On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Michelle Goldberg, an op-ed columnist at the New York Times. Prior to joining the newspaper, she worked at the Nation and Slate, and has written books on everything from reproductive rights to yoga. At the Times, she’s been writing on some of the most high-profile issues of the day, including the Russia investigation, cleavages in the Democratic Party, and the #MeToo movement.
Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss why the debates within the Democratic Party are not principally ideological, why more former White House staffers are not going after the president, and the challenge for conservative columnists in the age of Trump.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: I made a joke before we started recording about Omarosa, and you said you thought the Omarosa soap opera is actually pretty interesting. Why do you think that?
Michelle Goldberg: It might be overstating to say that the Omarosa soap opera is interesting. But what I do think is significant is that since this whole debacle began, ever since this administration started, I’ve been waiting for who the defectors were going to be. And it seemed like there was a huge open market for the first person to come out of this administration and tell us what a catastrophe it is. Everybody knows that a lot of people in it think it’s a catastrophe because they tell journalists off the record, but nobody has come out guns blazing like George Stephanopoulos with Clinton.
So Omarosa, I feel like, is the first person. And as unreliable as she is, as craven and venal as she is, she’s the first person to do the right thing and come out of this administration and tell us as much as she can about what’s going on. And obviously she’s not a reliable narrator, but she almost doesn’t have to be because she has recordings. And so, I mean, the bar for most honorable former Trump appointee is extraordinarily low, but I feel like Omarosa clears it.
You had people in the administration—Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Dina Powell—who were called the adults in the room, who were considered to have more centrist politics, people who I think it was kind of assumed deep down found Trump gross or not suited to be president in some way, and they’ve all kept quiet. Maybe this is another example of the rottenness of the establishment as it existed before Trump.
I think it’s a source of profound national shame that people are leaving this administration, like Gary Cohn, like Dina Powell, like Marc Short, and being sort of reabsorbed into polite society when they should be shunned until they at least come clean about what they’ve seen. But there’s research, actually, about who whistleblowers are likely to be. They’re not really sort of cynical individualists, as you might think, or like iconoclasts. They’re people who are true believers and then feel betrayed. And so I think in some ways, maybe one reason there hasn’t been that many of those people in Trump world is because they are all so incredibly cynical and corrupt. I mean, the closest thing to a true believer in Trumpism might in fact be somebody like Steve Bannon. And so for that reason, it sort of makes sense that you don’t have people who feel like this thing they believed in didn’t live up to their aspirations or … you just don’t have that because there’s just a big grift.
It does feel like one of the constant themes of the past year and a half, whether it was Charlottesville or kids at the border being separated, that there’s this sort of sense occasionally that things cannot go on, that this is beyond the pale, that the people who did this need to be kind of socially sanctioned or punished in some way. And then you kind of get back to normal. CEOs drop out, and then they meet with Trump again post-Charlottesville, or people will briefly speak up about children being separated. But nothing seems to last for a long time, and that’s one of the alarming things, I think.
I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about the Democratic Party, which you’ve been writing about in columns and doing some reporting on. What’s your sense, broadly speaking, of where the Democratic Party is right now?
Whenever I’m in New York, I can work myself into this state of really bleak despair, and then I go out and travel and meet … it’s not even necessarily Democratic Party activists as much as Indivisible activists or Democratic Socialists of America chapters or these sort of grass-roots groups that have sprung up since the election and are just doing so much work. And it always makes me feel so much more hopeful about the future.
You hear the same story over and over again of these kind of middle-aged women who, they voted, but they didn’t necessarily pay super close attention to primaries, maybe they had to look up what congressional district they were in, and who woke up the day after the election and were so shattered and looked around for somewhere they could go and found either an offshoot of Pantsuit Nation or a local Indivisible meeting.
And you meet these women, and they go to meetings now four or five nights a week. They have all new friends. They are just astonishing organizers, and they’re kind of using this intense local knowledge that they have. You can’t replicate that when it comes to canvassing, somebody who just knows everyone on the block. So you see that being deployed everywhere, and that I think is why you’re seeing these numbers in some of the special elections, these swings that are even bigger than the swings you see on the generic ballot.
