David Burstein is a mythical figure in my life. In the middle of 2016 I met him through a mutual friend, comedian Alex Edelman, who asked if his pal who works in politics, in town for the weekend from New York, could join us for Thai food. I obviously had no problem with an extra seat at the dinner table and obliged, unaware that this visitor would be the bearer of bad news that would change our lives forever.
You see, David wrote an infamous article in 2015 for Vanity Fair called “Here’s Why Donald Trump Really Could Be Elected President,” an opinion that basically no one in the world had at the time, and when we met about a year later, not only did he still have the same beliefs, the “could” had disappeared, and he knew for sure that Donald Trump would be our next President. I laughed it off in between bites of Pad Thai, assuming Alex’s friend was just a troll, hearing him out, but knowing come Election Day, he’d be proven wrong. Well, we all know how that movie ends, and come the night of November 8th, in between even more bites of Pad Thai (I LIKE NOODLES, OK!?!), the one person I kept thinking about was David Burstein, the only dude who saw it coming.
Not only is David a bit of a 28-year-old political psychic wunderkind, he also runs an incredible bipartisan organization called Run For America and continues to speak the hard truths that some of us just don’t want to hear. We haven’t spoken since that dinner, despite his position in political discourse continues to rise, so I decided to reach out as the world is crumbling around us to see if he had anything else that could blow my mind and in effect, ruin my day. And boy, did he.
JENSEN KARP: David, there’s one question I’ve been mulling over since we first met and I’m so happy I finally get to ask it: HOW DID YOU KNOW?
DAVID BURSTEIN: There were two main things that stood out to me, dating back to around August 2015, which is when I saw that Trump could really win this thing. First, people have been extremely frustrated with what’s happening in this country for a long time, in a deeper way than people in the elite capitals have realized, both in terms of their sense of economic opportunity, but also the partisanship, the phoniness, and the big money. Trump broke definitively and successfully on those issues, at least in being able to convince people he could be the guy who would bust things up. The appeal of something as simple as “Make America Great Again” cannot be underestimated. I also think his being very out-front on campaign finance reform was helpful to this cause. Though he didn’t end up self-funding at all, he sold that image extremely well. So basically, I saw a guy who could convince anyone of anything, who was so well-timed for the moment in America.
Second is celebrity. We are a celebrity-obsessed nation and Trump was a household name. I mean, no one knew who the hell John Kasich was, and most Americans still don’t.
I believed those two factors combined could make him very powerful.
Did other people around you—people also working in the realm of politics—did they see it coming too?
No, they didn’t. When I wrote that piece for Vanity Fair in October of 2015, most people laughed at me. A few people had me on TV because I was a guy with a crazy theory and they found that quite novel. I got into arguments with investors who didn’t give me money because they figured if I thought Trump could win, then I clearly didn’t know anything about politics. I had friends who said, “Don’t tell me this. I don’t want to hear that he could win!” Every time I had one of those conversations, I just became more and more convinced he could do it. It was clear everyone was looking the other way.
The thing I remembered most from our conversation last year is that you said when he won, his presidency would show us just how strong our Constitution was. You said he’d try to pass legislation and mostly be blocked, and again you were right. So, would you say the Constitution is working thus far?
Well, first of all, I think we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the Constitution is a document that is meant to stand the ages. It probably needs a dramatic overhaul, unlikely to happen anytime soon. The founders were not prophets; they did not intend this document to withstand all of time. They didn’t even know if America would last beyond a debate over slavery—obviously quite prescient—but the complexity of our world lends itself to so many questions that need to be revisited.
“I still believe someone without any elected experience could be a great President.”
If the founders had known what would happen with political parties in this country, I think they would have made a lot of explicit direction about how to mitigate that and/or they would have created a more parliamentary system. All that being said, the Constitution, strictly speaking, is basically working. I’m not a legal expert, but I’m not sure that Trump has violated the spirit of the Emoluments Clause. He’s sleazy and questionable in his business arrangements, but I don’t think that’s what the founders had in mind. The problem constitutionally is basically that Trump doesn’t take the oath of office seriously. He has not pledged allegiance to anything other than himself. Every issue with Trump can essentially be boiled down into that. We want him to care about the country, and he doesn’t and never will.
Having researched Run for America now, I imagine your work gives you a very unique perspective on someone like Trump, who had never been a politician before he became President. Can you explain what the organization does?
