The following is a transcript of Reactionary Minds’ interview with Greg Sargent, a columnist at The Washington Post and author of the book An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics. The transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist. I’m Aaron Ross Powell. My guest today is Greg Sargent. He’s a columnist at The Washington Post and author of the book An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics. Our discussion digs into the state of the American right, its conflicting constituencies, and its fringe and conspiratorial elements, as well as how the press has covered all of it.
Aaron: What is up with the American right, right now?
Greg Sargent: That’s a pretty big question. I think one thing that’s going on with the American right at this moment is that we’re seeing the development of a genuine countermovement to the Republican Party in the form of what we often call the national conservatives, the post-liberals and so forth. All of those strains are beginning to fight with each other as well. What seems to me to be different is that there’s a substantial intellectual challenge to the Republican Party that is, materially, a break with some of what we’ve seen in the recent past.
The post-liberals are really trying to articulate something that does genuinely challenge the “dead consensus”—or what have you—as it’s often called. I actually find a lot to appreciate in some of that writing. I disagree with a lot of it, but the fact that they challenge the plutocratic and libertarian bent of the Republican Party is a welcome thing, although it seems to me to be pretty shallow a lot of the time. To really sum it up, it’s such a big question, but that would be my simple answer to it—that there seems to be a series of intertwined but conflicting movements that are really challenging the Republican Party as we’ve understood it since Reagan.
Aaron: One of those tensions though seems to be, you mentioned, the NatCons—the national conservatives, which at least presents itself as an intellectual movement. There are certainly very smart people in it. I think Josh Hawley is arguably the scariest senator in office right now, but he is unquestionably a smart and well-read and well-educated guy, which is one of the things that makes him terrifying. You have that—and they have been trying to articulate these anti-elitist views and trying to articulate the populism—but the energy is in something that looks very, very different and not at all intellectual, which is the Trumpism, the Marjorie Taylor Greene, the election conspiracy stuff that you’ve written a lot about. When you say they’re against the Republican Party, which is it? Which is the Republican Party right now?
Greg: I think the outer boundaries on the right of the Republican Party are pretty fuzzy. If you take someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who you brought up, there was a point at which she looked to be challenging the Republican Party, but then a decision was made to bring her into the fold in spite of the fact that she had endorsed political violence and had engaged in fairly explicit anti-Muslim bigotry and so forth.
I think what happened was after Jan. 6—to me, the most telling thing that happened, or maybe one of the most telling things that has happened in the last few years—is the sudden lurch by Kevin McCarthy from condemning Trump and blaming him for the violence and privately concluding that he should resign to, a couple of weeks later (I might have that wrong, but it’s around a couple of weeks), making a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago and patching things up with Trump and very publicly absolving him of blame for the trauma that he put the country through in the lead-up to Jan. 6 and on Jan. 6.
Right there, I think a decision was made by McCarthy—how conscious? I don’t know—that there was a certain set of constituencies that the Republican Party absolutely needed to hold onto. A lot of them are associated with Trump’s insurrection. Maybe a lot of them are just more garden-variety Trump voters who were brought into the Republican coalition by Trump. Remember that in 2016, and in a weird way, even more so in 2020, Trump really activated these constituencies that just had been dormant.
I think Lindsey Graham actually provided a quote that, to me, is really one of the perfect encapsulations of the situation. This was maybe a year ago, maybe a bit more. It was the point at which they were really debating disciplining Liz Cheney, who was demanding accountability for the insurrection and essentially saying that the Republican Party could not function as an actor in a democracy as long as it continued to apologize for Trump’s insurrectionism and continued to play footsy with it or even actively embrace it.
Lindsey Graham said something to the effect of: “Liz Cheney has made a decision that the Republican Party can’t grow with Trump. I’ve made a decision that the Republican Party can’t grow without Trump.” I think that’s the fundamental thing that happened with McCarthy, with Graham, with a lot of the institutional players who decided that they were going to do everything they could to apologize for, propagandize away, minimize and so forth the insurrection, and continue to hang onto these constituencies.
