Imagine the job of the political journalist covering the current American landscape, at a time in which politics is more of a blood sport than a means of effecting change.
This is the situation Vice founder and A House Divided host Shane Smith confronts on a daily basis, only it’s much more complicated than that—attempting to be logical and nonpartisan while history is being retroactively negated, and truth thrown out the window, is a task requiring patience, persistence and a deep-seated desire to get at the facts.
Speaking with Deadline, the Emmy nominee discusses the irrational and often frightening nature of contemporary American politics, and his surprising experience sitting down with American leaders on both sides of the aisle, to examine when it all went wrong.
What was your mission when you founded Vice, and how does A House Divided reflect that thinking?
I think the mission statement for Vice when we first started was, “Be less s–tty than everybody else.” We’ve not been afraid to go out without any givens and look at something in a fresh way.
When we first started Vice on HBO, and went to North Korea and met Kim Jong-un, everybody went bonkers, and we’re like, “Well, you know, it’s a pretty interesting story then, I guess.” I think that especially in America, there’s so much intractability between Democrats and Republicans—it’s almost like two different countries.
We had shot previously with President Obama on fixing the system, and had developed a good rapport. Basically, all he and his team would talk about was the intractability of the Republicans. Then, we started talking to the people that he was talking about, and were fascinated by their point of view. Speaker [John] Boehner’s an incredibly erudite and likable cat.
We sort of went back and forth, and you realize that the system is broken. The fact of the matter is that Obama and Boehner were probably the best example of how bad it had gotten. However, that’s nothing compared to what’s happening now. [laughs]
It’s completely wild what is happening, and we’re lucky that we had access to these very charismatic cats to see the springboard from which we’ve jumped off, into this chaotic mess that we’re seeing now.
What logistics were involved in gaining access to our nation’s most powerful political figures, on both sides?
I think a lot of politicians will only stay in their comfort zone—i.e., Republicans will go on Fox, Democrats will go on MSNBC. I think that’s because they don’t want any nasty sound bites. The good thing about Vice is that we’re known for giving everyone a fair shake. We’re more on the documentary filmmaking side of things, of just sort of pressing record.
Because I’ve interviewed a lot of world leaders, they’ve said, “OK, we’ll sit down with you.” What’s interesting about sitting down with these guys is it’s like a game—I remember seeing Karl Rove and Rahm Emanuel talk about the first election, and they referred to it as a game. It’s sort of like Game of Thrones, you know? It’s like a game of thrones in Washington, and it’s kill or be killed.
When you go into the actual blow-by-blow of Obama’s presidency, from day one, they went after him. There was no amnesty period, and they went after him with both guns blazing. Healthcare, for example, was a politicized issue of, “They’re socializing America,” which actually had very little to do with the Affordable Care Act. It was just a political issue, and now you’re seeing the payout of that, in that you have half the country thinking that this is the devil itself, and meanwhile, it turns out it was a pretty good thing—that the Republicans can’t actually come up with anything better, because they didn’t have another plan. They were just going to kill that plan.
I think people are waking up now to the fact that these issues are highly politicized, and there’s not a lot of logic going into these debates.
I shared your surprise in what your interview with Boehner revealed. Juxtaposed with images of political chaos and rabble-rousing, he—like Obama—is as cool, collected and articulate as can be.
When you sit with Obama, he’s a very magnetic, charismatic man, and when he talks, you say, “Wow, that sounds completely logical.” Speaker Boehner is the same way—a man of the people, very plain, understandable. I always liken him to a very likeable Frank Underwood, without the serious psychopathic tendencies. He’s the political mechanic, you know?
What I’ve found interesting about talking to him is his candor. He’s like, “Look, I was a conservative’s conservative, and because of the furor that we stirred up, the Tea Party came in and sort of out-conservatived us.” They were sort of the architects of their own doom. I think he was completely surprised by that, by the party defection.
Here were two charismatic guys that used to get together and have a glass of wine, and talk about how they could actually get something done, and the fact that Speaker Boehner was actually penalized by his own party for even meeting with [Obama] is what I found particularly interesting. I think that when [Raul] Labrador, the head of the Freedom Caucus, says, “Oh my God, they were having their secret wine parties, and not talking to us”—well, that’s his job, to represent the caucus to the president. That’s what got him kicked out of his gig, that he was actually doing his job.
I think the American people should be livid that you have two very capable politicians trying to build consensus, trying to figure something out, and weren’t allowed. I think one of the things that’s telling in the doc is that when I say, “Obama, what are you worried about? What keeps you up at night?” He’s like, “Look, the institutions of democracy have weathered us through a lot of storms.” People are now getting frustrated with how slow they are, or if they’re perceived as ineffectual.
