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The White House Chronicler Tim Alberta on Palace-Intrigue Journalism and Donald Trump’s Takeover of the G.O.P.

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Tim Alberta’s new book about the Trump Administration, “American Carnage,” which is out on Tuesday, was featured in headlines for weeks before its publication, owing to explosive quotes from President Trump and current and former elected officials, including the former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Unlike other recent White House chroniclers, though, Alberta offers something more ambitious than a tale of palace intrigue; his book is also a six-hundred-plus-page history of the Republican Party over the past decade, which seeks to explain how the G.O.P. steadily moved right and eventually gave way to full-on Trumpism. The abiding theme of the book is that almost every influential figure in the Party has come to accept or submit to the President. Indeed, in it, Ryan breezily states that Trump “didn’t know anything about government” and expresses concern for the future of the country, while also admitting to doing his utmost to keep his disagreements with Trump private when they were working together.

I recently spoke by phone with Alberta, who is the chief political correspondent for Politico magazine and covered the 2016 campaign for National Review. Although Alberta is clearly not an admirer of the President, he is not unsympathetic to the voters who have embraced him and their feelings of resentment toward what they see as an increasingly liberal culture. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why Trump was able to take over the Republican Party, whether the left is to blame for some of the ways that the G.O.P. has descended, and the complications of fact-checking a book about the President.

Why did so many Republicans cave to Trump? Was it sheer expediency—the desire to see conservative priorities enacted by any means necessary—or do you think there were and are deeper things going on?

I obviously do believe that political self-preservation is the name of the game for most of these people. Elected officials generally are reactionaries more than they are leaders, and they react to seeing what their constituents want, and what their voters are mobilized by. I think there was an epiphany for a lot of these Republicans in early to mid-2016, where they realized that this Trump thing was real, that it wasn’t a flash in the pan, that it was sustainable. Even if he didn’t win the nomination, at least at a philosophical level, there was a re-orientation of the Party happening in real time. I do think that some of them began aligning more closely with Trump simply to protect their own flank.

But I also think that there was a calculation made among plenty of Republicans who said, “Look, we need to make lemonade here. This guy is going to be the nominee. He might even be the President, and it’s better to try and get in with him at the ground floor, and get on his good side, and be able to exert some influence over him, so that, in the event we are given the opportunity to govern and to make some of these big legislative changes that we’ve long talked about, we all have a seat at that table.” I think it’s a combination of the two, probably.

What I meant by “deeper things” was that they found that they sympathize with him more often than they think, or that they realized that he was taking the Party in a direction they actually like. Do you think that people in Washington were also becoming Trumpy in a way that the grassroots of the Party was, or do you think that they continued to look at him as someone they had to get close to but didn’t actually like or admire in any way?

I actually think that very few elected officials in Washington became more Trumpy, but I think they saw that their constituents were far more Trumpy than they had ever realized that they were. I think Republicans, by and large, have taken it as gospel for a generation-plus that free markets and free trade and pretty liberalized immigration laws were a net benefit to the American economy, and even a net benefit to the American worker at a more micro level.

When you are just sort of coasting along in this post-Reagan era, operating under these assumptions every election cycle, and somebody like Trump comes along, it’s this tectonic disturbance in the Party. I think a lot of Republicans thought that it was this very ephemeral expression of disdain for the élites, and disdain for the establishment, disdain for the governing class, because we had seen flashes of it before, whether it’s the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street. I think a lot of Republicans in D.C. believed that it was going to come and go. Trump really did expose sort of the intellectual complacency of the Republican governing class—the fact that they had for decades taken a lot of these people for granted.

So it wasn’t that these legislators and élites were also watching Fox News and developing more Trumpy feelings? You think there is still a divide?

I do. Although I think that that divide is diminishing.

You start the book by saying, “Trump is not the creator of this era of national disruption. Rather, he is its most manifest consequence.” I thought that was true a couple of years ago, but now I am less certain. Why do you think this is the case?

