Episode Summary

Democrats have the narrowest of majorities in the House and Senate. And after a few months of a presidential honeymoon for Joe Biden, they really are feeling the constraints of their tiny margin for error. The Senate is split 50 50 with a tie breaking vote going to Vice President Kamala Harris, which means the Democrats there have to reach unanimous agreement in order to do anything that Republicans in the chamber are against.

And with Mitch McConnell as their leader, Republican senators are pretty much against everything Democrats want to do. So what’s the plan and how are they moving forward in the face of such obstruction?

And that obstruction is a formidable obstacle outside of domestic politics. Because nine months after the January sixth Capitol riot, so much about what happened on that day and why it happened is still unknown.

Law enforcement officials have been conducting many investigations of various people, but none of their findings become public unless they’re relevant to a trial. And after several months’ delay, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided to launch a Select Committee to investigate what happened.

In this episode of Theory of Change, we feature Greg Sargent, an opinion columnist with the Washington Post and a blogger there as well. And prior to that, he wrote for the American Prospect and Talking Points Memo and New York magazine. He’s also the author of a book that came out a few years ago called “An Uncivil War, Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics.”

Beyond discussing why Democrats don’t talk about far-right radicalism more, I also talk about some of my own experiences in Republican politics and why I left. A video of the conversation is below. A lightly edited version of the audio follows.

Theory of Change #22: Greg Sargent on the Biden agenda and investigating January 6

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, Greg.

GREG SARGENT: Thanks for having me on.

SHEFFIELD: There’s a lot going on right now in our politics. And a lot of it goes back to that Mitch McConnell figured out that presidents get blamed for any disfunction in Congress, no matter who is the cause of it. And right now Biden’s approval rating is underwater as they say in the polling business, he’s at 49% disapprove and 45% approve. What’s happening here for Democrats? They’re at a log jam and they have to get through it somehow.

SARGENT: Yeah. I think your point is really right on and very important. [00:02:00] McConnell really understood, in a way that I think Democrats still don’t quite understand, that if Republicans can gum up the works, no matter how destructively, it won’t matter. The party in the White House takes the blame, because the president’s in the news all the time. People just see a mess in Washington and shrug and say: ‘They just can’t get it together. Why can’t the president crack his whip and get them all into shape.’

And so exacerbating that right now is the battling among Democrats to get this Build Back Better bill passed. And that coming after the pullout from Afghanistan, in which the headlines said over and over that it had been executed incompetently and so forth and so on, is really playing into that McConnell dynamic in a way that he could only dream of.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think a lot of people are aware that Democrats have a majority in the House and the Senate, but they don’t even know how narrow it is. And so that’s really, it’s something that they’re working against because a lot of people, I see it all the time, people on Twitter saying: ‘Why can’t the Democrats just pass something in the Senate? They have the majority here, what’s wrong with them?’

SARGENT: And don’t forget the filibuster of course. A lot of people don’t really understand that the filibuster prevents majority rule, which is a pretty critical aspect of why things are the way they are.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly. I’m going to just go to a column here that Greg published yesterday over at the Post and we’ll have it in the show notes.

But basically the headline of the column is: ‘Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are forcing truly terrible choices on Democrats.’ And basically, what’s your saying here in the column, Greg, is that they’re trying to force Democrats to choose between two of their big priorities. So can you talk about what these two priorities are?

SARGENT: We don’t really know what the choice will end up being in the [00:04:00] end. What we do know is that Manchin and Sinema are essentially arbitrarily saying that they just want the costs lower.

And so right now, what Democrats are doing is trying to figure out whether they should either shorten the time span of some of these policies to bring the cost down that way, or potentially just jettison whole policies in order to execute a few of them better and make them more permanent so that Republicans can’t refuse to renew them later.

And so right now, it’s looking like two of the things that will potentially be on the chopping block are Medicare being expanded to cover eye, dental, and hearing treatment on one side, and on the other, filling the Medicaid gap that’s resulted from the fact that many states –Republican states around a dozen Republican states haven’t expanded it.

Now, the reason this creates terrible choices is that both of those would help a tremendous amount of people. And if it comes down to Democrats having to choose one or the other, they would have to choose between helping tens of millions by expanding basic Medicare services to them on the one hand or on the other potentially not expanding Medicaid to at least 2 million people who are really quite poor.

And this is a choice no Democrat wants to make. And the reason this is so frustrating for a lot of us and for a lot of Democrats, is that Manchin and Sinema have managed to keep the debate in this abstract realm where more spending is bad, and less spending is good. And they don’t ever talk about why less spending is good when that means not helping tens of millions of people who need dental care and hearing care.

They just have managed to keep the debate in this place where, unfortunately, we can’t have a real policy [00:06:00] debate about this stuff. And it’s really a tough, terrible situation.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. A few years ago, there was a study that came out that showed that when you look at what politicians think about the voters that they represent, they seem to see them as far more conservative than they actually are. And it was interesting that not only did Republicans think that, but also Democrats thought that as well. Did you happen to see that study? Do you remember what I’m talking about?

SARGENT: I don’t know if I saw that particular study, but I’m definitely aware of the phenomenon you’re talking about.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Yeah. And basically the thesis behind that was, it was related to an earlier study, which showed that public policy outcomes that we have in America are not really linked to voters’ sentiment. They’re linked to large donors’ sentiment. Because a lot of politicians don’t really regularly interface with the public. They don’t know what the public thinks about things.

And the people that they predominantly are talking to, and it seems like in the case of Kyrsten Sinema, the only people she talks to outside of her actual congressional colleagues are people at fundraisers. And so they don’t seem to want these policies.

SARGENT: Can I just point out how incredible it is, the degree to which she’s just flaunting this stuff is really quite extraordinary? And I think is contributing to a lot of the real frustration with her. And, frankly, the bafflement about what she stands for.

And nobody seems to know. She keeps putting out these statements and signals that: ‘Yeah, I’m actually, contrary to what you’ve heard, I’ve told Democrats exactly what I want. And I’ve told the White House exactly what I want.’ Okay. Tell us! Nothing.

SHEFFIELD: What does the White House say to those statements that she’s not negotiating in the press and that she has told them what she wants. What does the White House say to that?

