As the au courant acid-tongued political reporter for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi can't help but do his dirty work in the long shadows of the celebrated scribes that preceded him, like Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke. Taibbi doesn't sport a proud initial in his name, but his easy eloquence and ability to call bullshit by its name are helping him carve out his own small legacy in the unwinnable war against nonsense. In fact, his inability to curb his cussing has also found him a welcome home on Real Time With Bill Maher as a contributing reporter.
His latest book, The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story Of War, Politics, & Religion At The Twilight Of The American Empire attempts to reconcile our perception of the world with real events. By his own estimation, we are living in "a country that's no longer able to effectively digest the things that are happening to it." Whether he's infiltrating John Hagee's apocalyptic ministry in San Antonio or shaving his head to go unrecognized at 9/11 Truth Movement meetings, Taibbi's tireless pursuit of what has deranged us is often as troubling as it is hysterical. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Taibbi about Christian fundamentalism, blowing up buildings, patriotism, change, Joseph Heller, and the death of Tim Russert.
The A.V. Club: Let's just get one question out of the way, so you'll be taken at your word for the rest of the interview: Do you love your country?
Matt Taibbi: [Laughs.] Yeah, sure. Of course. One loves one's country the way one loves a family member. And sometimes that family member does really embarrassing, shitty things, right? But you still love them.
AVC: Are you more of a cynic or a realist? Is there a difference?
MT: I get the cynicism thing all the time, although I don't really know where that comes from, because I think I'm actually the opposite of a cynic. I try to be outraged by things that other people are just very accepting of, as though they're normal and can't be changed. A lot of what I write about is, "Hey, you know, this stuff is really awful, and it doesn't need to be, and that's why it's so offensive." Things should be better.
AVC: In The Great Derangement, you document your infiltration into John Hagee's Cornerstone Church and your incognito participation in 9/11 Truth Movement meetings. Have you gotten a reaction from either camp since the book's publication?
MT: Oh yeah. Among the people that I was in church with, one of them actually saw me on television earlier this spring and called me up right afterward. So my cover was blown before the book even came out, which was kind of embarrassing. But I haven't heard too much from that whole crew. Weirdly enough, the letters I've been getting from a lot of Christians—not specifically from that church, but from other fundamentalist Christians—have been strangely positive in a way that I really didn't expect. A lot of people are very critical of Hagee's church, that it's deviating from the real message of Christ. I get a lot of letters of the "If only you'd experienced Christ through our church" variety. There's a lot of that, but relatively little abuse of the sort that you would've expected. The Truthers, on the other hand… [Laughs.] I think they're probably the most self-Googling sliver of humanity on the planet. The instant you write anything about them, your e-mail is flooded with letters. I haven't gotten a single positive reaction from anybody who's a self-described Truther.
AVC: You'd think a movement devoted to seeking truth would encourage debate as a way to arrive at the truth, rather than trying to suppress whatever doesn't already align with their own views.
MT: Absolutely. I make this point with Truthers all the time, that the whole direction of everything they do is the opposite of what finding out the truth is. They approach the subject matter in much the same way a defense attorney does. A defense attorney takes a case and he sees six pieces of evidence that are going to convict his client, and he sets out to destroy those six pieces of evidence, irrelevant to the actual truth of the situation. That's not to denigrate defense attorneys, but that's what they do. It's exactly the same thing that Truthers do. They just take the 9/11 Commission Report piece by piece, and they try to break down links in that evidentiary chain that compose the official story, but they never really try to find out what happened. They're just trying to convince you that the official story couldn't possibly be true. For instance, the stuff about Hani Hanjour—the hijacker who reportedly made that maneuver into the Pentagon. They're really hopped up about the fact that he was a bad pilot and couldn't have made that sophisticated maneuver. But they make absolutely no effort to tell you what actually did happen. They're like, "Oh, it could have been a remote-controlled plane." Offhandedly, they'll say that. [Laughs.] Like that's a very simple thing. It's really weird.
AVC: The whole "smoking gun" of the Truth Movement seems to revolve around the collapse of Building 7, near the Twin Towers. There's this matter-of-fact assertion that the government obviously blew it up.
MT: I love when you ask them, "Okay, so let's just say for instance that it wasn't collapsed by the fire. Why would you demolish Building 7? What would be the propaganda purpose of doing that?" They're like, "Oh, you know, they're hiding the evidence." I'm like, "They need to blow up a whole building to hide the evidence?" It's just crazy. But whatever. I mean, once you jump on board that train, you're on it for life. [Laughs.]
AVC: This "great derangement," as you've coined it, do you think it's unique to these times? Conspiracy theories and apocalyptic religious dogma have been around in various forms for a very long time. What's different about it now?
