Transcript: Election 2024: The Stakes with Isaac Arnsdorf

MS. PARKER: Hi, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Ashley Parker, senior national political correspondent here, and my guest today is Isaac Arnsdorf, a national political reporter also here at the–hi, Isaac–also here at The Washington Post and, more importantly, author of the just-released book, “Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy.”

Isaac, welcome back to Washington Post Live.

MR. ARNSDORF: Thanks so much for having me, Ashley.

So this book was originally born out of an article you did for ProPublica about something called the “precinct strategy.” What exactly is that strategy, and why is it so important?

MR. ARNSDORF: Yeah. So this is going back to the middle of 2021, when I was hearing that a lot of new people were showing up to party meetings, local Republican Party meetings, trying to become precinct committee members or precinct chairs or precinct officers. There are different names in different places. And it’s sort of weird, because, like, you’ve probably never heard of these. Most people have never heard of these. And so it was a question of why, all of a sudden, there was this–there was this fad, this sudden surge of interest in Republicans and specifically Trump supporters wanting to come out and take these positions.

And I traced it back to actually an episode of a talk show hosted by Steve Bannon, the former Trump advisor, which right after January 6th came out and presented this plan called the “precinct strategy” as the solution, what Trump supporters needed to do to regroup after January 6th.

The idea was–and there’s actually a lot of truth to this–that if you look at why Trump failed to keep himself in office, despite losing the 2020 election, it was because of just a handful of uncooperative Republicans who stood up and wouldn’t go along with it. And the idea of this precinct strategy was very explicitly that if Trump supporters take over the party from the bottom up and turn the party apparatus, the party organization itself, into an institution for the MAGA movement, then they could purify the party and prevent anything like that from happening again in the next election.

MS. PARKER: And one thing I should also say, I was struck reading this book–and it’s a great book. I recommend it to everyone, but I was struck reading this book that Trump, with whom this book would not exist, is basically a supporting character at best. And in fact, he really only–in terms of his actual appearance on the page, he really just gets a cameo. So what was your thinking doing this book where Trump is sort of the entire backdrop, but he’s very rarely a present character?

MR. ARNSDORF: Yeah, exactly. And that was a choice to kind of make the–turn the book into a search for Trump, and the challenge was, you know, how do you write about someone who’s like maybe the most documented, famous person in all of modern human history? And the book is really about the movement rather than him. It’s like trying to turn the camera around from the usual focus on Trump and instead focusing on the supporters.

And so we see him at the very beginning, and then he kind of goes off stage or off screen for a while. We see people watching him, listening to him, trying to get in touch with him, looking for him, but we don’t really see him himself back on screen until the very end. And the goal is to try to make the reader rediscover him as if through fresh eyes, through that experience of finding him anew.

MS. PARKER: And so speaking of turning the camera and kind of turning it on his supporters, what did you learn about his supporters writing this book?

MR. ARNSDORF: Yeah. I mean, I think we all challenge in our day jobs as reporters here at The Post with how so many Republicans accept things that aren’t true as truth. And how do you cover that? How do you write about that when our job as reporters is to is to be clear about what is observable, empirical fact and what isn’t, but still striving to need to be respectful and fair and to understand where people are coming from? And so that’s really what a big part of this book is struggling with and largely through kind of the competing perspectives of one of these new Trump supporters who comes into the party and becomes kind of a rising figure in the Georgia GOP. And then on the other hand, another party activist in Arizona, who has kind of the opposite experience of being a lifelong traditional Republican and really getting pushed out and struggling with her place in the party now that it’s changed.

MS. PARKER: So you’re obviously referring to–as someone who’s read the book, you’re referring to Salleigh and Karen, and I was really struck by their sort of intertwined stories. And it’s exactly as you describe, right? Karen, consummate Republican, her family was Republicans. It was sort of a given she would participate in the Republican movement, and she finds herself cast out.

Then there’s Salleigh, who, if I remember correctly, wasn’t all that political at first. She kind of gets involved with Trump and MAGA. She rises in the party, and she becomes a bit of an insider. She’s still MAGA, but she also as an insider understands what she didn’t originally, which is you can’t actually burn everything down. And it’s sort of an interesting evolution for her.

But those two women, their stories are kind of a yin and a yang. So I’m curious what you were thinking, kind of having them as two of really your three or four major characters in the book.