And so I think the Democratic Party is smart. It’s such a cliché of political coverage that Democrats are in disarray, Democrats can’t agree on a message. I think it’s sort of smart for them to take a step back and let these local candidates shape their messages in a way that suits their districts.
We’ve really seen huge upticks in turnout figures in a lot of suburban areas, a lot of areas with white liberal women. Less so in minority areas with a lot of Latino voters, a lot of young voters. What have you made of that?
Yeah, and I think it’s something that people need to turn around. And I think some of the candidates out there who are most exciting, like Stacey Abrams, who’s running for governor in Georgia, is putting a huge amount of energy into registering and reaching rural African American and African-American women, in particular, in that state. But I think part of it is that somebody actually has to go out and reach them and speak to them.
But I’ve seen the same figures that you’re talking about, I think particularly in Florida. And I do wonder if part of the thing about these resistance women, these kind of suburban, white liberals, is just—and I don’t say this is a bad way. I’m trying to think of a word that doesn’t have as pejorative a connotation as “entitlement,” but they do have a sense of, “This government is supposed to represent me.” One thing I’ve heard a lot of times when I’ve gone out to various districts is that a lot of these women, they woke up, they were really scared. I was really scared the day after the election. I felt incredibly unstable, like they were giving the keys to the most powerful nation on Earth to this lunatic. And they went to their members of Congress’ office, and they expected them to meet with them and hear their concerns, and they wanted to talk to them. Even if they were Republicans, they wanted to talk to them about where were they willing to check Trump, and what were they willing to do.
And they were really shocked when these Republican members of Congress refused to meet with them. Maybe someone who was poor or a minority wouldn’t be so shocked. It wouldn’t even occur to them to expect their members of Congress to meet with them and hear their concerns. But these are people who were stunned to be treated as kind of dismissively and contemptuously as these members of Congress treated them, and then organized very quickly to try to get new members of Congress.
To turn to intra-Democratic fights, I think it’s easy to overstate the degree to which these fights are ideological because most voters are not super ideological. And I was wondering if you think the debate we’ve been seeing, especially after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win in New York, are ideological or more sociological and characterological about new faces versus old faces, about being kind of more pugnacious, things like that.
Yeah. I think it’s the latter, and I would add that it’s generational and there’s a sort of insider-outsider thing. For example, when I was in Pennsylvania, the same people who were canvassing for Conor Lamb canvassed for two of the Democratic Socialists of America candidates who were elected to state House seats to replace two longtime Democrat incumbents.
I was just in Orange County [California], which is a super interesting place because Orange County is the birthplace of modern conservatism. I think it was either Forbes or Fortune in the ’60s that called it “nut country” because it was so far right. And now Orange County is where Dana Rohrabacher’s district is, Darrell Issa, a bunch of these really vulnerable districts, and at least some of them are probably going to go blue for the first time almost ever. But these are rich, rich areas where people are just sort of morally offended by Donald Trump but are not on board with Democratic Socialists of America.
But I couldn’t really find anybody who expressed any concern about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or that direction the Democratic Party. … All I heard was, “We’re really concerned about young people getting out to vote,” so that’s great. And, “She’s good for her district, not our district.”
I want to ask briefly about your new job. You’ve been writing a column for the Times now for how long? A little over a year?
It was last September, so almost a year.
And do you enjoy the job?
I love it. Oh, my God. I love it so much.
Really? I mean, I would love a New York Times column, but it seems like having to come up with two column ideas a week it would be kind of exhausting, and you’d run out of ideas. No?
I think if it was purely about me sitting in a room trying to squeeze ideas out of my brain, I would run out of them. But there’s so much happening that there’s kind of—it’s such a fertile time to be writing. To me, there’s a challenge to balance writing off the news versus trying to write something that is a little bit more off-the-radar, kind of how much to do reporting over a few days when often you’re going to have to discard it at the last minute because something bonkers happens that you feel like you have to respond to. But there’s been very few days when I’ve woken up on a column day and been like, “Oh, fuck, what do I do?”
