The four hosts of Pod Save America have just wrapped up a live taping of their popular podcast-slash-Trump-presidency-survival-guide for a raucous crowd of red-state liberals in Nashville, Tennessee. They’re at Ryman Auditorium, the onetime spiritual home of country music, and are cooling down backstage over beers. Jon Favreau, the de facto host of “the Pod,” for short, is raving about the energy in the room; Tommy Vietor, the quartet’s gregarious foreign-policy wonk, greets well-wishers who drove up from Atlanta; Dan Pfeiffer, Barack Obama’s communications director for eight years, nurses a bottle of Dogfish Head from his native Delaware and hands Jon Lovett – the host of the comical Lovett or Leave It, another podcast launched by the group’s Crooked Media company – a “Pod Tours America” poster to autograph for the venue.
The irascible Lovett, already changed into a fresh T-shirt emblazoned with the GOP-attributed quote “Repeal and Go F-ck Yourself,” grabs a Sharpie and scribbles a warm thank-you to the Ryman. Still, he can’t help himself: “P.S.,” he writes, “the pee tape is real.”
It’s such irreverence and give-no-fucks humor – mixed with expert political analysis and calls to action – that has earned the onetime Obama Administration staffers (Favreau and Lovett were speechwriters; Vietor national security spokesperson; Pfeiffer exited as senior advisor) something of rock-star status among podcast listeners and frustrated liberals. When the foursome, along with guest host Symone Sanders, took the stage, they were greeted with rapturous applause. Outside in the lobby, the pre-show line at the merch table, where Pfeiffer was signing copies of his new book Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump, snaked all the way to the rear of the hall. Many fans sported “Friend of the Pod” T-shirts, and at least two handmade “I Really Do Care” jackets were in the crowd, a diverse mix of young and old, black and white.
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The Friday-night Nashville appearance was the second of a three-city Southern hop for the hosts, who take the Pod on the road from its Los Angeles home-base about one weekend per month. On Thursday they fired up Atlanta, chatting with Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams – who will become the first female African-American governor in U.S. history should she win in November – and concluded on Sunday in Durham, North Carolina. During a sit-down in Nashville a few hours before taping time, all four agree that there was something unexpected about bringing their politics to the South.
“We all noticed that the cities in the redder states where we do the shows are the rowdiest crowds,” says Favreau, sipping an old fashioned at the Marsh House restaurant in Nashville’s trendy Thompson Hotel. “There is something about listening to a podcast by yourself, or maybe in the car with someone else, but when you come to an event, you’re suddenly with all these other people whom you have something in common with politically. Which is not usual for people who are in the South.”
Rowdy though they may be, Pod Save America live gigs are the opposite of Trump rallies, like the recent one in Duluth, Minnesota, where the president called the assembled media “dishonest,” boasted about why he should be considered an “elite” and continued his debasing of immigrants. At typical Pod tapings, audiences aren’t assembling to air grievances – they’re gathering for catharsis, and to support causes and candidates like Abrams and Democratic Texas senate nominee Beto O’Rourke. “It’s a different level of excitement to be for something,” says Vietor.
Lovett, however, says that the Democrats and the current slate of Republicans in power aren’t all that different.
“On one hand you have [Iowa Republican congressman] Steve King, who is an avowed racist and white supremacist who believes in protecting white culture from immigrants. And on the other side there are a lot of people who support Medicare for all,” he deadpans. “If we can just realize that these two poles are equally dangerous, then we’ll all be a lot better off.”
Lovett may be dropping a sarcasm bomb, but he and his mates aren’t kidding about what’s at stake in the November mid-terms. “If we don’t win this election,” says Pfeiffer, “we are fucked.”
For some of you, this is your first time to Nashville. Were there any preconceived notions that may have been dispelled after bringing Pod Saves America to the South?
Tommy Vietor: I wondered if maybe I should be a little more polite, or watch my mouth, but it’s the same exact reaction [as in blue states]. Maybe there’s a little less, “Why hasn’t he been impeached yet?” liberalism.
Jon Lovett: The conversation on Twitter and the way people are in the world are very different. You’d think people would be angry and the divisions that you see play out on Twitter every day would be more evident in these kinds of shows, but you just don’t see that. You see people that are enthusiastic and excited and generally positive. They’re furious about the world, and boo and hiss at all the right places, but there isn’t that sense of cynicism that there is on Twitter.
Jon Favreau: They’re really curious. The most common questions we get are all around the topic of, “What should we do?” You get this whole group of people who maybe barely paid attention to politics before 2016 – or didn’t at all – and they’re now trying to learn the whole thing: how to be an activist, how to get involved.
