Media’s Trump Hangover and the Kamala Conundrum

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Trump eclipse
Julia Ioffe
December 28, 2021

It’s so quiet in Washington right now. The swamp slumbers during these days between Christmas and New Year’s, but we at Puck never sleep. So we’re bringing you a conversation between me and Jon Kelly, our co-founder, editor-in-chief, and, more importantly, my friend. Herewith, my conversation with Jon, about the D.C. media’s post-Trump hangover, Kamala’s 2024 question, and the Manchin-infrastructure disaster, among others.

Jon Kelly: Julia, you wrote a great piece over the summer about the mild dystopia engulfing the D.C. media in the post-Trump era. In the last week or so, both the Journal and AP have published significant pieces confirming what we already presumed—Americans’ appetite for political news, once the coin of the realm, has faded considerably. 

I know that some of your sources expressed relief at no longer being beholden to Trump’s Twitter feed. But I presume many others—especially the journalists who tied their identity to covering the 46th president—are worried about this economic chill.

Julia Ioffe: Oh, for sure. What you saw among journalists in the first few months of Joe Biden’s presidency was this mix of relief and nostalgia. Relief at having their weekends back, relief at not worrying that the President of the United States of America will tweet-create three new news cycles while they were in the shower, relief at not having to deal with the most insane and corrupt presidency in recent memory—and one that vilified and promoted violence against them. And nostalgia for, well, all of those same things. The Trump presidency was a total shitshow, but it was also the best and unceasingly dominant story in the U.S. It was exciting to cover Trump, it was often easy to cover Trump—unlike the Biden White House, his administration leaked like the Titanic—and it was a system of instant gratification: every scooplet went absolutely viral and reporters quickly became #resistance celebrities. Readers and viewers were absolutely hooked, and ratings and traffic were always somewhere in the stratosphere.

Now, we’re back to normal in more ways than one. The Biden administration hasn’t really had any scandals, no matter how hard the right wing tries with stories about Hunter Biden. The administration’s press strategy has been very disciplined and largely free of leaks. The historically gaffe-prone president himself has given very few interviews—and regular interviews, each of which featured a half dozen jaw-droppers, were one way Trump kept the news cycle spinning on his own terms. 

Washington, itself, is back to its normal business of haggling over legislation, which can be quite procedural, legalistic, and, well, boring. It’s something we’ve forgotten about Washington since Trump bounded into the presidential race in 2015 and set our informational universe alight. Even the pandemic, now two years old, has become kind of boring. The waxing and waning of various waves and variants has become a fairly predictable and far less terrifying process. And all of us, both news producers and news consumers, are more than a little exhausted. 

The soggy viewership and readership numbers reflect that. And legacy media companies, everyone from CNN to the New York Times, are back to contending with the reality they were grappling with before the Trump boom:  How can media survive and prosper in the 21st century? It’s not a question they have found a very satisfying answer to. The Trump circus merely masked the problem.

That said, the boredom might lift in 2022 and beyond. The midterms are sure to be crazy, and they promise a massive Republican sweep of the House and a flip of control in the Senate. That means conflict will be baked into the political equation for the rest of Biden’s term. 2023 brings the beginning of the presidential race, and you can be sure that the media—especially cable news, or what remains of it by then—will milk that for all the drama possible, especially as Trump publicly weighs running again. (Expect many, many will-he-or-won’t-he TV panels.) If he does, well, the boom times will likely return, papering over the problems once more.

I’m curious how you see the current predicament of Kamala Harris. The media, and the Democratic party, is eyeing the complex pickle, perhaps 18 months from now, in which Biden opts against running for re-election, and Harris, as the then-presumptive party leader, is vulnerable in a putative race against Trump, Cruz, DeSantis, or whomever. 

That’s the question Democrats are asking themselves both publicly and privately, and I think they know the answer isn’t very good. The Democratic consensus in Washington—at least the one I’ve been privy to—is that Harris is doomed. Whether it’s Trump or Cruz or DeSantis, she will, according to everyone I’ve ever spoken to about it, get absolutely clobbered. It’s not only that her poll numbers are bad, though the constant churn of Bad Lady Boss stories about her don’t help matters. And it isn’t just that she’s not really been electorally tested. (She boosted Biden on the presidential ticket in 2020, yes, but she dropped out of the primary before a single vote was cast.) 

