On Tuesday we will have our first election since January 6. There is every reason to believe that things will get worse. That January 6 was merely an inflection point on the road to a government we may not recognize in a few years.
This according to our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, New York Times Magazine reporter and author Robert Draper. In his new book, Weapons of Mass Delusion, Draper explains how January 6 was a signal moment for the Republican party, one that left the MAGA base as the core and future of the party.
He lays out how “Stop the Steal” was a metaphor for those who believe that not just the 2020 election, but the country itself has been stolen from them. That their version of America has been taken away, and they are determined to get it back, by any means necessary.
Draper reminds us that Trump didn’t create this mindset; he merely unleashed it. That it has been percolating for a long time and that few people today fully understand what we are facing.
He outlines how, in the MAGA rhetoric, and in their “theology,” democracy is something to be upended. That, to them, democracy works against their interests. That they are more than ready for the complete forfeiture of democracy to serve their agenda.
Draper sees clear parallels to 1930s Germany, but adds that, given the speed of communication today, it could be even worse. We live, he points out, in an “attention economy,” one that easily enhances the power of demagogues like Reps. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), and others who will be sitting astride the next Congress.
Draper has some ideas about how all of this will play out in the long run, with and how public sentiment may eventually pushback, but it won’t be before hate is incentivized, and bad behavior and misinformation are weaponized against the form of government established by the US Constitution.
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Jeff Schectman: Welcome to the program. I’m Jeff Schechtman. The history of political parties in America has been a small-c conservative one. We can mark on one hand, really, the number of times that parties have profoundly shifted in their fundamental ideas and players. In modern times, the Republicans went through an upheaval in 1964 with the Goldwater nomination. From 1968 through 1972, the Democrats went through their time in the wilderness, but each time, if you drill down, there were core values and ideas that remained constant.
Today, amidst the Trump era, the Republican Party has totally transformed. The party of Gerald Ford, George Bush, Mitt Romney, and John Boehner is now the party of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, Kari Lake, and Kevin McCarthy. Where once, marginal tax rates and less government was the engine that drove the party, today, it’s driven by a MAGA movement that seems to want to turn back every aspect of liberal society from the enlightenment to the present: a kind of counterrevolutionary force that seems to want to actually harness the power of government to defend what they see as the nation’s traditions now under siege by liberalism, globalization, and corporations.
And to do it in a way that weaponizes meanness, truculence, and violence as a legitimate instrument of policy. Well, January 6 was perhaps the current apogee; the players in the current election cycle show that we’re not done yet. Where we are, how we got here, and who the players are are the focus of Robert Draper’s new book, Weapons of Mass Delusion. Robert Draper is a long-time contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and National Geographic. He is the author of several books, including Dead Certain and To Start a War, and his latest work is Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind.
It is my pleasure to welcome Robert Draper here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Robert, thanks so much for joining us.
Robert Draper: It’s truly my pleasure. Thanks for having me back, Jeff.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you back. The change in the GOP that we see today certainly didn’t happen overnight. It’s been seemingly going on for a long time with the rise of right-wing talk radio and Fox and the Tea Party movement back in the early 2000s. But something has changed with Trump, and particularly more recently, as you talk about January 6 itself was some kind of pivot point in the whole movement. Talk about that first.
Robert: Absolutely. And first, let me just say that was a very astute opener that you articulated to your listeners, and it’s really true that titans of the Republican Party, like Gerry Ford, not only would not be the titans of today but, in fact, would be demeaned and even cast out as RINOs — Republicans In Name Only. January 6 was a real signal moment for the party.
And I should say that I got my contract to do the book just three weeks beforehand. Basically, I knew I was going to be writing about a very factionalized Republican Party. At that point, Trump hadn’t conceded but figured he would at some point. They all do.
And my first day of doing reporting for the book was the morning of January 6. What occurred that day was really seismic, and I think most reasonable folks would have come away from that horrific experience, whether close range, like I witnessed it, or just watching it and in hearing about it on TV, they would’ve come away with a view that while the Republican Party has really got some work to do because it was members of their party who egged on this riotous mob, and surely they will do everything they can to divest themselves of the elements that gave rise to the interaction and to turn away from Trump, once and for all.
That, of course, as we know now, is not what happened, and those few members of the Republican Party that were vocal in believing that the party needed to wash its hands of Trump, prominent among them, Liz Cheney, have been all but exiled from the party, while those who embraced Trumpism and the Make America Great Again — the MAGA — movement, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, are now the dominant forces inside the party.
Jeff: In many ways, though, the January 6, the Stop the Steal movement as you talk about, represented some powerful metaphor because during this whole period that the party was changing, what we talked about a little while ago, that somehow Stop the Steal became a metaphor for this stop the change in the country that they were seeing in the sense that not only the election was stolen from them, but the country has been stolen from them.
