The news is what you have forgotten
Talking with Adam Serwer about why journalists should lean more on history, the relative merits of anti-racism trainings and democratic reforms, and why he wants a reformed Republican Party
Like a lot of journalists in training, Adam Serwer once heard the familiar mantra that the news is what is new. That is what to focus on. The wrinkle we haven’t seen before.
But Serwer was lucky enough to have a mentor, in David Corn of Mother Jones, who gave him a second, contrary definition: The news is also what people have forgotten.
In the Hollywood version of the Adam Serwer career story, that would be the inciting incident that propels the drama. For Serwer, now a staff writer at The Atlantic, who distinguished himself as one of the outstanding journalists of the Trump years, did so in great measure by bringing the reading of history into the daily work of journalism. As the Trump nightmare ground on, he didn’t merely tell us what was new. He told us how what seemed new was in fact old.
He chronicled how Trump was merely “summoning to the fore the most treacherous forces in American history and conducting them with the ease of a grand maestro,” as he writes in “The Cruelty is the Point,” his sharp new collection of Trump-era essays.
I caught up with Serwer the other day, for his first conversation anywhere about the new book, and our many-tentacled and very interesting conversation is below.
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The cruelty is the point: a conversation with Adam Serwer
ANAND: For all the very grim history you offer in this book, so as to illuminate the present, you also say that we're on the cusp of potentially having the first anti-racist majority in American history.
When you think about this collection you’ve just published and the range of different things you covered, who we are and who we've been, how would you articulate the two fundamental truths you're suggesting, which is A) we have a huge problem, and B) we may be closer to becoming something else than we've ever been?
ADAM: The American system is structured so as to blunt the force of certain kinds of majorities. Because the anti-racist majority that I described in the book is so clustered geographically, it is difficult for it to get representation in Congress. It is very easy to gerrymander into certain districts. The rural overrepresentation in the Senate means that you can have a Senate majority even if those senators do not represent a majority of the population in the country. You can also win the presidency because of the electoral college, even if you don't win a majority of the votes.
So you have a situation in which a lot of people have embraced the idea of equality before the law in a genuine way, but where you can continue to allow racial injustice to happen by having superficially colorblind practices that in reality create these huge racial and economic disparities.
That anti-racist majority is constrained by the structural things that I've described, which unfortunately make it possible for one party to hold power despite not having the support of the majority of the population.
ANAND: You cite two different definitions of what the news is early in the book. One of them is, “The news is what is new," which is an old saying that you and I and every other journalist hears at some point. But you also quote a contrary saying from an old editor of yours, David Corn: "The news is also what people have forgotten."
Can you talk about each of those understandings of what the news is, and how your grappling with those two shapes your particular and quite distinct method of journalism?
ADAM: As journalists, we are ideologically predisposed to think that something that is new is important, and that's the thing that we should be talking about. But the truth is that we sometimes take for granted that our readers have the same information and context that we have to make sense of something. Part of journalism is figuring out what that context is, and what it should be. Because of that bias towards novelty, we sometimes forget the longer historical lens.
David Corn, who was my editor at Mother Jones, used to say, "The news is what people have forgotten," because he was encouraging us to dig, and not just assume that, because someone had been in the public eye for a long time, the public knew everything about them that they needed to know.
This, for me, evolved into trying to put a historical lens on what was happening, in part because the response to Trump was so historically myopic. It was just like, "We had a Black president. How could this guy be winning?"
The answer is, because he is manipulating forces that have been part of American politics since the founding, for generations, and that we had sort of naively assumed that we had conquered. I'm using "we," in the sort of collective American sense, because there are obviously plenty of Americans who did not believe that we had conquered those things.
To the extent that that belief was overrepresented in the media, it prevented journalists from putting Trump in his proper historical context as a product of those historical forces, rather than just sort of this goofy reality-show star — like, "How could this ever happen?"
ANAND: I wonder how you actually invented your method, so to speak, at a very practical level. Did you start with a story and then go read history for two weeks and come back? Did you work with historians? How did the Serwer Method evolve?
ADAM: My friend Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing about all this. At one point, he had this blog at The Atlantic, and he was writing all this stuff about the Civil War. And he wrote his great piece "The Case For Reparations," which is not about reparations just for slavery, but about reparations for centuries and decades of discrimination following emancipation.
It was a method of combining historiography with reportage that I found so compelling. Also, it just seemed clear to me that part of the issue was that people were coming in to their understanding of race and racism in the United States from the time that they had been alive. They did not understand all these things that had happened that had shaped this society, because they were not taught those things in school, and they had not sought those things out themselves.
I admired what he was doing, and I found my own way of going back and saying, "OK, reporting is like you're telling a story. How did this happen?” But sometimes it's not just the story that begins a year ago or something like that. Sometimes it begins much earlier.
