At the Stupid Coup: Mark Danner in the NY Review

Moderator: Our plan is for the first half hour to be David and Mark Danner engaged in conversation about Mark Danner his latest piece, or at least the piece that I've read on the amazing piece on the capital, insurrection, and then 10 or 15 minutes where we just chat like the last 15 minutes in, in smaller groups that will divide up into smaller groups just so we can have a free flowing conversation. And with that, can I turn it over to David and mark for however you've decided to?


Mark Danner: We haven't decided?


David Barstow: I haven't decided.


Moderator: I see Ed is here, Hi, Ed. Great to see you here. Great to have you back from sabbatical? And Adam, we don't see that often. Hi.


Barstow: Hey, Adam. Hey, coach. Hey, good to see you all.


So Mark, I have to say, ever since I read this piece, I've been dying to ask you questions about this. So this is like, here, we ask all the questions that I've had for since I read this piece. So I just wondered, what did you actually think you were going to cover on January 6? And exactly when did you realize you're instead covering an actual coup attempt?


Danner: I told everyone, including my family, as I was making arrangements to go to Washington, that I was going to cover the “Stupid Coup”. That's what I told people, because if you were paying attention online at all, and indeed, you didn't have to be online, you just had to listen to Trump. They were getting ready for a coup attempt on January 6, I mean, it was perfectly plain. So that's what I told people.


And the New York Review had wanted to send me to, for the last 20 years, I've covered all the presidential inaugurations and usually done a piece that starts with the inauguration and then goes back with to the end of the campaign. And I was going to cover this inauguration. But sometime in late December, I called Emily Greenhouse, New York Review editor and said, You know, I think the coup on January 6, is going to be a better use of my time. And she said, “Coup? There's gonna be a coup?” and I said, “Yeah, there's gonna be a coup! They're gonna try to overrun the Capitol. Trump is saying it, come to Washington, this is the last chance, it'll be wild. It was in his tweets.” And she said, you know, absolutely go and do that. I think that's your I think you're right, I think it's a better story than the inauguration. And because the inauguration was going to be very limited in the press pool. And, you know, it just wasn't going to be an event like the coup.


Barstow: So we all heard Trump saying “it's gonna be wild”. And we knew that a bunch of people were planning on going and we knew that, you know, I think a lot of us were expecting at least that there's going to be the speechifying and so forth. But you actually expected them to storm the Capitol?


Danner: I thought they would, at least surround it. And you know, something like this happened in Haiti. It sounds ridiculous, and I suppose I'm the only person who would think of this parallel because I covered Haiti a lot. But something like this happened in hating during the Aristide regime. They surrounded the parliament, and forced the legislators to give up on a particular legislator. It's not worth describing at length, but they burn tires to suggest that they were going to burn the legislators alive. So it's a little more colorful in Haitian fashion. But the idea was very similar.


So yeah, I thought they were going to surround the building. I didn't know that they would invade it. But I knew there was going to be violence of some kind, just because, if you look at the arc of this, it was all heading to that, it was all heading to it to something violent happening from to prevent him from losing power. He'd been saying it for years. So I thought, there is going to be a violent event of some kind, and it's going to involve the capital, because the action of the day was in the capital. And he was focusing during the last week entirely on Pence, and Pence was going to be in the capital. So I didn't you know necessarily that the violence would get up into, I didn't know necessarily that they would actually be able to overcome the cops. I guess the thing that surprised me the most was they had no no no extra security, which I just thought was, you know, incomprehensible. So when I got to the capital, I couldn't believe that the fences, the bike stands, so called, had already been overcome, because that's all they had they didn't have anybody extra that day, which struck me as absolute. We still don't know, by the way, the details of that. And we may never know. But there's clearly an aura of complicity here. The question is, what kind of complicity was it active? Was it passive? Anyway, that's a whole other story.


Barstow: But once you're trailing up Constitution Avenue, you get to the Capitol, you realize, Oh, my god, they're storming the Capitol. I've just been fascinated by what reporting choices you're forced to make, on the fly, in the spot, in the moment. Do you plunge into wherever the screaming is loudest? Do you look for a high point where you can just kind of take in the whole scene, do you try to go into the Capitol?, I'm just curious about the reporter impulses, once you are up there and realize, oh, wait a minute, this ain't Haiti. This is actually worse.


