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We may not be through ‘the worst of this,’ say John Heilemann and Jennifer Palmieri

‘Circus’ co-hosts on the aftershocks of Capitol riot

The attack on the Capitol and democracy stretched the limits of imagination, according to “The Circus” co-hosts John Heilemann and Jennifer Palmieri.
The attack on the Capitol and democracy stretched the limits of imagination, according to “The Circus” co-hosts John Heilemann and Jennifer Palmieri. (Saul Loeb and Amy Sussman Getty Images file photos)

Showtime’s documentary series “The Circus” wants to capture, in the words of John Heilemann, the “big, giant, chaotic, nightmarish stew” of our politics. 

He didn’t know it would be quite as nightmarish as this. “Well, it’s bad, but it won’t be that bad,” he used to tell his future co-host Jennifer Palmieri, then an adviser to Hillary Clinton.

What happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6 didn’t come out of nowhere, but it will take a lot more than a docu-series to unravel. The way Heilemann sees it, anyone who tells you they knew exactly what would happen is lying — or had a hand in engineering it.

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The co-hosts joined “Political Theater” with Jason Dick to talk about false prophets and political violence and to wonder out loud, “Am I tripping?” Here’s an edited transcript.

JD: In our wildest dreams, did we imagine covering politics in the way we’ve seen in the last few months? 

JP: I imagined the Trump presidency. What I didn’t imagine was a situation where hundreds of Republican elected officials would join him in trying to overthrow an election. I did not see this one coming. 

JH: I can attest to that. Her most apocalyptic visions were not as apocalyptic as what’s actually happening. 

Anybody who claims they predicted that is lying about their imaginative capacity. I was up there at the Capitol within an hour or so of when they breached the doors, and we walked around there just thinking, “Am I tripping?” Like, I can’t actually comprehend what I’m witnessing here, having been in and around Washington on Capitol Hill since 1987. When I first got out of college, I worked in the Rayburn Building. It’s still mind-blowing. Watching the video this week as the Democratic impeachment managers put it up, it just brings it back.

JD: I almost feel too close to it, but we have to cover it. It’s this weird balance. 

JP: You can feel that with Congress too. They have been affected personally. Their lives were personally threatened, but they’re trying to make it not about themselves, to make it about a larger principle. But wow, that day could have gone the other way. 

JD: John, you’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Bannon over the years. In October you were going through the scenarios with him postelection, and he predicted a firestorm on Jan. 6. Do you get chills when you see that?

JH: I haven’t rewatched it, but I have a pretty vivid memory of it. We had a long conversation, so there’s a lot that didn’t end up in the episode. He was very much in Trump’s ear at that point and was encouraging the thing that Trump is now on trial for, which was laying the tracks down for claiming this election will be stolen. He was pretty cynical about it. His outlook was, you know, Republicans control the courts, we control the state legislatures. We will have a position of power, if Trump loses, to make this claim.

He didn’t use the phrase “stop the steal,” but that was the framing — we’re going to try to stop this election being stolen by all these Democrats who eased all these restrictions on mail-in voting. 

Now he’s claiming this prophetic position. But he wasn’t being prophetic. The reason he knew that it was going to happen was because he was in the middle of it. Bannon and Rudy Giuliani were in Trump’s ear starting in September, October, very much consciously crafting this strategy. And so he was predicting a thing that he was engineering at the same time. 

I’ve interviewed Steve in some very contentious interviews over the years. I would not have him back on the air now. 

JD: This is going to be part of the landscape for a little while. What are your coping mechanisms? I might steal them. 

JP: On my crew, we say, WATTBA, what a time to be alive. It feels like a privilege to be part of trying to understand it. But we don’t get a choice about how hard it is.

JH: I don’t think it’s at all a foregone conclusion that we’re through the worst of this. There’s a fundamental dividing line between people who think Trump is a cause and Trump was a symptom of what has happened on the right — is it really over the last four years, or over the last 20 or 30 years? And I’m very much in the camp of Trump as symptom. Accelerant? Yes. Coagulant? Yes, but not cause. I covered Pat Buchanan’s campaigns in 1992 and 1996, and I can see the through line there. 

I lived in London in the early 1990s, and the IRA bombed it up with great frequency. I often couldn’t get on the train to go work everyday, because there were bomb threats.

I hope it’s not the case that we’re entering a period in America where political violence becomes more routine. But if you’re not aware of that possibility after Jan. 6, you’ve got your head in the sand, and that’s a dangerous place to have your head.

Listen to the full interview on “Political Theater.”

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