It’s a good question: Are those constituencies the Republican Party or not? I think they weren’t. Someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene was an outlier. Little by little, they’ve subsumed that set of constituencies and set of leading lights like Marjorie Taylor Greene. In a way, I don’t know if you can really locate the exact outer boundary of the Republican Party.
We saw this just very recently with the Nick Fuentes thing. I talked to Kathleen Belew. She’s a historian of the white power movements who’s really one of the best. She wrote Bring the War Home, which is a wonderful book. I highly recommend it to your listeners. If you want to know about the white power movement, that’s the book to read. She and I discussed this. She essentially said that there’s a direct line from Republican elites essentially saying the insurrection was okay and not a big deal—tourism or whatever—right to the Fuentes dinner, which essentially told all these constituencies that the Republican Party is open for business for you. You can treat this as a vehicle to try and organize within an influence. I think that may be the way to think about it. I don’t know if that’s a great answer, but it’s hard to locate that outer line.
Aaron: You mention people like Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham and the embrace of Trump when they had—most of them had—been in opposition to him when he was running until he achieved the nomination. They were anti-Trumpers. We saw a lot of anti-Trumpers shift to being fairly pro-Trump over the last five, six years and so on. How much of that is a strategic move on their part?
They just recognize that all the energy in their base in the party is on the side of Trump. He still has enormous sway. We keep hearing stories like maybe his influence is finally fading, but that hasn’t been borne out in any dramatic fashion yet. They know that primaries really matter. As long as Trump is Trump, it’s going to be hard to win primaries if you oppose him and so on.
So there’s the strategic side, but I often wonder how much of it is that the shift is reversed. Because the right has always been—this is definitionally—the right has always been a reactionary movement. That’s what it has meant to be on the right. Even going back to pre-American conservatism, it was reactions against breaking down of class structures in Great Britain and so on. It’s a reactionary movement.
It’s always had racist elements. Antisemitism has always been a part of the right. Anti-feminism has always been a part of the right. Rather than them holding their noses and embracing a lot of the ugliness of Trumpism and the fringe movements, how much of it is just they were holding their noses and embracing what we would consider social liberalism and toleration and so on because that’s what the elites liked, and Trump gave them more of an excuse to let their inner reactionaries out?
Greg: I think it’s probably helpful to think of it as on a spectrum. I think a lot of the big donor types probably really do have a tendency towards some form of social liberalism, but they’ll make alliances with whoever they have to in order to protect their material and economic interests and so forth and to protect capital and everything, whereas some other Republican elites aren’t really quite as business-oriented.They’re maybe a little bit more intellectual, although you have pretty big breaks there too. I find one interesting thing about the Never Trumpers is that there really is a dramatic split in the Republican elite intelligentsia right there. They really went in sharply different directions, with some going all into Trumpism and others going all out of Trumpism [laughs]—like a complete and direct repudiation of everything that Trump stands for, at least in terms of his hostility to interracial democracy and so forth.
It’s really interesting. I know this is a bit of a tangent, but I actually talk to the Never Trumpers a lot, Kristol and those types. I’ve actually been surprised. The liberal take on the Never Trumpers has been: “Oh, okay, they’re rejecting Trump. But fundamentally, when it comes to voting rights, when it comes to economic policy, they’re still basically in the same camp as Trump is.” I’ve actually seen them really move away from the Republican Party in those areas too. You see some of the Never Trumpers really essentially defending universal health care now and defending voting rights, which is really not something that I think a lot of liberals expected and some won’t even acknowledge today.
I got far afield from your original question, but I think there’s a big spectrum of ideological differences around all this. It’s a little hard to boil it down in an easy way.
I don’t know. If you think about elites like Mitch McConnell, they’re willing to cynically co-opt Trumpist energy when they have to, but they won’t go as far as Kevin McCarthy will go. Kevin McCarthy will do a lot more when it comes to co-opting Trumpist energy than McConnell will. It’s really this gradation of different degrees to which they are all trying to figure out how to harness that energy.