SARGENT: The White House is, understandably, being really cautious about this stuff. As you pointed out at the outset, one of the absolutely critical things about this situation is the narrowness of Democratic majorities. So in a situation where one senator like [00:08:00] Kyrsten Sinema can bring the entire Biden agenda crashing down, then they really can’t frontally engage in the press about something like that.

What they’ll say privately is that discussions are ongoing. She has signaled stuff. Sometimes what they’ll say is: ‘We think some of the reporting is a little off on her position. We don’t think she’s drawn as hard a line as she has.’ Which is very encouraging to hear.

And I do think actually there is something to the idea that we should take some of those reporting with a grain of salt. I don’t think we should overreact to every little detail about her drawing a supposedly red line on this or that. I don’t know if we should react too much to that stuff.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And going back to the, the institutional problem that Biden and Chuck Schumer and other Democrats are facing that doesn’t really get a lot of play in the mainstream press is that the Republican Party, basically, is opposed to everything. And if you look at the Republican Party’s legislative outcomes during the Trump presidency, they were only able to come up with one unique partisan bill, which was the tax cut bill. And they’ll sometimes talk about: ‘Oh, we had the criminal justice reform,’ but actually that was an initiative created by Democrats. They just went along with it.

SARGENT: Can I make a point about what you just brought up that I think is actually something that is often missed, and it’s a really crucial thing that you point to. The fact that Republicans oppose everything always that Democrats are trying to do. That has an additional effect, which I think is really problematic for Democrats.

And it’s this: It becomes understood by the press that Republican opposition is just a given. And then the result of that is that it just fades into the background as a factor in the story.

And that has a couple of different negative effects, I think for both Democrats and for public understanding. One is that because Republicans always do this, it’s no longer news and it’s no longer noteworthy or [00:10:00] even something that gets talked about how radical and crazy it is of Republicans to simply oppose everything always.

And so that just disappears. It literally vanishes from the conversation. And the second is that against that kind of backdrop, it’s almost like that becomes a background condition of our politics. And against that backdrop, Democratic infighting becomes the only story. And I think that’s really a problematic dynamic and a bunch of us tweet about this pretty regularly.

We try to point out that Republican conduct is a thing that should be scrutinized also, and shouldn’t just be accepted as like a natural and inevitable fact of life.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think that’s, it’s certainly correct that it’s not news that they’re doing this and maybe there’s some disinclination.

But I think one of the other factors is that, what people may not know is that a lot of the reporting out of Capitol Hill inside gossip and things like that actually comes from right wing Republicans they’re the biggest leakers on Capitol Hill. In the Trump White House, Steve Bannon was the number one leaker. He leaked almost more than everybody else put together.

SARGENT: Well you know this universe better than I do.

SHEFFIELD: And so to some degree, they don’t want to burn their sources because how various reporters know what’s going on, is that well, the, some of the most extreme and crazy members told them what was going on. I don’t think that’s–

SARGENT: Right and that’s a really crucial point, right? I guess it becomes very hard for reporters to tell the basic truth about Republicans.

Because if you do that, it’s going to be very negative and it’s going to cost them sources. One thing that I’ve been noticing lately that I think is going to become more of a thing going forward, is that you start to see, you’re starting to see news accounts basically register the fact that if Republicans take the House, they’ll almost certainly impeach Biden.

And so we know that there’s pressure on McCarthy to commit to this already. This has been reported, but what doesn’t come [00:12:00] through in the coverage is how insane that is. That they would decide well in advance to impeach Biden basically because he won the 2020 election.

And so the result is that the coverage just treats this neutrally as just a base. It’s just like they’re observing the sunrise or something. Republicans are going to impeach Biden. If Republicans win the House, they’ll impeach Biden. And it’s basically a fact at this point. And it just gets treated like something normal. And by the way, I can say, this is not like a bunch of just backbench crazies saying this.

It’s being discussed at the very highest levels of the House Republican conference. So it’s not the same. The both sides take will always be something like, ‘Oh, look this Democrat and that Democrat said they wanted to impeach this Republican president.’ But here we’re like, we’re, 15 months or so in advance. Republicans at the highest levels are talking about impeaching Biden automatically. And I just think that’s just deeply misleading to people.

SHEFFIELD: Now to some degree, I think you could say that Democratic leaders have some responsibility for that not being talked about. Because, to a large extent, the press only repeats things that the leaders say. And if the Democratic leadership doesn’t talk about Republican obstruction on a regular basis, then what angle would there be for news, quote unquote?

SARGENT: A hundred percent. I think that’s a really important point. And it’s one that a bunch of us have made regularly, which is that, both the press and Democrats have a responsibility to level with the public about what’s happening with the Republican Party now.

And you put your finger on an important point, which is that Democrats generally refrain from going hard into this stuff. And that’s a source of eternal frustration for people in my space and a bunch of us like, Brian Beutler of Crooked Media writes about this pretty regularly and very eloquently.

Democrats should be leaning into prosecuting the case against Republican radicalization for a number of reasons. One [00:14:00] is that they should be telling the public and their own voters the truth about what’s happening. The other is it would get the press, as you say, to focus on it more instead of just treating it as a background condition of our politics.

SHEFFIELD: And one aspect of that isn’t known is that even the Republican electorate themselves don’t really buy into a lot of this far-right nonsense. Just looking at a COVID-19 vaccination, Fox News and other right wing media are obsessed with trying to protect and promote anti-vax people.

But if you look at who the anti-vax people are, so people who are going to say they’re gonna refuse vaccination in polls. The Kaiser Family Foundation did a poll recently about that. They’ve been polling about it continuously in the pandemic. They found that 23% of Republican adults say they will not get a vaccine.

So let’s not even a fourth of Republican voters. But they are driving the entire right wing media. And nobody ever points this out on the Democratic side.

SARGENT: Yeah, I think that’s right. And also that creates yet another problem, which is that. And I think that here, the press is pretty directly complicit. And I guess you could argue that Democrats could force the issue a little more. But regardless, the problem is that the press often covers the vaccine debate as, quote unquote, polarized. Lost in that discussion is what you just pointed out, which is that even among Republicans, it’s a marginal position. The anti-vax position is a marginal position.

