SwatTalk: "The Republican Party and the Authoritarian Threat"
with William Saletan '87
Recorded on Wednesday, June 21, 2023
Jason Zengerle '96 Welcome, everyone. It is great to have you with us tonight. Thank you so much for joining us for this SwatTalk about the Republican Party and the authoritarian threat, featuring Will Saletan, Class of '87. My name is Jason Zengerle, I am from the class of 1996, and I will be the moderator tonight.
Before we hear from Will, I just wanted to go over a few preliminary pieces of business. SwatTalks is a speaker series brought to you by the Swarthmore Alumni Council, of which I'm a member. Tonight's session will be recorded, so you will be able to find it online at the SwatTalks page on the Swarthmore College website within two or three weeks. If you're interested in watching previous talks, you can also find those on the SwatTalks page.
For those of you who are new to SwatTalks or for our regulars who just need a reminder tonight, we'll go something like this. Will is going to hold the floor for the first half hour or so answering some of my questions, and then he'll spend the second half hour answering any questions you might have. If you have questions, please type them into the Q and A feature at the bottom of Zoom, and please be sure to include your name and class year when you do so. I will collect those questions and will pose as many of them as I can to will during the second half of the swap talk.
I'd like to introduce Will Saletan. In these polarized times, there's very little liberals and conservatives see eye to eye on, but one thing they do agree about is that Will is one of the smartest political commentators and analysts working in journalism today. The Washington Post columnist, EJ Dione, has called Will, quote, "A great political journalist with a strong moral sense." Rich Lowry, the former editor of National Review, has described Will as, quote, "One of America's shrewdest political writers."
At Swarthmore, Will was a philosophy major with a minor in sociology, anthropology, and political science. As I said earlier, he graduated in 1987. For much of Will's journalism career, he worked at Slate Magazine where he was the chief political correspondent. I saw this stat the other day, and it is more than 25 years at Slate, he wrote more than 2,700 stories. Last year, Will went to work at The Bulwark. It's a website that was founded in 2018 as a home for center right writers and thinkers who couldn't quite stomach Donald Trump. You can now not only read Will's writing there, but you can also listen to him every Monday when he appears on the Bulwark podcast.
Will is the author of two books. The first, which was published in 2004, is Bearing Wright: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War. The second, which was published last month as an ebook, is The Corruption of Lindsey Graham: A Case Study in the Rise of Authoritarianism. And it's this second book that he's here to discuss with us tonight. Will, thank you so much for joining us.
William Saletan '87 Thanks for having me on.
Jason Zengerle '96 I thought I'd start with a pretty broad question, especially for people who are watching who might not have yet had a chance to read your book, and that is what is the corruption of Lindsey Graham? What is the argument you're trying to make about him?
William Saletan '87 What I'm trying to explain is the slow process of how Republicans rationalized an authoritarian candidate and then president. Basically, how did authoritarianism arise in this country? When I first approached my editor at The Bulwark about this, I said, "I want to watch the frog boil. I want to describe the gradual process," because there's an illusion on the part of a lot of people that this is something that happens suddenly, that there's some sudden moment in which somebody sells out. And that happens sometimes, but in this case that's not what happened. And it's really important that we understand every stage of it.
The stages of it, roughly speaking, are first there's a process of rationalization where Republicans in Congress start to come up with reasons why it's okay to support this candidate, Donald Trump, this nominee, and then this president Donald Trump as he begins to commit authoritarian acts. And then there's a shift of power where they become afraid of him, essentially. Their initial cowardice and rationalizing it becomes cowardice and further exceeding to the changes that he makes in policy and in the way we govern ourselves.
And then finally, there's a process of polarization in which they convince themselves that... They essentially descend into a kind of paranoia where the other party is so awful and dangerous, they tell themselves, that they, the Republicans, must support the President no matter what he does. It's that roughly three stage process which is continuing to this day, obviously. Even when we get to the point of an attempt to overthrow the government of the United States on January 6th, they stay with him. Even when he says, as he did last December, that the Constitution should literally be suspended to reinstate him, they continue to support him. And so that's the general process that I'm trying to describe.
At the beginning of the article or book, however you want to describe it, the way I put it was it's poison, it's a process of poisoning. And what happens mentally is the deeper you go, the more you need to justify. You say what you need to say, you believe what you need to believe. It's a psychological process that culminates in a great danger to our country and the world.
Jason Zengerle '96 Did you have any hesitation about using the term authoritarian in this and tackling this topic? Because right off the bat, you're staking out a fairly bold claim there.
William Saletan '87 Yeah, it's the term that fits. There are other terms that I thought were going a little far to start with. I didn't use the term dictator, I don't think at all. Autocratic is another term. But autocracy we generally think of as something like Kim Jong-Un, not what happened in the United States. But authoritarianism is something that we see happening in Europe; it's happened in this country in the past. But the consolidation of power behind a single man and the increasing attribution of authority to that person to the exclusion of other constraining institutions, that is authoritarianism and that is what has been gradually happening in this country.
Jason Zengerle '96 The subtitle of the book is A Case study in Authoritarianism. Why did you decide to make Lindsey Graham the case study for this?
William Saletan '87 For a few reasons. he was at the center of the action. Graham was one of the... originally Trump's chief critic in 2015 and 2016. And he wanted to be in the center of policymaking, so he very quickly rolled over, began to roll over to Trump, wanted to... And he was constantly making trips to the White House, constantly talking. He was on the phone with Trump all the time. He worked himself into the middle of things. That's one reason.
