Subscribe to the Intercepted podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and other platforms. New to podcasting? Click here.
While all eyes in Washington remain focused on the Russia investigation, a Republican firm forgot to secure its invasive personal data on 198 million American voters. This week on Intercepted: We speak to radical librarian Alison Macrina of the Library Freedom Project about the fight against digital surveillance. Sam Biddle gives an update on attacks on U.S. voting systems. And, we speak with one of the rising stars of the “dirtbag left,” Felix Biederman of Chapo Trap House, about #Resistance Twitter, why establishment Democrats are not leftists, and where he believes David Frum really belongs. Hint: not getting retweets from liberals.
Jake Tapper, CNN Host, “State of the Union”: I’m joined now by a member of President Trump’s legal team, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice. Good to see you, as always.
Phil Hartman as Lionel Hutz: Lionel Hutz, attorney at law. Here’s my card. It turns into a sponge when you put it in water.
JT: Should we take that tweet from the president as confirmation that the president is under investigation?
LH: Yeah, but what is truth, if you follow me?
JT: So, the president said, “I am under investigation,” even though he isn’t under investigation?
LH: There’s the truth . . . and the truth.
JT: Well, I wish it were that simple, but, you know, with all due respect, the president said, “I am being investigated” in a tweet, and — but you’re his attorney. You’re saying that the president, when he said that, was not accurate.
LH: Have you ever forgotten anything? Well, if you never forget anything, tell me this. What color tie am I wearing? I’m not wearing a tie at all!
JT: Okay. I mean, I don’t think it’s that simple, but I don’t think we’re getting anywhere, so let me move on. I mean, this must — is this not frustrating for you as an attorney to have a client that is sharing information with the world that’s not accurate?
LH: Don’t you worry. I’ve argued in front of every judge in the state, often as a lawyer.
[“Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” Warren Zevon]
I went home with a waitress
The way I always do
How was I to know
She was with the Russians too
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City, and this is episode 20 of Intercepted.
Male Reporter: Generally speaking, I mean, this conversation about a Russian interference in our elections, there’s 16 intelligence agencies that say that they did. The former FBI director said that without a doubt, the Russians have —
Sean Spicer: I understand. I’ve seen the reports.
Male Reporter: Uh, does the president share those views?
SS: I, I have not sat down and asked him about his specific reaction to them, so I’d be glad to touch base and get back to you, yeah.
Male Reporter: Didn’t you say it was fake news, Sean? Didn’t the president —
JS: Donald Trump and his inner circle have all lawyered up, and the investigation is moving forward into any potential wrongdoing relating to Russian officials potentially talking to members of the Trump campaign in the weeks and months leading up to the presidential election. There was a skirmish this past weekend over what Trump meant when he tweeted that there is an investigation into him, after he had just spent weeks and weeks claiming that fired FBI director James Comey had told him three times that there wasn’t an investigation into him. Watching Trump’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, on television over the weekend was at times just plain bizarre, and like a lot of things these days, sort of parallel universe-y.
Jay Sekulow: So, he’s being investigated for taking the action that the attorney general and deputy attorney general recommended him to take by the agency who recommended the termination. So, that’s the constitutional threshold question here, and that’s why, as I said, no investigation, because —
Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace: Well, I — what, what’s the question? I mean, you stated — you stated some facts. First of all, you’ve now said that he is being investigated after saying that you didn’t —
J. Sekulow: No.
CW: You, you just said, sir —
J. Sekulow: No, he’s not being investigated.
CW: You just said that he’s being investigated.
J. Sekulow: No, Chris, I said that the inve — anything — let me be crystal clear, so you completely understand. We have not received, nor are we aware of any investigation of the president of the United States. Period.
CW: Sir, you just said two times that he’s being investigated.
JS: While all eyes in Washington remain focused on the Russia investigation, the existence of yet another massive data breach came to light. It wasn’t so much of a breach as it was an apparent epic act of recklessness, carelessness. A California-based security researcher says that Republican-linked election databases were inadvertently exposed to the entire Internet, potentially violating the privacy of almost every single registered voter in the United States. This exposed information, we understand, contained the sensitive personal details of more than 198 million American voters. We do not know exactly how this happened, but it does appear to be some sort of a massive mistake. Joining me now to break this down is my colleague Sam Biddle. He’s the technology reporter for The Intercept. Sam, welcome back to Intercepted.
Sam Biddle: Glad to be here.
JS: So, this news that’s developing this week, that a Republican contractor’s database was left exposed on the Internet, and it’s upwards of a couple hundred million peoples’ data has been exposed — what’s the takeaway from this? What does it mean?
SB: Sure. So, very importantly, this isn’t a hack. There’s no evidence that this data was improperly accessed or stolen or downloaded or proliferated in any way. That doesn’t mean that no one did access it. It was not the result of a breach. Basically, someone left their front door open, and anyone with the URL could have downloaded terabytes of information detailing not just the demographic information of 198 million American potential voters, but their sort of ideological proclivities and leanings.
JS: Because it would show their voter registration.
SB: Yes, but actually, there was a lot more to it than just what was on paper. Using proprietary computer modeling, the details of which are a little sketchy, this company, Deep Root Analytics, actually had scored all 198 million people in the database on almost 50 different belief categories, like whether they support STEM, job training, or whether they, you know, would support the repeal of Obamacare, that sort of thing. So, really, not just your address and your age and your race, which again is sensitive enough on its own, but your opinions and your personally held beliefs.
JS: What were they basing that on?