MR. ARNSDORF: Yeah. Well, you know, when I was doing that first story, I called dozens and dozens of these local party activists all around the country, and it sort of ended up being kind of like a casting call or it just–it struck me that, like, Kathy and Salleigh–there are a lot of other people I talk to like them, but, like, Kathy and Salleigh had a lot of personality. And they were they were really fun to talk to, and they were open with me. And so, you know, we just kind of kept the relationship going.

And one of the things that was really fun for me about doing the book was–and I hope it was interesting for them also–is, like, when we started talking back in 2021, you know, I had no idea the journey that they would both go on and how both of them have these arcs of kind of personal growth and development and change. And so, I mean, it was kind of one of the amazing parts of the process for me and then also to kind of share that with them and to kind of see them having that reflected back toward them and to kind of process that experience together.

MS. PARKER: And that was actually one of the things I was struck by reading–in reading your foreword. You sort of said these characters who ultimately end up appearing on the page, they are emblematic or just like all of these hundreds and thousands of others, but they’re also in some way exceptional. That was sort of a line that stuck with me. But anyhow, I think it’s worth going back and saying that Trump described the MAGA movement–he dubbed it MAGA, Make America Great Again, and this movement was largely what helped lift him to victory in the campaign he began in 2015. I’m curious. Over the past nine years, how has this movement changed or evolved?

MR. ARNSDORF: Yeah. I think part of the argument that the book is making is that it’s really a different kind of movement since January 6th. I mean, if you think about the–Trump’s winning coalition in 2016, you know, the–like, we think about, like, well, first of all, Bannon as like a figure in the movement. Like, the Bannon–the Bannon crowd in 2016, it was the alt-right, right? You know, it was like online, kind of gamer, young white men.

And then–and then it was a whole lot of white non-college-educated voters in the upper Midwest who, you know, could not take Hillary Clinton, including Kathy, who–you know, one of the main characters in the book. She voted for Trump in 2016 because she really, really didn’t like Hillary Clinton. That is a huge part of the story of 2016, and that’s just completely different from Trump’s coalition now and the meaning of the MAGA movement now. And the turning point was really January 6th and how the movement understood what happened and kind of redefined it and rewrote it.

But also demographically, it’s as the movement and the party have become much more coextensive, you know, the more, like, alt-right views that were considered extreme back in 2016 have become very much Republican mainstream consensus. And so the movement is now you’re talking about, you know, a lot of people who are senior citizens, you know, not the kind of people who look like radicals and extremists and they don’t think about themselves that way, but it’s a reflection of how much Trump and the experience of all the tumult of the last nine years have really changed what it means to be a Republican.

MS. PARKER: And actually, I want to pick up on that. In your book, you write a lot about–the way you describe these people, they’re sort of earnest, sincere, civic-minded people working incredibly hard for a cause they believe in and to do what they believe is the right thing. I’m curious. How can you reconcile this version of a MAGA supporter, which you encountered firsthand, you know, over many years, with sort of the both the reality of the MAGA supporters who, say, stormed the Capitol on January 6th, who were at the Charlottesville rally, but also with the caricature that many Americans have of them–which I haven’t covered Trump as well for–since 2015–know is not true, you know, and sort of also their alleged desire to end democracy as we know it. Is that really what they’re trying to do, and what is this yawning gap between what sort of the left fears and what you saw?

MR. ARNSDORF: Well, I mean, that’s a language that exists in the movement. I mean, there’s a prominent figure in the movement, Jack Posobiec, who kicked off this year’s CPAC, basically word for word, saying–you know, I don’t think he was looking at the title of the book, but he basically said, like–

MR. ARNSDORF: –we’re here to finish what we started on January 6th and end democracy. And there’s this–there’s this language of whether we live in a democracy or a republic and what that means to people.

But what I’m really trying to do in the book is push past those labels and unpack what it–what people mean when they say that, and those are very individual, complex answers. But when you deal with that, when you deal with them on that human level, you get to a place of understanding where people are coming from, and that’s different from, you know, whether what they’re saying is true or not. But you’re able to kind of make a connection in what they are trying to express.

And, you know, so much of the movement is really about that, and Bannon was actually really open with me in talking with me for the book about the way that he thinks about shaping the movement as offering a kind of agency, as reaching out to a need–a feeling of being silenced and a need to feel heard and recognized and a sense of belonging. And that is what he is appealing to with this nationalism and this identification with the MAGA cause.

