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Influencers with Andy Serwer: Kurt Andersen

In this episode of Influencers, 'Evil Geniuses' Author Kurt Andersen joins us to discuss his newest book, his infamous nickname for President Donald Trump, and how America’s middle class is at war with the ultra-rich.

Video Transcript

ANDY SERWER: A man of many hats, Kurt Andersen is a radio host, an entrepreneur, a television producer, and a novelist. But before becoming a wizard of all things, he started out as a journalist. After graduating from Harvard, Andersen co-founded "Spy," a satirical magazine which mocked American celebrities and media icons in the late 1980s and 1990s, including now President Trump.

From there, Kurt worked as an 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 writer. But Andersen says he's always had more than one plate spinning at a time. In this episode of "Influencers," I speak with Kurt Andersen about his newest book, his infamous nickname for President Donald Trump, and how America's middle class is at war with the ultra rich.


Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer, and welcome 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, great to see you.

KURT ANDERSEN: Good to see you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: So I want to ask you, first of all, about that introduction. And this is an unusual question. But is that how you would describe yourself? I mean, what do you do for a living, Kurt?

KURT ANDERSEN: Well, I do fewer things lately. I stopped doing the radio show a few months ago. I would say I write books. I mean, I'm also working on another podcast. I'm also working on a TV show. I tend to have more than one plate spinning at a time, but pretty much I'm a book writer.

ANDY SERWER: Right. So let's talk about "Evil Geniuses" a little bit. The book describes the rise of wealth inequality and political influence of wealthy interest in the United States since the '60s and '70s. Why did you decide to write about this?

KURT ANDERSEN: Well, it sort 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 nonfiction book that came out three years ago called "Fantasyland." There was another history of America and how in my view we screwed ourselves up. And that was about the what I call the sort of part of the American character that has always been there, which is the kind of weakness for believing the untrue if it's exciting enough to believe and that it finally got out of hand the last few decades and especially the last four years.

And so I realized after that after I finished that book that that was really only half the story. That was a purely cultural story, really, and that there was this other set of things that had happened in the last 50 years. So I realized there was a kind of sequel to write that was more yes. "Evil Geniuses" is also about cultural changes and how I tie that into the rest of what I talk about. But mostly, the book is about economics, as you say, and politics and technology.

And so, really, there was one-- there were several times when I was talking about "Evil Geniuses" or, rather, when I've talked about "Fantasyland." And people in audiences would say, well, yeah, OK, Americans don't believe in climate change. But isn't that just because the Koch brothers made them not believe in climate change by spending all this money on politics?

And I would say yes, sure, that's part of it. But there is this predisposition among Americans, unlike people in most developed countries, to believe things that aren't true. And but then I realized that it is the combination in that instance. It is the combination of credulity of Americans along with this very deliberate strategic work over decades to make them in the particular case of climate change, not believe that it's a real thing or a thing to worry about.

So then I realized I'd been around. I was a, you know, young adult in the 1980s as even the '70s, I was a young adult. And so I was there when-- what I what this book is about happened. But I realized I wasn't paying very close attention even though I was also a journalist.

I wasn't really paying attention partly because I was doing well as this cabal, if you will, of evil geniuses was twisting and changing and transforming our whole economic system through the '70s and '80s and '90s. I was doing fine. And, therefore, my-- my kind of I suppose my acuity had seen all that was happening was blunted by the fact that it was working out pretty well for me.

ANDY SERWER: Right, exactly. And-- and so when you talk about that, there is this role that is played by people in the left in the Democratic Party that it's not just the right. There's a-- I don't know if being complicit is too strong a word. But--

KURT ANDERSEN: I'll take it.

ANDY SERWER: Is it that? Then explain yourself. I mean, so the left is a part of it then.

KURT ANDERSEN: Well, certainly, the liberal-- the-- yes, left of center people were definitely a part of it. I mean, the book is primarily about the economic right, the Milton Friedmanites, the Kochs, the other right wing billionaires, the whole right wing counter establishment, economic right wingers, and what they built in the '70s and '80s and '90s to really create a paradigm shift about how all of us and our system thought about fairness and equality and all those things economically.