It’s also that she is a Black woman, and this country is still plenty racist and pretty sexist. She’s also been given a shit sandwich of a portfolio: the immigration crisis at the southern border, COVID-19 vaccination, and voting rights, to name a few. These are some of the tallest and most magnetic lightning rods protruding from our political landscape, which is part of what makes the problems so hard to solve. Harris has hit back at this strain of conventional wisdom, saying that she has “not been set up to fail,” but if you have to say it, it means a certain narrative has set in and it isn’t that of a winner. That’s a hard thing to kick, especially going into a presidential cycle in a super divided country, large portions of which have passed laws designed to depress your side’s turnout. 

Moreover, which Democrat will be brave enough to challenge Kamala in a runoff if she chooses to run? (And if Biden decides not to run again.) It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario for other Democratic contenders: either you challenge your party’s nominee and defeat her in a primary (or leave her wounded for the general), or you let the party grant her the spot at the top of the ticket and consign itself to a near certain loss. It’s no wonder there is so much Democratic heartburn in Washington these days.

I’m interested in your assessment about how much of this storyline is impacted by realpolitik cross-tab based political cynicism (Harris was a milquetoast general interest candidate) and how much it’s a byproduct of her gender and race. Would the media be this engaged over the prospects of Dan Quayle and Mike Pence, both of whom served aging presidents?

I think a large amount of it is about gender and race, for sure. Look at how well the C.R.T. race-baiting is working for Republicans. As for the sexism, the Bad Lady Boss stories make me crazy. There are plenty of terrible, toxic male bosses in Washington, but it’s usually the ladies—Harris, Amy Klobuchar, etc.—who get written about. At the same time, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We saw it with Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy in 2020: lots of people liked her but were scared to vote for her because they were afraid a woman couldn’t beat Trump in a deeply sexist country. (Remember the stories about Hillary Clinton’s laugh and likability?) But then, the more voters were scared off by that reasoning, the fewer votes Warren got, turning fears about her unelectability into reality. Democrats can be really good at getting in their own way.

That said, these two factors aren’t the only ones that pose hurdles for Harris. Unlike, say, Barack Obama, the first and only Black president we’ve ever had, Harris is not an inspiring and transcendent figure. Yes, she is a first and an inspiration for many young women and girls of color, but what else does she offer, other than her example? She’s not much of a public speaker, repeating the same cadence, the same vocal chord progression, over and over again, even where it doesn’t often fit with the words. People who have written for her have told me that she doesn’t like soaring political platitudes in her speeches. She thinks and speaks like a lawyer: bullet points, deliverables, problems, solutions. 

One of her chief problems in the 2020 Democratic primary continues to bedevil her now: What is Harris’s vision? What is her message? It was hard to articulate then and it’s hard to articulate now. Moreover, now she is the messenger for Biden’s vision, which is also running aground. Who is seriously talking about unity and bipartisanship? About functional, competent government? She still has time, but finding a resonant message and vision, one that is communicated clearly and well—always a problem for Dems—is going to be one of her main challenges. 

You talk to political operatives all the time. What do they say about Biden privately that no one says publically?

Honestly, both Democrats and, more surprisingly, Republicans agree that Biden is mostly competent, lucid, and in good shape. Sure, he’s lost a step with age, they say, but who hasn’t? Democrats all have stories to prove that Biden was on the ball in this meeting or that negotiation, and that’s to be expected. What’s more surprising is that Republicans basically agree. Whatever Fox News is trumpeting about Biden the doddering figurehead isn’t what people in Washington are saying privately, not even Republicans. Most of them privately admit that it’s just partisan bullshit, and that their real problem with Biden is not his age, but how he has, in their view, tacked to the left after his inauguration and after running as a moderate. But I guess that’s not as compelling as “the president is an incontinent puppet,” and few of them will go on the record to contradict their own messaging machine. 

You wrote a provocative piece last week about Joe Manchin’s grandstanding over BBB—essentially noting that the Democratic senator, who represents a Republican state, felt that Biden was over-interpreting his mandate. Is there a widely held view in Washington that the Democrats have overplayed their hand? That the country merely wanted Biden to competently manage the pandemic response rather than pass a generation’s worth of Democratic legislation?

I think it depends who you speak to in Washington. Most liberal Democrats contend that the proposals outlined in the constantly changing Build Back Better Bill were the bare basics of what a civilized, industrialized society owes its citizens. They will show you polls that these things—paid family leave and lower prescription drug prices, for instance—are very popular, including with Republican voters. Even moderate Democrats I spoke to on the Hill and on K Street were confident that the bill would be passed. It was a no-brainer, after all!

But that was before inflation arrived and gave Republicans an amazing talking point, even as the economy was roaring back and employers were having a hard time filling job openings. That helped Republicans and more conservative Democrats’ messaging overpower the Democrats, to show them as out-of-touch, tax-and-spend socialists who were doing too much. And it gave Manchin the out he needed—and probably always wanted.

