Greg Sargent on American Authoritarianism
This week we kick off our Get Un-Gaslit Summer Reading Series with Greg Sargent, the author of the 2018 book An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics. Sargent is also known for writing The Plum Line blog for The Washington Post.
Andrea Chalupa: Welcome to Gaslit Nation. I'm Andrea Chalupa, a writer and the screenwriter and producer of the upcoming journalistic thriller Mr. Jones.
Sarah Kendzior: And I'm Sarah Kendzior, a journalist and scholar of authoritarian states and the author of the book The View from Flyover Country.
Andrea Chalupa: We are here today with Greg Sargent, who writes The Plum Line blog for the Washington Post. Greg joined the Post in 2010 after stints at Talking Points Memo, New York Magazine, and The New York Observer. And he's the author of the recently released book An Uncivil War: Taking back our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics. Greg is here to explain to us how Trumpism works, how we got it, and what to do about it. Welcome to the show, Greg.
Greg Sargent: Thanks so much. I'm really glad to be on.
Sarah Kendzior: Alright. Well, my first question: in the book you discuss kind of the historical origins of the modern-day GOP, people like Newt Gingrich and these other old-school dirty dealers. Do you feel like Trump is the culmination of this, or did Trump and his kind of criminal band hijack it? How would you summarize Trump's relationship with the GOP?
Greg Sargent: It's kind of both and exacerbation of long-running trends, but also kind of just kind of surfing on top of long-running trends. Gingrich is a really good starting point, and by the way, in much of the political science, Gingrich is seen as the logical starting point for the terrible degradations that we're seeing now. He kind of nationalized Republican power politics and blood sport politics in a way that really was a bit new. I mean, it's not an accident that the impeachment of Clinton happened at that time. Republicans really don't like when there are Democratic presidents, and they have a lot of trouble treating them as legitimate, and that's what we really saw. One thing that's interesting to me is that a lot of the kids today don't really realize how bad it was in the 90s. They look at what's happening now and they think, "Oh my god, is politics really this awful?" And it's like, well yeah, it was pretty bad in the 90s, too. I mean, you guys remember that, right? I mean, it was just absolute nonstop disinformation and lies of every different kind about Clinton, Vince Foster, lists of people who had been murdered and secretly buried, and so forth and so on. Anyway, Gingrich is kind of the starting point for the unraveling of all this stuff in a lot of the political science that I review in the book. So what we're seeing now is really kind of a super-charging of what we saw back then in Trump, but in a way it's really not that surprising. I think that's that's a theme you've hit on a lot, too, Sarah, right? We shouldn't be surprised by a lot of this because it's been so long-running.
Sarah Kendzior: Mmhm. One of the things that's bothered me is the inability of the Democrats to respond forcefully to the problem at hand, and I was going to ask you about this later in the show, but since it fits in so nicely, what do you think of the current strategy of the Democrats towards Trump, post-Mueller Report, post-revelation of all of these criminal actions? What do you think of this split within the party and the hesitancy of people like Pelosi to impeach? And I'm also curious where you see this in terms of Thunderdome Politics, because her rationale seems to kind of rest on that, like I don't want to be dirty, or I don't want to get dragged in the mud. You know, that kind of thing. Is it necessary to engage in a manner similar to your opponent at this time?
Greg Sargent: I don't know if it's necessary to kind of quote-unquote "get down in the mud," but I'm with you on the Democrats. I'm endlessly baffled by the least among Democrats that they can kind of work their way out of this problem by talking about prescription drugs all the time. It doesn't seem like the right response to full blown white nationalism and unbridled authoritarianism, does it? Right? I mean, prescription drugs? Really? A lot of the problem, I think, is an inability to accept the degree to which the other side is operating a kind of full saturation disinformation effort that I think is really kind of catching a lot of Democrats off-guard. They were able to win in 2018 by sort of surfing on Democratic anger among the base over Trump, while also kind of letting that fester and turning to swing voters and seeming balanced and reasonable in relation to Trump, and so that worked in a bunch of swing districts across the country. But right now, now that they have power, they need to use it in a way that they're not to kind of counteract the full force disinformation and propaganda push that we're now seeing. Look at how, if anything, Trump has responded to that Democratic takeover of the House not by kind of accommodating it and saying, "Okay, well there's now another legitimate branch of government I need to work with," but instead essentially co-opting law enforcement to really create an entirely separate, alternate narrative of the moment to essentially render any and all Democratic oversight efforts illegitimate in the minds of millions and millions of his voters. To me, the only way really to kind of counteract that kind of thing is to really be resolute and very clear in saying, "The criminal here, the corruption here, is coming from the White House." When Trump goes out and says as he did on Laura Ingram, which is an amazing interview by the way. I don't know if you guys have watched it yet, but it's really an incredible thing that belongs in a time capsule. When he goes out there and talks about how, "Oh, the only crime was committed by Democrats," which he says over and over and over in every conceivable form, it seems to me that if you're not out there essentially saying, "The corruption is Trump. The problem is Trump. He is unfit to serve." If that's not clear, if that's not the institutional message of the Democrats, then where are they? They're pursuing a bunch of different investigations in all different directions. They're talking about process. They're talking about, okay, should we revive inherent contempt, or should we just do regular contempt? That's not going to be the way to do this.
Andrea Chalupa: It's obvious that the Democrats are playing with a rulebook and the Republican Party long ago ripped up the rulebook, and it's sort of just like a thuggery politics that you can't act in good faith with, and the Democrats keep insisting on trying to act in good faith that as though the house isn't on fire.
Greg Sargent: When you see Nadler sometimes on TV, he just looks so perplexed. And by the way, Jerry Nadler is a really good public servant, right? He's a serious constitutionalist. He's been around for a long time, and I think he recognizes certain aspects of what we're up against here. But when he's on TV kind of looking perplexed at the latest completely crazy argument that's come out of the White House from White House lawyers, just complete utter nonsense on every level, like laughable nonsense, to be perplexed by that and sort of mystified and downcast about the erosion of norms, it feels to me like they're not really getting quite the scale of the challenge they're up against right now.
