Journalist McKay Coppins currently works as a staff writer at The Atlantic. Previously, he wrote for BuzzFeed as a political reporter, covering the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns. A regular CNN and MSNBC contributor, Coppins is also the author of the critically-acclaimed book, The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party's Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House. Coppins spoke with the Gate’s Santi Ruiz over the phone to discuss contemporary journalism and the GOP.
The Gate: You recently moved from BuzzFeed to The Atlantic. What was that professional transition like?
McKay Coppins: So I started at BuzzFeed right around the time they started doing journalism. I joined at the same time as Ben Smith when they brought him over to be editor-in-chief. It was a really exciting new project, and I was very young, as were basically all of the reporters that Ben hired at the beginning. It was kind of a scrappy little operation, there were like five of us, and we were covering the presidential campaign.
Smith offered to put me on the trail—and as a twenty-three-year-old, that was a huge opportunity, so I took it. And I ended up staying there through another presidential cycle because I realized that it was hard to find a place that was as supportive, had as good editors, writers, and reporters, and had the kind of reach and impact that BuzzFeed did at that time. When I started there were maybe fifty or sixty employees, maybe even less than that, and by the time I left, it was well over one thousand employees. It was a really fun place to be, but the nature of being in journalism is that you get restless, and you want to have new opportunities and work with new people and try new things out. Jeff Goldberg approached me when he became editor of The Atlantic, and it was clear right from the beginning that we were going to click and that we thought about journalism the same way, and it was a great opportunity.
It’s funny because I was going from a website whose entire journalistic legacy was five years long, to this esteemed publication that covered the Civil War and published Herman Melville and all these amazing authors and writers in American history. It’s been a change, although I’ve realized that the core mission is the same at BuzzFeed as it is at The Atlantic as it is at the New York Times, which is—if you’re a political journalist—that you’re trying to find the truth and tell the truth and illuminate your subjects and explain things and hold people in power accountable. And I think that’s true in any good-faith news organization.
Gate: By some accounts, your piece on Donald Trump’s abortive run for New York governor in 2014 played a part in his decision to run in 2016. Trump also mentioned you regularly on the campaign trail. Has knowing that the president of the United States is paying attention to your reporting changed your approach to the job?
Coppins: (laughs) Yes and no—I will say that right after he launched his campaign in 2015, knowing that I had this weirdly personal history with him, and knowing that he paid close attention to what I was writing about him, there was a temptation to write things that I knew would kind of get under his skin or provoke him. But I think I got that out of my system with the very first piece I wrote about his campaign announcement.
Then after that—because at the time, I didn’t even know if he would end up filing his papers—there was serious doubt and skepticism among the political press corps, I think with good reason, about what his intentions were and whether he actually was going to go through with it. As I actually found out later in my reporting—and I wrote about this later in the cycle—he wasn’t even sure how long he would stay in. At one point Trump thought he’d just throw his hat in the ring, gobble up a bunch of media attention in the summer, and drop out in the fall, in time to re-up his “Celebrity Apprentice” contract.
So I wasn’t sure how seriously to take it. But once he rocketed to the top of the polls and stayed there for a while, it was clear that I had to treat this like a serious thing, while still trying to bring a bit of humor to it to capture the absurdity of this spectacle.
But it is an unusual experience that a lot of reporters covering Trump have had this past couple years where you realize that he’s paying extremely close attention to what you write about him, what you say about him on cable news, possibly even what you’re tweeting about him, and the trick is to not get distracted by that, to keep your eye on the ball. There’s a temptation to write for an audience of one, as the most powerful man in the world, and whether you’re writing extremely critical pieces or fawning pieces, a lot of writers and journalists can easily get mesmerized by this idea that the POTUS is following your work closely. But at the end of the day that’s not your job or at least not your main job—your main job is still to be informing the public, and that’s at the core of what we all try to do.
I remember talking to somebody who was raising the question, which is a legitimate one, which is since we know the president is reading what we’re writing, should we be applying some kind of game theory to this? “If we write this he’ll probably react this way, if we frame a story one way, we know he’ll lash out in this other way,” and maybe the way to save the republic is to try to steer him in one direction or another? But again, I think that ends up leading journalists to make bad decisions, and you are not ultimately informing your readers or viewers, which is at the end of the day your core mission.
Gate: Do you think your industry is handling that pressure the way you’d hope they would, or are you seeing examples where there’s a shift in approach?
Coppins: By and large, journalists are doing a really good job of covering the Trump presidency so far. There has been really good investigative reporting, and there has been a rash of extremely earnest reporters who dutifully fact-check everything everything Trump and his administration officials say. It can be exhausting and feel Sisyphean, but in a way the Trump presidency has brought out an earnestness in the American political press that is productive and good in a lot of ways.
