An Interview With Matt Taibbi

Rolling Stone's controversial chief political reporter on Campaign 2008, following Hunter S. Thompson, and his new book

As Rolling Stone’s chief political reporter, Matt Taibbi's predecessors include the likes of journalistic giants Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke. Taibbi's 2004 campaign journal Spanking the Donkey cemented his status as an incisive, irreverent, zero-bullshit reporter. In one memorable scene, Taibbi dropped acid then interviewed the former chief of the Office of National Drug Policy—while wearing a Viking helmet.

The former editor of the eXile—an irreverent English-language newspaper and website in post-Soviet Moscow—and a contributor to the New York Press, Taibbi’s politics are all over the map. The son of NBC journalist Mike Taibbi, Taibbi says he "grew up around left-wing politics; I spent a lot of time at peace marches." He describes himself as "more of a libertarian than anything else," but favors heavy regulations of industry. He despises the religious right but wants Roe v. Wade overturned because he's a staunch federalist. He opposes the Iraq War, but doesn’t feel that homosexuals should have federal job protections. More than anything, the 37-year-old Taibbi believes that investing any emotion in the ideals of American democracy is “digging for hope in a shit mountain.”

His latest collection, Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire, has just been released by The Grove Press. In late October, Taibbi talked with Marty Beckerman.

reason: You’re often compared to Hunter Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke, who both previously occupied the Rolling Stone national affairs desk. Do you welcome those comparisons?

Matt Taibbi: I’m so sick of it. People throw that term around, gonzo journalism, but it’s synonymous with Hunter Thompson. He is gonzo journalism. The guy I really grew up admiring was H.L. Mencken.

reason: You've told one interviewer, “I’m never comfortable when people call me a lefty. If anyone were to ever ask, I’d say I'm probably more of a libertarian than anything else. I believe in capitalism, small government, etc.”

Taibbi: My political views shouldn’t be important. I’m more comfortable describing other people than talking about what I really think. I have different beliefs that are all over the place. I think Roe v. Wade should be overturned because I believe in the federalist model; I believe that states should be able to make their own drug laws. The more democracy you have, the more people can make decisions for their own communities, the more freedom people have.

reason: Right now there’s this weird overlap where Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has an increasing fan base among left-wingers. Is this a turning point in American politics?

Taibbi: People are steadily growing disenchanted with red state versus blue state—this really aggressive storyline where if you’re conservative you have to hate liberals, and if you’re liberal then you have to hate conservatives. For the first time on the campaign trail that I’ve seen, people are saying, “I haven’t spoken to my liberal brother in years but we’re actually talking now because we’re both disappointed in our respective parties, and we’re both getting behind Ron Paul." There’s more on-the-ground energy for Ron Paul than there is for the rest of the candidates combined.

reason: You wrote that Rudy Giuliani’s attack on Ron Paul over foreign policy during the first GOP presidential debate was “a Rovian masterstroke” by “a fascist ex-mayor itching to take his prostate pain out on the world.” Do you see Giuliani as the true heir to Bush?

Taibbi: Giuliani is the one who would continue this whole business. Even more than Bush, he believes this stuff, that we have to be actively interventionist abroad, and if he were to become president, he would continue the secrecy and using government power for questionable ends. This is a guy who is much more power-hungry—and is really turned on by the exercise of power—than the rest of the candidates, and he’s the one I would really worry about.

reason: Giuliani and Romney are the Republican frontrunners. Both governed as social liberals, even if they are now pretending to be social conservatives. Do you think the era of the religious right is over, or are they still powerful?

Taibbi: They don’t have an effective champion now in mainstream politics. It’s not going to be Fred Thompson. The Republican Party’s been pushed into a circumstance right now where they have to nominate a candidate who can win the general election. They see that they’re so vulnerable after seven years of Bush. It’s the same position that Democrats have been in for the last two elections, under enormous pressure to get someone with military credentials—Wesley Clark, John Kerry. Exactly the reverse thing is now happening with the Republicans. Once the Republicans reassert their control over Washington, you’ll start seeing those religious conservatives come back because that’s the base of their party.

reason: Religious conservatives are increasingly using victim rhetoric to say that there's a war against religion in secular society. At the same time, liberals are trying to appeal to religious voters by using theocon language. What do you think about Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) speaking about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth?

Taibbi: The people in charge of putting together the messages of these parties are professionals. They sit around analyzing every single word that comes out of the mouths of these speakers. If they see a tactic that works for the other side, they’re going to try to implement it. The religious right casting themselves as victims, using the language of liberal victimhood, the people in the upper echelons of the religious hierarchy are doing that consciously. Everywhere I go, I hear people talking about how they give Muslims prayer mats in schools and special privileges but if a Christian wants to pray, he can’t. "We’re the only ones who’ve had our rights taken away." This whole language of victimhood has really seeped into the American political culture.

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  • ||

    Interesting to see his thoughts on Ron Paul. Will be even more interesting to see if it ever gets reflected in his ROLLING STONE political writing, in which he's been insultingly profiling every GOP candidate other than the one that should be of most interest to RS as a magazine that's made war and war-related coverage one of its specialities--that is, the mysterious antiwar Republican Ron Paul--is almost never mentioned, not even in the roundup sentences that mention all the others.

  • ||

    Well, he'll make a fine Press Secretary in the Paul administration.

