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Pod Save America’s Jon Favreau on Trump’s “shitshow,” the GOP’s “rot,” and the left’s failures

“One thing I worry about on the left is forgetting that we need to persuade others.”

Jon Favreau Javier Zarracina/Vox

Jon Favreau was President Obama’s chief speechwriter. In those days, he was a frequent critic of the political media, frustrated, as many in the Obama administration were, with its focus on conflict, on ephemera, on appearing even-handed even when reality was skewed.

Today Favreau is changing the media from the inside. He’s a co-host on Pod Save America and co-founder of Crooked Media, both of which have seen tremendous growth in 2017.

In this conversation — a condensed and edited transcript of a discussion we had on my podcast — we talk through the first year of the Trump White House (“a day-to-day shitshow”), the Democrats he’s watching for 2020, his concerns about the left (“we need to take the time to persuade other people of what we believe”), and the rot he sees in the Republican Party.

As always, you can listen to the whole conversation on my podcast, The Ezra Klein Show.

Ezra Klein

I have been more disappointed than I expected to be at how much party allegiance has protected Trump and kept congressional Republicans from exercising real oversight, from demanding competence from his appointees. One of my lessons out of this is that the emergence of very strong, very polarized political parties that act across institutions has done more to break down accountability, oversight, and checks in the system than I had thought.

Jon Favreau

I wasn't as surprised about how the Republican Party has behaved toward Trump because, though I badly missed the ultimate prediction of who was going to win in the general election, I believed Trump was going to win the primary.

Having watched it from my perch at the White House during the Obama administration, I thought the Republican Party had rotted. The party has a base that is constantly in a frenzy because of the right-wing media. That's the real center of gravity in that party. It's not the Republicans in Congress; it's not even really Donald Trump. So to me, that partisanship is wholly due to the fact that the Republican Party has been rotten to its core for some time now.

Ezra Klein

A lot of Obama’s initial campaign, which you were the key speechwriter on, was based around the idea that the Republican Party, Republican voters, even the Republican base, was better than you would think looking at politics; that if there was a more reasonable Democrat, that if we could get to a place where we were talking about issues, if the special interests weren't whipping everybody up, if cable news wasn't driving everyone crazy, then there would be space for a better, more elevated, more respectful form of politics.

Over time, you’ve come to think the situation is much worse than even the people who disagreed with you thought. You now say the Republican Party is rotten to its core. So what is the rot, and what do you think was learned about it in the Obama years?

Jon Favreau

I hate to keep bringing it back to the media, but I do think there's a difference in the media consumption habits of Democrats and Republicans. Harvard did a few studies about this after the 2016 race, showing that if you look at how Democrats consume media, they're getting their news by and large from the New York Times and Washington Post and CNN and Vox and even the Wall Street Journal. There's a broader diversity of sources that Democrats are getting their information from. They're not just ideologically diverse, but they also adhere to a lot more journalistic standards for truth and facts than a lot of the right-wing media sources do.

When you look at the media sources that Republicans get their information from, by and large it's not places like the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, the Weekly Standard, places that maybe you and I would disagree with a lot of what we read there, but we would say, "Okay, a lot of it is maybe a good-faith effort to make a conservative argument." Most Republican voters are getting their information from Fox and Breitbart, which are propaganda outlets, so they're going to necessarily lead Republicans to have a party that is a lot less responsible than Democrats’.

Ezra Klein

Who do you look to in the conservative media to understand the Trump administration?

Jon Favreau

On Twitter, you know how you can follow Trump's Twitter feed? I do that. It's pretty enraging sometimes.

Ezra Klein

It actually makes a lot of what he says make sense.

Jon Favreau

It does.

Ezra Klein

He keeps saying things like, "People say I gave the greatest speech anyone's ever given in Europe." And I used to think, which people? Then I realized that was random people he follows on his Twitter feed.

Jon Favreau

It's important to see what Don Jr. is tweeting and Donald Trump is reading and what Fox is saying. I try to pay attention to what's going on on Fox News and what the headlines are on FoxNews.com because it’s a gauge of what the president of the United States is thinking and what might lead to his Twitter outbursts or pretty significant foreign policy decisions, which is frightening.

