WASHINGTON — The Trump era has been good to Jake Tapper. But as those on both the right and left have pointed out, it’s been good to have Tapper in the Trump era, as well.
As the host of CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” (which airs every weekday) and “State of the Union” (which airs every Sunday), he has been a leading voice among journalists challenging US President Donald Trump’s declaration that the press is “the enemy of the people.” His chosen ammunition? Honest and fair reporting, he said.
In interviews that often go viral, Tapper, blatantly and bluntly, calls out Trump administration officials for factual untruths and provides evidence to counter many of their claims.
Showcasing the truth has been the primary focus of his day job as a CNN anchor, and now he is taking on the same responsibility through his side gig as a novelist.
Tapper’s recently released political thriller “The Hellfire Club” is set in Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s Washington, a period, Tapper noted in a recent podcast interview with The Times of Israel, that bears a lot of similarities to the one we are living in now.
“They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” Tapper said. “When you read about the 1950s, there’s a lot of rhyming.”
“First of all,” he went on, “you have the swamp. It was very, very swampy back then, probably even more swampy than it is today.” What’s more, “Joe McCarthy engaged in a lot of the same tactics that we see President Trump doing today — in terms of downright falsehoods, lies, smears, just saying anything about political opponents regardless of facts.”
“The Hellfire Club” centers around Charlie Marder, a new congressman, who discovers a conspiracy emanating from the highest echelons of American government.
The story opens with Marder waking up from a drunken blackout after a car accident in DC’s Rock Creek Park. Nearby, a woman lies dead in a ditch.
Before he can piece together how he got there, a lobbyist pulls up and takes him away, saving him from personal and political catastrophe. Yet he must still live with the moral consequences — and the Washington milieu that degrades the values he thought brought him there.
Tapper said he had plans for this book before Trump took the GOP nomination in the summer of 2016. But perhaps it’s no coincidence that there’s a link from the McCarthy era to today.
The late Senator Joe McCarthy’s protégé was Roy Cohn — who was also formally the senator’s chief counsel during the Red Scare hearings. And Donald Trump was later in close contact with Cohn during the 1970s, when Cohn was his attorney.
“Some of that resonance I played up,” Tapper said of his book. “But not a lot of it. It just happened to already be there.”
While Tapper said his novel can be read without America’s mercurial president in mind, he still sought to depict the relationship between the two eras through an imaginative work rather than a conventional think piece or scholarly essay.
“You can sometimes get to the truth in a more meaningful, or at least a different way, through fiction or art than you can through non-fiction,” he said. “I think if I wrote a polemic about my feelings about truth and decency, just an academic paper comparing McCarthy and Cohn to Trump and his advisers, I don’t think it would be particularly compelling. I think it’s more illuminating in a way to do it through fiction, where people can draw the conclusions and see the resonance for themselves.”
Becoming a journalist
After graduating from Dartmouth University in 1991, Tapper dabbled in politics and public relations. Unfulfilled by that work, he realized on a ski trip to Vermont that he could write freelance stories for magazines he read and admired.
Tapper started to pitch stories and get some published, including in The Washington Post’s celebrated Style section, until he got whisked away by the legendary David Carr, then editor of The Washington City Paper.
Carr’s rigorous approach to journalism — his commitment to fairness and accuracy, his deep mistrust of those who wielded power — provided Tapper with a lodestar, he said, for how to tackle journalistic work.
“[Carr] was a tough editor,” Tapper said. “If you had cliché in there, he would eviscerate you in his all caps line-edit of your piece. He would encourage what he thought was the best of your skills and discourage what he thought was the worst. He was relentless, in a good way.”
Tapper nostalgically recalled attributing a quote incorrectly early in his career, and Carr giving him hell over it. “I can still hear his disappointment and his anger at me,” he said. “Whenever I am trying to caution against mistakes, or whenever I make a mistake, I hear his voice in me.”
Working under Carr may have solidified the budding journalist in Tapper, but he said it was his parents who gave him the germ.
Both were progressive activists — they marched against the Vietnam war, supported the Civil Rights movement, advocated policies to support the very poor — and gave Tapper a sense of looking at the world in terms of what’s just and what isn’t.
“They were very much guarded against phonies,” Tapper said. “It was just a suspicion of people in power, and a belief that people in power are often lying to us was just kind of instilled in me early on.”
Tapper’s first foray into journalism came in high school, when he edited for the school paper. His first big story was on the Jews for Jesus movement.
