I’m Michelle Goldberg.
I’m Frank Bruni, and this is “The Argument.”
It’s the Republican’s week to make their pitch to the American people. Who is the Republican National Convention for this year, and is Trumpism the party’s future? And finally, a recommendation.
With Ross on vacation, we’ve recruited an excellent conservative voice to help us make sense of this week’s convention. Charlie Sykes, editor-at-large of the online political news network The Bulwark is joining us for what will certainly be a spirited discussion. Charlie, thanks so much for coming on “The Argument.”
Well, thanks for having me.
So we’re recording this on Tuesday after just the first night of the convention, and that was something. [BRUNI LAUGHS] I assume you watched it, Charlie, and I’m curious what your thoughts are in the aftermath of what the party and Trump are trying to accomplish this week and what their message is and who they’re sending it to.
You know, it’s interesting the number of people who evaluate these based on the production value, as if it’s a big show. In the end, I just want to remind everybody, it all comes back to Donald Trump. Whatever we’re seeing here, it’s all going to come back to Donald Trump. And this is a convention that started off by essentially declaring that it had no ideology, no ideas, no platform — literally — that it was all Trumpism. And that was about as stark an admission as you could get, the extent to which this party has just become a vehicle for Donald Trump, less a political party than a cult of personality. And I know they tried to highlight some of their diversity. They tried to highlight some of their new faces. But I think the message you’re going to get is just the American hellscape that you will get if the Democrats win this election. And I’m guessing you’re just going to have that pounded and pounded over the next four nights.
And is that something, to your thinking, that is likely to work? I mean, is that going to drum up the base to a fever pitch where it doesn’t matter if he has or doesn’t have the middle?
All right, let me give you two answers to that because I don’t think, ultimately, it works, but I think the Democrats ought to at least take it seriously. I think they ought to take it seriously that this is a party that is emphasizing crime. They’re emphasizing urban unrest. You go over into the conservative media, and it is almost nonstop burning vehicles from Kenosha, Wisconsin, ANTIFA from Portland, Oregon. And there are voters who are looking at this and thinking, OK, well, are the Democrats going to, you know, enable this? You know, Donald Trump may be a son of a bitch, but he might protect me from this sort of thing. So I do think that there’s reason to say, take it seriously without freaking out and assuming that it’s going to work. But I could tell that they were aiming at a lot of these swing suburban voters, maybe the Trump-curious suburban voters. And they are going to play on this fear. They are going to play on this dystopian vision. Because here in Wisconsin, we have broken down just sharply in red and blue in the reaction to that terrible police shooting in Kenosha. We have the Democrats, were focusing on police violence and criminal justice reform, but the Republicans, I have to tell you, they are all in on this whole issue of urban unrest and violence. So it’s going to be interesting for me to see how this plays out here because that’ll give me an indication of whether or not this might play elsewhere.
Michelle, as you watch this convention, do you find yourself feeling more or less nervous about what happens on November 3rd?
I would say more nervous, to the extent that it’s not just, like, a total obvious shit show, right? When I see Matt Gaetz speaking in this Fox News patois that’s maybe unintelligible to people outside that world, I feel like, OK, this is fine. You know, like Charlie, I worry about the kind of voter that’s motivated by law and order, right? I’m old enough to have seen backlash politics work many, many times in my life. So look, I think that Joe Biden, in some ways, is in a similar position to Hillary Clinton in that it was really inspiring to me and I think to a lot of people who are at the Democratic convention in 2016 to have the mothers of the movement out on stage. How good that was for Hillary Clinton in a general election is something I’m really not sure about. And an advantage that Barack Obama had — and this is something that I think the young left probably really resents him for and doesn’t forgive him for — but because he had so much kind of inbuilt credibility with Black voters, he could spend a lot of time reassuring moderate white voters. And in a way, even though, you know, that’s sort of who Joe Biden was chosen to do that, he can’t do it in quite the same way because he has to shore up all the different parts of his potential electorate. So the thing that I thought was really interesting, though, was the extent to which they were trying to convince you that Donald Trump is a compassionate and empathetic man, which I don’t know. I mean, Charlie, [BRUNI LAUGHS] who’s kind of been in right-wing politics, I’m curious to hear your thoughts because it suggested to me that maybe some of the hits from the Democratic convention landed, right? It seemed — I mean, maybe it’s just inevitable because the Republican convention followed the Democratic convention. But it seemed, in a lot of ways, more defensive, right? Like, Donald Trump is not who they told you he is, which makes you think that they’re worried that some of that is working, that people do want a president who’s not a sadist.
