McKay Coppins is an author and current staff writer at The Atlantic. Growing up in a Mormon household and graduating from Brigham Young University, he found himself well-positioned at Buzzfeed News to cover Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign during the 2012 election. In that election’s aftermath, he composed “The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party's Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House” based on interviews he had conducted with certain rising stars in the Republican Party (most of whom went on to launch presidential campaigns in 2016). The Gate’s Brett Barbin sat down with Coppins to discuss his background, faith, and where young Mormons like himself fit within our political framework.
The Gate: What do you see as your role as a journalist? Entertaining or informing your readers?
McKay Coppins: Not entertaining. Although if that's a byproduct, then I'm certainly happy to do that. But it's informing them. It's tackling these big, complex issues and debates and trying to inform and enlighten. At the end of the day, you're trying to answer questions; tell stories that are true, real, and have some kind of consequence; and make sense of whatever you're covering. That's the mission, that's what the Atlantic does, and that's what the best journalistic institutions do.
Gate: Who would you say you’re writing for at the Atlantic?
Coppins: I don't know. People who read my stories? An interesting thing about how the media landscape has changed is that you don't necessarily have the same, very distinctive niche readership that publications used to because everything you're writing is going online. With the way that social media platforms work, you're aiming it in general out into the world.
I'm writing for people who want to understand what's happening in American politics. And that group has gotten a lot bigger than it was a few years ago given who is President and all the unprecedented things that are happening. Basically, I'm just writing for people who want to understand what's happening in Washington and in our country.
Gate: As a younger man, you were required to go on a two-year Mormon mission to Dallas. Do you think your missionary work with Latin American immigrants in Texas influenced your journalism career?
Coppins: Definitely. In a very obvious narrow sense, it opened my eyes to immigration issues. Regardless of policy prescriptions, the thing that most infuriates me about the immigration debate is the dehumanizing quality of the way we talk about immigrants. Spending two years just living day-to-day with immigrants who are in this country to work, raise their families, or send money back to their families and seeing their gritty, day-to-day reality makes so much of the abstract debate and talking points flatten the whole experience.
But then, in general, being a Mormon missionary—and I assume being a missionary in any other religious tradition—develops a sense of empathy. I was nineteen when I went out. Nineteen to twenty-one is a formative period of your life and to spend that time just trying to help other people helped me re-examine my priorities and, hopefully, develop some empathy. I'm certainly not a perfect model of it, but the best journalism is produced empathetically. That doesn't mean unskeptically, but with some kind of compassion.
Gate: In college, you wrote a column for fellow Mormons at Brigham Young. Why did you go from writing about your faith life and giving advice to other Mormons to mostly covering national politics once you moved to Newsweek and Buzzfeed News?
Coppins: I don't think I ever set out to just write about Mormonism. Although it was obviously something I was interested in and curious about when I was in college. That column provided an outlet for me to work through a lot of questions I had and interesting things I was observing among my fellow young Mormons at BYU. But I haven’t gone back and read those columns. I'm sure I disagree with some of them now. But that experience was really good for me both for the way that I thought about my faith and the way that I tried to develop a sense of independence when it comes to things that I'm close to.
A few years later when I was covering the Mitt Romney campaign, I would write about Mormonism but not always from a personal standpoint and certainly not always in defense of every aspect of Mormon theology or culture. Often, I cast a journalistically skeptical look at these issues in the context of a presidential campaign as a way to understand this person who's running for president. Some Mormons didn't like the way that I wrote about that stuff, but I tried to be as fair as I could while also maintaining a sense of independence.
Gate: You called your column for your classmates: “Mormon twentysomething.” Where do you see that now late twenty-something Mormon politically?
Coppins: (laughs) This is a really interesting time in Mormon politics. Mormons are traditionally the most reliably Republican religious group in America, but Mormons were famously averse to the Trump candidacy. In the Republican primaries, he came in third (last place) in Utah. He got 14 percent of the vote.
For younger Mormons, the Trump era has disillusioned a lot of people in terms of Republican politics in general. There have been studies that show that Mormons are disassociating with political parties at an unprecedented rate. I wonder what that will mean for this upcoming generation of Mormons.
I'm just outside of the Mormon twenty-something experience now—I just turned thirty last year—but I do sense that there's at least a lot less partisan loyalty to the Republican Party. But even beyond that, I wonder, depending on how Trump influences what conservatism means going forward, how long young Mormons stay aligned with it. It's possible that Trump ends up being a fluke and the traditional conservatism, as we understand it, persists. In that case, I do think the majority of young Mormons will still stay aligned with conservative politics. But time will tell; at the very least, we're seeing an exodus from the institution of the Republican Party among young Mormons.
