Stephen Marche on co-writing ‘The Last Election’ with Andrew Yang


The great British Labour leader Neil Kinnock once said that “a politician cursing the press is like a sailor cursing the sea” — a natural but futile reaction. The press curses politicians, too, basically out of habit, almost organically. As the presidential election of 2024 looms, the natural loathing between the two sides is running at an all-time, dangerous high. Ordinary tension risks devolving into brutality, even violence.

In the end, Donald Trump’s most enduring contribution to American life will probably be making assaults on the press central to Republican politics. Even fellow party members who are at least somewhat uncomfortable with his sexual and treasonous tendencies have enthusiastically taken up his strategy of threatening journalists. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signaled his seriousness in the current campaign mainly by ramping up his attacks on the press, making vague calls to legislate out the First Amendment and aiming personal insults at individual journalists. For journalists, attacking politicians amounts to a sacred principle. If the free press exists for any reason, it is to make power uncomfortable. Politicians and journalists are supposed to oppose each other. That line is sacred.

Recently I found myself crossing that line. I wrote with a politician rather than against one. I co-wrote a political thriller, “The Last Election,” with Andrew Yang, former New York mayoral candidate and leader of the Forward Party. In a moment of violent tension between the warring sides, I have found myself, or rather I have put myself, in the position of a collaborator.

I had my reasons, as collaborators always do. Andrew came to me with the idea of describing, in detail, what the process of the collapse of the American electoral system might look like. He knew a great deal that I didn’t, and what he knew mattered. In the 2024 campaign, the Republican front-runner, widely supported in polls of primary voters, is under indictment for multiple felonies, accusations of treason have become standard campaign rhetoric, tolerance for political violence continues to grow and the respect for voting rights is steadily eroding. The vision Andrew proposed was far from academic, and important, it seemed to me.

But if I’m honest, my motive was selfish curiosity. The agreement we made as co-writers was that Andrew would tell me the ugly truth, and ask his staff and his consultants to tell me the ugly truth, and then he could cut what he wanted. (He ended up cutting almost none of the ugliness.) We told the inside story of the campaign of a third party that roars to popularity and drives the country toward a contingent election, the constitutional mechanism by which a candidate can win the presidency without winning the popular or electoral college vote. It is an entirely legal American election that is not recognizably democratic, hence “The Last Election,” a paranoid political thriller in which the paranoia is entirely justified.

I couldn’t resist the education Andrew offered me. It’s one thing to read about dark money, or to interview legal experts about dark money and the danger it presents to the American republic. It’s quite another to have it explained, in detail, how the money people and the campaigns aren’t allowed to talk to each other, so campaigns distribute videos of their candidates doing banal family activities on public networks so that the PACs can use them in ads. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, which turned the American political system into a game of financial transactions, didn’t just render American politics more corrupt. It made its politics vastly more ridiculous.

There were frank answers to obvious questions, like how sex works on a campaign trail. (It’s sort of like summer camp.) But I became fascinated in particular with the human details that tend to be lost in even the closest campaign reporting. Before debates, candidates are given scraps of paper on which they’re allowed to write notes. They tend to use the triangle method; they write down twenty-second long arguments on each side so that, no matter what question is asked, they can hit all their talking points on the subject. I thought it was sweet, candidates trying to ace a big exam like eager students.

I was also exposed to the fundamental dehumanization of the process. When I was talking to one campaign aide about oppo research, he kept using the phrase “unloading the book,” as in “after the second fundraising report, we unloaded the book on them,” or “we knew they would unload the book on us after the debate.” “Unloading the book” meant unleashing all the accumulated nastiness the researchers had gathered. After hearing this phrase maybe 17 times, I asked if he was talking about an actual book. The man patiently explained that every significant politician in America has a book written about them. I asked if I could look at one, and it was a literal book. The level of detail was startling. Every institution that had ever lent the candidate money. Every antisemite the candidate had ever sat next to at a party. Who they had dated in high school. I couldn’t help thinking what the book about me would look like.

The people who submit to this process are either extraordinarily dedicated or unhinged, or both. One of the most remarkable people I spoke with was an ex-Broadway actor who teaches politicians how to interact with people in a way that projects the impression that they’re human beings. He has exercises. He asks his students a question, then throws them a whiffle ball, and they have to catch the ball before giving their answer. This teaches them to notice the people who are asking them questions. He has them give a speech while putting one piece of Lego on top of another between each sentence, so they learn how to think about what they’re saying even when they’ve said it 10,000 times.

So I got what I signed up for. I looked into the workings of the machine. I got the scuttlebutt. What I was doing, in a way, was classic access journalism, although in this case it was access fiction. But the trick of access journalism is that you make your sources feel that you’re on their side, and then you betray them for the sake of the reader. Everyone always misunderstands the famous opening line of Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer”: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” The truth is that the vast majority of journalists don’t have it in them to betray their sources. It’s much more common to become overly sympathetic to the people who give you information. The great ones understand that their responsibility to the public trumps their other relationships. It’s incredibly rare to achieve moral indefensibility.

I can only aspire. I betrayed nobody in writing “The Last Election.” It’s Andrew’s book as much as it’s mine. And the lack of betrayal makes me feel oddly guilty. Government and media are thesis and antithesis, and the idea is that the synthesis will be superior to either side on its own. Insofar as any principle is sacred to me, it is this.

In ancient Mesopotamia, kings submitted to a humiliating annual ritual in which priests stripped off their regalia, made them kneel and then slapped them as hard as they could across the face. Only if the king wept was his reign legitimate. Civilization has advanced over the course of 30 centuries. We now have the rituals of campaigns, and the priestly brutalizers are journalists. But someone must make the powerful suffer. There’s never been a time when we haven’t hated each other. That’s why the First Amendment comes first. Journalists are singled out as a protected profession in the Constitution exactly because our job is to put the people who run things in pain. That is our role, the natural order of things.

But the instinct of healthy opposition was formed in another age. We are no longer in an ordinary political moment, when the antique dichotomies and struggles worked in some kind of functional tension. American politics works by overflowing loathing; that is its core mechanism now. Everything else — policy, law, the electoral system — are subservient to that loathing. It’s not who you want to be in power, it’s who’s the opposite of who you can’t stand to be in power. The sociological term is “complementary radicalization.” You can blame social media algorithms. You can blame Trump. But the same thing has happened in other countries, before Facebook and before “The Apprentice,” and it was the prelude to civil war.

The public, it should be noted, loathes both the press and politicians, and more than ever. The steep decline in trust in institutions, the single largest factor in the rise of political violence in the United States, continues no matter who is in office or what you choose to read. According to Gallup polls, Americans’ confidence in newspapers, like this one, declined from 21 to 18 percent between 2021 and 2023. Practically the only institution faring worse is Congress — confidence in it fell from 12 percent to 8 percent. The contempt is mutually reinforcing. Politicians curse the press and the press curses politicians, and the public curses both of us. What suffers is the process of the people having access to reliable information to form policy opinions which the government enacts.

A vicious election is about to begin — its viciousness will be entirely pointless. I am not so naive as to imagine that we should consider treating politicians like human beings. God forbid. But as I learned writing “The Last Election,” which may have been worth the guilt of my collaboration, the loathing is entirely counterproductive. The problems that America faces are not about individuals who are lovable or contemptible but deep structural crises that transcend campaigns and parties. Loathing is how they get you. Loathing is distraction. Without the loathing, America might have to figure out what kind of country it wants to be.

Stephen Marche is the author of “The Next Civil War” and the co-author of “The Last Election,” which he wrote with Andrew Yang.

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