Andrea Chalupa: Is it that though? Because let's take a long view of the character of the Democratic Party. We did the Republicans, right? They've had this rabid Republicanism since the Gingrich invasion of the House back in the 90s. How do you characterize the Democratic Party? I mean, it's plain as day what we're up against. They see what we're up against. Even Republicans privately have been reported to admit to what we're up against. There's something deeper with the Democratic Party establishment, and I don't know if it's just a matter of the golden handcuffs, of needing to placate they're big donors. Are they addicted to the pollster industrial complex system? How are they doing this? Because the whole world sees it. It's a mainstream observation that why isn't the Democratic Party doing more, and really leading when it comes to the existential urgency of the situation. Could you sort of characterize as much as you can sort of the long view of what is the Democratic Party, and why do they insist on operating this way when so much is at stake? The whole world is at stake, really.
Greg Sargent: Well, I think there are a few things going on, right? One is, in fairness, the Democrats, they really are more of an institutionalist party, right? They often actually do try to act in ways that are responsible and uphold norms and strengthen institutions as opposed to degrade them, and so forth. It's easy to sort of scoff at that and so forth, but that's a good thing in many ways. It actually sometimes does work for them politically, too, like in 2018 that really, you know, I was talking to a lot of Democratic operatives throughout that whole thing, and they were saying, "Look, we could be talking you know angrily about Trump, but the anger of the base is doing that work for us." It was really interesting actually. I remember interviewing the person who oversaw the state legislative races, right? And they won, if you recall, they won in some really wild areas, places where Trump had won. You know, little state legislative districts that Trump had won by 30 and 40 points.
Andrea Chalupa: The debate is, were those extraordinary wins for the Democrats in Trump country during the midterms, was that driven by the Democratic Party, or was that rather a big sea change, as we saw with the Women's March producing all types of candidates for the first time, and was more grassroots, the base just rising up?
Greg Sargent: Yes, I think it was grassroots, but there were sort of a two-track thing going on which operatives talked to me about. It was fascinating. Let's put it your way, that it was a grassroots thing. There was this explosion of energy around the Muslim ban, remember, like major protests erupting at airports, the Women's March, which was in retrospect really a very important sign of what was being unleashed. What I was hearing back from people who were working politics in very tough areas was that this kind of energy on the ground was really organic and happening in response to Trump through organizing of the type that you're talking about. Now what that did was it freed up the candidates again in these very tough areas to go out to independents and even Trump voters and just sort of say, "You know, there's a lot of craziness out there. I'll fix your roads. I'm going to really operate in a way that will keep our politics clean and strong and fortify our institutions, and so forth, and that work." And so what I want to say there is that this type of institutional respect for institutions among Democrats actually does work politically for them sometimes, right? But now we're in a bit of a different situation, aren't we? I mean, we're now in a situation where Trump is going to be on the ballot and he is the one who is targeted by a House that is controlled by Democrats that should be running incredibly aggressive investigations in order to hold him accountable, and is getting hamstrung at that. It's just not 2017 anymore, and they need to use their power in a new way. You asked earlier whether this is a thing of Democrats, and brought up, I thought, an interesting point about the pollster industrial complex. I mean, you can even just see on Twitter, you can see terrible signs of this. I saw a tweet the other day from a very prominent Democratic pollster who just said something like, "Yeah, we could be talking about impeachment, but look at this poll. It shows that people care about healthcare." Or Cheri Bustos, who's the chair of the D triple C, who comes from a very conservative district, in her defense the other day was quoted saying something really incredibly baffling along the lines of, "We're not just going to talk only about how Trump's bad, we're going to talk about healthcare." The problem with this type of posture is not that the Democrats are talking about issues. That's fine. It's that they're essentially kind of urinating on the idea of of accountability for a corrupt and criminal president. Right? I mean, whenever they say things like, "We're not going to be just anti-Trump," what that telegraphs to voters is these are people who are afraid to take on a corrupt president and who don't view the corrupt president as a serious problem. That's a pollster industrial and kind of old-thinking Democratic problem. So I don't know how we get past that. I think maybe some of the younger members of the Judiciary Committee, like Ted Lieu and Jamie Raskin, the people who have been kind of vocal out there pushing for a much more aggressive posture, are finally breaking through the clutter. But it's tough, you know? A lot of these Democrats come from very moderate districts that were carried by Trump, and they're incredibly skittish. You can kind of see why, right? We're talking about places that are like half the Richmond suburbs and half rural Virginia. Right? These are tough areas, so I can kind of see why they are skittish about it, but it just won't do. It's got to change.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, it's such a strange thing to me the way that they try to separate Trump in this giant network of corruption and crime from policies, because it is the Trump administration that is either blocking the policies that are being put forward in the Senate or creating new quote-unquote "policies," like locking up children on the border and holding them in inhumane conditions. It's not like people don't know that's happening, and then when you look at it from the perspective of polling, you've got about 80% of Democrats at this point wanting impeachment. You have a very high number of independents. You have nearly half the country overall, which is a fairly remarkable point, certainly not a point Nixon was at. I guess my question is, you brought up the grassroots rage and the determination to find accountability and justice as a motivating factor for 2018. Is the Democratic leadership risking alienating that very base, the ones who went out and canvassed and worked so hard in the aim of accountability by separating Trump from his policies and by not pushing for the kind of results I think people expected in terms of him being brought to justice?
