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‘He had the right enemies’: Political journalist Jeremy Peters on how Republicans found Donald Trump and lost their party

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Podcast & Video

New York Times correspondent Jeremy Peters joins Hub Dialogues to break down his insightful new book, Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything they Ever Wanted. Peters and The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer discuss the rise of Donald Trump, the growing backlash against “the elites” that primed his takeover of the party, and the future of conservative politics in America and beyond.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Jeremy Peters, who’s a national political reporter for The New York Times and a regular MSNBC contributor. He’s also the author of the new book Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted. I’m grateful to be able to speak to Jeremy about the book’s insights and ideas. Thanks for joining us, and congratulations on the book’s release. 

JEREMY PETERS: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it. 

SEAN SPEER: Jeremy, populism has long been part of the modern Republican coalition. I think, for instance, of Bill Buckley’s famous line about being governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston telephone book, rather than 2000 Harvard faculty members. But as you document in the book, something seems different in the past decade or so. What do you attribute the rise of populism on the American right to over this period?

JEREMY PETERS: So, I would actually take issue with the accuracy of Bill Buckley’s famous statement, because I don’t think it actually really represented who was running the Republican Party for the last generation or so. I mean, Republican Party has been run by elites—though Buckley himself was about as elite as you could get in terms of his pedigree—and what you had was, instead of a party run by the average person, so to speak, you had a party that was run by the Bushes, and the Bushes are called one of the most classic blue-blooded American families in American politics. You have Mitt Romney, people like that, who were really not populist at all. And the surge in populism that you’ve seen animating the Republican Party base over the last decade or so, I think, is a reaction to that. It’s a reaction to the fact that voters felt that the people they were electing weren’t really representing them and weren’t passing laws, making policies that improve their lives, essentially. 

SEAN SPEER: Let’s just stay, Jeremy, on the topic of the conditions that have led to the rise of populism on the right, before we get into some of the consequences that you outlined in the book. Research tells us that polarization is a bipartisan phenomenon. In fact, there’s some evidence that the political left has moved further in recent decades than the political right. 

To what extent are these developments in the Republican Party, in your view, a reaction to ideological shifts on the left? In other words, how much of this is a dialogue between the two major political parties in the United States?

JEREMY PETERS: I think what you’re describing there has accelerated tremendously over the last four or five years. I think that you had Republicans who weren’t comfortable with Donald Trump—didn’t like his style, didn’t like him personally—become more comfortable with him because they were so disenchanted with what they were seeing coming out of the Democratic Party. That gave them an excuse; an excuse to go along with Trump and to excuse away that behaviour, his recklessness, and impulsiveness. 

So, they can kind of look the other way as long as they could say to themselves, “Okay, well, the left is actually worse.” That idea brought around a lot of Republicans who are more of the establishment mold. You really saw that it happened around the time of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation to the Supreme Court in the Senate after the Democrats tried to block him when sexual misconduct allegations against him surfaced. I think there was a real sense among establishment Republicans that Democrats took that too far. 

Now, not getting into the merits of that argument or the merits of the Republican’s stance on that issue, you have to acknowledge that that was a very powerful sentiment among a lot of these folks, and it’s what drove them into Donald Trump’s arms.

SEAN SPEER: Another factor that the book highlights, of course, is the role of media. I’m reminded of George Will’s observation that Fox News is proven to be good for journalism in the sense that it created new opportunities for journalists, but bad for the conservative movement and conservative ideas. What’s the role of the right-wing media ecosystem in your story?

JEREMY PETERS: It’s a really unique phenomenon, right? There’s nothing like it on the political left in the United States. I mean, conservatives would say, “Well, they don’t need their own media, because they’re beholden to the mainstream media,” right? The mainstream media dictates the Democratic Party platform and all that. Now, I obviously reject that, and I think there’s plenty of evidence showing that that is, in fact, not the case. But that had happened not just with the development of Fox News, but with the rise of figures and websites like Andrew Breitbart’s. Breitbart.com was an outlet for people who really rejected the establishment of both political parties and, in some cases, even hated the Republican Party leadership more than they hated the Democratic Party leadership, if that makes sense. 