But if it gets called polarized, the strong impression that people who don’t pay close attention get is: ‘Oh, the country is divided down the middle on this. And so the anti-vax position, maybe isn’t that radical, right? It sounds if the country’s divided in half, then half the country is anti-vax.’

And I do fault the press for that. This is really something that they should not do. You constantly [00:16:00] see it too. It’s very deeply baked into a lot of the coverage that we see. You’ll have a poll that finds a 70-30 issue with large majorities of Democrats and large majorities of independents on one side, and then on the other, large majorities of Republicans, and then the press will say, ‘there are deep partisan divisions on this issue.’

OK, that’s true if you just compare Democrats and Republicans, but if you also bring independents into the equation, it’s a 70-30 issue. And we all rant and rage about this all the time, and it never changes.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And some of it, I think also is that, a lot of people who are doing DC political reporting, they don’t have a strong historical background. They don’t have an interest in political philosophy or public policy. And so they just don’t have the capacity to cover something in a more meaningful way and provide larger context because they simply don’t know what the context is.

SARGENT: And there were very deeply baked-in professional incentives to say things like the debate is polarized.

SHEFFIELD: What do you mean by that?

SARGENT: A major news organization really has to be careful not to be called out as biased against conservatives. This is something you know as well as anybody, right?

SHEFFIELD: Probably a little more considering I started NewsBusters.

SARGENT: I’d love to hear from you on this actually. I mean, as I wrote about in my book, the right has spent 50 years softening this ground up. You know that story, tell it to us from the inside.

SHEFFIELD: So going back to, let’s say before Franklin Roosevelt, the press basically was just a stenography service. So they would show up, they’d say whatever the person said who was the president.

And then there were also partisan controlled newspapers. So you had, literally the Springfield Republican or the Arkansas Democrat et cetera. And over time, the people who owned these newspapers decided, ‘why should we restrict ourselves to just one audience?’ And so they decided ‘we’re going to be a newspaper for [00:18:00] everyone.’

And so that’s how the mainstream press kind of got started. And then after Roosevelt came along and started doing a lot of New Deal policies, which were extremely popular you had a faction of people who really hated these policies, even though they were very popular.

They were so popular that, the west part of the United state, the Western part of the United States, which was historically always Republican, it started electing Democrats. And that was never seen before. And so these anti New Deal people decided ‘we’re going to have to start getting our voices out.’

So they started Human Events, which was the first national conservative outlet. And, just started attacking the New Deal, started attacking Roosevelt in various ways. And that kind of set the mold for what later became conservative media is that it wasn’t designed to find the truth. It was designed to be advocacy oriented.

And so that’s like National Review. The magazine got started in the 1950s because they hated Dwight Eisenhower, and they wanted to get rid of him. Even though Eisenhower was literally the last universally beloved figure in American politics, hasn’t been one since, a president with that kind of sustained love for him. But they hated him.

And so they basically, they wanted to demand that the mainstream press relay their viewpoints. And to some degree, it’s a paradox because conservatives didn’t have policies. They just didn’t have them.

So this idea that this is something new of Republicans being against everything, it’s not true. It’s actually how they were from the very beginning. Like their education policy for a long time was, ‘Get rid of the Department of Education, that’s our policy.’ And their policy on Social Security: ‘Get rid of Social Security.’ Their policy on Medicare: ‘Get rid of it.’

That was the attitude. And so–

SARGENT: Blow up the whole New Deal regime.

SHEFFIELD: That’s right. And then blow up the Great Society when that came along with [Lyndon] Johnson. But it created this problem for them in that, because they had no policies, they couldn’t rightfully demand that anybody talk about them. Or are they still wanted people to talk about it, but [00:20:00] the media don’t get into, as we’ve discussed here today, don’t get into larger ideological and philosophical debates because they don’t understand them. They don’t know them and they don’t care about them.

Every time I would go to conservative conferences as a speaker, people would always say: ‘How come you never start from first principles? Why don’t you tell us what you think about the Constitution and the founding fathers?’

‘How is that even relevant to what we’re talking about here? We’re talking today about websites.’ Or something like that.’

And they’d always say: ‘Because it flows from everything, everything goes down from what you think about the founders.’

And I’d say: ‘No, not really. Plus I probably agree with you anyway. So why are you asking me? Let’s talk about something new.’

But anyway, so they started pressuring a lot of reporters to talk about their ideas more. And some of it, was, I think, Richard Nixon who really got this integrated into Republican politics there was a lot of animus toward him in the mainstream press for exposing Alger Hiss, who, as it turned out actually was a communist. And so there was some antagonism toward Nixon, but on the other hand, he was an inveterate corrupt, thoroughly dishonest person. So kind of makes sense that he would get a lot of criticism.

Conservative politics doesn’t really have a sense of morality. That’s the irony is that a lot of people don’t get. So for instance, Stan Evans, who was a very popular conservative author for a long time, he used to say, I hated Nixon until Watergate.

And it wasn’t entirely a joke. That’s the thing.


SHEFFIELD: It wasn’t.

SARGENT: A version of ‘own the libs.’

SHEFFIELD: That’s right. That’s right. And so what I think a lot of people have missed about the loyalty that Trump commands of various Republicans is that Trump actually ran as a kind of bellicose, moderate Republican. That’s actually what he ran on. He ran on raising taxes on rich people, on closing the carried interest loophole. He ran on creating a medical system that will, quote, take care of everyone.

SARGENT: Can I just throw something in there?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, go ahead.

SARGENT: That I think about a lot is [00:22:00] how he went after all those Republicans at one of the debates on this and said, I’m not letting people die in the streets. Remember that?

It was a really in retrospect, a really important quote. I mean it was a direct shot at Paul Ryan’s ‘hammock theory’ of the welfare state, which was, for a lot of conservatives at the time, at least in the sort of, Paul Ryan/Ayn Rand libertarian space was a serious affront.

SHEFFIELD: Well that’s why they hated him. Yeah. That’s what Never Trump was originally about.

SARGENT: And it’s true. One interesting nuance that I’ve often thought about too, is that if you looked at its actual tax plan, it, it did cut taxes on the rich if I recall, but at the same time [during the primaries], so that was the thing for the donors, because it was on paper and white papers and stuff like that.