But we knew Democrats, as they were called starting in the '70s, the Gary Hart's, the Bob Kerrey's, the Bill Bradley's, the Paul Tsongas's-- all these guys who were my heroes, frankly-- said, oh, we're all free marketers now. We're all-- the '60s are over. We're now committed to compromise and figuring out a, you know, a good system that's all about the free market. And let's meet halfway.

Well, and they did. And we-- again, I wasn't a policy maker. We did. And then I just kept moving to the right. And there really ceased to be in this country a politically influential economic left. I mean, really, the-- they were still back in that day. There were still liberal Republicans.

Then the sort of Democrats on economics took over that role of being the liberal Republicans. And there were no FDR's left. There was not that economic vision politically that had any kind of consequence or power or much influence in the United States.

ANDY SERWER: That reminds me of two things quickly. One, I remember a British person explaining to another British person, said, well, you've got the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, which is like the Tory Party here. And you got the Democratic Party. And that's like the Tory Party here. [LAUGHS]

And then another one, I remember just a couple of years ago, Kurt, I'm up in Maine. And someone said to me for the first time. And I was shocked when they said this to me. But it makes so much sense now that the Bush's and the Clinton's-- they're all the same.

KURT ANDERSEN: Well, exactly. You know, and I used to-- I remember back in the '90s. I remember the 2000 election when people would say to me, oh, you know, the Democrats, the Republicans-- they're not a lick of difference between them. And, of course, I would say but look, the Supreme Court race, women's rights, reproductive rights, all and on. And those indeed are significant differences between Democrats and Republicans then and now.

But what they were seeing-- and I wasn't-- oh, I wasn't, because, again, the system was not screwing me over was that in economics that they had their heads ceased to be much of a difference. It was really-- it was really a-- you know, people talked in hyperbolic terms that I always looked at as too hyperbolic about, you know, there's a Capitalist Party. There's a leftish half called the Democrats and a rightish half called the Republicans.

Now, and so that's true, even though, of course, the left and certainly my position in this book is like Elizabeth Warren's. I'm all for the free market system, just one that works and is sustainable for 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 has to say vote for me. And they're like, no?

KURT ANDERSEN: Well, not many of them are saying no I think. I hope not. But certainly in the-- during the primary campaign, that was a legit thing to say. And Joe Biden was not my first, second, or maybe even third choice candidate. But what I say to them, I say partly as a result of running "Evil Geniuses" and doing this forensic history of how this change and the hijacking happened is it is a long game.

It's not just one candidate and your favorite candidate or I'm leaving. It isn't this election. It's a long, long game that these guys played so brilliantly. And so, yes, you know, yes, you want-- we want radical change. I'll stipulate that young person who votes who was a Bernie Bro. But it comes, I'm afraid, you know, one step at a time. And the first step is would be great wouldn't it, I think, if we had a big landslide electing this moderate Democrat president.

And by the way, a moderate Democrat, who because his party has moved significantly left just in the last decade on economics finally has become a kind of party of the left on economics that he will do what his party wants because he is a kind of generic Democrat. And, therefore, I would say to them-- and I have said to them, including my children-- you know, you get this guy. And you get this administration elected. You hope for the best. You put pressure on him to do what you want to do in terms of child care and health care and higher taxes on the rich and big business and all the rest.

And, you know, this is your shot. I mean, you know-- you know, you couldn't even get Bernie Sanders nominated. So give up that-- give up your sorrow and anger about that and face what's in front of you, which is, you know, creating-- getting a Democratic senate, a Democratic president, and that's your first step. But it's only a first step.

ANDY SERWER: You wrote in your book about the rise of inequality. We were hoodwinked. We hoodwinked ourselves. Are you referring to the media there?

