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'I don’t know why you wouldn’t be scared': Former Vice President Walter Mondale sounds off on Trump and Trumpism

Former Vice President Walter Mondale
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Former Vice President Walter Mondale: "[Trump] has an appalling record for using lies or near lies to draw outrageous conclusions … We can’t accept that."

Even amid the chaos and lunacy of the Trump moment, former Senator, former Vice President, lifelong Minnesotan Walter Mondale is usually an oasis of calm analysis and abiding confidence in the American experiment.

So I was a bit alarmed last week to discover, after Trump’s diatribe in Phoenix — which moved me from “horrified” to “scared” about where Trumpism is heading – that Mondale felt the same. We had spoken briefly by phone and commiserated about the speech, and he told me he was reeling from it, that watching it was “one of the worst hours of my life.” 

Note to Trump: When you are alarming even Walter Mondale, you need to tone it down and figure out how to do this very big, hard job that you somehow got yourself hired to do. Please.

I have always benefited from Mondale’s perspective, and I asked him the next day if we could have an on-the-record interview about how he sees Trump, Trumpism and the Trump moment. The quotes below are lightly edited for clarity and flow.

'Public officers have to be confronted with the truth'

I began by asking him what he found so disturbing about Trump’s Phoenix speech.

To just think that our great country has sunk to this level. After reading your piece, I thought that what you wrote was being felt and expressed and repeated all over the country. That speech didn’t end when he finished it. It’s been rattling around in people’s minds and still is.

When I pointed out that Trump had given a much calmer more rational-seeming speech the following day, he replied:

Yes, true. But he didn’t say in the second speech: ‘Look, I gave a bad speech yesterday. It wasn’t what I meant. I ask you to forget that speech and let’s gather together as a country.’ That would have been all right.

But instead, he leaves those two conflicting versions out there of what he’s thinking, and people are bound to be influenced by it. And I think the first speech is what he means.

The second speech, he’s reading it off the teleprompter and in a way that leaves it unclear whether he believes what he is saying or even whether he read it before he gave it.

A leader has to be held responsible for the result of what he says. The result of what he’s been saying is that our whole nation believes that he was supporting white extremism. Didn’t have anything bad to say about Nazis. That sort of thing. If he didn’t mean it, he should have corrected it in a way that makes it clear what he means. But that isn’t what happened.

[Trump] has an appalling record for using lies or near lies to draw outrageous conclusions and that’s what he did there. We can’t accept that. This nation has to be based on truth and facts. And our public officers have got to be measured against a standard of what’s necessary for a healthy America.

Mondale went to the Senate during the administration of Lyndon Johnson and has known all recent presidents (Trump excluded), especially Jimmy Carter, of course, whom Mondale served under as vice president. I asked him how the current incumbent was different from the others he has known. His reply was about the importance of truth and freedom of the press:

Every previous president I’ve known has had the qualities of intelligence, curiosity, ability to speak clearly and be understood. And adherence to truthfulness.

Sure, sometimes they wiggle on the edges [of truthfulness], but over these years, we expected to hear the facts from our presidents, even if we might disagree with how they interpret them.

Ronald Reagan was my opponent [Mondale ran against Reagan in 1984]. But most of the time when he addressed the nation, he was still trying to deal with the truth as he saw it, even though I often disagreed with where he wanted to lead the nation.

Jimmy Carter sure tried to do it, to tell the truth as he saw it. And even those who disagreed would say that we were trying to do that. I was a senator and knew the rest of the senators, agreed with some more than others, but we believed that we could discuss things based on facts that stood up on a fundamental level of truth. That’s what I have come to expect from our leaders.

If we ever break that fundamental commitment, so that dishonesty and the rest are acceptable, I really worry about where we go next.

We have a president who doesn’t care about the facts. That’s new and very dangerous. Shocking, I would say.

And freedom of the press is a fundamental constitutional right in America. That right is a very sacred and essential part of the American system. The reason for that — and I was in public life for 50 years — is that our public officers have to be confronted with the truth, they have to know what the truth is, and their comments are part of the public process.