So Charlie, do you think the Democratic convention spooked these Republicans and our president?
I think it probably did because it came off as so normal. Their entire playbook, of course, is to paint the Democrats as people who hate god, who hate America, who want to destroy everything that’s good and beautiful. And then you had these normal people come out and give a normal convention. But to Michelle’s point about the likability of Donald Trump, it’s not just that what happened at the Democratic convention. It’s the last four years of our lives, as we’ve watched Donald Trump. And they know they have a problem. Donald Trump is not a likable person. Even people who — I mean, every conversation I have with a Trump voter at some point will go, OK, well, yeah, he’s a jerk. He’s a pig. He says these awful things. But — and then they’ll go off into some sort of a rationalization. I think one of the reasons why his approval ratings have always been so low is because there is this perception that he’s a pretty despicable human being. I don’t think that that is necessarily just just at the Republican convention. It’s just like, day in and day out, watching this man behave in a way that you would never tolerate. I just don’t know whether or not, in a four day convention, you’re going to be able to reverse, you know, four years of what you’ve seen with your own eyes. I think a stronger argument from the Trump base would be yeah, he is a jerk, but he’s your jerk.
You know, who do you want standing at the breach?
And isn’t that what a lot of them believe? I mean, I—
Like you’re saying that they will sort of concede that he is a terrible person. I always thought that they sort of loved that he’s a terrible person, right? They love that he causes so much suffering to their enemies. They love that he’s so transgressive. Maybe they don’t admit to loving it, but isn’t that part of the reason that they’re still with him, even though —
— you know, America has been reduced to a plague-strewn hellscape under his watch?
Whether that’s true or not, that’s definitely not what they’re embracing at this convention. But I was blown away, even though I guess I sort of expected it. I did not recognize the Donald Trump they were describing, right?
I mean, every convention is a bit of a lie or a fib, right? It pretties up reality, and it pretties up the nominee who goes from mortal to messiah over the course of the four nights, right? But this wasn’t just a prettying up of Donald Trump. This was like a hallucination of an entirely different human being in his place. I mean, and it made me worry about the advantage that I think Donald Trump has above all other advantages, which isn’t incumbency. It’s shamelessness. Most politicians, most presidents are restrained somewhat by the truth, by what they can say that’s not entirely laughable. And Trump and the people around him are willing to tell you that up is down, that blue is red, that black is white, et cetera. They will say and do anything in the service of their aims. And as cynical as I can get about some Democratic politicians, I don’t think it’s a fair fight in that regard. Charlie, am I right, or am I off my rocker?
No, you’re probably insufficiently cynical about all of this [BRUNI LAUGHS]. No, you’re talking about the alternative vision of Trump. I call this Trump porn. There’s a certain genre of Trump as the defender of Western civilization, this strong man. And they do eat it up. The base actually —
The bodyguard of Western civilization.
I’m sorry, the bodyguard.
He’s the bodyguard of Western civilization.
I mean, can we just note that this was a convention that the first speaker was Charlie Kirk? I mean, that tells you a lot about this convention. So the fan base, the strong Trump base actually, to Michelle’s point, they like the transgressive behavior. It used to be, I like him in spite of the insults. But now it’s become very much part of the brand. They like this because it does trigger the right people. It does lead to liberal media tears and everything. So they have really developed a taste for this. So I think some of that was aimed at maybe the more Trump-curious voters, you know, the softer voter. I don’t know whether those people were watching this. But also, it is his ability to create these alternative realities — not just lies, but lies that are demonstrable. They’re easily proven, and it doesn’t make any difference. So he will say, the Democrats took out under god from the Pledge of Allegiance. Look, there are videotapes showing them saying it over and over and over again. It doesn’t matter. Millions of people will believe him, and there is no consequence to this. He’ll just move on to the next lie. And so it’s not just Trump being shameless. It’s that he swims in this new ecosystem that will basically advance any falsehood that he has. And you have an electorate, at least a portion of the electorate, that will either believe him or doesn’t care whether what he is saying is true. And that’s the part that gives me the most anxiety. It’s because you just don’t know what the rules are with him. And between now and November, he’s capable of saying anything, no matter how untrue it is. And I can guarantee you that 35% to 40% of America will either believe it or be OK with it.
