Transcript

615:

The Beginning of Now
Transcript

Originally aired 04.28.2017

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/615

Prologue.

Ira Glass

So explain this recording and when it was made.

Reid Cherlin

This recording was made in September of 2014 at the Odeon in TriBeCa in New York City.

Ira Glass

That's a restaurant.

Reid Cherlin

It's a restaurant.

Ira Glass

Reid Cherlin was writing a story for Rolling Stone back then, about this not-so-well-known-at-the-time bomb-throwing right-wing news website, Breitbart News. And he was at the Odeon to interview one of the guys who ran it, Steve Bannon. Bannon's now the chief strategist for the President of the United States. So what's he like?

Reid Cherlin

He was very engaging. I've told this story to friends over the course of the past few months, and I think I'm always struggling for the right adjectives. I feel like I want to say charming. I don't think that's actually quite right. He's not a charmer. But he's compelling and looks you in the eye. And he's full of stories. But he's excited. He's amped about everything. And he's this happy warrior type. There's this positivity about him.

So he sat down and he basically just started talking. And I took out my recorder and I recorded it. And he talked for about 90 minutes, and then it was over.

Ira Glass

You write that he had two pens clipped to his shirt collar?

Reid Cherlin

That's true, yes.

Ira Glass

And you write, "over 90 minutes, he barely touched his food and never took off his coat"?

Reid Cherlin

Correct. He really wasn't there for the meal. He was there to talk.

Ira Glass

You barely get a word in edgewise.

Reid Cherlin

Correct. Yeah.

Steve Bannon

Well, we try to make sure the content has the swagger to it. It has a point of view. People come up to me-- we always laugh. We'd say, you don't come to Breitbart for a pat on the head and a warm hug. You know you're coming here-- it's the fight club.

Reid Cherlin

"We're the fight club." "You don't come here for a pat on the head and a warm hug. This isn't NPR."

Ira Glass

Yeah, I noticed he pointed that out. "This is not NPR." He said it more than once.

Reid Cherlin

Yes.

Steve Bannon

We're not NPR. You're not going to come here and say, on this hand this--

Reid Cherlin

I think he was just so into the mission and so fired up about it.

Ira Glass

At the time, Bannon and Breitbart News were outsiders, waging an insurgent war against the Republican establishment, the mainstream media, President Obama. And Bannon gushed enthusiastically about the stories they were breaking, some of which did not seem true at all. Illegal immigrants sick with the Ebola virus crossing the border into Texas. An ISIS plot to kill the Pope. 10 counties in Texas that are controlled by the Mexican drug cartels.

Steve Bannon

First off, there are 10 counties on the Rio Grande Valley that we do not have control of. When I say we do not have control of them, the cartels run them. McAllen, Texas.

Ira Glass

And then he goes on to explain how McAllen is where all the drug lords have their grandmas and their moms. And they all have houses there.

Steve Bannon

It's where all the cartels basically have a truce that that's where their mothers live. That's where the kids are going to school. They got the McAllen Medical Center. They all get their-- all the cartels, all the families of cartels are up in McAllen in broad daylight. It's like prohibition in the '20s. It's not that people-- remember the movie with Sean Connery in the thingamajig where he says, it's not that people don't know where the whiskey is. It's the political will to go beat down the door to get the whiskey.

Ira Glass

I have to say, if this story isn't true, he is sure telling the hell out of it. He's going from this image of their moms are there and their kids are in school, and they're all in the same hospital. And then he goes to this movie reference. He is just pitching this so great.

Reid Cherlin

Yeah. I'm smiling right now listening to it. He is telling the hell out of it, including flying over McAllen and you see a third of it looks like a slum town and a third of it is normal, but then a third of it, you could be flying over Bel-Air and there's swimming pools.

Steve Bannon

Everything's got a pool. It's got a Jaguar and a Mercedes dealer right there, cash only. I think it's the number one Jaguar place in the country.

Ira Glass

Jaguar?

Reid Cherlin

Right. How is he identifying cars from the air? Has he even flown over it, or is this all in his imagination? Also, that's what every place looks like when you fly over it. But in the moment, you're like, wow. And with something like this, it's just a story you can't check. How do you check without being a reporter on the ground who's deeply sourced? You really can't check whether all the cartel lords' grandmas go to the same hospital in McAllen.

Ira Glass

By the way, it is true that some cartel families live in McAllen. But this idea that they've declared some big truce or that law enforcement gives them a pass? That's embellishment. Reid wrote about all this recently in an article he did for VICE News. This is where he works these days. But his original story, the one he was writing for Rolling Stone back in 2014, never got published. He couldn't convince his editors to run it. The whole world of it-- Steve Bannon, Breitbart News-- it all seemed too fringy. Not important. These right-wing agitators with their far-out ideas.

And listen to what seemed completely irrelevant 2 and 1/2 years ago. For the story, Reid went to a party at Breitbart headquarters, a townhouse in Washington, DC, that Bannon called the Breitbart Embassy.

Reid Cherlin

It is a townhouse that looks like any other, really, but I saw some guys in khakis and blue blazers coming in and out with drinks in their hands. And I went in and there was this whole party going on inside. I didn't recognize a lot of people. I recognized Laura Ingraham, the radio host. I recognized Jeff Sessions because years earlier I'd worked in the Senate. And I thought, what is Jeff Sessions doing here?

Ira Glass

Jeff Sessions, of course, an early Trump supporter, now Attorney General of the United States.

Reid Cherlin

I remember Jeff Sessions being just the most marginal member of the Senate that there could be. Just an older white guy from Alabama with totally unsurprising positions. And Sessions did not look super comfortable. Everyone at the party was pretty young, by and large. He was there. He looked kind of out of place. And I just thought, why is he here?

Ira Glass

In fact, he and Bannon, and his staff and the Breitbart staff knew each other. Reid asked Sessions a question or two for his story just to be polite, and Sessions answered. Praised Breitbart. Said how influential it was with his constituents, which Reid assumed was just a courtesy to his host. Reid headed out to the backyard.

Reid Cherlin

Talking to some of the Breitbart writers who were smoking cigarettes with Nigel Farage, head of the UK Independence Party, who was telling me about leaving the European Union, which I didn't think sounded particularly likely. It felt like outcasts.