Take Ron DeSantis. He’s like his own animal when it comes to co-opting Trump energy. I think a lot of the people coalescing around him—a lot of the elites coalescing around DeSantis—are seeing someone who will actually take that Trumpist energy and use it more effectively than Trump did. They are not in the same place that Mitch McConnell is. They really want to fight these culture wars. I don’t think McConnell cares about those very much—maybe just abortion, mainly. That’s not a very satisfying answer, but there are so many different camps at this point that it’s very hard to boil it down in some simple way.
Aaron: Your tangent, though, takes us in an interesting direction, which is the role of the culture war in what we’re seeing now. Because when you talk about how some of these Never Trumpers are now willing to embrace things like universal health care and other, what we would consider more traditionally progressive policies, it seems like one thing that we have witnessed over the last however many years is, basically, the culture war eating politics and eating policy—like on-the-ground policy matters far less than culture-war alignment.
I spent the first large chunk of my career in libertarian public policy circles. There was a lot of unfortunate turn to, at least sympathy with, Trumpism in the right that happened in the last five years in those circles. A lot of it from, where I was, was motivated by: “I don’t like these people’s policies—Trump is not a libertarian—but I am fed up with the cultural left and cancel culture. And, yeah, I think gay marriage should be okay, but now they’re overdoing it with expecting me to be a hashtag ally.” The culture war ate the policy stuff. I wonder if the same thing is going on with the Never Trumpers—that we’re seeing a cultural realignment and you’re mood-affiliating with the people who have the cultural preferences you do. Then the policy stuff is, “Okay, I’m willing to accept whatever policy, as long as it’s the right side of the culture war.”
Greg: In other words, if I understand you correctly, you’re suggesting that the serious hardcore Never Trumpers are rejecting that [Republican] cultural politics and aligning with—not exactly with progressives, because they’re not woke. They’re certainly more sympathetic to wokeness than everyone to their right, but they are culturally liberal now. I think they’ve been driven away from the Republican Party in part.
I think that’s a really interesting insight, actually. They’ve been driven away from the Republican Party in part by [Republicans’] out-of-control culture-warring. They’re willing to accept policies that they might not be willing to accept because they want to ally with liberals on those fronts. I think that’s very interesting, although it can get still more complicated, because someone like David Frum, I think, really does support some form of universal health care. Kristol? I don’t know. I think they have come to despise certain elements of the Republican coalition so much that when they hear attacks on Obamacare and the ACA, it just—I hate to use this word—triggers that kind of loathing that they have at this point for those elements in the Republican coalition. That supports your reading of it.
It’s all very complicated. I find it very interesting that Bill Kristol is now willing to say that there are fundamental and inherent things to conservatism that essentially led us to Trump, which is not an admission that a lot of Never Trumpers are willing to make. You could even break the categories of Never Trumpers down to those who are essentially trying to entirely insulate conservatism from any blame for Trump at all, and those who are willing to say that there are inherent qualities in conservatism that led straight to Trump—you know, just to complicate it even more.
Aaron: I want to ask about the media in all of this, because the Trump years and after have not been kind to public perceptions of the media, particularly the mainstream media. You, as a member of The Washington Post, would certainly be considered part of the mainstream media. There’s been a lot of distrust of it. Its image has been tarnished.
One of the things that has seemed to be characteristic of it—but not your reporting, which is one of the things I really admire about your work—is this wanting to fit what’s happening to the American right. It started with, “Trump seems to come out of nowhere”—but he didn’t really come out of nowhere, because if you’ve been paying attention to undercurrents on the American right, it was all there.
But he seemed to come out of nowhere. There was an attempt to normalize him— “he’s crass, sure, but he’s basically a Republican, maybe more extreme on some policies” and so on—and to talk about him and talk about these movements in this way, and then to what, from my perspective, looks like downplaying just how extreme and fringe and conspiratorial things have become. I’m curious about the motivations of that.