And in a way, I feel like it’s hard to even have this discussion because I don’t know about you, Charlie, but it’s so hard for me. I think of myself as a fairly empathetic person. I feel like I can imagine myself into a lot of different situations. The one thing I cannot imagine myself into is the mind of someone who is still making up their mind about Donald Trump, right [BRUNI LAUGHS]?
I struggle with that. I spend the weekends out at a lake house here in Southern Wisconsin. And you look out on this beautiful lake and all across the other side of the lake, there are Trump flags, just from one end of the other, Trump flags. And I’m thinking, what would a conversation be like with those folks? And I have to admit, you know, life is too short to do it. But how are you undecided? And I think that’s the big question. Who are these people? I think a lot of people who claim to be undecided really aren’t. They’re just looking for an excuse. They’re looking for the permission. They’ve either decided that they can’t stand four more years of Donald Trump but they just can’t bring themselves to vote for a liberal Democrat, or they’re the kind of people that have been disgusted and repelled by Donald Trump, but they’re always going to come home. You see this a lot on some of the conservative media sites, people who have spent the last four years bashing Donald Trump, but you can tell right now it’s like the tribal pull is so strong. It’s like they’ve entered the gravitational pull again of the quadrennial choice and they’re going to go back to it. But I will tell you that the one conversation that I’ve had with people again and again is there is this concern about, number one, are the Democrats really going to go socialist? And number two, what about the violence? It’s remarkable how often the violence issue comes up just in conversation. And I don’t know how undecided some of these voters are, but this stuff is on their minds. And I think the Republicans are talking about it, and I didn’t hear much from the Democrats last week. Again, I’m not saying it’s going to work. I’m just saying that if you want something to be nervous about, if you want some good advice for the Democrats, take this seriously.
Charlie, you mentioned the violence, and you’re, of course, talking to us from your home in Wisconsin, where there’s violence right now, where there was just another police shooting of a Black man. The Republicans seem to assume, Trump seems to assume that this violence works in their favor. Is that a gimme? Because I mean isn’t it just as likely voters will say, no, this violence reflects a degree and an amplitude of tension that has everything to do with the way our President fans the flames?
I generally don’t know right now, and that’s why I think what’s happening here in Wisconsin is going to be very interesting to watch how that dynamic plays out. Because it is weird, when you think about it, for them to say, this is what America will look like under Joe Biden when they’re showing pictures of what America looks like actually under Donald Trump.
Exactly, exactly. Thank you.
This is happening under his watch. So yeah, it seems like a counterintuitive argument. On the other hand, they are absolutely convinced that this is going to work in their favor. And in the Kenosha shooting, the video is so horrible of watching a police officer shoot a Black man in the back. I think the overwhelming sentiment was, this is wrong. We have to do something about it. But then immediately, you start to see the narrative shifting when you have the cars burning. And you can see the parties lining up again saying, you’re not taking this seriously enough. You are not protecting the community. I’m getting emails from people saying, OK, Charlie, are you siding with these people? Are you OK with that? Well, no, no one’s OK with that. But again, it will be interesting. Ask me in a month again how this is playing out. But Republicans think this will work for them. This could be a tremendous miscalculation on their part. I just don’t know.
Charlie, you are you are a conservative who is a proud Never Trumper, and you said to me in an interview not long ago that I did with you, you are voting for Biden. You would like to see Biden win.
How would you advise him and the Democrats around him and Kamala Harris to talk about this violence? What do you think the best play is there?
I actually don’t think it’s difficult for them to do this, to be able to say, look, focus on Black Lives Matter. Focus on the obvious crime that we have. But then say, but the answer to this is not the violence, to say we have to stand firmly against this. Invoke the tradition of nonviolence. Push back against the people who are exploiting all of this. I think that that’s not a difficult thing to do because I think that’s where most people are. The condemnation of violence I don’t think distracts from the support for Black Lives Matter. I know there’s this anxiety that if you criticize the violence, that somehow you’re giving aid and comfort to the enemy. But I think the reality is that every time you burn a car or destroy somebody’s livelihood through their business, you’re distracting.
Hasn’t Biden been walking that line pretty carefully?
I think he’s done a good job.