Ira Glass

At dinner, Reid was sitting next to a fellow named Sebastian Gorka, who seemed full of big ideas, but nice enough. Today, he's a deputy assistant to the president.

Reid Cherlin

He seemed familiar in this college Republican kind of way, which is that I remember, as a college student, there being a small but vocal and proudly uninterested group of campus conservatives who didn't want to hang out with anyone else and who wore bow ties around and whose whole unifying theory was that they understood the truth about the world and no one else did. That was the vibe I got at the party.

Ira Glass

Back in the beginning of this year, when Reid went through his old notes again about the party and the Odeon and wrote up a story for VICE, Gorka did not seem significant. He didn't include him in the story.

Reid Cherlin

Since then, it's been this sort of emergence of Sebastian Gorka in the White House, which has got me thinking, who else was at this party? Who else was hanging out with these guys all the time? And if Sessions was there, I'm sure it was a good bet that Stephen Miller was there.

Ira Glass

Stephen Miller, former Sessions staffer, now senior adviser in charge of domestic policy for the president, who co-wrote President Trump's inaugural address with Steve Bannon.

Reid Cherlin

And at the time, if you'd said, this room is full of the most important future policy thinkers in America, it just would have been so implausible because they were so fringe.

Ira Glass

How did we get to now, with a president who proudly sees himself as a disruptive force, who's out to undo decades of bipartisan policy? Well, part of the story really starts with the people at that party, who were championing economic nationalism, who wanted to curtail illegal and legal immigration, renegotiate trade deals. The beginning of now happened in 2014 with them.

Today on our program, we have the story of the people at that party at the Breitbart Embassy and how, before Donald Trump even announced his candidacy, they took their ideas out for a test run with the voters in a congressional race in Virginia. What they learned and how it got us to today. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. Stay with us.

Act One. The Brat Pack.

Ira Glass

Act One, The Brat Pack.

So obviously, one of the main issues that Donald Trump campaigned on and won on was immigration. Fewer immigrants, essentially, was the idea, as well as a crackdown on anybody who's in the country illegally. But it's interesting to remember that, back in 2014, just two years before Trump became president, the Republican Party was heading in the exact opposite direction. And you can hear it in the way this particular congressman, Congressman Mulvaney of South Carolina, opened this Republican breakfast meeting in his district back then. Mulvaney rode the Tea Party wave into office in 2010. Super conservative Tea Partier. Didn't support John Boehner for the speakership because Boehner worked too closely with Obama. Very conservative guy.

Mick Mulvaney

I want to talk about something that we don't talk about much in the Republican Party, which is fruit. I would like to talk about fruit, because I got a piece of fruit on my desk about a year ago. An unusual piece of fruit-- not something you ordinarily get from South Carolina. We get peaches on our desk all the time. But about a year ago, I got a piece of fruit on my desk. It was a cantaloupe.

Ira Glass

A cantaloupe. Mick Mulvaney got a cantaloupe on his desk right after another member of the Republican Party, Trey Gowdy, had been talking about the children of undocumented immigrants. Dreamers who, he said, sometimes are really successful. Valedictorians of their classes.

Mick Mulvaney

And was interrupted by another member of my party who said, Trey, you know, that's exactly right. But for every one of those who is a valedictorian in their party, there are a hundred of them with calves the size of cantaloupes, carrying 75-pound bags of marijuana across the southwestern border. Every single Republican member of Congress got a cantaloupe on their desk within 24 hours.

Ira Glass

These came from activists who wanted the Dreamers to stay in the United States. They left a cantaloupe on the desk of most congressional Republicans to send a message about how out of touch their party was around the issue of immigration. This audio, by the way, is from a documentary on Frontline called Immigration Battle.

Mick Mulvaney

Think about whether or not that person is ever, ever going to consider voting for a Republican candidate ever again. At some point, we're going to have to figure out that, if you take the entire African-American community and write them off, take the entire Hispanic community and write them off, take the entire gay community and write them off, what's left? About 38% of the country. You cannot win with 38% of the country. We have to figure out how to deal with it as a party. We're losing too many elections. We're writing off too many people.

Ira Glass

In 2014, Mick Mulvaney supported an immigration reform deal, including a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. And at the time, which you can tell from that quote, it seemed like good politics. If you remember right after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 campaign, the Republican Party, led by party chairman at the time Reince Priebus, commissioned this autopsy report. What did we do wrong? How do we start winning elections again?

And one of the big take-homes of that report was this sentence-- "If Hispanic-Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States, they will not pay attention to our next sentence."

Things have changed in two years, huh? Today, both Mick Mulvaney and Reince Priebus work for this guy.

Donald Trump

When politicians talk about immigration reform, they usually mean the following-- amnesty, open borders, lower wages. Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation. That is what it means to have laws and to have a country. Otherwise, we don't have a country.

Ira Glass

So how did the Republican Party reverse itself so fully so quickly on immigration? And why? Well, that is the thing we want to talk about today. That's the thing that happened in 2014, before Trump started running back at the beginning of now-- around the same time as that Breitbart Embassy party. People at that very party made immigration an issue in this one congressional race that we want to tell you about, and it demonstrated the power of that issue of immigration and showed how somebody might use it to win the presidency.

And interestingly, this particular congressional race started off not having much to do with immigration. Zoe Chace explains.

Zoe Chace

You could pick a few places to begin the story of this congressional race, but I'm going to start off on the top of this mountain in Virginia. Ron Maxwell lives up here. He's a movie director.

Ron Maxwell

1,450 feet above sea level. Hi.

Zoe Chace

Hey. I'm Zoe.

Ron Maxwell

Welcome.

Zoe Chace

Thanks.

Zoe Chace

He did the movie Gettysburg 25 years ago. He's a Hollywood guy in the middle of the woods. One of those conservatives who knows a ton of other conservatives-- money people, media people. He's a connector. Good-natured, loud-mouth guy. Has lots of opinions, lots of history books in his study. He's an America First guy, like since way before now. He writes editorials railing at the government, has written a lot about his fear that Mexicans will reconquer the Southwest. But back in 2013, he was focused on something else.

