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.
Democrats are trying to recapture some of their market share. It's a cross-attacking of each other's bases, like the Republicans going after Hispanics and the black vote. When I worked undercover as Bush campaign volunteer in 2004, we talked about how, if we could only take 10 percent of the black vote away from Democrats, we'd win every election for the rest of American history.
The Democrats are seeing where the Republicans are vulnerable, and they see that some religious conservatives feel betrayed that Republicans haven't delivered on abortion, stem cell research, and that kind of thing. They're going to appeal to that base, whereas they didn't even try in 2000.
reason: Are you offended by Democrats implying things such as, "Jesus wants us to have universal health care"?
Taibbi: It's all disgusting. You have to commit so many moral atrocities to be a Washington politician that any kind of religion you actually maintain after that experience has to be not entirely sincere. So when I see these guys invoking the name of God, it's comical.
reason: You reported on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A lot of liberals say the government at all levels didn't do enough, but your chapter in Smells Like Dead Elephants suggests the government was way too active: preventing rescue workers from doing their jobs, not allowing civilians with boats—who were rescuing "dozens" more refugees than FEMA's boats—to get to areas where people were stranded, "aiming guns at women in children."
Taibbi: There was an enormous amount of hostility toward the government by the people left in New Orleans. The government sent in this massive force that treated everyone like they were criminals. The government's response was so ineffective and so adversarial that it really drove people to distrust any program that they were offering. That kind of phenomenon in general is why more and more people are becoming disenchanted with the government and gravitating toward candidates like Ron Paul. They're pissed off with a government that has become so distant from their actual concerns.
reason: In your Iraq chapter, you lay out how defense contractors are bilking the American people out of billions of dollars. Libertarians say that the military-industrial complex is a bastardized capitalism, but liberals say that it's the result of an unregulated market. What's your stance?
Taibbi: It's not capitalism at all. It's more like an authoritarian socialism. It's forcibly extracting money from the customers and distributing the profits to companies that aren't selected by market choice but government fiat. Critics call it the free market, but it's not that at all. You can't have a war that's realistically market-based.
reason: You say Republicans are perverts because they never had any fun as kids, and also that "the American left has no sense of humor and no sense of fun at all." What is it about politicos that make them passionate about the issues but no other areas of their lives?
Taibbi: Anyone who is willing to put up with as much shit as necessary to become a U.S. senator or president has to be a sociopath. That's why you see all these crazy behaviors popping up with Sen. Larry Craig [R-Idaho] and [former Rep. Mark] Foley [of Florida]. These people have to drive their true selves so far beneath the surface to present this clean face to the world, and that's why they end up indulging in these subterranean weirdnesses.
reason: Speaking of weirdness, why does so much of the institutional left—including many who believe that marijuana should be legal—have a vendetta against tobacco and fast food? They demand freedom of choice and then want to punish the enjoyment of Marlboros and McDonald's.
Taibbi: That part of the left drives me crazy. Americans no longer feel the need to be ideologically consistent on anything. If you believe adults should be free to do drugs or engage in any sexual behavior they want, you should also believe they're free to smoke or eat shitty food or do anything they want. You can't just pick and choose which absolute freedoms you want to endorse. On the right, people say they want to have prayer in schools for instance but they don't want to have anyone doing drugs in other states. We no longer have that consistent political orientation with broad underlying themes like individual liberty, and that's unfortunate.
If this was Sweden or Great Britain I might say something different, but that's not what America is all about. America is about getting the government off your back, a reprieve from having your life interfered with, and we keep forgetting that.