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SAM SANDERS, HOST:
It's the day after Election Day, which means my first question to my guest this episode - it was a simple one - have you slept?
MCKAY COPPINS: I did sleep a couple hours.
SANDERS: A couple as in just two?
COPPINS: Well, let me think. No, I got, like, a solid four, so I could be doing worse.
SANDERS: Oh, look at you.
COPPINS: Yeah. How about you?
SANDERS: Well, listen; you're going to hate me. So...
COPPINS: Oh, you slept, like, eight hours and did, like, yoga already or something.
SANDERS: I slept a little bit over six hours, and I had a great run this morning. And then I made myself some bacon and eggs and, like...
COPPINS: Come on.
SANDERS: (Laughter) I know, I know.
COPPINS: You're, like, the most aspirational, like, lifestyle person that I know. It's, like, unseemly. I don't like it.
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SANDERS: You are listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. So this day after Election Day, a lot of us are pounding the coffee, watching the counting and beginning to wonder as things shake out what everybody got right and what everybody got wrong.
COPPINS: I guess I'm surprised that the polling was so off again, you know, after...
SANDERS: You and me both, McKay. That is McKay Coppins. He covers Trump and the right and the GOP for The Atlantic. We spoke around 1 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, the day after the election. And McKay told me even though we might not know the full election results yet, we do know a lot about how Donald Trump has fundamentally changed the Republican Party and changed the way we do elections and changed, well, so much more.
So for this post-Election Day episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE, you will hear me, Sam Sanders, in conversation with McKay Coppins of The Atlantic on the future of Trumpism and the GOP and the modern conservative movement, as well as some criticism of the way journalists, including myself, cover elections. All right, let's get to it. We'll start with what wasn't a surprise for McKay.
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COPPINS: You know, I'm not surprised that Trump's kind of core base stuck with him, that there are signals that in some places, turnout actually increased among his base. There were signs in the weeks leading up to the election that the Trump campaign had actually made some progress in registering new voters. And I know that some Democrats were seeing that as a warning sign that in, for example, Florida, Republicans were reporting big increases in registration numbers. So, you know, all those things showed that it was possible for something like this to happen.
But I think what I'm most interested in now is kind of what lessons the Republican Party takes from this election.
SANDERS: That's my question, too.
COPPINS: Yeah, yeah. So I was out at a kind of Republican gathering last night, and I talked to a Trump adviser who was not really willing to concede that Trump might lose. But he did say something interesting, which was that even if the president loses, Trumpism will live on in the Republican Party.
And I think that a lot of Republicans will look at this election - which even if Trump loses, it looks like it'll be pretty close, at least in the Electoral College - and they'll look at the inroads that Trump made with Latino voters in certain parts of the country, and they'll basically come to the conclusion that, look; the pandemic is what cost him this election. The president himself was always a flawed messenger. He was kind of erratic and incompetent and hurt himself politically all the time. But he tapped into a kind of politics that clearly can be successful.
And there's going to be a faction of the party that goes forward trying to make sure that MAGA-style Republican politics, Trumpism, you know, hardcore populist nationalism, nativist appeals, the xenophobia, you know, the whole kind of Trump brand will stay a part of the Republican Party and that, basically, all they need to do is find better, more competent messengers going forward, and they'll be able to put together a winning center-right coalition. That's going to kind of set up the big debate within conservative politics over the next four years. Should the party stay on the track they're on and just get better candidates, or do they need to rethink their entire strategy?
SANDERS: Watching this stuff, I think the throughline for the last four or five years of Trump is that when it comes down to it, he usually outperforms and he does better than his detractors think he will do. You know, his margin in Texas is pretty great. You know, he is - he won Florida. Ohio looks like it's going in his direction. If the lesson of this election, whether Trump wins or not, is that Trumpism does better than many would think, then the next question is, what is Trumpism without Trump? Can Trumpism actually flourish without someone who is as brash and as loud and as Trump as Trump?
COPPINS: Yeah, so that's the question that I have. And I think it's actually harder to disentangle Trump's brand of politics with his personality and his style.
COPPINS: I think they really do go hand in hand. It's funny. When you were talking, you reminded me of something my colleague Adam Serwer tweeted a few days ago, which was he said, the only way Trump wins on election night is if everything goes his way, which up to this point in his life, everything has.
COPPINS: You know (laughter)?
SANDERS: Yeah. I want to ask a little bit about what lessons the news media covering these elections should take from election night and these results. You know, I was surprised, for the last several months, to see all of our reliance on polls so much, even in spite of the polls being so wrong last time. Now it seems that the...