Ron Maxwell

Here was the deal-breaker for me. In the summer of 2013, President Obama was seriously considering bombing Damascus.

Zoe Chace

Ron was focused on keeping the US out of another war. That's a huge part of the America First idea, as you probably know-- staying out of international conflict. In the summer of 2013, President Assad had used chemical weapons on his people. The administration was calling on Congress to give him military authorization. Obama met with the two most important people in the House to get that done-- the Speaker of the House John Boehner, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was from Ron's state, Virginia. Ron was watching the news.

Ron Maxwell

And so he met with Boehner and Eric Cantor went to the White House to meet with him. And after the meeting, Boehner and Cantor stepped out and they said in a joint press conference right on the steps of the White House, we fully support President Obama in his desire to attack Damascus and depose, remove Assad from government. In other words, they were all in.

And I thought, did Eric Cantor consult with the people in his district [INAUDIBLE] we get involved in another Iraq? That's what it would have been. We would have been all in on another Iraq. That, Zoe, was the straw that broke my camel's back. I was like, I can no longer sit by. We're way past writing editorials. This guy needs to be removed from office.

Zoe Chace

This was a really crazy idea. Like, yeah, this is a democracy. Technically, you should be able to vote reps you don't like out of office. But not Eric Cantor. Not the House majority leader. He's got all the money in the world to run an election with. He's got the entire Republican Party behind him. He's an incumbent, obviously. In fact, it had never been done. Actually, in the history of the republic no one had voted out an incumbent House majority leader, a little-known but common-sense statistic.

Ron Maxwell

I was given a lot of reasons to just not go there. But I was already convicted by that point. I was convicted this had to happen. So I made some calls down to Tea Party people that I didn't know. I made some phone calls. They said, well, call Larry Nordvig down-- his Tea Party in Richmond.

Zoe Chace

Larry Nordvig had just become executive director of the Richmond Tea Party. Trim mustache, all business, looks like an airline pilot, which is what he was before he got political. Larry told Ron that, at their Tea Party meetings, he'd sensed some dissatisfaction with Eric Cantor.

Larry Nordvig

I think one of the first meetings, somebody in the back row raised their hand and they said, can you help us get rid of Eric Cantor? That was one of the very first things that happened. And I thought, wow, these people are serious.

Ron Maxwell

And I said, Larry, what's the lay of the land down there in his district? And he said, just, people are angry. They don't like him. They want him to go, so.

Zoe Chace

Not about immigration. Not then.

Ron Maxwell

They were angry, principally, for the bailouts. Cronyism-- that's the issue. It boils down to cronyism. And the fact that he was never around. He never answered anybody's phone calls. He'd get letters like that.

Zoe Chace

Eric Cantor was taking them for granted, paying more attention to donors rather than voters, Larry says. And people just hated him. Again, Larry.

Larry Nordvig

I'm starting to get the feeling if we ran a hat rack with a hat on it, we could probably beat Eric Cantor.

Zoe Chace

And they found a guy. A guy named Dave Brat. At first, he seemed only marginally better than a hat rack. Brat was an economics professor from a small liberal arts college, not a politician.

Pros-- corn-fed, Midwestern, handsome, fan of Ayn Rand, practicing Christian, known within the Tea Party, friendly, not afraid of crowds the way Cantor seemed to be. He wanted to run, actually had been spurned by Cantor over a political post he wanted.

Cons-- very little campaign experience, no Beltway connections, few people knew who he was, no money whatsoever. Oh, and he talks like an economics professor.

So these three guys-- Larry with the mustache, Ron the movie guy, Brat the professor-- met at a Greek restaurant in Charlottesville to hash out their plan. It was emotionally real, Ron tells me. Intense male bonding. They felt very David and Goliath-y.

Ron Maxwell

And the whole power structure, and the whole Republican Party of Virginia would come down like a ton of bricks on all of us.

Zoe Chace

By the end, they had a deal. Dave Brat would be better than a hat rack. Larry would organize the grassroots. And Ron would call donors and his fellow populists in the media.

Ron Maxwell

So we ended that discussion that night by saying, if we're going to do this, nobody can change their mind. Because I said, Dave, you can't change your mind three months from now, because once I open my Rolodex, you can't pull the rug out from under me, because then people are going to say, what was that about? I said, already they're going to laugh at me. If I tell them we've got a candidate to run against Eric Cantor and I call my people, whether I'm asking for money or whether I'm asking for endorsements or whatever I'm asking for, their first instinct is they're going to laugh. And the second instinct is they're going to tell me to go away.

Zoe Chace

Ron didn't call his people right away. First, they wanted to get Brat off the ground. One of the first media appearances was local, and it was a good local story. Wonky random Virginian taking on one of the most powerful guys in Congress.

Anchorman

Dr. David Brat, who is a well-known face here on NBC12. Someone we often use as an expert on economic issues in his capacity as a professor at Randolph-Macon. But today, Dr. Brat is here for a much different reason. He's ready to launch a primary challenge against Congressman Cantor. Dr. Brat, why are you doing this?

Dave Brat

Yeah. Well, you know I've been on over the past five or 10 years, and the campaign is all about economics. I think the people watching know the deficits and the debt is up to $17 trillion dollars. We have severe--

Zoe Chace

Economics. It's not the most electrifying pitch. It's not "Mexican rapists are swarming the border."

Dave Brat

Well, the key to what the leadership is doing-- they're not addressing the main issues that the people want addressed.

Zoe Chace

To add to Brat's potential problems, Larry found a campaign manager with very little experience, just out of college, Zach Werrell, 22 years old. Zach, Larry, and Dave Brat met up at a Panera Bread for 45 minutes, and then Zach was hired.

Zach Werrell

I don't know if there was anybody else going for that job, but two things helped me. I studied economics, so Dave and I were able to talk about stuff. And then, having gone to Haverford, he knew the school was good, and obviously I wasn't an idiot.

Zoe Chace

I talked to Zach on his parents' porch in this small riverside Maryland town. He remembers it was hard for the campaign to get attention.