Robert: I could not agree with you more that Stop the Steal and the very notion that the 2020 election had been stolen was the apotheosis of a longstanding view among millions of principally noncollege-educated whites who believe that America as they knew it was being taken away from them, bit by bit. And so the idea of a presidential election in which their beloved leader, Donald Trump, was defeated fair and square but in their view had been stolen was a powerful metaphor, as you’re saying.
Because it really represented not only how things had been taken away from them over time culturally, economically, and in other ways, but also, it represented for them how the people who were doing the taking were incorrigibly evil and would stop at nothing and had no soul, no patriotism. They were godless. These words, by the way, that I’m using, I’m using advisedly, like godlessness. They are now used casually by members of the MAGA right, like Marjorie Taylor Greene.
That notion of a stolen election has since January 6 given rise to all these other adjacent notions that the Democrats in conjunction with the media had stolen truth, for example, in a form of calling January 6 an insurrection, when it was in fact, okay, now take your pick with these scenarios, either a thoroughly peaceful protest or something that was set up by the FBI in conjunction with Nancy Pelosi or something that had been peaceful until Antifa showed up on the scene and riled people up. So there are these shifting notions of truth, but in the upside-down world, it constitutes a deluded electorate: Truth is up for grabs.
Jeff: Given how deep this theology is, this MAGA theology is in the Republican Party, it leads one to believe that Trump didn’t create this environment, that he unleashed something that had been there, had been lurking for a long time.
Robert: I think that’s accurate. And let’s just take the example of the 2020 stolen election, or Stop the Steal. It had been axiomatic for decades in Republican circles: The Democrats cheat, the Democrats steal votes, commit fraud all the time. Principally, they would be referring, Republicans would who would say these things, to the urban areas, which was basically code for minority voters, their votes being bought or just dumbly shepherded to the polls.
This is something that when I talked to run-of-the-mill, establishment Republicans, they grew up hearing this stuff, and they just accept it in the way that they accept that Hillary Clinton is a crook without being able to point to the statute that she violated that would make her a crook. And so Trump recognized this, and when in 2020, he started warning that if I lose, it’s going to be because Democrats steal, there were a lot of people who thought this was unseemly, but there were a lot of others who were willing to buy it because it was essentially in their bloodstream: the notion that Democrats do this sort of thing.
Jeff: There is the sense, also, that while this had been lurking for a long time, it wasn’t just an American phenomenon but this global populist phenomenon, this global nationalism was also part of it.
Robert: That’s certainly true. And of course, Trumpism coincided with Brexit and then, now, there had already been authoritarian regimes throughout the world, such as in Turkey. But we saw in Viktor Orbán in Hungary and in other places the rise of authoritarian figures in response to a wave of nationalism that was sweeping the globe. And this nationalism, as to its root causes, some of it has to do with the belief that being more “globalistic,” being part of a global community has not worked out for various citizens. And part of it is, frankly, racism: the view that immigration, that Muslim refugees from Asia and elsewhere are now arriving and changing cultures in places like Italy.
So Trump sensed this, I mean, there’s an incoherence to, I should say, to the foreign policy of these countries, including, frankly, the US, that embraced nationalism but because they’re not really sure what that means in terms of their country’s role in the world. All they know is that their country should be the most important concern at the exclusion of foreign policy agreements, trade agreements, etc.
And it has left a gaping hole in a discussion, say, in the US that should have been taking place about America’s role in the world following the Iraq debacle; the discussion still needs to happen, but the Republican Party has instead retreated into nativism and isolationism.
Jeff: The other part of Stop the Steal in addition to this metaphor that we talked about before, there’s always the talk that somehow it represents some antidemocratic force, but in fact, that antidemocratic force is baked into this MAGA theology. You talk about several stories where you hear from some of these MAGA people the idea that democracy is antithetical to what they think needs to happen to the country.
Robert: Well, and I think that for them, the ultimate proof of that came in the form of January 6: They believe that the election had been stolen, that a democratic election had been undermined by malevolent actors on the left, and January 6 was going to be the moment where that was corrected. And in fact, Trump, in his speech at the Ellipse on January 6, used the word “democracy” three times, saying we need to save our democracy.
Well, in the eyes of the MAGA constituents, that did not occur. The peaceful transfer of power was disrupted, but was not reversed on that day. And henceforth, you now hear MAGA constituents and I, in my reporting, encountered many of them, who view democracy as something that’s been weaponized against them.
And some of them have taken pains to say, and I illustrate this particularly in a story I did for the New York Times Magazine while doing my reporting, focusing on the Republican Party of Arizona, you hear them say that we’re not a democracy, we’re a republic. And it’s not that they were making some fine academic point; they were instead basically calling attention to their distrust of and even loathing of democracy, as they now know it. For them, democracy means mob rule, it means 50% plus one equals you can take everything away from me. Again, it represents forfeiture.