I’ll give an example. We’ve recently had an election. Right before the election, it looked like Republicans were pulling ahead. A lot of people in the media were saying: “This is because the notion that democracy is on the ballot is just shrill. It’s alarmism. The American people aren’t buying it. Basically, things are business as usual.” We know that after the fact, that perception was wrong; actually, polling data shows they were very concerned about the state of American democracy. But there just seems to be this fundamental desire to not acknowledge how bad things have gotten on the right.
Greg: I think that’s also a big topic. I actually got a little bit seduced by the red-wave propaganda coming out of the Republican Party and the media’s echoing of it, to the point where, toward the end, I actually wrote a piece where I talked to a bunch of Democrats and asked them, “Why is it that we’re seeing you guys have so much trouble make people care about democracy?” This was when I think a lot of Democrats were having serious doubts about where things were going.
A lot of them were saying, “Look, we’re having a lot of trouble getting independents to think about this, to care about it as much as inflation, and so forth.” That turned out to be wrong. Democrats themselves turned out to have underestimated how much that message was resonating with people. Everybody was surprised by this, I think.
I think the press faces a fundamental problem when it comes to the extremism and radicalism and basic abandonment of democracy we’re seeing among large swaths of the Republican Party and on the right. They like a model of American politics which essentially says the two parties differ ideologically with each other in various ways. They have different coalitions. Sometimes one party wins the middle. Other times, the other party wins the middle. They’re just locked in a struggle for the middle. Sometimes their bases pull them too far to the edges, [laughs] right? They don’t want to say that one party has strayed far away from basic democratic norms and values in a way that the other hasn’t, because they open themselves up to charges of being not objective.
By the way, I think this is something you’ll be aware of probably as well as anyone. The American right spent 50 years trying to create this situation by attacking the mainstream press pretty viciously, since at least Nixon, for this very purpose—to essentially cordon off a chunk of the country to the point where they simply wouldn’t believe a thing the mainstream media ever said, and also to frighten mainstream media outlets into, I don’t know, tilting the playing field their way by perpetually holding this kind of weapon over their heads by which they would be accused of liberal bias.
You can just see this on Twitter or even in the coverage. A lot of mainstream reporters fear very seriously being tagged as somehow missing what’s going on in real red America. You just never sense any kind of real similar fear on the other side.
Take what just happened in this election. Everyone was caught off-guard by the fact that large numbers of independents and suburban voters cared about abortion and democracy. You did not see a whole lot of self-flagellation among reporters saying to themselves, “How did I miss what was going on in real America?” Whereas when Trump won, every single diner in the Midwest essentially became a campground for journalists for years. [Laughs.] You just don’t see that ever happen with Democratic constituencies. I think that really illustrates the basic asymmetry we’re talking about here.
Aaron: On the media bias, though, because the media is accused of being biased all of the time, look at voter registrations of employees of newspapers and the major news channels and so on outside of Fox: It looks like an English department or a sociology department in terms of the lopsidedness—
Greg: Oh, for sure. I think that’s true.
Aaron: Does that play out in a form of bias, though? Is there something to the bias question?
Greg: I think it works the other way. It makes a lot of journalists even more susceptible to being gamed by the fear that they’re going to be missing something real. I’ve never really understood why journalists own particular leanings. They’re very scrupulous. They’re professionals. They’re operating within a set of professional norms. They’re not going to insert into their copy little things that say, “Look, tilt the coverage.” They’ve been doing it for many years in many cases. They’re edited heavily. There’s a whole process and a whole set of professional expectations and so forth.
I think where this stuff really kicks in is in assessments of what to be covering and who to be chasing and what narratives to be thinking about. If anything, that kind of leaning on the part of journalists personally makes them more susceptible to telling themselves that maybe conservatives and Republicans have a point when they say that they’re in a bubble. We better compensate for that. We better go to this Trump diner and see what they think of this. You saw this play out in this election very clearly. Many, many commentators were really quick to rush to the conclusion that things had shifted in the conservative direction because they were frightened of missing that.