Danner: That's really great question, David. It’s actually the perfect question, because I had a real soul-searching half hour, walking around the building. And first of all, as I said, I was initially just shocked at the lack of security, it just made no sense. And I walked around and saw the struggle going on. It wasn't plain when I actually got there, that they were already in the Capitol, there was still a huge crowd on the steps, and people climbing up the sides, you've all seen film of it. And I had a moment, I should say, my feet were frozen. I was had been standing, as the piece describes absolutely frozen in place, paralyzed for about four hours. And I was had extreme back trouble. So I was in a lot of pain. And 10 years ago, I would have walked into the Capitol, no question about it -


Barstow: You would have followed a line of people right into the rotunda


Danner: I just would’ve, because remember, also, I wasn't at the time wearing credentials, which is a whole other thing to talk about. I had them in my pocket, but I wasn't wearing them. Because my experience in Trump rallies is, it just discourages people, it's very hard to get people to talk to you wearing wearing press credentials. And at most of his events, you get put into the cage, if you've got press credentials, so I’d taken to not wearing them. So I wasn't wearing them. At that moment. I looked at the people surging up, I wouldn't have had to get into the actual crowd surging up the stairs. And I finally decided I wasn't going to do it. And I was very conscious of the fact that I thought I might regret this for the rest of my life. I really was thinking that to myself. And indeed, the New Yorker guy, for example, went in, stayed with them, went into the senate, took great footage. But I had this kind of ambivalent feeling. I mean, in the one hand, I didn't feel physically very well. And I also thought, do I want to trust, do I want to go with this crowd? And it was a very violent crowd. And I thought, I can't put my credentials on, if I do that. And I decided that I had a good enough place outside and eventually, as I eventually did, I would go back to the hotel and watch the film from inside once it started to get a little darker, which is what I did. Because I also thought that part of covering it was also seeing how it was, you know, the weirdness of the event was it was being broadcast in real time. I mean, it's no longer weird, but I thought, indeed, that was part of it, how it was being presented. So I didn't go inside. And I do still half regret it, you know, covering Bosnia, covering Haiti, covering Iraq, I never really had a thought of kind of, I have to preserve my life, I always thought ahead of time, you figure out the risk, you make your decision. And you, you know, act prudently, but you're there covering a war. I've since had a couple of children. And, I just thought, you know what, I'm not going to do this, I'm not going to go up in that crowd where, you know, they were beating policemen. And they were thrusting flag close. I mean, it was very clear. You know, a lot of people are gonna get hurt. I mean, a lot of people were hurt, the number is over 100


Barstow: Did you feel yourself being though drawn closer to that, like trying to get closer, to where people were beating up cops, how close did you get?


Danner: Oh, 30 feet, something like that. I remember, the crowd was built up to the top in a kind of funnel. And, you had violence going on all around it. You also had, what I've described in the piece, a lot of gas. It stunk.


Barstow: Yeah.


Danner: And you couldn't entirely tell that people were in already. It seemed to be a fight going on right in the perimeter. I still do, you know, talking about this way, I still rather regret that I didn't go inside. It wasn't as if you could just walk up and go inside at any point. You couldn't. I mean, there were still cops in the front. so on. And I wanted one of the things I thought was, am I gonna go out there and try to push a policeman out? I mean, you know, I don't know, I just made that decision. And you know, they were policemen are hurt. I mean, I think the violence of the situation has been, if anything understated. It was mass violence, with people using hockey sticks, flag poles, using the bicycle racks to hit people, and spraying this disgusting so called bear spray. People had tasers. I mean, I've seen these people before at these rallies.


Barstow: Were you worried, Mark, did it cross your mind? What might happen if you were forced, in the midst of this crowd, to say you’re a reporter? Did that cross your mind?


Danner: Yes. Absolutely. Yeah, Because, you know, I think if I went into the Capitol, I would have been have had to put my credentials on. Do you know what I mean? Because you are committing a federal crime. And your only excuse is that you're covering a news event as a reporter. I mean, otherwise,


Barstow: And you have the presence of mind to actually think that through?


Danner: Oh, that's absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. It was a weird moment


Barstow: This is why we teach ethics, right.