For example, you look at the protests in Ferguson, and you might think that the story starts with Michael Brown. But it actually starts with how Ferguson started off as a white suburb, and then became a mostly Black town.
Exploring the larger historical factors behind a particular conflict in the public eye seemed to be a great way to illuminate things for people that weren't being illuminated from the "news is what's new" ethos.
ANAND: At the beginning of the book, you say you understand the trend in media, particularly over the last year, toward capitalizing the word “Black,” but you dissent from it. Can you talk about why you understand that to be happening, and then why you personally think it's a bad idea?
ADAM: It's not just happening with Black now. Now The Washington Post also capitalizes white. Both of those things annoy me, because race is a biological fiction. That's just a fact. While racism is real, it is rooted in a fiction, and so to reinforce that fiction with capitalization, to me, seems to be — the old phrase is “hustling backwards." You're reinforcing this fiction rather than deconstructing it.
I understand that it sort of comes from a benign impulse to acknowledge the particular legacy of the descendants of slaves in America, but I think it ultimately is counterproductive. The thing about anti-racism is, like any other idealistic principle, there's no principle so pure that it can't be exploited or misused, or just ultimately deployed to malign ends, even if people's intentions are good.
ANAND: You have said the bad anti-racism trainings get all the attention. Do you think the idea of training our way out of this is itself intrinsically flawed, or there are just too many bad trainings and not enough good ones? Is there a good version of this training that needs to happen at schools and workplaces that is part of the America you want to see, or is training just the wrong intellectual paradigm?
ADAM: It's a completely irrelevant thing that doesn't have anything to do with anything. We're talking about actual structural, material problems that can be solved with changes in public policy and the way that we do things. Instead, we've developed this consumer model of racism, where you get rid of racism by putting a black box on your Instagram, or developing yourself as a person.
Racism is an institutional force. It's not necessarily about you as an individual, whether you're good or evil. That has become the preoccupation.
It's a real problem, because it misleads people about how to solve the problem, and it also makes people think that this is about teams, when actually racism is a part of American society. It's not necessarily a partisan thing. It is an institutional force that has to be dealt with as an institutional force, not by making different individual consumer choices that show everyone that you're not racist.
It's not just a question of the trainings. Anything that reinforces that consumer model of anti-racism is necessarily, to me, anything from benign and harmless to basically counterproductive.
ANAND: One of the marked features of the last few years in the public conversation has been rival definitions of what racism even is, and quite different definitions. Some on the more consumer model you suggest, some on the more structural model, some suggesting it's active commission, some trying to make the point that it's just participating in certain systems. How do you define racism?
ADAM: I'm perfectly fine using racism both in the colloquial sense of individual prejudice and as an institutional force. When you go back to the way that combination of the G.I. Bill and redlining allowed white people to buy homes and build wealth and prevented Black people from doing the same thing, that is racism as an institutional force.
It is this sort of weird thing that has happened, where the right wants to portray any discussion of racism as an institutional force as "wokeness gone bad," or "Critical Race Theory.” But the reality is that most Black people in the United States did not have an unfettered right to vote until 1965. So we have only been a truly multiracial democracy on paper for a few decades.
When you understand that, you understand that both the lingering effects of institutionalized racism and the ongoing institutionalized racism that exists are not some sort of weird thing that was conjured out of nowhere, but is the result of the fact that white supremacy was the governing philosophy of the United States for most of its existence.
That doesn't mean that all white people are evil, but it does mean that there are certain things that perpetuate the incredible racial inequalities that we see in American life, and they are things that need to be dealt with if you want to have a truly equitable society. But it's not something that you can deal with by using the right social justice lingo or by wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, and nobody should think that that is the solution to the problem.
ANAND: You write about Trump “summoning to the fore the most treacherous forces in American history.” What made it possible for him to do that? If those forces are so powerful, so potent, and can make someone who's not particularly intelligent end up having such a commanding role over a political party in the country, what made him capable of doing that where others were not?
ADAM: There are different kinds of intelligence. Trump is not going to wow you with a PowerPoint presentation about how health insurance markets work. But he has a certain kind of emotional intelligence where he's very good at manipulating people. He's very good at looking inside of people, figuring out what they want, and how to manipulate that desire against them. That's part of why he was such an effective leader of the party.
But he's also someone who pays close attention to the Republican Party, and what the Republican base wants. There's an essay in the piece where I talk about the similarities between how the press covered his campaign and how the press covered David Duke's campaign in Louisiana in the 90s.
Donald Trump goes on CNN and says that David Duke is saying things that a lot of Republicans like to hear: “If David Duke runs, David Duke is going to get a lot of votes, whether that be good or bad. David Duke is going to get a lot of votes. Pat Buchanan, who really has many of the same theories except it’s in a better package — Pat Buchanan is going to take a lot of votes away from George Bush.”
