‘Watching for Discomfort’: Mark Leibovich on Reporting His New Trump Book

A Q&A with the author on the various ways the Republican subjects of his new book, Thank You for Your Servitude, revealed themselves

red and black squares in a grid with black and white photos
Getty; The Atlantic

What distinguishes Mark Leibovich’s new book about the Trump years from all the many, many others is that he started it with an unusual premise: He was bored with Trump. “I never found Donald Trump to be remotely captivating as a stand-alone figure,” Leibovich, a staff writer for The Atlantic, writes in an excerpt. Far more interesting were those who stood next to Trump and enabled his rise—the Lindsey Grahams and Kevin McCarthys—those who should have known better. What made them tick? That was a journalistic question with some mystery to it. I talked with Leibovich about the people he calls the “collaborators” and whether he has a grand “banality of evil” theory to explain their behavior. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Gal Beckerman: So how does it feel to become D.C.’s greatest contemporary sociologist? Do you still get invited to parties?

Mark Leibovich: Basically, when This Town came out in 2013, a lot of people were saying, Oh, well, you’ll never eat lunch in D.C. again. The opposite happened. The book did really well. And I guess everybody loves a winner. And it was written in such a way that Republicans or conservatives thought that it was an indictment of big government, while liberal Washington and liberal Democrats thought it was an indictment of big money in politics. So everyone sort of claimed it as their own. There are a few people who snub me around town, but not that many. At a certain point, I think you reach immunity.

Beckerman: Your new book’s big theme is sycophancy in our politics. But journalists struggle with this, too, that fear of losing access that leads to lobbing softballs. This must be a dynamic that you’re constantly negotiating: How far can you go without burning the people whom you actually need to do your reporting?

Leibovich: I always thought there was a pretty simple answer to this question: Don’t burn people. If you make ground rules, you make agreements, be good to your word. But once you get inside the tent, there are ways to draw people out. There are ways to see them and hear them that others might not. And that’s the challenge.

Beckerman: You always seem to notice the peripheral things that end up being the most revealing. I’m thinking of Kevin McCarthy showing you photos of himself hanging out with famous people. It might never have occurred to him that that would end up in an article, but actually it becomes the thing you remember most.

Leibovich: People don’t quite realize the degree to which they’re revealing themselves and the ways in which they’re revealing themselves. And it doesn’t always align with the image they might want to portray. To put it mildly.

Beckerman: Do you have tricks for getting this material?

Leibovich: Part of it is choosing the right questions, watching for patterns, watching for discomfort. I noticed that McCarthy kept getting really, really visibly nervous every time Trump’s name came up and started complaining: “Why do you keep asking about Trump?” And, to me, that was a tell.

Beckerman: And there must have been many such moments with the people who are at the center of this book, the supporting cast who kept backing Trump.

Leibovich: They never quite realized how central they were. What people miss because they are so fixated on the shiny object of Trump himself and all the intrigue around him is that he would not be where he is, his presidency would not be possible, without the submission of the Republican Party. And it’s mostly the leadership. You know, Nixon was ended ultimately by Republicans, who after a long period of time just said, All right, enough. I mean, you had Republicans defecting. Eventually they stood up, and that was it for him. Would Nixon have survived with Kevin McCarthy as the leader of the House Republicans and Mitch McConnell, and Fox News? I don’t know. Maybe? But I think this was a big, big gap in all the reporting. It was extremely relevant and extremely fertile ground.

Beckerman: So at the end of this, did you come to any sort of grand unifying theory or “banality of evil” concept that explains the actions of a [Rudy] Giuliani or a McCarthy?

Leibovich: It’s funny; I’m not much of a grand-unified-theory guy, but I do obviously believe that people are both unified and very distinct and very different, very damaged in many cases, each in their own way. There are certain recurring patterns, like desperation to keep a job. As Lindsey Graham said, doing whatever it takes to stay relevant. Or employed, in his case. There is no one in the Senate right now who needs this job more than Lindsey Graham. Kevin McCarthy has decided that he just wants to be speaker of the House. And if he can get there in November, everything will be redeemed. I think, then, there are a lot of banal reasons, like those who just like to take the path of least resistance, just good, old-fashioned fear and also fear of physical harm. And I think those threats were very real.

Beckerman: The part that I found most depressing about the people you profiled was the sheer nihilism, the disregard for their legacy. I wonder if that depressed you too, plumbing the depths of it.

Leibovich: Yeah, it was depressing. It would be more depressing if it weren’t counteracted by the opposite being demonstrated, in unfortunately pretty isolated cases in the Republican Party through people like Mitt Romney or Adam Kinzinger. There are plenty of people who have courage and decency and want to do the right thing patriotically, but unfortunately the Republican Party does not seem to be a real hotbed of them at this time, when the country needs them more than ever.

Beckerman: Beyond the descriptive power of your book, did you think of it as achieving some further kind of end, at the very least shaming some of these folks?

Leibovich: You know, a writer brings his own desperation to bear here. And a lot of it is just finishing the damn book on time. I had three months off between when I left The New York Times and started at The Atlantic. And that was a godsend, because I did a lot of rewriting just because it’s a pretty fast-moving story. It would have been an incomplete book without January 6 and the events of last year. I was also glad to get Ukraine in there. I think the context of the last few months is really, really important as far as imposing both a moral clarity on the Trump years but also in completing the story and trying to propel it forward as we hurtle toward 2024, which I think will be a real reckoning election both for the Republican Party and, if he gets to the nomination, the whole country.

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