But at the same time, he did exactly what you’re talking about, which is: ‘Those hedge fund guys,I know them, I know these guys, they’re not going to get away with this shit anymore.’ And it was really an interesting straddle. And it was really striking how quickly he sold that out.

SHEFFIELD: For a long time, there was a moderate Republican shops that existed out there with the Rippon Society and other people who worked in the bureaucracy in bipartisan fashions, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan worked for Richard Nixon who was a Democrat. They existed, but basically, moderate Republicans got canceled.

That’s the thing that I just love about this whole ‘cancel culture’ discussion is conservative Republicans invented cancel culture. They’re the ones who started all of it by going after moderate Republicans first.

And then they decided to start going after people for being gay and trying to get them fired in the 1970s. That was a thing. And they never stopped trying to cancel moderate Republicans. How they talk about Mitt Romney. And Trump going after anybody who dared vote for impeaching him.

SARGENT: I was just going to point out that it’s really interesting where that’s migrated to. It’s now migrated to canceling people who think that a violent effort to overthrow U.S. democracy, and block a legitimately elected government from [00:24:00] taking over is the unacceptable position.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah I mentioned Nixon in this context. I mentioned what Nixon was doing was that he was not able to stay in office because he was not loyal to conservatives all the time. So while he was in line with corrupt conservative activists in terms of spying and things like that, in policy, he was actually, a moderate in a lot of ways. He created the EPA, you know, instituted some price controls here and there. He did a number of things that were hated by the far right. And when you look at Trump, Trump basically said I can’t do anything by myself here. And rather than try to reach out with the Democrats, I’m just going to go and do what these people are — Paul Ryan gave him the agenda.

He literally made it before the election and said ‘Okay, we’re going to do this no matter who is the president.’ And Trump at first was offended at that, that this guy was trying to tell him what to do, but that’s what he went with. And he did. And then once Paul Ryan got what he wanted, he retired.

SARGENT: Right. What’s striking to me about that is that even the Trumpist true believer types just completely rolled over for that. There’s an interview that Bannon gave in 2017, or just after Trump won. I’m not exactly sure what date it was, but I still think about it.

He was going on and on about how with Trump in the White House, they were going to pursue a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure plan. And I think he said something like we’re going to throw trillions at shipyards. And he had some sort of strange dated concept of industrial policy slash infrastructure.

But the broader point was, he said we’re going to do this, and it’s going to drive conservatives crazy. And we’re going to build a new populist, working-class, multi-racial movement.


SARGENT: By the way. He’s still using that. Just in Virginia the other day he said, we’re going to build our movement. It’s going to run the country for a hundred years. And he’s talking about that same kind of populist– [00:26:00]

SHEFFIELD: A hundred year reich.

SARGENT: Yeah. I guess that’s it .

But what’s striking to me is that there’s the guy who was the keeper of the Trumpist populist flame. And even he didn’t really push for going after the hedge fund guys and so forth, even after he appeared to believe in this stuff. He got immediately sidetracked into that Muslim ban fiasco. If you remember, one of the very first things they did was put together the Muslim ban memo and it was an utter disaster.

It crashed, it was completely sloppy and handled terribly. They ultimately got some, they got it through. But what that shows to me, as someone who is curious, I’m conservative-populist curious in a way, because they have a critique that, in some ways, is worth listening to.

But what that says to me is that there’s not really much to that ideology. All they really care about is reducing the number of immigrants here, and fighting about trade, but for nationalist purposes, because they’re demagoguing China. There’s not an actual coherent theory underneath it all, even though they kind of posture that way.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And the first two real actions of Trump and Bannon really do illustrate where they’re coming from. So in Bannon’s case, something people don’t know about Bannon is that he doesn’t really have any core beliefs other than that he’s Jesus’s servant. And that he’s trying to oppose what he believes to be sort of a globalistic, satanic forces.

He’s basically like a more verbose QAnon-type person. That’s essentially what he is. And slightly more sophisticated in terms of that he sees China and Islam and cultural leftism all being a part of some sort of satanic conspiracy. And he said, this this is not me exaggerating his beliefs. He’s said this.


SHEFFIELD: And nobody pays attention to — I mean he makes five-hour speeches and no one bothers to listen to him. But if you actually listen or read him, that’s what he says. He really sees what he was doing with that Muslim ban as [00:28:00] his first priority, stopping Satan’s minions, Muslims.

SARGENT: That’s interesting. The closing ad that Trump ran at the very end of the [2016] campaign, I go back and watch it once in a while, just remind myself what they actually ran on. And I would strongly recommend to you and your readers that you do that because it really captures exactly what you’re talking about.

It’s given some soft edges for obvious reasons, but it’s, it’s got everything. It’s got the dark hoards coming across the border from south. It’s got the terrorists. It’s got the elite bankers running the world, the globalist elite cabal. It’s really striking and just absolutely nauseating stuff.

But they really ran on that.


SARGENT: What you’re talking about. And then that sort of became the stuff that migrated to “great replacement theory” and even found its way into the heads of some people who went and shot up a bunch of people, if you recall.

SHEFFIELD: Oh yeah. Yeah. Now I will say in fairness to Biden that, he has talked about Republican radicalism or hypocrisy. When Biden first announced the policy that they were going to make OSHA require large employers to have employees be either vaccinated or submit to weekly (Covid) tests. He also mentioned, ‘Oh, and by the way, Fox News does this. But after that he stopped.

I think maybe it was mentioned in one, he mentioned it one other time since that moment, which was like a month ago. And it’s such a stark contrast when you look at the way that Republicans and Democrats think about messaging.


SHEFFIELD: So Trump is constantly repeating these same phrases: Make America Great, Build the Wall, Drain the Swamp.

Everything is reduced to these, very short, easy to remember lines. And in many cases, the phrases are indistinct enough that they can mean whatever you want them to mean. Drain the swamp, that can mean anything. And so you can project your own morality, your own desires onto that.

SARGENT: That’s extremely critical.

SHEFFIELD: And it’s very effective. Yeah. [00:30:00] And whereas Democrats just don’t do that.

SARGENT: Yeah. I think actually, your point about Biden can be fleshed out a little more, because if you think about what Biden ran on, he got very close to that type of visceral rhetoric. I thought that was really interesting stuff at the convention speech, when he said, it’s essentially, it’s light or darkness.

