Episode 1 | For The Fans: A Congressman Calls Out Political Phonies June 14, 2021
GUEST: Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA)
Rep. Swalwell recently wrote an interesting article called “My Opponents Smear Me on Fox News, Then Want to Grab Dinner.” He was inspired to write it after a colleague on the other side of the aisle invited him for a meal. Before they went out, Swalwell glanced at his opponent’s Twitter feed – and noticed that he had sent five tweets slamming him. We’ll speak to Swalwell about the phony “bro” culture in Congress, an unexpected run-in with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), and what he sees as the best way to break through ideological silos and communicate with fair-minded opponents.
Congressman Eric Swalwell has represented the 15th District of California since 2013. As a presidential candidate in 2020, he qualified for the first Democratic presidential debate. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he helped prosecute the impeachment case against President Trump. After the insurrection on January 6th of this year, he was named a House Impeachment Manager to lead the second impeachment trial against President Trump.
BRAD PHILLIPS, HOST, THE SPEAK GOOD PODCAST:
I stayed at work late on the night of October 20, 1999. Back then, I was a 27-year-old associate producer for the CNN media analysis program, Reliable Sources. I remember that date because when I left work at about 8:20 that night, Elizabeth Dole, who had served as the U.S. secretary of labor and secretary of transportation, was entering CNN’s Washington D.C. bureau just as I was leaving. She was there to speak with Larry King, but not for the reason she had hoped.
Earlier that day, she had announced that she was dropping her bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. And she was there to discuss what went wrong with her campaign. As we approached one another in the lobby, she turned to the side, beamed a fabulously wide smile, and waved with great enthusiasm. She was waving to a large group of supporters who had gathered to wish her well on her final day as a candidate – or so it seemed.
But the thing is, with the exception of me, Ms. Dole, three of her aides and a security guard, no one else was in that lobby. But then I spotted what I had originally missed. There, crouching down in a corner was one man, a photographer who was there to take photos of her entering the building. Secretary Dole knew that simply by appearing to have spotted a big crowd, those photographs would make it look like there were hundreds of Dole fans just behind the camera. She played the moment just right. And, sure enough, the next day’s paper showed her just as she knew they would, as a woman being celebrated by hordes of supporters, none of whom were actually there.
That level of stagecraft, or, as we say in today’s parlance, managing the optics, is nothing new in American politics. In fact, one famous example dates to the end of the Revolutionary War. When officers were considering a coup to get the back pay they had been promised from an impotent Confederation Congress, General George Washington famously took a pair of reading glasses from his pocket. The vain Washington had rarely allowed people to see him wearing glasses. And he told his men, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.” With that one brilliant act, many historians believe that moment had been carefully planned. Washington reminded his men of his profound sacrifice and thus reawakened their loyalty to him, and he squashed the rebellion.
So, while that type of image management isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, it has taken on some new forms. Perhaps the best description is a term from the world of professional wrestling. Kayfabe, which Merriam Webster defines as a staged performance presented as real, that maintains the fiction by staying in character. In other words, everyone knows it’s a fake, but no one will admit it. As you’ll hear from our guest today, kayfabe is very much alive, not only in the wrestling ring, but in the halls of Congress, where some members talk trash about their colleagues on cable news and then pat them on the back behind closed doors.
My guest today, a well-known congressman, is tired of the act. He recently called out a colleague’s kayfabe. We’ll get to him and that story in a moment. But first, because this is the debut episode of The Speak Good Podcast, I should introduce myself. My name is Brad Phillips and I’m the president of Throughline Group, a media and presentation training company based in New York City and Washington D.C. For the better part of two decades, I’ve trained tens of thousands of people – everyone from Fortune 500 CEOs and heads of government agencies to TED talkers and many others – to become more effective media spokespeople and public speakers. We often work on delicate issues – think about a company under fire for its poor track record on diversity and inclusion, a nonprofit association being accused of a conflict of interest, or a government agency that angers stakeholders by announcing an unpopular new policy. When considering how to advise our clients to respond in those circumstances, I always try to remain true to my north star. By asking myself, and often our clients, this question: “What’s the right thing to do?”
That’s what this podcast is about. Our mission is to use the power of communication for good. Over what I hope will be a long run, I’ll speak with sharp thinkers, researchers, public figures, and others who, for lack of a better word, wrestle with the question of how we truly can speak good.
Congressman Eric Swalwell has represented the 15th District of California since 2013. As a presidential candidate in 2020, he qualified for the first democratic presidential debate. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he helped prosecute the impeachment case against President Trump. And after the insurrection on January 6 of this year, he was named a house impeachment manager to lead the second impeachment trial against President Trump. Congressman Swalwell, thank you very much for coming on.
REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA):
Of course, Brad, it’s an honor. And congratulations on the podcast.
Thank you for helping us christen this into the world. I want to begin in April (when) you released an op-ed. It was published on NBC news.com. The title of it was Republicans Smear Me on Fox News and Then Want to Grab Dinner. And I’m hoping you could tell me the story of what happened behind the scenes.
It’s felt for a very long time like I work at the world wrestling entertainment organization rather than the greatest legislative body in the world, where we’re supposed to make changes that impact people’s lives. And what I mean by that is I’ve seen Republican colleagues of mine say the worst things about me on television. Then, we pass each other in the hallways of Congress and they’ll be like,’ Hey, Swalwell, how’s it going? Great job last night on whatever interview you did.’ And, actually, the crescendo was during the impeachment trial of the president. I bumped into (Sen.) Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the men’s bathroom in the Senate. And he said, ‘Hey, you did a really good job out there.’ He could tell I was surprised. And he said, ‘No, I really mean it. You did a great job.’ And I just thought, what the hell is going on? We’re in a system where they can hit me over the head with a steel chair in the ring, and then backstage we’re supposed to quote, unquote bro out, because I’m supposed to know it’s fake and they’re just doing it for the fans. And it just feels cheap. It feels sick. And it’s not what the people who we’re supposed to represent expect.
I’ve concluded that many of my Republican colleagues, they look at the people they represent not as constituents but as fans. And so, you just give the fans what they want. Cruz and I, we shouldn’t take it personally because, hey, we all know it’s just for entertainment. And I think that’s really plaguing what we’re charged to do, whether it’s raising wages in this country, expanding healthcare, keeping us safe from the threats abroad. If I don’t know what my colleagues on the other side, what their core principles are, it makes it really hard, to quote, unquote collaborate or compromise with them, if it’s really just: Give the fans what they want. And, so, I thought it was time to call it out and lift the curtain for people to see what goes on backstage.
I have to admit, I’m surprised to hear you relay that anecdote about Senator Cruz. Because, I guess he plays that role behind the scenes so well that it surprises me he would even say that. I, from the outside, almost saw him as a true believer. So, you’ve exposed in some way that performative quality that he is so successful with.
I want to say something really controversial. I have also concluded that if you and I were out to dinner, and we bumped into Ted Cruz or (Rep.) Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), or, (Rep.) Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), if they sat down and talked to us for 15 minutes, you would say, “Hey, those are actually, those are nice guys.” And that’s what I think makes it so sick. They know that what they’re doing is not really what they believe – and maybe it is what they believe in – but, if they really believe that I’m the enemy that they tell people I am, and my colleagues are the enemies that they tell people that I am, then why would you want to be so nice to me when no one is looking. I can only infer that they don’t really believe that (and) again, it’s just all about the fandom.
I will give credit to one person, and this will also probably shock you. (Rep.) Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). When she walks past me in the halls of Congress, she gives me a look of death like I am her mortal enemy, and she believes what she is saying. I’ve concluded that … she’s not trying to bro out. She’s not complimenting me. She believes the crazy that she’s perpetuating out there. And I respect that a hell of a lot more than someone who I don’t even know what you believe. You just think this is about quote, unquote fans.
So, let’s stick with Congresswoman Greene for a second, because there’s something that I have dubbed “the outrage fundraising cycle,” which essentially means they say something outrageous and then all of the right enemies attack them. And they use the attack of the enemies to then raise money off of. And so, there’s this perverse incentive that they have to continue this kind of behavior. And so, I’m wondering, do you see any hope for that? I mean, do you see any way that perverse incentive can get reversed? Because if it doesn’t, I think we’re going to see a lot more of that type of performative behavior that you just described with Mr. Gaetz or Senator Cruz.