SB: It’s a mixture of sort of educated guesswork and old-fashioned phone polling, you know, and focus group kind of work. A lot of it is extrapolated, so it’s not like they contacted or had actually gotten responses from 198 million people. It’s computer modeling, so it’s an algorithmic guess, basically. But the fact that it exists, I think, is surprising to most people, to know that they have tabs being kept on them.
JS: And, you know, the headlines, as I saw them, were focused on a Republican contractor’s database, was left exposed basically for anybody that wanted to walk up and access that information. But it’s not just Republicans or conservatives whose data was essentially made available to the public because of this — well, fuckup.
SB: Yeah, right. So, Deep Root doesn’t just work with the RNC. Their raison d’etre is to help target ads, TV ads. So, if you are ExxonMobil, and you want to make sure that people who are very skeptical of ExxonMobil are seeing your ads in order so that they could be convinced, you might turn to Deep Root Analytics so you would know exactly when to buy ads, where to buy them, so that you’re reaching exactly the eyeballs you want to.
JS: For everyday people listening to this, what’s the thing they should worry about, given that this front door was basically left open with a lot of what appears to be sensitive data about just under 200 million voters in this country?
SB: Well, it would certainly be a boon to anyone who has a streak for identity theft. I mean, personally identifying information is often parlayed into a greater identity theft attack. It would also help anyone who wants to undertake a spear phishing campaign. If someone knows that you are, you know, inclined to subscribe to the Sierra Club newsletter or something, and you get an email from them that’s actually from a hacker, you might be more inclined to click it. I think really, it’s more eye-opening in terms of, wow, I didn’t realize that all this stuff was being tracked about me, that the odds of this being — this resulting in an identity theft for one person among 198 million is probably on the lower end, but this should really be a wakeup call to how — what kind of data is being collected about us, how it’s being used, how it’s being sold, and why aren’t there more laws regulating this?
JS: Before I let you go, I wanted to just get a quick update from you. You were one of the four reporters that broke this big story based on this Top Secret NSA document that we got anonymously that showed Russian cyberattack efforts targeting software companies that provide services to the U.S. voting system. And our understanding of it at the beginning, this software was used in at least eight states.
But the Bloomberg news agency, after that story was published, started digging, and it looks now like it’s as many as 39 states that were using this software from VR Systems. Now, your role in that story, of course, was you were interviewing experts to get analysis on what the significance of the document was to this broader system, which is why I wanted to ask you what the significance of this Bloomberg reporting is, that it was used in 39 states.
SB: So, what’s incredible about the way America votes is how decentralized it is, and how little each state has to do with the state next to it in terms of how votes are actually tabulated, how voters are registered. So, the fact that one contractor could be used so extensively and be so vulnerable to outside threat, without really anyone noticing until it’s too late, is a big deal. And everyone I talk to highlighted that, that having a decentralized voting system, where there’s not just one entity collecting and tabulating all the votes, is a strength. In some ways, it’s harder to hack. But when it’s so decentralized and so unorganized, for lack of a better word, then it’s really worrying.
JS: What is the significance of the fact that there is no standard in this country — state to state, the states make their own decisions on what the standards are for the mechanisms and technology that are used for voting?
SB: Right. So, a big worry there is that because each state is going to do elections its own way, and each polling station is going to have differing levels of scrutiny and carefulness, it makes it easier for outside agents, you know, whether they be Russians, or Chinese, or anyone to get in there. It’s possible to penetrate a company, and it’s not like you’re taking on the FEC or something, right? These are small, relatively small organizations, small entities that are gonna have, you know, no more security precautions than any other small business, really.
JS: Right. And I think, and I’ve been saying this since that initial Top Secret NSA document story came out, that I think a lot of analysts, and many of them motivated by their own partisan concerns, are just looking at the Russian trees in a forest filled with voting system insecurities in this country. And the biggest takeaway for me on this is not that Russian military intelligence is trying to penetrate the systems of companies that service the election, but that our electoral system is highly vulnerable to hackers or intruders of a variety of stripes, including non-nation-state actors with not that great of phishing or hacking capabilities.
SB: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. I mean it may very well be that Russian military intelligence was just brazen enough to have been caught or noticed by the NSA. But the level of sophistication here would certainly not rule out nation-state actors from really any nation-state.
JS: Sam Biddle, thank you very much for joining us.
SB: Happy to be here.
JS: Sam Biddle is a technology reporter at The Intercept.
JS: Well, we talk a lot about hacking and cyber breaches on this program, and we do a lot of reporting on it at The Intercept. But in general in this society, not nearly enough attention is given to what ordinary people can and are doing to preserve their privacy. The Intercept recently launched a video series called “Cybersecurity for the People.” And it features our resident computer security engineer Micah Lee.
Micah Lee: Law enforcement at protests use tools to try and spy on peoples’ phones. If you get arrested, your phone might get searched. And so, if you’re going to a protest, the first thing that you should do to secure your phone is make sure that you lock it with a passcode, ‘cause when your fingerprint can unlock your phone, people can just take your hand and push it on your phone to unlock your phone. This isn’t true with a passcode. They need to actually have you cooperate.
JS: That was my colleague Micah Lee. You can see that video and all the others in this series, “Cybersecurity for the People,” at theintercept.com.
Now, among the groups in this country that are fighting to preserve peoples’ privacy, particularly online, of course, is the American Civil Liberties Union, but also, a lesser known group is doing incredibly important work, and that is the Library Freedom Project. That’s a partnership of librarians, technologists, attorneys, privacy advocates — all united in trying to confront and ultimately stop digital surveillance. We’re joined now by the founder and director of the Library Freedom Project, Alison Macrina. Alison, welcome to Intercepted.
