wolf. The one whom he calls the “Wolf King”. And you go to that Wolf King and you say, ‘I come representing an even greater power, God.’ And if you align yourself with me you will have all the power. And then the Wolf King becomes your ally and the wolf becomes your tool and the Wolf King does this because it’s a good deal.” That in a nutshell is the deal Trump made with the Christian right. This is a pet, this is what they call him. The Wolf King.
BILL MOYERS: You write, “The joy of a Trump rally is not partisan; it’s the ecstasy of liberation. It’s the convert’s conviction that they have transcended compromise and coalition, that they have entered into the light, undiluted and pure.” And that seems to me to go right to the heart of so many of the people you talk to at these rallies. You talk to a woman who says that this is “spiritual warfare.” One pastor tells you there are secret murders everywhere, pedophiles and evil. And he loves Trump because God has chosen Trump for this hour. He’s God’s champion, he says, a fighter, a counter-puncher. I mean, that’s more than politics. That’s a crusade.
JEFF SHARLET: It’s very much a crusade. And of course, the bible’s filled with warriors. And so, it’s very easy for a devout person if you take the step of thinking, all right, God is all powerful. Trump’s president, then God must want him to be president. And God wants someone like this to be president. What does God want now? He wants someone who hits back, as Trump says. You know, one for an hour such as this. And post-partisan is important too because, again, that’s seen as evidence of his sincerity. Trump attacked the Republican Party. That was a hostile takeover of the party. And he still does it. Almost every rally. Not the one in Tulsa. He invokes the Bush family for boos. Talks about the Clintons and Bushs. And the crowd boos them both. And that’s the idea that he is above this. Now this is sort of old, by the book kind of fascism. That he is offering a kind of unity that is above party. And the fact that he is not particularly loyal to the Republican Party is evidence that he’s not serving the Republican Party, who must he be serving? Well, he must be serving God. ‘Cause who’s above party? You know? So you had this sort of ascending hierarchy. And Trump is up there with the angels.
BILL MOYERS: You meet another pastor. He tells you that Trump is using COVID-19 field hospitals as a cover to rescue children from sex trafficking. You talked to one woman who seems genuinely compassionate, from your own description, who once ran a home for abused children in Haiti until after the earthquake the Clintons and their cronies, in her version, ruined the country’s economy. And now she’s telling you at one of these rallies reluctantly, shaking with tears, you say, “I’m going to say it, they…” meaning the Clintons and the Democrats, “I’m going to say it. They eat the children.” But you go onto write, Jeff, this woman may be closer to the new center of American life than you are. What are you saying?
JEFF SHARLET: This has long been I think my critique of the way in which American liberalism has responded to conservatism. We as liberals and progressives and leftists imagine ourselves as more or less at the center of things. And that our most elite learning institutions are the places you go to learn expertise in power and so on. That was true at a time in America. I wrote this story for VANITY FAIR magazine, I think circulation’s over a million, which is pretty big for a magazine these days. And it was very much an establishment magazine, in a sense. It’s a grand old flagship magazine of Condé Nast, one of the big magazine corporations. And this woman that you described, her views were shared on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox. And if you take Tucker Carlson and some of the other right-wing broadcasters who are sharing those views, you have an audience of about three times that of VANITY FAIR. It should be obvious. Whoever’s from the White House, they are holding down at least one major power center. And I think that that’s the big shift I think liberals really need to make is there’s this sort of imagination that they are the center of things and that this is an aberration. And that we can just restore the old order. We need to recognize that that order has been overturned. That’s been happening for some time and Trump is the culmination of a process, not a detour from it. And that to rebuild or build anew an idea of American democracy, which is really truly for all and loving as a fundamental kind of premise, is not going to be a matter of reclamation but a matter of imagining a new idea of what America can be. ‘Cause right now we’re on the outside looking in.
BILL MOYERS: Jeff Sharlet, your book, THE FAMILY remains revealing and highly readable work. Your reporting for VANITY FAIR magazine is stellar and enlightening. And I thank you for spending this time and sharing these insights with us. Best of luck to you.
JEFF SHARLET: Thank you so much, Bill.