Ezra Klein

I have been struggling with the question of how to make sure I understand how the Trump administration thinks. I reported on the Obama administration. I reported on the Bush administration before that. I've reported on Republicans in Congress for years. And all that reporting featured people trying to persuade me of what they were doing, making arguments for it.

Reporting on the Trump administration really isn't like that. You talk to people there and, first, a lot of them will not defend what's happening. A lot of the people in various positions are there because they think if they left, somebody else would come in who was worse, or they're there because of something they want to accomplish even though they don't like all this other stuff that’s happening. It’s a less cohesive institution than any I've covered before.

Then a lot of people just don't know what the hell is going on. Or even when they do know, Trump himself changes it the next day, so very, very high-level people end up being wrong about stuff all the time because Trump himself is so mercurial. It's made it very hard to know when I'm being fair to their theory of what is going on because it's not always clear they have a theory of what is going on.

Jon Favreau

They have no theory. I think Maggie Haberman wrote this in her recent piece about Trump and how he thinks. She says a lot of people think there is some grand strategy to his various decisions and statements, but really he's just an impulsive guy who sees things on television that set him off. When he's at Mar-a-Lago and talks to people he knows, he goes off because they whip him up. When John Kelly is around him and tries to control him, sometimes he's not as crazy. It's all a day-to-day shitshow there.

It's interesting what you said about persuasion, because you stop trying to persuade people when you feel like there are no consequences to failing to persuade them. The reason there are no consequences to not persuading people for the Trump White House is that they think that no matter what they do, no matter what Trump says, they have an entire propaganda machine that will support them, so they don't need to worry about it.

The other thing is they walked into the White House thinking, “Everyone said that we were going to lose. No one believed us. No one gave us a chance. Everyone was wrong in their prediction that we [wouldn’t] win." So now, when people say that what Trump is doing isn't popular, or it's crazy, or it's going to hurt him with his voters, they assume their critics are all just as wrong as they were during the election. I think that mindset has caused them to say, "Fuck it, we don't really need to persuade people, and we don't really care if we're getting bad press, because they were all wrong before and they're wrong now."

Trump’s unpersuasive presidency

Ezra Klein

This is, I think, a really interesting question, and I have a different take on it. Your old boss, President Obama, is a hyper-rational, hyper-logical individual. He thinks in argument, he communicates in argument, he is very susceptible to argument. And so the culture he set, from the very top of the White House, was that it was going to run on evidence-backed arguments. That's how people are going to debate policies; that's how the comms department is going to spin journalists.

Trump himself does not think in argument. He's not susceptible to argument. He doesn't care if other people think the point he's made is bad or is untrue. He does not feel ashamed if respectable people in the media or respectable people in Congress attack him. And if the guy in charge doesn't care internally or externally if the arguments make any sense, and if that's not how he's judging the things that come up to him, or the way that people who work for him are acting, that matters. And if he instead cares about, "Was that a really good burn? Did that excite the right people?" that matters too. This feels to me like the culture is really being set by the top.

Jon Favreau

The foundation of democracy is persuasion. You try to persuade others in this polity that your argument is correct, and they say, “No, my argument is correct,” and if you can't compromise, you vote. But all of it is based around this belief that you can persuade or try to persuade others.

Trump doesn't care about that. Trump cares about power, and he cares about winning. In some ways that is not just reflective of his own personality, but it's reflective of his understanding of politics that comes from watching cable, reading the New York tabloids. Evidence-based arguments and reasoning are not what you get from politics if you just happen to watch coverage or read coverage.

Ezra Klein

Something Trump has forced me to reevaluate is what are the mechanisms by which this coverage matters. I don't know exactly what I would've told you four years ago if you had said to me, "Why does negative media coverage of a politician matter?" I think I probably would've had some answer like, "Well, the public watches negative media coverage, and if people are saying that politician X is doing something badly, the public might not vote for politician X and politician X knows that and is afraid of that." This is an external set of consequences, and so the reason that persuasion matters in politics is if you fail at persuasion, you will be punished for it.

