Pfeiffer loves America, his former job and his former boss, Howli (his wife, whom he met while working for said boss), and the White House itself (reportedly described by its current occupant as “a dump”). Pfeiffer feels this way even though, during his decade-long tenure working for his country, he nearly caused himself to have a stroke, twice. But he also holds a special hatred for a litany of bad ideas — e.g., the recent tax cuts, the deliberate and mean-spirited gutting of Obamacare, and more — and for shifty career politicians like Mitch McConnell and especially Paul Ryan. Anyone who tunes in regularly to Pod Save America, of which Pfeiffer is a co-host, is already quite familiar with these views.
As Pfeiffer often admits, he has a tendency not just to seek out but also to dwell on the “dark lining of silver clouds.” Here, in a shortened version of a far-ranging conversation, he does his best to lure us all from the edge of despair while arguing that despair can become fuel for real progress. The republic is bruised, he admits, but not lost, and as long as we love it, we can still save it.
GREGG LAGAMBINA: In your new book, you write: “The candidate least afraid of losing normally wins.” In this particular passage, you’re talking about Barack Obama’s first campaign for president, but the idea seems equally applicable to Donald Trump.
DAN PFEIFFER: There is something to that. Trump obviously has an endless maw of insecurities that manifest on a daily basis, but he ran his campaign as if he was willing to lose. He was not cautious. Normally, politicians who are afraid to lose hem in what they are going to say or do to try to offend the fewest people. Trump actually took the opposite tack.
Now Obama and Trump are as different from each other as two people could possibly be. But they both started their campaigns after most people told them they had no chance and then ran them as such and ended up benefiting from it.
That was one of the challenges Hillary Clinton had in 2008 and 2016. She was from this sort of well-worn era of political caution, having been through the wringer for so many years, which I totally understand. But Trump and Obama being political newbies relative to some of the people they ran against ended up being an advantage, because they didn’t have this risk-aversion drummed into their heads.
This naturally leads to the question: “In 2020, who is the person least afraid to lose?” At this point, someone boring but capable would help with the Trump hangover. Charisma and celebrity have proven to be exhausting. If there’s one thing about Obama that even his critics might agree with, it’s that he was capable of handling the day-to-day requirements of the job. If he were your pilot, you could feel safe falling asleep on a plane, with the confidence you would wake up at the right airport. Now, each morning we fumble for our phones to find out if we’ll survive into the afternoon.
[Laughs.] Yes, exactly. I’d say two things about that. One, based on my experience in 2016, I’m very hesitant to make political predictions about what the electorate would want going forward. Here’s the example I always use: back in 2005, after the Democrats had lost control of the House and Senate, John Kerry had just lost to Bush, the conventional wisdom was that Democrats needed a moderate, some would say “boring,” politician with a history of winning red states. They talked about people like Mark Warner from Virginia and — my boss at the time — Evan Bayh from Indiana. The idea was that, to win over these voters Bush had taken from the Democrats, we needed this sort of moderate type. Then, flash-forward three years and Barack Hussein Obama from the South Side of Chicago wins the election.
I will quote my friend David Axelrod, who says: “Elections are about people wanting the replacement, not the replica.” Trump was the opposite of Obama. Obama was the opposite of Bush. George W. Bush ran as the opposite of Bill Clinton. It is likely that the Democrat who runs will not be a paler shade of orange, he or she will be a very different entity than Trump. It could be boring, but boring is a terrible word. Let’s say, steady. One thing I know that concerns voters is this level of chaos that emanates from Trump. It is very likely that, if a Democrat runs and succeeds in 2020, it will be because he or she brings a level of stability and decency back into our politics. If we ran a campaign that’s just trying to be as profane or erratic as Trump, I think that would be problematic. The voters already know Trump and might be willing to choose that again over their fear of the unknown.
A lot of people concerned with the current administration and the direction Trump is taking the country are anchored by this conviction that he is a temporary aberration. However, too many Republicans have spent decades laying the groundwork for just this type of person to emerge triumphant out of their party. And now they are doing nothing to stop him. Election day was a shock, but in retrospect, his nomination by the GOP seems inevitable. What if Obama, not Trump, was the aberration?
