Where the Wild Things Are

It’s hard to imagine a worse election cycle for this sort of project. McKay Coppins, a political reporter with BuzzFeed News, has produced, in The Wilderness, an expansively reported preview of the 2016 Republican-primary campaign, focusing on people generally considered by the smart set to be the most likely contenders for the nomination. But Coppins began work on his book years before the first primary vote would be cast, and it was released a month before the Iowa caucuses. Meanwhile, over the course of 2015, former reality-television personality Donald Trump, having reinvented himself as a sort of Twitter-era Joe McCarthy by way of Don Rickles, has exploded the carefully laid plans of both the GOP establishment and the insurgent-outsider wing of the conservative movement—which at this point is nearly as established as the GOP’s “grown-up” leadership caste, or at least equally well funded.

Coppins has sort of tried to write a Game Change (the gossipy postelection best seller–turned–franchise launched by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin after the 2008 presidential campaign) before the game even commenced. Unfortunately, the smart set’s pre-Trump theory of the campaign is no longer operative, and Coppins, stuck with quite a lot of pages about (noncandidate) Representative Paul Ryan’s spiritual awakening on the subject of poverty in the United States, has not a single word about Dr. Ben Carson, the respected neurosurgeon and amateur Egyptologist who, as November ended, was still clinging to second place in most national polls and running neck and neck with Trump in Iowa.

I suppose the justification is that the book isn’t just a prediction of how the 2016 primaries will play out but a study of the broader fight for the soul of the Republican Party. Still, I suspect that most of the Ryan material remains in the final draft because Coppins got great access to Ryan and was understandably reluctant to completely dispose of the product of countless reporting hours.

Coppins has good reason to be attached to his reporting. This is not a quickie campaign cash-in. He spent a lot of time with a lot of sources. He (and his researchers) tracked down candidates’ old friends from school. He even found (and read!) Governor Bobby Jindal’s master’s thesis. (In it, Jindal makes a philosophical case for a government-regulated national-health-insurance system that resembles Obamacare. If Jindal were still running for president, that might have dominated an afternoon news cycle.)

Overall, Coppins shows himself to be just as capable of this sort of thing as the Heilemann-Halperin team is (his prose is less plodding and cliché-dependent than theirs, too). And he presents a convincing, if overly credulous, portrait of each of the people he chose to cover. Even Carly Fiorina’s disastrous tenure as Hewlett-Packard CEO is described as merely “marked by tumult.”

In addition to chronicling the non-start of the Ryan candidacy, The Wilderness goes most in-depth on Jindal, Senator Rand Paul, and Senator Marco Rubio—these being, in all likelihood, the candidates who granted Coppins the most access. The rest of his would-be contenders (Donald Trump, Governor Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, Senator Ted Cruz, and a surprise guest appearance from none other than Mitt Romney) get biographical sketches and some action scenes, along with a few Bob Woodward–style internal-monologue snippets (“ ‘Pansies,’ thought Chris Christie”), but they are largely the supporting cast—or even antagonists—to our main characters. Christie is a foil to Paul, for instance, and Bush is the Florida pooh-bah whose ruthless inner circle subjects Rubio to a harrowing whisper campaign involving a supposed secret second family.

This sort of book is immediately pored over for “previously unreported” campaign-news hole filler, and bits of The Wilderness, like the details of that Rubio whisper campaign, have already been picked clean by the political press. Indeed, the marketing materials for such books even point reporters directly to the best of those scooplets, so that Politico’s Mike Allen doesn’t have to read the whole thing to find the page where Fiorina indirectly calls Sarah Palin “stupid.” If you like this sort of political reportage, there’s plenty of fun color. “Romney had a really shitty plane,” Trump tells Coppins. Paul’s top aides used to keep his Twitter password “locked away in a filing cabinet” and “hidden from the senator himself” to prevent him from ever broadcasting his unfiltered thoughts, which tend toward the conspiratorial.

But there’s also some genuinely interesting dirt for the reader who considers politics a clash less of personalities than of powerful interests, including an inside-the-room account of Senate negotiations over the (doomed) 2013 immigration-reform package. It may not surprise anyone to learn that US senators are petty, thin-skinned, and self-important, but the depth of the master politician’s contempt for people actually affected by government action (or inaction) is rarely revealed as plainly as it is in a passage on Rubio’s growing fondness for New York senator Chuck Schumer:

Rubio had bonded with the New Yorker over their shared disdain for the perpetually dissatisfied immigration activists who kept showing up at both senators’ public events to wave signs and shout things at them because they had not perfectly conformed to their agenda. In private, Schumer would often boast mischievously about how he used the term “illegal immigrants”—over the strong objections of progressives, who preferred softer adjectives like “undocumented”—just because he knew it made the activists upset.

The idea that immigration activists may be “perpetually dissatisfied” because the American political system has thus far failed them with a maddening consistency isn’t worth bringing up. In official Washington, to be disappointed is to care too strongly about actual outcomes, and that takes the fun away from the game of deal making.

