Robert Draper and I intersected nearly a decade ago when we were both writing for The New York Times Magazine. We met up at the very old-school bar at Washington’s Jefferson Hotel to get to know each other as colleagues, but became immediate friends instead, bonded by our love of wine, food, and travel.
Robert—or Draper, as he is affectionately known in our business—and I came from radically different worlds. I was a Soviet Jewish refugee who wrote mostly about Russia and foreign affairs; Draper was a couple decades older, from a conservative part of Houston. He was so impossibly all-American. His grandfather was one of the Watergate prosecutors; his father a Marine, a devout Christian and a lifelong Republican. Draper wasn’t, but he understood that world, and would often drive me nuts by explaining it in deeply humanizing, irrefutable terms. He was a good translator and sherpa of the conservative south, of why people there thought the way they thought and felt the way they felt.
As a veteran chronicler of Republican politics, which he had done at the highest levels for three decades, he was also incredibly well-positioned to chronicle the rise of Donald Trump. I remember dinners with Draper after he returned after yet another trip on Trump’s plane or another meal with Donald and Melania in Mar-a-Lago. This was the early days of the 2016 campaign, and Draper understood it better than most. But soon his tone began to change. This was no longer his father’s Republican party, and after Trump’s victory, it would only become further disfigured. By November 2019, when Draper’s father lay dying in a Houston hospital, Bob Draper Snr.’s dying wish was for the United States to rid itself of Donald Trump. That moment, which Draper recounts in the book, shook him to his core. Later, in the Capitol, as insurrectionists and marauders tried to overthrow the U.S. government, Draper found himself thinking that he was glad that his father wasn’t alive to see all this.
His sixth and most recent book, Weapons of Mass Delusion, is a chronicle of the G.O.P.’s descent into the thicket of lies surrounding the 2020 election, and what it has meant for the party, politically. It is a seamless, terrifying, inside-the-room account—and an unsparing one, at that—about how the Republicans went from the party of Liz Cheney to the party of Marjorie Taylor Greene. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Julia Ioffe: It struck me, reading this book and having known you for so long, that you wrote about Republicans in a fundamentally different way than in years past. There had always been empathy, if not always sympathy, in your reporting on them for The New York Times Magazine. In this book, that kind of just went out the window. It felt to me as if you have come to view this party as beyond redemption. Did I read you right?
Robert Draper: I still strove in this book, as I have in all my reporting, to try to understand why people do what they do, believe what they believe, and to try to be not only accurate and fair, but even humane. For me, the change was after January 6, because I really did believe that the party would descend into a kind of posture of penitence. How could they not? This was a riot fueled by Republican misinformation and outright lies. The party had created a monster and it was there for the whole world to see. Or so it seemed. That’s not what happened at all, and that’s when my opinion about the party began to change. But I would say, Julia, that I don’t think that the party is beyond redemption. I don’t think any of us are beyond redemption. But I do think the path they are going down now is a drug. And not only for them as a party, but for us as a functioning democracy.
Your book, and the recent attack on Paul Pelosi, got me thinking about what is decried as “both sides” journalism. Inevitably, when something like the Pelosi attack happens, people will recall that Steve Scalise was shot by a left-winger and will say that left-wingers also demonize right-wingers and so on. But this book was a searing indictment of just one side. I guess what I’m asking is, are we finally done with both-sides journalism? Is it time to bury it?
My book is not about both parties. My book is about one party. And that’s for a reason. The infractions that take place in each party simply aren’t comparable at this point. When we’ve come to a situation when tens of millions of Republican voters believe fundamental untruths about our elections and about January 6, about Covid vaccines, and when the majority of Republican candidates for high office believe the election was stolen—when that’s the situation, it seems like a dereliction of journalistic responsibility to somehow shade that phenomenon as an inevitability in politics that both parties engage in.
That doesn’t mean that we should never cover misdeeds when they’re committed by Democrats, and I do take issue with people on social media who, the moment anything is pointed out about, say, a Democratic campaign gone awry or some kind of Democratic misbehavior, say, how can you talk about this when Republicans are doing X, Y, Z? But to report on that isn’t to engage in both-sidesism. The issue is one of proportion. If, during the Civil Rights era, the New York Times was filing as many stories about the southern point of view as they were about civil rights injustices, then that would be a hideous dereliction of duty. It would be an imbalance. I think we’re refraining from doing that now, for the most part. And it’s proper for us to refrain from that.