Danner: I was thinking of my ass. (laughter) But I mean, you know, it's just


Barstow: I’ve been dying to know, how you conduct yourself in a Trump crowd is always something that I'm fascinated by. And before that, when you were freezing your butt off outside of the White House, and you’re in that crowd? First of all, I just wondered, did you by any chance? were you wearing like a MAGA hat? Or did you do anything to fit it?


Danner: No, I wasn't, although, I have done that before, I should confess, I had a MAGA mask that I wore in Michigan. So I have done that before. But, basically the line I draw in those crowds is, I don't actively lie. You know, I don't say, wow, I had such a big Trump support. I asked questions. And if people try to probe you on your politics, which by the way they do, if you're asking questions, I'll say, Well, I'm not sure about this. You know, I'm not I mean, I have doubts about this. And that's kind of my persona.


Barstow: But your notebook is not out right? You’re not there with your notebook?


Danner: No, I take enormous number of notes when I get back to the hotel or I'm in the cab or whatever. But no, I don't take my notebook out. And, this is the first, I've covered lots of Republican rallies and Bush rallies and all that, and I always had my notebook out and I never did it this way. Beginning with Romney, it wasn't just Trump, they put you in a cage, you know that that began with Romney,


Barstow: Right


Danner: And that to me is a ridiculous way to try to cover a political rally. I always used my notebook with Romney.


But in these rallies, to go back to your question, I just get in the crowd. Remember you're standing there for four or five hours crushed in among people. I mean, the head in front of you is six inches away, the people next to you, you feel them. None of these people are wearing masks, by the way, and you're in this dense crowd. I always wear a mask, but you're in this dense crowd and you naturally talk to people and that's the way I do it. This guy who had the flag ‘lead us across the Rubicon’ I just elbowed him because I couldn't reach it my hand up and said ‘I like your flag’ and he loved to talk about it because I was the first person to get it, you know to get this is Caesar leading us across the Rubicon and he loved it he was clearly a classics nerd and so, yeah go ahead


Barstow: No, I was just gonna say there's first of all there's so much delicious writing in this piece, just starting the first sentence right, ‘harsh and gray dawn the day of the Stupid Coup’ it's very nice touch by the way making it a uppercase S in stupid and uppercase C in Coup and could but then description of Kimberly Guilfoyle as the ‘brass voice Evita of trumpism’ great and it makes me wonder whether you actually had fun writing the piece. There’s a kind of delight in your writing


Danner: Yeah, I know exactly how you should write pieces, which is you should have a shitty draft and then you go over it you have a better draft and better draft. And I always tell students this, but I’ve never been able to write that way. I always have to get the beginning with the kind of mouthfeel, as the enologists call it, you know the mouthfeel of the piece and that first sentence was the mouthfeel of the piece. And usually after I've begun, I did that piece in about a day basically, and once I get done, I move quickly. And yea, I did have fun, I did have fun writing it, although, you know, the subject is deeply depressing you know


Barstow: I know the subjects is so depressing, but it was one of these pieces, when I looked at, I thought, man, I bet he was sitting there typing away, and some of these things came out of his fingers and I bet you he smiled.


Danner: The Evita line I love, because that is what she's like, she's an incredible figure, she dances up on stage, she's very you know vampy. And I saw her dance at a rally in Opa-Locka and in Miami, and she's just an amazing figure I wouldn't be surprised if she would run for office.


Barstow: Does stuff like that just pop in your head or did you try a bunch of different formulations of that?


Danner: Yeah I think she'd always struck me as Evita-like.


Barstow: So the formulation of the ‘Stupid Coup’ right, I was also wondering, when did that hit you, when did it come to you, why did that feel like the right characterization of this?


Danner: I thought of that, as I mentioned at the beginning, the week before. Because when I decided to go and I told people that I'm going to see the stupid coup. And I said stupid coup because it was never going to succeed, you know, it couldn't succeed the way they were trying to do it, using the congress to suborn the election. It could have succeeded if they had a majority in the house. In fact, I happen to think that if they'd had a majority in the house, Pence would have done what they were telling him to do and they would have overthrown, it would have gone into the Supreme Court. And who knows what the outcome would have been? I think it's possible we'd still have a President Trump. I mean, it sounds outlandish. But I think that's true. I think it was came down to that, to a handful of votes in the House. But with the house in democratic hands, it was a stupid coup. You know, it couldn't have succeeded institutionally. That's why I called it that.


