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‘Hardcore History’ host Dan Carlin dissects the ‘grand karmic joke’ of Donald Trump

In this extensive interview, Carlin discusses revolution, the media, Hillary Clinton and, of course, Trump.


Aaron Sankin


Posted on Sep 8, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 1:45 am CDT

When Dan Carlin began hosting a show on conservative talk radio in the mid-1990s, he didn’t quite fit the mold. 

It wasn’t simply that his politics didn’t align with the culture-warrior creed of the Republican revolutionaries on either side of his time slot. Carlin talks fast, but his thinking is deliberative. He’s less interested in the latest polling numbers or political flash-point. Instead, Carlin’s concerns are about how empires are built and fracture into pieces, how a dangerous idea can be introduced into a society from the outside and then mutate it from the inside.

At the time, Carlin called himself a “Martian,” a self-styled, history-obsessed radical arguing for fundamental change in the American governmental system outside of the standard liberal/conservative spectrum, constantly pushing against the limits of the medium of terrestrial radio.

Yet, in the years after Carlin ended his radio show in 2004, he’s come to feel decidedly less alien, both in terms of substance—with an increasing number of Americans identifying as independents—and in terms of broadcasting style, showcased on Carlin’s pair of cult-favorite podcastsHardcore History and Common Sense

Hardcore History sees Carlin weaving densely philosophical histories of grand, sweeping events, like World War I and the conquests of the Mongol horde, that can go on for hours, twisting into endless webs of iconic figures alternately battling against and riding atop powerful social forces. Common Sense is a continuation of Carlin’s radio show, where Carlin produces some of the most unique and thought-provoking ideas in political media.

The Daily Dot spoke with Carlin, who recently wrapped production on his newest episode of Hardcore History, about his long-standing problems with American politics and why he sees the political success of Donald Trump as the universe playing a cruel cosmic joke.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Daily Dot: One thing you talked about in a recent show released early in the Trump campaign was how you opposed his personal and policy stances, but you enjoyed the simple fact that he served as a destabilizing agent, which made the other Republican candidates rethink the standard rule book. You argued that engenders more honesty because there’s no way to prepare for that chaos. Is that a positive effect of Trump that you still see happening as we’re coming down to the end of the election cycle?

Dan Carlin: You could suggest Trump has destabilized things, but I was never in the market for destabilization. I’ve always felt that much of what goes on that the American people would be upset with would stop happening if they knew about it. I think it’s a pretty common belief—shine a light on things, and the rest takes care of itself. 60 Minutes, back in his heyday, was so good at that. As soon as they highlighted a problem, millions of people got angry about it at the same time, and it went away. Even if it didn’t matter to them the day before the show aired.

It’s not destabilization as much as it is a kabuki theater that’s been going on for a long time. Now you have an actor that’s going on improvising and none of the other actors know how to respond to it.

“The dirty little secret of American foreign policy that Trump and Sanders tapped into is that Americans from across the political spectrum are not an imperial people. They just don’t give a damn.”

Imagine, instead of this being Donald Trump, that Mitt Romney had run again. That we had Romney and Clinton. Do you know how conventional this would be right now? But, if a Donald Trump comes in, or a Bernie Sanders comes in, and sort of refuses to play by the standard rules, refuses to hide the strings and wires, and proceeds to break that theatrical fourth wall and tell the audience what’s really going on. If you have the attitude that I have, that exposure is the key thing, that prompts reform.

In that sense, Trump could be of any political persuasion. He could be advocating any set of beliefs, and it wouldn’t matter. There’s a value to his refusal to play by the rules in a way that’s attention grabbing. If this were Romney, many of the people that are actually watching this election wouldn’t watch. The carnival barker aspect of Trump draws eyes. Then he shows you what’s behind the curtain, maybe inadvertently, and it’s easy to see some potential positives of that.

I think the guy is a clown, in a court jester sense of the fool being the only one who could tell the thing what was really going on because he’d be forgiven for being a fool. Don’t say that Trump plays the fool in this system, I’ll get death threats. But there’s a reality to that. The question you have to ask yourself: Is he more dangerous than the positives that he brings to the table?