I agree with you that some voters are hearing a different message from other Democrats or for what they consider the Democratic party writ large. But I have been phenomenally impressed with the discipline of Joe Biden, in terms of not being — forgive the verb, it’s a convenient one — baited into saying things that are going to become Republican attack ads. It is clear to me that there was a huddle early on in his campaign and a decision, there are certain things we need not get drawn into lest we fuel a lefty caricature of this campaign.
I mean, I feel like that decision was made and is being adhered to with great discipline. Do you see that, Michelle, or do you see something different?
Well, look, I think it’s kind of hard to create a lefty caricature of Joe Biden.
Oh, the Republicans are trying.
I know they’re trying, but I think it’s a lot harder than it would be with some of the other candidates, including the candidates that I would have preferred. Like, I think my candidate Elizabeth Warren would have a much harder time walking this line. But I do think that the problem for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is not just about kind of giving aid and comfort to the enemy and reifying right wing narratives, but also not disillusioning young progressives, who are a part of the base that they need to turn out and that are extremely hostile to any kind of rhetoric that seems to be drawing good protester, bad protester distinctions. Look, if you walk around my neighborhood — and I don’t think just my neighborhood — you see a lot more Black Lives Matter signs than you see Joe Biden signs, whereas Trump people are all in for Trump. There’s a lot of progressives who are very excited to beat Trump, but Black Lives Matter is what gets them really enthusiastic. And so I obviously know that Trump is not going to win Brooklyn, but I also think that Brooklyn voters are maybe a microcosm of a certain kind of progressive voter that exists in cities across this country.
Well, I want to push back on one thing you said. You said that Joe Biden is difficult to caricature. Don’t underestimate the ability of these folks to caricature anyone.
No, I mean caricature as a kind of rabid left-winger, right? I think you can caricature him as other things.
Right, no, and I think this has caught the Republicans a little bit flatfooted because their entire playbook was run against socialism and ANTIFA. And then what do Democrats do? They put up Joe Biden, who is none of those things. So I think that what they’re going for is the, he’s the empty vessel.
OK, he’s senile, and he, himself, may not be ANTIFA. But the moment he gets into office, they’re going to shove him aside, and you’re going to get all of this stuff out there. And I think that’s where they’re going on all of that. But again, his performance last week had to put to rest some of the doubts about whether he really is an empty vessel, whether he’s there.
Yeah, I mean, I think the strategy of theirs has proven quite risky for the exact reason you say. That speech was expertly delivered. There was nothing in that speech to tell Americans that Trump — and on I hear this on Fox News all the time — that they’re all correct and he’s barely being held together by animatronics or something. And I think the same thing could happen in the debate. One of Biden’s best debates, if not his best debate, was when it was just him and Bernie Sanders. And he had to fill a whole lot more time than when it was 10 or 12 people on that stage. So I think it’s a risky strategy. I want to I want to pull back a little bit though, get back to kind of the big picture of the convention and one of the recurring themes. And another thing from the first night that really struck me, rather struck me anew, was just how fully so many Republicans have fallen in line. You talked, Charlie, earlier about the tribal pull. And I want to take a little tributary from this river called Nikki Haley, who for some reason, gets under my skin in a way almost nobody else does because I know people in common with her. I know that when Nikki Haley was in this administration and that when she left this administration, she had a very low opinion of Donald Trump. And one of the reasons she left that cabinet positions so quickly was because she didn’t want to be tarred by and associated too closely with Trumpism. And here she is, just a couple years later, having put her finger to the wind, having decided that if you want an immediate future in this Republican Party, you cannot run afoul of Donald Trump or be seen as who was undermining him. And she is standing up there vouching for him in unequivocal terms. And I will be honest, it turned my stomach.
Well, if you’re looking for an argument from me, you’ve come to the wrong place.
The show is called “The Argument,” so tell me I’m wrong.
Well, no, from my point of view, I sort of keep track of the people who are the most disappointing to me. So it’s one thing to start off with Charlie Kirk or to think Sean Hannity is a Trump toady. I mean, look, they are what they are. It’s the people like Nikki Haley that break your heart.
Because you know that they know better. You know that they could be better. You know that they represented a different potential path for the Republican Party. When she stood up and took down the Confederate flag in South Carolina, that could have been a real inflection moment for the Republican Party and what it represented. And then you saw last night. And I have to say that it is one of the most disillusioning things watching this party. And I do think that in evaluating the worst collapses, it’s not the hardcore Trumpists. It’s the people who I think much has been given to, a lot should be expected from. So in Dante’s Hell, it’s the people who had the ability and the perspective to recognize exactly what was wrong with this and yet still buy into all of it.
