Influencers with Andy Serwer: Kurt Andersen

In this episode of influencers, Evil Geniuses author Kurt Andersen discusses his latest book, his infamous nickname for President Donald Trump, and how the American middle class is waging war against the ultra-rich.
Video transcript
ANDY SERWER: Kurt Andersen, a man with many hats, is a radio presenter, entrepreneur, television producer and writer. However, before he became a wizard of all things, he started out as a journalist. After graduating from Harvard, Andersen co-founded Spy, a satirical magazine that poked fun at American celebrities and media icons, including now President Trump, in the late 1980s and 1990s.
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From there, Kurt worked as editor-in-chief of "New York Magazine", then moved to the "New York Times" and later created his own radio show. These days he describes himself as a book author. But Andersen says he always turned more than one plate at a time. On this episode of Influencers, I speak to Kurt Andersen about his latest book, his infamous nickname for President Donald Trump, and how America's middle class is waging war against the ultra-rich.
Hello everyone and welcome to "Influencers". My name is Andy Serwer and I say hello to our guest Kurt Andersen, who is a journalist, radio host and author of a number of books, including the new Evil Geniuses, The Unmaking of America. Kurt, good to see you.
KURT ANDERSEN: Nice to see you Andy.
ANDY SERWER: So first of all I want to ask you about this introduction. And that's an unusual question. But would you describe yourself that way? I mean what do you do for a living Kurt?
KURT ANDERSEN: Well, I've been doing less lately. I stopped doing the radio show a few months ago. I would say I write books. I mean, I'm working on another podcast too. I am also working on a TV show. I tend to turn more than one plate at a time, but I'm pretty much a book author.
ANDY SERWER: Right. So let's talk a little bit about "Evil Geniuses". The book describes the rise in wealth inequality and the political influence of wealth interest in the United States since the 1960s and 1970s. Why did you choose to write about it?
KURT ANDERSEN: Well, it kind of found me, as writers say, but it did. I wrote a-- I've been writing novels for 20 years and then I wrote a non-fiction book that came out three years ago and was called Fantasyland. There was another story of America and how we screwed up in my opinion. And that was roughly what I refer to as part of the American character that has always been there. That's the kind of weakness to believe the untrue when it's exciting enough to believe and that it has finally gotten out of hand in the past few decades, and especially the past four years.
And so afterwards, after I had finished the book, I realized that this was really only half the story. It was really a purely cultural story, and that there were these other things that had happened in the last 50 years. So I realized that there was a kind of sequel to write that was more yes. Evil Geniuses is also about cultural change and how I relate that to the rest of my speech. But mostly the book is about economics, as you say, and politics and technology.
And so there really was one - there were several times when I talked about "Evil Geniuses", or rather when I talked about "Fantasyland". And the people in the audience would say, well, OK, Americans don't believe in climate change. But isn't that just because the Koch brothers didn't make them believe in climate change by spending all that money on politics?
And I would say yes, of course, that's part of it. But there is a tendency among Americans, unlike people in most developed countries, to believe things that are not true. And then I realized that in this case it's the combination. It's the combination of Americans' gullibility and this very deliberate strategic work over decades to do it on the particular case of climate change without believing that it is a real thing or a thing to worry about.
Then I realized I was already there. I was a young adult in the 1980s, and I was a young adult even in the 70s. And so I was there when ... what happened to me, what this book is about. But I realized that I was not paying very close attention, even though I was also a journalist.
Sometimes I wasn't really paying attention because I was fine, as this cabal, if you will, twisted and changed and transformed our entire economic system by evil geniuses in the 70s and 80s and 90s. I was fine. And so my ... my way, I suppose, my sharpness had seen everything that was happening blunted by the fact that it worked pretty well for me.
ANDY SERWER: Exactly. And - and when you talk about it, there is this role that the left is playing in the Democratic Party that it is not just the right. There's a ... I don't know if it's too strong a word to be complicit. But--
KURT ANDERSEN: I'll take it.
ANDY SERWER: Is that it? Then explain yourself. I mean, so the left is part of it then.
KURT ANDERSEN: Well, certainly the liberals - the - yes, left of the middle-class were definitely a part of it. I mean, the book is mostly about the economic right, the Milton Friedmanites, the Kochs, the other right-wing billionaires, the entire right-wing counterpart institute, the economic right, and what they really built a paradigm shift in the 70s and 80s and 90s about how we all and our system thought about fairness and equality and all these things economically.