Zach Werrell

Almost nobody cared. It was hard to get media coverage of anything. We did a press conference in front of Cantor's office and nobody showed up, so we had all of our volunteers pull their phones out and pretend like we had a bunch of media there.

Zoe Chace

By the way, Dave Brat and Eric Cantor both turned down my requests to interview them for this story.

Brat's speeches always started the same way. He'd introduce himself, give some biography, then he'd go through something called the "Virginia Republican Creed," which has six principles. And he'd explain how Eric Cantor was not living up to each one of them.

Dave Brat

This nation was founded on probably three great strands. They all are interconnected. The Judeo-Christian tradition and the moral backdrop of that, the rule of law, and free market economics.

Zoe Chace

Debt, Obamacare, and eventually he gets to immigration. And his big line about it involves crossing his arms to imitate supply and demand curves for labor and wages.

Larry Nordvig

Immigration was not the centerpiece of his campaign announcement.

Zoe Chace

Larry Nordvig, Tea Party guy, says that changed. And he remembers when. They were asking this big donor to give money to the campaign. They laid out three talking points they wanted to build the campaign around under the theme Washington, DC, is broken.

Larry Nordvig

And one of those three bullet points was immigration. And the particular person-- I'm not going to name that person-- the only thing that seemed to stick was the immigration bullet. That was the one that got his attention.

Zoe Chace

The magic word was amnesty. It cast a spell when you said it. Eric Cantor had said he supported a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants. Remember, some kind of immigration reform bill was the party priority. The Reince Priebus report, the cantaloupe speech from Mulvaney. Cantor was on the same team. He was a party guy. To get Hispanic votes, Republicans needed to pass a bill. Kids shouldn't have to pay for the mistakes of their parents, he'd said. In other words, amnesty.

Larry Nordvig

Amnesty was like waving a red flag in front of the crowd. And that donor that we had a meeting with, I know that word was, in particular, brought up during that conversation. Amnesty was seen as the ultimate in unfairness, if you will. Just ignoring the rule of law, which is important to Tea Party-type people. So you say the word amnesty in a speech and you got people's attention. And that was equally true of the media.

Zoe Chace

So they started to hit it, the little team working behind Brat. They started to notice every time they talked about amnesty, they'd get a reaction.

As the campaign got rolling, the Hollywood connector Ron Maxwell decided to call Steve Bannon, who was running Breitbart News. They met at a film festival when Bannon had introduced a showing of Ron's movie. Ron talked to Steve Bannon, and shortly after that, Tea Party guy Larry ran into Bannon at a Tea Party celebration in DC.

Larry Nordvig

I saw Steve Bannon at that event. He had radio interviews going. And it was at that time he basically pointed to a reporter and said, hey, this gentleman here will help you out. Anytime you have anything from the campaign, then just tell it to him. So we kind of had an inroad there with Breitbart starting at the end of February, and it just grew.

Zoe Chace

That was a style Bannon had. You could hear it on this weekly radio show he hosted for Breitbart. He's a good flack. A good publicist. He'll bring on politicians he agrees with and tell them on the air, anything you need, we're here for you. And he took up the Brat-Cantor race as one of Breitbart's crusades, with a very specific goal. He explained it to Reid Cherlin, actually, during that dinner interview you heard at the beginning of the show.

Steve Bannon

We did not think Eric Cantor was going to be beaten.

Zoe Chace

"We did not think Eric Cantor was going to be beaten," he says, but he thought they could get to at least 40% of the vote for Dave Brat.

Steve Bannon

Our thesis was, anything with a 4 in front of it, amnesty's dead for the session.

Zoe Chace

Our thesis was, anything with a 4 in it-- any percentage in the 40s-- amnesty's dead in this session of Congress, he says. Amnesty was Breitbart's word for any immigration reform deal making its way through Congress. His hope was, any chance for a bill would die because other Republicans in Congress would realize the House majority leader almost got ousted because of his support for immigration reform. So that was the goal. Scare Cantor and kill any potential bill.

Breitbart hammers Cantor and amnesty for months. Here are some headlines. "Cantor's 'Pledge' at Center of Secretive Immigration Push, Chairman Says," "Cantor Officially Backs Amnesty for DREAMers Who Enlist."

Matthew Boyle was one of the people writing these stories. I met up with him in DC. He's a total Washington type-- competitive politics reporter in a suit. I asked him, why go so hard on immigration? But he disagreed with the premise of the question. He said they were reading the electorate, calling the shots like they saw them.

Matthew Boyle

We were just better journalists than the rest of the media. We were there ahead of everybody. We saw it months in advance. What we're doing is we're accurately reporting. We're reporting newsworthy, relevant, informative, and accurate and correct information about major political happenings in the United States. What's wrong with that? That's news. And we're better at it than anybody. Like, it's great.

Zoe Chace

Party leaders kept saying an immigration reform bill would save the Republican Party, but hating the bill was incredibly galvanizing for lots of the conservative media. Laura Ingraham, for example, hugely popular talk radio host-- also at that Breitbart party with Steve Bannon, by the way. She was constantly making the opposite argument from Republican leaders. She believed if undocumented immigrants got amnesty and then citizenship, they'd all become Democrats, dooming the Republican Party.

Laura Ingraham

Once Republicans sign on to some comprehensive immigration reform, it's pretty much over for them, because once formerly conservative states are turned reliably Democrat, you're never going to win the presidency again.

Zoe Chace

Immigration was a good ground-game issue, too. Zach, the campaign manager, was collecting signatures to get Brat on the ballot. He'd hit the gun shows in Virginia.

Zach Werrell

You'd go there and be like, hi, we're running against Eric Cantor. Can you please sign our petition? People were like, no. Oh, the debt's really bad. We need to control the debt. I don't care. Do you agree Obamacare sucks? Yeah, but I'm not going to sign your thing. Will you help us get a guy on the ballot who's going to end illegal immigration? Oh, definitely. And that's what I just found. It was so easy.

Zoe Chace

The campaign and the national conservative media were starting to get on the same page. But they weren't really connected yet, besides a few articles in Breitbart and The Daily Caller. It was hard to get out the name of somebody nobody knew, which was Dave Brat.

