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“They Did This to Themselves”: Tim Alberta on How the GOP Paved Trump’s Way

The Politico reporter discusses his new book and what the coming Trump counter-wave means for DC Republicans
Photograph by Gage Skidmore.

If you’ve been following the simmering disputes inside the Republican party during the Trump era, you’ve likely heard of a new book by Politico Magazine correspondent Tim Alberta. In American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War, Alberta chronicles Trump’s  “hostile takeover” of the Republican Party, and also the path the party had beaten for Trump long before he arrived.

Alberta’s book is chock full of palace intrigue. But it also offers a sociology of Washington Republican dynamics, and the tradeoffs that conservatives of all stripes have had to make—whether pro-Trump, Never Trump, or as Alberta describes a third category, “hanging on for dear life.”

In an interview edited and condensed for clarity, Alberta spoke with Washingtonian about his book, the future of DC’s permanent Republican operatives, and why he thinks nearly every Republican will soon wear a “scarlet letter.”

Washingtonian: Your book has some breathtaking stories: Trump’s present-day White House assistant weeping on the night of his victory; Ted Cruz calling Trump “Mussolini.” Are there any stories in the book that aren’t getting enough attention?

Tim Alberta:There’s a lot of them. My personal favorite is the story of the attempted coup against John Boehner in January 2013. You had a couple dozen House conservatives trying to organize this hamfisted rebellion at the last minute, right before Boehner was set to be reelected as Speaker. I was able to get inside this apartment in Washington, where all of these people were plotting. It’s just this fascinating sequence, and pretty hilarious, frankly, to watch all of these guys who don’t have a lot of experience in government, and not really sure what they’re agitating for. They’re trying to bring him down, but they can’t get out of their own way, a comedy of errors of sorts. It’s not very newsy, but something I think is funny. And it also gives us a pretty good window into where the party was then, and why we are where we are today.

What’s the reaction been to the book inside the Republican establishment enclaves in Washington?

I think it’s a mix of emotions. But it’s like reading a really grisly autopsy report to a grieving family. They don’t know quite how to react to it. They’re not really sure that they want to hear about this. But they do need to hear about this, because they’re all wondering: What the hell happened?

A lot of these main characters in this story…are grappling with a lot of these same questions in the book. Eric Cantor, at the end of a very length two-and-a-half-hour interview for the book, turned to me and said, “You know, this was pretty therapeutic for me. I felt like maybe I achieved some catharsis here, having this conversation.” A lot of the long interviews felt that way with various Republican officials. Everybody is trying to figure out how we got to this place. And I think people are going to be trying to figure it out for another 25 or 50 years frankly. A lot of people are attempting to find their way through this the same way that I was.

This book gets at the two, big defining questions of the Trump era: One moral, and another strategic. On the moral ledger, it seems like you’ve achieved some real psychoanalytical insight into the people who despise President Trump—people who live in DC and make their living in politics—but continue work for Trump anyway. What’s going on in their brains?

I think there are two ways to examine those individuals. The first way is that, if you are working in politics for your entire life, you dream of working in a White House. That’s the holy grail for a political operative. If you spend a career climbing that ladder, then an opportunity to work in any White House is going to be really appealing, even if it the occupant of the White House is somebody that you didn’t vote for, or somebody you find personally distasteful. There’s an element of raw ambition to that.

The second thing, and it’s not mutually exclusive from the first, is that there are people who are really troubled by Trump and by Trumpism, who have deep-seated concerns about the direction he’s taking the party, the direction he’s taking the country, but who feel an obligation not to walk away from this and wash their hands of it. And to remain as close to it as possible to try to mitigate the damage.

Now, obviously, that might sound to some people like it’s a cop-out.

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It certainly might.

And I wouldn’t necessarily buy anybody who was selling that. But there are without question people in the administration who fit that criteria—people who I know for a fact are just deeply disturbred by the president and his behavior, and some of his demagoguery, but feel as though walking away as a sign of protest would be counterproductive. Because the president needs people around him who are stable influences to help steer the ship. And if they were to walk away, maybe the ship sinks.

There’s a bit of a scarlet letter that almost everyone in the Republican party is going to wear.

The president is not oblivious to the fact that this administration is staffed with an awful lot of people who said some really nasty things about him during the campaign. It’s not lost on Trump that he has a lot of staff members who were not fans of him once and probably not fans of him today. Look, if Trump was only to staff his White House with people who had never said a negative thing about him, he would be really hard-pressed to find anybody. His takeover of the Republican party was a hostile takeover.