Marco Rubio at his portrait’s unveiling, Florida House of Representatives, Miami, 2008.
Marco Rubio at his portrait’s unveiling, Florida House of Representatives, Miami, 2008. Mark Foley/Florida House of Representatives

This is where the much-derided practice of access journalism proves useful. A source with nothing to lose—Rubio has already decided not to seek reelection to the Senate, no matter what happens next November, and has no particular political interest in protecting Schumer’s standing among liberals—will sometimes share a revealing peek behind the curtain. It’s also the sort of scooplet Coppins can land partly because he is extremely generous in his treatment of his subjects. Coppins’s own politics are undisclosed, possibly thanks to his online employer’s adherence to an archaic policy of complete objectivity, but he has an obvious empathy for conservatives, and, given his sources and subjects, they appear to trust him. By and large, Coppins takes them at their word. In The Wilderness, almost no one is a fraud, a liar, or even particularly cynical. (Besides Donald Trump, that is.) When Jindal makes his abrupt about-face from purported technocratic “idea man” to fire-breathing populist culture warrior—a move pegged to the national outrage around the Duck Dynasty idiots and transparently designed to endear him to Iowa evangelicals—we are told that “he truly and fully believed every word he was saying.” Maybe he did, but unless the Good Lord is answering questions on deep background, not even the most highly placed source could so definitively confirm a politician’s sincerity.

But Jindal, as I said, isn’t even running for president anymore. Of the major players in The Wilderness, the only one who looks, at this point, to have a plausible path to the Republican nomination for president is Rubio, and Coppins’s book is an adequate introduction to his persona, background, and appeal. Coppins (perhaps inadvertently) presents Rubio as a born huckster, rising on charm (and audacity and luck) and without a single accomplishment or seeming driving principle beyond a vague desire to do right by America’s immigrants. He went from the West Miami City Commission (where “his greatest accomplishment had been establishing West Miami’s first bike cop”) to the Florida House based on almost nothing beyond his ability to beguile editorial boards. Indeed, Rubio’s rapid ascent on a sparse record resembles the usual conservative biography of one Barack Obama, which is another part of his appeal to the moneyed Right. Sensing this bankable star quality in himself, Rubio was already set to cash in at the end of the six short years it took him to become speaker of the Florida House: “ ‘It’s amazing,’ Rubio marveled to a friend at the time. ‘I can call up a lobbyist at four in the morning, and he’ll meet me anywhere with a bag of forty thousand dollars in cash.’ ”

What is notably absent in The Wilderness, as we watch nativism and Islamophobia engulf the entire GOP field, is any sense of a party and a movement that are now reckoning with what they wrought during the heady days when leaders such as Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor plotted absolute resistance to the Obama agenda. There’s not much on the roots of the insurgency that now constitutes Trumpism, which was a powerful force in the party well before Trump tapped into it.

But there is plenty of evidence here that the Republican establishment genuinely did spend years conning and betraying the conservative faithful, which is one of the central grievances driving conservatives to support protest candidates like Trump and Carson. Coppins talks to a GOP consultant named Doug Wead who has long specialized in training candidates to talk to evangelicals. (His background? “A former multilevel marketing magnate.”) Wead teaches Rand Paul to dog-whistle to the churchgoing crowd, but isn’t sure—and doesn’t really care—if Paul has any faith at all. “ ‘When [Paul] said, “I accepted Christ as my savior,” an evangelical was hearing that he was born again,’ Wead explained. But that’s not what he’s actually saying. . . . In fact, he didn’t even say Jesus is divine. He didn’t say any of that! But that’s what is heard.’” Coppins also gets (unnamed) Ted Cruz allies to admit that they knew all along that the 2013 government-shutdown stunt never actually had any chance of defunding the Affordable Care Act—which was the promise Cruz made to thousands of adoring activists on a barnstorming tour of the country.

Coppins, though, consigns Trump and his supporters to what he terms “the fever swamps.” This is “the far-right Web, where Breitbart served, for a fringe of the conservative blogosphere, to set the agenda, introduce new narratives, and shape the common wisdom within a narrow, hyperaggrieved class of conservative activists.” The words fringe and narrow obscure a crucial truth: The “fever swamps” are, in fact, the heart of the modern conservative movement. This constellation of talk-radio personalities, blogs, news organizations with dodgy sourcing standards, and Facebook groups repurposing much of this content is where the great mass of dedicated movement conservatives who will actually select the next Republican nominee get most of their information about the state of the world. These are the people who vote in midterm, school-board, and state-assembly elections. Whoever the next Republican nominee is, he will depend on the support of these people to have any chance at winning the presidency.

There’s the seed of a more interesting book here in Coppins’s account of his 2014 interview with Donald Trump, which ends with Coppins finding himself the target of a haphazard but frenzied mudslinging campaign by the fever swamps. When Coppins annoys Trump by writing an insufficiently glowing profile, Trump sics his allies and followers on him, with Breitbart.com writing a lengthy and inaccurate takedown, Sarah Palin calling for a BuzzFeed boycott, and “a notorious right-wing blogger and opposition researcher” telling Coppins that he was the target of some unknown person’s “project.” “I wondered if this was what it was like,” Coppins writes, “to be a full-time citizen of the fever swamps.” That sounds like a good question for a talented reporter with a lot of conservative sources.

Alex Pareene is the editor in chief of Gawker.