One night, Zach and a couple volunteers were working late at the campaign office. They were listening to The Mark Levin Show, part of the same Rush/Laura Ingraham genre. He was yelling about amnesty. Here's Zach.

Zach Werrell

We were in the office late, listening to Mark Levin on like a Wednesday. I'm pretty sure that Mark was having one of those moments over immigration, I think.

Mark Levin

This is why they're never going to secure the border. We've already given amnesty. Now we have to secure the border. No, you don't, because there's always going to be new illegal aliens.

Zach Werrell

He started going nuts on Cantor. He was just having one of those moments where he's about to have a stroke. And he's like, is anyone running against this guy? Please, somebody!

Mark Levin

And Eric Cantor-- who's running against Eric Cantor in the Republican primary? Let's find out, Mr. Producer. I'm sure that it will be almost impossible to beat Cantor, but I'm going to endorse this guy and bring him on. This Cantor is the worst. He's worse than Boehner.

Zach Werrell

And I'm like, oh, my god. So we called. I just had everybody in the office stop making volunteer calls and I was like, call the studio. Call the studio. Who all started dialing the studio for like 30 minutes, trying to get through. And then I actually got through, and I was like, Call Screener, there's somebody running against Cantor and I'm running his campaign. And they're like, oh, my god. Let's get him on.

And we got scheduled for like 8:45, the last 15 minutes of his show, on Friday night. So that's like the worst possible 15 minutes in talk radio. And Dave went on.

Mark Levin

Because he's running in the Republican primary against Forrest Gump, a.k.a. Eric Cantor.

Zoe Chace

A Mark Levin fan told me that Mark's always called Eric Cantor Forrest Gump because of the way he talks.

Mark Levin

Now, Mr. Brat, you don't have to call him that. I call him that because that's who he reminds me of. But I understand that you have a PhD in economics. Is that correct?

Dave Brat

Yeah, that's correct, Mark. Thanks for having me on. I got a master's in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary before that, as well.

Zach Werrell

And we raised like $25,000 that night. OK. People are paying attention. And I'll tell you, the thing that got us a lot of the media attention and helped put gas in the tank in the form of donations from around the country was the immigration thing. We'd pitch them the same-- Cantor's been bad on this, this, and this, and they'd go, oh, that. That one of those thises is what we want to talk about.

Zoe Chace

Amnesty.

Zach Werrell

Yeah. And so that's what we harped on him for.

Zoe Chace

The campaign really needed this kind of attention because they had so little money to pay for advertising. Brat started showing up on the radio much more. Laura Ingraham framed his campaign very clearly.

Laura Ingraham

Eric Cantor has expressed his unending sympathy for people who've come here illegally. He claims we have a worker shortage in the United States. These moronic Republicans who continue to latch on to this issue as if the magic illegal immigrant is the elixir for all of our problems. They're going to solve everything because basically they're better than the native-born people.

Joining us now, the man who wants to change all this. Dave Brat challenging Eric Cantor, the current House majority leader. Don't be a brat, Dave. How are you? Good to talk to you.

Dave Brat

Doing great, Laura. Thanks for having me on.

Zoe Chace

Laura Ingraham straight-up endorsed Brat. She did a fundraiser for him. Ron Maxwell, Hollywood superconnector rich guy, had called Laura Ingraham early on. And he tells me he noticed when the Brat campaign really started to pick up speed-- end of May, 2014, when there was that increase of young kids coming across the border, fleeing gangs in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Ron Maxwell

And there was a huge surge of people, and so that was in the news every day. And then it was all, Dave Brat is running against Eric Cantor on this issue. And he'd talk about it. He's saying, you see? There's no control at the border. You guys aren't doing anything about it. Look at this humanitarian crisis we have. All these kids running the gauntlet of coyotes and rape trees and blah, blah, blah, and all that stuff. Then he got more national attention.

Zoe Chace

Rape trees were something Breitbart Texas was writing about a lot in 2014. Trees ominously hung with girls' underwear apparently found along the border. It was not Brat's style to talk about rape trees. He talked about the crisis at the border in his own dense, numbery way.

Dave Brat

The Washington Post reported-- Washington Times, sorry-- yesterday, 60,000 kids are expected to cross the border. $225 a day per child. And big business gets the cheap labor. That's what they want. But who's paying the $225 a day per 6,000 kids that are coming over the border with no parents--

Laura Ingraham

60,000.

Dave Brat

--in what some are calling a humanitarian crisis because Eric Cantor is sending all the wrong signals.

Zoe Chace

At this point, things were heating up in Congress around an immigration reform bill, which included a path to legal status. Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez was doing this countdown until the July 4 recess on the floor of the House every day. You've got 20 days to introduce immigration reform, et cetera. He and some Republicans were working together behind closed doors, trying to get enough votes to pass it. This was the bill that Steve Bannon had said Breitbart was expressly trying to kill.

Eric Cantor, at this point, had seemingly pulled to the right. He opposed a bill that offered citizenship to undocumented immigrants who enlisted in the military and then sent out these mailers to constituents like, I killed amnesty for illegal aliens. Gutierrez then planned a rally in Richmond about a week before the primary election to pressure Cantor to lead the house towards a vote on an immigration bill. Then radio host Laura Ingraham's people called the Brat campaign, said, you'd better be there, too. So Dave Brat showed up to hammer Cantor on amnesty.

Dave Brat

There is no Republican in the country who is more liberal on immigration than Eric Cantor. This race comes down to the defining issue of our time. Virginia is ground zero in the fight to protect American workers. If we want to stop amnesty, then we must stop Eric Cantor on this election day, June 10.

Zoe Chace

Zach, the campaign manager, remembers that Laura Ingraham's producer wrote the speech that Dave's reading here.

Zach Werrell

Yeah, I think the speech Dave read was largely written by Laura's people.

Zoe Chace

That explains a lot, because the way he sounds when he's reading it is maybe the way that she might talk instead of the way that he would talk.

Dave Brat

Eric Cantor saying he opposes amnesty is like Barack Obama saying he opposes Obamacare.

Zach Werrell

Exactly. Dave would give a speech about long-term trends in productivity and wage rates in the United States since 1930 and how there's a market inflection point in 2008, and then she'd be like, oh, my god, Dave. I love economics, but I don't even know what the hell you're talking about.