SANDERS: ...Polls are kind of wrong again this cycle. Do you think writ large that, like, the, quote-unquote, "media" has learned lessons after two cycles...
SANDERS: ...That have confounded them - us?
COPPINS: A couple things on that theme, I think, are interesting. So one of them is that I think in 2012, that election was when we saw the rise of the Nates, we'll call them - you know, the - Nate Silver and Nate Cohn, the election forecasters...
COPPINS: ...Who had their models and who were kind of data wonks. And I think the work they do is interesting, and it's valuable. And I think it is often good to be able to cut through a lot of the noise of kind of punditry and, you know, Twitter battles and kind of show the numbers. But when you have two elections in a row where the polls were way off, you have to start in the media, like us in journalism, who are writing stories and talking on the radio or on TV - we have to start to question how much of our analysis should be rooted just in...
SANDERS: In polls.
COPPINS: ...In polls. The good corrective that the kind of polling forecasters achieved in political coverage was that they kind of pushed back against a sort of gut-level punditry. But I do think there is more value in covering the country in the midst of an election - right? - doing actual reporting, talking to people on the ground, unpacking the issues. I've always said - and I (laughter) - people get mad at me when I say this, but I've always said that predicting the outcome of an election is, like, the least-valuable thing a political journalist can do, you know? Like...
SANDERS: And it's not the job of a political journalist.
COPPINS: Right. It's not.
SANDERS: We're not psychics. We're not supposed to be.
COPPINS: Yeah. No, I agree. I agree (laughter).
SANDERS: Coming up, McKay Coppins on what's next for President Trump's campaign and the GOP.
What do we know as of now about what Trump might do next? He's already called for votes to stop being counted, and he says that his team will go to the Supreme Court. Is there any semblance of a strategy for the rest of this week from Team Trump so far that you've heard?
COPPINS: Well, we just saw that the Trump campaign is calling for a recount in Wisconsin. They are...
SANDERS: Oh, I didn't - you saw that. I didn't see it. Wow - breaking news.
COPPINS: That just happened.
COPPINS: The final vote margin was within the threshold where a recount can be requested. So, you know, it's worth following, but I don't think we should expect any major surprises right now. Biden is up by 20,000 votes or so. And past recounts have generally moved votes by the hundreds, not the thousands.
SANDERS: Wow, OK.
COPPINS: So it's unlikely that that will make a huge difference. But there will be legal challenges in Pennsylvania, most likely, about, you know, votes - the mail-in votes and when they're received and which ones can be counted. I expect lawsuits there, expect possibly lawsuits in Nevada. The Trump campaign is being very upfront about the fact that they plan to fight this thing in the courts and take it to the Supreme Court. And what happens there is anybody's guess.
SANDERS: Yeah. You know, I want to talk more about whatever rifts might exist in the conservative movement and the right and the GOP. You know, there - it often seems like there are two parties. There are the Trump supporters that are loud and vocal and wearing their red hats at Trump rallies, and there is this other establishment class that feels very Beltway, and they're the kind of folks that become the anonymous Republican sources...
SANDERS: ...In so many articles about Trumpworld. And they'll go on to anonymously trash Trump whenever he does anything out of, you know, the conventional. What is the establishment, anonymous source Republican Party going through right now, thinking right now, saying right now?
COPPINS: Yeah, you know, it's actually interesting. When Trump went out into the East Room at, you know, 3 a.m. and kind of gave that very Trumpian spiel about how a fraud was being perpetrated on the American public and the election was being stolen and then just said that he had won, my sense is that that did not go over well with those - that Republican establishment. And like you said, that Republican establishment in general is often kind of dissatisfied with Trump and say things private...
SANDERS: And yet they never leave.
COPPINS: Yeah - well, and say things privately that they don't say publicly. You're right about all of that. But I do think that if Trump, in the coming days, is going to try to wage this kind of quixotic, you know, far-fetched battle to, you know, overturn votes or take it to the Supreme Court, he's going to need the Republican Party, including that establishment, to be in lockstep behind him, right?
COPPINS: If it looks like he's going rogue and his party is not on board, it makes it a lot harder to pull off what he's trying to pull off. And there are just a couple little cracks in the foundation that are starting to show through.
I saw just this morning Senator Marco Rubio, who's been a very vocal proponent, supporter of the president, showed up at a rally with him in Florida just a few days ago, tweeted something that basically undermined what the president said. He said that the election will be decided once all the votes are counted, so basically suggesting subtly that what the president is saying is not true.