Alison Macrina: Thanks for having me.
JS: Talk about the work that you do with the organization you founded, the Library Freedom Project.
AM: The Library Freedom Project is an organization that I started a few years ago that’s devoted to the promotion and protection of privacy and intellectual freedom, mainly in libraries. I started working on this when I was a librarian outside of Boston, Massachusetts. And when the Snowden revelations came out, I started thinking about the privacy problem much more deeply than I had before in a professional context. Librarians have a really great history of caring about privacy and fighting for intellectual freedom and all these wonderful democratic ideals, but what was different to me after Snowden was that obviously, we see now that the problem is much more massive. And I started hearing directly from members of my community about how they wanted to learn about protecting their privacy. So, it had a really bold effect on peoples’ feelings about their own Internet use. So, I had a personal interest in information security and in free and open source software. I was the technology librarian, so I had some tech background. And so, I started teaching some computer privacy classes. They got to be pretty big, and I, from there, decided to build something that was more of a “train the trainers” kind of operation for librarians.
So, I connected with my local ACLU, which was the Massachusetts affiliate. And so, we put together this little crack team of privacy people, and we basically made a little privacy roadshow. And we started going to libraries, teaching librarians about what they can do to protect their patrons; what’s going on in the courts with regard to surveillance law and policy; what the kind of corporate digital capitalism landscape is like; and then what are the tools that they can use and the best practices that they can employ to help members of the community protect themselves.
JS: And also, you’ve described yourself as a radical librarian, and had I not worked with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! I don’t think I would have known this kind of alternative history of librarians in the post-9/11 America, and how librarians fought against the Patriot Act — not just the passage of the Patriot Act, but once it was implemented, librarians coming up with creative ways to ensure the privacy of peoples’ records, of what they’d been reading and checking out of the library. I think of librarian, I think of good old Mrs. Stelsel, my librarian at my high school, who literally looked like the Church Lady.
Clarence: You’re not gonna like it, George.
George Bailey: Where is she?
Clarence: She’s an old maid. She never married.
GB: Where’s Mary? Where is she? Where is she?
C: She’s just about to close up the library!
JS: You know, you’re a young, radical activist, and it’s like young people going to be nuns. You really don’t see it all that often. And maybe this is just that I’m — I have a misconception about librarians, but I’m fascinated by the institution of librarian as freedom fighter. So, maybe talk about that kind of post-9/11 evolution in the field of library science.
AM: Well, I think just like nuns, you know, you only need to scratch the surface, and you find that there’s a really rich radical tradition with librarians, and I wouldn’t discount Ms. Stelsel so fast, right? I mean, part of the — part of what we enjoy, I think, as librarians, is this ability to be more unassuming radicals. The procession itself has always been pretty open to progressives and far leftists. Part of the reason I joined the profession is because of what you said about the Patriot Act. And I think a lot of — there was a real resurgence in interest in librarianship around that time. But that’s not at all where it began. I mean, you know, librarians have been fighting back against overbroad and unlawful government surveillance for decades. They were some of the staunchest opponents of the House on American Activities Committee. They wrote a fantastic document in defense of intellectual freedom and privacy called the Freedom to Read statement. And that was in the 1950s.
And so, part of why they’ve been kind of ignored in the landscape of all these activist issues is because they’re largely a female profession. They’re overworked and underpaid. They provide a lot of essential social services that have been cut in the last few decades. And so, they don’t have this really strong voice in the fight, but they’re doing the work on the ground, and they have been for a very long time.
JS: What do librarians think of sort of what’s happening with issues of privacy in our country? Not to mention basic literacy issues with our president, but that’s a different — that’s a totally different discussion.
AM: They’re concerned about the players, the adversaries in the erosion of privacy, what kind of effect they have on other intellectual freedom issues. For example, if digital capitalism is creating shadow profiles of all of us, it’s not just that it’s a problem because they’re collecting all this information about us. It’s a problem because now they have the ability to manipulate us on an individual level and at a broad — at a scale. They were also concerned about having a commons that’s free from corporate interference and from government law enforcement and intelligence agency malfeasance. One of the reasons why this makes so much sense to them is because that’s what the library really is. I mean it’s the only true public commons that we have. And they see the Internet as an obvious extension of that, but that it’s being tainted by all of these big powerful players who are trying to control it.
JS: I wanted to ask you, because I had the pleasure recently of watching one of your presentations about privacy. You and I both spoke at a wonderful Catholic church in New Jersey. And I really was kind of in awe, because you had a very mixed crowd. There were young tech-savvy people there, and there were also like very elderly people who are very engaged on a social and political level, and they are using the Internet, but not the most tech-savvy crowd or generation around today. But you gave a very accessible presentation for how people can protect their privacy and their communications. Can you give a kind of brief overview of how you talk to ordinary people about protecting their privacy, both on their computers, but also on their mobile devices?
AM: For the most part, ordinary people, nontechnical people, they have a really strong interest in learning this stuff, but no one has really taken the time to talk to them about it without using jargon or anything like that. I try to focus mainly on the things that I know that pretty much everybody can get a handle on. So, Signal is something that the barrier to entry is very low. I mean, in some ways, it doesn’t function as well as other messaging apps that folks might be used to using, but it’s getting better all the time, and it’s getting even more feature-rich. Like, it just added video calling. And so, in a lot of ways, Signal’s kind of a good gateway drug to other security tools because it’s so simple. It shows people that they can — if they take this one step, it’s doing a lot, and they’re capable of doing more. And then, I try to focus just on some best practices. And I want people to think about the relationship that they have to all these private companies and government entities that are collecting using their data.
When I really focus on these relationships, who these powerful entities are, how they’re trying to shape public opinion, what this information might be used for, especially in Trump’s America with a Sessions DOJ and the expansion of law enforcement and all this, that tends to be mostly what people kind of come for. You know, they want to know who’s behind all this stuff. And in a lot of ways, I think when you help them understand the landscape, they’re more willing to take the steps. ‘Cause usually, it was just like their nephew, who has a computer science degree, who made a bunch of changes to their computer that they didn’t understand, and they don’t want to use any of it because they don’t get why it matters or anything like that.
JS: What’s your broader advice to people, given that you mentioned Jeff Sessions, but also the — you know, what we already know about the surveillance state, about the FBI. What — in general, what would you advise people that are working on immigration issues, race issues, anti-war issues? Like, what are the most important things for people to be aware of and consider on a technical digital communications level?
AM: We really have to take some steps to secure our information now, given what we know is likely to happen in the very near future, because it’s very hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube after that. I would also say, though, that it is possible to make yourself more secure against these adversaries. And it really — it depends a little bit on which ones you’re most concerned about. You know, some people, their fears might be the Sessions DOJ, and what that means in terms of law enforcement’s ability to subpoena information from your carrier or from private companies. Some people might be more worried about the private data collection, the Robert Mercers of the world. That kind of, you know, big data, billion-dollar operations that are creating shadow profiles on everyone and using it to manipulate public opinion. But we need to start thinking about this stuff. And it is definitely possible to make some changes in our behavior and protect ourselves, but we can’t proceed as if these things are not threats to our movements, because, you know, you create enough chaos, and you totally disassemble the movement. That’s what COINTELPRO was all about, and we have — the capabilities that exist now really put COINTELPRO to shame.
JS: What’s your assessment of the security of the data that the president of the United States is walking around with, based on what we publicly know about Trump’s social media habits and the devices he uses?
AM: [Laughs] You know, the only way that it could be worse, I think, is if he had one of those exploding Samsung phones, you know?
AM: Like — and he might, honestly. I don’t actually know what the make of his Android phone is. But Android is the insecure mobile platform. I highly doubt that he’s giving that thing over to somebody to run updates. Frankly, I’m shocked that no one has hacked his phone yet, given his practices you know.
JS: Well, but they actually may have.
AM: They may have, right.
JS: I mean, hacks aren’t always announced in real time.
AM: That’s true.
JS: We’ve joked that the password is probably all caps, just ‘AMERICA.’ But it also — it could be, like he — maybe somebody told —
JS: [Laughs] Misspelled, right. But it could be that somebody said, hey, you need a passphrase, and one that you really, really can remember. So, now it could be “Grab ‘em by the pussy.”
AM: Right, right, right, right.
JS: Now, would that be a secure, if he made the ‘S’ into a dollar sign, the ‘G’ was capitalized, then he used ‘E-M’ instead of ‘them,’ would that be a secure passphrase?
AM: You would need some more entropy. Another way to think about that is randomness. And so, you know, for Trump to have a truly secure passphrase, I mean, one of the things he’d have to start with is nothing identifiable to him. So, in some ways, a more secure passphrase would be like, ‘I love Barack Obama’ or something like that.
AM: You know? Because no one would ever — [laughs] don’t use that passphrase, people. It’s not secure.
JS: Wait, so, but if Trump — okay, let’s say — so, you’re talking to Trump, and you’re trying to come up with a passphrase. But it also has to be one that he can remember. So, let’s say he thinks it’s really funny, your suggestion, because of course, he doesn’t love Barack Obama, the Muslim from Kenya.
JS: And he says, “Okay, I want a way to use the passphrase ‘I love Barack Obama’ to, like, secure my — you know, my Twitter account.” Put aside for a second two-factor verification. Let’s just talk about that passphrase. I love Barack Obama. What should he do to kind of spice it up to make it more difficult for somebody to guess or to have a machine rapidly guess that password?
AM: Really, the way to make a secure and memorable passphrase, you want to use something called the Diceware method. Sometimes it’s called the XKCD method because it’s based on a comic that XKCD published about how terrible everyone’s passwords are. So, you need a die, just a regular six-sided die. 20-sided die — I’m sorry, nerds — will not work. And you need the Diceware wordlist. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has actually made a really great version of the Diceware wordlist. And it’s basically about — it’s a list. It’s a little less than 8,000 words long. And every word has a corresponding five-digit number. And what you do is, you take your die. You roll it five times. It gives you a number. Then you look on the list. You do a little control+F to find the number. When you find your five-digit number, you look next to it, and whatever that word is, that’s the first word in your passphrase. And so, you can memorize a string of four or five words much more easily than you can memorize a jumble of letters, numbers, and symbols. And it’s much more secure than what people typically do when they think they’re creating a strong passphrase, which is, you know, ‘I love Barack Obama,’ with all the vowels removed and replaced by numbers or symbols. That’s not actually that secure, and it’s pretty difficult to remember.
JS: All right, Alison, we’re gonna leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
AM: Thanks so much for having me.
JS: Alison Macrina is the founder and director of the Library Freedom Project. Coming up on the show, we’re gonna talk to one of the founding hosts of the popular podcast Chapo Trap House, Felix Biederman. We’re gonna talk about Twitter, the Democrats, Saudi Arabia, and much more. Stay with us.
[Chapo Trap House theme music]
JS: Okay, we are back here on Intercepted, and as many of you who listen to this show probably know, I love Twitter. Well, I shouldn’t say I love Twitter. I use Twitter actively, and I have from very early on. But I have to say that Twitter is a vile cesspool that many of us continue to willingly swim in all day, every day. Donald Trump certainly spends a disproportionate amount of his presidency tweeting about what he watches on television. Twitter is also a place that can win you immediate gratification. “Oh, everybody loves me. Look at how many retweets I have. Look at how many likes I have.” It can also subject you to a massive group pummeling of shame. This contradictory terrain of Twitter also brought together a ragtag crew of millennials who created and host the popular podcast Chapo Trap House.
Will Menaker: Obama gave this press conference the other day where he was like —
Matt Christman: Oh, where the libs were like —
Amber A’lee Frost: Oh my god, yeah, yeah.
MC: He’s gonna kick the door open and be like, “Yo, yo, motherfuckers.”
Felix Biederman: I love how they — like, they just betray their racism when they talk about Obama. They’re like, “I can’t wait until he comes in there and he has a fresh new fade.” And it’s like, what are you talking about? Fucking weirdo.
AF: Well, he’s not the black person of your fantasy, Tim Wise.
FB: Yeah, Tim Wise was like, he’s gonna on there, and he’s gonna look directly in the camera and say, “Mr. Putin, you bitch motherfucker.” Also, “Tim Wise can say the N-word.”
JS: On their show, they shred both Democrats and Republicans. They take on the so-called elite media and the punditocracy in this country. But they also engage in deep dive analysis of weird Twitter personalities and Twitter beefs. They also have shown a remarkable ability to predict the outcome of electoral races. And the show is not as simple as to be able to just categorize it as one thing. And what they definitely do all the time is piss people off. In fact, one of my favorite articles on Chapo Trap House was published last year by the conservative Catholic publication First Things. It was an article titled, “Christians Stay Away from Irony Bros.” And here’s a passage from that piece.
“The Chapo guys are just as willing to attack the Clintons for their neoliberalism, or the audience of Hamilton for enjoying a self-flattering, wiggish retelling of history as they are to attack mainstream conservative pundits. They are just as likely to envision in detail the violent deaths of pundits on the left, as they are to envision in detail the violent deaths of pundits on the right. All of which is okay because it’s ironic, and because anyone who espouses any political or economic theory that has even a hint of neoliberalism is a hypocritical hack who deserves nothing but scorn. Like Holden Caulfield, the Chapo guys believe everyone is phony. Unlike Holden Caulfield, they are sometimes witty. No one escapes their destructive gaze.” Joining me now is one of the original hosts of Chapo with that destructive gaze, Felix Biederman. Felix is also a freelance writer. Welcome to Intercepted.
Felix Biederman: Thank you for having me, Jeremy.
JS: I can’t recall an analogue to what has sort of happened with you guys. I mean, it’s sort of — obviously, there’s some bit of it that’s uncharted territory, but, you know, you guys have been written up in The New Yorker. You’ve had the rightwing Catholic publication First Things basically say that you’re corrupting the young minds of America with your show. What do you make of all this attention, both the negative and the fact that you have so many people that actually like what you do?
FB: I think two things are going on. I think for one, podcasts are one of my favorite pieces of media to consume because if you like the people doing it and you think they’re interesting and funny and everything, it’s like you’re just listening to a great conversation with your friends. Most conversations we have are like people bitching about traffic, or like, how there are no bathrooms in Midtown or something. But for people who are a bit dislocated socially, which is very common nowadays — we live in a really isolated, fraught times for very many people, especially young people that listen to this. They’re uncertain about their future. They’re uncertain about what they’re supposed to do, because everything that seemed to work for their parents and even older siblings, it’s not there for them. And things are more socially atomized than ever. But if you can put your headphones in and you can listen to this conversation, you can laugh, you can smile; you can feel engaged with something on this personal level that you wouldn’t quite feel in an article.
And I think on the other hand, both many parts of the left and everyone who is now mad at us, they thought, “Well, these people are never really gonna be close to power, but they’re right about their prescription, the problems. They’re all very funny and cool to talk to.”
And then I think after Sanders and after Cobyn and after — when you see a group of people that goes from like, “This is sort of silly but it’s cute, I like these people,” to “This is something that people really identify with. And they are gonna take action based on it. They are gonna vote a certain way. They are gonna organize a certain way,” it becomes very scary. To make leftism fun is, I think, very scary for some people. And the fact that we have this thing that is successful, people do see it as a bellwether in a way that I do not.
JS: But it also inspires this sort of almost deranged ire from the hash tag known as #theresistance —
JS: On Twitter. Like, what do you make of that phenomenon? Not just like the, you know, Keith Olbermann wrapped in an American flag, you know, for his glamor shots.
FB: Well, it was originally a Syrian Arab Army flag. They had to Photoshop it. Probably from my collection.
JS: But it is like self-parody, except they don’t get it.
JS: But what do you make of that sector of Twitter? Because of course, they loathe you. But it’s — you know, they loathe us too.
JS: I mean, what — like, what do you make of the people that actually, without kidding, use the hash tag #theresistance?
FB: I don’t think we’re like waking every — anyone up, but I think to hear us, to say, like, we think imperialism is evil. We think that many core characteristics of this country, of our society are sick, and that there are — we have a lot of work to do. Things aren’t great. Things are heading to be even worse if we don’t fix some of these systemic things. If you see that and it’s successful, and you have your set of solutions that you think are kind of easy, and it’s this club, it’s this cultural thing where you watch Sam Bee and you share these wordy memes, and you’re the resistance, and it’s very pithy and smug, and you have these established power structures you can go to: I think it is scary when there’s a very loud voice saying, “It’s not this easy,” and a lot of stuff is fucked up.
JS: But what I’m getting at is that there is a sort of one voice that — it’s almost like this big organic, ever-evolving meme online, where you have people that have this kind of cultish notion that it was Hillary’s turn, and anyone who didn’t get that is Team Putin.
JS: You know, Jill Stein is, you know, the Green Party candidate. We just had her on recently. We got bombarded with hate mail about that. But, you know, basically anybody who wasn’t waving the Hillary flag has been portrayed as responsible for the ascent of Trump.
FB: It’s — I mean, when prophecy fails, right? Before the election, they were all browbeaten, like, “You fucking idiots. You have no impact on this. She’s gonna crush Trump without you. Fuck you. You’re a loser. Bernie’s a loser, you’re a loser.”
And then when she doesn’t win, suddenly we’re all-powerful. All the people that said we were like a two-bit operation before the election, now come at me screaming, saying we lost it for Hillary. Like we even have 50,000 listeners in Wisconsin. Probably not that at all, but those people, they go into such psychosis about us and you guys because it’s like, well, if you were saying America is already great, and we’re, you know — we’re better than Trump. All these insane things. You know, I was just thinking about when people were saying if Hamilton could see Trump. What? He would — the guy who had all these friends and owned slaves, he would think Trump’s too racist? But you believe this myth about America, and the world, and your own beliefs. And when it fails, you will make any enemy much more powerful than they actually are. But because their perfect plan fell apart, and America and the world is revealed to be not what they said it is, it has to be everyone conspired against them. You know, the day after the election was so instructive for me because we were heartbroken, but at the same time, we were like, well, we’ve got work to do. For us, it was to go after the people that lost this for the DSA. They just fuckin’ went out there and organized.
JS: You refer — Democratic Socialists of America.
FB: Democratic Socialists, yeah.
JS: Which is going through a renaissance right now.
JS: After years of kind of lying dormant, you have a lot of young people that are organizing under the banner of DSA.
FB: Right. They were like, well, this sucks, but we’re gonna work even harder now. And they tripled their membership. The left hit the ground running on November 9th, and these people were just like — they retreated into fantasy. They thought that like, we would declare the election void. Looking for signs in Hillary tweets. And it was like, they think that because we — everyone on the left started working, that they planned this somehow, or that they’re not distraught by this. They don’t think it’s a big deal. When the opposite is true. We think it’s a fucking disaster, even if we think that many of the things Trump’s doing are just extensions of problems we said existed.
JS: It’s quite remarkable. I mean, anyone that knows the history of the former member of the British Parliament, Louise Mensch —
FB: Oh, she’s great.
JS: You know, sees the kind of ridiculousness of the embrace of her now by the Resistance.
JS: What’s your analysis of the kind of — I don’t want to even say rise — of the kind of presence of Louise Mensch now in our lives in this country?
FB: I think something very interesting happens with Trump, where he immediately absolves all these fucking monsters, be they David Frum or Louise Mensch. You know, look at stuff Louise Mensch has said about immigrants. Like, Jesus. It’s as bad as Trump. Sometimes even worse than things he’s said. I think that what goes on with some of these Resistance people is they don’t like that the mask is off with Trump, and they want to rehabilitate the neocons and just any more polite or well-read revanchists, like Mensch or someone. They want to go back to that being the opposition, because things were easy then. They could pretend like a lot of these systemic problems didn’t exist. And I think a lot of the most dumb shit they say is actually very instructive, like when they go, “Well, at least George Bush was a patriot.” What the fuck does that mean? What the fuck does that mean? Did — like Trump is going in there, and he’s like, “Well, time to destroy America.”
Liberals love these intentions. They love saying that JFK didn’t really want to go in Vietnam, no matter what he actually did. They love saying that at least Bush cared, even despite the hundreds of thousands of dead bodies he piled up in the road that he paved for Trump. But they want that to be their opposition because they don’t like politics as a brutal contest of power and the allocation of resources.
JS: Well, and there’s that beautiful picture of Bush hugging Michelle Obama. I mean, you know, the other day, I tweeted, “I wonder which reprehensible Trump administration official will later, you know, lead the resistance?” And Eric Boehlert, who is, you know, one of the — he’s up there with Eric Garland from Media Matters — he of course didn’t quote tweet it because he didn’t want me to see the mention, but he screengrabbed my tweet, and then he said, you know, “I’m gonna get this one framed.” And then it had come into my timeline somehow, and I responded to him, you know, “You can frame it right next to your commemorative copy of David Frum’s Axis of Evil speech and one of George Bush’s paintings from your personal collection.”
JS: And it’s like, I mean, they really don’t get it. And then, you know, I was bombarded with people saying, you know, like, “Well, so what? We’re not supposed to welcome people like David Frum when they’re right about something?” And it’s — that is the — that’s the whole narrative. I mean, Dick Cheney is one of the most evil people to ever walk the globe, and he fucking literally shot someone in the face.
JS: But it’s like, if Dick Cheney just sort of like inadvertently in passing made some critical remark of Trump, they would roll out the red carpet for him in the so-called Resistance.
FB: Yeah, and they don’t get it. They think that you’re saying like, everyone who opposes Trump is bad. When in reality, you’re of course saying, like, these associations — these people paved the path for Trump. They’ve done horrible things. They should probably be in fucking prison. Why are you rehabilitating them? This is not better than Trump, the person you’re associating with. But it’s like they have trouble comprehending that because politics isn’t policy, or allocation of resources, or power for them. It’s a set of manners and cultural signifiers.
So, for you to say that, they see that, and they’re like, “Oh, Jeremy, of course. The Intercept bros don’t get what politics is.” It’s when you go on an epic monologue against Trump and he’s not president anymore, and we have Orrin Hatch in there, who does largely the same shit, so — but then we feel better. They don’t get the cause and effect thing, because they think Trump’s an aberration. They think Trump’s an aberration, so they think any conservative that they pick is like — will bring us back to the path we should have been going on.
But since they’re completely revisionist in their understanding of history, and because they don’t see wars as being a moral problem. Which is really insane when you think about it. It used to be World War I and World War II and Vietnam, they sort of dispelled peoples’ notions of war as this noble enterprise. People always thought their country did the most moral things in war. But I think that because wealth is so stratified, and these people like a Bollier, or someone, they probably don’t know a lot of people who have had to go into the military because they couldn’t afford anything, because we mostly stick with people of our own classes now. We’re a very gilded age. And because we know so few people that went into war, and the voices who we do hear — what’s the liberal voice on the left? It’s someone who’s like, “I went to war, sir. Donald Trump, you didn’t serve your country, bitch. I did. I killed all these people.” Like, it’s — it’ll be like someone who went to Vietnam, and it’s like, why are we celebrating this? We did awful things over there. But they think war is like a noble pursuit, and that we do it morally.
JS: Right. And a scumbag in a coma is still a scumbag. And, you know, I think part of this sort of fake notion that when people die — I mean, I’ve joked on your show before that, you know, I want to do a segment on this called, “Piss on Their Graves,” like when Henry Kissinger dies. I mean, I don’t —
FB: He might outlive all of us, though, that fucker.
JS: [Laughs] He could, yeah. He is like Yeltsin in a way. Well, Yeltsin, I think, is still — he and Ariel Sharon are in, like, the two cryogenic chambers next to each other.
FB: [Laughs] Yeltsin was like pickled in alcohol, but Sharon was — he woke up from his coma that he got because he was just morbidly obese. And to celebrate it, like at the press conference they had at the hospital, he literally ate an entire bag of chips in front of reporters. And like, within weeks, went back in the coma. [Laughs] It was hilarious.
JS: What do you make of this — the kind of politeness police are out in force because of this shooting that happened at the Republican practice for the Congressional baseball game? And, you know, Representative Scalise of course is a total scumbag on the core issues that lead to things —
JS: Like mass shootings, but it’s like no one is allowed to point out the obvious, which is that the very policies on guns in particular that many of these Republicans hold, that that’s at the root of why these kinds of shootings happen and why he is in the condition that he’s in. The fact is that Paul Ryan and his cabal in the Congress, they love the idea that, you know, white men can have as many guns as they want in this country. I mean, what do you think about that concerned trolling from the establishment media on the issue of when bad people die or when they are critically injured?
FB: It’s funny how we’re pretending like everyone in Congress is brave, like we made them troops because one of those assholes got shot. Like, you didn’t even die. Like, why are we making them — they have healthcare and resources and protection none of us — most of us could never even fucking imagine. And I got quote tweeted, and the guy said, “Oh yeah, he deserves to die for being a Republican.” And I looked at who quoted me. It was a Nazi with a swastika avatar. [Laughs] I was like, “Yeah, that sucks when you make light of peoples’ deaths, serve harm to them. We should really be more civil.” But I think it has something to do with conceptions of violence, like, shit Scalise or Paul Ryan or Nancy Pelosi, for that matter, does to people. It’s violent. It’s violent to fucking rip away peoples’ healthcare, to make them go bankrupt to get care, to do all these massive wars, to make it easier for people who shouldn’t have guns to have guns, to militarize the police — all this shit that directly kills people. But because it’s politics, because we have this idea of politics as a civil enterprise with just competing cultural signifiers, we’re like, oh, it’s a game. The Republicans won the game this time, but that’s no reason you should hate them.
But, you know, Trump’s a Russian traitor, but for some reason, the people in his party that enable him vote for his agenda, aren’t? I don’t know how that works, but we shouldn’t act like he’s some fucking hero or martyr for civility. He’s a piece of shit. He experienced the rational outcome of policies he has supported, and he regularly commits violence against millions of people. And I don’t really want anyone to die. I don’t want political assassinations. I think that’s bad. But the fuckin’ toothpaste is already out of the tube, so to speak. We live in a violent system. And yeah, you know what? We fuckin’ passed AHCA, which pieces of shit like Steve Scalise voted for. And the thought that you can — just having a fucking joint press conference with Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan, two people that everyone fucking despises —
Nancy Pelosi: So, tomorrow, we’ll go out on the field. We’ll root for our team. We want everyone to do his or her very best. And we will use this occasion as one that brings us together and not separates us further.
FB: Like that’s gonna bring civility back, when they — their future is gone. They’ll go bankrupt if they get a fucking MRI. And they can just buy a gun, but they can’t even see a therapist? Like that’s gonna do anything?
JS: The story that you wrote about Saudi Arabia, which, you know, was excellent, came out —
FB: Thank you. December, yeah. December of last year.
JS: Right. It was called, “Your App Isn’t Helping the People of Saudi Arabia,” and you wrote that for Deadspin. And some people may have a cartoonish view of you. And I say cartoonish not in a demeaning way, but that they think that your entire existence is being funny or being a comedy writer, or, you know, your personality on Chapo Trap House. But you actually have an incredible depth of knowledge on conflicts in the Muslim and Arab world, and you have a particular interest in Saudi Arabia. First question is just like, how did that come about? It does really seem like a disconnect between the personality that are in some of what you do, and then you write like a really serious article about Saudi Arabia.