Zoe Chace

I find it remarkable that Ingraham's people were helping out to this degree. She's a radio host. But her producer, Julia Hahn, was really intense about the issue of immigration. Her name came up whenever I asked about media on the Brat campaign. Zach says he thinks it was Julia who wrote the speech. I couldn't confirm that with Julia.

A year later, she was hired by Breitbart to write about immigration. She still works for Steve Bannon, in the White House now.

At this point, it shouldn't be a surprise to you what happened on election night. But at the time, it surprised a lot of people.

Host

Begin, though, with major political upset for one of the most powerful Republicans in the country, Eric Cantor.

Host 2

Eric Cantor is out of Congress.

Host 3

--defeated by this Washington outsider and Tea Party candidate, Dave Brat.

Zoe Chace

Cantor lost by double digits. He'd spent $5 and 1/2 million. Brat had spent $200,000. You now know-- because of that whole Hillary Clinton thing-- but seriously, money does not buy election results. John Boehner cried, it was widely reported.

When the results came in early, like by 7:45 that night, that Cantor was out and Dave Brat had won, Zach hadn't figured out what to say to the press when they actually won.

Zach Werrell

I was on the phone with CNN and I just was incapable of forming a coherent sentence. I was just so overwhelmed. I was exhausted. I wasn't crying or anything, but I was just so overcome with emotion. I was just like, [BABBLING].

Zoe Chace

The conservative media professionals, though, they knew exactly how to explain it. Here's Laura Ingraham with Megyn Kelly on Fox.

Laura Ingraham

This is a massive wake-up call to the Republican Party if they choose to actually wake up at this point. If they don't-- if John Boehner and Paul Ryan and the rest of the crew in the GOP establishment move forward after this race, with this idea of, quote, "immigration reform," which is a pathway to some type of amnesty, eventually, they will put a wedge down the middle of the Republican Party that will, in my mind, prevent a Republican from winning in 2016, exactly the opposite of what they're contending. So this is an amazing moment for the people. It is not to be discounted as something that happened on a rainy day.

Zoe Chace

As Breitbart said the next day, "Eric Cantor loses referendum on amnesty." Dave Brat won because of immigration. The rest of the media, the networks, and the big newspapers hadn't been reporting on the race very much before this. They didn't see Brat as a serious threat to Eric Cantor. But now that Brat won in a huge upset, they picked up on the conservative media's explanation for why it happened. That it was all about immigration, ignoring all the other issues, starting with Syria, the national debt, people personally offended by Cantor, people feeling ignored by Cantor. Here's ABC.

Abc Analyst

Why did he lose? The big issue was immigration.

Zoe Chace

CNN.

Cnn Analyst

That was the central issue here, that he was insufficiently tough when it came to the immigration issue.

Zoe Chace

That was the story. And as a result of this race and the coverage of this race, any immigration reform bill was doomed. Here's the Washington Post's Robert Costa on CBS.

Robert Costa

I stayed outside of the Republican Study Committee's Wednesday meeting at the Capitol, and every single member I asked on the conservative side of things said no chance for immigration this year.

Zoe Chace

Back in Virginia, the Tea Party organizers resented the idea that it was immigration that had put Cantor out. Brat's campaign manager, Zach, says what the race was really about was that Cantor was ignoring his own district.

Zach Werrell

Laura Ingraham and others-- I'm not denigrating them at all or anything with this statement. But a lot of people would say Dave Brat won because of illegal immigration and that validates everything we're doing. I don't know-- I disagree with that. I think that immigration definitely played a big role in getting attention and money and national focus, but I think that, at the end of the day, it was Cantor's aloof and people saw him as a jerk.

Zoe Chace

There were no exit polls. There was a poll, though, a week before the election of registered Republican primary voters in this district. Illegal immigration was fourth on the list of important issues to these voters, way below Obamacare.

There was also a poll a week after the election after all the media coverage, where half the voters said immigration was a significant reason for their vote, and half said it wasn't. Only 12% said immigration was the main reason they voted for him.

When the immigration deal eventually died, the glow of this victory at Breitbart is hard to overstate. At that party you heard about at the beginning of the show at the Breitbart headquarters in Washington, Jeff Sessions told the reporter who was there, Reid Cherlin, that one of the reasons he was such a fan of Breitbart News was that he believed they were the ones who had killed the immigration deal in Congress.

And then later, at that dinner at the Odeon, pens on his collar, didn't take off his coat, Bannon himself was taking credit for killing the leadership's dreams of immigration reform.

Steve Bannon

We changed the narrative on amnesty. It was number 12 in May, and Memorial Day weekend, it was number 12. And when they did the Gallup poll about interests of the American people, it was not an issue. It was not an issue. The gang of eight was going through. And 90 days later, 120 days later, we've stopped the president of the United States.

Zoe Chace

He's saying illegal immigration was 12th on a list of issues the American people cared about, according to a Gallup poll. And yet, he says, within a few months, we've stopped the President of the United States, meaning stopped President Obama's hope for an immigration deal.

To Bannon and populists around the world, this was hugely empowering. It felt like the first domino knocking down the globalists. A few months later, Bannon was speaking to this far-right conference at the Vatican, and he was asked by an attendee in Vatican City about Eric Cantor's defeat in the 7th district of Virginia.

Steve Bannon

Eric Cantor just wasn't beaten. It was a landslide. And not one, outside of Breitbart-- we covered this for six months, day in and day out. Not one news site-- not Fox News, not POLITICO, no sites picked us up.

And the reason that this guy won is quite simple. Middle-class people and working-class people are tired of people like Eric Cantor, who say they're conservative, selling out their interest every day to crony capitalists.

Zoe Chace

If they could crush Eric Cantor, what couldn't they do? And it meant, when Donald Trump announced he was running for president, Steve Bannon and everyone else who felt vindicated by the Brat race thought he could win. They had already seen it in miniature. Like, here's filmmaker Ron Maxwell, who started this whole thing over Syria. He remembers when Trump announced his candidacy.