If this wasn’t a one-off, if we got to do this every election—have somebody from an outside position run—it would be like Edward Snowden‘s decisions to release his information the way he did: a little at a time instead of one big dump. Trump could be the one big example of this, and then we go back to business of usual. Unless, in four years we have another person or two like Trump and Sanders doing the same thing. That’s like Snowden deciding just when we started to forget about these revelations, here’s another batch.

It would be particularly valuable if it were from a totally different direction. Instead of another Trump, have it be from another segment of the American electorate that feels left out, but that has the same exposure element where all of the little things that were hidden from the American people that make it hard—for example, for third-party and independent candidates to succeed. Those things get tripped when these kinds of people come around. I think that’s good for the system. I think I can make an argument that every time we’ve had an outsider or third-party candidate or independent candidate that, in one sense or another, the system has benefited.

I have so many problems with Trump’s actual policies. I don’t even think he believes anything. I think he’s lying straight up and down. It’s not like I can say I disagree with Trump about this or that because I don’t know what really thinks. I just know I don’t want the guy, but I can’t help but notice that I’m enjoying that, five years ago, I had to tell people about these things [like super-delegates, for example] that because of Trump and Sanders, nobody argues with [now].

There is a general sense that Trump wants to reconsider how America conducts its foreign policy and uses its military. You talked about that in Common Sense and then in your recent Hardcore History series about the Achaemenid Persian empire; there was a discussion about what it meant to be part of the Persian empire. How they tried to frame it as benevolent.

An empire by consensus.

Exactly. That’s the best face that America puts on its foreign policy goals. We’re out there to make the world better for everyone else. Everyone else has foreign policy interests where America has ideals it exports across the globe to everyone’s benefit. Do you see a historical connection between how the Persian empire, and other empires, conceived of what they were doing and this challenge that people like Bernie Sanders and Trump are bringing to the way America conducts its own empire?

The dirty little secret of American foreign policy that Trump and Sanders tapped into is that Americans from across the political spectrum are not an imperial people. They just don’t give a damn. They can be roused to want to help people. They can be scared to death, which has happened many times throughout U.S. history. We’re ready to go stomp on somebody, and we’re going to watch it on TV with popcorn. But we don’t want to stay; we want to move on. The idea of having 187 bases, or whatever the count is by whichever criteria they’re using to define base today—that is totally against what most of the American people want.

The foreign policy establishment completely understands this, which is why they’ve always used things like metaphors and various ways of talking about things like being mature enough as a country to accept our responsibilities. But the bottom line is that the American people don’t generally support this stuff. Unless there’s a current war keeping it in their face, they don’t think about it. This gets back to what I said about the exposure moment, about not being able to turn away.

I had a revelation when I was talking to an old hippie back when I was on the radio. He had a great line that’s never gotten away from me. He was talking about how cynical Richard Nixon was. Nixon, at one point, had said to his underling, the way to end the massive anti-war protests that were dogging his administration was just to end the draft. It was cynical because all of the people who had been protesting, pretended they had all these high-minded ideals, but the reality was that when Nixon ended the draft, the entire movement collapsed like a house of cards. He showed Americans care about this because they may be sent over to a foreign country and die. So they care, and they’re against it. But the minute it doesn’t involve them, they have other, more pressing things to get to. We all have lives that we’re trying to hold together.

The problem that we have in this country is that the government is, with no disagreement from the mainstream, on one course, and it’s not a course the American people broadly support. You can only scare them for so long. We were scared for 50 years during the Cold War. We’re going to have War On Terror fatigue at some point.

Look at the whole hullabaloo over Article 5 of NATO. Most Americans do not understand they’ve give a guarantee that we will go to World World III, literally, if Putin invades Latvia. You go ask how many American people know that. How many intelligent, in-touch, read-the-paper-every-day Americans know that? But we’re pledged to it. Trump got into a lot of trouble saying an open truth: If Putin invaded Latvia tomorrow and our government told us we were about to go to World War III, the American people are going to go, “No, we’re not. We never signed onto that. You did that when we weren’t looking.”