Barstow: One of the things that I thought was really interesting in how you wrote this piece, was that you made it a choice to make yourself of this crowd. You didn't stand away from it, but you put yourself right, kind of in it. You said that, in our dense procession, we marched up Constitution Avenue. And later you write, ‘We were parade in motley, a dense children's crusade of Trumpsters, with our flags pointed half forward now, as if we were advancing Full Tilt on Jerusalem,’ and you kind of stick with that for much of the peace. And I was interested in that choice to make yourself part of this, rather than standing away from it and observing it.


Danner: Yeah, that's a really good question. I think that the purpose of the piece, and in most of my writing about Trump, I've written I don't know, half dozen or more pieces from rallies, is to try to make these people understood. I think that the chattering class basically thinks they're all crazy white supremacist Nazis. And they're not, they're just not. Many of them are small business owners, they're intelligent people. And they have reasons for following him. A lot of them, by the way, have no illusions about Trump. I mean, some of them do, but a lot of them don't. And so I think the point of a lot of what I write about these rallies, is really to try to make these people's causes understood, why they follow him the way they do, what's in it, why they think this way. I mean, there's another paragraph after crossing the Rubicon that compares this to late republican Rome, that I think this is kind of how they think about it, all our institutions are decaying, places a disaster. He's the one strong man, as, as the Roman populare thought of Caesar, he's the one strong man who can fix it. And I really wanted to try to communicate that way of thinking, it's not insane. They're not insane. They're not all white supremacists. So that's where the ‘we’ comes from, I think, to tell it in that voice, and to try to


Barstow: So you tell it in that voice to not separate yourself quite so much.


Danner: Yeah. But the ‘we’ is really used for saying this is how we think, you know, so a lot of the piece is in the imputed voice of the crowd, especially the part you're pointing to walking down Constitution Avenue.


Barstow: Yeah, it was a really effective device that you use in class throughout the piece. And I just was curious about that choice.


By the way. So the this happens on January 6, the piece you It looks like the piece that you wrote, you turned in on January 14, or something like that.


Danner: On the 14th it closed, so that's the day the printers closed.


Danner: Okay, so this makes it even worse. Okay. So, you produce, like roughly 4200 precisely rendered words that give this most this unbelievable mosaic of this insane, chaotic moment in our political history. And I just kind of wonder how you did that. Because this wasn't just you dumping your notebook, right? You went back and you absorbed all of the coverage. I just wonder, how did you actually just do that?


Danner: Well, the next day, I was supposed to fly back to California the following day. And that night, I was completely debilitated, lying on my bed because my I turned my back out. I decided to stay another day and put my notes together the next morning and also I wanted to talk to more Trumpers on the street. So as it turned out, I couldn't get out of bed in the morning and basically just lay there in the morning and watch the coverage. And remember Washington is completely weird at this point, it's all shut down in a way that Berkeley just isn't by the pandemic, it’s completely shut down by the pandemic and by this, so you couldn't get coffee, I mean it was really incredible in downtown Washington. I eventually went out, hired a car, drove around and looked for Trumpers, found a couple, interviewed them on the street, with a notebook, I didn't end up using any of it, came back to the hotel went to bed again, eventually got the plane the next morning. By this time I’d put my notes together and got here at the end of the day what would it be, Saturday, I guess and wrote it on Sunday and you know it had to be done by the end of Sunday, or it wouldn't get in the paper, because it closed then on Thursday, I think. And closing means you know completely dead, end of story, closed. So the whole thing needed to be completely done basically, back and forth with galleys by Tuesday. I think we had three galleys. But I basically sat down, under the fear of god, on Sunday knowing that if I blow the deadline it's not going to get in and sat there and wrote all day and I think I got it done at about eight, sent in realizing that she was going to get it at 11.

Mark Danner discusses his piece 'Be Ready to Fight' with fellow journalist and journalism professor David Barstow.  Danner describes his experiences at the Capitol on January 6 and the violence he witnessed that day, and he elaborates the difficulties of covering the Trump presidency as a journalist. 

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