Then, a couple decades later he's running for president, and he's like, "Who's David Duke? I don't know David Duke." He knew exactly who David Duke was, and he understood exactly what David Duke was saying that appealed to the Republican base, because he was saying some of the same things. He was able to manipulate those forces because he understood what they were, why they appealed to the Republican base, and how to express them in language that would make Republicans understand that he was on their side. He was someone who consumed a lot of conservative media and understood what his audience wanted to hear.
He didn't need to read Edmund Burke, Oakeshott, Hayek, or some conservative or libertarian philosophers. He didn't need to read those books to understand what the Republican base wanted. He just had to watch Fox News.
ANAND: I wanted to ask you about the epidemic of disinformation and viral fakery and reality defiance we're seeing right now. Clearly a lot of it has roots in the kind of history that you describe and is very affiliated with the basic fiction of racism to begin with. But I wonder how you think about those old forces intersecting with the new phenomena of internet virality and the algorithms of these tech platforms. How do you see that old and new intersecting?
ADAM: One of my favorite examples of our early fake news crises in the United States was the fact that Democratic newspapers insisted that the Ku Klux Klan didn't exist during Reconstruction. We all know that it existed. The United States Army had to suppress an insurrection by the Ku Klux Klan. But there were lots of newspapers that basically said, The Ku Klux Klan is an invention of the Republican Party in order to seize power, in order to justify seizing power, in order to justify deploying the military against American citizens. This is tyranny, it's fiction, these things don't exist.
This was happening at the same time that you had Black people in military offices testifying to Congress saying, Yeah, these guys are terrorists, they're horrible. They're murdering people, they're raping people, they're mutilating people's bodies, they're trying to intimidate Black people into either getting into exploitative labor contracts or prevent them from casting ballots. But a whole section of the country believes that this organization does not actually exist because that's what their media is telling them.
So, yes, this comes from somewhere. This is a problem that we've had before. I think what makes it unique is some of what you describe in your question, which is that now we have these algorithms that create a hermetically sealed digital world, in which we can avoid encountering contrary information or can easily dismiss it. Or we can just dwell in a fictional universe, the way that you see with the whole QAnon situation, where you imagine yourself as the protagonist of these great events that are unfolding that are actually just only happening in your head.
I'm not sure what the solution to that problem is, but it is an enhancement of an old problem that we didn't have a good solution for back then either, other than simply documenting the truth.
ANAND: Your essay "The New Reconstruction" is relatively hopeful. You suggest that, for all the despair of this moment, there is something of a shift that's happening — though, of course, with this problem of the constraints on the majority that you talked about. Give me your glimpse of what that anti-racist future would actually look like in American life and what we'd have to do to get it.
ADAM: In some ways, there is no way out of this kind of doom loop that we're in without the integration of the Republican Party. What's actually necessary is the kind of structural changes that would compel the Republican Party to have to reach beyond its own hardcore base in order to win power.
That wouldn't mean that Democrats win every election or anything like that. It wouldn't turn us into a one-party Democratic Party state, but it would mean that the Republican Party would have to commit to pluralism in a way that, right now, it is retreating from as a result of its own voters' apocalyptic perception of the rest of the country that doesn't agree with them.
To the extent that I would see a more positive future, it's one in which the stakes for American democracy are not so existential, depending on which party is in power. I ultimately think the only way that can happen is with the kind of structural changes that would force the Republican Party to become a more diverse party like the Democratic Party is, cross-pressured by the diversity of its own coalition and not committed to disenfranchising the rival party because it fears what it would mean if they held power.
ANAND: What are the most critical reforms that you think would actually achieve that outcome?
ADAM: You have to admit more states to the union. You have to enlarge the size of the House. And you have to have ranked-choice voting and multiple-member districts. I am somewhat less sanguine on the prospects for dealing with gerrymandering, but if there were more nonpartisan commissions drawing districts, that would also be good.
But I also think you have to deal with things like the filibuster which entirely prevent majorities from exercising power and doing things to address American problems.
ANAND: Do you think we have it in us, given your deep reading of history? Do you think the kind of forces you have written about are just the doom loop we're condemned to? Or do you actually think there is a meaningful opportunity in this era to break decisively with the history you write about?
ADAM: There are two separate issues here. One is, I do not think that we are condemned to the doom loop forever. The second is, I do think that we are going to argue about what America is and should be, because that's just sort of the nature of politics in a country.
We're always going to argue about whether America is this Christian nation or a multiracial, creedal democracy. And I don't think we're getting away from that anytime soon, but it doesn't mean that we're going to end up in an apocalyptic situation where one side thinks the other is trying to end American democracy as we know it. There is a potential future where democratic contests are fiercely competitive but not necessarily a cause of existential strife.
Adam Serwer reports for The Atlantic. You can order his new book, “The Cruelty is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America,” here. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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Photo: Shorenstein Center, Harvard University