A huge part of the book focuses on Marjorie Taylor Greene. There’s a scene from very early on in her tenure, after Democrats and 11 Republicans vote to strip her of her committee assignments, where she goes out onto the Capitol steps and has a press conference and says about Trump, “The party is his. It doesn’t belong to anybody else.” And you counter that by saying, actually, just one month into her tenure, the party now belonged to her. It’s now been almost two years. Do you think it still belongs to her?
In her saying the party doesn’t belong to anybody else but Donald Trump, what actually was being foreshadowed was that the party was afraid of her and what she represented, and they unquestionably still are. Kevin McCarthy is now promising not only to restore her committee assignments, but to give her better assignments, better committees. For her, that means Judiciary and Oversight. If she wants them, she’ll get them. Jim Comer, who’s going to be the head of Oversight, has already said he’ll give her a slot if she wants it. And Trump has talked to her about being his running mate.
This is somebody who has become a person of real influence. And it’s not because of her crafty policymaking. It’s because, now that Trump has left center stage in Washington, the MAGA universe is yearning for a brawler, for someone who will pick up the MAGA staff, and Greene has been that person more than any other. It’s for that reason, and only for that reason, not because of any personal affection or anything like that, that McCarthy is already making all these concessions to her. And she has said to me that the concessions he’s making now aren’t nearly enough; that, in fact, she intends to get her policy agenda passed by the House.
What is her policy agenda?
It includes, among other things, a total ban on immigration of any kind, legal or illegal, for a period of four years. It includes a nationwide ban on abortion and includes rolling back all climate regulations. It includes a jail sentence of up to ten years in prison for anyone who is involved in gender treatment. There would be prayer in schools and the president would be an overt Christian. It’s a radical, right-wing agenda. Her view, as she said it to me pretty memorably, was essentially, Look, I’ve said it to the Republicans in conference, but you guys were in charge of everything from 2017 to January 2019 and you shit the bed. You didn’t do a damn thing. You didn’t repeal Obamacare, you didn’t build the wall. And that’s why I ran for Congress. And now that I’m here in Congress, and now that I have all this national support, I intend to make these things happen. And I’m going to make your life miserable if you don’t let them happen.
There’s another pivotal moment in the book—the no-confidence vote against Liz Cheney, on February 3, 2021—where you phrase McCarthy’s dilemma as, “What matters to us as a party, apart from victory?” Having come to the end of this book, having seen the trajectory of the party until now, what do you think does matter to the Republican Party?
I’ll say this for Greene. She believes in the things I just rattled off for you. Those are things she fervently believes and wants to get ratified. Kevin McCarthy’s belief system is a little less detectable, although it’s clear that the one thing he desires is to hold the gavel and to be Speaker, and he’s willing to give away a lot to make that happen.
It is interesting that, back in the day, you could stop any run-of-the-mill Republican on the street and ask them what they stand for. And they’d say, Less government, lower taxes, more personal responsibility, can I go now? Now they’d say, ban critical race theory and other social wedge issues that are top of mind for Republicans. But McCarthy, I think, would be stuck for an answer. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Donald Trump, their vision for America is pretty plain. They say it over and over. One point that I try to make in the book is that, for all of their performativity, Americans would do well to consider the possibility that Marjorie Taylor Greene actually believes everything that she says and intends to get it all enacted and that leads to a very different America than we currently have.
How much of the country do you think actually agrees with her and fervently believes those things versus just wanting to “own the libs” or stick it to the people in the coastal cities that they think look down on them?
That’s a great and I think unanswerable question. Greene’s survey of the scene on that score is decidedly unscientific. She said to me that people who are actually Democrats and independents support some of her stuff and they come up to her and say so. It reminds me of when Eric Trump used to tell me in 2016 that he just knew his dad was going to win New York because all these New Yorkers came up to him and told him how great his dad was. But I think that there is a considerable swath of non-college educated white America that feels a sense of loss, the apotheosis of which was the 2020 stolen election. Critical race theory and groomers and drag queens and schools are just kind of examples of how the culture that they felt defined America is now being stripped away.
You spent a lot of time with Marjorie Taylor Greene for this book, and, as you mentioned in the epilogue, you even went out to dinner a couple times to interview her. What was it like to just sit with her at a table? What is she like in person?