And if you recall, the entire rationale for his candidacy was the radicalization of the right. Started out with Charlottesville and restoring the soul of the nation and white supremacy. And there were times where the typical Democratic instinct to not engage the stuff frontally and viscerally kicked in.

But when they were really on the defensive over the police protests, right? When there was some unrest and when Trump and Republicans were really going hard over defund the police and stuff, they got back to that place where the entire campaign was about Republican radicalization and how dangerous and dark it is, by running ads that really pushed back hard.

So they stood by the protests, disavowed defund the police, but critically, they ran some really hard-hitting stuff, which essentially painted Trump and white supremacist violence as the real threat to law and order.

And when Democrats can figure out how to really take this stuff on in a visceral way, and essentially say: ‘You know what? They’re the dangerous radicals. Just look at these lunatics rioting in the streets and driving their trucks to run Biden off the road.’ That’s when they can really, I think take the steam out of that type of visceral right-wing politics that you’re talking about.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. But one of the other ways of stopping some of this radicalism is taking away some of the legal methods that were used. And that’s something that you’ve been writing a lot about. So let’s talk about that. So [00:32:00] give us the background first with John Eastman and what he was doing and how people are trying to counteract that.

SARGENT: Oh, you want to talk about John Eastman? I was thinking you were talking about debt limit, but yeah, John Eastman. John Eastman wrote the now-infamous Trump coup memo, which outlined the quote unquote, superficially legal way that Mike Pence could simply ignore federal law by declaring the Electoral Count Act unconstitutional. And then could use his supposedly unilateral power given to him by the Twelfth Amendment to essentially not count the legitimate Biden electors and make Trump the president.

And interestingly, there’s been a lot of analysis of this that’s pointed out that it’s a terrible legal reading, but as far as I can tell the Claremont Institute of which John Eastman is a big part, hasn’t really disavowed the underlying legal theory there. And neither has Eastman.

And there’s some new reporting that’s just out which says that Mike Pence’s top advisors were much more forceful in saying that the legal theory was complete bunk. Then we had previously known. Now, I’m a little skeptical of that, because other reporting says that they took it very seriously, and they tried to make it true.

But, the fact that Pence’s people now want it to be understood that they saw this as an entirely illegitimate legal theory from top to bottom, I think should create an opening for all of us to get more conservative legal types on the record saying this. Let’s just kill that zombie legal theory right now. Because plenty of Republicans are clearly open to doing whatever it takes to overturn an election in 2024 and maybe later.

And so whatever ways that we can find to cut off any pathways to that, I think we should be jumping at.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And now there is actual legislation. But as I understand it, there are [00:34:00] no Republicans willing to–

SARGENT: You mean the Electoral Act revisions?

SHEFFIELD: That’s right. Yeah.

SARGENT: Yeah. So it’s in its very early stages. I’ve done some reporting on this. There’s a version in the Senate and the House Democrats want to do something too. As far as I’ve been able to determine, there’s not an actual bill on the House side. Although I think there is one on the Senate.

The complication is that revising the Electoral Account Act is really complicated and really wouldn’t necessarily cut off every pathway, but you could certainly do a lot that way. And the technical details are too boring to go into. But as far as I know, I have not heard a single Republican senator voice support for doing this.

And can I point to an irony about this debate? What I don’t get is, if I’m a Republican who legitimately would never dream of overturning an election the way Eastman wanted. Or in some other way, by say, sending an alternate slate of electors and having a Republican House count those or whatever, if I’m a Republican on the state level, who doesn’t want to come under pressure to send rogue electors, fake electors to Congress, or if I’m a Republican in Congress who doesn’t want to be pressured to count the fake electors, instead of the real ones, I would want to revise the Electoral Count Act and cut off a situation in which I’m under pressure.

Why wouldn’t Republicans of good faith, and there are plenty of them who don’t want to overturn an election. And this is something you could speak to better than I can. Why is that there’s simply no space in that party for doing the very thing that would protect them from coming under pressure to do what they don’t want to do?

SHEFFIELD: Well, I would say that the reason they don’t do that, is that basically Republican politicians only think about their primaries. That’s because in many cases, especially the House, but actually in lots of Senate seats they’re safe Republicans. Democrats are going to have a hard [00:36:00] time running somebody in Wyoming or, somebody in Idaho, or Utah, or whatever.

And so the primary is the only thing that really matters to them. And for that reason, they’re constantly afraid of being overthrown in a primary by some far-right lunatic. You can just go through the list. There are so many Republicans over the decades who have been thrown out.

For instance Bob Bennett, who was a long-serving senator from Utah was voted out in the primary by Mike Lee. Actually it wasn’t even a primary it was their convention. So Utah Republicans have this very strange dual-track system, but the far right in Utah was able to get Bob Bennett thrown out and then, and you have in Virginia where that happened. Eric Cantor was replaced.

But the thing is, that sort of thing is possible. And especially in these midterm election primaries, which have very low participation. I think that a lot of progressives are not aware of is that, the entire conservative organizing model is built on avoiding majoritarianism. And it’s been that way from day one.


SHEFFIELD: So like for instance, you’ve got Paul Weyrich who actually was probably more influential than William F. Buckley in terms of Republican politics. Because he created the Heritage Foundation. He created ALEC. He created the Religious Right. This guy was just insanely productive.

SARGENT: Can I just say that it’s one thing to avoid majoritarianism, and obviously there are plenty of ways to do that, right? Voter suppression, or extreme gerrymanders and so forth, or malapportionment and which is already baked into the structure. But that’s another, I just love the way we just accept it as a basic fact of our political life that right-wing primary voters are going to insist that they are able to overturn a presidential election. Otherwise the person who doesn’t want to do that, shouldn’t be tossed out. We just accept this as it’s a background condition of politics now. [00:38:00]

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, it’s awful. But here’s the thing though, is this isn’t a Trump thing. So I’m actually at Flux going to publish a column looking at the history of this. That far-right organizing was predicated before they took over the Republican Party on exactly what John Eastman tried to do. So the Strom Thurmond 1948 Dixiecrat candidacy, where segregationist Democrats who later became Republicans decided: ‘We don’t like what this pro civil rights stuff is. We’re gonna start our own party.