'I don't want to win this way'

I asked Mondale how he assesses President Trump’s grasp of his duties, and how the role of a president fits into the larger constitutional picture, and whether Trump was able to do the things necessary to advance his agenda, such as working with the Congress. His answer started with a one word sentence.

Appalling.

According to the papers, he and the majority leader barely speak. He goes to a state with two prominent senators [referring to the Phoenix speech and Trump’s treatment during it of Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake] and he won’t say their names. And they don’t show up.

He’s in a fight with several [Republican] members of the Congress and there’s no sense of direction at all. I think a lot of [Republicans] feel that he’s hurting them. Where’s our budget? The basic things you need to get the elements of governance in place. Never seen anything even close to this before.”

He’s smashing any coherent argument about what his own party stands for. It’s practically impossible to get anything done.

… When I was vice president, I spent a lot of my time up on [Capitol] Hill, sitting with members of Congress and explaining the things we wanted to do. The president personally did so, and I too, did a lot of work with people on the Hill. If you want to get anything substantial done you’ve gotta spend months, maybe years in some areas, to make it happen.

When [Pres. Trump] attacked the Republican leadership the other day and demanded that they pass all these things right now, all history should tell him that that’s not the way it works. His idea is that government should do what he tells it to do, but that’s not the way it works.

I asked Mondale whether found it somewhat of a relief — considering some of the things that candidate Trump promised to do — that he wasn’t actually getting much of it done.

I don’t want to win this way. I’d rather have an honest fight between the adversaries, under the rules on both sides, and see how it comes out.

'You’re right to be scared'

I asked whether Mondale had any thoughts about how this story ends. Does he take seriously the idea that Trump could be impeached or removed under the 25th Amendment (which requires a finding the president is so impaired to be unable to continue in office)?

I see more and more people are suggesting that he may be unstable, he maybe can’t perform the duties of his office. My guess is that we’re a long way from seeing anything like that happen. What might happen is that Trump might just quit.

I don’t know the man, so I shouldn’t pretend to know what he might do. But he’s been quoted as saying this job is so tough that people are asking him why he puts up with it. He’s been quoted as saying that the White house is a dump. And he looks like a very lonesome, unsettled man. He’s not close to the party. He’s not close to the Congress. I’m not predicting it, but what might happen is he’ll just quit and go home.

As for impeachment, while Republicans control both chambers, the pressure against that is just too difficult. Time could change that.

I lived through the Nixon period. A couple of years out from the impeachment period, you never heard a word about it. But eventually you started hearing voices from Republicans, like Barry Goldwater, telling him he’d better just go home. And he resigned. But Nixon was a brilliant man.

I said that I hadn’t been able to figure out what Trumpian qualities that I would call “brilliant.” Mondale interjected:

I’ll answer your question. You can’t find it, because it’s not there. I follow this guy as closely as I can and nothing rings true. He’s got some people there, mostly generals, who are maybe stable and strong that seem to be providing some stability but, boy, the rest of it is just a mess.

How bad could things get? I asked Mondale whether, in the aftermath of the Phoenix speech, he had noted former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s statement on CNN after the Phoenix speech that he, Clapper, who is also a retired Air Force lieutenant general, was concerned about the possibility that Trump might authorize a nuclear attack somewhere in the world. Mondale said he had seen Clapper’s statement.

[Clapper] has been at the very top of security structure. He said he was worried about that.

When Nixon was starting to lose it, some of the key national security people in his administration organized a deal to block him from doing anything crazy. I don’t have any idea whether any of those conversations are going now, but my guess is, If he keeps this up, security officials in his administration might have an informal understanding about getting together if there’s a crisis and talk things over.

To use nukes is not just another form of warfare. It’s existential. It can wipe out parts of the earth. It’s a cataclysmic event. It’s not just okay to do. And during some of the talk around North Korea, I thought there was some loose talk there about using nukes.

I reminded Mondale that Clapper was particularly concerned because the nature of the system is to be able, in a crisis, to quickly launch missiles once the president has ordered that it be done. (Mondale, by the way, as vice president, had access to the nuclear codes on a standby basis, in case something should happen to the president.) He replied:

Yes, with the urgency of nuclear weapons, if a disaster should ever happen, it’s all the more important for a president to be able to act swiftly. So, yes, I think the rules provide now, to launch very soon after the president gives the order. But, if you’ve got a crazy president, I’ve got to assume that they will do whatever they can to slow things down.