Even Mike Pence, his vice president, when he was kind of put on TV, you know, right after Trump and asked to kind of back up what he was saying, if you watched, you could tell he wasn't willing to go quite as far as the president. Instead of saying we'd already won, he said, we're on the road to victory, and the votes are still being counted and they're still coming in.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
COPPINS: So I have questions about whether the Republican Party, which has been, you know, completely behind the president, at least in public up to this point, whether they'll be as vocally supportive of this strategy if it seems like Trump is going to lose and this is a losing strategy.
SANDERS: Yeah. You know, going forward, thinking about this, you know, curious and mysterious class of anonymous Republicans who have been quoted so much the last four years, should they be treated differently in the next four years, regardless of whether Trump wins or loses? Like, is this ecosystem in which prominent members of a party can gripe about their leader anonymously but then support him publicly - should the media stop allowing that to happen? Should we be uneasy with that system of reporting on the unnamed sources?
COPPINS: Yeah. Well, so I - there's, like, a whole interesting ethical debate here in journalism. And I think that if you have anonymous sources who are leaking you actual information...
COPPINS: ...About Trump...
COPPINS: ...Or about the White House, I think that that should continue, right? That's how a lot of political reporting happens in Washington - has been true for, you know, decades, right?
As for whether they should continue to be given a platform to just kind of, like, air their grievances anonymously, that's a separate question. You know, I think it sometimes is useful to capture the mood of the party behind closed doors, but when you then see them going out on TV and directly contradicting things that they're telling reporters anonymously, I do wonder at what point reporters are kind of duty-bound to call them out on that and to kind of say, look; if you're contradicting what you're telling me privately and this isn't, like, a matter of serious investigative reporting, it's just kind of you giving me snarky quotes about the president, you know, I feel like I have to kind of point that out to my readers.
But the other thing I would say, though, is that one thing I would watch for in the months and years to come if Trump loses is that a lot of those people, that kind of establishment class of the Republican Party is going to try to memory-hole elements of the Trump presidency, right? They're going to return to, what I care about is classic, timeless conservative principles. And they'll kind of go back to talking about the deficit and worrying about the alleged corruption of the Biden family. And they're going to try to hope that we in the press, who covered the last four years, will be too tired or exhausted by the hypocrisy to point out that they didn't care about any of this stuff when the president was doing it, right?
And I do think that it's part of our role as journalists to remind our readers, when these Republicans start talking about, for example, the deficit, that they completely supported the president's policies and tax bill that blew up the deficit. There are going to be a lot of things like that in the days and weeks and months to come where I think there will be kind of a general Republican amnesia about the past four years.
SANDERS: Coming up, McKay tells me why Facebook might be a better predictor of elections than any poll.
You know, we might not know the results of this election for a few days, but I think that we can already ask and perhaps answer the question, four years in, has the Republican Party been fully remade by Donald Trump or something else?
COPPINS: Yeah, I know. It's - I mean, that is the question, right? I don't know the answer. What I know for sure...
SANDERS: McKay, of course, you know the answer (laughter).
COPPINS: Come on (laughter). You know, don't put me on the spot. I've successfully avoided predictions up to this moment.
SANDERS: OK. OK.
COPPINS: And I don't want to - I don't want to break that streak now.
SANDERS: I hear you.
COPPINS: But what I will say is that there will be a faction of the Republican Party that is fully Trumpified. And they are, by all accounts and indications, not going to just surrender if the president loses. They're going to continue forward and claim victory for Trumpism, regardless of what happens to Trump. And that's going to set up, I think, a serious - you know, a battle within the party. And, you know, we'll see who emerges victorious.
SANDERS: Well - and there's also a question, when you think about the things that Trump campaigned on, you know, is Trump's base, his diehard supporters, are they Republicans or are they populists who could one day with the right candidate be Democrats?
COPPINS: Sure. I mean, if you saw the Democratic Party tack in a more economically populist, kind of vocally populist, anti-establishment direction, you know, adopting the message of Bernie Sanders, for example, AOC, you could see them picking off some element of those supporters. We've seen stranger things in politics over the last decade or so.
But I also think that there's going to be kind of a reckoning within the Republican Party about, you know, how populist really was the Trump presidency, right? There was a difference between the populist message that Trump used to ride into the White House in 2016 and the way he campaigned this year, which I've got to say, like, for all the, you know, criticism that Trump got in 2016, he at least did have a coherent message, right?
It's not clear to me that he had any kind of coherent message in 2020. It was much more kind of an airing of personal grievances and relitigation of all the people who have said mean things about him and then kind of some throwing stuff at the wall about Hunter Biden. But it didn't cohere into a meaningfully populist message. And that might be in part because the way that he governed was not really the way that he campaigned in 2016. And so I think that that same faction I mentioned earlier who says that, you know, Trumpism is here to stay will probably make the case that, you know, the only reason that he lost was because he didn't live up to his campaign promises, and we just need a candidate who will.
