Jim VandeHei, co-founder of Axios and co-founder and former CEO of Politico, says the No. 1 question he gets from people these days is: “When did politics go batshit crazy?” He thought it couldn’t get any worse when in 2010, after Sarah Palin announced she was thinking of running for the presidency and he wrote about how Republicans were horrified at that thought, she Tweeted a shockingly nasty email about him, VandeHei.
That’s about the time the circus of celebrity/reality show politics began, said VandeHei, speaking at the American Apparel & Footwear Association’s (AAFA) annual summit last week at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Eight years later, things have certainly devolved, he says, but notes that the divisiveness and tribalistic scenario we find ourselves in today was not of Trump’s making, and started long before he came to office.
Still, the current White House is an anomaly unto itself on many counts. For one, says VandeHei, who’s connected daily to members of the White House staff (although not after 8:00 a.m., when apparently Kellyanne Conway collects all staff personal phones so they cannot share information during the workday), “I’ve never met a group of people who leak more than this White House,” which he says offers a “play-by-play” lens into the goings-on of the Executive office. Why is this happening? Two reasons, he says. One, it’s therapy for the staffers, who are watching the craziness and infighting and want to talk as a way to deal with it.
But the second reason that there are so many leaks, he says, is that Trump just doesn’t care whether his staffers talk or not. He cares about just one thing, says VandeHei, and that is simply that you cannot “make it seem like you’re bigger than the big guy.” Why was Steve Bannon out? Because TIME Magazine published its front cover with Bannon, indicating that he was manipulating Trump like a puppet, says VandeHei.
But really, how’s Trump doing?
If you, say, took a really long nap on election day and hadn’t woken up until now, you probably wouldn’t be alarmed. “All of the things he’s done are pretty basic Republican stuff,” he says. “It’s a fairly conventional presidency. … If you just looked at the indicators, you’d think ‘we’re killing it.’ Consumer confidence is high, the stock market is up, things are really going relatively well,” he says.
“But that’s only half the story. It’s probably not as dark as Carl Bernstein laid out for you, but it’s real.” (Investigative journalist Bernstein also spoke at the AAFA event, held at the Watergate Hotel. That’s Carl Bernstein. Speaking. At the Watergate Hotel. If you missed that the first time.)
Trump “is as improvisational as you think he is,” says VandeHei, to the point that people have given up trying to state his position on any issues. For example, after telling the NRA he’s not planning to do anything about limiting gun ownership, he then suggests taking weapons off of people in the street.
The only thing he’s been consistent about for 20 years is that he wants tariffs, says VandeHei. “He thinks the Chinese are screwing us.” He keeps saying, “give me tariffs,” and gets talked out of it each time, but now he wants to do it, he says.
Inside the White House, “the internal chaos is worse than you think it is,” says VandeHei. There is infighting and lack of communication. “Kelly requires [White House staff] to turn in their phones at 8:00. The chief of staff hates that Ivanka and Jared are advisors to the President. [Trump’s] kids hate that Kelly tells them how to behave. The State Department is feeling totally isolated. … There’s constant chaos, which feeds the improvisation. The White House is very much a reflection of him. That’s real.”
But the part that isn’t real? The idea that Trump has a mental illness and is deteriorating. He’s no different today than he was last year or 30 years ago, says VandeHei. “People ask, ‘When is it going to change?’ Never! It is never going to change. … The White House grays you, it humbles you. It always humbles the occupant. Not Trump. … He prefers his own house, his own plane. … There’s nothing different about him. No new approach, no new view of the Constitution. The idea that he is slipping? I don’t see signs of it,” says VandeHei.
“Every day is Groundhog Day.” It’s the same fights, the same scenarios. The media hated him then, they hate him now. The democrats hated him then, they hate him now. His base loved him then, they love him now.
“Depite all the talk of impeaching, Trump may be around six years from now.”
So, what should we really be paying attention to?
Beneath the the daily flow of Trump Tweets and media responses lie real problems that are concerning, and will have consequences, depending on how situations develop. These are the three things you and your companies should be attentive to:
1) Staffing. Key government agencies are significantly understaffed. “Most of the good people are leaving … and when they leave, it’s hard to get anybody to take those jobs.” Why? Because they a) wouldn’t have the power to do what they wanted and b) would probably have to “lawyer up” to deal with ongoing federal investigations. “When shit happens, that’s when you get tested,” says VandeHei. We simply do not have staff in place to deal with issues and emergencies that will emerge.
2) North Korea. “There is a better chance we will wind up in nuclear war than people estimate,” says VandeHei. It’s not just Trump who thinks this. It’s national security advisor Herbert McMaster too. There’s not a scenario in which the United States allows North Korea to have a missile with nuclear capability to reach us. And “our intel committee missed that they might be less than a year away,” he says. So something has to happen. “Obama told Trump that the only thing that mattered is North Korea.”