Look, there are over 500,000 elected offices in America, and most of them are uncontested. We work to find amazing leaders, urge them to run for office and walk them through a very specific process to figure out what they want to do. We establish what their values are and what policy goals they want to achieve. We figure out where they want to run and for what and then we help them do that. Our fundamental belief is that we need different kinds of leaders in office. People who are true leaders, who want to solve problems and accomplish very clear and specific goals rather than just fight against the other side.
The Constitution. Photo: whitehouse.gov
And you guys will basically talk to them on the phone, or chat online, or meet in person with anyone who wants to find out what this process is like, right?
Right. We’ve worked with people who’ve run for Congress, Mayor, and Board of Education across the country. We do more and more with people running for local office these days though. The biggest part of our role actually comes before people start to run, since it’s the most important time of the process. Who are you? What kind of campaign do you want to run? What matters to you? Is this the right time in your life to do this?
If you don’t honestly work through those questions—and most people don’t—you’ll never achieve your potential.
It’s crazy because the outsider aspect of Trump is directly in-line with your organization and what’s actually needed to cause to change—it’s just the wrong messenger.
That’s absolutely right. Trump should not be evidence for anyone that we can only have politically experienced people running for office. And to be honest, I still believe someone without any elected experience could be a great President, particularly if they’ve run a large company with a board of directors (something Trump never did), and of course if they surrounded themselves with great people with government experience. One positive of Trump being elected, and we see it happening already, is people are saying, “Well shit, if he can be president, I can certainly be a Congresswoman.”
“I believe Trump can be beaten by 3 people in America: Tom Hanks, Dwayne Johnson, and George Clooney.”
Okay, so the big question now: As someone who saw the future once... WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, DAVID?
Well, I’m sorry to say I don’t think a lot of people are going to like my answer. The only people who could stand up to him are Republicans and they’ve proven now for over 2 years that they never will. They have no incentive to. They are not interested in what’s right, they’re interested in political survival. And they all know that the impeachment of a GOP President means down ballot losses up the wazoo. And honestly, Trump being impeached is highly unlikely. I peg it around a 1% chance. Also, does he actually leave office if impeached? The constitution says nothing about how you remove a President from office. Can US marshals take him? When does he stop being President? Can he declare martial law before the vote is official? So if Trump won’t be impeached and he won’t resign, the bigger problem is: I believe he will be re-elected.
And here’s why: States matter. Not nationwide popularity. Remember: Trump’s popularity is about the same as it was during the campaign. He had a brief bump after the election, but he won with net negative popularity nationwide, which is the keyword. I ask you, what’s really changed in PA, WI, or MI since the election that would change their vote? That’s all that matters. That support for him is right where he needs it. And a lot of people will just sit out because they’re disgusted with it all. But most important is Trump’s media chokehold. It makes it impossible for any challenger to get a message through. So whoever the opponent is won’t matter. They will be so small.
Does that mean we really will be seeing a field of celebrity candidates?
I believe Trump can be beaten by 3 people in America: Tom Hanks, Dwayne Johnson, and George Clooney. Outside of that, I think he’s a lock for re-election.
You are a political insider saying he’s a lock for re-election, unless one of America’s most beloved celebrities decides to oppose him.
This is the reality. Elections are not about—and have never been about—who is the best for the job. They’ve always been much more visceral than that. It’s not a blind resume contest. We might not want to end up in celebrity politics, but we basically already are. Elizabeth Warren has a merch store. Kid Rock, by the way, will be a Senator. Easily. In the bag. And if he runs and wins, there will be more and more. Every time a celeb has run, they’ve won (sadly, I don’t include Clay Aiken). Sonny Bono. Arnold. Ronald Reagan was a B-movie actor!
“One positive of Trump being elected… is people are saying, ‘Well shit, if he can be president, I can certainly be a Congresswoman.'”
Jesse Ventura was a WRESTLER!
Exactly! So the thing I’m most intrigued with now is: how does Trump change the long term? And this, I’m much less sure about. But I think a lot of things will revert back to normal. But, for example, Trump has opened the door on a lot of ethics rules, disclosure issues, and protocols that are being normalized. And Presidents that come after him will take advantage of those things. Say you have someone you want to join your administration, and they don’t want to disclose their assets...
Or leave their job at Breitbart...
RIGHT. That could change a lot of things. But biggest question remains: What happens to the far right that believes now in a whole set of ideas, beyond Trump. They believe fake news is real news. Those people—and they are by no means ALL racists or white supremacists—now make up a radicalized majority of the GOP base. They hold the keys to the next GOP nomination. How long will that go on? Will anyone ever stand up to those most extreme elements? Can the Republican party stay in power that way? We all know what we want the answers to be to these questions, but we seem far from getting them.
Follow David on Twitter @davidburstein.