The other reasons were... Sorry, I'm just going to take a look at a couple of notes here. There's a stark shift in Graham over time that's different from anybody else. People forget this. Unlike a lot of other Republicans, he starts out as saying all the things you or I would say, anyone who's here with us today would've said at the beginning, "Donald Trump is a dangerous man. Donald Trump wants to ban an entire religion from this country. Donald Trump is talking about committing war crimes." Lindsey Graham said all of those things. And so over time, he went from being like us to being such a devout apologist for Donald Trump that nothing... When other politicians on the right bailed out on Trump and said they wouldn't support it, Graham, he decided to stand with Trump no matter what.
And the other thing was, and this is the thing that really made it possible, Jason, Lindsey Graham would not shut up. The guy just talked constantly. There are other politicians who... Like Marco Rubio, for example, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz; you can find others who made some of the same transition, but you can't document it the way you can with Lindsey Graham because there wasn't any TV interview, any radio interview that he was offered that he didn't take that opportunity. And so it's possible in his case to get this pixelated high resolution view of this gradual process because you can see him literally day to day, week to week in a way that you can't do with anybody else.
Jason Zengerle '96 Yeah, that was one of the things that I thought was so interesting about the book was that it was all based on stuff Graham himself said publicly. There are different kinds of reporting. And I think if you're doing a Marco Rubio book, you would've tried to talk to people around Rubio and find the things he was saying in private and behind the scenes and rationalizing his own capitulation. Like you said, Graham was saying it all publicly. I guess my question about that is why do you think we should trust what Lindsey Graham is saying publicly? There's this idea that politicians, they say one thing to the camera, they say another thing off camera. Is Graham, in your eyes, unique in that respect? Or do you think sometimes journalists discount too much what politicians are saying publicly, and actually, there's plenty of truth in what they say publicly, and you don't necessarily need to get the killer behind the scenes anecdote?
William Saletan '87 Right. It's a good question. And let me just say there are topics that you can write about and stories you can write about where you absolutely need to get underneath it. You're getting a story, and then you need to penetrate that story and find out what's going on behind the scenes. In this case, what I was writing about was a process of rationalization. And rationalization takes place in public. What I'm tracing is the evolution of public arguments given by a guy who's trying to justify supporting Donald Trump and becoming closer to Donald Trump and defending what Donald Trump does.
And by the way, you can get at the truth, the truth of it comes out because... And here's the argument I would make to you about Lindsey Graham. Other people were able to keep their mouth shut. Like Mitch McConnell, what did he really think? What does he really think? Often difficult to know. But when you talk as much publicly as Graham has done, sooner or later the truth comes out; sooner or later what you think comes out there.
There's an example that I have in the story where one of the things I did was listen to all of his radio interviews, and there's one with Sean Hannity at the beginning of January 29... in January, 2019, where he says... He's just exasperated in this interview with Hannity, and he says "This constant nagging of the liberals going after Trump on everything, the Russia thing, and later onto the Ukraine thing, it's one damn thing after another." He said, "It's just driving me nuts. It's driven me into Trump's camp." Well, you can surmise that that's happened, but here he is just blurting it out. And that isn't really a talking point, and it just came out of his mouth having a conversation in public. And there was a lot of that.
Jason Zengerle '96 When you went back and looked at the stuff he was saying in 2015 that, it was interesting in that campaign, so many of the Republican presidential... I think people forget that Lindsey Graham was actually running for president in 2015. But so many of the other Republican presidential candidates were terrified of crossing Trump, and they were basically hoping... They all Trump was going to implode and they were going to inherit his voters, and so they didn't want to do anything, take Trump on directly. Graham was one of the few who actually did, I think in part because Trump was insulting John McCain at the time, and Graham and John McCain were so tight. Were there ever any moments when you were looking at Graham's subsequent behavior where he acknowledged that? You write this really interesting part about how Graham rationalized his flip flop by saying, "Trump beat me. And obviously the American people have spoken, and therefore I need to be on his side." He didn't do that when Barack Obama won. But were there things besides that rationalization he made that you saw where he at least acknowledged that, "Yeah, I once thought this guy was horrible. I made all these warnings about him." Did he himself ever try to say, "Well, my opinion changed because he himself is different than I thought he was?" Or did he just never try to reconcile those two things?
William Saletan '87 He did. He got asked about it a lot because Graham didn't just go on Fox News, he didn't just get the friendly questions; he went on CNN. He took difficult questions from the mainstream press. And they asked him about exactly what you're talking about. He did say that his opinion of Trump personally changed. Now, I would say, objectively speaking, Donald Trump is one of the worst people this country has ever produced. He was then; he still is today. If anything, he's worse now. He's become more unhinged, so this can't be true generally. But Graham would say, "I've had personal interactions with the president." He would say, "I play golf with him."
There's a point in the story where he talks about Tuesday Trump and Thursday Trump. And Thursday Trump was the guy who at this meeting to talk about immigration talked about shithole countries, just this racist description of Haiti and these other countries where Trump says, "We don't want immigrants from them." But there's this other meeting that was happened two days earlier also about immigration where Trump was supposedly very nice. And that one's on camera and on CSPAN. Now, of course, the reason why Trump is nice is because the cameras are there. We find the real Trump in the Thursday meeting. But Graham talks about, "I played golf with the president, and he's so charming on the golf course." And the golf thing is such a great way of understanding this mistake on Graham's part because Trump was being nice to Graham because the only people that Trump played golf with were friends and sycophants. He's like, "You're not experiencing what the man is dealing with the presidency and a political system where you have to make compromises." In other words, you don't experience the authoritarian tendencies of the man. There was this illusion Graham had about his personal relationship with Trump being nice.
