“We Ignored Those People Last Time”

The New York Times’ Jeremy W. Peters defends his reporting on Trump supporters.

A supporter in a red Trump hat holds up a sign that says, "I like Trump."
A supporter holds up a sign as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally on May 29 in Nashville, Tennessee. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“As Critics Assail Trump,” the headline of a front-page story in the New York Times this weekend declared, “His Supporters Dig In Deeper.” The piece—written by the political reporter Jeremy W. Peters, who talked to conservative voters and analyzed polling data—argued that Republicans are continuing to support the president in part because they are tired of the constant attacks leveled against him by both Democrats and the media, which have led them to feel defensive of themselves and Trump. The result, according to Peters, has been a “bonding experience” that keeps the party’s voters from drifting away.

I recently spoke by phone with Peters, who is also an MSNBC contributor. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the critiques of his story, why different factions of the Republican Party have united around Trump, and how to report on people whose voting preferences may have to do with things they don’t advertise.

Isaac Chotiner: What did you learn most from reporting this piece?

Jeremy W. Peters: I think I didn’t fully appreciate the backlash to the backlash over Trump until I really started to go out and talk to people about it. This almost Silent Majority, Nixonian phenomenon is happening right now where you have a lot of Republicans who feel like the left and the media are badly overreacting to the Trump administration, and holding him to an unfair standard in a way that is now so routine and so omnipresent that they are outraged by the outrage. Trump’s role in this is something you also can’t gloss over here. Like Nixon, he is a master at whipping up animosity among his base toward the media and anyone else that he perceives as a political enemy.

Just the way you phrased that almost implies that if the left and Democrats and people in the media were attacking him less, then he would be less popular among Republicans, rather than that this is a convenient way for them to explain their support for a controversial politician. They may believe it, at some level, but it seems somewhat inevitable that in a good economy Trump is going to have a high approval rating among Republicans.

I don’t think any of them are saying this is the sole reason why they are supporting him. This is a factor. All of those things: the strong economy, what they see as achievements in foreign policy, especially with North Korea, this litany of successes that they feel like the media doesn’t talk about like the tax cut, and, oh by the way, you guys giving him such a hard time only makes me like him more. I don’t think it’s so much that it’s anyone’s primary reason for supporting him; I think it’s a galvanizing factor that needed to be explained and reported in a piece that I hadn’t seen done this way.

There have been a lot of pieces about Trump voters, which a lot of people on the left seem to roll their eyes at. What I find frustrating about these pieces is this: No one is going to come out and say, “I like Trump because he is a racist” or because he demonizes immigrants. But we know those are parts of his appeal, and so—

There’s code for that, too. What you will hear often times is, “He says what I can’t say. He is politically incorrect.” And certainly, for some people, that racial edge there is a real motivating factor in their support for him.

Right, but because it seems like people are not going to be totally honest, people’s expressed reasons say something, but not everything. And one of the things about a lot of the journalism about Trump voters is that it takes at face value people’s reasons for supporting him. Is that a danger in these sorts of pieces?

I don’t think that any of these pieces should just hand the microphone over to these voters and let them say whatever they want. I think what people find tiresome, and they roll their eyes at, and I get that, is an article or series of articles that we have seen time and time again that uncritically examine what the impulses are behind the Trump phenomenon. They are full of quotes about how he wants to make America great again, and how he tells it like it is. All of that is very familiar and we know it, and at this point I also question the journalistic worth of stories like that.

However, a piece like mine I don’t think I did that. What I was setting out to do was get at a very specific sentiment, a very unique emotion, a galvanizing emotion among a lot of Trump supporters that I think Democrats and a lot of people in the media don’t really appreciate. I think they don’t really appreciate the fact that the perception that the left and the media is going overboard with this president is causing them to be more protective of him than they otherwise would. And in a midterm election that is going to be decided on base turnout, as these usually are, is a critically important factor.

It’s hard though, right, because if you feel like what’s happening in Puerto Rico or with immigrants is awful, it’s hard to know how to respond to that if any sort of outrage is only met with counter-outrage.

Yeah, that’s right. That’s what I meant when I said there was something Nixonian, or Silent Majority–ish about it. Trump understands that his supporters feel disrespected, and they feel talked down to by the mainstream media or so-called elites, and it works really well for him to get up on stage and say, “See, they are trying to silence your voice, and I am your voice.” I still think that that’s one of the most powerful aspects of his appeal, and continues to be worth exploring because used the wrong way it could be incredibly dangerous.

Trump supporters may feel like things the media or Democrats are making a big deal over, like Russia or Puerto Rico or children being separated from their parents, are blown out of proportion, but did you get a sense that there was anything short of nuclear war that would actually get them to say, “The left and the media are right. This is really, really terrible. We can’t support this guy.”