Do you have some theory of column writing that one out of three should be reported or one out of three should be on a cultural subject rather than politics?
Not really. And I think maybe I haven’t been there long enough. It’s weird that you said over a year because it still feels like a new job to me, and so I don’t have any kind of big overarching formula. Maybe I’ll develop one if I’m lucky enough to stay there that long.
There’s been a debate at the Times and other places about how much conservative commentary they should be publishing and what kind of conservative arguments they should be publishing, and whether people representing pro-Trump arguments should be part of the debate. And it seems like the way the Times has dealt with it is having several regular conservative columnists, and also having outside op-eds that often take a conservative or non-liberal point of view, but not really running pro-Trump columns or commentary. What do you think of that strategy?
Well, so I don’t want to say anything about the kind of broader strategy because it just feels outside of my wheelhouse. I think that there’s a fundamental challenge in representing conservative argument right now. It used to be this cliché of politics, that politics was a war of ideas. And now, all the people who believe in ideas are on one side, and then there’s the Trump people on the other side for whom ideas are, at best, sort of tools to use to manipulate people, but they’re not really invested in … they’re invested in race, they’re invested in a vision of how America should look, but they’re not invested in an ideology in the same way.
Except for somebody like, say, Richard Spencer.
Yeah. He’s not going to get a Times column.
Try to think of a pro-Trump person who is neither racist nor dishonest. I mean, can you think of someone? And by dishonest, I don’t mean that they’re making arguments that I don’t agree with. I mean that they’re making arguments that I don’t think they agree with, or that they don’t really care whether or not what they say is true. An experience I’ve had several times … I do a fair amount of TV stuff and… often, I’m on MSNBC where it’s just liberals, but sometimes I’m on TV with conservatives. And you’ll be sitting next to someone who will be kind of rolling their eyes about Trump and talking about him very dismissively, and then the cameras come on and they’re defending him. What is the value in publishing that argument that’s not even believed by the person who’s making it?
Again, there’s either people who are kind of defending him just for purely cynical mercenary reasons or there are people who have truly indefensible views. The closest person you could come to maybe threading that needle, an intellectually honest case for Trumpism, is probably Michael Anton.
Michael Anton wrote “The Flight 93 Election” under a pseudonym, in the run-up to the campaign, basically saying that America was going down because of unfettered immigration, that America was on this path to disaster and that maybe you couldn’t trust Trump, but the only strategy now was to storm the cockpit. And then he became a Trump national security official. I forget his exact title. Since he left, he has … I mean, he wrote this piece recently for the Washington Post about why the president should issue an executive order, or I can’t remember exactly what the mechanism was, but some kind of unilateral attempt to revoke birthright citizenship, which was crazy and extremely racist. But I think he’s about as close as you’re going to get to a sort of mainstream, intellectually sincere Trumpist column. And so what do you do with that? I think it’s a genuine challenge.
I think it’s also a challenge for anti-Trump conservatives, because one role of conservatives in a healthy democratic society should be to explain why conservative position X is good, or why a liberal policy Y should be moderated in some way, or whatever it is. But because what’s coming out of the White House, because of what’s coming out of the conservative administration, out of Washington, is so dishonest in so many ways and because there’s nothing to really sink your teeth into, I think that’s been a real challenge for them, too.
Yeah. I mean, like I said, it used to be a truism that politics was a war of ideas, that the conservative movement was saturated with ideas, and they had all sorts of think tanks and training programs and journals designed to inculcate this whole intellectual philosophy that at least, in theory, undergirded their policies. And Trump has just in a second rendered all of that irrelevant.
Yeah. To bring this full circle, you were saying earlier about people on the left, that it’s often less ideological than you think. I think a lot of liberals maybe thought that there was this huge part of the country that was completely conservative and completely dedicated to conservative principles, and that was what was most important to them, and it turns out—
They were mostly in it for the racism.