I asked whether Mondale recalled that during the campaign, Trump had wondered aloud what was the point of having nukes if you can’t ever use them. I said that had kept me awake at night. 

And now he’s president and you still can’t sleep. And now you’d like to get under the bed. You’re right to be scared. You’ve gotta be scared. I don’t know why you wouldn’t be scared.

‘I don’t think … Democrats are blameless’

Trump, whose conduct in office has moved even Mondale to be scared, did, nonetheless win the support of 63 million voters. He did win the election, according to our system. And so I asked Mondale what this fact did to his underlying confidence in the American system and the American electorate’s ability to make choices about whom to trust with the power to lead the country. 

I still have utter belief in that. It’s the only system that works. I think a bad mistake was made by millions of voters this last time in voting for him. But back when they voted for him, they could tell themselves that he doesn’t really mean all those things he says, that he’ll settle down and be presidential, that it’ll straighten out and be stable.

If you read the polls now, you hear that millions of people who voted for Trump are thinking they might have made a mistake. And those numbers go up every week. The number of Trump supporters is dropping to levels that you couldn’t have imagined so early in his term. I don’t know where it’s gonna go. More and more Republicans say they don’t like him, I read that he’s troubled by it. But about 70 percent of Republicans still say they support him.

There’s also a lot of disappointment in Hillary. I know Hillary. I love her. We’re dear friends. But she was not a very effective candidate. She seemed too centered on the bureaucracy of the campaign. So I don’t think that we Democrats are blameless in this.

In any event, I don’t think we should be condemning the public. This is the same public that voted for Obama twice. I don’t think they’re bigots. I think that there was a lot of uncertainty and doubt among Americans, especially white Americans, some of whom feel they’ve been left behind.

I know what I did. I voted for Hillary. That’s what I did. And Minnesota did, by a narrow margin, but we did it.

A fundamental restructuring of the American system?

At this point, I did confess that my confidence in the electorate was badly shaken. I wouldn’t say that I had an idealized view of how smart and informed and thoughtful an average member of the electorate might be. But I had at least a sentimental attachment to the idea embodied in the old Frank Capra films. That you can dazzle people and snow people and get away with some lying to the people within certain boundaries, but that if you go too far, the electorate wakes up and realizes that its being lied to.

But last year was kind of a blow to that belief. I saw people who were constantly being lied to by Trump, about who he was and what he has done in his life and what he was going to do for the country. But he had a knack for selling them lies and playing on bad instincts, and mobilizing their grievances and encouraging them to ignore anything positive going on in their lives or in the country.

And he activated the worst instincts in a lot of people. He got them to let down their common sense and accept a lot of lies, that they should have seen were lies, but that they accepted because they liked the way it felt, to maximize their grudges and minimize their blessings.

The Capraesque moment when they wake up and realize they’re being swindled never arrived. At the risk of sounding like a condescending jerk, they let themselves and their country down by electing an egomaniacal fraud.

Yet Mondale wouldn’t give an inch in his belief in the collective wisdom of the people — or perhaps it was the belief that anything that isn’t based on the consent of the governed, however its obtained, will always be worse than whatever is based on it. He wasn’t ready to quit on the basic system, nor the belief in the wisdom of regular people, at least in the long run, even if they just made a big mistake.

Yes, it is very troubling. But most Americans don’t agree with his [Trump’s] description of the problem. There have always been some people who would go off in their own hard-line, sticking with their imperiled leader long after it’s reasonable to go elsewhere. That is not new in American public life.

But this guy, in what he does and how he does it, and how he disregards the truth — his utter ignorance about what powers and stature a president has and how a president should conduct himself. And lacking respect for crucial, sacred elements of the American system.

Checks and balances, for example. Power is distributed. You, as president, have some power. In fact you’re very powerful. But you’re not a dictator here. You don’t get to run the country however you see fit. There are other powers that have to be respected. Members of Congress, for example, have a lot of power. You may be able to convince them to do certain things but if you can’t convince them, they don’t have to go along with you, even the if you are the president.

