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Rachel Maddow Q&A: MSNBC star dishes on the rise of authoritarianism and her worries about becoming a Trump target

Nathan Congleton/NBC/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.

Rachel Maddow is back with another podcast.

The MSNBC star on Monday debuted the second season of her acclaimed audio series, “Ultra.” Over eight episodes, the program is set to explore “an all-but-forgotten” true story from America’s post-World War II history that mirrors the frightening politics of our current moment. In fact, the show’s synopsis — which makes mention of a foreign influence operation, a “Hail Mary scheme to stop the counting of the Electoral College votes,” and the “fraying” line between “the violent ultra-right and mainstream American politics” — reads like a description of the 2024 political state of play.

We spoke with Maddow via email about the new season of “Ultra,” the 2024 campaign, and whether she fears she might be a target of Donald Trump’s wrath should he win a second term. Her answers are presented below, unedited.

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You’re one of the highest rated hosts on television. What is unique about the audio format that makes it attractive to you as a storyteller?

I started in radio long before I ever somehow finagled my way onto TV, so when I’m working out how to explain things or express myself or tell stories, I still think first about the spoken word. Audio also requires a little more precision in the writing and the delivery than TV does — in a visual medium, you can round off the edges a little bit with on-screen elements and body language, neither of which is available when all you have is a microphone.

For projects that have a longer dramatic arc, like ‘Ultra’ and ‘Bag Man,’ I think the precision and rigor that audio production demands can build out the story in a way that hopefully makes it worthy of four or five hours of attention from listeners over the course of the season.

For an anthology series like ‘Déjà News,’ I think the audio format helps showcase archival sound in way that’s really cool — not to mention the fact that my co-host (and longtime TRMS producer) Isaac-Davy Aronson has the world’s greatest radio voice, so that’s an irresistible draw for me.

Season two of “Ultra” uses history to focus on “the frayed line between violent extremism and mainstream politics.” That is a topic that is more relevant than ever these days, given the radicalization of the Republican Party under the leadership of Donald Trump. What important lesson can we learn from history to help us in this moment?

I think that knowing the country has faced similar threats in the past (and I stress similar, not exactly the same) can help set expectations for how things might go this time around.

As one example, we can observe in U.S. history that one of the risks of violent extremists getting intertwined with normal electoral politics is that people with political power will put inappropriate pressure on the criminal justice system when their allied extremists are charged with crimes. We should also know that DOJ hasn’t always been great at resisting that pressure. Seeing that in our past should help us expect that and hopefully brace ourselves against it in our own time.

As another example, it’s somehow comforting and discomfiting at the same time to look at previous instances where factually-unhinged conspiratorial narratives have taken hold in mainstream politics. One of the takeaways from that history is just the confirmation that, yes, we’re quite susceptible to that as a country; but also that patient, responsible, consistent debunking, and criticism of those lies has an effect on the American people. It takes a long time and it doesn’t reach everyone, but it can influence the median voter in a way that ultimately can be decisive.

When thinking about radicalization in America, the information environment plays a crucial role. What parallels did you find in the post-war 1950s and today? And would you say that the media environment is worse then or now?

The media environment in the United States is a constantly shifting crazy-quilt landscape of authority, irresponsibility, partisanship, objectivity, heroism, corruption, and competition. We like to think of it as a riches-to-rags linear progression from good old days to today’s mess. But it’s kind of always been a mess. Don’t believe me? Read the America-focused chapters in Kathryn Olmsted’s “The Newspaper Axis: Six Press Barons Who Enabled Hitler.” Or pour yourself a stiff shot of something and spend some time with the mass media titan that was Charles Coughlin — Tablet Magazine’s “Radioactive” podcast about him is a great place to start.

In the time period covered by Season Two of “Ultra,” there was the same mix of great and terrible, sometimes within the same outlet. Both The New York Times and TIME magazine, for example, fell hook line and sinker for a really gross foreign influence propaganda operation in 1949, while at the same time they were publishing prescient, urgent, and unique reporting from their foreign correspondents on the same malign actors who were perpetrating that hoax.

So there’s always a mix of good and bad.

The best of our traditions, I think, should inspire us to keep trying to balance humility and ambition. Police professional standards really aggressively; be as transparent about sourcing as you are wary of liars; expect that you’ll make mistakes and have a plan for fixing them when you do.