Greg Sargent: Yeah. Before I get into that, I want to make a point about the polling, which I think is important. The polling actually could conceivably be somewhat misleading on impeachment. If you look at the way the questions are asked, it's almost always sort of presented as a binary choice: impeach or not. But the other day, there was a Quinnipiac poll which had a really interesting separate question, which said something like, "Do you favor beginning a process that could ultimately result in Trump's removal?" Something like that. And all of a sudden, the numbers shifted dramatically to the point where they were almost evenly divided across the country. In the same poll, the straight impeachment question was something like 30-65. So one major problem we're facing here in both persuading Democratic politicians to take this a little more seriously, and in I think persuading Independents to support that type of accountability, is that I think a lot of voters understand impeachment not to be a process, but rather just kind of a conviction without trial, which they instinctively feel is political and unjust and hasty. So we've got a major problem on our hands in terms of educating people. Jamie Raskin, the congressman who's been very good on this stuff, actually said to me the other day, "I'm pushing pretty hard to try and get more members of the caucus to talk about this as impeachment inquiry as opposed to impeachment, so people understand that as an open-ended kind of thing that is educational and involves fact finding." So hopefully we can get a little more pushing on that front, maybe shift the numbers. But that aside, I think there's a demobilization risk. I find that whole debate, the demobilization debate, actually I frankly find a little bit opaque. It's a little hard to tell whether some of this stuff is demobilizing. I think a lot of this is that there was a real serious shock and anger when Trump won, if you recall, and immediately started to do some of the awful things on immigration in particular, and so forth, and then immediately went out there and started saying things like, "The press the enemy of people," really sending a strongly authoritarian tone and doubling down on the ethno-nationalism right out of the gate, right? That, combined with the constant misogyny and the shock of the Trump win, I think really supercharged the Democratic base in a way that I think we haven't seen in a while. So the current moment is going to inevitably be measured against that, and it's going to feel like a demobilization. I'd be curious to know what you guys think, if there's a demobilization going on in terms of Democratic dithering on oversight and impeachment. I find it a little tough to tell, honestly.
Sarah Kendzior: I've seen a lot of demobilization, but I live in Missouri, so we just lost reproductive rights and we're dealing with record floods. So people have lost their rights, they've lost their homes. We're living, I think, in what people fear is a microcosm of the national situation. We have tyranny of the minority, of GOP rule in Missouri, where even conservative Missourians are like, "These guys are nuts." Our legislature is completely insane and full of dark money and not interested in the lives of regular folks. We had all these very progressive ballot initiatives passed: raising the minimum wage, protecting unions, medical marijuana. Then we have the GOP legislature in the same state striking them down against the will of the people, and what I've kind of seen through groups like Indivisible and stuff, that we're very active at getting folks out canvassing, volunteering, that kind of thing, they don't want to do it anymore, because they've it's exhausting. Especially in a red state, you know, St. Louis is a blue city, but it's a red state. To put all that effort in, and then first they kind of got it from Claire McCaskill, where she referred to the quote "crazy Democrats," basically meaning them. Then you get it again from Pelosi, and they're kind of like, "Well, if you're not going to bring accountability, if you're not going to protect my rights, then why am I making this extra effort?" I have not seen it in the sense of, "I'm not going to vote." I do hear that on occasion, and I always tell people, "Please vote anyway. It's extremely important to continue to vote." But I don't know if that kind of grassroots rage is going to come out in the places where it surprised people, like in purple districts, swing districts, red districts, because life is already so hard if you're progressively minded there. Maybe it'll continue to come out, I mean I don't Andrea what you think, in New York, if you've seen the same phenomenon.
Andrea Chalupa: Well, I'll say I think there is a serious danger for sure, because the Blue Wave was transactional, right? It's all these people sacrificed countless hours doing the important work of knocking on doors, of getting out the vote, and they did that several months in advance. The Blue Wave didn't happen overnight. It was built by the grassroots across the country, and that was free labor, and people thought that they were going to get accountability in return. People thought that they're going to get impeachment. And so it's been really aggravating to see the Democratic Party leadership say, "We didn't win on impeachment. The Blue Wave wasn't because of impeachment." Yes, it was because of impeachment. Don't lie to us, because we lived through that that year ourselves, and we saw all the headlines. We saw what were voters were saying. We went to the marches and saw all the impeachment signs. People wanted to hold Trump accountable and get rid of him, and they worked their hearts out in order to do it. They were fighting for the House and the Senate, and we won the House, and it was this huge, gratifying moment, and everyone's like, "Yay, here comes impeachment." And then Sarah and I on Gaslit Nation were like, "Uh-oh, the Democrats are gonna give away their power just like they always do, aren't they?" And sure enough, Nancy Pelosi a few weeks later comes out and says, "Oh, there's no point in impeaching Trump. It's not worth it." I just want to say, as somebody that is hugely privileged to have been a part of grassroots movements and witnessed them, and they are the truest power, because you don't have to ask for any permission. You don't have to be held hostage by institutions, especially when our institutions have been eroding, and there's so much corruption. All of it. So grassroots power is essential. What I saw with the midterms is, you know, Staten Island. The Staten Island miracle where Max Rose defeated a Republican who had been in power for a while and in the Trump Country of Staten Island. His office was packed with volunteers in the middle of August on a rainy day in a weekend in August when most folks are away on vacation. That was the sign that he was going to win. Okay? That people are showing up that early. Compare that to me visiting Sarah a week before the election in blue St. Saint Louis, and that's Claire McCaskill country, and her campaign office is practically empty on a weekend before the election. What is happening with Claire McCaskill in Missouri? I knew she was going to lose. When I saw that, I'm like, "Claire McCaskill is going to lose." I talked to Sarah about that. I'm like, "What is the disappointment here? Why didn't the base show up for Claire McCaskill?" And Sarah was telling me that she basically threw the base under the bus.
Sarah Kendzior: Yes.
And if you throw the base under the bus they're not going to show up for you. So what the grassroots are going to do is they're going to show up for people who show up for them. Nancy Pelosi has to honor the humanity of the grassroots, the people that are sacrificing. All kinds of people. Max Rose's office in the weeks leading up—this isn't a Max Rose infomercial by any means; I'm using this as a case study, because was stunned, and it was a Staten Island miracle—because Max Rose's campaign office was flooded, flooded in the weeks leading up to the election. You had to like push your way in there to get like a packet to go knock on doors. That's what you as a Democratic leader want to see, because it's the grassroots that will be the free labor, that will be the passion, that will be selling your vision as a party. I think a big lesson for the Democratic establishment is to pay attention to the recent European elections. There's been massive frustration with Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, and how he hasn't come out to really show leadership and give the public a people's vote, because now that all these lies have been exposed and this criminality has been exposed behind Brexit, the least Jeremy Corbyn could do is gather Labour around together, show leadership, and say, "Okay. Well now that we know this, we need to have another referendum. People need to vote again. We can't move forward with this. Our country's future is at stake. Europe's at stake." In the recent election in his own district, there was a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn, and the numbers were devastating for him, showing his sinking popularity in the polls, people's disappointment, the base not feeling served, no accountability with Brexit. They took it out on Jeremy Corbyn. So I don't understand why this calculation of the base is going to pay you back based on how you treat the base. I don't understand why that's not part of the national conversation, and especially not a part of Nancy Pelosi's and her entire leadership team's conversation, because that's everything. Our entire world rests on the grassroots in America, because of Trump gets it again, global warming is coming for us. He's gonna be exacerbating that, so everything's at stake.