3) FBI Director Robert Mueller. “The third threat [relates to] Mueller. The investigation is real and sprawling and it’s going to take down a lot of people, and it has the potential to lock up a lot of resources for years,” he says. Something important to keep in mind is this: “Mueller and his folks do not leak.” What you hear in the press is “crap” based on conjecture, which is in turn based simply on knowing what questions Mueller is asking. Of course he’s going to ask about HRC’s emails, about Comey, about everything. But no one knows what he is actually doing. “When he announced he was indicting Russians, no one knew that was coming. He’s way more menacing than you think to Trump.”
While VandeHei notes that he “wouldn’t want to be Paul Manafort or Jared Kushner” right now, he also says it’s highly unlikely that Trump will be removed, unless Robert Mueller actually finds that he is behind illegalities during the election process. The only way to remove Trump is to impeach him in the House and prosecute him in the Senate. “If this is just about obstruction of justice, or meetings that were sloppy, I think [the Republicans] will have his back,” he says.
“Trump will fire Mueller if he wants. He will do whatever it takes to protect himself. We are months if not a year from finding out, I think. You have to assume Trump finishes his term.” One thing you can take to the bank, says VandeHei, is that his approval rating will never dip below 35 percent. “His base loves him.”
As for the dems, VandeHei does not think they are responding well. On the one hand, pushing the “derangement syndrome” is not an effective way to counteract Trump, while another democrat reaction — to become even more liberal ― is not working either. “I don’t think the country is screaming for wide open borders and bigger government and a single-payer [health care] system.”
In states that have elections this year, if people have to choose between a “Trumper” candidate and a far liberal, they may go for the former, he says.
“Tribalism is very hard to fix in the short term, and tech has exacerbated things.”
So, what’s the heart of the problem?
Nowadays, people don’t believe real news.
“If there is not a common truth, if we can’t agree on those fundamental facts, you can’t govern. The fact is that it’s so easy to manipulate people,” says VandeHei, who shared that his own brother called to ask him if it were true that the students who were speaking out after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., were plants.
“Facebook, Twitter, Google. They’re great, I use them, but they’re dangerous. I don’t know if the Russians influenced the election. But 19 of 20 most-read stories were fake. Most people were manipulated by fake information.”
Facebook and Google are two of the biggest monopolies in the history of mankind. You can’t police content from 2 billion people. “People say, ‘oh [the Russians] paid [to post that content].’ Not much. You can even do it for free. You can do it for good, or to manipulate mass opinion.
“The Russians and the Chinese aren’t stupid. They know sometimes we can be. They’re going to continue to take advantage of that.
“We need to think. Do we need more regulation? More disclosure? I worry about the long-tail effect of that.
“Students are bitching, but you are sitting with more opportunity and more prosperity than at any time in history. Yes, there are pockets [in the country where unemployment is high and there are more severe problems. But the level of prosperity we enjoy] doesn’t last forever. If we go through another 10 years of not fixing education, making sure our tech is [advancing], the Chinese will eat our lunch. They’re clever in stealing our tech. They’re way ahead of us on AI. This stuff has to be changed quickly. We are the superpower now, but staying there is not guaranteed. We have to make some changes.”
How do we get out of this tribalism?
All of this has nothing to do with Trump, says VandeHei, who identifies the tipping point into our extremely politically bifurcated society a decade ago. That’s when 1) technology started moving faster than the human brain is capable of keeping up with; 2) when the media began to show its left and right tendencies, instead of just reporting the news and when 3) platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Google started to take off.
“What changed was, pre-then, if you had a stupid opinion, you couldn’t really share it with a lot of people. Now every jackass with an opinion, you can share it with 2 billion people. Those things were set in motion, and they’re really hard to undo.”
To correct it, well, the political markets really have to correct themselves. “We have to elect sane people. Maybe we have to break into three or four parties. Maybe we just all collectively realize that a lot of stuff happened in the last decade and we need to fix some of these fundamentals. We’re only a few tweaks away from being in the right position [in so many areas.]”
Focusing on 5G, and the world to come
For example, yes, we have an immigration problem, says VandeHei, “We have to figure out how to get the best people here to start as many companies and jobs as possible. We have to get people to get set up for the world to come.” Rules and regulations have to be created to accommodate an era where everything is globalized.
“The minute you get to 5G, you get to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times the computing power [of what we have now]. How do you get into a position to make sure that we can take advantage of all of these things to turn India and China into buyers instead of threats?”
Moving forward will require that each person takes responsibility for him or herself. If you read a story on Facebook and you don’t know if the source is trustworthy, don’t share it. “You have to take ownership,” says VandeHei. It also will require that platforms take better measures, either through regulation of self-policing, to make sure they are not being manipulated.
Additionally, we as a nation need to be intolerant of politicians who lie, says VandeHei, rather than using it as an excuse to let our own behavior deteriorate.
Finally, he says, the media needs to re-earn the public trust. News writers used to fact check. Now they give their opinions. “I don’t care what your opinion is of Trump or Clinton. We don’t need your opinion.” If the media would just report the facts, the people will begin “to trust us again,” he concludes.
Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected].