Last summer, when I kicked off this letter from Washington, I turned to my old friend and drinking buddy, Mark Leibovich, for a conversation about #thistown. If he weren’t so kind and supportive a colleague, if he weren’t so damn interesting and fun to talk to, I would be absolutely unable to read his writing out of pure, neon green envy. And I have told him this to his face.
I mean, who can forget his blistering, bullseye coinages, like “power mourners,” from his book This Town? The book, like all of Mark’s political journalism, is satire in its most perfect—that is, deliciously vicious—form. (I had to take a minute to compose myself when I got to the description, in Mark’s terrific new book, Thank You for Your Servitude, of Stephen Miller as “the president’s droopy-eyed deportation zealot.“)
No one deserves a Leibovich skewering more than the permanent—and permanently intertwined—political and media classes of Washington, but this sequel to This Town has a decidedly darker, more ominous feel. And why wouldn’t it? It starts with Donald Trump’s plot to overturn a free and fair democratic election, and take American democracy down in a cloud of bear spray. It’s the kind of satire that isn’t really all that funny anymore, and hasn’t been for the last six years—and now that we know what it would all lead to, probably shouldn’t have been funny a decade ago, either. And yet, Leibovich doesn’t fail us in Thank You for Your Servitude, finding the moments of irony and dark humor even as he chronicles how all of us, led by the Republican Party, rushed toward the abyss, us journalists following close behind with our tape recorders.
I caught Mark as he darted between book tour events out in San Francisco—“you might be the last person I ever talk to,” he mused as a sixteen-wheeler nearly clipped him on the highway to SFO—and we talked about this new and much darker new book of his. It was nice to talk to someone who sees D.C. so clearly and so sharply, and can describe it with such elegant savagery. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
Julia Ioffe: So, what is Bubble World?
Mark Leibovich: It’s any place where people don’t see the larger picture. A lot of Washington is a classic Bubble World, in that it becomes its own reality. It’s a parochial world where you assume that the privilege of your life and the people that you see every day are something resembling the reality of most of the world. It’s something we journalists in Washington are very susceptible to—Bubble World both as a habitat but also as a way of looking at the world.
You refer a couple of times in the book to the “media geniuses.” Which is very funny, but you make a more serious point about how they keep getting it wrong. Why do you think that is? And why do you think they were so ill-prepared for the Trump moment? Although, as you point out, they were ill-prepared for the Saddam Hussein moment and the Barack Obama moment.
We can all be susceptible to it, but we often just don’t know any other way. I mean, a few tropes just get thrown out there, like the diner in Pennsylvania to go and understand Trump supporters, and it all becomes self-reinforcing. I mean, it’s not as if anyone is holding us to a standard. It’s not like anyone has to license us every year. It’s not like we get performance reviews.
I’ve said this before when you and I have talked about this before, but the main industries in Washington—and journalism is certainly one of them—it’s just very, very comfortable. It’s one of the most comfortable cities in the world. Even the people who—or even especially the people who—are doing unadmirable things, live very comfortable lives. They’re wealthy. There are very few places where the basic disconnect between the comfort of the capital city and the very harsh and deteriorating reality of places outside of the capital are this wide. And the gap just keeps growing.
So political journalists in D.C., who are they writing for?
Quite often, each other. The thing about Bubble World is that it becomes smaller and smaller. There are actually subdivisions within Bubble World, like there’s the Bubble World of the right, there’s the Bubble World of the left, there’s the Bubble World of trade journalism, there is a Bubble World within Congress, there’s the Bubble World of the White House press pool. So that becomes your reality so you tend to write for it. You become part of the class and you sort of unconsciously—or even consciously—write for it.
It takes a pretty deft hand to be a D.C. political journalist at one of the two most important newspapers in the country, as you did for years at The Times, and write about this scene like an outsider.
I was a bit lost during the Trump era and, like I said in the book, I didn’t like the Trump years—at all. For all the absurdity and frivolity of the Trump story, it’s a deadly serious story. There is a real toll here. I don’t pretend to think that I had the right and healthy approach to see that disconnect. I don’t know. It just helps to be a little older, to be honest with you. It helps to be cynical. I also think it helps to be not cynical. That is on its face contradictory, but it helps to have taken a few turns around the track from cynicism to idealism. I think that as you get older and you go through life and have experienced disappointment but also joy, and once you hit the extremes or at least something in the ballpark of both ends, you learn not to trust the comfort around you in some ways because of how precarious it is.