But we knew Democrats, as they were called from the '70s, the Gary Hart, the Bob Kerrey, the Bill Bradley, the Paul Tsongas - all these guys who were honestly my heroes - said, Oh, we're all free marketers now. We are all ... the 60s are over. We are now determined to compromise and find a good system that deals solely with the free market. And let's meet halfway.
Well, and they did. And we ... again, I wasn't a policy maker. We made. And then I just kept moving to the right. And there really was no longer any politically influential economic left in this country. I mean, they were back that day. There were still Liberal Republicans.
Then the kind of Democrats in business took over the role of Liberal Republicans. And there were no more FDRs. Politically, there was no economic vision that had any consequence, power, or great influence in the United States.
ANDY SERWER: That quickly reminds me of two things. Firstly, I remember a British person who said to another British person, well, you have the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, which is like the Tory Party here. And you have the Democratic Party. And it's like the Tory Party here. [Laughs]
And then another, I still remember a few years ago Kurt, I'm up in Maine. And someone said to me for the first time. And I was shocked when they told me that. But it makes so much sense now that the Bushs and the Clintons are all the same.
KURT ANDERSEN: Exactly. You know, and I used to ... I remember the 90s. I remember the 2000 election when people said to me, oh, you know, the Democrats, the Republicans - they're no different between them. And of course I'd say but look, the race of the Supreme Court, women's rights, reproductive rights, everything and so on. And those are indeed significant differences between Democrats and Republicans then and now.
But what they saw - and I didn't - oh, it wasn't me because the system didn't fool me because in business their minds had stopped being a big difference. It was really ... it was really a ... you know, people were talking hyperbolic, which I always thought was too hyperbolic, you know, there is a capitalist party. There is a left half called Democrats and right half called Republicans.
Well, and it is true, although of course the left, and certainly my position in this book, is like Elizabeth Warren's. I am everything for the free market system, just one that works and is sustainable in the long term and is fair, as it was when I was young.
ANDY SERWER: So what do you say or what do you think about the young person who supported Elizabeth Warren or Bernie, and then you have to tell them - not you - but the Democrats or Biden have to vote for me. And they are like, no?
KURT ANDERSEN: Well, not many of them say no, I think. I hope not. But certainly in the ... during the primary campaign that was a legitimate thing to say. And Joe Biden wasn't my first, second, or maybe even third candidate. But what I tell them, I am saying in part as a result of running Evil Geniuses and running this forensic story about how that change and kidnapping took place, that it's a long game.
It's not just a candidate and your favorite candidate or I'll go. It's not that choice. It's a long, long game that these guys played so brilliantly. And so, yes, you know, yes, you want - we want radical changes. I'm going to appoint this young person to vote who was a Bernie Bro. But I'm afraid it comes step by step. And the first step would be great, wouldn't it, if we had a major landslide if we elected this moderate Democratic President.
Incidentally, a moderate democrat who, because his party has only moved significantly to the left in economic terms in the last decade, has finally become a kind of left economic party that will do what his party wants because it is a kind of is a generic democrat. And that's why I'd say to them - and I've said to them, including my kids - you know, you get this guy. And you get this administration chosen. You hope for the best. You are putting pressure on him to do what you want to do about childcare and health care and higher taxes on the rich and big business and everything else.
And this is your shot. I mean, you know ... you know you couldn't even get Bernie Sanders nominated. So give that up - give up your sadness and anger about it and face what is ahead of you, what you know is creating - getting a Democratic Senate, a Democratic President, and that's your first step. But it's only the first step.
ANDY SERWER: You wrote about the rise in inequality in your book. We were betrayed. We were wrong. Are you referring to the media there?
KURT ANDERSEN: No, I'm sure. But I'm really referring to ... all of us. And certainly the media and the professional class of - of liberals and even professional Democrats, who I think over-interpreted what the election and the big - the Ronald Reagan landslide elections meant, I think - but also just regular Americans You know, they voted to make America this beautiful, quaint little town of Bedford Falls, as it is in Maine, as it is back here in Connecticut, and they really didn't read the fine print or they didn't What was really going on is that they, the normal people, the 80, 75% of Americans who are not near the top, are screwed. And they did.