That is the existential question, right? Is this the beginning of a new era of radicalized white identity politics, or is this the last throes of an older, more conservative cultural electorate disturbed by an America that is becoming more progressive and more diverse?
I believe the latter is true, for a couple of reasons. One, on the core policy issues, whether it’s climate change or immigration, the country has been moving to the left. Even as the far right has become radicalized, the center and the left have become more progressive. It’s the reason why the Republican tax plan is so unpopular. It’s why Obamacare is now more popular than it ever was before. Add to that the fact that the millennial generation is aging into the electorate and will very shortly become the most powerful force in politics. When that happens, you will have a politics that looks more like Obama-ism than Trumpism.
The argument that Trump is the aberration also has to do with the incredibly slim margin by which he won. One tiny thing goes the other way, and Hillary wins and Trump loses. Whether it’s the Comey letter, whether it’s the hacking of the DNC emails, whether it’s a visit to this state or that state — it was potentially a black swan event that led us here. But there are many layers to this. I think the country is headed toward a future that looks more like Obama-ism than Trumpism, but there’s no question that the rapid path we took toward Obama-ism produced a reaction, a very aggressive reaction that contributed to Trump winning this last election.
In a recent book, your former colleague Ben Rhodes quotes Obama (after Trump’s victory) as saying: “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early.” Was his presidency “too early,” whatever that might mean? Do you agree with your former boss?
I do. There is always a counterfactual — what is true and what is not. I believe America needed Barack Obama at the exact moment he was elected. We were embroiled in these foolish wars of choice in the Middle East, the economy was teetering on the edge of a second Great Depression, there was all this pent-up need to reform and fix government, and so we needed someone like Obama who was thoughtful and strategic.
However, we’re living through a time of massive transition — a demographic transition, a cultural transition. Just look at the speed at which opinions about things like same-sex marriage have changed since Obama started running for president. Look at the massive economic transition that was hastened and exacerbated by the financial crisis of 2008. I often think back to what it would have been like to be a 50-year-old conservative white male in exurban Atlanta in 2006. The world is going along, the economy hasn’t been great, but there’s still this view that you can have a solid, well-paying blue-collar job, live in a largely ethnically homogenous community, gay marriage is not allowed, et cetera. Then you fast-forward just a few years and the economic bargain has totally changed, technology has changed so much — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et cetera. The very core of what your life meant has changed in fundamental ways, and at the exact same time that’s happening, there’s an African-American president and you have this Republican propaganda apparatus led by Fox News that is trying to polarize the nation along racial lines.
So you can see why there was a reaction, and a strong reaction, from a large part of the country — a third of the country, really — to Barack Obama being president at the time that he was. It changed the Republican Party for the time being, it changed politics, and it helped contribute to Trump being president.
If there is one thing that seems like a uniquely modern political problem, it’s the so-called “power of the pen” — the executive orders that both parties have used to undo whatever they think was worst about the previous administration. How does this country make any progress when, instead of, say, fixing the parts of Obamacare that need fixing, the new team just guts a law passed by a popular twice-elected president? No matter who is in power, how do we keep the ball moving down the field when there is zero regard for what the electorate wanted and voted for twice? It seems like an unsustainable problem, no matter your party preference.
I think that is exactly right. That’s one of the concerns I have about how polarized and radicalized our politics is right now.
If you look at how Obama handled Bush’s achievements, when we came in, there were a whole bunch of things that Bush had done by executive order around mileage standards for cars, clean air, clean water, and stem cell research. These are things that Obama ran against and disagreed with and he could fix with his pen, so he did. But there were many more elements of Bush’s legislative achievements that Obama had voted against, or would have opposed had he been in the Senate at the time, such as the tax cuts, the Medicare prescription drug package. But we didn’t try to tear all of those things down. What we tried to do was reform them. So, the tax cuts for the middle class that Bush passed stayed in place, and we raised taxes on the wealthy when those cuts expired. Efforts were made, through the Affordable Care Act, to close what’s called the “donut hole” in the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
If some Republican other than Trump had won — if it had been Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or John Kasich — we would still be in the Paris Climate Accord and we would still be in the Iran Deal. Maybe they would have done some things on the margins to adjust the terms of the deal, but the general understanding would have been that, when America puts its name on the dotted line in agreements with other countries, the next president can change things a little bit but can’t just undo the entire package because that affects our credibility across a whole range of issues. Trump is a unique figure in this regard: other than a strongly anti-immigrant point of view, he doesn’t have any coherent policy or worldview or governing experience to make his decisions from. His only rationale for decision-making is, “Did Obama do it? Then I will undo it and that will please my base.”