Greg Sargent: Yeah, it's a dismaying situation. I'll tell you, there's one interesting complexity to all this that I don't know what to think about, and I'm just going to throw it out there if it's alright. So speaking of some of these people winning in very tough districts because of this explosion of volunteers, I can tell you I actually also was getting reports during some of those special elections in those really, really tough areas of enormous numbers of volunteers showing up in subzero temperatures and stuff. And that's when I felt like something really was happening. But now I think one of the problems we face is that some of these very same Democrats who won in tough House districts are the problem on impeachment, because I'm reasonably certain, my own reporting has indicated to me that Pelosi is hearing from a fair number of moderates who don't want to do this. I mean, even Ted Lieu told me the other day that that he didn't think a majority of the caucus was there for an impeachment inquiry, and he said that on the record. That's a little bit disturbing for people like us who think that maintaining that grassroots energy is crucial going into 2020. It's the very people who won through that explosion of grassroots energy in tough places that are the ones who are reluctant to go down the impeachment inquiry road, and are reluctant to really bring out the hammer in terms of accountability on Trump. Where does that leave people like us?
Sarah Kendzior: That's a great question, and the example I would use to answer that would be Justin Amash and what he's been doing, because I think one of the reasons that moderate Democrats may be hesitant to support an impeachment inquiry is because their own constituency isn't really clear what that entails, and how it works, and what the results will be. Some of that is because Pelosi has been putting out non-existent jargon to describe the process, like self-impeaching, impeaching at the ballot box. She's been saying the Senate needs to grant permission. She's been saying Trump can't be charged with other crimes or the committee stops working. That scares people and makes people timid, and I think one of the best things that those moderate Democrats could do, or Democrats that won swing districts, is just have a town hall with their constituents and answer their questions clearly. You know, put out an FAQ. I think the Democrats, I think everyone should be doing this, because this really isn't a partisan thing. Every American is entitled to information about how impeachment works, and whether you voted for Trump or you didn't, we're all stuck in the same situation, especially things like climate change. I can tell you that much, as a Missourian, Trump voters are not very happy right now. They don't like having flooded fields and roads and nobody helping them out. So I do think that this idea that people are unreachable, that their positions are intractable, that no one can break through, and that these Democrats are so vulnerable if they just speak openly about what's happening, I think it's the opposite. I think the more transparent someone is, the more willing they are to just engage with their constituents and answer their questions, the better off they will be, because then you will have a relationship of trust. And trust you is what's missing, and I'm curious of your thoughts on that, because you do talk a lot in your book about trust, about disinformation, about the effect of this sort of blitzkrieg of disinformation that's been the Trump administration. Since you wrote your book, I would say things have gotten markedly worse. You wrote this before the midterms, before the Mueller Report and the Barr memo was released, which was its own little case of disinfo. What's your sense of where we are as a country on things like political trust and the ability of people to process what their representatives are saying?
Greg Sargent: Well, I just want to go back to what you said about Justin Amash. It's a fascinating point, right? If you watched the town hall, what really kind of punched through the clutter was his conviction, right? His belief in something. And I think that alone commands a lot of attention, and that's something that a lot of moderate Democrats are still afraid of for some reason. I also think you raised a really important point that I'd like to sort of amplify a bit, which is that the Democratic leadership is actually actively misleading the country in many ways about a lot of this, and I agree with you that that's a really important reason for the skittishness of moderates, because they're getting bad cues from elites. I mean, the political science tells us that elite cues really matter, right? And so for Pelosi to be out there saying things like, "Well, the Senate won't convict and so it's futile," it's like, that's just essentially misleading people about the institutional authority and obligation of the House of Representatives and its role in what the impeachment inquiry process can do in terms of educating the country about big questions about whether the President committed high crimes and misdemeanors. Those things are terrible abdications of leadership, and I agree completely, they are really very much responsible for both maybe the state of public opinion and then by extension the skittishness of moderates. But if you look at how Justin Amash punched through that by talking frankly and educating, by acting as a leader, you know, I guess we'll find what happens in his primary soon enough. He may find his career has been ended by standing up for the rule of law, because it's hard to be a Republican and stand up for the rule of law these days. This feeds right into your question about disinformation. To me the way to counter this kind of crush, this total saturation of propaganda that Trump, Hannity, FOX, the whole network of them is all about, is to stand for a narrative, a very strong pro-rule-of-law, anti-corruption narrative that sees educating the American people as its central responsibility, and that isn't really happening now. The whole thing is baffling. I mean, we watch Fox News. We see what's happening. It's just very strange to me that Democrats think that they can get by with conventional politics. I don't understand it.
Andrea Chalupa: So did the establishment in Germany with the rise of Hitler. They thought, "Oh, we'll keep him in line." You see all of those stories coming out now reminding people of that history lesson, and you cannot negotiate with terrorists. You just simply cannot, and we're up against far-right terrorists aided by a terrorist state, which is of course Putin's Kremlin. I do want to say just to your point on leadership and how Justin Amash really stuck his neck out and held a town hall to educate, and the woman in the audience, the conservative who'd said, "Wow, I had no idea the Mueller Report had anything bad about President Trump. I had no idea it had anything that he'd done anything wrong, because I thought it exonerated him." Because she got her news from conservative media, which is aggressive and far-reaching and extremely well-funded, as we all know. So I think, to your point, is what we need now in these times are not just principled leaders, but principled leaders and they build their coalition, and they direct their party to go district by district and hold town halls and educate their communities about what they need to be aware of in order to be smarter voters, in order to answer their questions, in order to fight this aggressive far-right propaganda, and so forth. I don't understand why Nancy Pelosi isn't saying, "Okay, well here's where the polling is." Even though, as you pointed out, the polling is bullshit, and there's polling that actually supports that people do want to get rid of Trump and whatever, but if Nancy Pelosi said to her soldiers, "Everybody go back to your district, hold a town hall answering all the questions imaginable about the Mueller Report and letting people know directly how bad it is. Go." They would do it. I don't see why they wouldn't do it, because it's a national security issue. It's a big, buzzed-about issue, and even when Barr came out with his coverup, there was a poll saying that Republicans, Independents, and Democrats all overwhelmingly agreed that they weren't satisfied. They wanted to see the Mueller Report. The American public is hungry to be like, "What the hell is going on?" So I don't know why leadership in the Democratic party isn't capitalizing on that.