And they literally took it over, the Democratic Party in the South. So it wasn’t even a third party. With the intent of throwing the election to the House and having it go their way and using their leverage that way. So that was the Strom Thurmond strategy. That was the strategy of George Wallace in 1968. And there were other people that tried this to varying degrees before, ultimately, the Republican Party kind of knuckled under in 1980.

But that was also how they took control of the Republican Party as well. So like in 1964, with Barry Goldwater where the far right was able to make inroads into the GOP, they didn’t do it through a majority of Republicans. And that’s part of why Barry Goldwater got destroyed so badly in 1964 was that a lot of Republicans were like, I don’t like this guy.

And in, so that was a part of how primaries became acceptable to Republicans, because Barry Goldwater in many cases was just appointed the nominee by conventions by party insiders.

And so, a lot of Republicans were upset about that and they said, ‘I don’t want to do this again. This guy is, was, insane. And I didn’t vote for him. So let’s have a primary.’

But anyway, so that’s a long way of saying that majoritarianism has always been optional to conservatives in the United States, and it’s because, well their program is fundamentally anti-democratic. But the thing is, because this history isn’t talked about, as you said, that people don’t know it.

And so if you ask the average Republican voter, do you know [00:40:00] that your party wants to eliminate the Department of Education? Do you know that your party who wants to throw 10 million people off of Medicaid? Do you know that? And they don’t know that.

SARGENT: Yeah, there’s a there’s a, there was actually, this made the rounds. I think it was during the Romney-Ryan ticket. Some Democratic groups along with the Democratic Party actually focused grouped on some of this. And one of the things that emerged was that voters didn’t believe that Romney and Ryan had the position that they actually had.

SHEFFIELD: Because you never hear about it.

SARGENT: On the safety net in particular, when they were told the Republican Party wants to too deeply cut taxes on the rich, and then slash the safety net to ribbons, and they didn’t put it that way, they told them what the actual policies were. And they didn’t believe it. And they benefit from that.

It’s interesting because that’s like a way in which extreme radicalization actually fortifies itself, almost perversely.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And if you look at Republican electioneering, pretty much any year, certainly this year, you look at in Virginia with Glenn Youngkin, the GOP gubernatorial candidate there versus Terry McAuliffe. The only thing that Glenn Youngkin talks about is “critical race theory.” And he can’t define it. He’s actually said he’s not going to even bother trying. And I’ve talked about this to conservative friends that I still am in contact with because well, after I made my change, a lot of people have blocked me on Twitter and elsewhere, needless to say.

But for those people who I’m still in contact with, I was talking to one of them the other day, and he said: ‘The Democratic Party is the extreme party. Don’t you realize that? Look at what they were doing with the Black Lives Matter protests?’

And I said: ‘Are you aware that the person who shot up the police station in Milwaukee was a right-wing activist? Did you know that?’ No, he didn’t know that. And I asked him, are you aware of what’s going on in these school board meetings where people are engaging in numerous acts of violence across [00:42:00] school boards, threatening school officials, he never heard it.

And there is a real information problem. People have talked to some degree about the prominence of fake news and things like that, fabrications. But in many cases, the crisis that we have is that people don’t know things that are true, and they’ve never heard of it.

SARGENT: You could speak to this, from having experienced the conservative media from the inside, isn’t one of the, crowning successes that they achieved to create this information bubble in which such things simply don’t exist?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah but here’s the paradox — they weren’t actually trying to do that.

That’s the weird thing. They were just simply trying to, promote their viewpoints. One of the unwritten stories of DC, and maybe I’ll do a magazine article at some point, there are so many people in journalism, mainstream journalism, who started off in right-wing media actually. Including two of your colleagues, at least two of your colleagues. Jennifer Rubin and you have Dave Weigel, both of them started off in right-wing media. And, as they and I found, and many others have found, that you can’t be an independent reporter and working in right-wing media.

Your goal is to promote Republicans and to serve them and to be their functionary, to be their lackey. And if you have any sort of independence or intellectualism, that’s abhorrent to you, and you walk away.

SARGENT: What’s interesting to me that you say that, because that was really driven home to me early on when the left-wing media and the right wing media were in their early internet stages.

When I was working at places like Talking Points Memo, and writing for the American Prospect, one thing that was striking to me was that for neutral media observers, who hadn’t really figured out the new landscape yet, they just saw the right-wing media and the left-wing media as just equivalently in lock step with their respective [00:44:00] parties.

And being on the inside of the left-wing media, I understood that it really wasn’t true. And some conservatives have conceded this to me in an interesting way, too. Our goal, the way we saw it, was we were holding the Democratic Party accountable. And, I think a lot of this is structurally built into what was happening at the time.

If you remember when the net roots or whatever you want to call them, was really taking off, this was

SHEFFIELD: That’s the early blogs, just for those who don’t know the term.

SARGENT: Right. We’re now at the point where people aren’t even gonna know the term net roots, it’s a dated term. We’re dating ourselves, man.

At the time, it was George Bush and the left-wing net roots essentially saw itself as pushing the mainstream press to hold Bush accountable on Iraq. I’m simplifying, but this is basically what it was. But also holding the Democratic Party accountable in the sense that we pushed very hard to get the Democratic Party to be more aggressive with Bush on Iraq.

The left-wing media really derived its energy, in some sense, in some ways, oppositional to the Democrats. And agreeing with them a lot of the time too, and attacking the mainstream media for unfair coverage of Democratic policies and so forth.

But there was a real imbalance there because the right-wing media wasn’t really holding the Republican Party accountable in the same way.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that’s true. Although not everybody started off that way, I would say. So in the early conservative blog world, there were people who actually were trying to do what you were trying to do.

SARGENT: Who were the early ones who were good?

SHEFFIELD: Let’s say James Joyner, who had the website Outside the Beltway, he was an example of that. And I think early on, he’s become much more lockstep Republican now, but early on, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit was more independent-oriented. He took a much more libertarian line compared to a Republican line.

SARGENT: That’s right. His early blog was pretty [00:46:00] interesting if I remember right.