Trump has really changed my view on this. Trump has begun to persuade me that a lot of how persuasion works in politics is actually through politicians feeling ashamed when people they respect say, "Hey, that's a lie," or, "That doesn't make sense," or, "That policy is terrible."

The Obama administration cared a lot what people thought of it. It had all these people, both on the left but also people like Ross Douthat and David Brooks on the right, whose approval it wanted, and it felt shame if it didn't win them over. Trump is, uniquely, a truly shameless person, and in changing that variable, he's shown that there's not a lot of external consequences to lying, to making bad arguments. We were relying on politicians personalities and their desire to be seen as good, honest, smart, whatever. If somebody just doesn't care about that, it turns out that the boundaries of what you can do in politics are much wider than anyone expected.

Jon Favreau

I think the scarier question is: Is his shamelessness something that's inherent to Donald Trump, or are other Republicans and other politicians in general, even Democrats, going to look at that and say, "Okay, well if he's shameless and he got away with all of that, can I be the same way"?

How would President Rubio have been different?

Ezra Klein

What would've been different about this year if it had been President Marco Rubio?

Jon Favreau

If it had been President Marco Rubio, I think he might have cobbled together a repeal plan for the Affordable Care Act that might've been more successful. I think we probably still would've had a tax cut. Maybe the tax cut would've been slightly more progressive, as is evidenced by the fact that Rubio is trying to get the child care tax credit increased. I think what would've been different is a lot of the authoritarian moves that we've been worried about, the attacks on the free press, the conspiracy theories, the travel ban, I don't think would've happened. I don't think we would've seen the end of DACA, although maybe he would've ended it but also worked with Congress to pass the DREAM Act. What do you think?

Ezra Klein

I think a President Marco Rubio would've been a more effective conservative legislative leader. I think they would've done more on health care. I think the tax cut plan would be more popular and make more sense.

I also think that with the economy we're seeing now, with unemployment as low as it is, with the stock market as high as it is, you would not see a first-year Republican president at 34 percent approval. I don't think you'd be seeing these massive backlash elections in Virginia and Alabama and New Jersey. Usually the president's party loses seats in a midterm, so I don't want to say there'd be no losses, but I think the antipathy toward Trump, the activation of a counter-movement, I don't think that would be happening in the way it is now. In fact, I could imagine Rubio being a pretty popular politician.

This is a really, really good time to be president. I always joke that the data journalism I want to see is Trump's economy-adjusted approval numbers. What would he be like if he were at 7 percent unemployment? This is a pretty dismal showing, given where the economy actually is.

Jon Favreau

The one big difference, if Rubio had been president, would be that Steve Bannon and the right would be on him, attacking him, every single day, since the day he was inaugurated, and so he would have this sort of growing frustration and backlash on the right. I don't know that Rubio would've been supported by the Trump propaganda machine. Fox probably would've been split on how they saw him, but certainly the Breitbarts of the world would've gone after him. The base on the right would've probably been pretty angry with him too, because he would've done something on immigration that seems somewhat sensible and that might've set them off.

The left still wants to be inspired

Ezra Klein

Let me move our conversation over to the Democratic Party. Who is impressing you?

Jon Favreau

That's a tough one. My test is always, does this person sound like a real human being? Do they not sound too much like they're on their talking points? On that, in the Senate, I would say I like talking to Chris Murphy. I've enjoyed talking to Kamala Harris. I think Elizabeth Warren is very sharp. Up-and-comers I would say [Jason] Kander and [Seth] Moulton. We talked to Stacey Abrams yesterday, who was fantastic. I like [Eric] Garcetti. There's a lot of people who have impressed me.

There is no one yet who I think, "Oh, this is the obvious leader for the party right now," and that's not to say none of those people I just mentioned could get there. There's also probably a bunch of people I'm forgetting.

Ezra Klein

Do you think the party is as fractured as the Twitter wars would have everyone believe?

Jon Favreau

I don't, unless that's me wanting to believe that it's not. I think that policy-wise, certainly the party is not as fractured as you would believe from these Twitter wars. We’re talking about an argument between a $12 minimum wage and a $15 minimum wage — and even now, most of the elected Democrats have gotten on board with the $15 minimum wage. We’re talking about, "Okay, how do we achieve single-payer? Do we start with the public option? Do we start with a Medicare-for-all program, or is it some transition between the two?"