But doesn’t she have a reputation as just being a personally terrible person? I mean, I thought the people who worked in Republican politics had low opinions of her. I mean, maybe they had high opinions of her potential but had low opinions of her integrity to start with. Or is that not right?
I just don’t know. I just know that there were folks early on in the Trump era when we were looking around going, OK.
Those of us who were Never Trumpers were a minority. We had no idea what a small minority we were going to be. We knew we were going to be in the wilderness. We didn’t know we’d be on this desert island. And there was a time when we would sort of hold out hope. Well, maybe this person will step forward, or maybe this person will speak out. She was always on that list as somebody who might be able to do that. And so to watch her was really, in many ways, as symbolic of what’s happened to the Republican Party as anything that happened that she would be on that stage saying those things.
Yeah. Hey, listen, we’re going to take a short break, and then we’re going to come back and talk about the future of the Republican Party. We’ll be right back.
And we’re back. Charlie, let’s talk about the future of the Republican Party, your Republican Party, although you can tell me whether you still really kind of consider yourself a Republican. Do you think this is a party that is going to have room for someone like you in the future? And how does that prognosis change based on whether Trump wins or loses?
I don’t think of myself as a Republican anymore because I don’t know what it means to be a Republican. They don’t stand for anything. They don’t believe in anything. And I think that you’ve seen what they’ve become. So no, I don’t regard myself as a Republican. And to your second question, I don’t necessarily think there’s going to be a place because I just saw a headline in Politico this morning when we’re taping, the day after the first night of the convention saying that Nikki Haley and Don Jr. in a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party. And my reaction to that is we’ve already had that fight. We already had the fight for the soul of the Republican Party, and we lost. Now we’re just fighting over the scraps. So I think that Trumpism is still going to be a dominant force in this party for a very, very long time. Look, Donald Trump is not going away. The number one thing to keep in mind about the future of the Republican Party is Donald Trump has both transformed the party and revealed how much the party has been transformed — the spread of these ideas, the nationalism, the xenophobia, the penchant for conspiracy theories. Here’s a measure of how dark my vision is. Let’s say that Trump is defeated this year. And of course, he’s not defeated. It’s stolen from him. He’s betrayed. He launches a grievance movement.
You know he will decide that. That’s a given at this point.
It is a given. So four years from now, he wants to right this terrible wrong by running again. Nothing prevents him from running in 2024. And if you think that is an outlandish idea, ask yourself this, which Republican would run against him and could beat him in a Republican primary?
Charlie, I thought I was about as depressed by the various scenarios as I could get. I thought the notion of a 2024 Republican primary pitting Tom Cotton versus Don Jr. versus god knows who else, I thought that was about as apocalyptic as it could get. And you’re telling me that if we get four years of Biden, we may have four years of Trump after that?
That’s why, by the way, I never get invited to parties because of this sort of thing.
I mean, I agree with you 100% that what the Trump era has revealed is how the Republican electorate was already transformed, right? And that they had sort of settled for candidates like McCain and Romney because they thought that’s what they needed, but it was never what they wanted. There was a moment. I remember going to CPAC when suddenly everybody was grousing about him. And in some ways, that hasn’t happened with Donald Trump in the same way, as the economy has fallen apart, as the country has become a mess. But if he loses and if he loses big and they lose the Senate and they lose the chance to transform the Supreme Court, I mean, the electorate is not going to change what they want. But couldn’t you imagine kind of Donald Trump emerging being just such a diminished figure when he loses big for the people who’ve put all their faith in him and when all of that kind of deep state cannibal pedophiles are not rounded up and sent to Guantanamo?
Deep state cannibals.
I sure hope so. It depends how he loses. Yes, I can certainly imagine that scenario. The conventional scenario is that when you lose badly and you pull your party down, you become a pariah. I don’t want to compare him necessarily, but who ever talks about Michael Dukakis? What was Jimmy Carter’s influence in the party? Generally, we move on very, very quickly. This, I think, is different because of just the roots of the corruption, the depths of the corruption of the party. But yes, if your scenario is right, it becomes easier to marginalize him, and I think the Civil War will be much more heated. I think that you will have much more energy behind the people who say, look, you’re going down a dark alley. I mean, one of the things that I’ve been warning about for years is the fact that you can win a few elections with Trumpism. But if you alienate these massive swaths of the electorate, if you alienate women and young people and African-Americans and Mexican-Americans and Asian-Americans, you are never going to win a national election.