SHEFFIELD: But there’s a larger problem in American politics in that because the Republican Party is effectively controlled by this roughly about 10% of Americans that have these reactionary far-right views, that they completely control one party. And so people who don’t agree with those, so 90% of the public, kind of have to just de facto exist in this other major party. And it’s a real flaw of our first-past-the- post, single candidate system. And it creates these issues like Democrats are seeing with Sinema and Manchin because, effectively when it comes to opposing things, Republicans operate in a parliamentary system of where there’s discipline and rigid obedience to the party line.

But Democrats don’t do that. And so it makes it a lot harder for Democrats to do something positive. And in fact, their case to the public is ‘we make government work, unlike these other guys.’ It creates this fundamental issue and I think ultimately what may be the long-term solution for that is for people to get into Republican politics and do it as anti-conservative so as moderate, because moderate Republicans do exist, but they have no method of organizing and no money.

And basically you have this party that’s mentally dead and it’s a zombie that’s eating America. (laughter)

SARGENT: I’ll tell you, I’m very interested in what some of these Never Trumpers are doing for kind of this reason. I know everybody on the liberal side mocks them and just says, ‘LOL Cheney is a warmonger, why would you listen to her about democracy?’ Or ‘LOL Adam Kinzinger voted against the, Democratic voting rights act.’

I think that’s wrong. I think they’re wrong to look at it that way. To me, we want people like Liz Cheney, and Adam Kinzinger, and Bill Kristol, and so forth out there essentially saying: ‘You know what? We can’t [00:48:00] overturn legitimate democratic outcomes, and a party that does that is not a legitimate actor in a democracy.

And so what they’ll (liberals) tell me is: ‘Well, they’re undermining voting rights. And so they’re still harming democracy.’

And what I say to that is, okay, that’s a disagreement about the rules of political competition, and that I think they’re wrong to be pro voter suppression or at least, anti voting rights legislation.

But at least they will respect the outcome of an election when it happens. And that’s why I would encourage more Republicans, and I don’t know what the right word is even. Aren’t they more real conservatives in a way?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. I mean you could, yeah. What is regarded as conservatism, it’s not conservatism. It’s reactionary.

SARGENT: Right, conservatives versus reactionaries

SHEFFIELD: And we keep seeing these linkages between various, yeah. Like the Freedom Caucus is the furthest-right Republican caucus in the House. Many of their members have links to, are friends with white nationalists, are friends with neo-Nazis. They promote them, they go to their events.

So to call somebody who does that a conservative, it’s ridiculous. That’s the paradox though, is that for people who want a stable government that is more responsive to public needs, it’s an emergency situation, but at the same time, people also don’t want you to freak out about it, which is, it’s weird.

Like how can you have an emergency? But I guess on the other hand, if there’s a fire, you shouldn’t be running around and screaming like your head’s bleeding. So that’s the situation we’re in, right?

SARGENT: And it’s all exacerbated by what we started out talking about, which is the press’s inability to register that deep asymmetry.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly.

All right. I’m sure we could do this for a lot longer, but I don’t want to take too much of your time here. Is there anything that you want to add before we end the show here today that we talked about maybe before, but I didn’t ask you.

SARGENT: I would love to ask you how you converted, if I could.

SHEFFIELD: [00:50:00] Oh, okay. So basically I started off as a fundamentalist Mormon, not like the polygamy kind, but just very strict. And got to the point where I just didn’t believe it anymore. But I still had picked up Republican politics from it. And so I quit Mormonism and tried to build space for secular conservatives or non-Christian conservatives, so Muslims, and I supported same-sex marriage, and I also supported abortion before viability.

So I basically, it was trying to create a space for moderate, actual conservatives. So I created several different organizations. And got to the point where I, felt like I had learned a few things about conservative philosophy and the history of it. And how actually, if you look at the people who created America, and created conservatism like David Hume or Montesquieu, who is the most cited philosopher by the founders. George Washington, James Madison, like Thomas Jefferson, they weren’t Christians. And in some cases like Hume, they were anti-Christian in terms of their beliefs.

So I started writing a book where I talked about that history and that philosophy and how Republicans should be open to different perspectives other than white Christians.

And I started showing my manuscript to people, because I didn’t want them to be, be a surprise for them who were, kind of the Family Research Council Christians. And tell them that, I’m not telling you to go away. I’m telling you to be more tolerant. And unbeknownst to me, they wouldn’t talk about it with me. So I gave them the manuscript.

And one of them was a colleague of mine and actually of my firm’s clients. He started trying to get me fired after that. For daring to say that gay people should have a right to exist and not be bothered by them. And then I also started producing a TV show, a syndicated comedy TV show at that same time because I’d heard all the complaints about ‘ oh, Jon Stewart’s so mean. Stephen Colbert is so mean. Why would anyone ever let us make jokes?’

So I had a partner and a funder and we said, okay we’ll do it.

And my partner actually had experience producing [00:52:00] club comedy. And so he came up with something and what we found was that we had no support at all from right-wing media because we didn’t go through the proper channels to do it.

So Fox News actually banned their people from appearing on our show. They they wouldn’t allow them to do it. And then we had other people who just simply, they were not willing to promote anything we were doing because we didn’t have the right. We were not going through the right-wing funder donor network.

And also I think some people didn’t like that we made jokes about Republicans sometimes on the show. Can’t have that.

And writing that book and, getting people trying to cancel me for writing it and then getting no support for the show, it made me realize: ‘Wow, this thing that I thought I was a part of and was working with and, that it was a movement. It wasn’t anything of the sort.

It’s just people out there trying to shove their religious viewpoint on everyone else. And I decided that I can’t, I’m not going to publish this book. And so I withdrew my manuscript. I had an informal deal with one of the big houses to publish it. And I just, decided I, I don’t believe in a lot of it anymore. And in fact, I’d want to oppose a lot of these people who I learned about.

Because that’s the thing that, and I mentioned this earlier, that a lot of people who work in Republican politics, even like the actual pundits, they don’t know how radical their donors are. They don’t know, they simply do not. And you could argue they choose not to pay attention, or maybe they just don’t have time for it.

Whatever reason, they don’t know what their people want. The Mercer family, just total extremist people. And the average Republican journalist doesn’t know that. Doesn’t want to know it. And it was like I had been planting a garden around a grave site and didn’t know it was a grave site. And then I found dead bodies there and there was just. (laughter)

And it was just repulsive to me. And so I walked away from it. And it’s been hard to some degree, because people in the [00:54:00] mainstream press, they don’t know that I’ve built, multiple sites with millions of readers and actually know what I’m talking about when it comes to right wing media.