Gate: In your first article, you wrote about the diversity of opinion among young Mormons, but that they all could agree to support Mitt Romney and Prop 8. Which present day issues like those do you think most young Mormons can get behind?
Coppins: [Laughs] Well, Mitt Romney remains popular, but Prop 8 is a great example of how fast these issues do change. Proposition 8 was an issue in California during the 2008 Presidential Election. In that year, Barack Obama was on the record as opposed to same-sex marriage. I don't think he supported Prop 8, but the Democratic Party platform was not particularly pro-marriage equality. And certainly, young Mormons were swept up in the campaign for Proposition 8 in California. Ten years later, I am certain that as the public opinion has shifted in general in favor of marriage equality, the public opinion among young Mormons has shifted as well.
But all of that is just to say that I don't know if there are unifying issues that unite young Mormons politically. Religious liberty, in a very broadly defined sense, is something that most young Mormons would say they're behind. But then when you get into the particulars, it becomes messier. When you talk about the issues of a florist or a baker and whether they should be compelled to serve or work for same-sex couples, there's not necessarily any major consensus about that among young Mormons. There's probably a lot of debate.
So much of our national politics in general is now defined in opposition to Donald Trump or in support of Donald Trump—everything seems to be about Donald Trump—actual policy issues have been secondary to the ongoing personality show that is the Trump White House.
Gate: Before the 2016 election, you wrote that Evan McMullin’s start-up campaign was taking over the GOP in Utah. Just last month, you penned an article about how Joe Arpaio’s style of politics has now subsumed the Republican Party. Which party do you think Mormons today would feel more comfortable belonging to?
Coppins: It's hard because Evan McMullin has become such a polarizing figure now, so I would subtract the personalities from it. But the kinds of parties that those two people are talking about (Arpaio and Evan McMullin), Mormons would certainly be more drawn to a McMullinish party.
Arpaio represents a strongly represented element of the conservative movement. It's more nationalist, nativist, and focused on law and order. He, in particular, is this very provocative, publicity-hungry figure, but the stuff that he stands for is not alien to a lot of people in the Republican Party.
But he's defined himself by immigration, and that's one issue that Mormons are relatively outside the conservative mainstream on partly because of the positions the Church has taken and partly because so many Mormons have had experiences as missionaries in Latin America. So, there's a more compassionate view toward immigration than some other elements of the conservative base.
Gate: In another early article, you noted how some young Mormons were “getting into Obama” during the 2008 election. How should a future Democratic Party present itself to Mormon twenty-somethings in order to earn their vote?
Coppins: There is an opportunity for the Democratic Party to make gains not with just young Mormons but young religious people (for example, young evangelicals), but it has to at least be open to pro-life voters. I don't see the Mormon position on abortion changing anytime soon at least among most voters. Although certainly, there are pro-choice Mormons.
Also, the candidates that they nominate and promote and the rhetoric that they use has to be a little bit more inviting to traditional, religious groups. There is a sense of alienation that religious people feel when they hear Democrats talk about these issues.
Now, that's not all religious people. Obviously, for example, the black church is a major component of the Democratic coalition. But there's a strain of progressivism inside the Democratic Party that is perceived by some young religious people as hostile to their faith or at least dismissive of it.
If the Democratic Party were to tweak their rhetoric and be a little bit more open to pro-life voters, it would probably go a long way toward breaking off a portion of the young Mormon vote.
Gate: Looking back on your older columns and across your career as of yet, how would you say your journalism experience has changed your personal politics?
Coppins: I don't know. I don't even know what I would disagree with politically. In fact, I always say that I don't know that I have a super coherent ideological worldview when it comes to politics. I'm more interested in examining the forces at play in politics that are driving our debate, our powerful institutions, and the people in power. But no, I don't think I've spent a lot of time thinking about how my politics have been changed by journalism. I'm just so interested in telling the story, and that's what I've been focused on.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity. The featured image was taken by the author.
Brett Barbin is a fourth-year Public Policy and Political Science double-major, interested in American history, geography, and political rhetoric. This summer, he worked in the investigative division of the Public Defender Service for DC and previously served as the Deputy Political Director for Senator Mark Kirk’s re-election campaign. On campus, Brett is the president of College Republicans, the vice president of the Political Union, and a College Council representative. He enjoys walking Chicago, collecting books, and reading way too much into public opinion polls.