That said, there certainly are bad examples—there always are. And there’s a reflexive snarkiness and a lazy, self-satisfied liberalism that permeates a lot of the commentary around Trump that isn’t productive. I think at the end of the day, it does nothing but make your core base of readers who already hate Trump clap and have a little dopamine hit and in the meantime continues to alienate vast swaths of the country.
There is a crisis going on in the institution of the press—and it predated the rise of Donald Trump—and that is that fewer and fewer people trust the mainstream media. Mainstream news outlets are at all-time lows in terms of how many Americans trust them, believe them, and think they’re doing a good job, and that’s helped lead to the rise of these alternative media ecosystems that just reinforce what their readers already believe and want to hear. And certainly that helped contribute to Donald Trump’s victory—there was the spread of fake news, which became a meme that we talked about in the immediate aftermath of the election, and beyond that there’s this whole right-wing media ecosystem, some of which is serious and substantial and solid ideological advocacy journalism, but most of which is paranoia and grievance and conspiracy theories.
We in the mainstream press can complain all we want about this alternative media ecosystem, but we help to fuel it when we aren’t fair or when we seem to pass judgment on people in the country that don’t live in affluent liberal urban bubbles. That is a dynamic that is still playing out in the Trump era, but like I said, it predates Trump’s presidency, and I imagine that it will continue beyond Trump’s presidency as well.
Gate: In The Wilderness, you took a deep dive into the state of the Republican Party after the 2012 presidential election, specifically focusing on the GOP’s quest to take back the White House. Looking back on your research and writing process, what are you proud of? What do you wish you had done differently?
Coppins: I think that if you read that book now, there are a lot of foreboding signs that showed in retrospect what seems like the inevitability of Trump’s rise. And some of those signs were unintentional—of course they were all unintentional in the sense that when I wrote the book, no one knew who would end up becoming president or win the Republican nomination—but a lot of those signs were intentional.
One of the themes that ran throughout my reporting and that I tried to string throughout my book was the growing influence of what I called the “fever swamps,” this kind of alternative media ecosystem, and then more generally the breakdown of the old-school Republican establishment and the forces that contributed to it: the democratization of media and the deregulation of political money, which basically robbed the old guard of any power they once had to regulate and rein in the people who were in their party.
That idea animates much of how my subjects acted, because in my book I follow all these different candidates as they’re laying the groundwork for their campaigns in the wake of the 2012 election—and that’s everyone from Ted Cruz and Donald Trump to Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Bobby Jindal—and I think if you read the book now and follow their quest for the presidency, you see the pressures that they’re under, these forces at work, the resentments and grievances and populist rumblings just beneath the surface of the party. And in a way, the book is a prequel to the story of Trump’s rise. So in that way I’m proud of the reporting I did, and I’m glad I told those stories.
Obviously when you do a book like this, hindsight is 20/20, and you always wish you could rewrite it and give more weight to the characters that would be more important. I wish I’d written six more chapters about Donald Trump and maybe lost a couple of chapters about Bobby Jindal [laughs]. But I will say that at the end of the day, I was also writing this book interested in these people as characters, as people, and I found Jindal to be a fascinating person. I think the story of his descent from Rhodes scholar, wonk, brainiac, into a culture warrior pandering to the fever swamps is a story that helps illuminate some of the broader forces in the party that made Trump possible.
Gate: This election, anti-Trump challenger and Mormon Evan McMullin made a last-minute play for Utah, and performed surprisingly well. As a fellow Mormon who studied at Brigham Young University, do you see his candidacy as a one-off? How is the Mormon community reacting to Trump?
Coppins: Well, the story of the Mormon revolt against Trump was one of the stories I was most interested in telling in 2016, and I spent a lot of time covering it. I will say, having covered the 2012 presidential election and spending a lot of time writing about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, I was not expecting to re-up my Mormon expertise in 2016—but as it turned out, it was more relevant than I thought it would be.
It remains true that conservative Mormons are unusually averse to Trump as a Republican president, and you don’t need to look any further than the 2016 election outcome to see that. Trump ended up winning Utah, but with 45 percent of the vote. So a majority of Utahns voted for someone else, split between Gary Johnson, Hillary Clinton, and Evan McMullin. Compare that with 2004, when George W. Bush won Utah with over 70 percent of the vote. That one statistic alone illuminates how relatively unpopular this Republican president is with Mormons, compared with basically every other Republican president in the last half-century.