So, that is very interesting in a number of ways, but I think one of the things that my book uncovers is that those conservative media stars and activists, if you want to call them that, the bright parts of that world, were actually doing what they accused the mainstream media of doing along all along—but the mainstream media wasn’t actually doing. And by that I mean Breitbart, Steve Bannon, the reporters and editors who worked and continue to work for outlets like Breitbart, were actively colluding with the Trump campaign and with the senior officials in the Republican Party over campaign strategy, over tactics, policy, and that level of coordination. We just don’t see it happening anywhere else like it does on the right.

SEAN SPEER: One final question, Jeremy, about the contributing factors behind the rise of right-wing populism. How much of in your mind is actually a kind of top-down effort led by intellectuals and activists such as Peter Thiel, versus a more bottom-up exercise or expression of the kind of political insurgency that the book’s title aims to capture?

JEREMY PETERS: I think it’s more that the billionaire activists saw the kind of raw energy that you see building with the Tea Party, and they saw a way to organize that. I think that anger was very, very real, and very, very right. For the kind of organization that you saw, instead of grassroots that could be called—or criticized—as grass tops. 

I’m not sure that that’s entirely the case that it was organized top-down. It wasn’t manufactured is what I’m trying to say. This grievance and this notion that government wasn’t working for ordinary folks was legitimate; it was real. And I think some of the forces around Donald Trump shaped and exploited it and took it to places that were very ugly and very dark. But that anger came from somewhere, and it wasn’t manufactured by the Koch brothers.

SEAN SPEER: As an outside observer, one thing that really struck me about the 2015-2016 Republican primary is how became clear that most elected Republicans, including party leaders, like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, seemed to basically misunderstand what motivated their core voters. There was a presumption for instance, that Republican voters were more supportive of conservative economic orthodoxy than they were. 

What do you think contributed to the alienation between Republican politicians and their own voters? 

JEREMY PETERS: I think you hit the nail on the head right there. People saw once Trump put it into a framework that it was quite easy to understand, and he exploited people’s emotions and resentments that standard fare Republican economics wasn’t working for the average person in the United States. Like, this idea that you cut your way to prosperity through tax cuts and deregulation. 

They saw corporations and chief executives like Mitt Romney getting wealthier and wealthier. But then they saw in their own communities that those benefits weren’t trickling down, to borrow the famous phrase from the Reagan era. And that kind of summed up and captured what Republican economic policies were: what’s good for the people at the top then trickle down to the people closer to the bottom. 

And Trump said very plainly, “These corporations aren’t working for you. They’re not helping you.” Campaign rhetoric, of course, is very different from how you govern. I want to be very clear about that. But it was a very powerful argument to be making for people who still felt that they hadn’t come out at the other end of the Great Recession.

SEAN SPEER: Let me pick up that point. Jeremy. If politicians like Ryan and McConnell had lost touch with Republican voters, Trump, by contrast, seem to have something of an innate ability to know how to perfectly press their pressure points. 

What do you attribute that to? How could a political neophyte understand the kind of impulses and interests and concerns of Republican voters better than long-standing Republican politicians?

JEREMY PETERS: So, despite the way that he lived, his lifestyle, the millions and millions of dollars that he made as a businessman, as a reality television star, Donald Trump’s sensibilities were always more blue-collar than they were elite. He kind of identified with that Archie Bunker-type grievance. As one person told me who worked for him, he’s kind of Archie Bunker with money. 

Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News—I described in the book, where I unearthed this gold mine of clips of Roger Ailes’ old talk shows where he is interviewing people he thought were newsmakers and celebrities, and Donald Trump was one of them. This is back in 1995, and Donald Trump is a 49-year-old real estate developer who didn’t have a TV show or anything like that. And one of his questions is, “How is it that like these average, working Joes on the street look at you and say, ‘Hey, Donald, way to go, you know, we love you, Donald!'” And Trump says, “Well, I think it’s because the rich people, they’re the ones that hate me.” 

I thought it was a really insightful way to see his appeal, right? He recognized that about himself that people were drawn to him, not necessarily because of what they liked about him, although that’s true. They were all they were drawn to him because of who they perceived his enemies to be, who hated him, right? And he had the right enemies. He alienated a lot of elites. I think people identified with that. 

