Glenn Greenwald on how Donald Trump has changed America

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: The turmoil continues apace in Washington, where over the weekend Steve Bannon, the chief strategist to President Trump, was fired.

Commentators don't quite know how to read the Trump administration, which is like nothing America has ever seen. Some people think maybe it will be some sort of tipping point in politics.

Glenn Greenwald has been one of America's prominent journalists of the past two decades, achieving global fame by publishing the massive national security leaks by former US Government official Edward Snowden. He joined me in Sydney earlier.

Glenn, nice to have you in.


LEIGH SALES: There's been a lot of talk in recent times that we live in a 'post-truth' world. And the President of the United States, as we know, openly traffics in exaggeration and outright lies. Do the facts matter to people less than they used to?

GLENN GREENWALD: I'm not sure about that. For one thing, I think that the US Government and governments generally have a pretty well-established tradition of lying. I don't think lying in government began when Donald Trump became President.

But I do think that you're correct: that the internet and the age of digital media has enabled people to atomise and isolate into factions, where you can only get information that is pleasing to you or affirms your preconceptions. And that, I think, does lend itself to falsehoods being able to take root much more potently than before.

LEIGH SALES: The influential magazine Foreign Policy recently gathered together some national security experts and asked them to assess what they thought were the chances that the United States could ever descend into another civil war. And the consensus view was about a 35 per cent chance in the next 10 to 15 years. We have, of course, seen some of those domestic tensions play out recently in Charlottesville. How stable do you think American democracy is?

GLENN GREENWALD: I actually think it's become substantially more unstable in the wake of Donald Trump's election; not only because of the violations of norms that Trump himself is ushering in, but because of the kind of unhinged and increasingly radical remedies that are being considered in the name of stopping Trump.

You have open calls for virtual military coups, where the CIA or the Pentagon subverts the outcome of the election by undermining Trump's agenda undemocratically.

I think that the American political culture, like the British political culture in the wake of Brexit, is extremely unsettled and destabilised in lots of ways. And things that were previously unthinkable are now being openly contemplated.

And I think that that's consequential for people around the world who look to American democracy as kind of the 'norm-setter' for how democracy should function.

LEIGH SALES: Given that volatility, if President Trump were impeached or arrested or forced to resign, how do you think that would play out?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think that's a really alarming prospect. You have tens of millions of people in the US who voted for him because they believe, often with good reason, that they have been radically aggrieved by an elite and a ruling class that has destroyed their economic future and shipped their jobs overseas in pursuit of corporate profits.

And those people tend to be the faction of the US that's well-armed and angry. And I do think that can lead to some extremely serious domestic instability in the US.

LEIGH SALES: You mentioned that we're seeing language and calls for action like we have never seen before. Something else that's different now, say, even if you compare to the immediate aftermath of 9/11 is just the degree of laws and surveillance that's come in since 9/11.

Do you think that the public has become now accepting of a certain level of surveillance and curtailment of privacy and their rights?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think, certainly, that was true before we were able to reveal the extent of electronic surveillance through the Snowden reporting.

But I think that the debate that has ensued as a result of that reporting has, for example, pressured Silicon Valley companies to demonstrate that they're committed to protecting the privacy of their users, in a way that has driven a wedge between technology companies and governments. So the collaboration is not quite as great as before.

At the same time, the ability of governments to wave the flag of ISIS and to invoke the spectre of al-Qaeda has once again put people into this kind of irrational fear of terrorism, where the risk that is posed to them is wildly inflated beyond what the evidence suggests it actually is.

And that emotion is very strong, which is why it's so vulnerable to manipulation and I think that has, in a lot of senses, regressed the debate back to even where it was before the Snowden reporting, where people had the attitude that whatever the government needs to do, including reading my emails or listening to my calls in order to protect me from terrorism, I want them to do.

LEIGH SALES: And why do you think that's an invalid thought to have? Because people think, "Oh, well. I don't have anything to hide. What does it matter?"

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, for one thing, everybody has something to hide, which is why people put locks on their bedroom and bathroom doors and passwords on their email and social media accounts.

But I also think that it's really important to realise that the more governments are engaged in mass surveillance, meaning they're not just spying on terrorists but on entire populations, the harder it is to find terrorism plots, because the government is collecting so much information that it's impossible for them to know what they have.

So both on principle grounds of the importance of privacy to people, but also on just practical grounds of what we want our government to be doing, we're actually more unsafe when they are reckless and indiscriminate with how they're surveilling, rather than focussed and targeted.

LEIGH SALES: Do you keep in touch with Edward Snowden? And for him, has the personal cost of making those revelations been worth it?

GLENN GREENWALD: I speak to him very often. And I say this without hyperbole: there's honestly nobody that I know in the world who is happier or more content with the life choices that they have made.

He puts his head on his pillow every single night, safe in the knowledge that, confronted what we perceived to be a serious injustice, he took the action that he was capable of taking to confront it and to fight against it, even if it meant putting himself at great risk.

LEIGH SALES: Do you think he's safe where he is?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think he's physically safe. I think that the American Government would love to get their hands on him and if he were in almost any other country in the world, they would, almost without limits, do what they had to, to apprehend him.

But I think Russia is one of the few places where the Americans don't feel comfortable doing that, for good reason. And so I do think he's - you know, it's been four years now and he has been protected.

LEIGH SALES: Glenn Greenwald, thank you very much.

GLENN GREENWALD: Thank you for having me.

Copyright 2007 Australian Broadcasting Corporation