FB: People think that like, if you’re a very ironic person, it means you don’t give a shit about anything. And I think the total opposite is true. I think that some of the most compassionate people I’ve known, you barely ever see them make a serious post. And I’m not saying I’m one of them, but it’s like — it’s a way that you can look at the horribleness of the world and not drive yourself fucking insane. Like, if you can look at everything all the time and be totally serious, I kind of doubt how much you care, because it really is a bunch of awful shit to look at. But as far as, like, my interest in Saudi Arabia, well, I was — you know, I was a child during the Bush years, and there were all of those great pictures of King Fahd and Bush like kissing. It was in the news a lot. It was a huge thing in the news. It was just so fascinating. You know, you’re told that there are no real monarchies left. But there is this one that’s not just like a king with a fair bit of power, like Liechtenstein. It’s absolute, total control.
Foreign policy has always been more interesting to me, and because I think it’s a moral problem. I think it’s insane that we don’t think of the death and oppression that we enable and that we see all over the world as a moral problem. And I — just sort of by being online, and kids being savvy enough to use proxies and stuff, I’ve been lucky enough to meet the acquaintance of a lot of Saudis. And it’s easy to look at these countries, it’s easy to get in this trap of a sort of imperialist mindset, especially if you live in America, where you’re like, Saudi Arabia is evil. Most of the people there, they know what’s going on. When in reality, it’s a totalitarian state, and I’d say most of the people living there, that’s how they experience it. And it was, you know, something that happened in the last three years. Talking to these people made me see the reality and nonstop horror and fear that they live in.
And it started out as a thing about how I noticed that a lot of like Gulf accounts would dox people. Would dox people who were atheist or migrant workers. And it became, just from talking to them — they were the — peoples’ lives were really fuckin’ sad. There’s very little writing about what peoples’ lives are like over there. It was really heartbreaking. A lot of these kids who have to hide their identities to even talk about their identities as LGBT, or religious minorities, or atheists, or especially migrant workers. That’s the worst thing you can be over there: a migrant worker who speaks out. They’re often suicidal. They don’t feel like they can trust anyone. It’s a fucking awful existence. They’re often just killed by sometimes family members or the state, or just any extralegal process.
But, you know, you go to their pages. It’s not like, you know, fuck me, what is the point of my life? Which is completely understandable. Like, I feel like I would do that. But you go to them, and it’s just all solidarity. It’s solidarity with the Palestinians. It’s solidarity with black Americans being killed by the police. And it’s like, even under their experience, they see that these struggles are interconnected, and that all oppression is interconnected, and that they would have every right in the world to just talk about their situation. But they don’t. It made me want to kind of tell their story, because it is — as horrible and sad as it is, and how much it makes you feel about your own country because we’ve backed so much of this up, it also does kind of make you feel hopeful that even in a — where they don’t even really have full Internet access, can see the world in a much clearer vision than a lot of people here.
JS: Final question. Do you think Trump is — is he gonna finish a term as president?
FB: Ah, that’s a good question. I mean, I —
JS: Not really, but go ahead. You can answer it.
FB: No, I mean, like it’s — I oscillated on it. I oscillated on it. Any week you ask. Like, you remember when he was — right before he went to Saudi Arabia, and it’s like everything happened? It was right after Comey, Jared. They hit Jared with a backchannel to the Russians shit. And he tweets out like, “It’s almost time for my big trip.” [Laughs] “Protecting Americans’ interests is what I like to do.”
FB: And it was just like very normal. “I’m a normal president, everybody. Everything’s going great.” Now, when I saw that, I was like, oh, he’s fucked. He’s gonna like, not be president on the flight back to America. But he just — he has a way of like, surviving. And I think that — I don’t know. I think he hates doing it. Every time you see him talk about Hillary, you have to think, like, he’s doing that because he’s so mad he has to do this job. He doesn’t want to do this shit. But he’s a quitter, but he’s also like a very spiteful person, so I think that he thinks if he quits, everyone’s gonna be like, “Ah, I told you he’s a fuckin’ — he’s full of shit. He’s not gonna do anything.”
And I think for Trump, it’s a contest between the two things. How stymied is he gonna get by all the fucking weird liars he hired, who — like Flynn, Jared, who, you know, even if there’s not like a Louise Mensch, she’s a Russian deep cell agent. There is something weird going on. Just, you get enough compromised people, something weird will go on. And how spiteful he is for everyone he feels like has doubted him.
I don’t know what will win out. He’s — I think its’ wrong to say he’s lazy, but he’s not good at the hard work he does unless it’s building buildings. And I can see him rationalizing it in his mind, like yeah, “I actually — I did everything I wanted to do. And then like, all my enemies got back at me at once.” I think it would be funniest if he quits like six months from now, it’s Pence, and then he primaries Pence in 2020. That would be the best outcome. It would be the funniest shit.
JS: [Laughs] Ah, Chelsea’ll beat ‘em both anyway.
FB: Yeah, yeah. Well, Chelsea unity ticket to unify the left.
FB: Chelsea Manning and Chelsea Clinton.
JS: All right, Felix, thanks so much for joining us on Intercepted.
FB: Thank you for having me. It was an honor.
JS: Felix Biederman is one of the founding hosts of Chapo Trap House. He’s also a freelance writer.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro. And our executive producer is Leital Molad. Rick Kwan mixed the show, and we had production assistance from Elise Swain. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. I’m gonna be gone next week, so my colleague Mehdi Hasan is gonna be filling in for me. I will be back on July 12th. Until then, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
FB: Thank you for having me, you Putin bros.