She’s not all that dissimilar to a lot of people I grew up with in this very conservative suburban area of West Houston. She has a very distinct Southern accent. She can form literate sentences and she’s frank and, one-on-one, she wasn’t speaking in campaign tropes. What she did do was try to convince me that she was not extreme, that her views are not just sincere, but that they’re held by many other people. When we talked about her QAnon past, she reminded me more than once that a lot of people, including successful, wealthy, well-educated people, went down the QAnon rabbit hole and did so, in her characterization of it, because the media had lied to them so much that they were looking for alternative information.
I do think it’s true that tens of millions of people believe what she believes, but Greene has a big megaphone. And though she tried to present a very human-scale version of herself while at the same time saying that she had millions of supporters, the reality is that she says factually insupportable things over and over that people take at face value as truth. The title of my book seems to focus on the weapons that are Marjorie Taylor Greene, but the real objective and matter of concern is the mass delusion. Tens of millions of people who have been deluded en masse to believe things that are just absolutely untrue, then begging the question, what happens to our democracy when one of the two political parties is steeped in these lies? I still don’t have an optimistic answer for that one.
Sorry, I have so many questions about her. Is she, I don’t know, charming?
She can be. She can present herself as this unassuming, unfancied, affluent, suburban, conservative woman. So if someone were watching the two of us talking in a restaurant and was told by someone else that she is this notorious congresswoman, they’d find it difficult to believe because she doesn’t put on airs of self-importance. She is extremely self-referencing in the manner of a lot of politicians. But I had to constantly say to her, What you just said is delusional. Do you really think Jamie Raskin is a Communist? Do you really think that Nancy Pelosi, a devout Catholic, whom you termed godless, is not a Christian?
Did she get offended when you called her delusional?
No, she didn’t. I mean, I would say that it is delusional to say that this election was stolen, on one occasion she said to me, Okay, Robert. You tell me. You really think Joe Biden won 81 million votes? And I said, Yeah. Yes, I do. Do you really think that a vast conspiracy created an 81 million vote total for Biden? It never got terribly heated, but it was a vigorous exchange.
Everybody’s focusing on whether Trump runs in 2024 and whether he’s still the future of the Republican Party, but I wonder, having read your book, if Marjorie Taylor Greene is its future.
If someone were to say to me, I have it on good authority that Trump is not going to run. Who’s up next? My answer would be Kari Lake. As a person who has been a media figure for a couple of decades, she understands how to own the camera and how to turn the tables on the media and to do so with a similar absence of shame. She can hold tens of thousands of people in her sway in a way that I haven’t seen anybody else do, including Greene. What Greene has going for her is that she is truly a Trump loyalist, and Trump knows that. After his bad experience with Mike Pence, if he were to run, he’d go with the person who has his back and will do whatever he wants each and every time. These two people, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kari Lake, represent for the moment, what the Republican Party has become.
Is there tension between Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kari Lake?
Not yet. Greene likes Lake very much. But I do wonder if all of the attention that Lake is getting, all the media around her Ask Me Anything Tour as she runs for governor of Arizona, has had any bearing on Greene and was behind her ramped-up media appearances in the last few weeks. At the moment, though, Lake sought out Greene’s endorsement, and Greene was eager to give it. She is going to be out campaigning with her and thinks the world of Lake—or at least that’s what she tells me.
Speaking of futures, what do you think is Liz Cheney’s future?
It’s a great question. I don’t know. She recently endorsed Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat, for reelection. That’s unthinkable for a Liz Cheney—or any Cheney—of yesteryear. Right now, she’s in a state of exile. She’s lost her seat. She spends more time in the company of Democratic officeholders like Jamie Raskin than she does with Republicans. She’s spoken more often to the Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, in the last year than she has to the Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy. It’s evident to everybody that Cheney is weighing a possible run for president, but I do not see a significant constituency for her.
Last question: What is the future of the Republican Party? Is there a path to redemption for them, for their voters? Where does this all go?
I think there are a couple of different scenarios that could lead to the party returning to its senses, for lack of a better way of putting it. One of them would be a succession of electoral losses that would ultimately cause the so-called adults in the room to say, you guys have been too much of a corrosive influence on how we’re perceived and need to be pushed aside. But I think the more likely scenario is the opposite: that it’ll take a victory by the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, and for Americans to experience what that victory looks like, and how it affects our democracy, before the American electorate in its totality says, we reject this, this is not who we are. But I don’t think they’ll do it until they face it.