Last November, Golden Valley native Brian Klaas sat in a London radio studio. On the other side of the room was Nigel Farage, the far-right, anti-immigration leader of Britain’s Independence Party.
Farage, best known to Americans as the first foreign politician to meet with Trump in the wake of the 2016 election, was bragging that he had made “quite a pile” of cash betting the election would go in Trump’s favor.
Klaas, the only American in the room, remembers thinking how he wasn’t so proud, nor was he about to congratulate Farage on his earnings. At the time, Klaas’ phone was blowing up with texts from friends in Minneapolis. One feared her newborn’s name would sound too ethnic in an America where Trump was president. “It was the most raw I had been in an interview.”
Klaas usually argues with the fervor of a nerdy high school debater (he was on the debate team at Hopkins High School). His mom, Barbara, is a former president of the Minnesota School Board Association. But in that moment, as Farage celebrated his profits, Klaas took offense. “I had never been more embarrassed to be American in my life,” he recalled saying on the radio program.
Who could blame him? Klaas was in shock.
When the interview concluded, Klaas couldn’t find a taxi, so he walked outside into the busy city. The station was only blocks from Buckingham Palace, but what Klaas remembers are the clouds. He’s prone to these sorts of big-picture reflections: how, in this moment, the clouds were positioned in just a way to make it seem as if there was a gaping hole in the sky. “The funny thing is, I went outside, and the sky literally opened up, and it matched everything I was feeling,” he says.
Brian Klaas has been busy since that day in November, promoting his book The Despots’ Accomplice—broadly about the “decline of democracy” and the rise of “despotism”—and regularly railing against Trump on networks like CNN and MSNBC. His second book, The Despots’ Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy, is due out this month.
His main message is about the decline of democracy. It centers on Donald Trump, who Klaas sees as an unambiguous authoritarian leader who’s leading America into an unprecedented period of darkness. His method includes fact-checking Trump on Twitter (sometimes as often as 15 times a day), discrediting Trump’s immigration policy on TV, and linking Trump to despotic rulers across the world.
He’s a little like a liberal, Minnesota version of Charlie Sykes.
So, is he a basically an internet troll with a couple books?
“I really don’t think I would say I troll Trump,” he says. “I try to fact check and point out inconsistencies and show hypocrisy certainly. And I point out when he is out of step with U.S. values. But I tend to think of trolling as annoying someone without making a broader point, and I also see trolling for the sake of trolling as petty.”
Still, he’s built a career as a talking head by routinely criticizing Trump.
Becoming one of the president’s most persistent critics is no small thing when the president routinely breaks polling records for public disapproval. Klaas’ greatest strength may be his ability to stay outraged.
Since the election, Klaas has authored scathing opinion pieces in Foreign Policy and The Hill. In one op-ed for the Washington Post, he wrote, “Increasingly, politicians are weaponizing public anger at the media to justify operating in the shadows. Democracy is dying in that darkness. We cannot and must not accept it becoming the new normal.”
He writes like this on Twitter too. He’s prone to talk about big ideas with equal parts earnestness and righteousness, making him a popular professor-type among liberals.
Klaas’ sense of right and wrong began in Minnesota, where he witnessed a different brand of politics than the type that now dominates Washington. He interned for Gov. Mark Dayton when Dayton was a senator, and he remembers being surprised how Dayton gave so much time to him and other interns. They would have a weekly lunch in the Senate dining room to discuss interns’ ideas and futures. Dayton even took Klaas out for his birthday.
Later, Klaas became Dayton’s driver during the early stages of the 2010 gubernatorial race. For the first months of Dayton’s campaign, the “team” consisted mostly of Klaas and Dayton, driving to small towns.
“I drove him to all the chili cook-offs around the state,” Klaas says. “It was always just me and him and his two dogs, Mesabi and Dakota.”
It took a few years for him to realize what he found so refreshing about Dayton. “It’s very rare to work with someone as close as I did with Mark and think this guy is in politics for 100 percent the right reason,” he says. “I saw the things that are inherently bad in politics, but I never doubted that he was doing this for the wrong motivations.”
Within four months, Dayton was the front-runner and Klaas was his youthful right-hand man. Dayton soon promoted him to deputy campaign manager.
Spend a little time with Klaas, and you’ll find him among the most earnest people in an industry that often encourages the opposite. While his philosophy might seem holier-than-thou, Klaas’ attacks on Trump are deeply rooted in his experience living under authoritarian regimes.
After working for Dayton, Klaas realized he was interested more in big-picture policy than the nuts and bolts of running Minnesota. He pursued a doctorate degree in politics at Oxford University, which allowed him to focus on African countries. He traveled to the Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Madagascar, and Zambia—countries ruled by despots. Interviewing dissidents, heads of state, and diplomats, he learned that authoritarians worked from the same playbook. They recruited family members to high-ranking positions; they waged a war against the press and threatened to lock up political enemies. The byproduct of his time in graduate school was The Despot’s Accomplice.
With the rise of Trump, those trends had also hit home. “Suddenly, everything I had seen in the rest of the world has echoed,” he says. “Softer echoes here than other places, but it’s happening.”
Klaas’ book piqued the interest of journalists in the States, who invited him to write and speak out on the Trump administration.
Klaas likes to point out that the last 20 months of American politics looked nothing like it did when he started with the Dayton campaign in 2009. He sees his message as nonpartisan.
“The Republican Party has been transformed to defend Trump,” he says. “The stuff I’m talking about would have been completely unobjectionable to people across the aisle 20 months ago.”
Asked how he stays upbeat despite his bleak outlook, he almost laughs.
“I have interviewed a lot of torture victims,” he says. “They tell me their stories, and tell me about fingernails getting pulled off. They’re dealing against impossible odds, and they’re bouncing back and willing to get jailed for this. Comparing this to Twitter is ridiculous. I don’t endure anything.”
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