MT: America's always had a real passion for lunatic movements. That's one of the things we're probably known for around the world, I would imagine. I think what's different about it now is that we had a relatively cohesive national society for a while. For a giant industrial country, we had a situation where pretty much everybody agreed on the same sets of facts when they talked about the news, and they believed in the media. When somebody reported something, they generally accepted that it was true. For a long time, I think that was the case in this country. But recently, because of a bunch of things—there was a general collapse in faith of the mainstream news media, because of Jayson Blair. And the 2000 election was a situation where if you were on the Bush side, you believed X set of facts, and if you were on the Democratic side, you believed Y set of facts. The wound was never healed. You got a situation where people decided to reality-shop and search for their own sets of facts at their own news sources, and they just kind of stopped coming to this common meeting-place where we all had the same commonly accepted set of facts. And because of the Internet, which is a new phenomenon, people can do that more than ever before. You can have somebody living next door to you and you can live in a completely different world from that person, which is definitely something we've never experienced before. So I think just because of the media landscape and the way we get our information now, we're more atomized and isolated from each other than ever before.
AVC: The Internet has fed a lot of the suspicion people have for "mainstream media," but does the Internet suffer from its own distortions? Aren't there a lot of so-called "news" sites that manufacture their own version of events to play on fears and serve their own needs just as much as the established media?
MT: Yeah, sure. It's just for different reasons. Obviously the commercial news media tries to get you worked up and terrified so you'll buy products that they're advertising. I think the Internet is a completely different phenomenon. When you have movements like this that are preying on fears, or your misconceptions, they're doing it basically just to bolster their ranks and to self-aggrandize their movement objectives. It's not for commercial reasons, which is maybe a positive. It's a very similar phenomenon, it's just that it's for different reasons.
AVC: In the book, you write about the negotiations to pass the Gasoline For America's Security Act in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which ends up having little to do with security, affordable gasoline, or the hurricane. Is a candidate like Barack Obama spreading false hope that he's going to be able to just march into town and sweep away all this nonsense that goes on in Congress?
MT: This is an institutional problem. It's not a problem of the individual people occupying the spots in government. The problem that we have with Congress is just the way it's set up. Once you get elected, you have to start running for reelection right away, especially in the House. There's just no way to keep your seat without raising tons of money constantly. And because of this constant pressure to raise money, these guys can't afford not to make a lot of legislative decisions based upon what's going to help them get campaign donations. The only guys who can afford to not do that are the people who have enormous name recognition and goodwill in their states for some other reason. Somebody like Bernie Saunders, for instance, who knows everybody in Vermont personally. [Laughs.] If you're not one of those people yet, you have to do this all the time. So when something like that refinery bill comes up, well, if you're Joe Barton [R-Texas] or Lincoln Diaz-Balart [R-Florida] or any of these guys, and you know you're going to get gigantic campaign contributions from Exxon-Mobil and all the different companies that have power plants and are trying to reduce their obligations to the Clean Air Act, you're going be strongly tempted to vote "yes" for something like this, no matter how stupid and evil it is, just because that's what you have to do to stay in office. They have tried to chip away at the underlying reasons why this is all in place, with campaign finance reform and reform of the lobbying system and earmarking. But every time they do, the system just kind of metamorphoses and they find a way around it. They pulled off an earmark reform act two years ago, and the first thing that happened was the amount of money spent on earmarks went up that year. The amount of earmarks went from under 3,000 to over 11,000. So you know, every time they try to fix this problem, it just gets worse. It's really kind of sad.
AVC: As a journalist, do you wonder why you bother covering some stories, since you know in the end it won't change anything?
MT: I think you do these stories because you want people to know about it. There are a lot of people who are actually in Congress who are very, very frustrated—people who work there and are frustrated that people don't know this is the way it all goes on there. They want to get the word out, but the problem is that Congress is boring. It's just hard to communicate and ergo, there's almost nobody covering Congress. I was at the 2007 Omnibus Appropriations Bill passage, and like eight of the 11 appropriations bills were being passed, almost $2 trillion being spent, and I was the only reporter in the gallery. [Laughs.] It shows you something. I'm out on the campaign trail and you have thousands of people following the candidates around, listening to them spew this idiotic bullshit all the time, but when we actually spend the money, when the actual business of government happens, nobody's watching because it's just too fucking boring.
AVC: Any time you use the words "omnibus" and "appropriations" in the same sentence, people will probably zone out for a second.
MT: Yeah, exactly. It's so longwinded and awful-sounding, nobody will listen to it.
AVC: Everyone wants to be the "change" candidate. Obama seems to have at least won exclusive use of the slogan for now. But will this presidential election change anything?
MT: Actually, this is sort of going to be the subject of my next book: how incredibly pointless presidential elections are, and how we all get worked up about them for two whole years, and then as soon as they're over, we go back to being just as fucked as we were before. There was a Joseph Heller play called We Bombed In New Haven—you know, the guy who wrote Catch-22—and there's this scene in it where one general says to another, "We're gonna bomb that city off the map." And the other guy says, "Why don't we just bomb the map?" It's the same thing with this. Instead of actually effecting change, we just turn change into a T-shirt. Buy the T-shirt, you know? It's a shortcut to actually having it: We just say we have it, and that's just as satisfying. If you go back to 1992, Bill Clinton's campaign slogan was "A change for America's future." Change was the slogan then, too. It's always the slogan. That's permanently part of our political landscape. Until we've learned to distinguish between bombing the city and bombing the map, we're going to have that problem.