I don’t think it will be anything that has to do with Russia at this point. We don’t know what the Mueller investigation is going to find, but Trump has been incredibly successful at discrediting the investigation and the investigators as nothing but a bunch of partisans out to undo his presidency and, by extension, disenfranchise his millions of voters. I don’t think it is going to come from anything like that. I do think where you could start to see his support slip away is if he nominated somebody to the Supreme Court that conservatives didn’t find to be sufficiently conservative. I think that could really undo his support and be a deal-breaker.

He has so turned upside down the expectations that Republican voters have for their politicians, especially religious conservatives, that he keeps moving the goal posts. Going into this story, I told my editor that I think that we as journalists need to stop asking that question: “Is this really it? Has he gone too far this time?” Because time after time after time, as the story pointed out, whether it was the travel ban or Charlottesville or Roy Moore, he has done things that were so unthinkable that it would have been devastating for every other president. And he has a 90 percent approval rating among Republicans.

But if the only thing would be something like a Supreme Court justice—the bedrock of conservative support of the GOP going back decades—doesn’t that suggest Trump has become to his voters just like any other Republicans who will lose support for being less conservative? It isn’t about what the media says; it’s about whether he follows their agenda.

I think it’s a little different for Trump though. The level of mistrust among the conservative base before he sewed up the nomination was incredibly high. He had to present them with a list of Supreme Court names.

The opening anecdote in your piece is about a woman named Gina Anders. You write, “Gina Anders knows the feeling well by now. President Trump says or does something that triggers a spasm of outrage. She doesn’t necessarily agree with how he handled the situation. She gets why people are upset. But Ms. Anders, 46, a Republican from suburban Loudoun County, Va., with a law degree, a business career, and not a stitch of ‘Make America Great Again’ gear in her wardrobe, is moved to defend him anyway.” You got some criticism online because Anders is listed as a “senior consultant” at a PAC that pushes things like getting rid of Obamacare and protecting Confederate monuments. It seems like she would naturally be someone supportive of Trump, rather than someone who was pushed into doing so by media criticism. Was it a mistake not to mention this?

No, not at all, because Gina Anders is a business executive. This was something that a handful of liberal journalists and Democratic activists raised online to somehow discredit her as a voice who could speak to the phenomenon that I described in the story: that Trump supporters get their backs up and get very protective of him. But it is not just Trump supporters; it is people who kind of find themselves on the fence a lot of times with him, because they can’t always defend his behavior, [and] they don’t always want to defend his behavior. So, Gina is the perfect example of somebody who was not ever a Make America Great Again–hat-wearing Trump person, but was just a conservative Republican, libertarian Republican I would describe her as, who is conflicted about her support for Trump.

Right, but you end the piece with a quote from her, which is: “It all coalesces around Trump. It’s either, ‘Trump wants to put people in cages, in concentration camps.’ Or, on the other side, ‘Oh the left just wants everybody to come into the country illegally so they can get voters.’ ” And then she says: “We can’t have a conversation.” This make her seem like someone more in the middle of the road who wants to bring everyone together—

Yeah when she spoke to me that’s exactly the way that she seemed. I found her to be very thoughtful and not at all blindly following Trump just because he is Trump. That is the caricature that this story tried to break down. There is an awful lot of nuance and shades to these people’s beliefs. Because Gina apparently has an affiliation with a PAC in West Virginia that does a bunch of small races as far as I can tell, I don’t see how that is at all discrediting. This is something she appeared to do six years ago when she worked for Ron Paul’s campaign. I went to do my due diligence and asked people in Paul world if they had ever heard of her, and they said they hadn’t.

On the PAC website, it says about her, “Having long been passionate about American politics, she became active in Dr. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign in 2012, and completed the Foundation for Applied Conservative Leadership’s basic- and advanced-level training in grass roots activism. Gina also served as Co-Coordinator for the Campaign for Liberty in West Virginia before founding the Liberty Political Action Committee of West Virginia. An avid liberty activist and Constitutional scholar, Gina puts her skills and experience in advocacy and sales to work to fight for the individual rights of every West Virginian as enshrined in our Constitution.”

Right, I’ve read that. Here’s the thing: She is not a political operative. There is an effort by a handful of liberal journalists who write for liberal publications and Democratic activists and strategists to portray her as some kind of bigwig political operative, and that I was somehow dishonest or misleading by not identifying her as such. She is not a political operative. She is an accounting executive who had apparently done some politics in the past in her spare time.* There was also this false information on Twitter about what her political role actually was, saying she was the chairman of this PAC. She isn’t the chairman of that PAC. She isn’t even on the board. She is a senior adviser or consultant or something. And when I talked to her, she never brought this up. She never said, “Oh, by the way, I ran this PAC for Ron Paul.” You would think that if it was something that was a big part of her life, she would have mentioned it. She didn’t.