Ron Maxwell

I saw that opening speech. And he started in ways that I admit are a little crude, but he brought the issue up of illegal immigration and sovereignty and trade. And he really got on my radar. I said, what a presidential candidate. Jeb Bush? Never. None of the guys. He sounded like Dave Brat. And then, soon after, I got on board. And I was on board for the whole campaign.

Zoe Chace

So he opened the Rolodex and started calling his people, his fellow populists in the media.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace is one of the producers of our program. Coming up, he calls himself homeboy, but actually, I think the more accurate term is OG. Pat Buchanan in a minute from WBEZ Chicago when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, The Beginning of Now, the story of how the people who put Donald Trump into the White House kicked into action in 2014. Meeting at parties, fomenting change, testing their political ideals in the congressional election to defeat Eric Cantor.

Though, some of the ideas that came to the fore in 2014 were uncannily familiar. And that's what we're talking about in this act.

Act Two. Who Tells Your Story?

Ira Glass

Act Two, Who Tells Your Story?

Of everybody all over the world who watched the presidential campaign of Donald Trump last year, I think it's possible that the person who had the eeriest experience of it was Pat Buchanan, because he watched Trump sweep into office championing the same set of ideas that Buchanan ran for president with, and lost with, three different times-- 1992, '96, and 2000. Buchanan is probably best known for a speech that he gave at the 1992 Republican Convention that defined the party and him for a while, decrying that our country was in the middle of a cultural war with homosexuals, abortion, pornography, and radical feminism on one side, and Judeo-Christian values and Republicans on the other.

But his presidential campaigns were about more than that. Here he is in 1996.

Pat Buchanan

We had one year of NAFTA. After one year, 300,000 jobs are gone. In addition to that, illegal immigration is soaring, narcotics pouring in.

Ira Glass

He's got Trump's whole agenda. Buchanan wanted to quit trade deals like NAFTA, stop companies from relocating factories overseas, get tough on immigration, phase out foreign aid, make our European allies pay for their own defense, build a wall on the Mexico border, stay out of foreign wars, recapture Washington from the moneyed political class and make it serve the forgotten middle class. And his slogan? You ready for this? America First.

Pat Buchanan

So today we call for a new patriotism where Americans begin to put the needs of Americans first, for a new nationalism--

Ira Glass

So that "America first" passage, do you recognize what speech that was?

Pat Buchanan

It sounds like an announcement speech in New Hampshire, '92 or '96.

Ira Glass

It was his first presidential announcement in '92 in Concord. Producer Zoe Chace and I talked to him in his home in McLean, Virginia-- right next to the CIA, he told us. And it was pretty close. A house with white columns and a living room full of political souvenirs.

Pat Buchanan

See over there, that piece of glazed glass there?

Ira Glass

A red, white, and blue stained glass windowpane was on the coffee table in the living room with his old slogan on it.

Pat Buchanan

"America First, 1992."

Ira Glass

A painting of Buchanan on the campaign bus in Iowa was above the fireplace. Photos of him traveling with Richard Nixon to China, when he was one of Nixon's closest advisers and strategists. A photo of him in a huddle with Ronald Reagan, back when he was in the inner circle of that White House. He was communications director. In the picture, they're going through a speech that he'd hastily rewritten after the Reykjavik arms talks ended badly.

Pat Buchanan

And I had these cards. Put this card here, sir, and this card there. And we were trying to figure it out.

Ira Glass

Back when Ronald Reagan became president, it was widely acknowledged that the ideas that he had run on had been championed by Barry Goldwater when he ran and lost 16 years before that.

Donald Trump ran 16 years after Buchanan's final campaign. And for months now, Zoe and I have wondered why, except for an article here or there, Buchanan wasn't getting more credit. He told us, yeah, of course he noticed. It was his old platform right from the first day Trump announced.

Pat Buchanan

When he came down the escalator and he began talking about the trade deficits, he began talking about border security, about building a wall on the border. There was a Buchanan fence. It was economic nationalism or economic patriotism.

Zoe Chace

And so did you think like, hey, there it is? Or were you like hey, that's mine?

Pat Buchanan

Well, did you recognize it? Sure you did. When he says "America first," people were calling up. And so I was elated. I was all for Trump. And I come from a big family, nieces and nephews, and I got-- Uncle Pat is as happy as a p-- [LAUGHING] Uncle Pat is as happy as he could be watching what's going on. I mean, he really raised and elevated these issues.

Ira Glass

So you're not feeling overlooked?

Pat Buchanan

No, not at all. I'm delighted. [LAUGHING]

Zoe Chace

This is my last try with this "aren't you mad you didn't get credit?" question. When people talk about Trumpism, do you think like, hey, that's really Buchananism? Does that ever happen?

Pat Buchanan

No. Look, he won. He won. [LAUGHING]

Ira Glass

Why do you think he was able to win on a platform so close to yours? What's changed?

Pat Buchanan

What's changed is, instead of 3 or 4 million illegals in the country, you had 11 and 1/2 million. They're in every city and town of America, and everybody suddenly realizes it. So it's now the disaster of these policies, the returns are in. When you lose a third of your manufacturing-- the greatest manufacturing power in the history of man-- everybody knows it. You can point to the reality-- you can point to the reality. You don't have to say this is what's going to happen if you do this. What we predicted came to pass.

Ira Glass

So it's partly the issues. When he ran, Buchanan said the issues hadn't matured. But he readily acknowledged that Donald Trump was a special candidate and had all kinds of assets as a candidate that he hadn't had. Lots of money. He was better known. Buchanan mentioned Trump's plane a few times. Apparently, when you run for president, having your own airplane is very, very helpful.

Buchanan is an accomplished speechwriter and has written some famous presidential addresses that are careful and substantive and reach for grand themes. And I thought maybe Trump's off-the-cuff, not-deeply-informed-on-the-issues speaking style would be repellent to him, but he said no. He admires the spontaneity. The catchphrases.

Pat Buchanan

Like, "and Mexico's going to pay for it." It was a very effective speech. And it's riveting, and it's very interesting and entertaining. He's a great candidate. There's no question about it.

Zoe Chace

When you were talking about seeing Trump's announcement coming down the escalator--

Pat Buchanan

Mhm.