Greg Sargent: In terms of going out and holding town halls that would educate, you could do that, right? I mean, you don't even have to be pro-impeachment to do that. You could do it around the Mueller Report. I mean, we've been talking for two years about a foreign attack on our political system, one that Mueller concluded was quote "sweeping and systematic," close-quote, that was designed to divide the country along social and racial and ethnic lines, involve massive cyber-theft directed at a major party candidate, and so forth, so you could organize town halls around that for sure. I mean, you're seeing readings around that. I was talking to a political operative the other day about this, asking essentially, why are Democrats downplaying the idea, even just the very idea that a corrupt president should be held accountable? Why are they saying things like, "We're not going to be anti-Trump," when being "anti-Trump," in quotes, entails basic accountability for corruption. And so here's what I got back: you know, my boss recently went out into the district and talked to voters, and said, "What's on your mind. What are you thinking about?" They talked about jobs, and they talked about healthcare. And all to the well and good, but what struck me about that was the reactive crouch of it, right? The instinct was to go out and say to voters, "Tell me what you're thinking about, and I will frame our agenda around that." Which is understandable, but where's the leadership? You need to also say to voters, "You know, I think this is important. I am your elected representative in Washington, and I think this stuff matters, and I think you should pay attention to it. I think Trump's corruption is a big deal. It affects you; it affects all of us." The reactive crouch is a terrible thing, and I think that reactive mindset essentially, it's a depressing answer to your question as to why they're not doing more proactive things on this.
Sarah Kendzior: In your book, I was really glad to see how much you addressed the issue of voter suppression, because I feel like that's one of these things that was constantly underestimated during 2016, you know, the partial repeal of the VRA and these new I.D. laws. We certainly saw how they affected that election. That's why Clinton lost Wisconsin, among other things. The situation has gotten worse since then. We did have the Blue Wave, but we also had things like Stacey Abrams' loss in Georgia, and we have an administration that seems emboldened to be lawless, that seems to want to disenfranchise voters, and is pretty open about showing that. How confident are you that 2020 will be a free and fair election?
Greg Sargent: My general instinct is to think that it'll probably be okay. I think Democrats, depending on how it goes, have a decent chance of winning a reasonably sizable margin. I'm not predicting that, but I think it's perfectly, there's a very decent chance of that if Trump's unpopularity remains where it is and Democratic accountability efforts actually do step up, which I'm kind of hoping they will. In terms of voter suppression in 2020, look: I think there's sort of a flip side to the whole story, which I try to tell in the book, which is that in 2018 we had some victories, right? We had some reforms instilled on the state level in various places that really could matter, right? And neutral redistricting commissions, and so forth. One thing I argue in the book is that we've got to take seriously state-level efforts to improve democracy. This federal level is going to be almost certainly deadlocked for a while, unless somehow Democrats take everything in 2020, which is not impossible but seems tough. We're not getting any serious reforms of the Voting Rights Act through Congress. We're not getting any of those great reforms in the House Democratic HR 1 Bill through Congress because of the Senate, and so I would really urge everyone to continue to focus on the state level as the arena to fix things. We're talking about local election official races, that type of stuff. Citizen commissions. Every little bit helps. I think probably if things go okay and Democrats hold the House in 2020 and they can gain back more ground on the state level, which is key, by the way, like I keep saying, then the next decade the redistricting picture could start looking a little bit better, frankly. Then at that point, hopefully we'll look at the last decade as one that was really terrible for voting rights, but is starting to be reversed.
Sarah Kendzior: I have a related question about that, because you talk about partisan vote-rigging, about redistricting, gerrymandering. We have a census coming up in 2020 that the Trump administration seems to want to manipulate to give demographic advantage basically to white people over other Americans. How would that affect redistricting efforts, voting rights, all these sort of pathways to ensuring that our democracy has integrity.
Greg Sargent: Well, I think it really remains to be seen, right? We don't know how the court battles over it are going to go, and I think there's a legitimate argument over how much of an impact it will have. But to repeat the point from before, if we can make gains on the state level and institute reforms on the state level, then I think we can actually reverse some of that stuff. The Democratic Party is getting to what I consider to be a really good place on voting rights. I mean, as I tell in the book, the party actually has a pretty sordid history of its own with some of this stuff, right? Gerrymandering is certainly something that Democrats have done in the past. But I took it as a really good sign, what happened in Jersey recently. If you recall, there was a gerrymander there by New Jersey Democrats, and the entire weight of the national progressive and Democratic establishment kind of crushed down on them, saying, "We don't do this anymore?" Right? Remember that? I mean, that was a really, really cool outcome, I thought. They reversed course promptly. The party is the party of voting rights and clean elections and good democracy now, and I really think that energy is going to start manifesting itself in more victories on the state level in terms of putting in reforms that could kind of undo the degradations that could come from census-rigging and so forth. So I feel like this is really kind of an uncertain battle right now, that we really have a chance of making things better over time.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, I feel like we have this sort of, I'll call it like the "Stacey Abrams paradox," where on one hand, we do have a Democratic Party that is confronting the problem of voter suppression. We had the follow up to Trump's State of the Union by Abrams discussing that. They've made it a key point in their campaign, but of course Abrams is not in office. She lost that election through what seemed to be illegitimate means, so it's this weird situation we're in now where all of these kind of long-festering institutional crises, whether it's income inequality, voting rights, systemic racism, corporate corruption, we all know. We all have awareness, and as you point out, there is the potential for us to reverse course, to get on the right path, I guess. I don't know what you guys' thoughts are. I worry that we are going to be stuck at the level of awareness unless, kind of as we were talking about before, leaders really step up and show everyone the stakes of the situation, what happens if the base is not motivated, what happens if people aren't completely forthright and honest about the severity of the crisis. That's what I worry about, because I do agree with you that it's not a foregone conclusion that we're doomed to some sort of horrible fate. I know everyone thinks that's what I think, and they think that that's what this show is, but actually don't. You know, I would like to see the world that you're presenting occur. I just wonder about whether we do have on a systemic level corruption that's so deep that our best voting rights advocates have illegitimately lost an election. That's quite a situation to behold.