But they don’t need to. In a way, they don’t need to win a national election, right? I mean, the project of Trumpism is, at this point, I think explicit minority rule. And a combination of the structure of our democracy and a willingness to cheat can preserve minority rule for quite some time.
Or just again, keep in mind that I think one of the things we’ve learned about Republicans is they’re much better in opposition than actually in government. Yes, they are fixated on the maintenance of power right now, holding power, wielding power. But for a lot of Republicans, going back into opposition will be kind of reassuring because — and I mean this to be descriptive, not pejorative — what they do best is being reactionary. And for a lot of them, a Trump defeat will be liberating in the sense they can go back to doing what they always do, which is to oppose whatever the Democrats are doing. And so there will be a lot of Republicans that think will prosper in opposition. But in terms of what Trump has done to the electorate, by the way, I really wrestled with this because this whole question of what has Trump changed — and he’s changed a lot — but also what has he exposed? This dysfunction runs so deep. And Michelle, you’re raising questions about, wasn’t it always like this? I’ll be honest, you may disagree with his politics, but I always thought that it was somebody like Paul Ryan and the old Nikki Haley, who are the future of the Republican Party, not Donald Trump. And obviously, I was completely wrong, and that is not what the base wanted. And Donald Trump spoke to the base in a way that people like me and George Will and Peter Wehner were not. We thought we were talking about the conservative movement. No, we were actually talking to one another.
It seems like there was a generation of conservatives that really thought that it was all about that last iteration, right? That it was really all about all these abstractions, when all those abstractions were really just a kind of placeholder for the real desires of a lot of voters.
See, that that’s the key question. You had people like Stuart Stevens who are out there saying, it was all a lie from the beginning. And my pushback is you may be right, but I actually believed it for a while. I probably had Paul Ryan on my radio show 100 times or more talking about how terrible the national debt was, how we were facing this crisis with deficits. What was that about? I mean, did he believe that at the time? Was that serious at the time? What was the Tea Party actually ultimately about?
I think the Tea Party was about having a Black president.
Well, I mean, look, I pushed back against that for years. And you look back at it in retrospect, and given what it’s become now and what they’re willing to accept, and if that’s right, then this election doesn’t solve that problem for the Republican Party. And some of this seems old, but the lack of will on the part of Republican leaders to fight back against it, that’s why I say, we’ve had the fight for the soul of the party, and we’ve lost. It’s over. Because if you were really going to have a real fight for the soul of the party, we wouldn’t have had this massive surrender, unconditional surrender over the last four years. But that’s what’s being celebrated right now in this convention is the complete, unconditional surrender of the Republican Party. And it doesn’t matter if privately they’re saying, you know, we’re really appalled by this. This is really bad. Well, then go often go fly fishing or whatever. But to the extent that you are an elected official or you’re a spokeswoman for the party, if you’re not pushing back now then what is the point?
Charlie, you used the word privately in terms of what Republicans say privately. And one of the things that has so disillusioned me over these last few years — and I’m curious if you’ve had the same experience and it even happens to this day, it’s not like it’s gone away — is some of these very people who vote with Trump, who never buck him, who never say a bad word about him, who support him on Twitter, et cetera — and I’m talking about lawmaker types, operative types — you talk to them privately, and they’re disgusted by him. And they admit that almost readily, and they don’t seem to be as absolutely humiliated as they should by the conflict between what they’re admitting about their assessment of him privately and the way in which they’re publicly paving the way for him to continue in power for a long time. Do you hear that that contradiction in your conversations with people?
Oh, all the time.
And what do you say back to them?
Well, the human mind is an incredible thing, and the human mind’s ability to rationalize and to accept things is really quite remarkable. And I’ve noticed that in the beginning, it was very transactional. It was, OK, this is terrible and it’s horrible, but we need to do this in order to get things we want. It’s the whole fallacy in bargain. We get things that we want. It was X, Y, and Z. But over time, what I’ve noticed is that people become more and more comfortable with that, and they begin to rationalize why they have done it. Look, the reality is that opportunism and sucking up to the throne is not a new phenomenon in human history. It may be more natural than what we’re asking for. And what has amazed me, though, has been the number of Republicans who might have initially been completely horrified by Trump — I mean, let’s just take a Ted Cruz or a Marco Rubio or even Lindsey Graham — and in the beginning, it was like, well, we’ll support these conservative policies because we want conservative judges, so we’ll go along with it, right? But over time, that morphs into this incredibly sycophantic spear-carrying thing where they will insert themselves gratuitously to defend the most outrageous behavior. At some point, it’s better just to shut up. You don’t have to weigh in. But they will inject themselves. They have dumbed themselves down to the point where it’s like they want to put on Trump masks.