A couple years ago I went to Latvia, and I was talking some young Latvians who lived there. None of them had much confidence the U.S. would actually come to save them if Putin invaded.

The Washington Consensus is about world stability, and Americans generally just want to focus on their own crap. That’s a huge disconnect.

So, where does the rubber meet the road? We were talking about the 1960s demonstration ending when, all of a sudden, you took out the personal factor. If people don’t have to care, they won’t, they’re too busy. So the Washington Consensus will go ahead and do whatever it wants to do. If tomorrow you find out that the Washington Consensus meant you have to go to WWIII for Latvia, that’s when you find out what the American people really think. That’s when you find out how dangerous it was to commit this country to a bunch of things that the American people, if they knew and understood fully what they were doing, would not support. You screw the Latvians, that’s the bottom line.

“Most Americans do not understand they’ve give an a guarantee that we will go to World World III, literally, if Putin invades Latvia.”

This happens all the time in our government. You have, as we all understand, a lot of interests giving a lot of money—not quid pro quo, of course—but they’re not giving it for the fun of it. We operate as though the right priorities are then being chosen. There’s a reason poor people in the United States have no representation at all. And it wasn’t always that way. When I was growing up, poor people still mattered because they voted. There were parties, or at least wings of parties, that appealed to that. It helped balance things out.

What do you see as the role of the media in all this? As someone who isn’t a historian but studies history, a lot of the ways you frame things is very systematic. You’re looking at the role of individuals acting within systems. In order to do that, you need to take a long view in how these systems were created and how they evolve over time. That’s a difficult task in news cycles where everything is another blip of information. Do you see that as a limitation in the way political media functions now?

I wrestle all the the time with a basic contradiction in my character. The contradiction is over my almost unequivocal support for a system of representative government, like the kind we have. If anything, I’m a throwback. I always talk about the myths of America because I recognize those 1950s textbooks are nothing but propaganda. But I love the image it casts. That’s a place I want to live in, so I look at that as a template for how we form a more perfect union, we try to live up to the hype.

But, as you watch the sausage being made in practice, it shakes your faith a little bit. I wrestle with the contradictions. Sometimes I go back and read Madison or Jefferson. These were intelligent enough people to have spotted the same problems, so what did they say about them?

You’ll hear people—and this is much more popular on the far left—where they’re saying that this is a country founded by rich landowners, and you can see that they wanted to keep it controlled by rich landowners because you had to have property to vote. It’s a whole line of thinking and, when I was 20, I bought into the idea that [America] was designed to keep the oligarchy, for lack of the better word, in power. But, as you get older, you start to see, and I do anyway, that these are some of the checks in the system that they were trying to install to deal with some of the very questions like the one you just asked.

For example: a media that shows stuff that is deep and intelligent so we’re talking about the real issues in a way that really makes sense. The first you think of is that nobody is going to watch that. That’s going to make PBS look scintillating. At the same time, though, what if you find out that’s the engagement that’s required to do a proper job running the system, if you assume the system is run from the ballot box?

Which is where you start getting into this concepts that, on the surface, can look so elitist. And then you realize there may be checks and balances. Take the idea of Jefferson’s natural aristocracy for a second. The idea that, unlike Europe where your blue blood is something you have no control over and has nothing to do with your personal qualities— you’re born with it or you’re not—and turns it into there being elite people, but [you’re] elite because you have a 140 IQ and you’re special or you’re just one of those people, through your perseverance or your ambition or whatever, rise above what you had any way [of gaining] in the old world. If those are the people voting—instead of a country that you were taught in a 1950s textbook about a democracy, where the will of the people dominates—what you have is the most inclusive and broadest-based oligarchy in history.