Greg Sargent: The Stacey Abrams paradox is a really interesting idea, and I think you really raise some good points about it. On the other hand, they were able to scrape out wins in other places where voter suppression was a really serious issue, right? In Wisconsin they won, I believe, both statewide races. In Pennsylvania, which was also sort of a site of a lot of that stuff, they won there. The Stacey Abrams pick is interesting for another reason. The fact that Chuck Schumer tried to get her to run, and the fact that the party picked her to give the rebuttal to Trump, those things I think really do show a new level of institutional preoccupation with the mechanics of winning these elections and the mechanics of fighting back on the Voting Rights front that wasn't there before. That's a story I tell in the book. The Democrats really were caught flat-footed, and really made terrible strategic errors leading up to 2010, and essentially, we're really suffering a lot of the fallout now as a result. But the party really has changed on this issue. I mean, you've seen tremendous efforts going into winning back governorships, and the pitches to some of the big donors as well as the small ones that are made by party leaders and top fundraisers now really focus very heavily on the need to win back state legislatures and governorships for these precise reasons, right? Because the mechanics of democracy are controlled by those people, and so the fact that the party is so focused on those mechanics and is motivating people around that I take as a good sign. I mean, I don't want to sound Pollyannish about it. It's a really tough struggle, and the Supreme Court is a major problem, and I think we could be in a situation where this conservative Supreme Court conceivably makes things worse by potentially striking down as unconstitutional things like nonpartisan redistricting commissions, which would be a terrible blow. But I think the fact that this party is so focused on it right now is a good sign, and there's a lot of energy on the issue, and the fact that the Democratic House, the first thing they did was that major reform bill that had a lot of these things in it was also a good sign right. So we'll have to see, but we all have to keep focused on it is really the key.
Andrea Chalupa: To your point on how essential the local elections are, from dogcatcher commissions, everything. The cleansing has to be driven on the local level, because that's what eventually drives up further and further and further, and builds a progressive infrastructure on the ground county by county, state by state. And that's going to create the cultural change that's needed in Washington for progressive values to be fought for and won, and cleaning up all this corruption, and so forth. So two groups we mention a lot on this show that we've interviewed that do this essential local work and can get anybody involved in it is Future Now and EveryDistrict. Future Now and EveryDistrict, and they're the ones who are ringing the alarm saying if you want to protect your country, it's the local fights. It's the local elections. No race is too small, and here's how to get involved, and here's where to give your money, and all of it. Very targeted and essential work.
Sarah Kendzior: I have a question, to take us back into the gloomy hellhole in which I dwell. So you write for The Washington Post, which of course has this storied history of being the paper to help bring down Nixon, and now it's positioned itself as a defender of democracy, as well it should, and as a result of that has been attacked at very high and very frightening levels by Trump's associates. We've had the blackmailing of Jeff Bezos, and we've had the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. I was just sort of curious: for you, what's it like working there at this point in time? Are you concerned about threats to your safety since you also write about these issues, or are you concerned about press freedom?
Greg Sargent: I don't really worry about my safety, frankly. I guess what I would say is, this institution is—and I know I work for it, so evaluate this as you will—but I'm really, really proud of the way this institution has responded to this moment. My sense has been, and I got there in around 2010, so I saw a very different Washington Post back then for various reasons, and it's really evolved fairly substantially, especially in response to the rise of Trump. You know, a lot of the editors and reporters, I think, are really seeing this moment for what it is in a way that you don't always see in the media, right? If you look at some of Marty Baron's speeches and stuff, and public statements, and if you look at the handling of the horrible Khashoggi thing, it's really been impressive to me the way they understand this moment as really a potentially defining one, which it is for many in the press. And this gives me a chance to rant a little bit; I hope that's okay.
Sarah Kendzior: Go for it.
Greg Sargent: On other fronts, it's just, it's endlessly, endlessly baffling to me that we're still debating in the media how to deal with Trump's lying. It's incredible to me that we're still trapped in the place where we're talking about things like, "Oh, well did he intend to lie? Well, if he didn't intend to lie then he's not lying, is he? Right?" I mean, this guy is like, he has told ten thousand lies and distortions as president. He is operating on a quasi-totalitarian level of disinformation that we have not seen in an American politician, I don't think, in recent memory, although I don't want to overstate that. I mean, Bush lied us into Iraq, and so forth. And Karl Rove was famous for his quotes about altering reality, and so forth. But this really is something different, as Sarah you've talked about, I think, really, really well and eloquently a lot. So you're still in a place where social media is putting out Trumpian statements without context and without correction, and we're talking about the social media feeds of major news organizations and major reporters. This type of thing, to me, constitutes major institutional failure, and it's incredible to me that it's still going on. I don't know. I think it's changing. I think the constant pressure and heckling from people like us is making a difference, but it's still a major problem.
Andrea Chalupa: I know this is a very basic question, but I think it's an essential one to ask, and I have some follow up questions, obviously, from this one. What is authoritarianism, and how does it work?
