Tom Nichols

Manchurian President and Alternative Realities

Air Date: September 5, 2018

Tom Nichols, U.S. Naval War College professor and author of “The Death of Expertise,” talks about the contemporary political climate.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. When speaking last year at the University of Sydney’s post-truth initiative on the media’s perpetuation of the lie, I was fortunate to meet my guest today, a fellow keynoter who has enormous insight into the present crisis of Manchurian President, not candidate Donald Trump, and the end game for our fully verified knowledge about his connections to Moscow and Putin, a subject we’ve explored with former CIA analyst, turned Americans creator, Joseph Weisberg, and historian of the KGB, Amy Knight. Author of “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters,” my guest today is Tom Nichols, professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College, and at Harvard Extension School. He was previously a Secretary of the Navy Fellow, the Forest Sherman Chair of Public Diplomacy, and a Chairman of Strategy Department for which he was awarded the Navy Civilian Meritorious Service Medal. He was also personal staff for defense and security affairs in the US Senate to the late Senator, John Heinz of Pennsylvania, and served as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Tom, a pleasure to finally have you here. It’s been nearly a year since our jaunt in Sydney, where we exposed the irrelevance and undermining of the truth, especially as it pertains to your field of expertise, national security policy. Is it fair to say that Donald Trump was the Manchurian candidate that we feared?

NICHOLS: I think that’s a little too strong, but it’s also important for me to say here I only represent my own views, not those of the navy or the government or Harvard or anybody else. I think the fears that have been increasing over the past few months about whether the President has been compromised, whether the Russians have damaging information on him. I think those fears are growing and I think they are legitimate given the Helsinki summit, I think a lot of this talk was just going nowhere. You either believed or you didn’t believe. You want to accept the story. You didn’t want to accept the story. But after the Helsinki Summit, I think a lot of people are giving this a second look, but I think Manchurian candidate is too strong. I think that that implies a huge amount of premeditation on the part of the Russians when I think all they did was just invest in yet another American businessman who was passing through their capital.

HEFFNER: But knowing that he had previously presidential ambitions and that this may be different from prior Manchurians in whom they trusted. I ask you this because Donald Trump says he has hinted, and the press, unfortunately, co-opt his language. He does not believe the American intelligence. It perpetuates this post-fact narrative, that he is looking at information and there is some question about the veracity of that information. There is no question about the veracity of the information, right?

NICHOLS: At least not according to the intelligence community. No, absolutely not.

HEFFNER: And so what should our press be doing today that they’re not doing in further exposing Donald Trump for the liar that he is?

NICHOLS: I think there’s three ways to look at this Manchurian question that you bring up. One is you can take the most extreme view and say that 30 years ago they knew he was going to be President or somebody important in the government and they kind of stuck the needle into him and, kept that relationship. I don’t think that’s what happened. I think the other possibility, the most innocent possibility is, you know, he’s been to Moscow, he’s had some shady financial dealings. It’s not a big deal. I don’t think either of those are realistic. I think there’s a position in the middle that says somebody who’s done that kind of business with Moscow for 30 years has done some things that he’s going to, that are going to be a problem that he’s going to be worried about. And I don’t think it necessarily has to be moral stuff, although given the President’s past, who knows, but there’s probably a lot of dirty financial laundry there, which I think explains a lot. So it, it may be that the president’s acting like somebody who does not want to challenge the Russians because he doesn’t want Putin to decide to come after him, which is exactly how this sort of thing works. They don’t have to tell the President what to do. That’s why I pushed back on this Manchurian narrative. They don’t have to issue instructions, they can just keep him very anxious and he can try to anticipate what it is they’d want from him.

HEFFNER: In other words, Tom, he is psychologically predisposed to catering to or heeding what Putin wants…

NICHOLS: What he thinks Putin wants. Right. Exactly.

HEFFNER: Because if he doesn’t, he may out Trump and that might be the end of his presidency.

