‘A crazy proposition’: Robert Draper on Trump, Republicans and January 6 | Books
Mid-December 2020, Robert Draper signed on to write a book on the Republican Party under donald trumpwho spent four crazy years in the White House but had just been beaten by Joe Biden.
“Trump hadn’t conceded,” says Draper, from Washington, where he writes for the New York Times. “But it was expected to. The idea of the January 6 uprising ‘Be there, be savage’ hadn’t taken hold yet. And so I thought the book would be about ‘a split Republican Party, more or less in line with When the Tea Party Came to Town, the book I did about the Class of 2010.’
“That all changed the first day I reported labor, which happened to be January 6, while I was inside the Capitol.”
The book has become Weapons of Mass Delirium: When the Republican Party Lost its Mind. It’s a detailed account of Republican dynamics since 2020, but it opens with visceral reporting from the scene of what Draper calls the “seismic travesty” of the Capitol attack.
Draper says, “I still get chills thinking about that day. It’s a Rashomon-like experience, isn’t it? There were a lot of people in the Capitol and they all have different points of view which are equally valid.
“Mine was of someone who just showed up thinking I would be covering this routine certification ceremony, ended up not being able to get into the press box, walked around the west side of the building and suddenly saw all these policemen under siege, getting macerated and beaten. After being there for a while, I escaped through the tunnels and went to the east side of the Capitol and watched people make their way inside.
In their book The Steal, Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague observe that those who attacked the Capitol had no better chance of overturning the election than the hippies of 1967 had of seeing the Pentagon levitate. Draper’s term “seismic parody” goes in the same direction. But it does not diminish the enormity of the attempt, of Trump’s rejection of democracy and the threat posed by those who support him.
His book joins a herd on January 6. One difference is that each chapter begins with an image by Canadian photographer Louie Palu, of January 6 and the days that followed. Rioters swarm. Politicians roam the corridors of power.
Draper says, “There’s a reason the subtitle isn’t How? ‘Or’ What the Republican Party has lost its mind, but instead when the Republican Party did. This is a snapshot in time. I happen to think it’s an incredibly important snapshot, but it’s not a dry historical recitation of how the Republican Party over the decades shifted from one mode of thinking to another.
“It’s important to me to impress on readers that this is a low-key moment worth considering, a time when the Republican Party…rather than deciding, ‘Wow, we were co-conspirators , intentional or not, to a horrible event, and we need to do better,” instead went in a different direction.
“And for me, this is a time when democracy is now closed and therefore needs to be considered.”
Draper interviewed most of the major players, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, with his eyes on the president’s gavel after next month’s midterms. Asked if the man who wooed Trump with red and pink Starbursts and genuflections at Mar-a-Lago are the leader Republicans deserve, Draper replies cautiously.
“So there are two key words: ‘leader’ and ‘merit’. It depends on how you define either. He would be the leader in the sense that they would probably vote for him as speaker…but the question remains whether he will really lead or if he really has led.
“The important word is ‘merit’. And obviously, that requires judgment on my part. But I think what Kevin McCarthy embodies for me is the human refutation of the argument that Donald Trump hijacked the Republican Party, because to imagine that metaphor, you imagine the Republican Party as a plane taken by force, without any complicity, and that the plane was working perfectly well before. McCarthy is here to refute all of that.
“McCarthy was an absolute catalyst for Donald Trump. He never refuted the kind of lies his party embraced. He winked and nodded. People told me that he offered to create a new leadership position for Marjorie Taylor Greene. At a minimum, she’s likely to get Plum Committee assignments.
Greene, a far-right and conspiratorial Georgia congresswoman, was elected when Draper started work.
“I thought she would just be some kind of marginalized, sitting on the Star Wars bar of Republican politics, some kind of congresswoman who would be ousted after one term. But in many ways, tracing his trajectory was a way to trace the trajectory of Trump’s post-Presidency Republican Party after Jan. 6. Now, Trump is undoubtedly the dominant leader of the party, and more specifically, Trumpism is the straw that stirs the drink.
Some media say Greene shouldn’t be covered. Some strongly say the opposite. Draper spent time with her.
“That’s the advantage of doing a book as opposed to daily journalism. It took me a year to get my first interview with her. You have to understand, for her, that the mainstream media is, as Trump delicately put it, the enemy of the American people. She thinks we usually lie. We deserve only disgust, the minimum, and contempt, the maximum.
“And so, getting her to cross that psychological Rubicon and be willing to talk to me was a real process. But I find in journalism and anthropology that people generally want to let the rest of the world know why they are the way they are. They want to reveal themselves. And if you put them in a comfortable area, where they feel they can do it, and they trust that they won’t have to pay for it immediately, then they will often start, if only by increments, to turn out. And that’s what happened with Greene and me.
Democracy on the brink
Liz Cheney is in some ways the opposite of Greene. Daughter of Dick Cheney, vice president under George W Bush, she is an establishment figure who only broke with Trump following the attack on the Capitol. Ejected from the party leadership, she is one of two Republicans on the House January 6 Committee, but lost his seat in Wyoming to a Trump-backed challenger.
For Draper, it is “remarkable that we are talking about these two women Republicans in the same breath, implicitly recognizing these improbable opposite trajectories.
“In December 2020, if you and I were talking about Liz Cheney and saying, ‘What’s going to happen to her next,’ we wouldn’t be saying she’s going to be kicked out of the party. does it happen to Marjorie Taylor Greene next,” we wouldn’t say she would fundamentally be a more influential figure in the Republican Party than Liz Cheney. That would seem like a far-fetched proposition and yet that’s exactly what happened.
“Cheney was almost alone in thinking that not only did the party need to leave Trump, but it needed to ensure that Trump was no longer a powerful force within the GOP. This put her on an island with Adam Kinzinger and a few precious others. It has paid a heavy political price.
Draper’s previous book, start a war, showed how Cheney’s father and his boss sold the war in Iraq, citing weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. What does Cheney think?
“She said, ‘You and I probably disagree on whether or not it was the right thing to do to go to Iraq.’ I remember saying to him, ‘You mean, I’m not a warmonger like you?’ And she laughed, but still sometimes thinks it was a viable proposition. And I think my book comes to the inexorable conclusion that [it] was a very stupid proposition.
“But it’s worth talking about, because … the subject matter was not just Donald Trump, but also the Republican Party and its tenuous grip on the truth. And it was an eye opener, I think, for a lot of us that Liz Cheney… stands for other things beyond ideology, and among them is the preservation of democracy.
Before the Capitol was attacked, Cheney read Lincoln on the edgeTed Widmer’s account of Abraham Lincoln’s perilous train journey to Washington in 1861.
Draper writes, “As the nation teetered on the brink of civil war, Lincoln averted two assassination attempts during the trip, while the counting of electoral college votes at the Capitol was preceded by fear that someone might seizes the mahogany box containing the ballots and thus defeats the presidency of Abe Lincoln before its creation.
“Cheney had shuddered to think of what would have happened if the crowd had gotten their hands on the mahogany boxes on January 6, 2021.”
Widmer is a historian, but many books have suggested that with a deeply polarized America and endemic Trumpism, we could be close to a second Civil War. For Draper, “tragically, it’s not out of the question”.
“It’s certainly clear to me that when you have a third of the voting public in America who believe the election was stolen… [that’s] not something you take with a grain of salt.
“America is really in the throes of fractures that could metastasize into something violent. I hope that’s not the case. But I’m not going to look at you and tell you there’s no no way for that to happen.