So this is the sucker. The cheating by this - this - this way of turning the nostalgia that was so prevalent in the 1970s and then the 80s into a political means of selling Reaganism and America. It's a beautiful place, and it's morning in America without really going into the details, the hundreds of details about how unfair and insecure and unequal all the major parts of the American economic system should become.
ANDY SERWER: What about someone like Warren Buffett? Or and there are other wealthy people out there who have been saying for years that our taxes - their taxes should be increased. Taxes are a hot topic this week. We shall come back to that.
KURT ANDERSEN: Yes. Warren Buffett, whom I have known for a long time because I grew up in Omaha where he still lives, was amazing and extraordinary. And I don't share the disgust of every billionaire that some of my political friends and allies share.
He was extraordinary. And he didn't just say that I, oh, I should pay as much tax as a percentage as my secretary did, as he often said. He also said, as I mention in the book, that he said a few times in 2005 and 2006 in major interviews that got some attention at the time that there had been a class war. You conservatives talk about how the left, as it was, is waging a class war.
There was a class war and it's my side. It's the rich and we win. And we shouldn't be. And he said that over and over again. And I remember thinking back then, wow, good for Warren. Yes exactly. But that's just an exaggeration, isn't it? And it was then that I began to think, read, and learn more. And it ended up in this book, you know, "geniuses" but realizing that it wasn't just a poetic notion.
There has really been some kind of class war between the rich to change the economy since the 1970s. And in every graph you look at, or in the story of how economic growth continues, productivity kept rising. And yet around 1980 all the boats suddenly stopped climbing together. And it wasn't a coincidence.
ANDY SERWER: I'm glad you mentioned the Omaha connection with Warren Buffett because I wanted to ask you about it. So tell us when you first met or first met him. Are you still in contact with him? I mean, everyone in Omaha almost knows each other or something.
KURT ANDERSEN: Well, because only half a million people live in one city. But my parents were kind to him and unfortunately not kind enough to invest money with him. But they were kind. And I really didn't ... I got to know him a bit when I was older.
For example, I wrote him a letter when I and my friend Graydon Carter founded "Spy" magazine in 1986 and asked if he would like to invest in "Spy" magazine. And he wrote me back and very nicely declined and said: No, I don't invest in startups, well, so and so on.
Anyway, then we'll meet over the years. And he's always very nice to me and always says nice things about my mother, my late mother and all that. And so he is ... you know he's great. And again, in terms of a decent rich man who, as you say, was - he was great.
But he also, he's into his old school investment strategy of investing in companies in the long run and letting them run themselves and all that stuff, really, that kind of pre-1980 investment in terms of the system is back a lot to me closer to the optimum than the cut-and-run private equity system and day trading investors without committing to anything that we - that we have developed since then.
ANDY SERWER: Little did I know Warren Buffett could have been an investor in Spy magazine. I'm still processing this, Kurt. "Spy" magazine, you know, for those who don't know, it was this amazing publication that spawned all kinds of careers and sparked all kinds of trends in journalism. And I was a big fan.
Perhaps one of the most enduring elements was your nickname as the current President of the United States. And so were you ... and we will make it through. And that's why you've been reporting on Donald Trump for decades. Talk to us about the nickname you chose for the president - how you got it and so on.
KURT ANDERSEN: Well, Donald Trump - so the "Spy" magazine was that satirical monthly magazine, started this little New York-focused thing in 1986 and got in the way very quickly, very quickly, very successful, and became a national magazine. We had hundreds of thousands of readers and subscribers.
As I said, it was a satirical magazine. So we had our goals and our recurring themes. Donald Trump was in our first issue. The first issue, the cover story, the first issue was "Jerks: The 10 Most Annoying New Yorkers". Donald Trump is one of those 10. By the way, in the little report about him in this first issue he talked about how he could become president. He could solve the missile crisis with the Soviet Union in an hour.
He would ... he didn't need to know anything more than now. You know, the past is a preface. So we call - we in [inaudible] we for our recurring topics, whether it was Donald Trump or Henry Kissinger or whoever - people we talked about regularly - we have created a kind of epithet that we repeat with them as soon as we chose just one and called it that over and over again.
Graydon and I had both worked for Time Magazine. We are both currently working in Time Magazine. And back the day before our day. "Time" was so nicknamed that it was always in the 40's and 50's what people referred to as. So we thought, oh this is funny. We're going to do these kind of cheesy, old-fashioned things.