We’ve got to get rid of the dirty money and the dirty maps. And that’s the structural issue that really threatens our democracy … you have this constant fundraising cycle, and on top of that, you have congressional lines that are drawn to protect politicians and their friends by the party and power. We passed the For The People Act, which would have an independent commission in every state. So that, God forbid, we rely on math and geography, not protecting any party, Democratic or Republican, that’s in power. And then on the money, you’re not constantly having to fundraise because we will strip down to the studs the Citizens United ruling, which allows all this unlimited money to drop into our campaigns. And so, I think because of dirty money and dirty maps, it has polluted our Congress. So, yes, for short-term fundraising, you make a quick buck by saying something crazy, but you’re not doing anything that is really moving the ball on the kitchen-table issues that most people really care about. I think if we do not take on the maps and the money, these issues are not going away and we’re going to see the Congress pulled to the fringes.
By the way, I’m curious if you received any reaction from some of your colleagues when you released that piece, and if people like Senator Cruz or Congressman Gaetz had anything to say to you about the point you were trying to make.
(LAUGHS) When I wrote the piece, I thought, OK, when we pass each other in the hallways, they’re going to stop bro-ing out, or they’re going to stop complimenting me. Or, when I see them in committee hearings, they’re going to stop giving me a fist bump and saying, “Hey, how are you doing?” One member said to me – I put in the piece – “Hey, we’re due for dinner soon.” And I went back and looked at his Twitter and he had sent at least five tweets attacking me in like the last three months. And I just said (in my mind), you want to have dinner with me? (LAUGHS) Like, what are you talking about?
He was probably trying to get fodder for his next five tweets. (LAUGHS)
Right, right. That’s right. So no, nothing has changed. it’s just crazy to me that that’s how it is. But really, as I said, I went to Congress as the son of two Republicans who married a Hoosier from Indiana that grew up with the Pence family, believing that I could speak and understand Republican, and understand there are things that we’re not going to agree on, and there’s a heck of a lot that we do and find (that) the heck of a lot that we do (are) areas that we can reach consensus and make changes. And now we’re at the point though, where I just don’t know what they believe. And when you don’t know what they believe, you don’t know where the sweet spot is to find good policy.
The consequences of that are profound.
I want to ask you really a personal question about me. If I can make this all about me for a moment, because I think, like a lot of people, I wrestle with how I’m supposed to act in things like social media. I described that outrage fundraising cycle. When I see somebody like Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeting something outrageous, particularly when it’s something about a marginalized group of people, I feel, on one hand, I have to speak out because if I don’t I’m being silent in the face of a group being persecuted. But on the other hand, if I do speak out, I’m playing into something that she knew would happen, that people would be outraged, spread her name all around the internet, and make her even more prominent – allow her to raise even more money off of that outrage. And so, I’m wondering how you process those moments and where do you see the line between, do I hit the retweet button and make a snarky comment, or do I sit this one out?
There’s no easy answer here. And lies have to be checked and corrected, otherwise they persist. But, Brad, I’ll tell you that when Donald Trump was elected, the Democratic Caucus was briefed by a sociologist and a psychiatrist who presented a study to us that the risk in publicly correcting a lie is that once the lie is told … the way the mind works, you can correct it in the short term. If you have a campaign and a message to correct it, you can correct it in the short-term. But what they found, and they had analyzed the lie that there were death panels with the affordable care act, (was that) in the short term, we were able to convince people that there were not death panels. But when the same people who were convinced there were not death panels were asked again a year later, they defaulted to believing there were going to be death panels.
And so, it really is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t problem. So, I think it has to just be case by case. I happen to have a few rules … one is to try not to tweet while flying, because when you’re in a confined space and you’re captive to the plane and you’re pretty bored, you’re not probably thinking at your best. Try not to tweet while tired. Try not to tweet while angry. Try not to drink and tweet. (That) can lead to things that you don’t necessarily want out there. I also will say, be willing to apologize for a tweet. Not because it’s unpopular, but, if you say something that’s wrong … if you’re going to retweet something, and you end up being wrong, recognize when you send that tweet that you may have to walk it back. You’re a better person and Twitter is a better place when you have people that are willing to do that.
As, as a media coach, I’d say 50 percent of our business proposition is helping people who have mis-Tweeted or sent something in all of those conditions you just described. And I would just add to that very good list that I try never to punch down. That’s the other rule I have for myself. I don’t want to be gratuitous. I don’t mind saying something snarky or sharp, but never in a way that punches down. And to your point about damned if you do, damned if you don’t, it reminds me of that old expression that a lie can travel around the world in the time it takes you to lace your boots.