Aaron: Given that there has been this systematic effort to undermine trust in the media—you’re right, it does play out often as a lot of people on the right actually thinking that New York Times and Washington Post reporters are lying to them in their reporting, that they’re fabricating their reporting—what can the media do to regain a degree of trust when, basically, the actual objection to them on the right is that they’re saying things that these people don’t want to hear?
Greg: I don’t really know. The problem here is that a lot of the criticism is in bad faith. There’s a purpose to it. It’s instrumental. It’s not actual real criticism. It’s not like we really think that the press is biased towards liberals. It’s more a kind of effort to game the refs. Do you agree with that? You’ve been steeped in the right for a long time. This has been basically the program forever.
Aaron: At the elite-end intellectual levels, yes, I think it is in bad faith. I think that the base—like the ordinary voters, the people at those diners and so on—they actually believe it. I think that’s the problem that I’m curious like how the media can dig itself out of. Because if they actually believe it, then the solution can’t be like basically saying, “No, we’re not lying,” or, “These people are just using us in bad faith.” They’re just going to basically interpret that as you at The Washington Post lying to them more. They genuinely believe that.
Greg: Well, I guess it’s not as if they don’t try to correct this problem. What we’ve just been talking about has been, for many years, a lot of journalists and commentators and so forth really, really trying very hard to make the case to conservative voters that there isn’t some sort of fundamental and deep bias on the part of the press as an institution. That has manifested itself in the very things we’ve been talking about: the constant sensitivity to the perception that they’re missing something going on in red America, the constant efforts to tell themselves that they need to get out of their bubbles and go to the diners, and so forth.
None of that seems to work, so I don’t know what more can be done. This is not something I’ve given a lot of thought to, I have to say. I feel like, in a way, this is not something that they should be thinking too much about. They should be trying to tell the truth as clearly as they can and in as unvarnished a way as they can. I don’t know if that’s going to do anything. It seems like it won’t. If anything, it’ll make things worse, but I’m not sure if that’s something they should be ministering to at all. Should they?
Aaron: I guess it depends on the importance of a believed press in a democracy. I know from your Twitter account that you are a fan of Matt McManus’s writings. I am as well. In the other podcast I host, I’ve had him on a few times.
Greg: He’s great.
Aaron: His work on postmodern conservatism, I think, speaks to this that there is this kind of fundamental detachment from reality. The role the press plays is to inform. Yes, I have my objections to the way that sometimes the press covers certain stories or to story selection and so on, but by and large, the reporting at major press institutions is really high quality.
Greg: I think that’s true.
Aaron: You’d be well informed if you just read The Washington Post every day and believed all of it, versus trying to figure out the various ways it was wrong and going down the YouTube rabbit holes and so on. That’s really important, but it does seem like the right has just detached from that in a way that is much deeper than just disagreement. It does seem bad for democracy if people are like: “Everything that’s being said is simply, in this postmodern way, like motivated narrative construction. I can believe whatever I want as long as it tells the stories that I want to tell.”
Greg: You could even argue that the very belief that the press is as biased as a lot of, I guess, conservatives seem to think it is—the ones that are thinking this in good faith—that that very belief is itself a sign of that detachment. You can actually prove it by just taking, I don’t know—if you were to pick up maybe 10 news articles from the major outlets, you would see that the Republican position and the Democratic position is represented side by side in every one of them. If anything, the Republican position is given lots of latitude and space even in situations when it’s just patent B.S.
We’re having an example of this right now. Here’s an example of it. I actually did a thing on this today. Kevin McCarthy just signaled that the Republican House is going to reinvestigate the findings of the Jan. 6 committee. There’s no chance that it’s going to be an actual effort to investigate what the Jan. 6 committee found. There’s just no way. It’s not going to be anything like that. What it’ll be is an effort to cherry-pick findings from the Jan. 6 committee’s transcripts and interviews to create fake impressions that stuff was suppressed or create fake contradictions on the part of the most damning witnesses. It’ll be an exercise—and we have seen this in numerous Republican investigations already, from Benghazi to some of the stuff around their countereffort on the Russian investigation and so forth—over and over, it’s just mostly B.S. Not exclusively—from time to time, they’re right. They find things. But most of the time, it’s B.S.