I don't think those policy differences are as wide as you would think they were from watching the fights go on. But I do worry that when they are not just about policy, when they become about personality, then they harden in ways [that are] difficult to undo.

As I was just talking about persuasion on the right, one thing I worry about on the left is forgetting that we need to persuade others of our views. I do sometimes see a tendency on the left where people think, "Okay, I have this position, I am right, and if you don't believe this position too, you are obviously stupid and I don't have to spend the time to persuade you. My position is the obvious position that everyone on the left believes, and if you're not there, then fuck you." I see some of that and it worries me, because I do think we need to take the time to persuade other people of what we believe.

Ezra Klein

One of the really interesting things about Obama in that 2004-2008 period was his rhetorical style. If one goes back to The Audacity of Hope, the book, you see in every section it has the same structure: Here's a topic, here's some good points Republicans make about that topic, here's why Obama agrees with some of those points but ultimately comes down with a liberal position that leaves some space for compromise. It's a rhetorical style about reaching out. Do you think that political style would be a harder sell in today's Democratic Party?

Jon Favreau

I worry that it may be, but I don't think it should be. I think that style of argument is still necessary. You asked me about how I think about our media company and the space it occupies. It's fun sometimes to go on rants, as we do on Pod Save America, but I worry that if there are too many rants and we're not arming people with enough facts, that we have misfired. I'm always trying to make sure that we're giving people enough facts and enough information and we're trying to argue the point as much as we possibly can, because if we fall back into, "Obviously we're right, and now let's just yell about it," I do think that's dangerous.

Ezra Klein

This is one of the things that is interesting to me about the context in which Obama emerges. You were on the Kerry campaign in '04, and I always think of that '04 loss for Democrats as the nearest thing to this era. When Bush wins, Democrats really take that as a trauma. There's all this discussion of how they're out of touch with the heartland, and they nominated this French-speaking, effete cosmopolitan who goes wind surfing and has this billionaire heiress wife, and there is this real sense of cultural disconnect. And, so for a while, there is this idea that the Democratic Party needs real, authentic Americans.

I always think about that, and how much energy went into that fight about culturally how to connect and whether Democrats have been rejected by the country. Then four years later, Democrats win power with an African-American guy from Chicago whose middle name is Hussein, whose last name rhymes with Osama, who is a genuine liberal, truly antiwar.

There's this way in which everybody is always fighting the last political war, but you really could have seen the Democratic Party turning toward rage at that point, which is what Republicans did after Obama. They turned to Donald Trump, and, certainly to my surprise, it worked for them, at least on some level.

I wonder a bit whether liberals will be able to resist turning toward rage after this.

Jon Favreau

It's so funny that you mention that. I use that analogy all the time, that this period is most analogous to '04. I was on the Kerry campaign. We lost. I was 22 or 23 at the time. I thought that was it for politics for me. I was unbelievably cynical. I couldn't believe what just happened. I couldn't imagine something worse than a second term of George W. Bush. I was broke, moved back in with my parents.

Then when Robert Gibbs reached out to me about Obama, I read Dreams From My Father, and I remembered his speech at the convention, and I thought to myself, okay, all of the arguments in the party right now are about the fact that John Kerry lost because he was this effete liberal, all the things you just said. I had also done my college thesis on white working-class defection from the Democratic Party, so at that point I was like, "You know what? This was a mistake with the John Kerry thing. You're right. We should have someone like John Edwards next time. This is crazy."

Then I read Obama's book and I thought to myself, "Maybe the identity of the person is not the most important thing here, but it's their character, someone who talks like a normal human being, who's not afraid to say what they believe."

People are angry right now, but I think liberals like to be inspired. I still believe that. I think that fear and anger work better for Republican voters than they do for Democratic voters. I think that inspiration still works on the left. I think that's what people are still looking for even if they don't like to admit it, because people are so cynical and it's almost embarrassing to admit that you want to be inspired in this political environment. I think that if someone comes along and does that, you'll see people react positively to it on our side.

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