And so, I do wonder how you reconcile that, how you think about that. And maybe we can talk about that in the context of you serving as an impeachment manager, where you are beamed around the country and the world (and) millions of people are watching your presentation. And, obviously, you want to get the facts out there. And I think, by the way, you did a brilliant job of doing that. If people haven’t seen that, we’ll put in the show notes where people can see how you talked about January 6. But we also know that facts alone aren’t necessarily enough to the point you made a few moments ago, to move minds. So beyond just kind of stating the facts, how do you think about crafting an argument in a way that people maybe outside of your normal support base might be willing to hear you?
Thanks, Brad, for the question. And I would say the irony of the quote (LAUGHS) you gave, (that) a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth laces up its boots, (I have) two points (LAUGHS). There’s controversy around who said that, whether it was Mark Twain, or not. So, it’s funny a quote about truth has this dispute over who said it. But more relevant to our times is that with that quote, that was made before the internet. Right? So, I think the lie goes all the way around the world now, before you lace up your boots. And, the challenge is, as you said, which ones to correct, and which ones not. I agree with you on not punching down. During the Trump administration, we would show great restraint on not attacking, not even attacking the vice president – that’s how strictly we stuck to that rule. He was not the one whose name was up on the top of the ballot. We were voting for Donald Trump, and we wanted Donald Trump to be responsible for what Kellyanne Conway said, or what Sebastian Gorka said, but we didn’t attack Kellyanne Conway or Sebastian Gorka. We would attack Donald Trump for having the judgment of putting people like that on his team.
How do you connect with people that may not necessarily agree with you? I think you have to recognize that there are just certain things that you can say about people that they will automatically check out, and how do you identify with what they care about? How do you find what they care about it? I think about the issue of gun violence. There are areas of gun safety where I want to lead, and I recognize it’s going to be a long time before anyone follows me, like banning and buying back assault weapons. I don’t think anyone else in Congress has sponsored my legislation to do that. And at this point, I care mostly about socializing the idea, rather than going to members of Congress and telling them they need to get on board with it. And then spending hours being told all the reasons they can’t do it. I think, first, I need to publicly socialize it, build that support on the outside, and then go back to my colleagues.
However, on other pieces of legislation around gun safety, I recognize that with gun owners, many of them are responsible and they want to be responsible, and they don’t want to be lumped in with the people who commit mass shootings. And so, inviting them in and asking them what do you care about? How do you believe gun safety can allow you to still shoot for sport, protect your house, go hunting, but prevent the worst people from getting it? So it is, I think, recognizing that sometimes you have to invite in the people that you perceive as against you. And just by doing that, you have a little bit more credibility. You also will learn something (about) the issue when you do that.
And then frankly, with communicating with audiences that may not always agree with you, what I have to balance and the issue like Fox News and others is, do you legitimize them by going on there? Or are you recognizing that when you talk to Fox News’ viewers, some people are involuntarily watching Fox News. (For instance) the bar owner decides what goes on in the bar. The patrons who are waiting for their plane at the airport, they’re just watching what’s on at the bar. They’re not going to ask the bar owner to change it nine times out of 10. So, if I can communicate to those folks, or if I can communicate to the spouse whose husband is watching Fox News, don’t discount the collateral benefit and the folks that you can communicate to who may not necessarily have chosen that forum.
I think the point you just brought up is, is such a challenging one. Because, as you said, if you appear on Fox News or Newsmax or OAN, you are legitimizing that news organization. (So) you go on the Chris Wallace Sunday morning program – and I think Chris Wallace is a pretty fair, tough journalist who contributes something positive – yet his paycheck is coming from Rupert Murdoch. And, on the other hand, as you said, if you don’t go on, you are leaving out a portion of the audience who might otherwise have been receptive to your message. And so, I guess the question for you is when you do, let’s say you were to go on – not that this is something you have immediate plans to do – a Tucker Carlson or a Sean Hannity next week, how do you try to reach to maybe that 10 or 20 percent of the audience whose mind is tilting away from you, but it’s still at least, there’s that crack, a crack open at least a little bit to hearing what you have to say.