And I don’t have an Ivy League degree or anything like that. And I never had a fancy internship or any friends that worked in various places that were editors. And it’s been hard to some degree since I walked away from it.

And the fact that I won’t say that Trump did this. Because, unfortunately, that is something that has come in demand for some people who walked away from the Republican Party. That they’ll, like Joe Scarborough, great example. That this guy, he personally was involved in promoting right-wing radicalism. He’s never admitted it. He’s never apologized for it. And he wants people who are on the center left to just think: ‘Oh, look at Trump did. Trump did this. Look at what he did.’ And that’s a lie and I’m not going to lie.

SARGENT: That’s interesting. The Lincoln Project guys have actually been pretty forthright about this.

SHEFFIELD: In their own personal involvement? You think?

SARGENT: Yeah, yeah.

SHEFFIELD: I guess I haven’t seen that.

SARGENT: Unfortunately, his name is escaping me right now and it’ll probably come to you very quickly. It’s the former McCain guy. Well, Rick Wilson has copped to it. He’s admitted that white race-baiting politics helped lay the groundwork for Donald Trump. And that he had a hand in that, which I thought was pretty interesting.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Good. I, yeah, for awhile they were resisting that.

SARGENT: Yeah, for sure. They were. Yeah. And I think, a bunch of us pressed them on it. I actually know Rick from the old New York days, he worked for Giuliani way back when. I don’t think a lot of people know that.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah and he’s only gotten worse since then, hasn’t he?.

SARGENT: Yeah. Quite. Yeah. People who’ve followed him closely in New York as I did (because I was working in journalism at the time when he was married at the very end), understood how crazy he was at the time.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I’ve heard that he’s, hasn’t really changed that he’s always been this deranged.

SARGENT: He’s always been crazy. And he’s always been really rabid about his critics. And he’s always been a really pathological liar too. Just lie in the faces of [00:56:00] reporters as mayor, in a way that had not been seen in recent times up to that.

SHEFFIELD: Make sense he fell in with Trump then doesn’t it?

SARGENT: It does. It really does. And I don’t even know if he knows how ridiculous his descent has looked. I’m not sure what he’s capable of being aware of that.

SHEFFIELD: Probably not. Certainly not now, considering he basically is doing anything to get money, to pay all his legal bills. He doesn’t have time to look at himself in the mirror.

SARGENT: Yeah. Has anyone figured out how much he got to try and run the Trump scheme to overturn the election?

SHEFFIELD: I think he said he got nothing.

SARGENT: Did he say that?

SHEFFIELD: He’s upset at Trump for that.

SARGENT: Oh right.

SHEFFIELD: Because he he told them he was going to bill what, like $200,000 a week or some ridiculous amount.

SARGENT: Right, he was expecting a big payout, right?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then got nothing. But this is a classic Trump. If his lawyers lose the case, then he doesn’t pay.

SARGENT: Why is it that people could have seen Trump do this over and over, and somehow think that for them, it’s going to be different.

SHEFFIELD: Probably arrogance.

SARGENT: Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer who testified before Congress. And you actually spoke to this in a very fascinating way, I thought. He said something along the lines of ‘ You can’t underestimate the power of Trump’s charisma. When you’re working with him, you feel like you’re part of something larger.’

And I’ll just share something that when– I used to talk to Trump back in the day, when I worked in New York journalism, and in those days, you could just call him up on the phone very easily. This was when he was doing all his real estate things.

You could just call him up, and you called at his office, just called straight to his office. No press people, no, John Barron, no nothing. And he would get on the phone three seconds every time. Because he wanted to talk to the press about his projects.

And he loved them. And he was the same guy, except without that kind of dark edge, which is, I think [00:58:00] about this a lot. He was the same kind of fast-talking, make it up as you go along, scamming in every possible way he could. Repetition, right? Rolling over inconvenient facts. It was the same guy, except without the darkness that we’ve seen since.


SARGENT: I don’t know where that’s come from.

SHEFFIELD: Honestly probably came from his contact with the far right.

SARGENT: Stephen Miller.

SHEFFIELD: And Bannon. And again, just going back to what I was saying about this. You have a group of people who for 50 years have been trying to get rid of things that the public wants. And that seriously warps your morality, I think, to do that.

Look at, let’s say even Roger Stone. Like Roger Stone was always corrupt and deceitful and whatnot, but he’s also become crazy. And he wasn’t that way, if you knew him earlier in his career. He was, just blasé about everything.


SHEFFIELD: That he’d be willing to do stuff, but on the other hand, he didn’t give a shit about what it was. He wasn’t invested in the outcomes, really. He just wanted money, but now, he works for Alex Jones. And he has for a long time. And there’s that moral aspect definitely doesn’t get talked about.

SARGENT: Yeah, I should probably qualify what I said before about Trump. He was the same kind of, there wasn’t that darkness, although there was always the constant race baiting was always there. Because he understood that, he did that partly at least to play the tabloids in those days, which sort of in New York, when there was that kind of racial divide and people thrived on those types of stories. He understood that the way to, get lots of attention and so forth.

And I think he probably was racist underneath it all too, but it was never quite this dark, somehow. It wasn’t white nationalist it wasn’t, I think that’s an interesting point about it just being a fundamental fact of having come into contact with the darkness of the far right.

And it’s a good thing you got out of that vortex.

SHEFFIELD: I definitely feel better in that sense. But if you’re [01:00:00] building a movement based on opposing the majority, you have to take your allies anywhere you can find them.


SHEFFIELD: And so in the case of Bannon, he knew what he was doing when he started promoting these various white nationalist people. He had his writers do that long article trying to spin the rebirth of white nationalism under Trump under the term “alt-right.” And that article was literally copy edited by neo-Nazis. And Bannon knew it. And so if you’re willing to get in league with that type of person, your moral sense is non-existent.

And it does something to you. I think it does.


SHEFFIELD: So anyway, but yeah, it’s been a great conversation, Greg.

SARGENT: It has.

SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here and so yeah, people can find you on Twitter at ThePlumLineGS, and of course, over on