For example, Henry Kissinger, every time I spoke to him, we called the socialist war criminal Henry Kissinger. And Donald Trump, we tried different nicknames. And none of them were stuck. And, you know, Queens-born casino operator Donald Trump - different types. Then in 1988 we came up with the short-fingered vulgar Donald Trump. And we knew we had a winner and we held onto it and called it that.
And that was simply based on the fact that, like just before "Spy" launched, Graydon interviewed Trump for a profile he was writing and returned to our little office that wasn't even an office at the time, barely an office, and said you know what. This guy, yeah, he's a big guy. He's 6 feet, almost my size, he said. But he has the smallest little fingers I've ever seen.
So ah, then when ... and of course he's a vulgar. When the time came to come up with a nickname, a short-fingered vulgar worked and he got stuck. And you say I studied Trump or covered him for years. I have ... surely it is "spy". But then not so much from 1993 to 2015.
But then he came back. And then, suddenly, in a debate in 2015 with Marco Rubio, there were two presidential candidates arguing over whether his fingers were long or short and what that meant for his manhood and the rest. And I just felt like I was having a sour look back at this time.
ANDY SERWER: Are you surprised he's president?
KURT ANDERSEN: Ah, ha, that's so hard to tell Andy, at this point 4, 3, almost four years later. Yes, it is. It remains for me a kind of amazing feeling of being trapped in a nightmare, of being stuck in a sour surprise. I can't say that I wake up surprised every day. But something of a cousin of surprise, yes.
And even though that last book of mine I mentioned, Fantasyland, which became sort of a figurehead, I wrote and finished before it was even nominated. If he hadn't been nominated, if he hadn't run for president, let alone been elected. I probably wouldn't have mentioned him in the book. Maybe I would have. Maybe, but probably not. So I saw what happened to the country that got it so right to choose such an absurdly monstrous person.
But that doesn't mean I wasn't still surprised when he got elected, as we thought he was a joke in 1988 and ... and national polls asked people if they wanted Donald Trump to run for president because he was already flirting with this idea back then. We thought it was just ... it was fun. It was a joke. It was that he was a cartoon character and it was fun to make fun of him.
ANDY SERWER: Do you understand Kurt that some people watching this might be deeply offended by what you say, maybe call you a long-fingered liberal or I don't know what ...
KURT ANDERSEN: Yes, they could. And both, all of these - both - all of these adjectives are correct.
ANDY SERWER: OK, leave that alone. But what is it I mean 30%, 40% of America love this man.
KURT ANDERSEN: Yes, yes. Well, and 30% or 40% - I'd say 30% love him and another 10% or 15% will vote for him would be my guess. Then there are my evil geniuses who by and large don't love him, who - who understand this is the guy they have there - who love the Hoi Polloi in their right-wing coalition. And that's why they're stuck with him.
And as long as he gives them a $ 2 trillion tax cut, like he did in his only legislative act in 2017, and as long as he's a fierce anti-regulation guy who really serves them in every way they like it doesn't tariff that much, but live with it, they're good of it.
So, what does it mean that 30% really love him? You know, 30% of America believes in all sorts of things, is weird and crazy, and misguided in many ways. So, yes, they did manage to elect a president. And that's strange and phenomenal and a milestone. But what will you do
ANDY SERWER: Yeah, I mean, it kind of ties in with the book, right? I mean, it appeals to people who believe in things. I mean, and maybe people will believe Donald Trump, literally everything he says. I think the President himself said, hey, some of this is an exaggeration, right?
KURT ANDERSEN: I don't know that he says that anymore. He said it - well, Tony Schwartz, his first ghostwriter, said it when he wrote Donald Trump's first memoir in 1987. I don't - he says, oh, I was having fun. Or he doesn't say like some people said about him when he ran, oh, don't take me literally, just take me seriously. He doesn't fully know the difference and doesn't care about the difference. And when he ... you know, he always gives himself the opportunity to say, Oh, no, no, no, I was just kidding when he sometimes went too far.
But he - it is - it is - it's just a show, sure, but he's also President of the United States, hurting and ruining many people's lives in various ways. So you have to literally - literally, possibly - take it seriously always and for sure.
ANDY SERWER: So that notion that Americans historically believed in things they don't understand, to quote a Stevie Wonder song I think right? But it's - there is - it's a more dangerous world now, Kurt, probably because of social media. And when you look at items like QAnon, it's different than it was 30 years ago, isn't it?
KURT ANDERSEN: That is it. I mean, actually, I'm talking about the kind of again - America's shift in believing too many conspiracy theories to explain anything bad that people think is bad - you know, in the late 60s and slowly but surely got worse and worse, especially in the 90s and especially in the 90s and after, because, as you say, not just social media back then, but the internet too. Once we had an internet and all sorts of absurd conspiracy theories and absurd ideas and, not to quote, "facts" of all kinds looked legitimate. Look, I saw it on the internet. It looks just like The New York Times. It looks real. It has to be real. We were in trouble because it was a new condition.
You know, there have always been weirdos. There have always been conspiracy theories. By the way, as I always state when I talk about conspiracy theories, I understand that there actually are some conspiracies. However, most conspiracies - conspiracy theories - are not true, and many of them are insane, like QAnon.
But once we got the internet, this - which had become that standard fantasy instinct to explain everything in terms of conspiracies - really got out of hand and took over brain space, especially on the right side. - not just the right thing, because, for example, the anti-vaccine movement was more left than right in the beginning. The 9/11 truthful in the beginning were more left than right. But it became more of a right thing.
And once you had that ability to draw in believers, and then all of a sudden the believers felt like I'm not the only person who believes this, there are thousands, tens of thousands, millions of us, it was a cascade that got out of hand . And yes, at some point you will come to QAnon, where God knows how many believers and now Republican candidates for the House of Representatives there are QAnon believers, this absolutely absurd, ever-evolving, collectively authored theory of everything.
Again, that's not so different in many ways from what there was when you and I were kids, the John Birch Society, but they had at least one focus. It was Soviet Union, China, communism, anti-communism, you know, Dwight Eisenhower was a stooge of the communists and so on. That was ridiculous and they were extreme. But not once - but the Conservatives of the time, like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater, stigmatized them and kept them away - from the party. These were ... we couldn't have these people. That is no longer the case.
And thanks to the internet, you don't have to go to a small shop in Bogalusa to join the conspiracy, like the John Birchers did. You - they're everywhere and as accessible as your phone.
ANDY SERWER: You know, you're on Twitter a lot, Kurt.
KURT ANDERSEN: I am. It's me, Andy.
ANDY SERWER: So ... right and so ... I'm too much. I'm really looking forward to the day I finish with it. And I don't know that I can't say that - like that the day is today, but that's part of all the appeal and that's a whole different conversation. Have you thought a lot about how Twitter and Facebook, to name two, monitor this stuff, stop it, or what we need to do with Facebook and Twitter?
KURT ANDERSEN: Yes, it is difficult because it is a new situation. But - and Twitter is doing its best. You know, Facebook is a different beast because it's so comprehensive. And so it really is a monopoly. It's a monopoly, as is Google. So you have the problems of monopoly, a number of problems. But in the case of Facebook, you have a founder, controller or CEO who has made it clear that he is unwilling to make meaningful attempts to find out how this new, incredibly powerful platform will not be inferior to society and humanity than better.
And it seems pretty clear to me that it's a bad network right now. And I'm not saying it's easy. You don't suddenly want a government censor reading every post on Facebook or whatever. But it's a new thing. You know, like people have said, it's like a magazine or Yahoo Finance or a television news section when it comes to people getting their news and information from it. But they waive any responsibility for what is said or done on it, you know?
So OK, this is a new situation, and I understand it's difficult when you're this big and X billion users and all that. But that doesn't mean we don't have to try and figure out how to do it. And there are technical means. There are all kinds of means. And obviously they followed some of them on Facebook. But you - his slash - Mark Zuckerbergs and your basic corporate instinct seem to be no, we won't. We really won't do that. Bloom a million flowers, even if 643,000 are poisonous, you know?
ANDY SERWER: Our opium poppies. BTW, if you see any, give us a call and we will probably take these out.
KURT ANDERSEN: Let's go. Exactly exactly.
ANDY SERWER: [inaudible] Maybe, maybe.
KURT ANDERSEN: Yeah, unless that particular opium plantation pays us quite a bit of money to grow it.
ANDY SERWER: Right, right.

Many Thanks.

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