The press. What would we do if we didn’t have a free press reporting, digging, analyzing, questioning, putting our public leaders to the test? Where would we be without that? It sure scares me.

It is potentially tragic, if these tendencies that we see turn out to be a fundamental restructuring of the American system.

Lastly, I asked Mondale what he made of the special independent counsel investigation of Trump, led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, starting with possible collusion with Russia during the election and possibly spreading into other areas:

I have a high regard for Mueller. He’s a highly respected bipartisan law enforcement leader with a rich background of superb administration of his legal responsibilities. I think we’re very fortunate that this tough question of what may or may not have happened between Trump and the Russians will be handled by a person of his stature.

I don’t know what they’re finding. I look at the degree and intensity of their work and the way Trump seems to be so unsettled about this issue. If it were minor or inconsequential he wouldn’t keep bringing it up. But he does [bring it up] all the time. He’s very unhappy with senators because he thinks they should be doing more to help him with Mueller. So where do you go when you see an intense preoccupation by him about the risks of this effort?

He clearly has an idea that the president is in charge of everything. It’s not true, but he’s acting on that misinformation all the time.

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Comments (20)

Your interview today with Mondale

Interesting and your fear ? the 'system' failed us????
The system has not failed us at all. Trump has failed us in my opinion.
I think of every election as a Revolution, but one without violence.
There is not better system than what we have but we will make mistakes in electing politicians.
I worry about corruption among the leaders who circumvent the law, and hopefully Trump fails in his fantasy to become a 'war hero' leader by firing and selecting enough generals who support him like a dictator expects. That would scare me.
After all, our German ancestors elected Hitler, think about that.

Mondale on Trump article

Thanks to both Eric and Mondale for an excellent analysis of our current scary situation. The only hope is that Trump does get tired and quit or that the GOP wakes up and revolts against the president that got elected in their name. I disagree with Mondale on the public. It's basically unfair to ask them to vet a presidential candidate. Every effective organization has a nominating committee whose job is to look at the qualifications and character of a potential presidential candidate and decides if that person has the qualifications for the job. Instead, we in the U.S. have a presidential primary which is like taking a poll of the public. This is contrary to what our founding fathers anticipated and even what those who supported such a primary anticipated. We got an unqualified president who didn't even get the most votes in that presidential primary. It's time we let the parties nominate someone they believe is capable of being president. Instead, we got a man who picked his party, doesn't understand or respect the office he got in the name of a party and now is rejecting even it.

Who voted for Trump and why

I strongly recommend a study - "The Five Types of Trump Voters" - for an analysis of who voted for this least-qualified, most-worrisome major party candidate:

https://www.voterstudygroup.org/reports/2016-elections/the-five-types-tr...

What worries me as much as - or more than - the election of Trump is what many of those voters might do when - as seems inevitable - Mr. Trump fails to do the things he promised. For many of them, I think their next-best choice is "Screw it, let's just burn it all down and start over; gotta be better than this."

HILLARY SHARES THE BLAME

In reading the article, it glossed over the fact that Hillary Clinton had as much to do with Trump's winning as she had with her losing. She essentially ignored Middle America. And she really never challenged Trump's outlandish statements. Some call it getting down & dirty, but she had to fight fire with fire. Her advisor's gave her terrible advice. Minnesota turned out to be a classic example of her failures. Remember all the polls leading up to the election had her winning the state comfortably. That ended up not happening. Although she did win, but it was by an extremely narrow margin. In my opinion, she never sought out the "country" vote. Hopefully this country will survive "Tweety Bird" Trump & hopefully the Democrats will get their act together put a moderate candidate in front of the American voter in 2020. Not some far left liberal who has zero appeal to the average voter.

The Dems most certainly DON'T need to nominate another moderate

Hillary's moderate stance most certainly is what did her in. Bernie Sander's popularity proves my point.

Look, Hillary and other neoliberals think the road to victory is to swing right and get the votes of moderate Republicans. That strategy has failed for several election cycles, and here's why.

A large majority of GOP voters are single-issue voters. They are anti-abortion.

No matter that a moderate GOPer may find a moderate, right-of-center Democrat very appealing on economic issues, foreign policy, education, etc. -- when that voter is in the booth, he or she WILL NOT pull the lever for the Democrat, because you know, they are all "baby killers."