Anyway, if you read today’s coverage or this week’s coverage of this promise on the part of Kevin McCarthy, it just dispassionately states that House Republicans plan to run a counterinvestigation into what the Jan. 6 committee uncovered and just treats it as on the same plane as the Jan. 6 committee work. The Jan. 6 committee work was based almost entirely on testimony by Republicans and people who worked for Trump, in their own words. Just a dispassionate look at this fundamental imbalance combined with the fact that conservatives still say the press is biased against them kind of makes you throw up your hands, I think.
Aaron: How do the election results play into this story we’re telling and also the concerns that you and I have raised today? Because you said there was this narrative there was going to be a red wave. We didn’t get that. Republicans retook the House, but they didn’t retake the Senate. They were defeated. Most of the most-crazy candidates went down in fairly stark defeat. Even a lot of the election deniers at statewide office all went down.
The last episode of this show was election-reaction episode. All of us came out of it feeling a lot more optimistic than we had going into that Tuesday. The election doesn’t fundamentally change things, because it’s just an expression of where things actually were. Do the next two or four years look different now based on what we learned a couple of weeks ago in terms of how much power these most fringe elements actually have in the Republican Party?
Greg: Before I get to that, before I try to answer that, I should point out that it’s true that Republicans took the House, but by an incredibly narrow margin. All the forecasters had it up at around anywhere from 15 to 25 seats. Some had it higher. Kevin McCarthy predicted, what, 60, is that right, at one point? He predicted 60 seats? I think you had plenty of people out there predicting dozens of seats.
Frankly, I thought it was going to be 20 seats. It only turned out to be a few. That’s really ahistorical for a midterm that comes right after—that’s an ahistorically bad performance by the out-party two years after the other party won the White House. I do think it probably does disempower these elements pretty significantly in concrete ways. I’m not sure you’re asking about concrete, but I think that’s maybe the most important thing.
When we talk about the election-deniers, that’s a soft phrase, but what we’re really referring to, or have been referring to, was the very real possibility of a stolen 2024 in the sense of having a Republican election-denying governor in a place like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Michigan or Arizona essentially certifying fake electors for the loser, and then those electors being counted by a Republican House. Not only did none of those gubernatorial candidates win—a big reason the Kari Lake defeat is so important by the way—but a bunch of election-denying officials below that level, which could have also helped a plot like that unfold, also went down.
Now, the counter thing here is that a lot of the election-deniers in the House, the Republican caucus of the House, actually grew, but I think we can’t read too much into that. We’re talking about mainly Republicans who were re-elected and Republicans who won in safe red districts. Even as that did swell, a bunch of the Trumpist candidates even in the House went down—I forget her name, but Karoline Leavitt in the Northeast and then Joe Kent out West, candidates like that. It seems to me that the most fundamental way that this movement has been weakened is in their inability to actually capture election machinery that they needed to capture in order to try and nullify the next presidential election.
Aaron: Then looking ahead, because a lot of your work is assessing and calling attention to these ongoing threats, where do you see the most significant threats heading into 2024?
Greg: I think that actually, in some ways, the threats have been averted temporarily. One thing I think we don’t really have an answer to yet is whether we are going to take the steps to really, really marginalize the threat during the lame duck [congressional session]. The most important thing that could happen right now—or one of the most important things, anyway—is for, during the lame duck, Democrats and some Republicans to reform the Electoral Count Act, which is, for your listeners, the arcane law that governs how the presidential electors are counted in Congress and the holes which Trump tried to exploit in many ways.
Again, things aren’t as bad as they could have been, because there aren’t Republican governors in some of these swing states who really might have won. It was a real possibility. Of course, Republicans hold the House, which is the other piece. Just to reiterate, the basic plot would be a Republican governor or Republican state legislature appoints or certifies a sham set of electors, then the Republicans in the House of Representatives count those electors, and that creates a crisis. If the Electoral Count Act is reformed, then it will be a lot less likely for a whole bunch of boring and arcane reasons.
