Mark Leibovich Plumbs the Depths of the GOP’s Cultish, Cartoonish Devotion to Trump

I wrapped up my interview with Mark Leibovich with the requisite kicker asking if there was anything else he wanted to add about Thank You for Your Servitude, Leibovich’s new page-turner charting the “moral rout” of the modern Republican Party. “What’s been encouraging about the book is the people who have read it so far have said it’s really powerful, and also that it made them laugh on every page, which is a really tough balance,” said Leibovich, who’s four months into his new job at The Atlantic after a decade and a half at The New York Times. “I have no idea what the formula is, but books have to be fun in their own way, even when they’re, you know, sharing egregious truths. Politicians, even at their most repellant, can be an underutilized source of humor.” The book, out Tuesday from Penguin Press, is the author’s long-awaited sequel to 2013’s best-selling This Town, a rollicking dissection of Washington’s power elite and a masterpiece in the juicy Beltway tell-all genre. There’s an unmistakable darkness running through Thank You for Your Servitude, considering how high the stakes have risen—not just for the two major political parties but for American democracy as a whole—since the comparatively quaint Obama years. Leibovich unpacks that sense of dread in the lightly edited and condensed Q&A below, along with his thoughts on the January 6 commission, the midterms, the far right, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and 2024.

Vanity Fair: So you have this book more or less portraying all these Republicans as cynical, spineless sycophants. The headline of the excerpt in The Atlantic is “The Most Pathetic Men in America.” And yet some of them still seem happy to talk to you. Are they pissed to be portrayed the way you portray them, or do they just have no fucks to give?

Mark Leibovich: That’s a question I’ve been getting for literally 20 or 25 years. Like, why do any of these people talk to you and still talk to you? And I don’t quite get it. I do think they probably wouldn’t talk to me today—I mean, a lot of these interviews have occurred over the last three or four years. But the fact of the matter is, all these people have made this deal with Trump and decided, We have to make this relationship work for our careers; for whatever reason it is, this is our deal and we have to live with ourselves. I think one of the reasons they are no longer all that eager to talk is because you sense a lot of real unhappiness. Like, Kevin McCarthy? He’s gotta be miserable right now. When you see Marco Rubio and Elise Stefanik on TV, like, these people who know better, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance, because I think they all respect the hell out of Liz Cheney on some very basic level. So you know, if I could try to impose some really simplistic psychology on them, I think a lot of them at this point are having real dissonance. The whole idea of running past reporters on the Hill, pretending to be on the phone, I think it wears on you. They’ve all made the decision. I don’t know if they’re okay with the decision, but they’ve all made the decision that it’s worth it to them. They need the job, they need the parking space. If you’re Lindsey Graham, you can’t imagine life without the U.S. Senate.

Just to give a sense of what we’re talking about here, what are some of the most shameless examples of sycophancy that you dug up for the book?

A lot of it sort of just involved the dance between public figures going on and off the record. On the record: Donald Trump’s the greatest man in the world! Off the record: He’s a complete moron! The whole book is [full of] specific examples of that, like when you look at what’s been revealed in the last few months of what McCarthy and Graham and so many Republicans were saying about Donald Trump [immediately] after January 6 compared to basically a few weeks later, when they all kind of waved the white flag. That’s sort of the pervasive ethic of the Republican Party now.

When you were getting closer to publication and fact-checking and all of that, did anyone come back and try to argue over things they said or get you to take out certain quotes or anecdotes?

Remarkably not. This excerpt went up today, and Lindsey Graham and Kevin McCarthy are, like, the two featured players in the excerpt—

Described as cowards in the subhead.

Big time. I mean, caveat, I don’t do the headlines, but I called their comms people yesterday and said, “Hey, this is coming, you won’t like this”—you know, that whole thing. Kevin Bishop, who’s Lindsey’s longtime communications guy, could not have been more serene. I’m saying [to him], “I’m gonna say this, I’m gonna say that, he’s not gonna like it, you’re not gonna like it.” And he could not have been more, sort of, proudly indifferent to what The Atlantic was gonna write. He said, “One thing, if you could do me a favor, if you could just say that Lindsey and President Trump are still really, really close and they golf all the time and they have a really good relationship, that’d be really important to get in there.” The level of not giving two fucks is extremely high. And I think, again, they’ve been worn down to some degree and it’s sort of an automatic pilot thing.

Do you think it’s also because, as Lindsey Graham notes in the jacket copy, it doesn’t really matter because their core constituents don’t read publications like The Atlantic or The New York Times, and they’re sure as hell not gonna read your book?

That’s a hundred percent true. But look, one of the reasons these people still talk to me and have talked to me is that they have egos, and they really do want to be understood, or they do want their story told, whether in the dreaded mainstream media or not. They care about The New York Times, whether or not people who go to Trump rallies in Alabama read The New York Times. The subjects of this book are people who know better. This is not a book about Donald Trump necessarily. This is not a book about, Oh, wow, how misguided are his supporters? It’s about Republican leaders in Washington and around the country, all of whom know better. The gap between what they will say publicly and privately has never been greater.

What’s changed from the Obama era of This Town to the town of the Trump era—or I guess now the post-Trump-but-still-sort-of-Trump era? It’s not all that many years later, but it feels like a completely different world.

Exactly. That world feels like a comedy of manners. Democrat X goes into business with Republican Y, and now they’re, like, making a ton of money. What an outrage! Or some top Treasury official for Obama is now working at Goldman. I mean, oh, the humanity, right? Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham were both very much fixtures in the 2013 This Town world. Now they’re fixtures in a world where the stakes are much higher and the price of their submission to this guy in the middle of everything is extremely high, and the country has paid a really big price.

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