Exclusive Interview with Dana Milbank
Dana Milbank is an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post. In addition to writing for The Washington Post, Dana provides political commentary for multiple TV outlets and has authored three books on politics. He just released his most recent book, The Destructionists: The 25-Year Crackup of the Republican Party, where he analyzes Republican efforts to hold on to political power by any means necessary. Prior to working for the Washington Post, Dana spent two years as a senior editor at the New Republic, where he covered the Clinton White House, and eight years as a reporter with the Wall Street Journal, where he covered Congress and was a London-based correspondent. This week we ask Dana questions about his work and new book.
Can you talk a bit about your career path and how you got into political reporting and becoming a columnist?
Well, starting from the beginning, I was a Jewish boy on Long Island, so I was supposed to become a doctor and then I got a C in chemistry in college, and that put an end to that. So, I had to find something new and eventually found my way to journalism. I was lucky to start out at the wall street journal and spent eight years with that newspaper. I then went to the New Republic, a small magazine on politics. And, after just two years there, I moved over to the Washington Post where I've been for now 22 years now. I've worked as a political writer, and I covered George W Bush's first term in the White House as a White House reporter. I've been doing this column for now about 17 years and halfway through that move to the editorial page.
Congrats on your new book! Can you tell us what your inspiration was for writing this book?
Well, this is the Washington that I lived with. I moved here in 1995 just as, Newt Gingrich and the, uh, Republicans were taking over in the House. That's the period that I write about basically from 1995 through the current day. So, it was an exercise that I wanted to do because of the Trump era and all the trauma that we are undergoing as a country and as a democracy right now. Everybody asks the question: how did we get here? And I believe this answers that question. The central idea is that Trump did not create this but, rather, he is a product of this. He is a symptom of this. This was created by a lot of bad decisions by people over a quarter century ago. Some of them were even earlier decisions, some of these go back to the 1960s. Really, it was a series of decisions that took us on this path towards this predominant disinformation towards dysfunction, towards this constant vitriol treating your political opponent as if they're the enemy as if they're traders to the country , this constant erosion of our democratic, structures and institutions, increasing violence and authoritarianism, and an increasing sense of white nationalism, or at least bringing that out into the open and making it legitimate as a part of the political discourse. All of this, really accelerated under Newt Gingrich continued in the Bush years, particularly with people like Carl Rove and Dick Cheney and even establishment figures like, uh, Mitch McConnell. Then, we come to the present day with Donald Trump, who is essentially just imitating what he has been seeing and what the base has been telling him that they want. He remade himself just to become what the Republican party wants. Whatever happens to Trump whenever he goes away, because eventually he goes away, the problem doesn't go away. That's what the Republican party is living with right now. It's not about person, it's about this sort of cancer that has taken over.
Tell us about the writing process for a book like this.
Well, I spent a lot of time going through my notebooks, which is more of an electronic exercise in this age and going through past things I had written for those various publications. Over this time, reading more and more contemporaneous material and histories of that time, I found that things that I remembered occurring they've taken on a whole different meaning now and a whole different context.
So, what do we do now? What can we do to fix this?
I mean, look, there are any number of fixes that could be put into place if you had a system that was on the level and everybody's participating, and everybody wants the preservation of our democracy, but you have one of the two major parties that is not on board with that, that is no longer participating in the American experiment. So, look in the long run, I think things will work out, but basically because you must be optimistic, but also a lot of what's driving this is the demographic changes, as America is shifting gradually to becoming a white minority country and that's going happen in another 25 years or so. The question is what is left of our democracy by the time we get to that? That's the other reason I wanted this book out there is to tell people you must get engaged here now. Yes, that means voting, but that's the floor, that’s the very minimum. I think we all must do whatever it is to protect the institutions of democracy.
How does the media and the way people obtain news play into all of this?
There’s no question that the changes I've described in the book cannot be separated from the media environment that they came with. You know, first you had conservative talk radio. Then you had the Drudge report, then you had Fox news and and all the other ones. And of course, social media is putting everybody into silos. So you are never exposed to any information that is not confirming your worldview or your biases or your own.
Additionally, due to the nationalization of news, we've lost so many local newspapers and local TV stations are not what they used to be. People don't have that sense of shared news in their community. The nationalization fuels this notion that everybody's fighting all the time and it diminishes what people actually agree about. These are all changes, that are hurting us. Uh, you know, so there's, there's, uh, movement underway. One of the many potential solutions is to rebuild local news. There’s several things that can be done to reverse the situation. It's just a question of whether we can succeed in doing that.
Do you have any book or podcast recommendations for our listeners?
I read whatever is put in front of me. I read a mile wide and an inch deep to keep track of things. Although, when I am writing three days a week, I often don't even want to pick up a a book so I do a lot of reading and scanning newsletters, just so I I'm aware of what’s going on. Then when I'm writing on a particular topic, that's when I dig in deeply. During these times I try to avoid social media. Other than posting my columns on Twitter and Facebook, I hardly ever look at either of social media. I may miss a few things but it’s better for my sanity to avoid that. I avoid that and cable news for the same reason – it’s just better for my own sanity,
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