You’ve been following this situation on the Ukrainian border more closely than anyone I know. Putin seems to be signalling that he’s not fucking around, and he regards NATO’s inclusion of Ukraine to be “a matter of life or death,” as one of his ministers recently put it. Putin likes to kick the hornet’s nest. What’s your read?

I honestly have no idea. There’s a point in every Putin news cycle where I am just out of words to describe what he wants or what he’s thinking. To me, it looks like he’s just being classic ol’ Putin: creating a crisis, making maximalist demands, and hoping to get a hearty fraction of what he’s asking for, before diffusing the crisis he’s created. Unless he decides, like he did in 2014, to kick it up a few more notches. Still, the demands Putin outlined in recent weeks about NATO expansion and the like are not very different from the vision he outlined in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference. He has long wanted to renegotiate the terms of 1991’s surrender and to reshape the world order and its rules into one that comports more with how he sees things. He’s been doing it since he came to power, is doing it still, and has been very clear throughout that this is what he’s been doing. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had to write several “What’s Putin thinking?” pieces a year, as if Putin is all that mysterious or coy about what he wants. He’s been perfectly clear. It’s on us to believe him.

One more pet peeve: Putin doesn’t want to reconstitute the U.S.S.R., as some extremely facile observers think. He’s trying to restore Moscow’s standing as an important world player, and, I’d argue, he’s succeeded. People constantly tell me, well, Russia’s economy is tiny and getting worse, the population is shrinking, Russia will never be a superpower again. Sure, that’s all true, but we’re talking about Russia all the time, aren’t we? We believe Putin can not only invade Ukraine again, but that he helped elect our last president. Our presidents, whether they like Putin or not, find they have to talk to Putin all the time, whether they want to do so or not. Russia may not be China or the United States, but it is certainly an important player on the world stage again. It’s hard to argue that it isn’t. That’s what Putin has always wanted. 

Putin has also always had some corollary demands, like respecting Russia’s security and geopolitical concerns and allowing it to create a sphere of influence in its “near abroad,” a buffer zone between Russia and the West. Ukraine and Belarus don’t have to become part of Russia to act as the buffers they have historically been for Moscow. If former Soviet republics are part of Russia’s sphere of influence—as many of them, like Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia, are—who cares if the U.S.S.R. exists on a map again or not? 

I suppose Christmas and Hanukkah are technically over, but many of us are still in Amazon mode. You are a voracious reader. Can you recommend five books to our readers. Caveats: non-fiction only, preferably politics, and the authors can’t be a friend.

Ha! My dirty secret is that I pretty much only read fiction for fun. Non-fiction feels like work, because it usually is. Two non-fiction books I really loved this year, though, were Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, by Rick Perlstein. It’s not a new book, but it was for me a really eye-opening look at the making of the modern American right. The book is about the 1950s and ‘60s, but I felt like it could’ve easily been written about America today, which is always such a deeply strange feeling when reading history.

I’d also recommend Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone, which represents a kind of fusion of my interests: American politics, Soviet history, and Jewish history. The book is about how and why that big wave of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union—to Israel, the U.S., and Canada—happened. It also answered a lot of my questions about how exactly my family, which was part of that exodus, got from Soviet Moscow to suburban Maryland. I think I swallowed this very large book in two days. 

Christopher Browning’s classic Ordinary Men blew my mind this year. It’s an anthropological history of the perpetrators of the Holocaust on the eastern front, known as “the Holocaust of bullets.” This first half of the Holocaust, which paved the way to Auschwitz and the death camps, is much less talked about, and its also how pretty much all my family members were killed in the Holocaust. Browning does an absolutely stunning job of getting inside the minds and the motivations of the men who pulled the triggers, over and over and over again, in the forests of Eastern Europe. It is also a chilling case study in how ordinary people can become desensitized to doing the ugliest, most evil things—an extreme but bracing warning for our times.

Next on my reading list is Nixonland, which is Perlstein’s next installment in his history of the American right. I’ve heard good things and will report back once I’ve read it.

One more, for my Russia readers: Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, by Rosemary Sullivan. I read this book for my own book, in which Svetlana appears as a character, and I admit I was skeptical because Sullivan is a biographer, not a Russia scholar. But man, was I wrong. Sure, there are a couple minor errors of translation, but on the whole, it is a tremendous work, a masterclass in the art of writing a biography. On top of that, Svetlana Allilueva, Stalin’s only daughter, had such a crazy and fascinating life, it’s hard to put the book down once you start.