The nihilism of Trump’s Republican “collaborators”
What sets Mark Leibovich’s new book on the Trump years apart from all the many others is that he started it with an unusual premise: He was bored with Trump. “I’ve never found Donald Trump remotely captivating as a stand-alone character,” said Leibovich, writer for Atlantic, written in an excerpt. Far more interesting were those who stood by Trump and enabled his rise – the Lindsey Grahams and Kevin McCarthys – those who should have known better. What made them tick? This was a journalistic question with a certain mystery. I spoke with Leibovich about the people he calls “collaborators” and whether he has a grand “banality of evil” theory to explain their behavior. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gal Beckerman: So, what’s it like to become DC’s greatest contemporary sociologist? Are you still invited to parties?
Marc Leibovitch: Basically, when This city came out in 2013, a lot of people were saying, Oh, well, you’ll never have lunch in DC again. The opposite happened. The book did really well. And I guess everyone loves a winner. And it was written in such a way that Republicans or Conservatives thought it was an indictment of big government, while Washington Liberals and Liberal Democrats thought it was an indictment of big money in Politics. So everyone sort of claimed it as their own. There are a few people in town who snub me, but not that many. At some point, I think you achieve immunity.
Beckerman: The big theme of your new book is sycophancy in our politics. But journalists also struggle with that fear of losing access that leads to throwing softballs. It has to be a dynamic that you constantly negotiate: how far can you go without burning the people you really need to do your reporting?
Leibovitch: I’ve always thought there was a pretty simple answer to this question: don’t burn people. If you set ground rules, you make deals, keep your word. But once inside the tent, there are ways to attract people. There are ways to see and hear them that others couldn’t. And that’s the challenge.
Beckerman: You always seem to notice the peripheral things that end up being the most telling. I’m thinking of Kevin McCarthy showing you pictures of him with celebrities. It may never have occurred to him that it would end up in an article, but in fact, it becomes the thing you remember the most.
Leibovitch: People don’t quite realize how much they reveal themselves and how they reveal themselves. And that doesn’t always match the image they might want to convey. At least.
Beckerman: Do you have any tips for obtaining this material?
Leibovitch: Part of it is choosing the right questions, watching the patterns, watching the discomfort. I noticed that McCarthy got really, really visibly nervous every time Trump’s name came up and started complaining, “Why do you keep asking about Trump?” And, for me, it was a revelation.
Beckerman: And there must have been many such moments with the people who are the focus of this book, the supporting actors who continued to support Trump.
Leibovitch: They never really realized how central they were. What people miss because they’re so obsessed with the shiny thing about Trump himself and all the intrigue around him is that he wouldn’t be where he is, his presidency wouldn’t be possible, without the submission of the Republican Party. And it is above all leadership. You know, Nixon was finally eliminated by the Republicans, who after a long period of time just said, Alright enough. I mean, you had Republicans who defected. Finally, they got up, and that was it for him. Would Nixon have survived with Kevin McCarthy as House Republican leader and Mitch McConnell, and Fox News? I do not know. Maybe? But I think that was a big, big flaw in all the reporting. It was extremely relevant and extremely fertile ground.
Beckerman: So, at the end of this, did you come up with some sort of grand unifying theory or concept of “banality of evil” that explains the actions of a [Rudy] Giuliani or a McCarthy?
Leibovitch: It’s funny; I’m not really a unified grand theory guy, but I obviously believe that people are both unified and very distinct and very different, very damaged in many cases, each in their own way. There are certain recurring patterns, such as desperation to keep a job. As Lindsey Graham said, do whatever it takes to stay relevant. Or employee, in his case. There is no one in the Senate right now who needs this job more than Lindsey Graham. Kevin McCarthy decided he just wanted to be Speaker of the House. And if he can get there in November, everything will be redeemed. So I think there are a lot of mundane reasons, like people who just like to take the path of least resistance, just good old-fashioned fear and also fear of physical harm. And I think those threats were very real.
Beckerman: The part I found most depressing about the people you described was the sheer nihilism, the disregard for their heritage. I wonder if it depressed you too, probing the depths.
Leibovitch: Yeah, that was depressing. It would be more depressing if it weren’t countered by demonstrations to the contrary, in unfortunately quite isolated cases within the Republican Party through people like Mitt Romney or Adam Kinzinger. There are a lot of people who have courage and decency and who want to do the right thing patriotically, but unfortunately the Republican Party does not seem to be a real breeding ground for it at the moment, when the country has more than never need.
Beckerman: Beyond the descriptive power of your book, did you think it achieved an additional end, at the very least to put some of these people to shame?
Leibovitch: You know, a writer brings his own desperation here. And a big part of it is just finishing the damn book on time. I had three months of rest between my departure The New York Times and started to Atlantic. And that was a godsend, because I did a lot of rewriting just because it’s a fairly quick story. It would have been an incomplete book without January 6 and the events of last year. I was also happy to have Ukraine in there. I think the context of the past few months is really, really important to both impose moral clarity on the Trump years, but also to complete the story and try to propel it forward as we race into 2024, which I think will be a real reckoning election both for the Republican Party and, if it wins the nomination, for the entire country.