And for people who no longer, who feel like they’ve been losing all too often after winning for so very long and now feel like anything that looks like loss must be theft or must be part of this dirty word that “democracy” has become.
Jeff: Does history give us any guide that you’ve seen anywhere along the way where the fringes of a political party, the fringes of a political movement have become so ingrained in the mainstream of that movement?
Robert: Well, I mean, sure, obviously, and I hate to bring it up, and I’m not suggesting that we’re where Germany was in the 1930s. But certainly what Hitler’s National Socialism movement was a French movement that slowly but surely took over the sentiment of Germans who felt wronged by the outcome of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles and were looking for someone to blame, while at the same time being very responsive to any assertion that their country was first among equals, a great country, and, indeed, a world power.
And my grandfather, who was Leon Jaworski, the Watergate special prosecutor, was earlier a prosecutor of the first Nazi war crimes trials in Dachau. He wrote a book about this experience called After Fifteen Years. And the basic message of the book was: “After 15 years of prosecuting this, I’m here to tell you in 1960 that what I witnessed in Germany can happen elsewhere and certainly in America, as long as you have this credulous electorate, yearning for meaning, yearning for someone to blame it on and a demagogue who is willing to play to those base instincts.”
Jeff: And all of this gets put on steroids in this day and age with 24-hour news cycles, social media, and the ability of people like Trump and Carrie Lake and others to manipulate the media in modern ways that make all of this even more dangerous, it seems.
Robert: I think that’s correct, and of course, it coincides with a steady erosion of trust in the major American institutions — government, big tech, education, but also the media. And so the journalists like myself are held by the public in fairly low regard these days and particularly amongst conservatives.
And to them the belief that they were lied to by the mainstream media in things, like what Trump refers to as the Russia collusion hoax, has then opened them up, made them susceptible to believing alternative forms of medium, which, to take an extreme example, can come in the form of the QAnon conspiracy theory and to type in somewhat lesser extreme to these propaganda outlets for the MAGA movement, like One America News and Newsmax and Real America’s Voice, Breitbart to name just a few.
These are not true media outlets. I think they have media credentials, but they are essentially propaganda outlets for Trump. And yet they provide the “facts” that listeners and readers in that movement want to hear. So they believe what they wish to believe and, in turn, disbelieve everything that the mainstream media says.
Jeff: And then, of course, the overlay, which you write about extensively in Weapons of Mass Delusion, are the people like Marjorie Taylor Greene who are experts at weaponizing this.
Robert: That’s right. So there are two things working here, Jeff. I mean, one is that people like Greene truly believe that Trump is a great president, that Trump has been victimized by the left in collusion with the mainstream media, and people like Greene truly believe that we are in an existential situation in this American moment. They believe those things, but they also recognize that to trumpet those beliefs in the most extreme, shrill, and hateful way possible is the way to get attention.
And we have today what’s referred to as the attention economy in the form of social media, where a person like Marjorie Taylor Greene is incentivized to say really hateful and really nutty things. It’s incentivized in the form of online donations, in terms of social media platform growth, and in terms of the red carpet that has rolled out to people like Greene from the right-wing media ecosystem for being the loudest, most obnoxious voice in the room. So they believe this stuff, but they also know that what they’re doing is incentivized.
Of course, there’s very little regard given to the effect of this, all this, on the tens of millions of people who swallow this propaganda. And it’s really the people who are deluded en masse that form the basis of my book and, frankly, are central as a matter of concern to me.
Jeff: In all likelihood these are going to be central players in the upcoming Congress, postelection: people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert and some of the others that you talked to.
Robert: For sure. And the reason for that simply stated, Jeff, is that the MAGA movement is basically the Republican base. I don’t mean to say that all or even most Republicans are hardcore Trump supporters, but enough of them are, and they’re very, very motivated, and they show up at primaries, and they make telephone calls, and they issue donations.
And Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House minority leader, is well aware of all of that. He is of the belief that the Republican party cannot win if Donald Trump’s faithful do not turn out in force for the Republican Party. So he has to genuflect in his view to them and to the proximate warriors of the Trump movement, and those proximate warriors are, indeed, Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Boebert and Paul Gosar and Martin Gaetz and others of that stride.
Jeff: I guess the question, and I know you’ve been asked this before, is how all this plays out. I mean, does it generate a civil war? Does it collapse of its own weight? Does it just tire out, flame out at some point?