Dan Pfeiffer: It’s a lot of people who are in their early- to mid-twenties and, for their entire adultish life, Obama was president and things seemed fine. Hillary was going to win, and there was a complacency to it. And then this election knocked them out of it and they’ve gone looking for what to do. But to Jon’s point, what is amazing and true of our audiences is also true of every event we’ve been to, the March for Our Lives, the Women’s March or the airport rallies: People are frustrated but they’re not angry. They’re almost happy to be together rather than screaming, “Fuck Trump.”
Are there issues in the South that might resonate more than elsewhere? Gun ownership perhaps?
Pfeiffer: The core set of issues are the same. Where Democrats make a mistake is [they’ll think], “Oh, I’m in a Southern state, so I must do this ‘tact to the middle, split the difference’ sort of thing.” That is what is so impressive about Beto and Stacey Abrams. They understand that if we’re going to inspire new people to vote, then we have to have a much bolder, more progressive, more inspirational take. But that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about guns in a way that supports common sense gun safety but also understands people’s experience with guns in [a Southern state] is different than, say, Delaware.
Your podcast is a salve for many who are still shook by Trump’s election. What went wrong in 2016?
Pfeiffer: The great failure of 2016 is we lost control of the conversation. It wasn’t about what we wanted it to be about. Democrats had this gigantic advantage on the economy – the message that is most effective with our base and new voters is the exact same one that is effective with swing voters. That is a very rare thing. Republicans don’t have that choice. Their base message is about MS-13, immigration and ISIS is going to behead you at the mall, but their swing-voter message is about the economy, government regulations and deficits. Democrats had an advantage, but the conversation was about emails, it was about Trump, and it drowned out the things we wanted to talk about.
That’s Trump’s evil gift though, right? He is able to exaggerate non-issues to the point of distraction. I have friends who are police officers and they bought the narrative that Hillary was anti-cop, as well as the NFL national anthem controversy, hook, line and sinker.
Favreau: For some Trump voters he plays on their general disenchantment with politics. I don’t think we can discount that. There are a lot of people who don’t pay attention to politics because it never seemed to affect their lives in a good way … If you never paid attention to the debate about the flag and you don’t know that these players are kneeling because of police brutality, you might think, “Why is that guy kneeling as the anthem is playing? That’s weird.” Or if your only knowledge of Black Lives Matter is the images you saw from Ferguson and Baltimore on CNN. There is a failure to show the underlying causes of those movements time and time again.
Lovett: It’s heartbreaking. There are a lot of heartbroken anxious people that thought better of their country. We’re heartbroken by how far Trump has gotten to the most powerful position in the world. We’re heartbroken by the capitulation of the Republicans. But there is also a difference between the Trump superfan and the people who went along with something because they were deluded and deceived. Trump is a raptor testing the fences, and he found weaknesses to escape and try things that would work, every single day.
Vietor: His entire career he’s understood the power of imagery and raw emotion. Every building he builds he slaps his fucking name on it. He identifies the image of a kneeling player at a game and what that meant for service members, the power of that. Every time he talks about an immigrant he tries to identify them with either ISIS or MS-13. He gets that part of marketing in a way that Democrats are very bad at. That’s why he’s getting destroyed last week [for separating families]. Because there are very real images of these kids being ripped away from their families.
Immigration was bungled so badly. Was that the result of ignorance or malevolence?
Favreau: It’s malevolence tempered by ignorance. At some point we have to listen to what he’s trying to tell us: “rapists coming across the border,” “shithole countries,” “animals,” “infestation.” How many different times does he have to say it?
Do you still have faith in the checks and balances system in reining in Trump?
Favreau: With this congress? No.
Pfeiffer: If we don’t win this election, we are fucked. The only thing that is preventing them from looting the fucking country right now is the idea that they may not be able to hold onto political power. If Trump can be a racist clown, Scott Pruitt can be involved in corruption, Jared and Ivanka can make $82 million and they can put children in a cage, and at the end of that they still keep power? What is that going to tell them? That they can do absolutely anything. Mueller will be fired the next day.
What can we be optimistic about?
Favreau: I’m doing [a new podcast] about the Democratic party and I did a couple of focus groups. One was in Michigan, with people who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Eight people in the room, and not a single person who had voted for Trump is happy with their vote. They were embarrassed. It simultaneously made you feel good, but also frustrated. Good because, “Hey, they don’t like him.” But frustrated, because they were like, “I thought he would fix my healthcare, or make sure Medicare was protected, or bring jobs back. But all he does is tweet and yell about things.” That doesn’t mean they have love for the Democratic party, but it means they’re gettable voters.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.