But the other thing Graham said was that he would say, "Yeah, I said that stuff about Trump in 2015 and 2016, but then Trump won. Now, you and I would say, "And? So? How does that change the nature of Trump?" It doesn't, but Graham wanted to rationalize why it didn't matter what he had said before so he said that because the voters elected Trump, their verdict on Trump, they overrode Graham's judgment. And Graham would say, "I wouldn't even said that stuff if I'd known he was going to win." One of my editors called this democracy washing. It's a really interesting problem because we think of democracy as self-protecting, but in this case, democracy provided the rationale, the rationalization for why Graham should accept an authoritarian president on the basis of the argument that the voter's chosen.
Jason Zengerle '96 I think because Graham talked so much and was so out there and changing on Trump, there was a lot of psychoanalyzing of him during the Trump years. Steve Schmidt, who had been John McCain's campaign manager in 2008, he said Graham was a pilot fish. He always had to follow around the big fish. And for a time, the big fish was John McCain. Graham was like John McCain's little buddy back during the 2008 campaign, and even after. And they would travel together abroad. But then McCain gets sick and he loses his sway in the Republican Party, and Graham finds a new big fish, and that's Donald Trump. And so Graham's this pilot fish.
There were other theories about him that were a lot nastier. I think there were a lot of liberals, especially online, who speculated that Graham was a closeted homosexual and Trump people were blackmailing him, and that's why he'd come around. You didn't spend any time on any of those theories in the book. And I was wondering, did you think about addressing those at all or just to dismiss them? Or what are the fact that people were making those arguments background? What does that say about how we view this process from afar? That some people almost, I feel like, were trying to rationalize Graham's behavior in some way.
William Saletan '87 People want... I say people. A lot of people. It's human nature. A lot of people seem to want a simple theory, what they think of as a simple theory for why somebody sold out. The very popular one on the internet is Lindsey Graham is gay and Donald Trump has the goods on it, and that he's holding that over Graham, and that's why Graham does whatever Trump wants. And first of all, I have so many problems with this theory. There isn't very clear evidence that it's true. Even the gay part is not exactly clear. Why it would matter. The idea that Lindsey Graham would need to keep this in the closet if it were true. It's also just not true that there was some sudden moment of change. If you look at the history that I document, it's a gradual process, so the whole blackmail theory doesn't fit that. But I think it's cheap and easy to use that theory because it helps us think that this is a simple thing. It's much scarier what really happened. What really happened is this gradual process. And it brings home that they don't have to have blackmail on you for you to sell out, you can just work it out in your own head, even if as Lindsey Graham was two years ago before this, knew everything that was wrong and said everything that was wrong with Trump.
The pilot fish thing is interesting. And I think it's true, Jason. I think the idea that Lindsey Graham was a little brother attached to John McCain. McCain dies and Graham has attached himself already to Donald Trump who's the new alpha in his life. What I wanted to understand was not the aspects of what Graham did that were particular to him, I wanted to understand the general thing. And so to me, the pilot fish thing is a specific version of a general thing that happened in the Republican Party. And the general thing was cowardice, the general thing was a strong-willed authoritarian type comes in, meaning Trump, and people like Graham, whether it was because they were naturally pilot fish or naturally cowardly in some other way just rolled over for him.
And there's a third version of the story, which is... There's the gay thing, there's the pilot fish thing, and there's this golf thing, that there was some magic golf outing that Graham went on with Trump in 2017 and something happened then; maybe it was the blackmail, maybe it was something. But again, doesn't correspond to reality. There was a lot of change that happened after that.
Jason Zengerle '96 I think one of the really interesting things you write in the book is that at the outset, it was more arrogance than cowardice on Graham's part, in some ways. He thought that he could manage Trump and that he had foreign policy views that were very different than Trump's. He was much more of interventionist, a neocon, and he thought Trump was an idiot and therefore he could control him. And it worked for a little while. Trump did adopt more neocon policies. At a certain point, he changed.
At what point do you think the arrogance turned into cowardice> or do you think that someone like Lindsey Graham still thinks that he can pull the strings on Donald Trump and other Republicans as well? How many Republicans are there today who don't like Donald Trump and are maybe afraid of getting on the wrong side of his voters, but also think this guy's a buffoon? I can get what I need out of him. Leonard Leo got a Supreme Court out of Donald Trump. It does seem like that's an instance where Trump was outsmarted and outmaneuvered by an establishment conservative Republican. Are there other people out there maybe besides Leonard Leo who still thinks this? Does Lindsey Graham still think this? Or do you think that at a certain point, arrogance just turns into cowardice?
William Saletan '87 I think what the record certainly shows in Graham's case, and I would argue that it shows generally, is that the arrogance was just a gateway drug. The arrogance was they come and Trump wins the election, surprises all these guys. They didn't really think he would win. He wins, and now they're going to Trump Tower, and then when he is in the White House, they're going to the White House, and they're all sucking up. They weren't Trumpers to begin with. And they think at that point that he is an idiot. Donald Trump today is an idiot. You can see him talking to Brett Bear for two hours or whatever just giving away the classified documents case by... He's just a complete moron. A dangerous moron, but a moron. But they thought that they could outsmart him. And it turns out over time that the sheer will to power of this guy just overwhelms them.