Robert: Well, for there to be an intramural civil war, a civil war within the party, both sides have to fight. And right now, I don’t see a whole lot of evidence, Jeff, that the kind of mainstream establishment Republicans have any appetite for that fight. Instead, they’ve gone to ground. They’re afraid that if they challenge, with a few pointed exceptions, but for the most part they’re afraid to challenge the Marjorie Taylor Greens because they’re afraid they’ll get primaried.
And if they get primaried by a more MAGA-type candidate, they’re likely to lose. The argument these people, these establishment Republicans often make, then, is like, “Look, not only do I not want to lose my job, you don’t want me to lose my job. And so you’ll thank me later that I, as an adult in the room, I’m going to ground.”
But it does beg the question, Jeff, then, absent a fight, absent a civil war within the party, how does the MAGA movement dissipate? And I guess one possibility is that they become so extreme and that they somehow become a fire that consumes itself. But I think that the likelier scenario is that this movement dies out only once they take charge and proceed to lose election cycle after election cycle because of their venality or their incompetence. And I think it’s gonna require losing, not once but several times. Once, obviously, we know they’ll just say it was stolen from them, but only when Americans as a body politic reject wholesale the MAGA movement will it perhaps finally be defeated.
Jeff: I mean, the lack of the internal pushback to any of this is evidenced by McCarthy, but also in the conversations you have with Patrick McHenry.
Robert: Yes, McHenry is, I think, a classic sort of adult in the room, establishment conservative, definitely a conservative. And yet I say, definitely, the truth is conservatism these days is just simply defined by how supportive you are of Trump. And McHenry, who finds Trump distasteful on multiple levels, nonetheless doesn’t come out and say that — doesn’t come out and say, “We would do well to turn away from Trump once and for all” but just changes the subject instead.
McHenry was presented by Kevin McCarthy with the opportunity to run for a majority whip, should the Republicans take back the House. And McHenry basically said, “No thanks. I do not want to be the guy who’s trying to herd the cats, as it were, trying to count votes when the votes include these people who now have major leverage and loud voices, even if they’re in the minority, like Greene and Boebert and Gaetz. I’d rather be chairman of the Financial Services Committee.”
And McHenry is someone widely respected by people on the other side of the aisle, who nonetheless are chagrined to see that McHenry won’t stand up and fight these sort of MAGA Republicans. And McHenry’s theory is well, eventually, it’s not so much that they’ll go away, but they will just be layered over in a kind of stratigraphy of the Republican party that they’ll — and the party will abide them and they’ll ultimately cease to have a major voice. I think that there, however, as we’ve been discussing, no real historical parallels in America for what the MAGA movement is, and thus, I’m not sure that these other antecedents really apply to this situation.
Jeff: And this goes back to this point of sort of on steroids in the modern media environment, because this has really happened so quickly.
Robert: Yes. That’s right. So to take the example of Marjorie Taylor Greene, she’s, in a lot of ways, the personification of how quickly this happened because, after all, she was a political novice who hadn’t even voted in every election and decided in May of 2019 to file to run for Congress. She was a QAnon adherent. People thought that that would finish her off; it didn’t. When she came to Congress and was stripped of her committee assignments one month in, it was believed that she’d just be a marginal character.
Flash forward, she’s now a dominant messenger in the Republican party without changing any of her extreme beliefs. You hear the party now echoing a lot of hers. McCarthy is promising her plum committee assignments, such as on Oversight and Judiciary. Trump has talked to her about being his running mate in 2024. She is one of the major fundraisers of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill. In short, she has become, whether anyone likes it or not, a real political force and has done it in less than three years. So yes, she represents what you’re describing: how at warp speed the Republican Party has so drastically changed.
Jeff: Talk about the role of this sort of national conservative movement, this kind of national Christian conservative movement at how it feeds into this.
Robert: Yes. I mean, look, the right-wing Christianity has been a prominent feature for many decades of, first, the Democratic Party and then when, in the wake of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act, those Dixie Democrats migrated over to the Republican Party, so did conservative evangelicals. And they have been a force to reckon with in Republican politics for a while. George W. Bush knew that, for example and, certainly, dialogued with evangelicals throughout his two campaigns but nothing like the Trump era where Trump, who is, like, a rather unlikely choice to be an avatar of Christian nationalism, cut a deal, basically, in early 2016 with the evangelicals who were inclined to support Ted Cruz but who could see what a transactionalist Trump was. And basically, Trump was happy to appoint, though Trump had been himself prochoice in the past, happy to appoint antiabortion federal judges to the bench. And what that got him in return was the loyalty of evangelicals and, in his view, cost him nothing. So to this day, the vast majority of conservative evangelicals point to Donald Trump as their King David: an imperfect vessel of God who has in many ways given them more than any other president has.
Jeff: Robert Draper, his book is Weapons of Mass Delusion. Robert, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Robert: It’s really a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.