Swing left and win, or continue to beat your head against the wall and hope for a different outcome other than a bloody forehead. It's your choice, Democrats.

A down to earth conversation

In this day of political insanity, lies, and hyperbole it was nice to get a clear and level headed assessment of our country's situation. Thank You Vice President Mondale!

The Blameless Voter?

Mondale's comments reiterate a common tendency among pundits not to blame voters for lousy outcomes in the electoral process. I don't think we should cut them that much slack. Trump's election seems to me a shining verification of Mencken's bitter observation that no one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American public. But while 63 million Americans surely sold their vote to a second rate flim-flam man with no qualifications for the office he now holds, a harsher condemnation of their choice can be found in Mondale's remark that Trump imagines that he is now "president in charge of everything." I'll bet he isn't the only one who thinks that.

Based on media attention and voter turnout, an outside observer might rightly imagine that American democracy now revolves around the 4-year presidential election cycle. Americans focus entirely on this horse race while mindlessly, it seems, re-electing their Congressional representatives (while, at the same time, despising Congress as a body). Local election get even shorter shrift. In my city elections (Minnetonka), we're lucky to see a 15% turnout in off-years, even though the City Council and School Board probably have more impact on residents' taxes and certain on local services and amenities than their elected members of Congress or the President. It was pointed out recently by this publication that a single neighborhood in St. Paul appears to be the "decider" in that city's mayoral elections because its residents actually bother to vote. The "voter" who focuses entirely on the Presidential race and ignores or is ignorant of all other races gets the dictatorship they deserve, in my book.

I don't know this, but I think part of what was going on with Trump's election may have also been what I call the "strawberry - chocolate" decision. It's often been observed that it is difficult for a party to get their candidate elected president when that office has been held for the past two terms by a member of their own party. Hillary lost for many reasons, but I think this was part of it. Some (a lot of - ?) voters clearly look at the choice for presidential as an a "choose one or the other" thing. I think that many voters, desirous of some kind of change, voted for Trump, since Hillary was seen as bearing the flag of Obama. Being tired of 8 years of eating strawberry, they voted for what thought was chocolate, never really paying enough attention to realize they would now be served something else that is brown.

I don't disagree with Mondale that what we have is "the only system that works" but I don't think it is working very well. The system is already saddled with antiquated structures like two senators per state (California, with 65 times the population, has the same representation in the Senate as Wyoming) and the electoral college, but there's also our presidential primary system, which gives an absurd amount of influence to small, thinly populated states in choosing our candidates, and with election structures encouraging outsized influence by party regulars and extremists. And then there's the money thing - Citizens United and all that. Not to long ago, a Chinese journalist observed that we were a democracy "in name only." I wonder. With this flawed system, we might cut the electorate some slack, but not too much. As has been observed, the people get the government they deserve.

Right On

I really like all these comments but Mr. Hathaway really hits it out of the park. Secretary Clinton has been a life long humanitarian, particularly woman's rights worldwide. I get upset when people blame her for not winning.

Yes it is .....

The 63 million voters that are even more fightening then Trump. Although the number has diminished that is a big number. And it is not diminishing that much. There a lot of guesses out there about how that evolved. The Ugly American spun into existence by the forces of capitalism and individuality with a dependence on racism and other blaming is at our roots. And now this brew has military power. Oh no! Until we deal with it and this is the scary part we may not. Other nation states with that mix were forced to deal with it. We could avoid that consequence by facing it. Will we ?

Tribalism

How many of those 63 million are straight ticket Republicans who would (and did) vote for ANY Republican candidate?

The abandonment of the

The abandonment of the "reality-based community" by the Republican party began many years before Rove explicitly stated it.

The current difficulty with governing while in control of the legislative and executive branch is the exact result of decades of a party that works from the guidance of a mythical past, beset by imaginary enemies, all the while having to repressing the inconveniently pesky science, data and fact, all the while maintaining a reflexive obeisance to the wealthy patrons, from whose benevolent fingers dribble all of the good things in life.

Trump is the outgrowth of all of that--he would have no place of prominence in a reality-based community. He is the fabulist result of the deliberately constructed alternative-fact community.