And the other thing is, although he's a moron, he's got the Republican Party base behind him. Now they're afraid of the base. Even to this day, Donald Trump is even more insane than he ever was, but he's got a, what, a 40 point, 50 point lead in the Republican primary. And none of these politicians are afraid to take... with very few exceptions, are very afraid to take him on. I think we're in a period of fear now where so many of these folks who know better are just afraid of alienating not just Trump, but the Republican electorate.
Jason Zengerle '96 Do you think that people like Graham and maybe others have changed their own view of what it means to be a conservative? In the sense that Lindsey Graham's prior seemed very different than Donald Trump's in terms of what he believes about domestic policy, foreign policy. But at a certain point, he's obviously fallen in line behind Trump. Do you think he accepts that unless you support Donald Trump, you're not really a true conservative anymore? Or do you think there's still some vestiges of that that he is holding onto and were Trump to go away, he would go back to the way he operated before? How much of this is going to be a long lasting shift? How many of these changes that have occurred in guys like Graham, how much of them are dependent on Trump? And if Trump goes away, do they go back to the way they were before? Is Trump's influence on the Republican Party, even once he's gone, going to still loom over these guys?
William Saletan '87 Well, it's a great question. And we won't know the answer for some time. It's being experimentally tested right now. Let me take Mike Pence, actually, to address your question, because Mike Pence, literally Trump's vice former vice president, is running against him for the Republican nomination. And part of the case that Pence is making is that Trump isn't really conservative in the ways that you just described. I'm trying to remember the issues. Pence says Trump is not sufficiently pro-life, that he's not hardcore enough on abortion. He says that he is not really for reforming entitlements, which Trump is not. Trump's got a democratic position of let's protect social security and Medicare. Let's see, oh, and Ukraine. Ukraine's the big thing. Believing in a traditional muscular, conservative foreign policy, whereas Trump is an isolationist, bring everybody home, don't get in the way of Putin or anybody else. In that respect, and there are some other Republicans running for president, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, some others who are also saying what Pence is saying, particularly about Ukraine. There is an attempt by the Reaganite foreign policy wing of the party, the elite who still believe that, to revive it.
But the thing is, Jason, I don't know how successful they're going to be because the Republican primary electorate has changed. On entitlements, I did a story about this, you look at the polling, Republican base voters don't want a reform in entitlements. They don't want their Medicare and social security cut. There's a big streak of isolationism about bringing America home. On abortion, they're conservative, but they're not really where Pence is. I think that it's going to be very difficult to revive real Reaganite foreign policy. Even if the elite want to do it, even if today's candidates want to do it, there's been a realignment at the base level that's going to make that very difficult. And of course the clearest illustration of what happened in the Trump years was they literally didn't have a platform in 2020. There was a platform, Trump wins, and then the platform is whatever the leader says, which again is textbook authoritarianism.
Jason Zengerle '96 Could you see a world in which those shifts within the Republican Party and the directions that Trump has taken them would actually be a good thing if you just took Donald Trump out of the equation? You look at things that muscular foreign policy got us into with the Iraq, you look at entitlements and the people's need for those things. Can you see a Republican Party where those are actually good positions and it's just Donald Trump and his particular brand of politics making those problematic? Or do you think that the old Republican way of doing things, there's some value to that?
William Saletan '87 Well, there's certainly value in specific critiques. Take the Iraq war. Disaster. There's a reason why a lot of Republicans are like, "We don't want to do that again." And it's great that they learned that lesson. I was one of the people who supported the Iraq war. It's really obvious it was a terrible mistake. I did something wrong; rethink it. I'm glad that Republicans are doing that. But in general, the problem is it's not like the mistakes of the past were learned, and therefore the Republican Party is going to adopt some happy, nice, safe ideology. What has substituted for a lot of those previous views is this pernicious cultural conservatism, which is ethnocentric, it's anti-Muslim, it's anti-immigrant, it's anti-woke, it's anti-trans. What has surfaced in lieu of Reaganism is a much more pernicious, much more harmful, in some ways, cultural agenda, which it's not a war, but it's a war at home. It's a cultural war, and a lot of people are going to get hurt.
Jason Zengerle '96 We have a bunch of questions from the audience. I'm just going to start going through them now. David Kranz, class of 1978, writes, "It seems to me that the very interesting phenomenon is how the base of the Republican Party drifted from the type of conservatism that Graham represented, neo-conservative foreign policy, pure free market policies, basically Reagan's brand of conservatism, to Trump's awful so-called populism. Despite never having run and spending very little of his own money, Trump completely crushed his established Republican opposition in 2016. Graham was surprisingly candid in saying after Trump's victory that he wanted to remain relevant. Rank opportunism, yes, but pretty clear cut. Would like your thoughts on that.
William Saletan '87 Yeah, the remaining relevant thing is pretty clear. One of the last things that I saw before I had to file the last version of the article was Graham talking to Saudi TV; I think it was Al Arabiya. And previously Graham had said, "I'm not going. MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, murdered Jamal Khashoggi. I'm not going to have anything to do with this bloody regime." Then the Saudis are like, "Yeah, we'll spend $37 billion on getting arms from Boeing," which has got a plant in South Carolina. And suddenly Graham literally says, "Hey, for $37 billion, I'm coming over there." He makes up with MBS. And he says in this interview... I believe that he used the term fear of missing out. And he's talking about the Saudi renaissance, as he now puts it. But it is a reflection of the way Graham thinks. He does always want to be relevant, and he did say that on a couple of occasions. What happens is Trump has replaced the Reaganite view with this Trumpian populism, which I think is corrosive in all the ways I described. And Graham is, to remain relevant, is adopting all of that populism with all of its harms.
Jason Zengerle '96 Barry Skolnik from the class of 1980 asks if you hold out any hope that a center right coalition might reemerge in the Republican Party, either in this current presidential race or many years down the line. I guess this would be like The Bulwark wing of the Republican Party. Is there any hope that that wing actually stays in the Republican Party? Or are those people just going to have to go to the Democrats?
William Saletan '87 I don't think they can control the Republican Party as it currently exists. And just to be clear, I think a lot of the worst people in the Republican Party today... And yes, I do think their party is full of some very bad people. I'm going to try not to use the word deplorable, but a lot of folks truly are, they originally came from the Democratic Party. I'm from Texas. And these are the George Wallace people. They were the anti-immigrant, anti-gay whatever, and they've just moved into the Republican Party and they now dominate it.
The center right, the more liberal-minded people who might be economically conservative but not culturally so conservative, there just aren't enough of them. They are the elite, they are donors. They're just not enough of them to control the party. I'm much more interested in, and a lot of my colleagues at The Bulwark are interested in, this small portion of the Republican Party that cannot control the Republican Party at least temporarily align with the Democratic Party, and I'll just put it in my words, Jason, to administer a series of electoral beatings to the Republican Party; just to pound it again and again cycle after cycle with defeats so that at least the prospect of never having power until it changes might induce some change on the part of politicians who don't have any principle on their own, people like Kevin McCarthy, but who at least want to have some power to govern and need the votes to do that.
Jason Zengerle '96 This is a related question from William Dorsey. He asks if there was a preconditioning of the Republican Party's perspective on populism and power before Trump came to the scene, referencing the changes they made in the sixties to welcome former Dixiecrats after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The party steadily moved to the right after that. Is this a continuation of that or is this a rupture?
William Saletan '87 It's not a straight line. It is a continuation in the way I was just trying to describe. This is just my version of it, that it's the Wallace vote. It's the southern strategy; let's get this cultural wing, the right wing of the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. And that worked. I think what's happened since then, to the extent that it's a continuation, I guess I would describe it as the Mitt Romney types and the Republican Party, the George H.W. Bush types, the donors and the Republican Party, the elite, they thought they could ride the tiger of this audience. And they had their very subtle racial messages, sometimes not so subtle.
But the whole point of it was those people were not supposed to actually run the party. The right wing base, the cultural was not supposed to run the party, it was supposed to provide votes, provide small donations or whatever. And it seems that what has happened since the Tea Party basically, in roughly the last decade, is that the base just took over and that this is our party now. And so yeah, there are now a lot of the elite types looking at this and saying, "Yeah, we can't take it back. We don't have the power to take it back from them." And I think that's correct. I guess it is true that it's a continuation, it's just that the exact nature of the issues has changed.
Jason Zengerle '96 William Bellinger asks a question about Newt Gingrich. He thinks that Gingrich was the beginning of the deterioration of cordiality between the political parties. And he's wondering how that connects to the corruption of Lindsey Graham. And Lindsey Graham, and I think even to this day, still has pretty good relations with Democrats, in the Senate at least. He certainly did before Trump and even somewhat into Trump. He was never one to demonize him that much. I guess that changed during the Kavanaugh hearings, it seemed. Yeah, how does Graham factor into that really nasty partisan edge that Gingrich brought to the hill and brought to Congress and Washington back in the early '90s?
William Saletan '87 Well, I'd have to go back and look at the Gingrich era. My recollection of Gingrich was that he was very much about total war, that he was about defeating... He polarized. The Democrats were evil. It was an ideological portrait of the Democratic Party. They are liberals, they are the left, we are the right. We have completely different values from them. We need to defeat them, we need to crush them. It wasn't really so much anymore about compromising on legislation, it wasn't a practical agenda.
And so that certainly has continued, that this is a mannequin us or them view, which we see then in the Tea Party and in the Trump movement. And that has been extremely harmful. That is one of the most corrosive things that has happened because the more paranoid you become about the other side, whether it's true that you actually believe it or whether you're just selling it to the Republican audience that believes it, the more capable you are of rationalizing absolute evil on your own side. Whatever Donald Trump does is okay because we have to defeat the evil left. I think of that as a little bit of a legacy of Gingrich.
And Graham is an interesting case of that because... And I would just caveat, Jason, that to this day, Lindsey Graham does work with Democrats on issues. He'll do a press conference, they'll talk about Ukraine. On specific issues, he'll work with them. But politically, he crossed the line in 2018 where he'd never campaigned against a colleague, he said. And he said, "I'm now going to do that because the other side is so evil." And I would argue to you that it was because of Trump that the Republicans had to take another step in that direction. They needed to rationalize stuff that Trump was doing that was so bad that they needed the portrait of the Democrats to be absolutely black and white and evil. And that's what they did.
Jason Zengerle '96 Benjamin Winer has a question about the popularity of politicians who are authoritarian. And he writes, "I understand why you wouldn't want to touch the word fascism, but there are parallels to the rise of it as discussed in books like They Thought They Were Free. I think it's possible that authoritarianism persists because the base actually wants that.
William Saletan '87 Oh, yes. Oh yes, absolutely. I would just want to be careful about talking about the base because it's obviously a collection of people with slightly different... There certainly is an authoritarian electorate. And if you look at polls, you will find people who say, "What America really needs is a strong leader." There are some very good polling questions that identify voters who have authoritarian tendencies to begin with. Those folks certainly exist.
And some of the messages that you hear now from Republicans about needing a strong leader who controls will... A classic case. What we're hearing in the 2024 campaign is about the weaponization of the Justice Department, about the deep state. The deep state has become a term for the bureaucracy that stands in the way of the people's representative, namely the president doing pretty much whatever the hell he wants. We elected him to go in and clean them out. And so this isn't explicitly authoritarian, but you can see logically, structurally how it is authoritarian because we are going to get rid of anyone who is in the government whose job is to serve the United States and not the guy who won the election. The guy who won the election has a mandate on this theory, a democratic mandate perversely to sweep out everybody in his way. And a lot of voters in the Republican Party are with that, and that is a recipe for absolute authoritarianism.
Jason Zengerle '96 Tony Holtzman, class of '55, notes that you haven't mentioned campaign financing both for Graham and Trump. And he asked how important was or is it for both men? And along those lines, I wonder what do you think about the rise of small dollar campaign donations and these email appeals to get small dollar donors? Which on both the left and have to be pretty aggressive and pretty hysterical. What role do you see that playing in polarization?
William Saletan '87 A lot, actually. Now, I should say, unlike a lot of my friends on the left, I'm a deep skeptic of campaign finance reform. I think the history of campaign finance reform is very often unintended consequences and sometimes contrary to what was intended. The Republican Party has shifted from large dollar to small dollar donations. It's part of the shift from the elite, socially liberal, economically conservative audience to a culturally conservative, economically progressive or economically egalitarian audience. And what you're getting is these cultural Republicans, these Tea Party types, the George Wallace types. I don't remember what the recent number is. You might remember, Jason. The Republican Party depended in some large part on the large donations even four years ago, six years ago. And now it's very much tilted towards the small dollar donations. And the problem is that that's reflective of a political base that, in turn, is constraining what the politicians can say. The politicians are feeding these voters more of this cultural anger because that's what the small dollar donors want.
But the other part of your question is really interesting, which is the role of fundraising in general and those emails you're talking about, which is very much on point. Because a lot of what you see on TV when you see Republicans talking, they're not even saying what they believe, they're saying what they think will raise money. And sometimes they're mentioning their website out loud. They're like, "Go to tedcruz.com," or whatever it is, "and give me money." The fundraising appeal is driving all the political messaging and is driving the nature of the party itself.
Jason Zengerle '96 Well, I think you have that moment in your book where Graham is on Hannity before the '20 election talking about, "You need to donate to my campaign. They're coming after me just because I support President Trump." It seems like some of his campaign finance self-interest was wrapped up in his own stance vis-a-vis Trump, not just with voters, but the money he needed to actually compete.
William Saletan '87 Absolutely. And there was a correlation. The angrier he got, the more... His voice would go up as he's getting more and more passionate and inflammatory in what he's saying as he is doing these interviews leading up the last couple of months before the 2020 election in which he's basically trolling for donations on Fox News.
Jason Zengerle '96 James Becker asks, "What do you think about the notion that the Republican Party is becoming more authoritarian independently of Trump as a matter of self-preservation and has been shrinking and continues to shrink? The result, a minority party fighting to maintain power, which inevitably calls for voter suppression, radical gerrymandering to maintain white power and increasingly diverse jurisdictions, et cetera." And you see this in certain states, I think. I live in North Carolina, and some of the ways in which Republicans here even pre-Trump did things to state government in such a way that would increase their power because they saw that without that they were going to be out of power. Is there something to that? Or is Trump just part of a larger story or is Trump an accelerant?
William Saletan '87 The structural argument is really interesting. Here's my answer to it, about gerrymandering becoming a minority party and trying to rig things so that even as a minority party, they can still control. And it's true, the electoral college and gerrymandering and those, they play a role at the margins. And they could account for a lot of that.
But I would say to anyone who believes that the Republican Party is maintaining itself through minority rule and through these games, you are an optimist. I know that sounds bizarre, but you are an optimist if you think that most Americans think like us, and therefore, if we could just have majority rule, we would have a sane government. That is not true, unfortunately.
I would just point out that in the last midterm elections, I believe Congressional House Republicans got 54% of the popular vote. They have a majority. This cultural conservatism, Swarthmorians are just not at all representative of America. We represent a lot of America, but not a majority. Cultural conservatism is extremely popular, extremely common. And one of the things that a lot of white liberals have got to wrap their heads around is there's not some magic about being non-white that's going to protect people from falling into this authoritarianism. A lot of what's happened to the Democratic Party in the last few years is a surprising number of Black and brown Americans have been voting Republican. And some of them voted for Trump. And there's this mystery, why is this happening? These cultural messages are dangerously powerful. And we have to figure out how to grapple with that. We can't just tell ourselves that if we could clean up the system and get rid of gerrymandering and the electoral college, we would have the government we want.
Jason Zengerle '96 Mark Salzberg, class of '87, asks, "How important was the Kavanaugh hearing to Graham's evolution, both substantively as well as behaviorally? And relatedly, Stephen Gessner asks, "What do you see as the role of the Supreme Court and the movement towards authoritarianism?"
William Saletan '87 The Kavanaugh hearing, first of all, was absolutely central. I did not intend to write about it when I started out. It was a thing that happened. I thought, what does this have to do with authoritarianism? But it became really clear that in Graham's case, that was the trigger that he used to just become a zealot for Trump. At the Kavanaugh hearing in... This is September of 2018, he just explodes at the hearing. This is about Christine Blasey Ford, and the Democrats are trying to sandbag you, Judge Kavanaugh. And you can watch the video, and everyone's watching him, the Republican colleagues are watching him too. Everyone's baffled. Really, you're getting so off about this. But that's the juncture at which Graham commits himself to Trump. It's like he goes through this process of, "They're so awful that I need to-"
Jason Zengerle '96 "I hope you never get power," he says, right?
William Saletan '87 Yeah, yeah. You can hear it in his voice, he's so angry. And then he gets all this tongue bath, this love from all the Trumpers who didn't love him before. And so that's a huge transition for him. And you can see how then in the spring of 2019, he just descends into this polarized worldview I was talking about where he can rationalize anything Trump does. Wait, what was the larger... Oh, the Supreme Court.
Jason Zengerle '96 Yeah, and then what-
William Saletan '87 I'm a squish about the Supreme Court. I believe that one of the elements of the Republican... or the conservative movement that has leased, flipped over to Trumpism is the judicial conservatives, it is the Federalist Society. And right now, obviously a lot of people are off about Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito and the billionaires and all that. But it is absolutely true that judges appointed by Donald Trump rejected his lies about the 2020 election. They did not vote for him. The Supreme Court let him down. The Supreme Court recently has made some fairly moderate rulings about the Voting Rights Act. So far, I think that the Supreme Court has held in the sense that it has followed rules and it has followed precedents. And to the extent that has ruled that in ways liberals don't like, it has been largely about limiting its own intrusion, limiting the role of courts in politics rather than imposing a right wing view. And as long as that holds, I think the Supreme Court is not the problem. The problem is much more actually in the electorate and the political process.
Jason Zengerle '96 I have to follow up then, just since you wrote a book about it, what about abortion? In terms of the Supreme Court limiting its rulings and the like. I'm not saying Donald Trump was necessarily intent on overturning Roe v. Wade, but it was something that he certainly campaigned on, and you could make the argument that he won in 2016 in part because he activated Republican voters on that issue. And certainly, the Alito Thomas stuff does suggest a certain flouting of norms and the like. I guess you're saying the court wouldn't overturn election on Trump's behalf, but what about intervening in and interfering in ways in our politics that are maybe more anti-democratic, small D, than they were before? That this is a fairly radical court in that respect. And that's not necessarily authoritarianism, but do you see some connection there at all?
William Saletan '87 Yeah, there's some bode of a connection. I wouldn't call it about abortion. Let me take the example of abortion and guns. On abortion, the Supreme Court and Dobbs ruled that the court's going to step out of the issue and let the political process resolve it. And you can disagree with that, but that's not imposing an anti-abortion policy. You can choose the anti-abortion policy if you want. And I understand the arguments why it is a constitutional right, but that's not imposing it.
Guns is a different story, on guns, the Supreme Court has ruled New York State can't limit government... fairly moderate gun restrictions. And I understand there's a text of it in the Second Amendment, but that is an interpretation of the clause about the militia and stuff that imposes at the level of constitutional rights so that the voters of New York can't overturn that. They'd have to change the composition of the Supreme Court. There are cases of the court ruling in anti-democratic ways, but they're not about abortion, they're about guns and perhaps some other issues.
Jason Zengerle '96 Roger Smith asks about the centrality of political violence in all of this and whether there's an appeal and momentum of the authoritarian style, that the encouragement of violence is actually something that people like. And if that's the case, how likely is this encouragement of political violence going to persist? Is it a feature or is it a bug of Trump and authoritarianism?
William Saletan '87 If we look at polling, violence, per se, does not sell. There's this very small audience for violence. Americans are still generally repelled by violence. They don't want to be like countries where political violence is common commonplace. To this day, the violence of January 6th is generally renounced, even by people who defend the... Those who defend The January 6th participants, the convicts, are generally argued that, "Oh, these are people who didn't do violence." We still have that norm. I don't think that the violence, per se, is a selling point. It's not broad enough. The downside is much greater for a politician who would promote the violence.
What's more corrupt, what worries me more is the way that Lindsey Graham handled it and I think other Republicans may handle it, which is to broker the violence in this perverse way where, "Oh, I'm against the violence. I'm against the insurrection and I'm against people committing violence over Trump being indicted or whatever. But we mustn't indict the president because there will be violence if we do it." Lindsey Graham literally said that they should stop the second impeachment of Trump because the impeachment itself was going to cause more violence. When a politician says that, he is basically imposing himself as a broker. He's using the violence, he's using the threat of violence these other people are committing. Now, mind you, I don't support it, but he's using that to get a political objective. And that is much more dangerous because something that he can sneakily impose.
Jason Zengerle '96 I don't think this is what Robert Stein is doing, class of '82, but he asks, "Assuming a Trump conviction, is a Biden pardon our best chance at diffusing the extreme partisanship that we have."
William Saletan '87 I hate the pardon power to begin with. When I was writing the story I'm looking at... Trump's pardons were so corrupt. Just a couple of days ago, Mike Pence's former chief of staff was on Fox News, and he actually talked about how corrupt the pardons were. Trump pardoned people who lied and cheated to cover up for Trump. He pardoned people who had committed all kinds of crimes. Trump isn't the first one to do it, he's just the most egregious.