My home state has been horrifically disillusioning and soul crushing to watch what’s happened here.
Well, you mentioned your home state is Wisconsin. There are some people who believe that this whole thing could come down to Wisconsin, that if it were a close election, certainly Wisconsin was one of the consequential states.
I think so.
You’re there day in, day out. What’s your report from there? When you take the temperature of what you see and hear around you, where do you think this is all going?
I think Biden’s got an edge here, but that’s why I’m worried about this latest explosion, how it’s going to play out. It’s a wild card. I think the major dynamics here are relatively simple, and they’re kind of a microcosm of the whole country. Will the Democrats turn out in big numbers? Will the Democrats who turned out for Barack Obama but not for Hillary, will they show up in places like Milwaukee? I think the answer is yes. I think that we’ve seen signs that Democratic enthusiasm is very high. Then you get to these suburban counties. I’m in the so-called WOW counties right now — Waukesha, Ozaki, Washington County — this is the heart of the Republican base. If Donald Trump underperforms, if his suburban support is soft, that’s a big problem for him. I’m also surprised that the so-called Fox River Valley, the Green Bay Area is very competitive. It was trending very Trumpy. So I think that Biden has an advantage. What I don’t know anything about and really can’t tell you about is what’s going on in Northern and rural Wisconsin, where my sense is that Trump’s support is still very strong. He’s not losing any support, but the numbers might not be there. So if the Democratic enthusiasm stays high and the suburban support is soft, I think you’re probably looking at a Biden win here. But everything is close in Wisconsin all the time.
Michelle, what is your read on the Democratic enthusiasm as of right now?
I think Joe Biden will be fine. I would crawl over COVID-infested glass to vote against Donald Trump.
That’s right, right.
Infected glass I guess is the right way to say it. But that’s rarely how they ask the question, right? Although the question that does capture this is when they ask people, how angry will you be if the other candidate wins? And then you see very, very high numbers for Democrats. So I think Democrats are going to turn out. My bigger concern than Democratic turnout is voter suppression and outright cheating.
Michelle, you just used your phrase, how angry will you be if the other side wins. And that leads me to a final thing to talk about before we run out of time with you, Charlie, which is this — I want to look forward and talk about the governability of America. You’ve talked about the fury and passion of Trump’s base, right? And many of us disagree. Is that 30% of the country? Is it 25%? But there is this sizable chunk of people who have bought every last thing Donald Trump has said, who have become florid conspiracy theorists. Some of them are actually kind of onboard with this QAnon thing. If Trump loses, if the margin is big enough that he can’t convince people that it was an illegitimate, rigged thing, if he’s marched out of office or whatever, after that, what happens to those people who have been such florid, fervent, crazed Trump loyalists? I don’t see a replay of 2000 where, after much acrimony, Al Gore, in what was a huge statesman moment and I think people should always remember him for this, basically said, OK, we got to move beyond this. He had plenty of reason to continue having recriminations.
Right. Well, he shouldn’t have. He should have fought back to the bitter end.
But the point is, he did a very, very, very big thing. And he essentially said to Americans, this may not be the result you like, but this is the result we have. And we all have to kind of give our new president a chance. All three of us know, all three of us would bet everything we own that Donald Trump will never utter words to that effect. And my question for you, Charlie, is if he’s gone — please, please, please — and he leaves and does not utter words to those effect but, in fact, says things that are the diametric opposite, does Joe Biden inherit a governable country? What happens to all those crazed Trump loyalists?