MS. PARKER: And I actually–I have a couple of questions of Bannon that I’m going to get to in just a second, because he’s such a fascinating and compelling and kind of larger-than-life character, both on the pages of your book and in real life. But I do want to briefly pick up on something you mentioned, which is that Trump, despite his many flaws, he has just won the Republican nomination for the third time. When you look at polls, he has a slight–or he may have a slight advantage on President Biden at this moment in time. Title of your book is “Finish What We Started.” You mentioned hearing that language from some other major figures in the movement. If Trump is successfully elected this November, what exactly do his supporters want him to finish?

MR. ARNSDORF: So, I mean, I think we should look to what Trump has said himself. He’s been very clear–and I’m not–you know, obviously, he said he wanted to be a dictator on day one, and then he said he was joking, but he meant it. And that’s sort of a game that Trump is always playing.

But in all seriousness, the agenda for a second term that he has laid out is picking up exactly where they left off in the first term and going much farther. It is–and accomplishing that with what would be a staff that would be much more bought in and much less likely to try to restrain him or resist those orders, that the Trump who would be president again for a second term would be much more determined to use the power of the federal government, not only to ram over the traditional checks and balances on policy matters but also being much more directly–I mean, he uses the language “going after” his critics and political opponents.

MS. PARKER: All right. Now on to the man of the hour, Steve Bannon. I mean, your, kind of, book opens writing about Steve Bannon, who was a former White House senior advisor, in his Capitol Hill townhouse, known informally as the “Breitbart Embassy,” shortly after the January 6th insurrection, preparing for an episode of his podcast. You know, he’s incredibly compelling, and he’s surprisingly, perhaps to some people, pretty charismatic. So for those who may not know, briefly tell us who is Steve Bannon, and how central is he to the MAGA movement?

MR. ARNSDORF: So Bannon was–kind of burst onto the scene in 2014 or ’15 as the head of this website, Breitbart, which was this alt-right website that was kind of like a younger, cool rebrand for white nationalism–

MR. ARNSDORF: –and became kind of the unofficial media partner for Trump when Trump was this insurgent candidate thrashing the Republican primary field in 2015 and 2016.

Eventually, Bannon–that that became official when Bannon actually became Trump’s campaign chief for the home stretch, and he really kind of–like, you know, I think we–credit where credit is due to Trump for like really viscerally capturing the mood and the voices of his supporters. But Bannon was the one who kind of made that cohere into–to the extent you can call it coherent–made it cohere into an ideology and a political project. And he carried that through to the White House, although he didn’t last very long.

But even in exile, he’s continued chipping away at that, and that period where the book starts after January 6th is such a key one because Trump was basically out of the picture for a while. You know, he basically went into hiding in Mar-a-Lago in the–in the immediate aftermath of January 6th, then his second impeachment trial, and his leaving office. And that was the moment when the movement was devastated and looking for a way forward, and Bannon stepped up and provided that.

MS. PARKER: And it’s worth noting, you said Bannon didn’t last super long. That’s absolutely right, and one of the reasons was actually his fondness for the media and for books like yours and for magazine articles. And a number of things did him in, but it was a cover of Time. It was Josh Green’s book. And then I think ultimately it was an article where he sort of trashed a bunch of people, including some of Trump’s children.

But we actually have a viewer question on this topic of Bannon. It is from Charles Robinson from Virginia, who asks, “What is Steve Bannon’s, versus Trump’s, endgame?”

MR. ARNSDORF: Well, that’s a great question. Trump wants to keep himself out of prison. I mean, that’s a huge part of what is motivating–honestly, it’s one of the most motivating–

MS. PARKER: I know. It seems–it’s very reasonable.

MR. ARNSDORF: –in his campaign. And he wants to be president again. And someone close to him described him recently, something that really stuck with me, is that he wants to be remembered as a good president. Just leave you with that.

MR. ARNSDORF: And Bannon, on the other hand, you know, Bannon wants to tear everything down. Bannon said to me when I was reporting this book, he said, “I’m not in the rebuilding business. I’m in the tearing down business.” He wants to overturn the existing two-party system and redefine the parties as a nationalist, populist, right-of-center party called the Republicans versus a liberal, elitist, globalist party called the Democrats. And he thinks that if you define the parties that way, then the Republicans will have a hundred-year rule, a coalition that could rule for a hundred years.