Greg Sargent: Well, I don't consider myself an expert on that. It seems to me that what we've got and Trump is a fundamental hostility to liberal democracy that I think we haven't seen in an American leader in some time, kind of an alliance with a global, illiberal, populist authoritarianism that I think we need to see as something that's really a fundamental threat to the way we do things in our democracy here. We all talk about how Trump hobnobs with dictators, and so forth and so on, and we all talk about the Putin influence and everything else, but it really all adds up to that, doesn't it? Everything we see. I think we sometimes don't put the picture together in ways that we should. Take his corruption, right, and refusal to release his tax returns. I see that as kind of like one side of the coin of authoritarianism. I don't know if you do, Sarah, but to me that type of thing is of a piece with that type of contempt for liberal democracy's advances in the world in the last 60 years. To me, that type of corruption is really something that makes him kind of simpatico with Putin in a way, right? They understand each other as oligarchs, as authoritarian oligarchs, right? And I don't think we do a good enough picture of putting together all these pieces: the constant disinformation, the corruption, the kind of personal looting of the system, the praise for dictators, the refusal to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of Khashoggi, the middle finger to Congress, which by the way I don't understand why we're not talking about this anymore, but do you all recall that Congress ordered Trump to produce a report on what the intelligence said about the killing of Khashoggi? Remember that?
Andrea Chalupa: Mmhm.
Sarah Kendzior: Mmhm.
Greg Sargent: And he just broke the law and just didn't supply it. And here we are, right? I think there's another scandal involving the Saudis developing right now. There's tons we don't know about his relationship with the Saudis, including his financial relationships with them. By the way, can I just sound a bit of an optimistic note for a second?
Andrea Chalupa: We may edit it out, but go ahead. [laughter]
Greg Sargent: So for all the justifiable bashing of Democrats we do, I think there are scenarios in which we could see some of this oversight bear fruit, right? I do think they'll probably get the tax returns. It seems to me that they're going to essentially succeed through their efforts to get access to his finances through outside entities like Deutsche Bank, and so forth. The House Intelligence Committee, by all indications, is really running a serious investigation into Trump, which could potentially get into his financial ties to the Saudis and potentially the Russians, presuming they exist to one degree or another. Over time, we could learn more about a lot of this stuff, and it could make a lot of Republicans very uncomfortable. To me, that's like kind of the window into understanding his authoritarianism, right? We could kind of debate at the 30,000 foot theoretical level, but really the authoritarianism kind of exists in the sordid details, doesn't it? If you think about it, it exists in the constant trips to Mar-a-Lago, and the use of trips abroad to draw public attention to his holdings abroad, and so forth, and in the refusal to give Congress the report on the murder of Khashoggi, that type of thing. I think if we get some more light shed into those kind of nooks and crannies, we'll understand the full scope of the kind of illiberal authoritarianism driving and animating Trump and his administration in a way that we haven't before.
Sarah Kendzior: I think that's totally true, and I do think that as you just said, this is an extension of corruption that's been building for decades and decades. One point I do want to make, and you also make in your book, is that when there's not accountability for this, when you let it fester, when you go from Gingrich to Trump, it becomes harder and harder to combat it. So while you're right that the solution is transparency, it's thorough investigations, it's bringing everything into light, you also need somebody to actually enforce that accountability, and that's been really where we've gone from being a flawed democracy into what I think is a burgeoning autocracy. Obviously not a full one or we not be casually having this conversation, but it's certainly a kleptocracy. You know, we are a country that is getting stripped down and sold for parts. One of those parts that's being sold is media itself; it's information itself, and so that makes things even more complicated. I've no idea how much you're allowed to talk about it, but I'm fascinated about the difference between the Washington Post and The New York Times. You know, when before we were talking about—
Greg Sargent: Absolutely.
Sarah Kendzior: Go on. Do tell. [laughter]
Greg Sargent: Oh well, I mean, look: the New York Times has done a tremendous amount of fantastic investigative work, right, on Trump. I mean, I think they broke some of the Big Comey stories, and so forth, and really put together some of the most detailed narratives and most revealing narratives on things like the effort to essentially twist Jeff Sessions into his little authoritarian windup toy. I mean, they really broke a lot of ground on that, but it sometimes seems—and I want to be careful here, because it's a little hard to talk about a big institution this way—but it sometimes feels to me a little like they're more reluctant to kind of go where some of us are willing to go, which is to a place of recognition that this is kind of a different kind of moment than what we've been up against in the past. I feel like the Times a little bit is still trapped in a place where their view Trump's disinformation effort as essentially maybe a slightly exaggerated, but more or less conventional form of political dishonesty. And by the way, the fact-checking there can be really great, but if you follow the reporters on Twitter, they do seem to be maybe a little, I don't know, dismissive of some of us who really try to argue that this moment is really a kind of drop-dead moment of challenge for the press. I think in many ways the Post is not in that same posture. I feel like we take the kind of gravity of the moment maybe a little more seriously in a big picture way, but you know I work there, so I'm biased.
Andrea Chalupa: But that's also the prevailing wisdom. I mean, people are always saying, "Wow, why can't you be more like The Washington Post?" every time the New York Times shits in the hallway. They come out with these horrible takes and puff pieces, and it's clear that they're being used by Trump's clan to further their own agendas and interests. We see what you're doing, New York Times. You have a big track record of this. I mean, even it's bizarre that stark cultural difference between the Washington Post right now and the New York Times. I like to imagine the Washington Post newsroom sort of rolling their eyes along with the rest of us, because we need everybody. This is an all hands on deck moment, and we need everybody in media to do their jobs to the fullest and hold all these people to account. So I do like to imagine the Washington Post sees our frustration and gets it, and might have to send some consultants over there, share it with sisterly love, spread the wealth of what you guys are doing with your New York Times comrades.
Greg Sargent: The tweets and the headlines really matter, and I think there is a Times headline the other day that drove a bunch of us nuts. It was something like "Mueller speaks and Washington can't agree on what he said." Something like that. And the piece itself was more nuanced and better than that, but to have a headline like that on your home page, it essentially says, "You know, we just think things are kind of ordinary. This is just an ordinary political disagreement." Okay, the special counsel just concluded a two-year investigation which concluded that the president committed an extensive obstruction of justice, probably would've been charged with a crime for it, that there was a sweeping attack on our democracy that Trump and his campaign actively encouraged, tried to conspire with and tried to profit off of. So Mueller gave a press conference, and then Trump said, "It's all fake news. I've been totally exonerated." Whereas Democrats said, "No, it's not all fake news. No, you haven't been totally exonerated." Oh, It's just a partisan disagreement right. It's just another partisan disagreement. To me those types of headlines matter. They add up to something. They add up to a very misleading account of what's happening right now, and I guess I feel like we should all take that extremely seriously, and people like us can elevate the good voices that are that are taking it seriously. I mean, you know they are, right? We're talking about people like Brian Beutler at Corporate Media, or David Roberts at Vox. These guys talk about this stuff regularly, and we should help them out and elevate them.