AVC: The subtitle of your book refers to "the twilight of the American empire." Are we really at the twilight of this empire?
MT: I actually didn't write the subtitle. [Laughs.] But I'll cop to it. It's my book. There are certainly signs of us being on the downside of our world influence. Having lived in a collapsed empire before—I lived in Russia right after the Soviet Union collapsed—you can see a lot of the classic signs of an empire that's on its way out. If you look back in history, as the barbarians were invading the gates of Rome, people were consulting fortunetellers and worrying about the end of the world and all sorts of other apocalyptic notions. When the tsars were finally overthrown, they were all reading tarot cards even as the revolutionaries were banging at the gates. With America, it's kind of the same thing. We get bombed by an Islamic terrorist, and half of the country thinks it's because we are supporting gay marriage, and the other half thinks it's because we did it to ourselves. This is a symptom of a country that's no longer able to effectively digest the things that are happening to it. On the other hand, America is still a very, very strong country in so many ways. Compared to other places in the world, my God, it would really only take incremental improvements across the board for us to be as healthy as a country can possibly be. We have a very powerful economy, we have a functioning court system, elections that are more or less honest. So I don't think we're that far off from reversing the problem, it's just that there are signs of us taking a nosedive.
AVC: On the occasion of every presidential election, we're told, "This is going to be the really important one, the historic one." Is it this time, for real?
MT: Well, it's certainly a very important election, for a lot of reasons. I think we're in a situation now where the Bush people have done so much damage to so many different aspects of our society that this is an important election just in that respect. We can't continue along those roads. As regards to the themes in this book, Bush in particular has done a lot of damage to our ability to have a national discussion about things, because they have so frequently insisted upon having their own reality when it suited them. Remember that famous quote, "We're in the reality-making business," from one of his aides? When it suited them, they just changed the facts and told their supporters "Stick with us," and "We want you to subscribe to this faith-based politics where what we say is true because we say it is." That's an enormously damaging way of operating the White House. You really need to have appeal and try to talk to the entire country, and not just your constituents. I think Barack Obama—as little faith as I have in his ability to actually change the system—he does at least have the opportunity to repair that aspect of things, and to talk to the whole country, and bring us back to reality. That would be a huge step. I think John McCain is a guy who's got his own psychological problems that would prompt him, for instance, to continue this war under very cloudy, illogical circumstances, and that would be very destructive. So yeah, I think it would be meaningful, I just don't think it's going to affect a whole lot of systemic change if Obama gets elected.
AVC: The other night, Larry King was talking about the election with Joy Behar from The View—
MT: [Laughs.] There's two intellectual giants debating politics.
AVC: Behar was talking about some US Magazine cover where they explore Michelle Obama's relationship with her husband. It's even called something like "Why Barack Loves Her." And Behar was saying, "Well, not everyone reads The New York Times or watches the news, so this might be the only way they get to know about the Obamas." Are we that hopeless?
MT: Oh, man. That's terrifying. I'm out there on the campaign trail all the time talking to people who are going to vote in this election. I was talking to this woman in Louisiana last week, and she's standing at a McCain rally, she's actually there supporting the candidate in person, and I say, "What is it about Barack Obama that you don't like?" She turns to her friend and says, "What was that thing about his wife? That anti-American thing?" The other one says, "I don't know. Which thing do you mean?" And she's like, "That thing, where she's anti-American." And the other one is like, "Oh, I don't know. I don't know what you mean." And so she says to me, "Well, I heard this thing about her being anti-American." That was as specific as she could be about why she didn't like Barack Obama, because she heard a thing somewhere about his wife. People are voting on the basis of shit like that. [Laughs.] How we're not back in the Stone Age already with this situation, the way it's going, is beyond me.
AVC: As a journalist, what did you make of the coverage of Tim Russert's death? Are we at the point now where certain journalists are to be memorialized like statesmen?
MT: I've already gotten in trouble for something like this before the Pope died. [Taibbi wrote an article for NY Press in 2005, "The 52 Funniest Things About The Upcoming Death Of The Pope."] I mean, obviously he's the Pope, he's not Tim Russert, so it's not as ridiculous—but you knew that there was going to be that eight consecutive days of "Oh my God. This person that we can't possibly live without has died!" And, "He is the greatest person who has ever lived on the entire face of the earth!" There's something about the way our media is constructed that it has an instinct and an appetite for that kind of bullshit that just goes beyond all reason. I don't know what it is, but if you watch ESPN, for instance, and you watch anybody talk about any sports team, it's like they jump at any chance to jack off any athlete they can, because the thing that they do best on TV is just worship people or things. Celebrating the dead is the schlockiest form of worship, and they have a limitless appetite for it. I just can't figure it out. I mean, Tim Russert, he's a fat guy from Buffalo who did his job okay. I don't have anything against him. But people die! That's part of what your life is all about. I don't know. It's really weird shit. It's certainly repugnant. But I can't imagine that it's going to end anytime soon. I think it's probably only going to get worse.