I think it’s by finding what we do agree on, and then using that to make a larger point about the issue. So, on gun violence, as an example – and I’ve debated Tucker on this … Fox is very good at saying Democrats want to defund the police. So the inference from that is that Fox supports the police. They don’t want to defund the police. So, I think the higher ground and the way to invite them in is to say, “Look, you want to support the cops in your community. I want to support the cops in your community. I want them to go home to their families at night. And the best way to do that is to reduce the number of weapons that could take their lives on the next domestic violence incident or the next police stop. Who could disagree with that?” And so I guess find the “who could disagree with that propositions” to invite them in and at least get a fair trial, I guess.
That approach of finding common ground, I think is the first place I would go to. You have to find the place of similarity. What concerns me is that increasingly it’s becoming difficult to find that common ground when you have so many people – 70 percent of Republicans in one poll said they don’t believe Joe Biden is the rightful president; a large percentage of the American public doesn’t believe they should get vaccinated; and many think still, despite 500,000 plus deaths, it’s a hoax. So, I guess one of the challenges that we face is that finding common ground is as difficult today as it’s probably ever been before.
That’s right. But I also still believe taking it away from the (politics), because we’re now just stuck in red team versus blue team on everything. Blue team is for the vaccine; red team doesn’t want the government to tell me what I can do. What I’ve found on the vaccine is to really, whether I’m talking on television or I’m talking to people in my community, to go to the science. Again, what’s the higher ground. The higher ground is not that Republicans … don’t want you to do it and Democrats do. It’s that you trust your doctor, right? You go to your annual physical. You take the medications. They suggest if you had a family member who was sick. You’re going to listen to them. Of course, you’re going to fact check it by going to Google. But you’re going to listen to your doctor. And I would encourage you to go talk to your doctor about whether you should get a vaccine. Don’t talk to your congressman or senator. Talk to your doctor. And O think, again, finding, like, who does that person trust? And then direct them there, can also be effective.
That’s really smart, personalizing it to somebody that they know. I saw a tweet from a physician that I thought was really smart that basically did exactly what you’re saying. And the way that she framed the conversation she’s having with patients is she begins by asking her patient, do you know anybody that’s died of COVID-19, and they will list people who they’ve lost. And then her follow-up question is, do you know anybody that’s died of the COVID 19 vaccine? And they can’t come up with anybody, and she says, let’s get you scheduled.
Wow. That is powerful.
I think that’s a very smart approach to be able to do that.
I’d like to end with a question, because the focus of this podcast is using the power of communication for good. And so, I’d like to end by asking you if you are able to think of a moment where you had a conversation with someone who might have been skeptical, maybe not a natural supporter of yours or one of the positions that you take, but through the conversation landed in a different place than they began.
It was the eve of the background check vote in 2019 in Congress, I was also a presidential candidate, and we were campaigning through New Hampshire. I had the idea of wanting to go to a firearms dealer, a gun shop, and just talk to the owner about his concerns about the background check bill, figuring he was going to be against it. So, we gave him a little bit of notice and I showed up and he had invited some of his best customers. And, pretty soon, I realized they all had their phones out and they were recording our interaction, which was fine. I expected that was probably going to happen. And many of the gun owners who knew who I was had seen that I was on the cover of NRA (National Rifle Assocation) magazine as one of their top targets.
They were saying outrageous things about, you know, you’re just trying to take all our guns. I want guns so that I can fight my government if I ever have to. But the gun owner, I keyed in on him. Because when it came down to it, I asked him, what do you oppose about background checks? He said, “Well, I just, I’m a small business, I cannot afford to get bogged down on more paperwork that the government’s going to have to process, and it’s going to hold up my sales.” And I said to him, “Look, if that is your opposition, my word to you is I want you to sell as many guns as possible to people who are allowed to have (them). Let me deal with the competency of government side. But if that’s the only reason you’re opposed to it, I feel like we can work with that.” Like if it’s not a “I don’t want the government knowing who buys guns. I want people to have unlimited access to guns” that’s a little bit harder, but I found that this was just really a pro-gun guy, (for whom) it was just dollars and cents. And I felt like we reached common ground, that he agreed. If you could figure out how to not hold up an honest sale, then he didn’t have a problem with it.
Well, that’s a great place to land. Congressman Eric Swalwell, thank you very much for being the first guest on The Speak Good Podcast.
It’s really an honor … Sail away!
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