So that’s the first thing. If that can get done, then I think we can really breathe a bit more easily about the immediate term of democracy. The second thing is disabling the debt limit as a weapon. This is not strictly an electoral thing, but it’s a thing that extremist forces in the Republican Party can really wield to do a whole lot of damage. If the debt limit isn’t raised during the lame-duck session, I think we’re going to have some pretty serious crises unfolding next year, where House Republicans empowered by the MAGA caucus, which is going to be emboldened with a thin majority, really demanding major concessions from Democrats in exchange for raising the debt limit.
You’re going to have Trump out there demanding that the MAGA caucus stand firm and calling on “My Kevin,” as he calls Kevin McCarthy, to hold the line. I don’t know how that actually plays out. I think there are ways that it doesn’t end up doing that much damage if Democrats and sane Republicans can come together in some kind of alliance. It’s certainly going to be pretty damn hectic. Those are the two big things: Reform the Electoral Count Act; disable the debt limit. If those two things were done, I feel like we’re in better shape than I certainly expected we would be.
Aaron: Let me turn then back briefly to the press for the final question, which is, again, as we look forward to 2024 and it looks like Trump is very likely to be the nominee on the Republican side, do you think the press will change the way that it covers him versus the way it did in 2016? If so, how should the press approach covering a second Trump, or I guess it would be a third Trump, election?
Greg: [Laughs.] Well, I think we did see the press really rise to the occasion in a major way in certain important respects, don’t you? It took the press a while to get its footing, but it really started to dig deep into the ways Trump was threatening U.S. democracy. Major swaths of the press corps got very aggressive about going after the serial lying and the totalitarian nature of the propagandistic techniques he was using. It became really a story that was aggressively attacked.
I think that stuff made a difference. I think it let the country know that something serious was up. It’s a little hard to know exactly how important those things are—it’s hard to know what would’ve happened if we hadn’t had COVID, and maybe Trump gets re-elected—but my general sense has been that the press really did alert the American people to the degree that the American people really did realize something fundamental was in danger. The press got a lot of that right—that, plus the fact that these law enforcement investigations are really continuing.
Here’s another thing that could have gone very differently. Law enforcement could have blinked in the face of all the constant threats of violence and so forth. It didn’t, right? These things are really proceeding. Whatever you think of the special counsel decision, it’s a sign that the investigation is going to get a lot more serious—the two investigations: one into the hoarding of secret documents and national state secrets at Mar-a-Lago, and the other one into the effort to overturn the election. Those are going to get a lot more serious. There will be a lot more revelations about that, and the press loves those types of revelations.
I think those few things together are going to, if Trump gets that far—I don’t know that he will, by the way. I just don’t know. We don’t know what his hold is on his swath of Republican voters at this point. I think it’s perfectly plausible that if this stuff gets really serious with law enforcement, that hold really does weaken. I’m not predicting it. I’m just saying it’s possible. If his candidacy gets pretty far, I think all these factors will make the press coverage of his third run—or maybe, is it fourth run? Didn’t he run once before 2016?
Aaron: Yes. It’ll be his third as the nominee.
Greg: Right. I think the way the story is told will be substantially different even from 2020—which, by the way, is its own animal, because the press really got its teeth into the COVID story in a major way, which made that different from 2016 and so forth. I think it’s going to be significantly different. I think the press actually learned and performed really quite well in important respects and will continue to do so, notwithstanding all the other problems we’re talking about. The main problems are really in the coverage of the Republican Party as opposed to Trump, if you think about it.
Aaron: Thank you for listening to Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist. If you want to learn more about the rise of a liberalism and the need to defend a free society, check out theunpopulist.substack.com.
The above is a lightly edited transcript of Reactionary Minds’ interview with Greg Sargent, a columnist at The Washington Post and author of the book An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics.