"We're all going to wear a scarlet letter": Tim Alberta on the rise of Trump and the fall of the GOP

Politico's Tim Alberta talks "American Carnage," his book about how Donald Trump conquered the Republican Party

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 23, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

"American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump" by Tim Alberta (Harper/Getty)
"American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump" by Tim Alberta (Harper/Getty)

In February of 2018, Donald Trump's former political guru Steve Bannon told Bloomberg News that in the 2016 election, "The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

Bannon was proven correct in his strategy of how Trump's racist, authoritarian pseudo-populist movement could win power in the United States (and various other places around the world). Nearly three years into Trump's tenure the American news media is still struggling with how to cover a president and an administration that have no use for democratic norms, the Constitution, the rule of law, and the truth or reality itself.

Trump has many advantages in his campaign against the Fourth Estate and other public voices who dare to challenge him. He is a reality TV show character turned president and the most powerful person on the planet. He has taken the instinctive skill of a media personality and mated it with cruelty, an insatiable lust for power, a lack of morality and empathy, and a malignant, narcissistic God complex where it seems Trump literally believes that he is the "chosen one."

The media covers President Trump because it must — and because he is highly entertaining and good for ratings. Those two factors together mean that Trump the president and TV character is highly profitable for the corporate media. He stands at the center of the country's and the world's attention in two roles. He is both the Mad King and the King of the American Kakistocracy.

Donald Trump is highly accessible to the news media. But he and his regime also lack transparency because they fundamentally reject the truth and have weaponized lies. Trump himself lies constantly, as does the right-wing media anchored by Fox News. White House spokespeople and Republicans lie professionally, spreading known untruths on behalf of the Trump regime.

Lying is a basic tool for authoritarian and fascist regimes because they reject any commitment to public accountability.

Tim Alberta is Politico Magazine’s chief political correspondent. In his new bestselling book "American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump," Alberta takes on the monumental task of separating truth from rumors, fictions and outright lies about the inner workings of the Trump White House.

In our conversation, Alberta talks about interviewing Donald Trump, and revealed that Vice President Pence has become one of Trump's few true friends and confidantes — as well as how their relationship is informed by Pence's brand of right-wing evangelical Christianity. Alberta also offers insights on Trump's racist and nativist views, and the role of White House adviser Stephen Miller in the president's obsessive campaign against nonwhite immigrants. And Alberta also explains how Trump was able to seduce and conquer the Republican Party and its senior leadership, which initially opposed him.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can also listen to my full conversation with Tim Alberta through the player embedded below.

How do you balance the fact that Trump's presidency is an ongoing story with writing something that is going to endure?

It was a huge struggle. It was something that I wrestled with a lot as I was writing the book. I eventually just got to a place where I was comfortable realizing that wherever I ended the book that the story would go on, of course. And the period that I'm capturing would still stand alone and people could read the book and make sense of what was happening at the time. I also have children. One of the main reasons I wrote "American Carnage" is because 20, 25 or 30 years from now I want them to be able to read my book about the rise of Trump and how this came to be and have gained some perspective on the events.

Books about Donald Trump and this moment are a huge industry. There have been so many books of varying quality. Most are not good. They are rushed. A few are excellent. How did you balance the pressure of speed and timing versus quality?

There certainly was some strong interest in having me do this book much sooner. I kept pushing back by saying, "Look, if I'm going to write a book about his takeover of the Republican Party, and Trump just won this fluky election" — and at the time there were a great many Republicans who still were not behind Trump — "then I am not ready to do the book yet. Let's see if Trump actually does take over the party." Within a year or so of Trump taking office, it was clear that his takeover was complete and pretty unequivocal.

But what gave me some peace is the fact that I really was writing this book to my kids. I've got three little boys who are all under the age of five. Like many American kids their age, they are going to inherit this dizzying national legacy. At present, we cannot begin to appreciate just how much has changed in the United States in such a short period of time. I hope my book will, years in the future, provide some insight into how this came to be.

This moment in America will require 20 or 30 years of distance to fully appreciate and contextualize exactly what has taken place. Some decades in the future when my children are in college and in the "real world," trying to make sense of things, I hope they will be able to say, "My dad was trying to lay this out for me. He was trying to teach me about what was happening here. He wasn't trying to point fingers necessarily or make heroes and villains, but just trying to tell this story in its full context so that we understand what happened and hopefully how we can avoid it in the future."

As I see it, Donald Trump is not a surprise. This is an anticlimax. Trump is an inevitability of sorts if you think about the post-civil rights Republican Party. Why is there this dominant narrative that Trump's rise is somehow "shocking" or "unimaginable"?

I agree that someone like Donald Trump was inevitable in America. Perhaps not in 2016 but certainly in this the early 21st century. I chose to begin "American Carnage" in 2008 but one certainly could have started with the pre-Goldwater era Republican Party or the [John Birch Society] or George Wallace. One could also start this story with the modern conservative movement in the Reagan era. And one could most certainly begin this story with Pat Buchanan taking on George H.W. Bush, or even with Newt Gingrich. The reason I started in 2008 was the confluence of Sarah Palin and the bank bailouts, the first black president Barack Obama, and how all those happenings set the table for the ensuing decade and Trump's rise.

If we begin with the Tea Party in 2010 and massive unemployment where millions of manufacturing jobs were lost across middle America and then Mitt Romney's country club-like campaign that did not address economic insecurity, cultural animus or racial resentment, there is something obvious happening with a disaffected white American public that was ripe for Trump. I certainly felt like there was this wave building in America and that it was cresting around 2016. We just didn't know who was going to ride it. It just didn't seem like Trump. Looking back, we should have known better.

There are so many folks in the news media and elsewhere whose livelihoods depend on the spectacle of Trumpism. He is also very entertaining in a perverse and twisted way. These are facts that so many people do not want to admit.

I did not fully appreciate that until while writing "American Carnage" I was doing the research and realized that the rise of social media converged with the deinstitutionalization of media. Cable news media was being viewed with increasing suspicion and distrust by many Americans at the same time. There is also this time period between 2007 to 2011 where there is a huge demographic shift where a disproportionate number of white Americans 45 and older who used to read newspapers and watch the nightly news began getting their information from Fox News. This all becomes a huge Molotov cocktail of sorts. It was a social and political powder keg.

And you are so right about Donald Trump. He is so entertaining. I can remember being in Cleveland for that first debate in August of 2015 and he makes that comment about Rosie O'Donnell and I remember laughing out loud — and so did almost everybody in the filing center. Here are hundreds of professional journalists and we consider ourselves to be these very upright, objective arbitrators of truth and we are cracking up.

Even as professional journalists and reporters, we are so used to the stuffy conventions of politics. And here comes this guy in the form of Donald Trump who is about to put on a show and our initial reaction was, "Well that's hilarious." The American news media could not help but cover it. Trump knew this. Trump was the one person on stage who understood that this was all a reality television program and nothing more.

There are these dueling narratives about Donald Trump. Some people say he is stupid and ignorant. Others believe that he is playing some type of 3D chess. You sat across from Donald Trump. How would you assess him?

There are two extreme caricatures of Donald Trump. Neither of them is accurate. One is that Donald Trump is a savant and that everything is three-dimensional chess, Trump is supposedly five moves ahead of everybody else. The other caricature is that Donald Trump is a moron, and the pundits and other professional political observers are all a bunch of rubes for assigning to Trump this genius. Both of these caricatures are wildly inaccurate.

I do not think that there is any doubt that with Donald Trump's winning in 2016, that the dog caught the car a little bit. In fact, Reince Priebus, Trump's former chief of staff said that to me in the book, in terms of Donald Trump and the winning demographic coalition he put together. Reince explained to me in a purely political way that, "Hey, I'm the guy who wrote the autopsy saying that we couldn't win elections by just firing up working-class whites at the expense of appealing to minorities. And this guy proved me wrong."

Priebus was saying the dog caught the car in terms of how nobody thought that by going on Alex Jones' show and by running a Breitbart.com campaign they could win the White House. Nobody did those things because nobody thought they would work. So there is a bit of dumb luck involved with Trump winning in 2016, but I also think that Donald Trump is very smart.

Trump reads the room really well. He has never had political consultants guiding him and looking at polls to shape his messaging, but Trump is devastatingly accurate in terms of analyzing why the Republican Party lost the presidential contests in previous years. His analysis of the party's deficiencies in battling the American left, both politically and culturally, were really spot on.

Trump has a visceral gut understanding of how voters think of the issues. Whether it's on immigration or whether it's on trade, Trump takes a soundbite-driven, lowest common denominator approach to policy. Most voters process policy in those lowest common denominator terms. Trump understands that fact and was able to package issues and communicate them in a way that most voters could understand. The other Republicans he was competing against were largely not able to do that.

One of the dominant narratives is that Trump has no core political beliefs. Is that true?

I think the most accurate description would be that Donald Trump is an opportunist. He has changed his positions a great deal over the years. If you are trying to understand Trump through a policy lens, then you are not going to understand him at all. Because while I do think that Trump has some core beliefs and a specific worldview, this is not to say Trump has an ideology.

Donald Trump does think that Americans viewing themselves as global citizens is a mistake. I think that Trump believes that America should look inward. And now, obviously, Trump's own actions do not need to align with those beliefs. Nobody said that Donald Trump was or is principled. For example, Donald Trump made his ties in China because he cares first and foremost about profit. Trump also believes, in the same moment, that American businesses should make their products here.

But ultimately what drives Donald Trump's understanding of politics and the American electorate is almost all cultural. Trump has been more effective at appealing to emotion than any politician in recent American history, if not ever. Donald Trump knows what buttons to push and how to make emotional appeals that voters were willing to go along with — even if they did not fully shared those views. What mattered to these voters was that they believed Donald Trump was going to fight for people like them.

Who are Trump's voters, and what do they want? Why him? Those answers explain why he was able to take over the Republican Party. 

There is no way Donald Trump wins without the overwhelming support of white evangelical Christians. I think they were responding to the fact that Trump was not Hillary Clinton and that he was promising them things that they had never been promised before, such as the Supreme Court and to do what they have long wanted about the issue of abortion rights.

Pence played into this too. Mike Pence is very well known among evangelical Christians and certainly the conservative movement. Unlike Trump, Mike Pence is one of their own. Trump has delivered for white Christian evangelicals, probably more than any other part of his constituency. Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, said to me, "I've been at the White House more in Trump's first four months than I was at the White House in all eight years of George W. Bush."

Suburban Republicans are the other major part of the coalition. I believe they are even more important to Trump's coalition than even those blue-collar Joes in Middle America. If white suburbanites don't vote for Trump in huge numbers in 2016, he obviously does not win. And if they do not swing away from Republicans in 2018, then Democrats don't take back the House. So the college-educated, wealthy, white-collar suburbanite is the new prototype swing voter in 2020.

These are the people who — even if they find Trump's rhetoric and his behavior repulsive, he's given them a big tax cut. He has presided over an economy where they are seeing their 401(k)'s booming and their stock portfolios are in a better place certainly than they were four years ago. Many of these white suburban voters are going to have a hell of a hard time voting against Trump just because of the basic question, "Is my pocketbook in better shape now? Is my checking account in better shape than it was four years ago?"

Now for the third part of Trump's coalition, those blue-collar Joes who are so mythologized by the news media. Trump really has not delivered for them on almost anything except cultural grievances. And what's interesting is that cultural grievance is probably more powerful than tax cuts or Supreme Court justices for these voters. Trump is probably more in danger of losing voters from one of those other two groups than he is in danger of losing from these blue-collar voters, despite having not delivered much for them.

Did Trump just give "traditional" Republicans permission to be what they always wanted to be? Is this really a takeover?

I do not necessarily view them as mutually exclusive. Both can probably be true at the same time. There probably is a not-insignificant chunk of the Republican base and the Republican political class that was ready to go along on this ride. They had no issue with it. I do think that there is another sizable part of the Republican Party that is deeply uncomfortable with Trump and that wants to get off the ride. They reluctantly punched their ticket for Trump because they felt like they had no other option and now they're just nauseous from it all.

There are any number of American civic, cultural, social and political institutions that have collapsed under their own weight in the last 10 to 50 years in America. Many Americans don't tend to think about political parties as institutions, but in fact they are. Political parties are essential to American life in a number of ways. And frankly, the stability of a political system in America is tied to the strength of a political party. Among most observers there was not a great appreciation for how systemically weakened the Republican Party had become in the 20 years prior to Trump coming down that escalator.

Donald Trump did hijack the Republican Party, but he could not have hijacked a party that wasn't ready to be hijacked. In other words, Donald Trump could not have taken over the Republican Party unless it was fundamentally vulnerable to being taken over.

Trump is giving Republicans and the conservative movement what they have dreamed of for years. Why the upset among the party elites and other influentials?  

If you were going to put on paper everything that the president has accomplished to this point, and then you scratched off President Donald Trump and you wrote "President Jeb Bush" or "President Marco Rubio" or "President Rick Perry," then most Republicans would be hooting and hollering and dancing in the streets and they would love it. They would be celebrating this person as Reagan reincarnate. And yes, some Republicans will celebrate Donald Trump as Reagan reincarnate. But I do think there is a level of recognition for at least some of these folks — probably for a lot of them, even those who will never admit it — that something is wrong here in America with Donald Trump's rise to power.

Some Republicans know that there is something lingering below the surface that sooner or later they are going to have to reckon with, and maybe it's not going to be today, maybe it's not going to be 50 years from now. Perhaps there will be deathbed confessionals among senior Republicans and other conservatives about their role in all this. I think many Republicans have to suppress this feeling in order to get out of bed and come to work in the morning on Capitol Hill.

Could it be that many Republican leaders know that they got something untoward and unseemly and wrong with Trump but they are enjoying it? And now they are all afraid of getting caught?

Maybe they won't get caught? Maybe they'll never have to face up to some of the consequences of it, whether that's losing an election or whether it's their grandkids sitting on their lap saying, "Hey, when the president was saying these racist things, why didn't you speak out against it?" It manifests in other ways for different Republicans. What plenty of Republicans will admit to you privately, especially if you get a couple of drinks in them, is "Look, we're all going to have a scarlet letter on us from this." With a few exceptions — and I'm talking in the political class explicitly — everybody is going to wear that scarlet letter of the Trump age for some time.

The so-called "principled" Republicans and conservatives love to distance themselves from Trumpism. But I always ask them about how their so-called principles set the stage for Donald Trump and this right-wing extremism. You have spoken to these old-guard Republicans. How do they distinguish themselves from Trump in terms of principles?

I think it's two things. I think you go to style and the substance, right? I think on style, a lot of them would say, "Look, go back to Jeb Bush's campaign." Jeb's got people working for him who are Hispanic. A lot of them. Jeb's got people working for him who are gay. Jeb's got people working for him who are far more open-minded on general social issues than your people who are working in the West Wing right now.

Democrats, liberals and progressives might view these distinctions as rather meaningless. One might say, "Well, some of these people are willing to call out the bigots in their own party, but they're still sort of accommodating these bigots with some of their own viewpoints." But I think the distinctions are actually pretty significant. What happened after George W. Bush was a real fracturing along not just ideological boundaries within the GOP but along some of those cultural boundaries. This impacted the Republican Party's general approach to government and its role in American life.

There are a good number of Republicans who wanted to have a big-tent party that was more inclusive on a range of issues on everything from immigration to refugee resettlement to gays and transgender people in the military, and other matters. These Republicans did not want their party to be branded as bigoted, exclusive and narrow minded. These Republicans basically wanted a modern version of conservatism, but still with a foundation of  free markets, free trade, rugged individualism and a strong national defense, where America is projecting not just military strength abroad but our values and influence. For them, those values are the linchpins of a strong republic.

These more traditional Republicans see Trump as somebody who is just fundamentally averse to those principles. They see him as someone who does not think that those things are the linchpins of a strong republic. In fact, he is somebody who thinks that those things have been detrimental to a strong republic. So there is a real basic disagreement there. This is true on immigration too.

Trump's racism, nativism and outright cruelty towards nonwhite people, especially migrants and refugees from Latin and South America — is that Donald Trump or is that Stephen Miller? What is their relationship?

I don't know that anybody in Washington, and I mean this, really has the goods on the Trump-Stephen Miller relationship. I tried to crack into it myself but have not been successful. I do think much of this is Donald Trump. I do not think that Stephen Miller has this influence in a non-Trump world. Stephen Miller would not have the influence that he has in driving some of these policies unless he had a ready and willing partner in the form of Donald Trump.

On immigration, it's such a core part of Trump's political identity that I think his fingerprints are all over every bit of these policies. Stephen Miller would not be doing and saying the things he is unless he had the endorsement, approval and backing of Donald Trump.

What is the relationship between Vice President Pence and Donald Trump, considering that Trump is an unrepentant sinner and Pence tries to present himself as a righteous Christian?

Transactional. In fairness, I also think it is less transactional than Trump's relationship with many other Republicans. I actually do think there's genuine affection between Trump and Pence, feelings which Trump has with very few other Republicans in Washington, including some who Trump believes are actually his buddies and who then go behind his back and trash him. I have talked to everybody who knows Pence. Nobody has ever heard Pence say a negative word about Trump since joining the ticket. Now, Pence had some harshly critical views of Trump before joining the ticket — and that's where I get into the transactional part — because Pence was in deep trouble in Indiana and was at very real risk of losing his re-election as governor. Trump threw him a lifeline.

Trump and his inner circle see in Pence, somebody who is the ideal counterbalance who is able to bring along a lot of those reluctant Republicans, people who do not see in Trump a person who is morally suited to lead the country. And Pence sees in Trump a president who can make a lot of his dreams come true. Trump put him a heartbeat away from the presidency, an office that Pence has wanted to hold for the last 30 years.

Pence's religion matters here too. Perhaps in a counter-intuitive way. Pence looks at Trump and, yes, he sees a sinner, but he also sees someone who is in need of grace and someone who is in need of understanding and love. People can roll their eyes at it, obviously. But Pence, I think, has formed this most unlikely brotherhood with Trump.

I believe that Mike Pence will be an enduringly loyal ally to Trump. Pence believes that Trump has been depicted as a caricature, that we all see a very different person than the Donald Trump that he sees. I believe that Pence thinks that Trump is a fundamentally good and decent family man, who has gotten a bad rep, and who occasionally makes mistakes — but that Trump makes mistakes because he is brutally attacked by the "liberal media" and the "forces of secularism" and everything else. Pence has, I think, gotten very comfortable with this idea in his mind that he's got Trump right and everybody else has gotten Trump wrong.

Trump has continued to show that he is a racist. His attacks on Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being the most recent examples. Is Trump a committed racist, or is his racism just a means to an end? Is he just using available tactics, like a Mafia boss?

I want to preface this by saying I never want to climb completely inside somebody's mind, and especially not the president of the United States because they have so many things to manage. I don't want to assign motives. That being said, there are two competing imperatives here. One is that, yes, Trump has this long history with "racial sensitivity." I am being very generous there with that language. We all know the history with Trump and housing discrimination, the Central Park Five, birtherism and everything else.

When you connect those dots it is pretty easy to reach a conclusion that Donald Trump is a person who loves to play with matches around the kerosene that is race relations in America. On the other hand, he is somebody who is pretty cosmopolitan and spent his career working in New York with minorities.

Obviously it's the oldest cop-out in the book to say, "Oh, I've got black friends." But Trump does have black friends, he does have black and brown people who vouch for him and say things like, "No. He doesn't say what he feels. He's just insensitive or he's just sort of callous. But that's not really who the guy is."

To your point about Trump being a Mafia boss, I absolutely think he sees the political opportunity at hand here and he is ruthless in exploiting it. Trump does not think twice about doing that. I think the conclusion about Trump's true feelings about race are probably much fuzzier than maybe we would initially be inclined to believe they are.

Does Trump like being president?

When you talk to people around him, yes he does. I think he enjoys the trappings of it. Trump is the star of the biggest reality show on Earth and everybody's responding to his every move. He definitely enjoys being the star of the show. I do not believe that Trump enjoys the constant criticism. It provokes and brings out some of the worst in him.

Donald Trump obviously has some real insecurities and sensitivities that come boiling over really quickly whenever he is poked and prodded at. We know the boxing metaphor that if he gets punched, he's going to counterpunch twice as hard. But it's because Trump has a glass jaw. This is somebody who just does not take criticism well, even constructive criticism in private.

If there's an epitaph written for this version of the Republican Party, what do you think it will say?

We tried to make America great again. Don't blame us.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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