NICHOLS: That’s, I think that’s the most realistic and sensible and terrifying scenario. As to your question about, you know, what, I think it’s a great question. What should the press do? The problem is the press, the President has managed to put the press on the defensive by saying that anytime you fact check him, anytime that you challenge anything, he says you’re part of the opposition, that you’re being partisan. I think the press just, as I think they’ve been doing and I think admirably so, they just have to shrug that off and say, you know, you can call us part of the opposition, but if you lie, if you say something that’s not accurate, then we have to report that what you said is not accurate, because not to do that would actually make them partisans in the other direction. Then that would make them more partisan. They’d be covering for the President rather than simply reporting the facts.

HEFFNER: I want you to draw an analogy for us here. In Putin’s Russia, Putin can lie, as you can see in the documentary, Icarus, we’re hopefully going to have the director of that program here soon. Putin will lie in daylight and Russian State TV will endorse the lie in daylight. Now, if you were to draw that analogy to the American situation where Trump, he will lie in Helsinki, then he’ll come back here and muddle the lie and then pretend that he’s refuting the lie.

That’s where our job comes into play, which is to renounce, reject, dispose of the lie, but our media complex…

NICHOLS: Or, or to just present the truth. You don’t have to renounce the lie. You just present the truth and let that stand next to what’s been said, and I think people can judge for themselves. I think that…

HEFFNER: But are you fearful amid what you chronicle in quite some detail about the death of expertise and really the undermining of knowledge and fact in this country, that ultimately Trump is positioned to degrade our truthful, candid fabric in a way that Putin has in Russia.

NICHOLS: Yes, without doubt. It’s already happened and…

HEFFNER: Beyond Fox News, beyond Fox News. How is it happening beyond Fox News?

NICHOLS: I think the most important thing about this is to understand that the goal of propaganda of any kind, the goal of this kind of lying that the Russians engaged in and that has now found its way into our system through Russian active measures and through our own laziness with Facebook and Twitter and social media and rumor-mongering.

It’s not to get you to believe any one version of something. It’s to get you to believe in nothing. That’s the key. That the Russians don’t, you know if you’ve talked to Russians over the years, they don’t really believed Putin. Putin gets out there and Putin could say, clouds are made of marshmallows and you know, the grass is made of spearmint gum. And Russians would say, okay, yes, sure, we accept that. And then they roll their eyes because they are very cynical. That cynicism is the danger, because in the end they really don’t believe Putin, but they don’t believe anything else either. So, if someone gives them the truth, they say, well, that’s just yet another version

HEFFNER: So it’s not up is down. Up is nothing, because this is the whole conundrum.

NICHOLS: Up and down, don’t mean anything. They’re just words and that therefore the citizen, and this is where it becomes incredibly dangerous for democracy. The citizen just pulls back from the public sphere and says, you know what? I can’t believe anything. I don’t believe anybody except people I know and love. I believe my family. I believe my wife, my kids, my husband, you know, that’s it. Everybody else is a liar. I have no connections to anybody else in my society. The two guys I’m watching on television are obviously liars because they’re on television. And that, that leaves the public space open for authoritarians to simply fill the void. They don’t have to make you believe that Putin is a good guy or a bad guy. They just have to make you believe in nothing. And the power of nothing in the public sphere is very strong.

HEFFNER: Whew, where do we go from here? How do we retrain ourselves? Because I asked the first question of Ken Roth from Human Rights Watch and whether you agree or disagree with their assessment of human rights abuses, I asked him a question at the beginning of 2017, which was, are we on the cusp of authoritarianism? And he said, not so fast. We’re not there. I asked you, is Trump a Manchurian candidate or president? Not exactly, or at least not in it’s verified forum. When does this come to a head enough that the digital Watergate that transpired, which was the Russian theft of the DNC emails and the Podesta emails. When does it have the tectonic shift as it did when the House began to investigate President Nixon in the Watergate era?

NICHOLS: I don’t know. I started writing the book. I started writing “The Depth of Expertise” long before Donald Trump was ever involved. The book’s not about Donald Trump. It’s about a larger problem. My fear is that what brings people back to their senses and shakes them out of their, a word we haven’t used yet, but shakes them out of their narcissism and their self absorption, is some kind of a disaster. You know, if people who don’t believe in doctors and think that Big Pharma lies to them about vaccines, well a pandemic will shake them out of that.

I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want that to be the outcome. I wonder in the past few weeks whether the events, the political events in our life, the Helsinki business, the President backing and forthing and I accept them, I don’t accept them. It’s fake news, but I have to be. I wonder if that’s not going to shake some people to their core because this, this I think was the moment. I think all the other stuff, even the beginning of the Mueller investigation, all that other stuff wasn’t enough to really shake some of the more hardcore believers. And some of those people are just never. I mean, the President’s absolutely right. He could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t matter. On the other hand, I think this performance in Helsinki was, a kind of splash of cold water in the face for a lot of people say, wait, there is more to this, there is a fundamental truth underlying all of this that probably needs to be looked at more closely. So hopefully that will have people reengage. But we’re, we’re pretty far gone for, for what used to be a vibrant democracy and I’m very concerned about it.

HEFFNER: How can we as concerned citizens ensure that whatever transition there may be from Trump to a new administration, that we heed what Gerald Ford did in his inaugural address, which is, it is the truth that binds us as a government and as a civilization. How can we get to that point?

NICHOLS: Not to be too pessimistic, but we’re still living with Watergate. We’re still living with the huge hit to trust that our institutions took after Watergate. That, you know, one of the things that, one of the lasting scars of Watergate, is not that, it’s not that we weren’t able to put the government back together.

I mean, six years after Watergate, Ronald Reagan became president, people who had declared the Republican Party dead and America not a democracy and all that stuff by 1981 that seemed like a million years ago. But the scar that lasts is knowing that this could happen, that this is possible in our system. We had never really thought that before. I think the problem we’re having now is, and I think that this actually extends to our allies as well. Donald Trump will eventually, whether through the electoral process or, something, he could well serve out a second term, but he’s going to be gone one day. We now know that we were capable of this, that we were capable of electing someone that is this adversarial to the truth; to a free press and saying we’re okay with it. Now even if we recover our senses in a few years and say, you know, we’re really not okay with that, we’ve proven to ourselves that we can do this, this scary thing once already. I think the way we get out of it is to say, is to pull our egos out of it, is to part our sullen kind of self-absorbed churlishness out of it and to say I really do want what’s best for the country, not just what’s best for me or what triggers the libs or makes other people angry. And I’m going to be bipartisan about this and saying, you know, liberals do it too. They, they like to see, you know, they like to see the guys in the red hats get mad. And we have to stop doing that. We have to just say, look, we can fight. I love political, you know, this, I love political arguments. I’m all day long, but we have to start accepting that, you know, at the root of every political argument, what we’re really trying to do is find out something that’s true and find out some way to get to some resolution that we think is good for all of us.

HEFFNER: There are two immediate obstacles that I see. One is Mike Pence and one is Mark Zuckerberg, Mike Pence, because I don’t view him as someone who would rally a unifying message in the wake of this administration’s downfall. I could not envision him echoing those words of Vice President and then President Ford. And then we have a media complex governed through Facebook where Mark Zuckerberg says, you know, he had to do a mea culpa. He had to go back because he said, oh, it’s all fine and swell for holocaust deniers to be posting their content, I don’t believe it’s true. Then he says, oh, I’m sorry if it offends people, and we talk often on this show about the consequences of this unfettered free expression and how it has injected lies and disinformation into, the, not just the body politic but the so-called elites or once elites, but this is where I want to speak to Phillip Roth. My grandfather echoed your words about the possibility that a catastrophe would cause us to come back to our senses and he said it often on this program, and my grandmother alerted me to a page in a Phillip Roth book. “Plot against America,” but this is really “I Married a Communist,” but this is really speaking to “The Plot Against America” when and I want you to address this in terms of the death of this administration, the death of expertise. “The human tragedy has been complete because of an irrational frenzy burst right through the door. The McCarthy era has inaugurated a postwar triumph of gossip. In gossip we trust. Gossip as Gospel. The national faith, McCarthyism as the beginning, not just of serious politics, but of serious everything as entertainment to amuse the mass audience.” Of course, heeding Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” “McCarthyism as the first postwar flowering of the American unthinking that is now everywhere. McCarthy was never in the Communist business if nobody else knew that he did. The show trial aspect of McCarthy’s patriotic crusade was merely its theatrical form having cameras view. It just is. It gave it the false authenticity of real life. McCarthy understood better than any American politician before him that people whose job was to legislate could do far better for themselves by performing. McCarthy understood the entertainment value of disgrace and how to feed the pleasures of paranoia.” That’s the society we’re living in today.

NICHOLS: You know, when I’ve been asked this about our, you know, Manchurian candidate and fascist takeovers and all of that. I said, or Hitler that Hitler analogy, right? I say stop, you know, with the, with the really bad historical analogies because there’s a really good historical analogy, which is McCarthyism. And I think that what we’re living through now is much. I think it’s, you know, people forget this, my younger students at the extension school are always shocked to find out that Roy Cohn, you know, of the McCarthy era was Donald Trump’s mentor. And I think this is, this is something we ought to, this is the historical parallel we ought to rely on more often. So you surprised me with that quote you told me before the show, you are going to surprise you with the perfect.

HEFFNER: Pick this up. Okay. Philip Roth and Neil Postman too, are aligned here on entertainment as our moral disgrace, degrading the fabric of our society. So how do you deal with the, the expertise-less society when Mark Zuckerberg says he does not want to correct those who are amusing themselves, merely amusing themselves with Holocaust denialism, they don’t know any better…

NICHOLS: They don’t care.

HEFFNER: How do you deal with that?

NICHOLS: Well, there’s a couple of things. First of all, whether it’s Mike Pence or Mark Zuckerberg, these things are in your control. I mean, one thing that has exhausted me in traveling the country and giving talks about this stuff is people say, well, what are we going to do? Well, first of all, you can do two things. You can vote, which only in the most contentious election in my lifetime, six out of 10 people voted. That’s disgraceful. And I know, you know, there’s always the argument about suppression and gerrymandering, but no, six out of 10 people is ridiculous in a democracy this size with that kind of contentious election.

The other is stop getting your news from Facebook. You know, Americans need to impose some self discipline on themselves to say, no, I’m not going to, you know, we’re, the metaphor I always use is food, right? We’re Americans have never had more food available to them. That’s why we’re all fat and diabetic, you know, and you just have to say to yourself, look, I can’t knock down the McDonald’s or the Burger King. It’s not; I don’t have the right to do that. They are a business, you know, Facebook’s going to exist. McDonald’s. I don’t have to go there every day. I don’t have to live my life, you know, drinking milkshakes or going to Facebook every day. And I think it’s interesting that a lot of what we’re talking about here is not because of economic anxiety or the tough times we live through because we’re living through some actually very good times.

I think a lot of this is enabled by affluence. People hang around Facebook and trade stupid memes because they can. Because we’re actually a very affluent society with a lot of leisure time, without larger, we’re not at war yet, at least as a national crusade, we unfortunately are, our military folks are at war, but the American public’s not at war, they don’t. They can’t even remember where we’re deployed half the time.

HEFFNER: I would challenge that only in so far as Facebook and now we learn Tesla too, they are cultivating this conspiratorial culture by their super pacs giving money to candidates who want to close down the Mueller probe, just like Devin Nunes. I mean it is not just the users who have abdicated responsibility. Donald Trump’s truthiest observation during the campaign was about unemployment and it was about the fact that people don’t feel like they’re contributing and that they are worthy because of disparity, disparity of income, disparity, just a very significant disconnect. That’s why Sanders folks crossed over and voted for him in some of those key Electoral College states.

NICHOLS: I’m far less understanding of those people than maybe you are, because it’s almost like they were, and I had those arguments and they were infuriating. You know, well unemployment could be 40 percent. And I remember one discussion I had with an old friend who was a classic Trump voter. He had a high school diploma, and he lived in a factory town that was on hard times, but he had done pretty well. Two kids through college. He owned his own home, owned a boat and after all this, and he shook his head and he said, it’s all got to change. And I just exploded. I said, you know, what, what is it in your life that’s going so wrong that you think it has to change?

And I think then the answer really comes down to it’s not 1965. My neighborhood isn’t white anymore. I don’t like that my neighborhood used to look like a Norman Rockwell painting and now it looks like a Martin Scorsese movie.

HEFFNER: I don’t think Trump’s commentary on the American economy only turn people to him, but they disaffected some people because if you go to Tampa Bay, you’ll see some of the images that he described, the third world country, or if you go to certain cities, you’ll see that.

NICHOLS: Hellholes.

HEFFNER: I mean, to me that’s a principle argument for the Democrats saying Trump was a fraudster here. He made this pitch that he was going to revolutionize the way we do business and make our country not obsolete. We are modern and, none of that’s happened.

NICHOLS: Except again, you know, this, maybe this is a generational issue because a lot of the people roughly in my age, right? The late fifties, early sixties, they say this is awful. It’s never been worse. I said, wait a minute; we all lived through the 1970s. It was worse. I mean we’re in New York City. I would rather be here right now than in 1977.

HEFFNER: For sure.

NICHOLS: You know, but Trump, what Trump sold was a way of pinning that resentment to something illusory so that you didn’t look like such a bad person. Right? To say I don’t like change. I don’t like the fact that America is more diverse. I don’t like the way the economy has gone because it doesn’t respect people like me and now and it respects people who can manipulate information. So, I can’t really say any of those things. So I’m just going to go with Trump’s argument that it’s a hellhole, but let’s not let people like Bernie Sanders off the hook either because what Sanders did was promise ridiculous things on the same platform of grievance. And then, when it came, when Sanders was out of the picture, you had a bunch of voters on the left purity testing each other out of the …

HEFFNER: And you talk about Rockwell. I urge folks to see what is a roving exhibition of the Four Freedoms. If you really want to understand Rockwell, it wasn’t the materialism, it wasn’t whiteness, it was democratic pluralism. It was certain values associated with, not Donald Trump, but with Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt,

NICHOLS: James Madison,

HEFFNER: James Madison, who were championing those Four Freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. I want to give you the last word on this question of Facebook and these companies exacerbating the factless-ness and the fecklessness and this effort to suppress the truth. And why in the hell are they giving money to folks who were spewing conspiracies like Devin Nunes.

NICHOLS: I can’t speak to how they spend their money.

HEFFNER: In other words, they want to preserve a Republican House to give them credit for the tax cuts …

NICHOLS: But I think you and I both know that major corporations, if you peel enough of the onion back, they give money to everybody.

HEFFNER: It’s true, it’s true.

NICHOLS: They like lay out money all over the roulette,

HEFFNER: But let’s talk about the moral disgrace in the moral high ground and there’s no acknowledgement that.

NICHOLS: I mean there’s no, there’s no moral high ground in any of these businesses and part, you know, I’m less critical of that because as a conservative I say, well, you know, it’s not up to businesses to seize the moral high ground, it’s up to people.

HEFFNER: Sorry, moral necessity. Moral necessity.

NICHOLS: I think people should. I think that the consumers need to take responsibility and say the way I’m not going to fall for what’s going on on Facebook is that I’m going to stop going to Facebook to get my news. Now, I have a Facebook account. Everybody has one. Mostly I, I have, I say hello to old friends. I keep up with people I went to high school with…

HEFFNER: That was the original purpose and that should be preserved, as it’s purpose.

NICHOLS: I don’t go there to find out what’s happening in the world.

HEFFNER: Me Too. Me too.

NICHOLS: And I think people have to stop doing that. Just like if you know, if you want to have a decent diet and live a healthy life, it’s not the fault of a fast food joint if you go there every day.

HEFFNER: Well, we knew we a new me-too peer-to-peer pressure movement to encourage what you’re saying, Tom. It’s been a while since Sydney. We had a blast there. It’s great to see you again. Thanks for being on.

NICHOLS: Thanks for having me. Alex. Good to see you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.