One thing that stands out to me is that sunlight no longer appears to be an effective disinfectant. In fact, often the sunlight appears to help grow these sinister forces, given they feed off of attention. What do you make of that when looking back in history?

It’s frustrating in the moment, I know — we all face that question in daily news production every day: do I ignore this lie, thus letting it slide by unrebutted; or do I discuss the lie, thereby debunking it but also implicitly amplifying it in the process? There isn’t a one-sized-fits-all solution for every lie. But knowing that the avalanche of lies is a political tactic at least helps us expect it, and hopefully to explain its tactical function to our audiences. Forewarned is forearmed.

In Robert Paxton’s “Anatomy of Fascism,” he quotes Mussolini’s answer to a question about his governing plans soon after he became prime minister: “The democrats of Il Mondo [newspaper in Rome] want to know our program? It is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo. And the sooner the better.” Authoritarian movements don’t just hate journalists as a professional class, they want to destroy the idea that there is any knowable truth other than what the leader insists upon. When you come across someone in politics who is not just wrong but proudly irrational, they’re not looking for a fact-check, they’re looking for a fight.

On the topic of debating whether to give certain politicians attention or not, I am curious about your current thinking on news networks broadcasting Trump live. For a little while, CNN and MSNBC declined to do so. But lately, that has changed. Do you believe that is for the better?

I don’t think there’s any simple hard-and-fast rule that makes these decisions easy. You take things case by case, situation by situation, lie by lie. I do think it’s important to constantly revisit these decisions in a rigorous way, guarding in particular against letting ourselves be used for any purpose other than our own journalistic mission.

Often, MSNBC is compared to Fox News. People say they watch Fox for the “conservative” perspective and MSNBC for the “liberal” perspective. It’s obviously a flawed argument, given that Rupert Murdoch’s channel operates with no regard for basic truth. But you must hear this argument made. How do you respond to it?

I’m hoping our work speaks for itself.

Trump and his allies are openly talking about weaponizing the government to seek revenge against critics in media and politics, with some of his extremist allies even talking about jailing their fellow Americans. You’re one of his most notable critics on television. Are you worried that you could be a target?

I’m worried about the country broadly if we put someone in power who is openly avowing that he plans to build camps to hold millions of people, and to “root out” what he’s described in subhuman terms as his “enemy from within.” Again, history is helpful here. He’s not joking when he says this stuff, and we’ve seen what happens when people take power proclaiming that kind of agenda.

I think there’s a little bit of head-in-the-sand complacency that Trump only intends to go after individual people he has already singled out. Do you really think he plans to stop at well-known liberals?

It also seems pretty clear that some people in politics might think they’ll be on the safe side — that they might even benefit from it — if they side with Trump. Ask Mike Pence about how that works out in the end.

When Trump invokes the Insurrection Act to deploy the U.S. military against civilians on his first day in office, do you think he then rescinds the order on day two?

For that matter, what convinces you that these massive camps he’s planning are only for migrants?

So, yes, I’m worried about me — but only as much as I’m worried about all of us.

Do you think the news media — as a whole — is adequately covering Trump? It’s commonplace, particularly in left-leaning circles, to hear complaints about how Trump is covered by news organizations. And it does seem that, far too often, these institutions could be a lot more clear-eyed when reporting on the extremist nature of the GOP. What is your perspective?

Time is short. Our legal system and our system of elections are fully under attack already. And it’s not a single extremist actor or a small faction leading the charge, it’s now a fully joined project of one of the two major parties in the country. I think Americans broadly know that’s happening, but also that they may not necessarily know what to do about it.

Responsibly presenting information, in context, about how radical this is can help bring clarity to what Jay Rosen has memorably deemed “not the odds, but the stakes” of the election.

I’m not a media critic and so I’ll leave it to others to grade our performance overall. But for me, I do find it helpful in a moment like this, to learn about how Americans before us stood up for our democracy when it was challenged. I hope it helps other people as well.

Do you believe the truth always wins?

I believe that nothing is inevitable. And that the worst and most misguided among us can change for the better. And that everyone can do something to help. If you ever wondered what you would do if you were called upon to help your country, that alarm bell you’ve been hearing is meant for you. Now’s when you give your answer.

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