All of that being said, we are still at a state in our politics, which I believe is driven almost entirely by Republicans, that we can’t perform the basics of governing. Everything has to be a proxy for a larger political war — whether it’s funding the government or passing an infrastructure bill. Let’s say Jeb Bush is president, hypothetically. He’s your average, standard Republican. Compared to a Democrat, he has hugely different views about taxes, regulation, the economy, health care. Democrats are not going to agree on those things, and so it’s not rational to think Republicans would just rubber-stamp the opposite. But there was a time when there weren’t partisan issues, per se. Energy policy, infrastructure, et cetera — people would work together across the aisle and get something done.
I hope our next Democratic president can find a way to bring us back to a world of more functional government, without compromising our core progressive values. But I think, in order to do that, Republicans have to be given a political lesson in the next two elections, to sort of knock the nihilism out of their brains.
How does that happen if Mitch McConnell is still there?
Well, if Mitch McConnell doesn’t have the gavel, things get a lot harder for the GOP. That means taking the Senate back, which, as we sit here today, is a tall but achievable order. It may take two elections to get there. This is a really hard election for Democrats, just because we have a bunch of people in some really tough states who came in during a presidential election year with Obama doing very well at the ballot. Now they’re up for reelection. If we can survive this election and maybe even pick up a couple of Senate seats, we’ll have a more favorable environment in 2020, when you have Republicans who rode in on the 2014 wave but will now have to hold onto their seats in a presidential election year. We might be able to do it.
Parties reform themselves after three losses in a row. If McCain had lost, Romney lost, and then Trump, there would have been an effort to reform Trumpism out of the Republican Party. It probably would have been a long, painful process, but it would have been better for the country in the long run. But then, he won, so it had the exact opposite effect. Now, instead of the Republicans getting rid of the Trumpists, the Trumpists are getting rid of the Republicans. I think our politics are in a very precarious state. But a win in 2018 — and a handy win in 2020 — could start setting the Republican Party on a more rational path.
People have short memories. It wasn’t that long ago that Trump’s own party, not just his primary opponents, were warning us that his nomination would destroy the GOP. As Republicans often do, they fell right in line once he was elected. But is it still possible for Trump to destroy the GOP the longer he remains in office?
Yes. I think that is possible and maybe even hopeful, from my point of view. The Republican Party of the Bushes and Reagan and Paul Ryan is dead. Maybe it was dead a long time ago and they just didn’t know the heart had stopped beating, but it is dead. The party doesn’t stand for anything other than — as we say on Pod Save America all the time — “owning the libs.” Whether it’s the pardoning of Dinesh D’Souza or the absurd faux outrage over the Philadelphia Eagles visit, it’s just trolling. It doesn’t stand for anything.
I think and hope that, over the long run or even in the medium term, this nihilistic strategy is not sustainable. If you joined the GOP because you believed in one of the Bushes or Ronald Reagan, that party is dead, and regardless of whether you go to work for Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, you really work for Donald Trump. That is your job. This is why the next election is so important, because if Democrats don’t win the Congress in 2018, it’s going to cement not just the policy atrocities of this administration but the view that Trumpism is the long-term solution for the Republican Party. And that is not just bad for Democrats, but really bad for democracy.
In your book, you write: “Barack Obama never asked me to say anything I didn’t believe […] and I wouldn’t have been there if I didn’t believe in him and his agenda.” We currently have a president who demands that his staff say and defend things they can’t possibly believe are true or even good. Why do you think they are there?