Just look at the political landscape. If you take a look at what’s happening in the Democratic Party today, as an example, in no way do I think that [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] is analogous to Donald Trump. But it is really interesting that Nancy Pelosi, who’s arguably the most effective Speaker of the House in a century—who has legislative guile in a way that John Boehner never did, Paul Ryan never did, who is a really professional politician, a really competent leader of her caucus—has a lot of trouble right now with these freshmen Democrats who have been in office for about six or seven months. The reason that she’s having trouble with these freshmen democrats isn’t because they can pull rank in terms of seniority; it isn’t because they can outmaneuver her in terms of legislative mechanics or tactics. It’s simply because the political ecosystem has been inverted in a way that levels the playing field, and that has democratized the way in which elected officials interact with the broader electorate.

What you’re seeing right now can’t just be laid at the doorstep of Trump. Because, frankly, I think it’s something that is going to outlast Trump, and it’s something that both parties are going to be reckoning with for a very long time to come. The fact that A.O.C. is arguably the most recognizable Democrat elected official in America today is really astonishing. I think it says a lot about sort of this political ecosystem that we’re living in.

You write that “Trump’s appeals to America’s darker impulses would have fallen flat in 2000,” because the country was more “peaceful” and “prosperous” and “cohesive.” That’s true, but you also have written a book about the failure of the G.O.P. as an institution. Was the larger issue with 2016 the culture, or was it that the Republican Party had changed or atrophied?

Honestly, I find it almost impossible to differentiate between them. If you think back to 2009, when Barack Obama took office, he was at that point opposed to same-sex marriage. In his first term, he deported a record number of undocumented immigrants. That’s when he went to craft the A.C.A., and he did not let the single-payer advocates have a seat at the table. You’ve seen a pretty dramatic shift in both parties moving toward their bases.

But I cannot personally separate that from what’s happening in society writ large. Culturally speaking, at the time that Obama’s sworn in, social media is barely in existence. Uber doesn’t exist, @realDonaldTrump does not exist. You had a pretty significant amount of cultural upheaval in this period of time. Even the issue of transgender bathrooms: the idea that would be a political lightning rod would have seemed crazy. And I think the issue of socioeconomic disruption and dislocation is paramount to this because, all throughout the world, for centuries, you have seen societies when there has been massive economic dislocation, and there have been corollary upticks in racism, in nativism, in isolationism and protectionism. Basically, people want to put up walls and they want to keep out the outside world. They grow fearful, they grow anxious, they grow resentful and even racist.

You also write, about Trump and birtherism, “This was America circa 2011, a nation seduced by celebrity and blissfully unaware of the cancerous effects.” I don’t disagree with various things you’re saying about the country. But there was a specific thing going on within the Republican Party, and I don’t know that it was also going on in the country at large. I think birtherism is a good example.

Yeah. Look, the addiction to celebrity is obviously a cultural phenomenon that bleeds into the political. I can still remember being at CPAC in 2011, and the reception he got from these people there was just astonishing. They had speakers come and talk about policy, and the whole house came down for Donald Trump. I don’t know if that was the first inclination I had that maybe something was happening in the Party at that nexus of politics and culture, but it was certainly one of those moments.

I don’t think that the takeaway of a party embracing someone who sells birtherism is that celebrity sells. Other things, even less palatable than celebrity, sell, too.

Oh, no question. Look, Donald Trump would not be President today without birtherism. I don’t think there’s any disputing that. His birtherism crusade was the inception of that Presidential campaign and, really, the spark of his Presidency. He would not have latched onto birtherism had he not understood the inherent appeal and the resonance that it had with certain elements of the electorate. It’s worth noting Trump wasn’t an early birther guy at all. Trump was watching it, and then he was pretty much a latecomer to the movement. But then he became probably the most prominent birther. He saw a great opportunity to tap into something that was really simmering below the surface.

In terms of how we got Trump, you write, “The reason Trump was able to get away with calling his rivals ugly, with insulting prisoners of war, with belittling women and using vulgar language, was that Americans, particularly conservatives, were becoming numb to the outrage culture.” You then talk about P.C. culture a bit. Is it fair to essentially blame the descent of the G.O.P. on the left becoming too P.C.?