I want to discuss the “adults in the room” narrative or, as you call them, “the cavalry of grown ups.” It’s essentially a counterfactual that says, if we adults weren’t in the room, things would be even worse. You really got right to the heart of the matter by presenting a counter-counterfactual by asking, if you have so much power to prevent bad outcomes, why didn’t you do more to prevent this bad outcome—i.e., Trump becoming president—to begin with? Like, if you had led the base, instead of following them? So I’m wondering, do you have an answer to your own question?
I think Trump wouldn’t be in the position he’s in if there were half a dozen Liz Cheneys instead of one Liz Cheney, and those half a dozen Liz Cheneys decided to become the Liz Cheney of today two years ago instead of one year ago. I think one of the lessons is, it’s not too late to do the right thing. But I absolutely think that if the Republican Party had any kind of fortitude at all, if it had a critical mass of courage, and basically, what’s a more eloquent way of saying balls? Maybe there is no more eloquent way of saying balls.
After Watergate, Nixon went down because Republicans finally turned on him. It took a while but Barry Goldwater and much of Republican leadership from the Hill marched on over to the White House—after there were defections and the tapes came out—and they said, All right, Mr. President, you have to go now. Nixon was a damaged and tortured soul but he had enough shame to give up. Trump doesn’t have that gene. On the other hand, contemporary Republicans didn’t try either and those Republicans didn’t have Fox News. There is a real apparatus around Trump that can make it much easier for him to survive.
No, but let’s play out your counter-counterfactual. Could somebody like Reince Priebus have stopped Trump in the 2016 primaries? Could Mitch McConnell have?
They could have fought harder. I don’t want to overstate the power of a guy like Reince Priebus.
Gah, I almost snarfed water. Thank you.
I mean, the guy is a hack, okay? He really is. It is a lot easier to stop Trump once Trump is in office. Mitch McConnell is just a guy with a vote in a primary. And yes, if he were to really turn on Trump, his endorsement would mean something. I think when Trump is out of office it sort of showed the limitations of what they could do, but once Trump got in office, they could have actively whipped their caucus against him. They could have condemned him every day. Eventually, he would have gotten the message. But instead their answer was, Oh, I’m not going to start a pissing match with him because it’s counterproductive and we’re not going to get anything done that way. Okay. That’s a choice.
What I didn’t see in the book, which is what I heard in private from Republicans during the Trump years in D.C., was basically, Yeah, he’s an asshole, and yes, he’s a bull in a china shop, but he’s getting stuff done that we like. We got our tax cuts, we’re getting our deregulation and we’re getting our judicial nominations. We’re getting our Supreme Court nominations. He’s not even in office right now and they got Roe v Wade overturned thanks to him. I think that was also such a big calculation for Republicans, and it was why evangelicals held their nose and voted for him. It wasn’t just party loyalty. They were getting something in the deal.
From a policy position, I would say that yes, they definitely benefited, although I also think that Trump gets too much credit because the judges were going to be there anyway if there was any Republican president. I mean, Jeb Bush would have nominated the exact same judges and McConnell would’ve made sure of that because he was so focused on the judiciary. So I don’t give him that much credit for the judges, except that, you know, he read from the nomination list and he knows how to use a pen so he could sign bills.
On January 6th, I remember so many people saying, This is not who we are. This is the kind of thing that happens in Burkina Faso, not in America. What do you think of that, now that it has happened in America?
To me, the way that the Republican Party has responded to January 6th is, in a way, more chilling than the actual events of January 6th—which were chilling enough. I think that the fact that a critical mass of Americans voted for Trump in 2016, I mean, a winning mass, an electoral mass is itself a signal of who we are. Or who a lot of us in one part of the country are. Or who one of our two major parties certainly is. So I think that’s pretty well settled. We Americans revealed ourselves so many times in so many elections. I don’t think we meet the ideal that we think we do.
You write that the G.O.P.—and the D.C. political establishment—were kind of like an abused spouse. The many versions of, Oh, he’s going to get better… He’s going to become more presidential… He’s going to grow into the job… What do you think that was about? Why do you think the DC establishment was so wedded to that for so long?
Just inertia. They didn’t know any better. I think they probably were telling themselves—actually, they probably weren’t even telling themselves a story. They were just speaking into a microphone. It was an easy thing to say. It was easy reassurance. I mean, it was basically just claptrap. People want to be comforted.
Are you more hopeful or are you still quite nervous about how we do the next time around?
I’m pretty nervous. I’m really nervous. I know people would like to think that “democracy is at stake” is an overheated statement. There’s always a reflex, especially in Washington, where people are like, Oh, lighten up,we’re going to get through this. And, you know, I don’t think that’s a sure bet at all.