KURT ANDERSEN: No, I'm sure. But I'm really referring to-- to all of us. And certainly the media and the professional class of-- of liberals and even professional Democrats who I think overinterpreted what the election and the huge-- the landslide election of Ronald Reagan meant, I think-- but also just regular Americans who were convinced that, you know, they were voting to make America this beautiful, idyllic small town Bedford Falls kind of place like it is in Maine, like it is here in Connecticut, again, and really didn't read the fine print or didn't imagine what was really going on, which is that they, the normal people, the 80, 75% of Americans who aren't anywhere near the top we're going to get screwed. And they did.

So that's the hoodwinking. The hoodwinking by this-- this-- this kind of turning the nostalgia that had become so rampant in the 1970s and then into the '80s into a political means of selling Reaganism and Americas. It's a beautiful place, and it's morning in America without really going into the details, the hundreds of details of what that meant about how unfair and insecure and unequal all of the important pieces of the American economic system were about to become.

ANDY SERWER: What about someone like Warren Buffett? Or and there are other wealthy people out there who've been saying for years that our taxes-- their taxes should be raised. Taxes being a hot button issue this week. We'll get back to that.

KURT ANDERSEN: Yeah. Well, Warren Buffett, whom I've known for a long time because I grew up in Omaha where he still lives, has been amazing and extraordinary. And I don't share some of the loathing of every-- each and every billionaire that some of my political friends and allies share.

He has been extraordinary. And not only has he said that that, oh, I should pay as much taxes as a percentage as my secretary, as he has said many times. He also said, as I talk about in the book, in 2005 and 2006, he said a couple of times in big interviews that got some attention at the time that, yes, there has been a class war. You conservatives are talking about how the left such as it was is fighting a class war.

There's been a class war, and it's my side. It's the rich people, and we're winning. And we shouldn't be. And he said that again and again. And I remember at the time thinking, wow, good for Warren. Yeah, right. But that's just hyperbole, isn't it? And really at that moment is when I began thinking and reading and studying more. And it ended up in this book, you know, "Geniuses" but realizing that it wasn't just a poetic notion.

There really was, had been since the 1970s, a kind of class war on the part of the rich to transform the economy. And in every, you know, graph you look at or of the history of how economic growth continue going, productivity kept rising. And, yet, all boats stopped rising together all at once around 1980. And it wasn't by accident.

ANDY SERWER: So I'm glad you mentioned the Omaha connection to Warren Buffett because I was going to ask you about that. So tell us about when you met him or first met him. Are you still in touch with him? I mean, everyone in Omaha almost know each other or something.

KURT ANDERSEN: Well, yeah, because it's only a half a million people live in a city. And but my parents were friendly with him and unfortunately not friendly enough to invest money with him. But they were friendly. And I really didn't-- I got to know him a little bit when I was older.

For instance, I wrote him a letter when I and my friend Graydon Carter were starting "Spy" magazine in 1986, asking if he wanted to invest in "Spy" magazine. And he wrote me back and very nicely declined and saying, no, I don't invest in startups, well, that kind and so forth.

Anyways, then we run into each other over the years. And he's always really nice to me and always says nice things about my mom, my late mother and stuff. And so he's-- you know, he's great. And, again, in terms of a decent rich guy who eh, as you say, he's been-- he's been terrific.

But he also, he in his old school investment strategy of investing in companies for the long haul and letting them run themselves and all that stuff, really, this pre-1980 way of investing in regarding the system, again, that to me is much closer to optimal than the cut and run private equity-driven system and day trading investors without any commitment to anything that we-- that we've developed since.

ANDY SERWER: I had no idea that Warren Buffett might have been an investor in "Spy" magazine. I'm still processing that, Kurt. So "Spy" magazine, you know, for those people who don't know it, it was this amazing publication that spawned all kinds of careers and started all kinds of trends in journalism. And I was a huge fan.

One maybe the most enduring element was your nickname of the current president of the United States. And so you've been-- and we'll get to it. And you've been covering Donald Trump for decades now because of that. And so talk to us about the nickname that you came up for the president-- how you got it and all that.

KURT ANDERSEN: Well, Donald Trump-- so "Spy" magazine was this satirical monthly magazine, started this small New York focused thing in 1986 and very quickly was in its way, very successful very quickly and became a national magazine. We had hundreds of thousands of readers and subscribers.

So as I say, it was a satirical magazine. So we had our targets and our recurring subjects. 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 being one of those 10. And, by the way, in the little write up on him in that first issue, he was talking about how he could be 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 he knows now. So, you know, on past is preface. So we call-- we in [INAUDIBLE] we for our recurrent subjects, whether it was Donald Trump or Henry Kissinger or whomever-- people we talked about regularly-- we created sort of epithets that we repeatedly attached to them once we settle on one only and called them that again and again and again.

Graydon and I had both worked at "Time Magazine." We're both working at "Time Magazine" at the time. And back in the day before our day. "Time" had had such epithets that they always back in the '40s and '50s that they referred to people as. So we thought, oh, that's funny. We'll do this kind of corny old fashioned things.

For instance, Henry Kissinger, we called socialite war criminal Henry Kissinger every time I referred to him. And Donald Trump, we tried various nicknames. And none of them stuck. And, you know, Queens born casino operator Donald Trump-- various kinds. Then we in 1988, we came up with short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump. And we knew we had a winner and kept at it and kept calling him that.

And that was based simply on the fact that Graydon as right before we were starting "Spy" had gone to interview Trump for a profile he was writing and came back to our little not even an office at the time, barely an office, and said, you know what. This guy, yeah, he's a big guy. He is 6 feet, almost as tall as I am, he said. But he's got the tiniest little fingers I've ever seen.

So ah, then when-- and, of course, he's a vulgarian. So when the time came to dream up a nickname, short-fingered vulgarian worked, and it stuck. And you say I studied Trump or covered him for years. I did-- certainly it's "Spy." But then from 1993 to 2015, not so much.

But then he came back. And then suddenly in a debate in 2015 with Marco Rubio, there they were, two candidates for president, arguing about whether his fingers were long or short and what it meant about his manhood and the rest. And I just felt like I was having an acid flashback at the time.

ANDY SERWER: Are you surprised that he's president?

KURT ANDERSEN: Ah, ha, that's so hard to say, Andy, at this point 4, 3, almost four years into it. Yes, it is. It remains to me a kind of amazing like, stuck in a nightmare, stuck in an acid trip surprise. I'm-- I can't say I wake up every day surprised. But something like some cousin of surprise, yes.

And even though this last book of mine that I mentioned, "Fantasyland" of which he became a kind of poster boy, I wrote and finished before he was even nominated. If he hadn't been nominated, if he hadn't run for president, let alone be elected. I probably wouldn't have mentioned him in the book. Maybe I would have. Maybe, but probably not. So I-- so I saw what was happening to the country that made it so right to elect such a preposterous monstrous person.

But that doesn't mean I wasn't still surprised when he was elected, given that, you know, back in 1988 when we thought he was a joke and-- and took national polls asking people if they wanted Donald Trump to run for president, because even back then, he was flirting with that notion. We thought it was just-- it was funny. It was a joke. It was he was a cartoon character, and he was fun to make fun of.

ANDY SERWER: Do you understand, Kurt, that some people watching this might be deeply offended by what you're saying, maybe call you a long-fingered liberal or I don't know what--

KURT ANDERSEN: Yes, they might. And both, all those-- both-- all of those adjectives are correct.

ANDY SERWER: OK, leave that alone. But what is it? I mean, 30%, 40% of America loves this man.

KURT ANDERSEN: Yeah, yeah. Well, and 30% or 40%-- I would say 30% love him, and another 10% or 15% will vote for him would be my estimate. Then there are my evil geniuses who don't love him, by and large, who-- who understand that this is the guy they got who there-- who the hoi polloi in their right wing coalition love. And, therefore, they're stuck with him.