MS. PARKER: And you’re talking about Bannon wanting to tear it down. You write a lot about the MAGA movement’s kind of goal of purging the party of, you know, what they might call RINOs. But it’s really not even that anymore. It’s really just as someone who is not sufficiently MAGA, who does not meet some of Trump’s litmus tests, including believing the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. So there are these primaries. They kind of purge these people, and then they end up in some cases with much more extreme candidates who have a tougher time in the general election. So my question is, that may feel good to get those scalps, but how successful is it for actually winning elections?

MR. ARNSDORF: Yeah. I mean, that’s like the huge question and one of the major tensions in the book, and to everyone’s surprise, including mine when I was reporting and writing this, it ended up being a face plant in the 2022 midterms when the MAGA candidates who the MAGA movement got to be the Republican nominees in all the key competitive races in 2022 lost. And they lost in a huge part because they were MAGA candidates, and the Democrats figured out a way, an effective way of attacking them for being MAGA, that turned off a lot of swing voters and even some Republicans.

Now, this year, it’s going to be another huge test, and on the plus side, what it means is that Trump has a much more disciplined and unified organization throughout the entire pyramid of the Republican Party than he’s ever had before. And that’s a huge asset.

On the other–on the other side of the ledger, a lot of the state parties that have been taken over by these MAGA activists are broke. They don’t have any money, and their leadership is kind of a mess. And they’re still having this problem of voters like Kathy who are Republicans but are not MAGA.

And I meet a lot of voters like that when I when I think about the New Hampshire primary when I was checking out polling places and, you know, people who voted for Haley then and people who still voted for Haley even after she wasn’t in the race. And that’s a challenge for Trump. You know, historically, you need to win those people if you’re a Republican running for president.

MS. PARKER: And I just want to give a brief plug. That was actually–you mentioned how the Democrats kind of figured out how to successfully demonize, turn MAGA into a word that Trump and his team reclaimed, but that actually came to symbolize something quite negative, even for independent suburban voters. And they used it quite effectively. And again, your book is largely on the MAGA movement, but I really enjoyed that chapter, kind of unexpectedly a few Democratic operatives make an appearance. And it was kind of fascinating to see what they were doing in this alternate world to try to stop this movement.

On the same topic of purging the party, we have actually another viewer question. This one comes from Cathryn Campbell from Ontario, Canada, and we love our international readers. So thank you so much, Cathryn. The question is, “Can the Republican Party ever purge itself of Trump?”

MR. ARNSDORF: So I always try not to make predictions, but I think that that one of the points–

MS. PARKER: You won’t make a prediction?

MR. ARNSDORF: No, I’ll just say one of the purposes of the of the precinct strategy is by putting the MAGA movement into the institution of the Republican Party, making the Republican Party a vessel for MAGA, you are–they’ve succeeded in making it about more than just a cult of personality around Trump. They have–they’ve given it this organization, this structure, and that makes it much more durable than just Trump himself. And that was exactly what Bannon was going for by promoting this.

MS. PARKER: Right. So then I guess the next question that logically follows is then, what does a post-Trump Republican Party look like?

MR. ARNSDORF: Well, I just don’t know that we can we can get that far ahead when we’re still dealing with, you know, the possibility that Trump is going to be president again.

I’m curious. How do you think–I mean, you write a lot about these supporters, but how do you think Trump views his hardcore MAGA supporters?

MR. ARNSDORF: Well, he loves them. He loves that they love him. But, you know, I really do think he means it when he says–and he says this at almost every rally–you know, he understands what Bannon understands about being a voice and channeling their frustrations. And people really take that very seriously, and I think that it’s sometimes hard for people outside of the movement to relate to that. Like, you know, when Trump says, you know, “they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you, and I’m just standing in the way,” and, you know, there’s sort of a joke about like, well, you know, yeah, they could indict you, too, if you mishandle classified documents, but that, you know, would never happen to anyone else.