Now, when having to deal with the reality of increasing medical costs, increasing need, increasing inequity, a changing demographic, and the simple costs of government guns and butter--it all become a circle impossible to square for the party of unreality.

Addictions such as drugs, video games, cell phones, facebook, etc. all show that the brightness of an alternative reality is pretty attractive when compared to the nature of daily life. It's hard to compete with that.

Hey,

Hey, it's the era of fake government; I hope it is not the end of the world as we know it. Every Republican administration has brought us closer to this, and now that we've got Trump, it may all be over but the explosions and the fallout.

Thank you

Thank you, Mr. Black, for doing this interview.
And many thanks, Vice President Mondale, for these thoughtful and candid insights!
We are particularly fortunate at this perilous time to hear your specific concerns about the "current
occupant" as well as your ongoing faith in our democratic system.

Respectfully but fundamentally disagree.

VP Mondale's focus is entirely on Trump the person. He suggests that if Trump departed, responsible members of the Republican and Democratic establishment would step in and return the nation to mature governance.

Trump as an individual is irrelevant. The meaning of Trump is that he is the instantiation of the voting base that the Republican establishment has spent 50 years cultivating: one that has been manipulated by existential fear and economic uncertainty to reject democracy in favor of authoritarianism, to suspend critical judgment in exchange for a fairy tale about security, and to yield absolute power to a charismatic figure who assures them that they are hating just the right people. Trump was simply the person the Republican establishment prepared its base to vote for.

And the Democratic establishment did its part in deciding 40 years ago to orient its own program to serve its own class of wealthy patrons, necessarily requiring that it abandon a program of equal opportunity, middle class stability and an environmentally sustainable economy. With no articulation of a true and progressive populism from the Democrats, the field was open for all the charlatans and grifters with counterfeit populisms just good enough to look real to those without much acumen left to think thru them, and who are burdened by an only more parlous economic condition since, while they have been distracted by a succession of false enemies, wealth has continued apace to concentrate, and to be separated from socially productive capital assets, just as those served by the Republican and Democratic establishments have intended.

So even if Trump and his coterie abandoned the White House overnight, we’d still be left with the underlying problem: that those who voted for Trump, and still overwhelmingly support him, remain as a third of the nation or more. How do we keep a democratic society in the face of that?

Where exactly

is the news here? Predictable smear by two hyper partisans, not a real revelation. Liberals still can't come to grips with their losses and now more than ever attack those they couldn't attract. Keep going I am sure it will pay off.

Love the lack of facts and evidence regarding Russian collusion, just partisan innuendo. Whatever.

...just partisan

...just partisan innuendo.....

Trump signed letter of intent for Russian tower during campaign, lawyer says
http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-knew-moscow-tower-proposal-campaign...

Jan. 16, 2017..Trump told reporters, “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.”

Keep telling yourself--partisan innuendo !

your liberal shiny things

i specifically mentioned collusion with Russia to defeat Hillary, you point to an irrelevant piece. So hard to be factual ha? Keep telling yourself there is a there there.

Sorry Tim, but most criminal

Sorry Tim, but most criminal enterprises are explained with motive, means and opportunity. All three are present now--the Moscow tower deal was the motive.

(quote)On Monday morning,

(quote)

On Monday morning, congressional investigators received emails from Cohen and Sater related to Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 elections. Excerpts from some of those emails quickly leaked to a number of media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Bloomberg.
Those emails, which have not been released in full, indicate that Sater and his acquaintances worked much more closely with powerful Russian figures than previously known.

“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater emailed Cohen in November 2015, according to The New York Times. Sater wrote, according to the Times, that he “will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected… I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

http://www.thedailybeast.com/trump-pal-bought-iamafgotcom-and-vaginaboyc...

(nd quote)

After Mondale's one sided comments

Obviously Mondale wrote about a political opponent without considering human limitations of our possibilities and accomplishments. Lets be realistic the trees around the political parties do not block the Tarzan of real life. It is so easy to knock all of us without a touch of perception of the facts of human politics. It is crucial to respect the real facts of life. Dreaming is fine during the night.!!! Doctor recommended!!