The Tea Party and now the Trump supporters and all these people are calling for a revolution, for an overhaul of these things. He said, “The problem with revolution is that you never know where it’s going to end up. Arab Spring starts one way, and ends up another.” I think he was genuinely worried about that, and when you see what’s happening in the greater polarization under the Trump administration, you can see similarities with what happened in the ‘30s in Europe, in hyperpolarized political parties. I think that’s worrisome, and I think he’s right to be worried about that.
Under previous administrations, there was obviously increasing partisanship. What we haven’t seen, and I think has happened in the buildup of the Obama Presidency, and the rise of the Tea Party, and what you’re seeing with Trump, and the reason why Trump had such popularity with his base, is they’re actually trying to go back and reverse the work that’s been done.
Not only are they not working together. What A House Divided showed was that they just can’t work together, and that it’s galvanized into inactivity. The system is broken. Now, it’s gotten even worse because what they’re saying is “We’re going to go back and literally undo—repeal and replace.” But it’s not just with Obamacare: It’s with gay marriage. It’s with LGBTQ rights.
They’re not just trying to undo Obama’s accomplishments—they’re trying to erase them.
Exactly right. If that happens—if you just take this to its logical conclusion—theoretically, there will be a Democratic Tea Party that will come in and be highly politicized. You can see that already with Bernie [Sanders] bros. Then, they are going to come in and try to erase what the Republicans have done. Not only do we not work together—we actually try to change the past.
I think that shows a level of dysfunction that is just mind-blowing. Because then, what the government is doing is actually having a war on history—a retroactive war. It’s crazy.
How have you managed to remain so objective and levelheaded in a time when reason seems to be going out the window entirely?
It’s not my job to opine on what I think politically—it’s my job to ask the right questions to those people who are actually involved in making policy. You definitely have to ask the tough questions, which is remarkably easy to do. It’s not hard to ask the tough questions. My personal viewpoint is, let them talk, and they’ll either prove their point, or it’s a case of, “Give them enough rope…”
One of the things I was surprised at is people who had been made out to be the boogeyman—one of my biggest surprises after Boehner was [Senator] Lindsey Graham—the fact that Lindsey Graham has become the voice of reason in American politics, to me, is an example of how far gone we are. [laughs]
I think you just have to go in there with an open mind, and a lot of times, I don’t really have question lists. I just go in and have a conversation. These guys know the ins and outs a lot more than we do. Let them go. Trump loves to talk, so as an interviewer, you want to just sort of say, “Okay man, go.” Give him some prompts and let him go.
I think that having the dialogue between the two sides, you see that at the end of the day, they’re two people, and they’re not that far away from each other. They both believe that they’re serving the best interest of the people; yet, because of party politics, they’re not allowed by their parties to do anything. They can’t even lead each other.
How do you approach your coverage, as we seem to spiral down further and further toward a post-truth world, where anything can and will be disputed out of hand?
Therein lies the rub. When we first started reporting, if you had a report on Israel, you’d get inundated by the Palestinians. Then, if you report on Palestine, the same thing happens from the other side. What’s interesting about American politics, in particular, is that when you report on something—because we link to think of ourselves as logical, nonpartisan centrists who go and press record—we would see just unbelievable comments from the left, and from the right.
We first started noticing it on environmental pieces. We usually have 80 to 90 percent positive comments, but when we’d do something on the environment, it would be 90 percent negative comments. Like, hold on a second: This was our demo’s number one passion point, I don’t understand what’s happening here.
Then, you realize that it’s bots and groups. Whenever they read something on the environment, they go and comment on that. They try to drag you into the mud and get you into the mudslinging, rather than just straight up reporting on fracks.
You just have to say, “Look, we know what’s right. We know that there’s definitely a place for logical, nonpartisan, centrist news, and we’re just going to keep going. Our demo keeps growing, and we’re just going to keep doing what we do.” People can believe us or not believe us, but we have regular fact checking, and we go through all of the processes to make sure that we’re not just making up shit.
We believe that as our demo grows in socioeconomic power, we’re going to be one of the trusted voices that they turn to. I think that’s playing itself out now. We’re the fastest growing news platform in the world, and we believe that’s not going to end anytime soon.
With the increasing extremism and partisanship you’ve documented, what is the end game here?
What I worry about is that you’re going to have a group of young people come into their political and economic power, completely frustrated by a system that they believe doesn’t represent them. You’re going to have a lot of angry people.
When you have two extremely opposed political viewpoints, what happens is political chaos, and when there is political chaos, people look for extreme solutions. What I worry about is that when you look at any type of extremism, that’s when you get into trouble and chaos.
I think that if you open your eyes, you look at America and we’re definitely moving into extreme swings that are dangerous. You have this retroactive undoing of what parties are putting in place, then you have Miami sinking, and there’s no real governance going on. If they’re playing political games while we’re facing some of the biggest problems we’ve ever faced as a species, and we’re not trying to fix them, we’re just fighting each other.