SANDERS: So, you know, the last time we talked on this show, you described in detail the extent to which Donald Trump's Web operation was really, really, really sophisticated and thorough and good. And, you know, there was all of this discussion about how they were good at microtargeting, good at kind of getting false information out there, really good on platforms like Facebook. Do we know how well that played this year? You know, there have been some people saying that the pollsters would've gotten it more right if they had looked less at polls and more at the trending stories on Facebook. What's the shakeout with that...
SANDERS: ...Now, a day after?
COPPINS: Yeah, you know, there's a smart reporter at The New York Times named Kevin Roose, who wrote a piece called - or about how Facebook might be the silent majority, by which he meant that, you know...
COPPINS: ...That if you monitored kind of the conversation that was happening on Facebook in the months leading up to the election, it told a very different story than pollsters were telling. And, you know, consistently on any given day, the stories that are circulating most widely on Facebook come from right-wing websites...
COPPINS: ...Kind of propaganda outlets, conservative media personalities. Those are the stories that are most popular almost every day. And they're often amplified by the Trump campaign and his kind of apparatus of allies and advisers and pro-Trump media.
I think that, you know, it's hard to say exactly how effective it was, especially if Trump loses, right? Typically, when we look at campaigns, whoever ends up losing got everything wrong and whoever ends up winning got everything right. That's, you know, generally...
COPPINS: ...How pundits kind of parse these things. But...
COPPINS: ...I think it would be safe to say that if not for these kind of social media platforms that the Trump campaign was very good at kind of manipulating, he would not have done as well as he did.
SANDERS: Yeah. So from covering Trump the first time he ran to covering him now, what is the biggest thing that's changed for you in the way that you conceptualize Trump, the politician, and Trumpism?
COPPINS: Yeah (laughter). Man, you're asking me for some soul-searching now. You know, I have, like, this weird history with Donald Trump because even before he ran for president, back in 2014, I interviewed him and ended up kind of accidentally, because of a blizzard in New York, getting stranded at Mar-a-Lago for a couple days with him. And so I spent a bunch of time with him.
And my impression of him in 2014 was that he was almost kind of like a sad, tragic figure because he was so obsessed with kind of being respected by the elites and being taken seriously. And it seemed like nobody really did, right? And a lot of people say that he ran in 2016 just to prove the kind of losers and haters wrong, right?
I think that what I would say, you know, six years later from - after that interview is that I still think he's obsessed with the same things. I still think he has this massive chip on his shoulder, this status anxiety that he doesn't get the respect that he's due. I think that that is very core to who he is. And I think kind of everybody knows that now.
But what I will say is that in 2014, I think I treated him more like a cartoon character or like a caricature. And by, you know, 2020, it's clear to me that even somebody who seems kind of - for lack of a better word - buffoonish to reporters can still be very effective and, you know, depending on your politics, dangerous, regardless of how cartoonish he may seem, right?
And so I think there has been a shift in the media, especially in the last, probably, year or so as the pandemic arrived and just the mood of the country got much more grim. But there's been a shift from kind of treating Trump's antics as entertainment to taking seriously what he does.
SANDERS: Yeah, I will say that underscores what has been the lesson for me out of election night and the last several years. And it is that one should never, ever, under any circumstance underestimate Donald Trump, the politician. Just don't do it. Don't underestimate him.
SANDERS: Like, I mean, from the start, from birtherism on, he has outperformed, and that's whether you love him or hate him.
COPPINS: Well, and to piggyback off that, doesn't that raise the question about 2024? If he loses - (laughter) you know, I don't want to - I don't know if we need to go there yet (laughter).
SANDERS: First rule about this interview is that you cannot say 2024 yet. Oh, my God - 2024.
COPPINS: I'm just saying he remains eligible for four more years as president if he loses. And so we may not have seen the last of Donald Trump, the candidate.
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SANDERS: McKay Coppins, it is always a pleasure to talk with you. And I'm really grateful for your time on what must be a busy day for you, and I'm sure you're running on fumes. So thanks again. Hope you get some rest soon. Appreciate you.
COPPINS: I'm going to go take a nap. Thanks, Sam.
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SANDERS: Thanks again to McKay Coppins of The Atlantic for that chat. On Friday's episode, we'll talk more about the politics of the left and what happens for them post-election. Stay tuned for that.
All right, this episode was produced by Anjuli Sastry and edited by Jordana Hochman. Listeners, till Friday, be good to yourselves. Step away from your phones. Breathe. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.
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