SEAN SPEER: You observe, Jeremy, that notwithstanding his ability to speak to these issues that were animating Republican voters, his record in office is at best mixed in terms of directly addressing their issues and concerns. And in fact, in various areas, as you alluded, he ended up advancing a policy agenda that broadly resembled a conventional Republican one. 

What do you tribute the kind of extraordinary durability of Donald Trump’s support amongst core Republican voters through his presidency and now into his post-presidency?

JEREMY PETERS: Your question reminds me of an exchange that I had with a voter in 2018. I went to this bar in Wisconsin, and I was interviewing people about American politics, kind of what they thought about Trump and his leadership. It was the first time that I realized that people’s perceptions of how well they were doing and how affected they were by Trump’s policies didn’t line up with reality. This guy told me he was glad, that he felt the tax cuts that Trump signed into law really, really helped him and he felt great about it. When I asked him to kind of quantify that, it was basically that he was able to buy an extra pack of cigarettes every month and have an extra tank of gas on his boat. 

You know, this was like a one-time thing. I mean, these tax cuts did not—it was very short-lived and kind of a joke that people saw anything from it financially. So, I think it’s more that he is the type of politician. His followers are so invested in him, that they need him to succeed, even if they aren’t necessarily benefiting from what he’s done. I think a lot of what people felt about his presidency, people who supported him at least, was through the prism of well, “The Democrats in the left and the mainstream media, they hate him so much. I want him to succeed.” And so, it really distorted I think the way a lot of people saw his success.

SEAN SPEER: Let me just ask you a penultimate question. One gets the sense that the outcome of the experience documented in the book is that it’s destabilized mainstream Republican politicians and they now seem to be overcorrecting, as we’ve seen in Ohio’s Senate primary for instance. 

Do you think there’s a potential lane for a more conventional conservative in current Republican politics? Or are people like JD Vance actually reading the political marketplace correctly?

JEREMY PETERS: I think they are reading the political marketplace correctly. The question is whether or not the voters will buy it. I think that with a guy like JD Vance it’s probably a pretty hard sell, given his background and the fact that he is on record as being so openly critical of Trump. So, people, you know, they can smell a phony. Certainly, JD Vance’s opponents are trying to portray him that way, and it’s a potent line of attack. I think the short-term answer to your question about whether or not a more traditional Republican conservative can appeal to Republican voters is it depends. In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin was that type of candidate, but that’s very unique, right? So, I think these are one-off situations, and I wouldn’t expect to see Glenn Youngkin become a template for any type of Republican leader out there.

I think the only way that you get a more conventional Republicans is when Republican voters decide that’s what they want, and by and large right now that’s not what they want. Until the leaders of the Republican Party, elected officials in Washington, see that that’s what the voters want, that they’re rejecting the kind of crassness and the anger of Trumpism, they will continue to parrot it and they will continue to pay homage to him because they are so afraid of their voters that doing anything that can be seen as hostile to Trump or in opposition to him is just not someplace the average Republican elected official wants to go right now.

SEAN SPEER: A final question. Looking ahead, these political conditions that you’ve just described seem to be with us for the foreseeable future. One can argue that the pandemic has only served to exacerbate them. Is there a future for a Liz Cheney conservatism in the world of Republican politics, or is the Republican party today more of a populist party than it is a conservative party?

JEREMY PETERS: I think it’s the latter because it is far more populist than it is traditionally conservative. I mean, Liz Cheney’s style of republicanism, for the moment, is on ice because I think right now American politics is so responsive to the emotional appeal over the intellectual one. That old adage of “Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love” has been flipped around. It’s the Republicans now who have fallen in love with Donald Trump and that style of pugilist politics. 

And it’s fun for a lot of them. Something that really stuck with me in the 2020 race was seeing how much a lot of these Republicans, whether it was someone like Ron DeSantis or Marco Rubio, they enjoyed the political combat. To a certain extent, and this isn’t true for all these guys, but they seem to enjoy the mean-spiritedness of Trump. That is far more galvanizing for people than a foreign policy paper or a tax cut.

SEAN SPEER: Well, the book is Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted. New York Times political reporter Jeremy Peters, thanks so much for joining us today at Hub Dialogues. 

JEREMY PETERS: Ok, thanks again.

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