Exclusive - George Packer Extended Interview

November 17, 2016 - George Packer & Q-Tip 11/17/2016 Views: 22,914

George Packer of The New Yorker explains how he tapped into the disenfranchisement of the white working class and discusses the future of journalism in Donald Trump's America. (7:24)

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Please welcome George Packer,everybody.

(cheering, applause)

Thank you so much.Thank you for being here.

Thanks for having me.

Let's get straight into it.

You predicted the future.

I don't think that's true,actually.

I think you're being modest,because you did.

In your bookand in your articles,

you were one of the few voiceswho kept sounding the alarm,

and you spoke about...

a white working class in America

who was frustrated at the ideathat they were being ignored

by politicians.

So, a few years ago,I did a lot of reporting

in parts of the countrythat are now Trump central,

like western North Carolina

and the area around Youngstown,Ohio, Tampa Bay.

And what I foundwas a sense of...

uh, not just frustration,but utter disconnection

from what was going onin Washington,

-Yeah.-in New York, in Silicon Valley,

all the... power centers.

People felt they weren't heard,

they, uh, were despised

by the elites--which is a word I heard often--

uh, that their childrenwere not gonna have the future

that, uh... as good a futureas they had had,

and that there wasno more middle class,

it was disappearingin these places.

And none of that prepared mequite for Donald Trump,

but it did tell methat below the surface

there were thesetectonic movements that were...

that were dangerousand that were gonna be...

rise up to the surfaceand be felt at some point.

You actually have an interviewwith Hillary Clinton recently,

and you spoke to her,and she said

that she didn't feel...I think the quote was

that they providedas clear a message

about how we see the economyas we need to.

And she was referringto the lack of a message

going to those voters.

Well, you know,her husband is remembered

as kind of a son ofthe white working class-- Bubba.

But really it wasduring his presidency

that the Democrats moved awayfrom their traditional base

in the working class,moved away from the unions,

toward the embraceof globalization as the answer.

Bill Clinton gave a speechin 2000

saying the Internetwill be the greatest engine

for ending povertythat we've ever seen in history.

It's interesting that youbring up those two points,

because it wasalso Bill Clinton--

during the campaign,I distinctly remember him

warning Hillary's campaign,saying, "Guys,

"you're not reaching out

"to these working classwhite voters.

These are the peoplewho put me into office."

-And it seemed like hewas dismissed. -He-he did.

He did, he said,you need to be in Wisconsin.

Are you in this precinct?

He-he knows politics down to theprecinct level, even today.

But I think he wasignoring the fact

that it was partlythrough his presidency

that Democrats became the partyof the professional class,

more and more, and left behindthe un-- the uneducated,

the less educated,the working class,

who were shifting more and moreto Republicans.

And today, those twocompletely switched parties.

We've had a, a hugetransformation of our politics.

You talk about globalization,

and, um, I thinkit was just today,

uh, that President Obamamade a speech where he said

that globalization needsto be course-corrected

because it feels like the gains

are all going to the top,

as opposed to everybody, whereit was intended that they go.

You hear a lot of talkabout globalization.

And what was interesting in-inone of your articles I read,

was a quote from someonefrom the campaign

who said they hadnever been to Flint.

They had never been to theseareas that were struggling,

but they had beento areas in the world

where people are starvingand struggling.

This was a verycandid confession

from Bill Clinton's treasurysecretary, Lawrence Summers,

saying, when we were in powerin the '90s,

we didn't thinkabout the Rust Belt,

about the working classlosing jobs

in places likeYoungstown and Flint.

-We thought about theinner cities, and Africa. -Yeah.

And those were the-thetwo focuses of concern

for who's being left behind.

In fact, the revengeof the white working class

has not just beenin this country,

it's been across Europe.

I mean, I-I see Trump asbringing America closer

to European-style politics,'cause he's right-wing populist,

like Berlusconi, like Marine LePen, like the Brexit voters,

uh, who is playing on uglyfeelings in order to get power,

and to appeal to, sort of,the traditional voters

who feel thatthey've been left out.

How does that happen, though?

How do voters see Donald Trumpas appealing?

A man who's a billionaire,

a man who has repeatedlynot paid people for work,

a man who has found loopholes,

a man who has, uh, you know,

for lack of a better term,conned many people.

How do they see that person,and go,

that's the guywho's gonna help us.

I understand if peoplefeel left behind,

but how do they think that'sthe man who's gonna help?

By ignoring everythingthat you just said.

I mean, by essentially tuningout all contrary information,

which is easy to do today,because Facebook and Twitter

don't force you to read thingsthat you don't want to read.

They give you the thingsyou want to read,

and they give you all newsas being equal,

even if it's fake newsfrom a right-wing website.

So I think it's easyfor people to say,

oh, that's just doctored,that's not true.

Those are fake liberal facts

and we live in ourseparate worlds.

So they can ignore all thatand say, Donald Trump

is someone I'd like to be,or someone who at least seems

to understand me,regardless of all the facts

about his past.

You speak about fake newsand what we've come to see,

I mean, now Facebook and Twitterhave taken action,

which is strange in termsof the timing.

But when you, when you lookat how news has changed,

and that internetthat became a machine,

there is very littlecuration now.

Nobody knowswhere anything comes from.

There is no accountability.

I wonder, going forward,because in your article,

you talk about how Nixonhad a similar approach.

You talk about how, you know,

a leader like this can connectwith the people,

and direct them in his vision.

And use the governmentto abuse power,

and-and to settle scores,which I see coming ahead.

That's very encouraging.


But what-what frightens meeven more,

is not the similarity between,

let's say a Nixon abusinggovernment power,

and, or Donald Trump using that,you know,

abusing that government power,

but it's the idea that evenif he were to be caught,

the American people who votefor him wouldn't care,

because, if Watergatewere to be reported today,

then people would go,that's-that's not news.

This-this isan existential question

for people in my profession.

What we do,does it still matter?

Is anyone listening?

I mean, aside from your audience

and the subscribersto The New Yorker

and a bunch of other people,

can it break throughthese echo chambers

and actually persuade peopleof something

they didn't want to believe?

And, I mean,I have to hope and believe

that we're not so far gonethat we can't, uh,

be appealed to by reasonand by facts

and actually change our minds.

But right now it's a bleak timeto be a journalist,

not just because there's a lotof financial pressure

but because there's the sensethat facts no longer seem

to have that solidity,that power that they used to.

But there's gonna be a lotof work for journalists to do

during, uh, President Trump'sadministration.

A lot of work. And, uh,I'm glad to have you, uh,

as part of that pool.Thank you so much for your time.

-Thank you for having me.-Thank you for your words.