And as long as he gives them a $2 trillion tax cut, as he did in his one legislative accomplishment in 2017, and as long as he is a ferocious anti-regulation guy and really serves them in every way, except they don't like tariffs so much but will live with that, they're good by him.

So but what does it mean, the, you know, 30% really do love him? It's, you know, 30% of America believes all kinds of things, are strange and kooky and misguided in all kinds of ways. So, yeah, they managed to elect a president. And that's strange and phenomenal and a milestone. But what are you going to do?

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, I mean, that's how it sort of ties into the book, right? I mean, that it speaks to people believing things. I mean, and maybe people believe Donald Trump, literally every single thing he says, I think that the president himself has said, hey, some of this is hyperbole, right?

KURT ANDERSEN: I don't know that he says that anymore. He said it-- well, rather, Tony Schwartz, his first ghostwriter, said it when he wrote Donald Trump's first memoir back in 1987. I don't-- he says, oh, I was joking. Or he doesn't say, as some people have said about him when he was running, oh, don't take me literally, but just take me seriously. He doesn't quite know the difference or care about the difference. And if he-- you know, he always gives himself the option of saying, oh, no, no, no, I was just joking, if he sometimes goes too far.

But he-- it's-- it is a-- it's just a show, sure, but he's also president of the United States, hurting and ruining many human beings' lives in various ways. So you know, you have to take him literally-- potentially literally-- always and for sure seriously always.

ANDY SERWER: So this notion that Americans historically have believed in things you don't understand, to quote a Stevie Wonder song I guess, right? But it's-- there's-- it's a more dangerous world now, Kurt, because of social media, arguably. And if you look at elements like QAnon, I mean, that's different from 30 years ago, right?

KURT ANDERSEN: It is. I mean, again, in fact, I talk about the kind of-- America's devolution into believing too many conspiracy theories to explain any bad thing that people think is bad started around-- 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, of not just social media back then but the internet. Once we had an internet and all kinds of preposterous conspiracy theories and preposterous ideas and, quote unquote, "facts" of all kinds looked legit. Look, I saw it on the internet. It looks just like "The New York Times." It looks real. It must be real. We were in trouble because that was a new condition.

You know, there have always been crackpots. There's always been conspiracy theories. And by the way, as I always stipulate when I talk about conspiracy theories, I understand some conspiracies really exist. However, most conspiracies-- conspiracy theories-- are not true, and many of them are insane, like QAnon.

But once we had the internet, this-- what had become this default fantasy instinct to explain everything in terms of conspiracies-- really got out of control and was-- took over more and more of the brain space, especially on the right-- not just the right because, you know, for things like-- the anti-vaccine movement at the beginning was more left than right. The 9/11 truthers at the beginning were more left than right. But it became more of a thing of the right.

And once you had this ability to conscript believers and then suddenly believers felt like, look, I'm not the only person who believes this, there are thousands tens of thousands, millions of us, it was a cascade out of control. And yeah, eventually, you're going to get to QAnon, where there are god knows how many believers and now Republican candidates for the House of Representatives who are QAnon believers, this utterly preposterous, constantly evolving, kind of collectively authored theory of everything.

That-- again, in many ways, it's not so different than the thing that existed when you and I were children, which is the John Birch Society, but they at least had a focus. It was Soviet Union, China, communism, anticommunism, you know, Dwight Eisenhower was a stooge of the communists and so forth. Now, that was ridiculous, and they were extreme. But not even-- but the conservatives at the time, like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater, stigmatized them, kept them over-- away from the party. These were-- we couldn't have these people. That's no longer the case.

And thanks to the internet, you know, you don't have to go to some little storefront in Bogalusa to be a member of the conspiracy believers, as the John Birchers did. You-- they're everywhere, and it's as accessible as your telephone.

ANDY SERWER: You know, you're on Twitter a lot, Kurt.

KURT ANDERSEN: I am. I am, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: So-- right, and so-- I am too much. I really look forward to the day that I'm done with it. And I don't know I can't say that-- like, that the day is today, but that's part of the whole attraction and that's a whole other conversation. Have you given much thought in terms of how Twitter and Facebook, just to name two, could police this stuff, stop it, or what do we need to do to Facebook and Twitter?