I think there are some people who may have gone there in the beginning because they thought President Trump would be different from candidate Trump. Some people stayed because they foolishly thought that their presence was going to make America safer. But what we have now in this administration is basically the fifth string of the Republican Party. These are people who couldn’t even sniff the middle-tier Republican presidential campaigns. It’s basically like, if you were playing pickup basketball at the YMCA and someone showed up and said, “Hey, do you want to play for the Lakers?” You would have to do all of these horrible things, but you’re probably going to go play for the Lakers, right? [Laughs.]
I think that’s part of it. I don’t get any real sense that anyone — other than a couple of people, like maybe Stephen Miller — have any real loyalty to Trump the person, or even loyalty to Trumpism. They just want to be there. Working in the White House is cool, I guess. I liked it. This is their chance to be stars and probably cash in and become Fox News contributors. The turnover has been mind-boggling when you think about it. I don’t think these people are the brightest bulbs in the drawer. I don’t think they are fully comprehending what they’re doing to themselves and their reputations over the long run. Some of them are pretty young, too. This will always be with them.
Dan Balz from the Washington Post said to me a few weeks before Obama was elected that, “If Obama wins, you’ll always be an Obama person. No matter what else you do.” He said it would be in the first line of my obituary, which at the time I thought was very morose, but now I understand it. No matter what Sean Spicer does with the rest of his life — he could win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry — he will still be known as Trump’s press secretary who lied about the size of the inauguration crowd. I don’t think any of these people have thought through what that will really mean once this is all said and done.
In the book you admit that “Twitter seems terrible. […] I never feel better after I open the app. I also can’t stop myself from opening it. Twitter may have gotten us into this mess, but it may also be the way out of it.” Swap out “Twitter” with “booze” and you sound like an addict unsuccessfully coming to terms with his addiction.
Yes! My wife would agree with you 100 percent. It is a problem. I have broken the habit over time, for some vacations. I tried to go cold turkey one weekend in November 2016, after the election. I made it like a day and a half and was overcome with anxiety about what I was missing. It’s my main way of knowing what’s happening in the world. Especially with Trump as president. It happens in the morning, when I’m on West Coast time. I wake up and I’m like, “What craziness has happened between 6:00 a.m. East Coast time and 6:00 a.m. West Coast time?” Twitter is definitely not healthy for my brain. It really isn’t.
You also write: “I believe this. Without Twitter, there is no President Trump.” I would add Fox News to that equation, which you do in the book as well. But you also say some good can come from Twitter — mobilizing people quickly to flood the airports during Trump’s initial travel ban, for example. But people managed to mobilize quite effectively in the 1960s. Do we really need Twitter?
I don’t know whether we need it or not. Maybe we don’t, but we have it. And it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so the question is: What can we do to leverage the good parts and address some of the bad parts around the edges?
I do think that the good thing about Twitter — or Facebook, or Instagram, pick your social media platform of choice — is its democratization of information. I think it is good that people can share very compelling stories, whether it’s these shootings of unarmed African Americans that have been on Periscope, confrontations with the police, things that have happened in the Middle East — events that are able to make it into the public sphere without having to run through a major, corporate-owned media organization based in New York or Washington, DC. I think that is a really good thing for the world.
It has come with some real consequences, though. Maybe Twitter is responsible for Trump and we’ll all die in a nuclear war and then we’ll know that Twitter was a bad idea! I think it’s a really open question. I don’t know whether we need it or not, but it is here and Democrats have to learn how to deal with it if we plan on crawling our way out of the wilderness.
I read this passage in your book as a bit of a contradiction: “It’s not that America is getting dumber, it’s that changes in media and technology have weaponized the worst parts of our politics.” But if the technology is not going away and it’s only getting worse — not to mention our being hacked and manipulated by foreign adversaries — how in this equation are we not getting dumber, if we’re being fed dumb stuff and believing it?
That’s a fair point. Maybe we need to do some sort of national IQ test to see if we actually are getting dumber. The point I was trying to make is that something has changed in our politics and media since the advent of the internet and the emergence of social media, more particularly. I don’t think America started giving birth to worse people. So, because of that, I think it’s worth understanding what has changed and how those changes happened and what we can do to address them.