You identified two types of characters—the eager-and-ambitious, and the revolted-but-duty-bound. I wonder which you think better describes John Kelly? He certainly wants people to believe he was there out of reluctant duty. On the other hand, he gave an interview putting a revisionist gloss on the Civil War, and later misquoted Congresswomen Frederica Wilson, refusing to apologize even when videotape footage rebuked him. Which is to say, pretty Trumpian. 

I would put Kelly pretty squarely in that second camp. But not everybody in that second camp is an innocent of course, and not everybody in that second camp is perfect, and there are plenty of people there who are flawed who—we’re all flawed, we all make mistakes. And Kelly—not to hold him up as some paragon of virtue, but I don’t think there was political ambition to work in the White House. I think John Kelly, along with guys like Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis, viewed themselves as a forcefield around Trump, buffering him from his own worst impulses.

That’s not to say that those guys didn’t make mistakes, or again, to put them onto any sort of pedestal. But the basic facts—John Kelly serving in combat, losing his son in combat—I doubt that on the top of John Kelly’s list of things to do with the rest of his life, when he could have retired and gone to a beach somewhere to read books and drink lemonade, was to work in the White House in order to control an uncontrollable president every day. This is a guy who obviously felt a sense of duty, who did the job as well as he could, but his best wasn’t good enough, and nobody’s best is going to be good enough. There’s no chief of staff on earth who can run an organized, disciplined White House when the occupant is unorganized and undisciplined.

Your book describes the Republican party in “collapse.” As far as establishment Republicans in DC are concerned, then, is the Trump takeover permanent?

It’s important to realize that nothing is permanent in politics, that everything is cyclical. Trumpism in the moment seems like this really durable trend that is going to inform and influence Republican politics and policymaking for years and years to come. But the fact of the matter is, there’s an opposite and equal reaction. The path that Trump took to winning the presidency is not sustainable mathematically for Republicans, if they’re going to win the White House 12 years from now. Probably sooner than that, there will have to be, at some point, a reckoning in the party about the fact that the country is becoming incredibly diverse.

Political parties exist to promote and protect their own power. And once they lose elections, they change course. And so you’re going to see, eventually, a course correction away from Trumpism; it’s just a matter of whether it happens four years from now, or eight years from now, or 20 years from now. It’s going to happen eventually, just out of necessity, the party is ultimately going to understand that the current structure and coalition is not viable in the long term.

So if there’s a counter-reformation on the horizon, what’s the future of the Permanent DC Republicans? What will happen when the conquerors become the conquered? Will the Never-Trumpers punish the accommodationists—the Schlapps, for instance—once they fall out of favor in the party?

Look, I think everyone in the party is going to bear the scars of this—even people like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Nikki Haley, who were intensely critical of Trump before he won the Republican nomination, and before he won the presidency. The senior people who had to make accommodations to Trump, they looked around and recognized what the realities were in the party and the political ecosystem, and they sort of had to make lemonade.

Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan, obviously, is somebody who spent Trump’s entire political ascent telling anyone who would listen that this guy is immoral, that he’s unethical and unfit for office. And Ryan realizes on election night 2016 that he can either leave office, and hold on to those convictions and remain a principled critic from the outside. Or he can stay in office—he’s got to take a vow of silence, because he can’t be the Speaker of the House and criticize Trump day in and day out. At least that’s the calculation he made. Paul Ryan—who was this incredibly popular figure in the Republican party, a well-liked figure in Congress, who had had a lot of friends in the Democratic party—Paul Ryan’s political reputation was tarnished, really, because of his affiliation and his relationship with Trump.

So there’s a bit of a scarlet letter that almost everyone in the Republican party is going to wear. I don’t know that there’s going to be this even split between the people who were on the “good” side or the “bad” side. I think that’s overly simplistic, and it’s just too reductive in trying to see where this whole thing goes. Whether you were with Trump or against Trump, the party itself invited Trump. Long, long, long before Trump came down that golden escalator, the party decided it was going to flirt with birtherism, and the party decided it was going to scream “You lie!” at Barack Obama during the State Of the Union; that it was going to parrot some of these nativist and xenophobic tropes during the presidency; that it decided to kill comprehensive immigration reform in 2013; and shut down the government in 2013; when it went through those bruising stretches of internecine warfare in the halls of Congress and on the campaign trail, with fights over ideological purity and litmus tests.

They did this to themselves. And it’s way too easy ten years from now to lay it all on Trump. They’re the ones who invited Trump in the first place.

Benjamin Wofford
Staff Writer

Benjamin Wofford is a staff writer at Washingtonian. He has been a contributing editor at Politico Magazine, and a regular contributor to the magazines Glamour, Vox and Rolling Stone. His work has been included in Longform, The Sunday Longread and The Atlantic’s annual “Exceptional Journalism” review.