Attending a Jewish high school in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, known then as Akiba Hebrew Academy, he wrote about an alumnus who started the Anti-Missionary Coalition, a group that opposed the proselytizing of Jews — particularly of the Jews for Jesus variety.
“The accusation was that they were hoodwinking Jews and getting them to reacquaint themselves with Judaism by secretly convincing them that they could be Jews and Christians at the same time,” Tapper said. “Of course, by definition you can’t believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and be Jewish. This is kind of an inherent conflict.”
Tapper’s story became the talk of the school, he said, and the experience made him realize he found reporting fulfilling.
“I guess a lot of teachers and faculty and members of the community thought it was a very fair and good story,” he said. “I remember that as a good feeling — writing a fair story that really captured what was going on even though there were a lot of emotions.”
Covering the Trump era
There are a lot of emotions in covering the Trump era, too. Part of Tapper’s approach is to question everything while maintaining an even keel.
One experience that may have contributed to Tapper’s navigating such complicated terrain is his background covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which he learned to absorb healthy criticism and ignore nasty attacks lacking in substance, he said.
“I know I’ve done coverage of the conflict that the Israeli government has praised, and I know I’ve done coverage of the conflict that the Israeli government has hated,” Tapper said. “And [it’s been] the same thing in the community of people supporting Palestinian rights. I do listen to the criticism, and I do listen to constructive suggestions. But generally speaking, when the trolls attack, I mute it really. If it’s just insults — you’re a self-hating Jew, you’re a blood thirty Zionist, whatever — that doesn’t illuminate anything.”
But getting criticized by both sides doesn’t mean he’s getting it correct, Tapper said.
“I think there’s a kneejerk feeling that if Democrats and Republicans, Israelis and Palestinians, if everyone’s attacking you, I must be doing my job right. I think sometimes that might be accurate, but not necessarily,” he said.
“Maybe there’s an issue where just one side is empirically right. I’m not talking about Israel and the Palestinians, I’m not talking about Democrats and Republicans, but if somebody murders somebody, there’s not two sides to that story. Right? I mean, somebody murdered somebody.”
Tapper also didn’t think there were two sides to the story when Trump defended those who marched alongside neo-Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville last summer.
He felt an obligation, he said, to call it for what it was, at least partly because he had been on the receiving end of anti-Semitic harassment in the past.
During the 2016 campaign, the Anti-Defamation League did a study of Jewish journalists who were being targeted by alt-right, anti-Semitic trolls. Tapper was in the top 10.
“There’s nothing you can really do. I think it’s pretty much what women and people of color and other minorities experience quite often. I had not seen it,” he said. “Images of Donald Trump dressed as a Nazi clicking the switch with me in the gas chamber. That sort of thing.”
Tapper told me he sees Trump playing “footsie” with anti-Semites and other racists on the margins of the American political spectrum, and that he thinks the president is doing so, primarily, for his own political benefit.
“I don’t think that President Trump is anti-Semitic. I don’t think he’s a member of the Klan or sympathetic to them. But, you know, in American politics, just like in Israeli politics, sometimes there are politicians who don’t want to alienate groups that might support them, even if those voters are horrific racists,” he said.
“It is Politics 101. You’re in a business of addition, not subtraction, in terms of voters,” he went on. “By the same token, you have to wonder why the eagerness to call [international notorious gang] MS-13 ‘animals,’ whereas you look at the marchers in Charlottesville and there there’s some attempt to understand and see nuance. [But] there isn’t with violent individuals who are not white.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge with Trump, Tapper intimated, was that he doesn’t respond to conventional emotional triggers.
“There used to be a shame quality to it. You could shame a politician to stop telling a lie, or stop claiming something that was not true as truth. This president does not respond to shame in any way,” he said. “And he will double down.”
Despite what he sees as discomfiting chapter in American history unfolding, Tapper said he is optimistic about “the American respect for truth, facts and decency.”
But the nature of this moment is what makes journalism for him intensely meaningful — the need to protect and preserve the independent press.
“We will survive this era of smearing and lying and will emerge on the other end of it okay, in terms of checks and balances and the Fourth Estate,” Tapper said.
“But I am worried what this is doing to the American fabric, just this idea that people in the media are being told by the most powerful person in the world that we’re the enemies of the American people. That lies are now treated as counter narratives, or alternative facts. That’s not healthy.”