‘The Big Break’: Washington Post Writer Ben Terris On Matt Schlapp, Sean McElwee, And The ‘Insane Drama’ That Pervades D.C. in the Wake of Trump

Ben Terris via The Washington Post

Ben Terris via The Washington Post

When Donald Trump barreled into Washington D.C. in 2016, the town underwent a shocking transformation. His presidency poured kerosene on the tensions that lied under the surface: the tenuous customs of bipartisan mingling and neighborly discord gave way for a new abnormal of boorish disputes and untamed opportunism of a scale not seen before.

Ben Terris, who covers national politics for the Style section of the Washington Post, captures the bizarre characters and shifting dynamics in American politics with his electric new book, The Big Break: The Gamblers, Party Animals, and True Believers Trying to Win in Washington While America Loses Its Mind.

Terris spoke with Mediaite editor-in-chief Aidan McLaughlin for this week’s episode of The Interview about his book, how he gets into the homes and minds of his subjects, and whether Washington will ever return to normal.

The Big Break paints a stark picture of the disquieted D.C terrain in the wake of the Trump presidency. Written with Terris’ signature color — you’ll recognize his byline from some classic Washington Post profiles, including one examining the oddball marriage of the Conways — the book serves as a sinister accounting of what happens when personality politics and the prioritization of financial gain come to dominate national politics.

Terris profiles a series of colorful characters who have defined post-Trump Washington, including the once cookie-cutter conservatives Matt and Mercedes Schlapp, who became “two of the swamps Trumpiest creatures,” and Robert Styrk, a former Trump lobbyist who cashed in before flaming out. On the other side of the aisle, Terris examines Leah Hunt-Hendrix, the heir to a billion-dollar oil dynasty turned progressive activist, and Sean McElwee, the acting head of the democratic think tank Data For Progress — with a habit of placing thousand-dollar bets on political campaigns.

In a wide-ranging conversation, McLaughlin and Terris delved into this stirring profile of a “broken city” and discussed whether there remains any potential for optimism.

Read excerpts from their conversation below. This episode was produced by Payton Selby and Kory Hilpmann.

On the meaning behind the title “The Big Break”

Terris: The Big Break refers to 2 things here. It’s obviously the big break that the country went through during the Trump years and as Trump was running for president in 2015 and 2016. But it’s also the breaks that people who were in Washington after Trump had gone are trying to get. They are people in search of their big break. And so I really wanted to figure out what was this new Washington. Trump had shaken everything up, and everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, things are completely different.’ Then Biden came, and some people were like, ‘Oh, maybe things can go back to normal.’ I looked around, and I wanted to figure out what was true. Were things going to go back to normal, what was normal, what was the new abnormal?

On D.C before and after Trump

Terris: People like to talk about Washington as feeling kind of like an occupied city during the Trump years. And that’s not totally wrong. I mean, it was a bunch of people who claimed to completely hate Washington. It was a city that had voted very strongly against Donald Trump. And all these people came and moved, not into downtown Washington as much as the burbs, but would come into town. It just felt like a place that was hostile all the time. It’s like there is almost no way to exist without being in some kind of conflict, it felt like. And Washington has this reputation of like, oh, people used to bicker publicly and then go and have drinks afterward, and it was all kind of, a game. And that was kind of gross in its own way, obviously. This performative city. But, you know, at least people weren’t always hating each other all the time. And it did feel like once you picked a side in this new Washington, like that was your team, and the other team wanted nothing to do with you or, in some cases, wanted to do you harm.

McLaughlin: Right, that’s the product of decades of politics and media pitching every next battle as a battle to the death.

Terris: Exactly, you know, it is a game for a lot of people, right? You kind of want to win. That’s the goal. You want to win elections; you want to win legislation; you want to win contracts as a consultant. And so you play this game, and you up the rhetoric, and eventually, it’s not a game anymore, right? It never really was. But eventually, all these kinds of things that you’ve been whipping up result in something like January 6th or Donald Trump being president. And the city just wasn’t really prepared for when the stakes got that high.

On whether D.C is broken for good:

Terris: I try not to make predictions about whether there’s a permanent breaking of Washington or whether things can get fixed or whether they’re going to get worse. I don’t know. But I can tell you, this is a book about broken people, broken politics, broken relationships, you know, broken confidences. This book, I think it’s different from your average Washington book because it’s about people, right? This is a cast of characters. They have insane drama. They say crazy things in front of me that I couldn’t believe they were saying in front of me. They have scandals that they do out in the open and scandals that are happening behind the scenes. And it’s all like such a mess. And I think what makes this book fun to read in some ways is it’s sort of like a novel or sort of like Veep, where you’re laughing your way through this stuff, but it’s also very dark. And so I think that the people that makeup Washington are trying to figure it out. And I don’t think anybody has right now. And so, as a whole, this book is a profile of a city which is made up of lots of little profiles. And I think, as a whole, yeah, the place is pretty broken right now.

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