Part of it is the obvious stuff: Donald Trump’s treatment of women; his crude, vulgar manner; his very sordid personal history—all that stuff doesn’t play well with Mormons. But beyond that, his message was a pretty dark one, and it was aimed at people in America who felt that the country had lost whatever greatness it once had. It was aimed at people who were really hurting, who were living in economically distressed areas, particularly white working-class and middle-class people who felt like they were being threatened by immigrants or other ethnicities or foreign countries, the “globalist” powers that be. And that is just not a message that works well with Mormons, who tend in America to be concentrated in areas where the economy is pretty stable. Polls show Mormons have more stable family life; they report higher levels of contentedness and happiness; and they have slightly higher education rates. To most Mormons, America already seems pretty great, and Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric didn’t really hit a nerve.
So to the question you asked, moving forward will there be more Evan McMullins? I think there could be. We’re already seeing in the state that there has been a backlash against Jason Chaffetz, the Republican congressman in Utah, who many voters, including Republicans there, feel has been too soft on Trump, and has been too closely aligned with him. The same goes for Orrin Hatch, the Utah senator whom a lot of people have been kind of sick of.
The question is, what is the state party going to do about all of this? Do they continue to promote and protect candidates who are pretty well aligned with Trump? Do they welcome challenges from Republicans who are more Trump-averse? I think, from talking to political operatives and fundraisers and donors, that there is certainly movement afoot in Utah to get independents to challenge either Hatch or Chaffetz, and that would certainly provide a place for anti-Trump Mormons to go, but it’s too early to know whether that will happen.
Gate: What are the chances of Mitt Romney running for Orrin Hatch’s Senate seat?
Coppins: From what I’ve been told in reporting this for The Atlantic, it’s basically up to Orrin Hatch. Romney is not going to run if Hatch wants to keep his seat and run again next year, but there are a lot of Republicans in Utah who want Hatch to retire. He is 83, there are concerns about his health, about his mental faculties, there are concerns that he’s extremely vulnerable to a primary challenge, and Utahns are worried that they will get another Mike Lee type, who is kind of a Tea Party rabble-rouser. So you know, if Republican leaders in Utah had their way, they would force Hatch to retire, and aggressively recruit Romney to run. I’m told Romney is very interested in it, but it’s just going to come down to whether Hatch wants to step aside, and he has said it will be a while before he makes that decision.
Gate: How are ideological conservatives in the GOP adapting to a president who diverges from many of their core tenets? How much are lawmakers willing to concede?
Coppins: That’s one of the defining questions of the Trump era, and I don’t think we know the answer yet. What we’ve taken to calling “Trumpism,” which is this unique brand of nationalist populism that is conservative in some respects and fairly un-conservative in others, has clearly shown an ability to win presidential elections.
Whether it will be able to flourish in the Republican Party as it stands is another question. The challenges for Trump’s brand of politics are primarily that there aren’t a lot of people in the Republican establishment who believe in it. And when I say the Republican establishment I mean literally that: there are no major think-tanks that are staffed by dozens of smart wonks churning out policy papers—there aren’t a bunch of well-respected policy journals and magazines working through the questions of Trumpism.
If you compare it to the rise of conservatism around the time of Barry Goldwater in the Republican Party, by the time Ronald Reagan won the White House and swept movement conservatism into the Oval Office, you’d already had a whole generation of intellectuals and thinkers and politicians articulating and popularizing conservatism. And Reagan was able to put that into a platform and bring his unique talents for communication to the task of winning a national election. In this case, it happened in reverse with Trumpism. Trump won the White House and now there are all these people in his orbit scrambling to build the infrastructure around his agenda.
So far we have not seen that agenda advance very much in the early days of the Trump presidency, and we have seen the president flip-flop on some key issues. Treatment of China comes to mind, branding them as a currency manipulator, certainly his foreign policy—he ran as an isolationist and is now governing more like a traditional interventionist hawk—so I don’t know. There probably are a fair number of congressional Republicans who would happily accede to Trump’s brand of politics if they thought it was a viable long-term career strategy. That may sound cynical, but it is just the way a lot of these guys operate. So far I don’t think that they have seen evidence that it is viable in the long term. For Trumpism to succeed in the GOP, you are going to need a lot more people building institutions devoted to it, and it probably has to be a multi-generational process. It won’t happen in four years.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
The image featured in this article can be found here.
Santi Ruiz is a fourth-year Political Science major. This summer, he worked at Airwars, an NGO which tracks civilian casualties from airstrikes in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and he is currently working on a BA thesis which addresses how domestic audiences respond to airstrikes abroad. In the past, he has worked as a congressional intern for Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (and at UChicago's Center for Practical Wisdom. On campus, Santi is a member of the club soccer team and the president of the Themis Society. He also coaches for South Side Fire FC, a local nonprofit soccer team for kids on the South Side. In his free time, Santi enjoys cooking, rock climbing, and overusing Twitter.