Well, to your point, though, about sort of the essence of democracy is the willingness of one party to admit that it’s lost. So yes, Al Gore performed an important function in 2000. Believe it or not, Richard Nixon did the same thing in 1960. You’re not going to see that, and those people are not going to go away. And I think that one of the real dangers is that Donald Trump is not only shameless, I think he has no concern about the damage that he will cause on the way out. And I think we’ve agreed on this that Donald Trump will not acknowledge that he was defeated. He may leave office, but it’s going to be a stab in the back. And the stab in the back becomes a governing political myth for a generation. I mean, there is this vast ecosystem, what I call it the outrage machine — the people who raise money, who look for clicks and donations — whose entire future is to keep these people angry, to keep them paranoid, to keep them —
And we’re talking about Steve Bannon.
Well, he’s just one of them. And the whole point is keep grandma terrified, keep them worried, keep them worked up. And that is bigger, it’s louder, it’s less honest, it’s dumber than it was even four years ago. So this is a problem. Now, in terms of government, I think that Biden will be able to govern, but I think that the political culture of the country is going to be badly shaken. And can I flip your question around just another way? My higher anxiety is not just that Donald Trump might win the election. I think the biggest anxiety is if Donald Trump wins the election, what does that say about our fellow Americans? What does that say about America as a country? And I say this as somebody who is not embarrassed to say that I’m patriotic, that I love this country, but a Donald Trump re-election makes you re-evaluate a lot of what you thought about your fellow Americans, what you thought about the stability of our democracy. And it’s not just anger. I think this is going to be this deep disillusionment and distrust. Anger you get over. Disillusionment and distrust I think lasts for a very long time.
Well, I think the stability of democracy thing is important, right? Because I don’t think anybody thinks Donald Trump, if he wins re-election, gets a majority of the votes, right? Then you might just think, this isn’t my country anymore. But if the structure of the electoral college sends him to another minority victory, if you have four more years of a president that the majority of the country finds intolerable, then I think you start having a lot of maybe some sort of nascent color revolution against these kind of constitutional constraints that have now locked us into minority rule.
All right, well, we’re going to have to stop there. And rather than leave our listeners on a kind of note of total doom and gloom, we’ll pivot to a recommendation of something that they can perhaps turn to take their mind off the all-consuming presidential election. Charlie, do you have a recommendation for our listeners?
I think I do have a recommendation. One of the things that I’ve used to get through the summer has been when I walk my dogs, I listen to audiobooks. And I’ve been really fortunate. So I started up with “The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larson, which is this remarkable account of the London blitz. And it is a great read, but it reminds you that you can actually get through things. And I think that stories like this do help put things in perspective but also remind you that we’re not immune from history.
Oh, Charlie, I’m really glad to hear that. I’m a big fan of Erik Larson’s work, and “The Splendid and the Vile” is his most recent book. But it makes me sad to think that we have to revisit some of the ugliest chapters in history to feel better about our own and to find some hope. But hey, I will take hope wherever we can find it.
Oh, I agree.
So yeah, about kind of revisiting grim chapters from history, I’m finally, many years too late, reading the books about Thomas Cromwell, “Bring Up The Bodies” and “Wolf Hall.” And the one thing that I take from those books is a kind of psychological portrait of Machiavellian sycophancy that does actually, I think, give you some insight or some potential insight into the motivations of, say, Nikki Haley when we’re all here aghast. How could they do that, right? You sort of see this when you see this amoral jockeying for power around an unstable king.
Historical fiction, historical nonfiction — both are our friends. Charlie, one last time for our listeners, your recommendation is —
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.
Charlie, we cannot thank you enough —
Yeah, thank you so much.
— for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us.
Well, thank you.
And a reminder to listeners, you can find Charlie’s work at The Bulwark, which is a very popular and terrific website for conservative-but-not-really news, right?
Take care, Charlie.
Yeah, thanks Charlie.
Before we go, I have some news. Next week will be my final week on “The Argument.” I’m sad to go, but you’ll still see me around the opinions section. In fact, I’ll be writing even more in the run up to the election. Fortunately, Ross and Michelle aren’t going anywhere, and you’ll also hear new voices from the opinion pages up to and through the election. Opinions’ audio team is also cooking up a new show coming later this fall. It’s an interview show hosted by our colleague Kara Swisher all about power and who wields it. In the meantime, I’ll see you next week. But for now, that’s our show. Thank you, as always, for listening.
“The Argument” is a production of The New York Times’ opinion section. The team includes Christina Djossa, Phoebe Lett, Paula Szuchman, Pedro Rafael Rosado, Vishakha Darbha, Kristin Lin, and Isaac Jones. A special thanks to Kathy Tu. We’ll see you next week.