KURT ANDERSEN: Yeah, it's tough because it is a new situation. But-- and Twitter is making its efforts. You know, Facebook is a different beast because it's so all-encompassing. And so really, it's a monopoly. It is a monopoly, as is Google. So you have the problems of monopoly, which is one set of problems. But then in the case of Facebook, you have a founder and controller or CEO who has made it clear he is unwilling to make any meaningful attempts, really, to figure out how this new, incredibly powerful platform will not be worse for society and humanity than better.

And it seems pretty clear to me that it's a net bad right now. And I'm not saying it's easy. You don't want suddenly a, you know, government censor reading every post on Facebook or whatever. But it's a new thing. You know, as people have said, it's like a magazine or Yahoo Finance or a television network news division in terms of people get their news and information from it. But they forswear any responsibility for what is said or done on it, you know?

So OK, that's a new situation, and I get that it's hard when you're that big and X billions of users and all that. But that doesn't mean we don't have to try to figure out how to do that. And there are technical means. There are all kinds of means. And obviously, they have pursued some of them at Facebook. But their-- his slash their-- Mark Zuckerberg's and their basic corporate instinct seems to be no, we're not going to do that. We're really not going to do that. Let a million flowers bloom even if 643,000 of them are toxic, you know?

ANDY SERWER: Our opium poppies. And by the way, if you see any, give us a call, and we'll probably take those out.

KURT ANDERSEN: There you go. Exactly, exactly.


KURT ANDERSEN: Yeah, unless that particular opium plantation is paying us quite a bit of money to grow them.

ANDY SERWER: Right, right. Flipping back to Donald Trump for a quick question, Kurt-- or maybe a long one-- are you surprised that President Trump only paid $750 in taxes in-- two years in a row?

KURT ANDERSEN: Well, I'm surprised that he paid any. I'm surprised at the number, to tell you the truth. I mean, like, I really want the conversation with the accountant or the lawyer or whomever in which they decide, eh, $750. That's-- what?

So am I surprised he paid no taxes? I mean, specifically, no. Because again-- and I was looking back just the last couple of days because of this big "Times" article and set of articles at the coverage-- the investigative-- financial investigative journalism that probably did back 29 years ago about him, and it's the same story, right? I mean, it's 29 years earlier, so it's not, obviously, the same story. And there was no "Apprentice," which was really the place he's really made money over the years, but the same money-losing enterprises and using the tax systems' craziness to not have to pay taxes and all of it.

So no, you know, I mean-- and at this point-- and you asked earlier, does it surprise you that Donald Trump is president, yes and no. But nothing about his finances really surprises me. It would surprise me if he were paying-- it surprises me less that he paid $750 a year for two years than it would have if I'd read that he paid $30 million a year for the last few years. That would shock me.

ANDY SERWER: So a final question, Kurt, what are you up to next?


ANDY SERWER: --or now?

KURT ANDERSEN: I am working on a podcast history of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, this limited series that I'm into and interested in. I am working on a television project for Disney+ and with Jeff Goldblum. I-- and I'm trying to figure out what my next book is going to be.

ANDY SERWER: It sounds like a pretty full plate to me.

KURT ANDERSEN: It's a good plate. It's a fine plate. It-- it was really good-- it was personally pleasurable for me, for all-- despite all the tragedy and horror of this pandemic, to have had this book "Evil Geniuses" come out-- I was-- I finished it literally, like, the day before the pandemic. I finished it in early February.

So I had the last six months, seven months just to, you know, edit it and promote it and come and get to talk to people like you about it. So it's filled my time. It's filled my pandemic pretty nicely.

ANDY SERWER: Good thing. All right, keep spinning those plates.


ANDY SERWER: Kurt Andersen, author of the new book "Evil Geniuses, The Unmaking of America." Thank you very much.

KURT ANDERSEN: Thank you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you again soon.