I think that’s overly simplistic, and too reductive. I think that there’s probably a kernel of truth that certain elements of the progressive left became sort of militant with the P.C. culture in a way that they opened themselves up and really opened the Democratic Party writ large up to criticisms that they were—

I was just reading your quote. That’s what I was responding to.

Yeah. But I do think that probably, more than the P.C. culture, it was just simply the sense that a lot of conservatives had during the Obama years that, culturally, not necessarily politically, the left was sort of overrunning them, and that they were under siege. If you are a conservative Republican, especially an evangelical conservative Republican, you are looking at a culture that you feel like is in rapid decline, and you don’t recognize the morals of this country anymore. On the one hand, you view Donald Trump as amoral. But on the other you view him as the one person who’s willing to step into the arena and start throwing haymakers on your behalf. Ultimately, I think, for most of these folks, clearly, they believe that the latter characteristics outweighed these former concerns.

You also write, “Trump settled on a sobriquet for Warren, one that might have been mildly offensive to the right had it not elicited disproportionate wrath from the left: Pocahontas.” I’m wary of explaining racism or Republican prejudices through the lens of the Left Made Us Do It.

Yeah, that’s a fair point, and I agree with your concern there. That’s not really what I was trying to say. I think the point I’m trying to make is that I think, in politics, people gravitate toward strength. I think that’s probably the thing that Trump has going for him more than anything, is that he projects this strong-man image. If there’s a reason why Kamala Harris was such a star at the debate, it was because she projected strength.

Simply put, it felt as though, as Republicans were pushing some of these racial buttons with increasing frequency, the reaction that was eliciting from the left almost seemed to embolden them to do it even more.

You mentioned earlier that you thought Trump came late to the birtherism, but how much do you think he believes some of the wilder things he says?

The honest answer is: I’m not sure. Donald Trump is, at his core, a septuagenarian white man from Queens. I would think, if you gathered five hundred of them as a sample size, you will find that many of them, probably a pretty healthy majority, hold views on culture and on demographic transition and on any number of these other things we’ve been discussing.

You write, of Trump, “If there ever had been a real distinction between his private self and his public persona, friends say, it receded from their view in 2016.” I have noticed, from watching old clips of Trump on “Howard Stern” and elsewhere, that he used to seem to have some sense of his own ridiculousness and public persona. What did his friends say about that, and do they have a theory of why it is now nonexistent?

It’s super, super interesting, actually, because I have had a number of conversations on this subject with people close to the President. They told me that, prior to 2016, it’s not that Donald Trump was fundamentally different, but that his personality and the way he comported himself and the way that he interacted with people was different. He was a little bit looser, a little bit more self-deprecating. He wasn’t quite as volatile, I guess, for lack of a better word.

When he came down that escalator at the beginning of the campaign, some of the folks who knew him for a long time and who were watching him believed that he was sort of embodying this character that he was . . . not that he was totally putting on an act, but that he was giving people what they wanted, and that it was show business and that there was some performance art involved.

As I talked to people over a period of two years, those people said that by the time he won the Presidency, that alter ego, to the extent that it was an alter ego, had basically merged with the man himself. There’s no more meaningful distinction between Donald Trump the performer and Donald Trump the person. That’s interesting to hear from the consensus of people who know him.

You are critical of Michael Wolff in the book. What have you made of the palace intrigue journalism of the past several years? Do you have an overriding critique?

I think my overriding critique, if I have one, is that we all began to play a little bit too fast and too loose. On the one hand, I think that this is a golden era for journalism, because you have got a bunch of people covering this President who are doing phenomenal work. I almost don’t want to start naming names, because I’ll leave people out.

But there is such an appetite for Trump coverage around the clock now that I do worry that there is not the requisite and appropriate fact-checking and sourcing that needs to go into some of these stories. I guess the only reason I make that critique is I am really fearful that, at times, the media does play into Trump’s hands, and we give him the ammunition to call us “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” and everything else.