Someone else smarter than me can write a book about how American society can adjust to the social media smartphone era in a way that’s healthier. I’m focused more on the short term, which is: This is the world in which we live, and Democrats, who were once the party that led innovation on the internet in politics, we just got beat and we got beat really badly. We didn’t think that was coming. We were all surprised by that, myself in particular. So, given all of that, what lessons can we learn in the short term to address this new shortcoming? How can we better succeed in this new world, whether it is ultimately good, ultimately bad, or incredibly unhealthy? How do we change Democratic strategies and approaches in messaging to make them succeed better in this rapidly changing world?
We’re of a generation that had to adapt to social media and we’re maybe fumbling with it, whereas the generation that came after us doesn’t know life without it and uses it more strategically. Also, when you poll young people about what issues they care about, they appear to be a fairly progressive demographic. Maybe it’s the generation that follows us who will be social media’s salvation, just because they’re better at it.
I think there is a lot to that, in a couple of ways. This is something that happened after I had finished the book, but when you look at the way the Parkland kids handled being the center of attention and constantly attacked in some of the most vicious and terrible ways on social media, you can tell that they have a natural affinity for all this that comes from growing up in the social media era. They know about trolling and responding to cyberbullying and all of those things.
So that’s one thing. When it comes to believing in fake news and conspiracy theories, the people that believe those tend to be older. Part of that is because they grew up with a world in which you could generally trust the things you read in the news. You might have some view or some sort of bias — be it ideological or cultural or something else — but, in general, there was a set of norms that governed information being published. You didn’t have to trust it 100 percent, but you could kind of believe that the information had gone through some rigorous vetting before it got to you.
And, then, the internet came. In particular, Facebook, which is the breeding ground for a lot of this stuff. My parents — who do not fall for conspiracy theories, so I do not want to attack them — they read Facebook all the time. They are constantly on Facebook. They read the actual newspaper too. They’re savvy news consumers, but they and their friends, who are in their late 60s, are on Facebook a lot.
They live in Denver, they turn on the local news, they read the Denver Post. So if the paper said that the FBI agent who was leading the Clinton email investigation was found dead in his or her apartment, you had a real reason to believe that the FBI agent who was leading the Clinton email investigation was found dead in her apartment, right? But I remember sitting on plane, near the end of the election, scrolling through Facebook and seeing that exact thing from something called the Denver Gazette, or the Colorado Post, or something like that. We were about to do a live podcast with Jon Favreau [another Obama staffer and Pod Save America host] and I took a screenshot and was about to send it to him before I realized, “Wait a minute. I’ve never heard of this news organization.”
So you can see a scenario where, if you live in Denver and you’re a person who has always believed what they read in the news and you’re just scrolling through Facebook and you see that story, why wouldn’t you believe it? If you don’t have an entire lifetime’s worth of skepticism toward things written on the internet, you probably would. As the people who have grown up in this new wired world become a larger portion of the electorate, that will definitely address some of these things. We are in a little bit of a notched generation, if you will.
What is the absolute minimum that has to happen in November to prevent eight years of Donald Trump?
The Democrats have to take the House. That is a coin flip at best as we sit here today, but we have to do it. Otherwise, think of the validation it will send to Trump and the Republicans. All of the corruption, the indecency, and the incompetence, it would be like tripling down on all of it. The only thing putting a little bit of pressure and causing some Republicans to pump the brakes at all is the fear that they will lose in November.
If they don’t lose in November, all bets are off. If Democrats are not there to put checks and balances on Trump through congressional oversight, I can just imagine that, whoever is the 2020 Democratic nominee, Trump will bully the Department of Justice into opening an FBI investigation on them and he will succeed. We will use law enforcement to settle political differences. The long list of horrible things that come to mind if we don’t have a check on that kind of autocratic power is incredibly alarming. There is nothing more important than taking the House back in 2018, and the Senate too, if we can. We need one of those two bodies and we need it ASAP.
Gregg LaGambina is a writer living in Los Angeles.