Zoe Chace

When he talked about Mexican rapists, what was your reaction to that?

Pat Buchanan

It was jolting. But it was-- you said that-- look, this is a guy that's not been sandpapered in politics. And it's raw. People have different assets. And he's got the ones that are-- from never having been in politics, it's got a real freshness to it.

Ira Glass

But did you have moments where you were just like, ooh, don't do that?

Pat Buchanan

Look, very early on, you caught on. And my feeling was, look, this is the last chance for the ideas that I advocated and championed, and they've matured, these issues have, and he's the sole individual that's carrying them, and this may be the last chance for them, so I'm going to cut him an awful lot of slack. He's, culturally and socially, a different kind of guy than I am, but I'm for him, and so I'm going to stick with him right to the end. And this is the last chance. And it is a chance. It's a long shot, but it is a chance.

Ira Glass

When Buchanan says it's the last chance for these ideas, what he means is the country's problems have gotten so bad. So many jobs have gone overseas. So many factories have closed. And so many immigrants have already arrived. He's against that. In a number of books, he's written with alarm about America becoming a less white, more diverse country. "We are so divided already," he says, "and this divides us more."

There's another one of his ideas that's come back in the age of Trump, championed by Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions and a world of radio talk shows and websites and Breitbart News. This idea that immigrants are destroying our country's Judeo-Christian values because they don't assimilate because of multiculturalism.

Pat Buchanan

As I say, if you go back to 1960, the melting pot worked. The melting pot stopped working.

Ira Glass

I don't know. When it comes to this country, when you make the argument of, whoa, our country was better off when we were majority white and Judeo-Christian?

Pat Buchanan

I think majority European, right.

Ira Glass

And why is it better? Just lay out the case. Why is that better?

Pat Buchanan

Well, maybe it's preference. I feel more comfortable. I'm a homeboy, and I feel more comfortable with the folks you grew up with.

Ira Glass

I don't know. I mean, I say with respect, the people who I meet who are supposedly so different, they just never seem that different to me. They really don't. They seem very American to me.

Pat Buchanan

So he's a Davos guy. [LAUGHING]

Ira Glass

No, don't have the money for that, sir. Definitely not.

Davos-- that's the place in Switzerland where millionaire elites meet once a year supposedly to plot their globalist, free trade, one world, no borders, George Soros, Bono agenda. In this living room, that is a big diss.

The other problem from Buchanan's perspective, with the country becoming less white, is political. Buchanan's been a serious student of political demographics. He's one of the people who rose from the ashes of Goldwater's defeat in 1964 and figured out a new combination of demographic groups that could propel Richard Nixon into the White House in 1968.

And when he looks at the demographics today, he considers the possibility of more Latinos and other immigrants becoming part of the electorate. He agrees with the Republicans that you've heard this hour who believe that that does not look good for their party.

Pat Buchanan

North Carolina is shifting. Georgia is shifting demographically. The American Southwest is shifting. The Hispanic vote is growing. It's going to be almost impossible to win. Trump won, but he lost by 3 million votes. And 80,000 votes the other way and we'd still be talking about the eternal lock the Democratic Party's got on the presidency. In other words, they have a problem, the Republican Party. It's far harder for me to solve than the one I saw after Barry Goldwater. You could see the path-- the path up the mountainside there. I don't see it now.

Ira Glass

There's another way that Trump represents the last chance for Buchanan's ideas. If the Republican Party does not attract more nonwhite voters, it's hard to see how they're going to continue to win the White House. And this is something really interesting about where Republicans are right now, even in this moment of triumph they're having, where they have the White House and both houses of Congress and so many state houses and governor's mansions around the country.

When they look at the future, they're still looking down the barrel of the same dilemma they had in 2014, back at the beginning of now. The party is still wrestling with the same issue that got Eric Cantor knocked out of office. They have to choose between two policies, neither of which seems like it solves their national political problems. If they stay tough on immigration, they think they'll kiss off most of the Latino vote, which will doom them. Though, if they provide a path to citizenship, they believe those new Latino voters mostly will be Democrats, and that'll doom them.

Ira Glass

So what do you think the Republican Party should do? Should they try to reach out beyond the white vote that they have?

Pat Buchanan

I think economic nationalism is the future-- the kind of appeal Trump made to nationalism-- America first.

Ira Glass

To be clear, he's saying, do everything you can to keep jobs in the US. Quit trade deals like NAFTA. Impose tariffs on imported goods. And if that boosts the economy, it's going to help everybody and appeal not just to white people, but voters of all races who might decide then to vote Republican. It's not white nationalism, he says.

Pat Buchanan

You can't have white nationalists if they're diminishing as a share of the population. It's American nationalism. The one winning hand the Republicans have, I think, is going to be American nationalism.

Ira Glass

If that works, it's basically more Trumpism, more Buchananism going forward into the future. Though, Buchanan, he's the first to admit, is a pessimist. This really might not work, he says. The demographic problems the party's facing are so profound. And if this doesn't work, the now that we're in right now-- the whole "Donald Trump, America first, reject the rest of the world, wall up the borders" America-- that will not be the future, for the country or the party. It'll just be a blip.

Pat Buchanan's newest book, by the way, is history that he participated in himself. It's called Nixon's White House Wars-- The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever. It comes out in a week.

Let's close out today with one last clip. This is the night before the 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego. The candidate's telling the crowd that, even though he didn't win the Republican nomination, his ideas about America first, they still had a future.

Pat Buchanan

Before our eyes and before their eyes, this party is becoming a Buchanan Party. The old era is over. The old order--

[APPLAUDING WILDLY]

The old order is passing away. But within this party, a new party is being born. God willing, God willing, we will be there at its birth, and one day, the stone the builders rejected shall become the cornerstone.

[MUSIC - "HOW IT STARTS" BY CAMEO CULTURE]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by our senior producer, Brian Reed. Our staff includes Susan Burton, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Neil Drumming, Kimberly Henderson, Stephanie Foo, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Research help today from Christopher Swetala and Benjamin Phelan. Music help today from Damien Graef.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he came with me to synagogue for Passover this year. He did not enjoy it.

Mark Levin

This Cantor is the worst!

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.