Trump’s Presidency presented this amazing opportunity for journalism where we could really make sure that there’s no margin for error. Let’s just not leave any daylight out there, let’s not give him anything to use against us. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s always been the case. I don’t want to assign any malice there. I think people are trying to do the best they can.

Michael Wolf is definitely trying to sell the most books he can. I agree with you on that.

Yeah. Problematic.

You write, “One person who did take [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez seriously: Donald Trump.” You recount that he told you a story about watching her on television with his aides and immediately recognizing her political skill, going so far as to TiVo her. That story got a little pushback on social media. How do you fact-check a story like this? Do you worry when you’re reporting on people who are known to lie a lot, especially a President who’s known to lie a lot?

It’s really hard. I think that there are probably only a few instances in the book where I really struggled with wondering whether to pull the trigger or not, and that was one of them, because the President has proven himself untrustworthy, and he had proven himself unreliable. However, ultimately, after doing some research and seeing that it was at least theoretically possible that he had seen her on television in the time before that primary, what I decided was that that story, even if untrue, is a volume in the Trump Apocrypha. I think it’s really a valuable insight into him that someone like A.O.C. has come along and he wants to take some credit for that.

I guess that, on the whole, if I’m balancing the need to verify truth in stories like that against what a story like that tells us about the President, and about his priorities and, frankly, probably about his insecurity, I guess I tip toward the latter, but I certainly understand some of the pushback, and I don’t entirely disagree with it.

So you are saying that story is interesting even if it’s not true, because it shows a window into Trump’s mind?

Yeah. It is, yes. Look, the short answer is yes, because it gives you a really unique window into how the President of the United States processes not just facts but also people, and positions himself in a way that I think is just really valuable to have an insight into.

Can you check a thing like that with other people who are supposedly in the room, or is it more like you put it in, and you think this is interesting, whether it’s true or not?

I had a little over forty minutes in the Oval Office with the President, and it’s very difficult to . . . How do I say this gingerly? It’s very difficult to keep him on topic, let’s say that. You’re really squeezing every second you can out of the conversation. When he tells me that story, I’m taking notes and I’m writing some things down to follow up on. I did follow up with some people who work in his political operation, people who I assume that he may have been referring to.

I did have a couple of people talk to me about how, yes, he had been sort of enamored of A.O.C. I did not have anybody say, “Oh, yes. I remember on X day he was talking about her or he saw her on TV.” But he told me this story with some detail involved to the point where I felt that it was valuable to include it. I was careful to say, “Trump says he saw this.” The only thing I regret there was in the phrasing that you mentioned at the beginning, which is “one person who took her seriously: Donald Trump.” I should have phrased it “one person who claims to have taken her seriously: Donald Trump.”

You write that Trump was “not surprised” by his ability to take over the G.O.P. This was a guy who, you report, after winning the nomination, had really no understanding of the difference between swing states and blue states in terms of his chances, and didn’t even bother to write a speech on Election Night.

I would draw a distinction between Trump believing he could take over the Party and win the nomination versus Trump believing he could win the Presidency. Because I genuinely think that the answer to the first part is yes, and the answer to the second part is no. Here’s why. When Trump decided to run, he took a long look around, not just the Republican field but around the Republican Party. Trump looked at Ryan and thought, Here’s this pipsqueak, right? Then he looks at the field, and the only person who Trump respected in that race was Ted Cruz—because, again, Trump respects strength, and Cruz projects some of that strength, some of that sort of force-of-nature personality.

I remember reading all the reporting about how this was all a ruse and he was just trying to get himself back in the news. To the extent that was ever true, I think it was only true maybe in the opening days of his campaign. Because if you were in Arizona with him a couple of weeks after he launched his campaign, and they had like fifteen thousand people out there, and you looked around and you talked to people who were working on the Trump campaign, they were blown away. From that point on, Trump became very confident that he could do this. But I do think that once he won the nomination, he realized that he very much had an uphill battle.



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