Andrea Chalupa: Yeah, we agree, and Sarah and I keep track of the good white men in media.
Sarah Kendzior: There are so few. [laughter]
Andrea Chalupa: You're one of them, Greg. You're one of them.
Sarah Kendzior: We have a list of like, white guys who are actually good.
Andrea Chalupa: White guys who get it. Good white male allies. Because it's the women and the people of color who they're coming for. That's who they liquidate first.
Greg Sargent: Michelle Goldberg's very good on this, right? Adam Sawyer at the Atlantic really understands this problem, I think, in a gut way. We can just keep elevating those voices, I think. It's a brutal social media environment right now, and none of us likes it I don't think.
Andrea Chalupa: Obviously, the frog boiling in a pot of water has been happening for a while now, with Gingrich and the GOP just chipping away at our voting rights. Could you give us just a quick summary of the domestic conditions that the Trump campaign with the Kremlin's help took advantage of to come to power?
Greg Sargent: Well, I don't think I could do it any better than Mueller did, right? I mean, we saw a sweeping and systematic attack on the election that really used to every tool that they could get their hands on to divide the country along social lines, the cyber theft thing. I think that people don't talk adequately about the cyber theft that happened, and here's something where I can actually contribute, I hope, a little bit of insight. I was on the phone with Democrats throughout some of that whole thing, and what I consistently felt was that the seriousness of the cyber theft piece of things never broke through to the press. Right? It was always treated as a debate. The debate kind of unfolded this way: it was, "Well, isn't this information legitimate? I mean, isn't all information good? If there's if there's a chance that we could learn something about the Democratic establishment or the Democratic candidate that we wouldn't learn and that could actually be valuable, if there's a chance that we could learn this stuff through this type of cyber theft and release, isn't it valid? And you know, we've spent half this this discussion criticizing the Democratic establishment, so I think we'd probably agree, yeah, we want to know as much as we can about the Democratic establishment, and frankly there were things to criticize about the way they handled 2016. What was always missing from the debate was the fact that that actually did disadvantage the Democratic campaigns. Right? We talk constantly about, oh, did Russia swing any votes? But I know from personal experience, from my own conversations with Democratic operatives, that they were terrified of what was happening. They didn't know, you know, they were all struggling in the dark and were trying to figure out what was going on with cyber theft and cyber-attack, and these were really frightened people. My feeling is that the Democratic National Committee was to some untold degree literally disabled at a key moment in the campaign, and I think that kind of mattered. Right? You know, how many votes it swung, I don't know, but I've never understood why we don't discuss this as a bad thing. We don't want one camp one major campaign and one major political party to be disabled in the middle of a hard-fought election. It ends up producing a potentially unfair election, which we shouldn't want. I think that actually made a very big difference. I have friends on the Democratic side who are absolutely convinced that a non-disabled DNC would have functioned very differently through some of those key moments and could have potentially made the difference. I don't know if that's true or not, but the Russian effort really was a major deal. I don't think we should ever listen to anyone who says otherwise.
Andrea Chalupa: It was an attack, plain and simple, by a hostile regime. I think, to your point, we were normalized for that level of transparency through hacking. Whether anyone agrees that or not, you had Assange for many years being seen as a crusader, a hero to many people. Same with Ed Snowden. Same with Chelsea Manning, and so forth, and I'm not judging them one way or the other, I'm just saying we had this entire culture of transparency which was all the rage for many years.
And on top of that, big cyber hacks of the White House and major banks and companies in Silicon Valley, and so forth, happening for years, so I think we just all became numb to it. And so when you had a Watergate-level break of the DNC, but far worse, far deeper, I think that big headline was missed.
Greg Sargent: And look what's happening now. Right? One thing that frustrated me about the coverage of Mueller when he gave a statement about the report and closing the investigation, one thing that frustrated me about that was many people noted, "Okay. Well, he opened and closed his statement with a warning that this is a really big deal, that the Russian attack on our democracy is something, I believe his language was every American should take it seriously, or something like that. But what was not as noted is that what he was also saying in those remarks is that when Trump tried to derail the investigation, he wasn't just trying to derail an investigation to protect himself from scrutiny. He was actually derailing an investigation into the foreign attack on our democracy. And that to me has always been a really big part of the story, to go to your point about normalization. It's just simply lost on many journalists that this is what happened. Right? It's always debated as was there collusion or was there not collusion, was there obstruction or was there not obstruction. What's missing is this big picture point, which is that Trump tried to frustrate and derail an accounting of a foreign attack on our political system, which he benefited from. Now, we've learned through reporting, and to the New York Times' great credit, they really broke a very good story on this that deserved more attention, they reported that Kirsten Nielson, the former DHS secretary, had privately been trying to warn that Russian interference was a really serious problem, and the acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said, "Maybe you shouldn't take it up to Trump, because he doesn't really like to talk about this." Right? I think that's a big story. What it shows is that not only did Trump try to frustrate that accounting of the attack, he has actively tried to subvert efforts, or at least through his own pathologies, has tried to subvert efforts to guard against the next attack, even though his own intelligence officials are saying that it's a serious matter. Talk about normalization, right? I mean, we now have Brad Parscale out there saying things like, "Oh, you know, Russia didn't really help us in 2016." We have Jared Kushner out there saying, "Oh it was just a few Facebook ads." Right? And we have Rudy Giuliani saying, "Well, there's nothing wrong with taking info from the Russians," which I think, as you guys pointed out a lot and as many of us have, that this is essentially an invitation to do it again. There's almost a method to their sort of constant shrugging about it, right? They're trying to bring about the very normalization you're talking about.
Andrea Chalupa: Our discussion continues, and you can get access to that by signing up on our Patreon the truth teller level or higher.