But the point is about if you believe him that that this is all made up and that this is just the system being weaponized against him to take him down and that can happen to him with all of his resources and all of his power, then what chance to the rest of us stand? And so he’s become really quite skillful at that move of positioning himself with the movement and kind of sharing a collective experience of victimization over the past nine years. His rallies are often sort of like a story of everything that they’ve gone through together, and that’s part of that shared identity formation. That’s part of what that sense of belonging becomes about.

MS. PARKER: And, I mean, you–Trump–as you described, Trump very accurately cast himself as sort of a martyr of this almost religious movement. And, you know, “Saturday Night Live” has pilloried him as casting himself as Jesus Christ. I guess I’m curious. And Lindsey–I also always think of something Lindsey Graham once said to me, which is that Trump likes anyone who likes him. And sometimes ideology is not a part of that. But how much do you think–despite him sort of taking these arrows on behalf of his flock, how much of this is transactional? I mean, how much does he like these people because he hopes they can lift him to power, back to power?

MR. ARNSDORF: Well, Trump will never say anything bad about anyone who likes him, and he’s gotten into–he’s gotten into trouble on a lot of occasions because of that.

But what–but part of what this shared bond, part of the dynamic that it creates, I call in the book a feedback loop where that the–it’s the mutual admiration and the shared experience of Trump and his supporters creates this feedback mechanism of pushing each other to become more and more extreme and kind of veering off from the shared experience of the rest of the country. And that’s another thing that is really going to be tested in this election is the extent to which that the Trump and MAGA reality can define the reality for everyone else.

MS. PARKER: Let’s skip ahead a little bit towards the end of your book. You kind of describe you’re there for this incredibly compelling scene with the Georgia Republican Party. All of these members, including Salleigh, they’re all gathered, when suddenly kind of in real time, the indictment of Trump comes down for the documents case. And we get to see these supporters process it and react in real time. Can you tell me about what happened, and how all of these people who–you know, who they themselves, for instance, would probably not say pay money, hush money to a porn star or even condone that sort of behavior, they suddenly feel, as you kind of mentioned before, that Trump was doing all of this for them, and those who are having doubts and second thoughts, it feels like they’re immediately pulled right back to him.

MR. ARNSDORF: Yeah. That was–and that’s a huge part of how Trump became the nominee again is how him being indicted and indicted and indicted and indicted brought back that Republican reflex of rallying to his defense.

And, you know, in that particular scene, I was surrounded by huge Trump fans, but it happened with people who aren’t wild about Trump either. And there–it remains a huge question hanging over us now as one of those–the first of those cases actually goes to trial next week. So as those cases advance ahead of the election, what if there’s actually a conviction? And also, how do–how do non-Republicans, how do moderates and independents feel about a candidate who is under multiple indictments and possibly even there’s a chance he could be convicted?

MS. PARKER: We’re almost at time, but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about something that’s just been in the news that I know you have probably great insight on, and it’s, you know, Trump wants–but there’s some context. He won overwhelmingly with Christian evangelicals in 2016 and even in 2020 when he lost. I’m curious how you think his recent comments on abortion, that he’s going to leave it to the states. He’s not going as far as a number of those evangelical supporters, those anti-abortion rights supporters would like him to go. What impact will that have on this voting bloc, if at all, and what impact will it have on the election in general?

MR. ARNSDORF: Well, it’s going to make–it’s going to be a huge theme of the election. You know, the two things that the Biden campaign is going to make the election about are our democracy and abortion. And, you know, Trump–this is an issue where Trump is not running to the extreme, where he is running toward the middle. And he got through the primary taking a more moderate position than all the other Republicans running and–but now he’s feeling the pressure. Where that’s coming from is the pressure from having to unify that Republican coalition on people who want a federal ban and people who agree with him that this is not a winning political issue for Republicans.

MS. PARKER: Well, we are all out of time. So unfortunately, we have to leave it there. But I felt so lucky that I got a sneak preview of your book out today. Everyone should buy it, ideally at your local independent bookstore, but Amazon, kind of any purchase that gets it into your hands counts. Then you’ll get to read the book. So thank you so much for joining us, Isaac.

MR. ARNSDORF: Thank you, Ashley.

MS. PARKER: You’re welcome.

And thanks to all of you for watching. For more of these important conversations, sign up for a Washington Post subscription. You can get a free trial by visiting WashingtonPost.com/live. That’s WashingtonPost.com/live.

I’m Ashley Parker, and thanks again for joining us today.


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