What they essentially were doing is taking the franchise and expanding it to the largest number of high-quality people they could get. Because they feared the mob, there’s no doubt about that. You read their writing and they talk about it all the time. But, at the same time, they weren’t trying to be rich, elitist white guys who kept everyone out. They were trying to figure out how to wrestle with the problem of having to talk about issues in a super-high intelligent—maybe boring—way, and most people won’t listen to that, right?

This is also a chicken and an egg thing. If you show people intelligent things, a decent segment of them will adjust. It’s almost like lifting weights. Today, you can handle 50 pounds, but if you keep lifting pounds, someday you’ll handle 75 pounds. So today, we’ll talk about the national debt, we’ll throw some numbers at you. It’s going to be hard, but in a year of doing that you’re going to find it interesting, and we’re going to talk about even more sophisticated stuff.

A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton started an official podcast called With Her. It’s being put out by her campaign and the first episode featured an interesting, if soft-focus, interview with the candidate. Do you have any advice for Clinton? In your own experience, what makes for a good, interesting podcast that people want to listen to?

It’s a more personal question than you might think. For me, it’s always been about creativity. There is no art, or at least not much art, in doing a daily radio talk show. There’s creativity, but I would not call it art.

The first thing I noticed when podcasts came out, is that it’s like a giant blank slate where you can do anything. That’s how Hardcore History got started. It was intoxicating. Once you realize that you can do anything, the next logical question is to ask, why would I ever do the stuff that everybody else is doing? Why would I use podcasting to simply be a different dissemination tool for what I’m already giving TV networks?

In other words, if Hillary sits down and gives you the same message, why would she have to have a podcast for that? The point of the podcast, in my mind, always was for doing something we couldn’t do before, just for my own benefit, because it was interesting for me to do something new. 

In Hillary Clinton’s case, why wouldn’t you use this as a tool for something you can’t do in the other media outlets. If they’re not asking you a question that you specifically would love to go into 30 minutes of detail on, use it for that. If you’re using it the way some of these major media outlets use it: “Did you miss our show on NBC? Then you can hear a rebroadcast on the podcast whenever you want to.” Yeah, but it’s the same thing.

If her goal was really to tell you about her worldview and what she wanted to do, it would be a wonderful forum for that. The hidden secret in all this is that this is not her goal.

Hillary Clinton’s worst fault in this whole thing is that she is what we’ve had. And if what we’ve had is not fixing the problem, I look at Hillary Clinton as, we’re not getting any better. It’s going to be how it was. If your choice is between a Hitlarian, Franco, Mussolini-type character—but that’s how elections in this country always are: lesser of two evils. How long have we been doing this? We independents have had to live with that forever.

“I always talk about the myths of America because I recognize those 1950s textbooks are nothing but propaganda. But I love the image it casts.”

The problem is that it isn’t going to help the ship miss the iceberg to elect Hillary Clinton. If you elect Donald Trump, he may be the guy to drive full speed ahead into the iceberg. Our problem is that, if you’re trying to actually fix the country, we’re going to have to have a wider choice of people to choose from.

I think it’s some sort of grand karmic joke on me personally—how’s that for being egotistical?—that Donald Trump is even in this race. Some guy wrote in a negative review that, “Dan Carlin is a farce. He’s been asking for 20 years for an outsider, independent candidate to shake up the system, and now he’s got it in Donald Trump, and he won’t vote for him.”

This will wrap the whole thing up for you in terms of my political beliefs: I don’t have all the answers. At this point, as many of us do, as you become older, you become less sure that you have all the answers. So you wonder about how you can pivot to something useful. Maybe the way you pivot is to ask better questions, to try to give complexity and nuance and context to issues that are just usually on a knee-jerk, yell-at-each other basis.

If I can add some nuance and complexity and some context and compassion. If I can get people to think about walking a mile in the other guy’s moccasins, or pretend like you want to, I can feel like I’m adding something that is unusual. And it’s a little bit shocking and upsetting to me that it is unusual. When people say it’s so refreshing, you wonder why it’s refreshing to try to see the other person’s viewpoint? Shouldn’t that just be how we are?

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*First Published: Sep 8, 2016, 2:45 pm CDT