Or she didn’t want to mention it because it doesn’t fit with the narrative she is putting forward.

No, I don’t think that’s the case at all. She doesn’t think like a journalist. She wouldn’t have any reason to hide that from me.

If I read her bio on this website, I would think she is a very serious Republican, and I would think she is going to be very unlikely to give up on a Republican president.

I don’t think so, I think that’s wrong and it is a major misconception pushed out there by people who are unfairly and misleadingly attacking this story. Again: a handful of Democratic activists and liberal journalists. This is what I don’t understand and this is really frustrating, and I want you to make sure this is clear in your piece. I don’t understand why people do not see that as somebody who is a Ron Paul person, a committed libertarian, somebody who talks about the importance of the Constitution and all that—why Donald Trump wouldn’t be troubling to her. There is this tendency on the left to lump all Trump supporters in together into one category, and that’s, “They are only crackpots. Oh, Ron Paul had a bunch of yahoos supporting him, and so they naturally went over and became yahoos who were supporting Trump.” And that’s a lazy and reductive way of looking at what the Trump coalition is.

To the question about why a libertarian wouldn’t have trouble with Trump: That’s like asking why the loudest patriots and people who talk the most about the greatness of America are celebrating the Confederate States, which waged war on America. We know how these things operate in practice. The Koch brothers are libertarians who got behind Trump. You and I both know how people’s political views work. How could the Tea Party get behind Trump?

But you are proving my point, because they are conflicted in their opinions about him. The wrong way to do a story on this would be to only interview people at a Trump rally. We had people in the piece who went to a Trump rally, but that was only one section of the reporting. I went to Loudoun County, Virginia, to find some people where I didn’t know how they would come down on Trump. I had no idea. It was a conservative area, so I had an inkling I would get more Trump supporters, which is what I was looking for.

I don’t see this line of reporting as a Trump supporter story, or a Trump supporter beat. These are Republicans, Republicans who are being constantly confronted with the question: How can you still support this guy? And a lot of them ask themselves that, and a lot of them really wrestle with it.

When you say, “wrestle with it,” I have no doubt they are thinking about it, but that phrasing implies there is a chance they could go either way, and that I am wary of believing.

You don’t think there is a possibility that a lot of them stay home in November? I absolutely do, and I think Gina could be one of them.

This is the thing: There is a certain subset of Democrats and media critics who, every time there is a story quoting somebody talking favorably about Trump, will tune out and say it is useless and unworthy and why is the Times or other outlets like the Times giving these people a platform. And I think that is a totally illegitimate criticism. The alternative is to ignore them, to ignore the impulses animating their coalition.

We ignored those people last time, or we kind of brushed them off as being followers of this cultish celebrity figure who would never amount to anything, and we didn’t take him seriously. Is that what they really want, to go back to ignoring this guy?

And we fact-check these people constantly. There was an anecdote in my story about that tweet from [former Obama speechwriter] Jon Favreau a few weeks ago, where he incorrectly tweeted out a picture of migrant kids who were sleeping in a cage saying this is happening right now, when in fact it was from 2014, when Obama was president. It was stuff like that, picking up anecdotes like that, that is really instructive. I didn’t realize how big a deal that was on the right, and how much coverage and attention it got from conservative media. There must have been a half-dozen people that we interviewed who mentioned that tweet. For them, it totally confirmed all their suspicions. And incorrectly, by the way. He apologized. He took it down and explained he was wrong.

There is always going to be something. The question is, if there was no Jon Favreau tweet, or no equivalent tweet, would anyone’s views be different? I’m not just saying this about Trump supporters: People want to find a reason to support their guy, and they will find a reason to rationalize it by saying, “I am being driven to this because X.”

Politics are so tribal. My point about being critical and fact-checking them: I quoted this guy saying the Favreau tweet was a sign that Democrats in the media are out to distort what Trump is doing, and totally gloss over what Obama did. In my story, I point out that an incident like that is totally isolated, and Favreau took it down and said he was wrong. So, you can’t hand the microphone over to any voter, really, if what they are saying is untrue. We have done a lot of stories and showed some Trump voters saying really horrible things, and I think there is a real value to that as well, even though people are inevitably going to say, “Oh, you are just giving them a platform. These people are deplorable. This is unworthy of the Times.” But you also need to see that that’s going on as kind of a “sunlight is the best disinfectant” type of idea here.

Correction, June 24, 2018: This piece originally misidentified Gina Anders as an accountant. She is a business executive.