  • Bart Jones||

    Big fan of Taibbi. His review of Friedman's "The World Is Flat" was priceless:

    http://www.nypress.com/18/16/news&columns/taibbi.cfm

  • ||

    America is about getting the government off your back, a reprieve from having your life interfered with, and we keep forgetting that.

    Hear, Hear!

  • ||

    Reading Rolling Stone for its political coverage is like reading National Review to learn about great new rock bands.

  • KoWT||

    "Reading Rolling Stone for its political coverage is like reading National Review to learn about great new rock bands."

    Yeah! How can Taibbi's columns be both entertaining and about politics? If it's not boring and/or full of shit, it's just not political enough for ya?

  • ||

    Taibbi never actually answered the question regarding Marijuana. It is something that has always stuck in my craw about my liberal acquaintances and I've had a theory about it for some time.

    Marijuana carries no onus for leftists for the reason that so-called "big tobacco" and "big junk" do because the latter two are parts of the massive capitalist corporate free market system that is, in truth, anathema to their ideology. Especially since it involves a plutocratic elite who prey upon the masses by feeding them opiates of one or another sort they are unable to resist.

    Marijuana, on the other hand carries with it the opposite mythology. It is laden with the aura of populist agrarianism, and a romanticized pastoral crushed by the forces of corporate greed (The Hearst/DuPont conspiracy theory).

    But mark my word, if Marijuana was ever legalized, and many cigarette companies are provisionally prepared for this with ad campaigns and the like, the tables will turn. Generations after the fact and when "big weed" is lobbying in Washington and advertising in Magazines, you'll see the heirs to our current crop of lefties lambasting Mary Jane with the same fervor as they do tobacco and Micky-D's today.

  • ||

    Way off base Peter. For one thing anti-tobacco sentiment isn't just a "leftist" sentiment. I know a lot of lefties who smoke. In fact my guess would be that smokers as a group probably tend to vote to the left of the population as a whole. In the US the nanny state phenomenon is mostly driven by slightly left-of-center conventional types who apparently lack any real political conviction or vision and substitute hectoring the rest of us as an easy way to "make change happen."

    To be perfectly frank, I blame the increasing participation of women in politics for the steady encroachment on our freedom to act irresponsibly. In my experience women of all poltical convictions, for whatever reason, tend to be more responsive to these sort of initiatives. Women drove the temperance movement, women drive PETA, lobby against drunk driving, complain about child safety, etc. Men usually oppose or don't really care either way.

  • ed||

    Bart Jones | November 9, 2007, 10:44am | #

    Big fan of Taibbi. His review of Friedman's "The World Is Flat" was priceless


    "Friedman is an important American.
    He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity."

    Heh heh. Once in a while on the tube I'll see Tim Russert on his dark set interviewing Friedman and chatting about his latest book, and although I can't see below the table, I have an uneasy feeling they're holding each other's penis.

  • ||

    Vanya,

    I agree with you on your second points in general. I've noticed a few men have been nanny staters, and perhaps they just stand out for me because they've been my local politicians, and left wing, and vigorous smoking ban fanatics.

    However, and this is simply among my social circle, I've noticed that all the left-wing smokers, while they smoke like chimneys, still favor bans, taxes, advertising restrictions and the like as well as the dogma behind them. But, once again, this has just been my personal experience.

  • ||

    Matt says "Fuck" a lot in his writing, so you know that he is all edgy and down with the kids.



    Actually, Me mum got me a subscription to RS for some reason. Matt's articles are the one reason I bother to open up the rag.

  • ||

    I share in the enjoyment of Taibbi's palpable disdain for all things political. His book "Spanking the Donkey" about the '04 election was hilarious, especially the parts about wheh he dropped acid and interviewed the drug czar, and when he followed Kerry around in a gorilla suit.
    Check out the website he co-founded when he lived in Russia, www.exile.ru, and another in which he sometimes writes now, buffalobeast.com.

    Both well worth a look.

  • jomama||

    As an acquaintance of mine says about politics:

    "There's only one way to win a presidential race
    these days and that is to have a team of political
    consultants who can strike the winning balance of
    issues whereby the president promises to punish --
    through force of fines, guns, and jail -- those you
    don't like in whatever ways you don't like them.
    Get that in just the right combination for a
    delicious pot of cannibal stew, and it's a winner
    every time."

  • Goldthwait||

    "Taibbi dropped acid then interviewed the former chief of the Office of National Drug Policy-while wearing a Viking helmet."

    What a total jackass. This guy's idea of edgy is using the word "fuck" in an article about Barack Obama. He is an asshat who spews the same tired old liberal platitudes, only laced with more profanity. What a hack.

  • ||

    If this guy disdains politics, then why is his primary mission in life to write about it? He comes across like one of those people who isn't happy unless he is deeply offending someone--he says politicians are sociopaths, yet seeking to deliberately go out and offend people also indicates a pattern of pathological behavior. In terms of his marketing schtick, he is no different than Coulter or Olbermann--rudeness and offensiveness seems to sell. I've read a couple of the things he wrote in Rolling Stone, and he's not really that great a journalist. Yes, he knows how to paint a picture with his writing, but in terms of being an observer of what he's seeing, he seemed to not be able to get his own ego out of the way.

    FYI--Sprinkling the word "fuck" throughout an article doesn't make you credible...it just makes you a schmuck.


    Just a thought.

  • دردشه عراقية||

    Thanks

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