Congressman Ro Khanna on DeSantis’ Fatal Flaw, AI Regulation and How the Media Should Cover Trump

Congressman Ro Khanna on DeSantis’ Fatal Flaw, AI Regulation and How the Media Should Cover Trump
May 2023

In the latest 'Power Watch' column, the Silicon Valley Democrat also shares his thoughts on the writers strike, why Dianne Feinstein should resign and what his party can learn from the former president.

While representing Silicon Valley's 17th congressional district, Democratic congressman Ro Khanna has pulled off a unique political balancing act. He's successfully positioned himself as a progressive capitalist, supported by billionaires in Big Tech while serving as a co-chair of Bernie Sanders' last presidential campaign, which pilloried the billionaire class. But Khanna sees bringing disparate groups and ideas together as the key to success in politics and life.

After getting a law degree from Yale, Khanna interned for former President Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Al Gore, as well as volunteered for one of President Barack Obama's early campaigns. He eventually served in the Obama administration before heading into private practice at a high-profile Silicon Valley law firm. He lectured at Stanford, then launched his own political career, running unsuccessfully for Congress once, before winning on his second try. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Khanna discusses his Hollywood staples, AI's impact on the industry and Ron DeSantis' chance of winning the Republican nomination.

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What's your all-time favorite movie?

Rocky. I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in the '80s and I have memories of going over to our neighbors and trading baseball cards and watching every Rocky movie, which almost anyone growing up in Philadelphia did.


Anthony Hopkins. He's so versatile, everything from Silence of the Lambs to The Father. The last scene in that movie is chilling.

If you could only have one streaming service, which would you keep?

Probably Netflix because they produce a lot of good movies and House of Cards.

So how accurate is House of Cards to your experience in Washington?

The ambition and motives are probably spot-on, but people have more self-restraint...because of the law. They don't actually kill people. They just try to politically destroy people.

Do you have a favorite musician?

Bruce Springsteen. There's a line in his song "My Hometown" that goes something like, "The textile mills shut down and someone says the jobs aren't coming back." That sense of loss signifies so much of factory towns closing and rural American loss.

Those are the type of voters Democrats have struggled to hold. As a progressive credited with effective messaging, is there anything Democrats can learn from Donald Trump on how to communicate with voters they've lost.

Two things. One is respect - treating working-class Americans with the respect that they deserve. At the end of the day, you have to convince voters you're right. I sometimes joke and compare it to if Apple wasn't able to sell its iPhone and the execs said, "Really those customers are really dumb. They didn't appreciate the genius of our phone." It's the ordinary Americans who have the wisdom. They're far smarter as a group in their judgment than the politicians. Trump, for better or worse, conveys a respect. He doesn't come off as better than a steelworker, even though he's a billionaire. Now I don't agree with his solutions or policies, but that's one thing we could learn. The other thing we can learn from him [in terms of messaging] is America is the greatest nation in the world and we should talk about keeping America the greatest nation in the world.

Be aspirational patriotic.

On that note what do you think will be the defining issue of the 2024 presidential election?

I believe it will be the economy, and by that I mean people wondering whether the American Dream is available to them. Are they going to be able to get a house and have medical care and a good job? I think presidential elections are ultimately about improving people's standard of living. Which is why I don't think DeSantis will be the nominee. DeSantis' whole shtick is railing against trans people and gay people and African American history. That can make you a senator, governor or nationally famous person, but ultimately when people vote for president they think, "Is this going to actually help to give my family a better life?" I dislike everything Trump stands for, but when he speaks about jobs and manufacturing and economic issues, people see him as a billionaire who knows how to create jobs. I disagree, but that to me is a much more formidable message in a place like Ohio or Pennsylvania or Michigan than someone who is just spewing hate.

How do you think the media should cover Trump?

Cover him an hour a day but don't cover him 24/7. I get that it's good TV but that's how he became president. The hardest thing in politics, especially in California, is actually just getting people to care and breaking through, and the biggest advantage Trump has is media gives him millions of dollars in brand recognition.

The Writers Guild is on strike, and one of the reasons is concern over AI's impact on the industry. As the representative for Silicon Valley, do you share those concerns, and if so, what regulative steps should be taken?

Writers are the heart and soul of the entertainment industry. I was proud to stand with striking workers in New York on the picket line and address some of these concerns with them. While I don't believe AI or ChatGPT can rival what is being produced by writers, it's important to acknowledge that the streaming business and other technologies from my district in Silicon Valley have fundamentally changed the industry. We need to make sure that models for compensating workers are appropriately updated as a result and that workers have a seat at the table as we work to figure out how AI will be used by the industry in the future.

A lot of players in tech are depicted by Hollywood as entitled or amoral. Are those depictions fair?

They're some of the smartest, most driven people in the world. They have extraordinary scientific and technical knowledge They're probably more like the person who was in your science and math classes who knew all the answers. And they have a lot of ambition and resilience. There are a lot of things to criticize about Silicon Valley that may be fair, but anyone who has a half-hour conversation with a tech leader wouldn't think they don't know exactly what they're talking about.

So then why are they seen as villains by so many?

There's 10 trillion dollars of value in my district. There are a lot of billionaires and millionaires in the area in the same place where people can't earn enough to get a one-bedroom apartment.

I think it's an anger at the state of America and the income disparity and disparity of opportunity.

There was speculation that you might run for Senate but instead, you endorsed California Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Why?

She's a hero of mine. She's the strongest anti-war vote in Congress. She's the only one who stood up to giving a blank check to these endless wars of George W. Bush.

You have been vocal about the need for Sen. Dianne Feinstein to step aside. Do you believe age is a legitimate campaign issue?

I think the important thing is not the number but whether someone can fulfill the duties of their job. Age can come with a lot of benefits, like wisdom and life experience. I've been a strong supporter of President Biden and found him to be very engaged and motivated. The difference with Sen. Feinstein is that her three-month absence hurt our agenda and stalled the confirmation of judicial nominees.

Your grandfather, Amarnath Vidyalankar, was a significant political figure in the Indian Independence movement. Did he shape your politics at all?

He had a far more consequential life than I will. He was in jail alongside Gandhi. He was the inspiration for my politics because he showed that politics is such a noble calling.

Given your grandfather's work to end British colonial rule, do you have thoughts on the royal family today?

I look at the great leaders, Mandela, Gandhi, my grandfather and in my lifetime the greatest leader I've had the honor of meeting, John Lewis. They weren't angry. They weren't bitter. They wanted reconciliation. They wanted healing. They wanted a better world and that's the perspective I take. The ultimate irony is that [the U.K.] now has a British Indian Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. So I take the perspective to the royal family that if they're engaged in good causes that's great, and hopefully, they will embrace a multiracial, multiethnic royal family.

I was on Twitter and someone tweeted at me and wrote, "You go on Fox News a lot and my Republican father saw you on Fox and asked, 'Is Ro Khanna the Prime Minister of Great Britain?'" I then knew I had made it!

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Keli Goff is a longtime political reporter, Emmy-nominated producer of the documentary Reversing Roe and a writer on Mayor of Kingstown, And Just Like That and Black Lightning.