The whole idea of pardon, the whole idea of a president unilaterally deciding this sort of thing, I almost think we need a constitutional amendment to get rid of it. I hate all the pardons. If there's going to be a pardon process, there needs to be checks and balances. Checks and balances are why this country still exists. The idea of one person having that power is extremely dangerous. I would be against Joe Biden or anyone else unilaterally pardoning Trump.
Also, I'm just a hardcore law and order guy, and Donald Trump broke the law. And people who did what Donald Trump has done, withholding classified documents... And he just deliberately obstructed the FBI from getting them. He was under subpoena. People go to jail for that shit, and he... Sorry. If we're going to uphold the rule of law, I don't really care that he's the former president, he should go to jail because we do need equal justice in this country. And the Republicans claim that they're against unequal justice, but that's what they're asking for when they say that because he's a former president, he should be treated differently.
Jason Zengerle '96 You had mentioned earlier that the hope of the center right folks and the Bulwark folks is that Republicans will lose enough elect... They'll lose so many elections, at a certain point, they'll come to their senses. Do you see any upside to a conviction of Trump furthering that process, speeding up that process? Or would a conviction of Trump, just from a pure matter of politics, putting aside a pardon, does that further entrench him and entrenches supporters within the Republican Party?
And I think you've mentioned this. At the end of your book, you have these 20 takeaways, the things you took away, and there was one of them, I'm trying to find it now, but just this idea that any kind of criticism or finding a fault becomes more evidence that you're being persecuted. Given that dynamic, how do you see this Trump case playing out? It's obviously helped him short term, it seems, within the Republican primary. His indictment seems to have increased his poll numbers, at least until a couple days ago. Could you see that, his conviction, in a certain way, him becoming this martyr, actually making it harder to get rid of this strain within the GOP and within our politics?
William Saletan '87 Yes. Unfortunately, yes. I would separate it into two parts, though. The case itself, we've had the indictment come out, and the indictment presented evidence. And they have documentation, they have eyewitness testimony, they have audio tapes and so forth. To the extent that it details what Trump did, that makes Trump look really bad because what Trump did was really bad. And to the extent that that information about what he did gets out, that hurts Donald Trump.
But the conviction is a different question. Sending the guy to jail, if Donald Trump goes to jail, that absolutely helps. It galvanizes the Republican Party behind him. It fuels this idea, wait, you're sending a former president to jail. This is being done by the incumbent administration. It's not, it's being done by... There's a special counsel, there's a jury, there's all that. But that does galvanize.
And I think what we have to do, as people who believe in the rule of law, is say, "Yeah, that's too bad. It's not good politically. It's going to help the other side galvanize behind Trump. It could result in a Trump nomination, perversely. But we're going to have to set that aside and just follow the rule of law, because that's what the law and the facts show in this case, and that's what the jury decided." I would do it despite the political consequences.
Jason Zengerle '96 This last question is from David Harrison, and he notes that Biden would seem to welcome a '24 presidential election premise on the opposition between authoritarianism and democracy, authoritarianism being Trump, Biden being democracy. That does seem to be the calculus that the White House is making. They want to run against Donald Trump. How dangerous is that? Given the hyperpolarization of the time, the hyper-partisanship, do you think the Biden administration and Biden himself is wrong, that he wants Donald Trump to be his opponent? Is the risk too great for that? Would you personally breathe a sigh of relief if Ron DeSantis was the Republican nominee and he were then to defeat Biden? Would that be a better outcome in some ways than just the mere possibility of Trump getting back in office? And I think we'll end on that question.
William Saletan '87 Sure, sure. And my answer to you is in 2016, I wanted Donald Trump to be the nominee I thought he'd be easy to beat. One of my rules in life, if I'm going to make a mistake, it better be a different mistake from the mistake I made last time. I'm not going to do that again. And there are reasons to believe that he couldn't get reelected again, because people have seen how awful he is in a way that wasn't as clear before, but I'm not going to take that chance. Jason, not only would I want DeSantis to win, if it gets to the Maryland primary and I am allowed to cross over, because I used to be an independent voter here, and if I can re-register... Because Joe Biden's got the Democratic nomination. If I can re-register and if Donald Trump is up against pretty much anyone over there, let's take DeSantis as an example, I would switch over to the Republican Party to vote for DeSantis because Donald Trump is an existential threat to the continuation of this country as a democracy. And we have two shots to get rid of him. Not one. The one in the general election. But if we can take him out in the primary by taking him out, I mean legally, politically, we should do that, we should do that. And as bad as Ron DeSantis is in all the ways he is bad, he has not literally tried to overthrow the government of the United States. He has not done that. He has not called for literally suspending the Constitution.
Jason Zengerle '96 A very low bar here.
William Saletan '87 Very low bar. I am for minimizing the risk, and the risk is Trump. If we end up with four years or even eight years of DeSantis, that's going to suck. But America will go on, I believe. And that's not the case if Trump wins.
Jason Zengerle '96 All right. Will, thank you so much. This was fantastic. It was really, really great, have you talk about this. Thank you, everybody, for tuning in. If you do want to see this later, you can see it on the website. And we will resume the SwatTalks I think in September. We're going to take the summer off, but we'll be back in the fall. Will, thank you again. Thanks a lot everybody for tuning in, and have a great summer. See ya