Thank You for Your Servitude ditches the focus on broad Washingtonian folkways and narrows in on one particular local tribe — the Republicans who variously enabled and cowered before the 45th president. And in talking about them, the most consistently amusing political writer of his generation sounds not particularly amused. “With some glaring exceptions, these people are weak and rolled over or they made it work for them and continue to make it work for them,” he says. “If you want to be inspired by the example of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Lindsey Graham, great.”
The book’s path to outrage, though, was a twisty one — not unlike that of a lot of other Washingtonians who could have known better. It began as a somewhat straighter follow-up to This Town, set in a city where the Trump Hotel lobby had replaced the WHCA garden brunch as the essential venue, but where status-seeking and self-aggrandizement remained the business of the day. But a message from Leibovich’s editor last fall led to a fairly dramatic change in mood. “It was just that the tone of it was wrong,” he says. “I had to fine tune it more towards the enablers. It was not a fun email to read. I had thought I was just humming along.”
Leibovich estimates that he wrote about 65,000 of the book’s 90,000 words during a three-month stretch at the beginning of this year. When we spoke, he was also putting the finishing touches on an Atlantic excerpt where he was going to chronicle his own evolution along the way, something he doesn’t do in the book. The news environment shaped the tone. “A lot of stuff has happened in the last few months that has really cast into relief the nature of character. Zelenskyy. The Ukrainian resistance. Liz Cheney. … And as far as Republican resistance in the face of an existential threat, it’s basically like being run by the Uvalde police. So it’s cowardice cast in such sharp relief, and character over here.”
The book, which officially publishes next week, is actually less unfamiliar than fans of This Town might fear (or haters might hope). The writing remains funny. Leibovich’s style as a reporter is warm and teasing, with an eye for detail that’s usually absurd rather than appalling. The cover artist clearly didn’t get the message about it being a time of moral urgency: The drawing includes Ted Cruz in a sombrero, Ivanka Trump holding a can of beans, and Jeff Sessions as the Keebler elf. You come away aghast at many of them for their cravenness, but it’s still not a tome — unlike many others in the post-insurrection genre — that makes you want to punch anyone in the face.
There are also a few of the set-pieces that he deployed in the earlier book, notably a celeb-heavy funeral. It’s just that the effect of the scene is the opposite. In This Town, where the famous-for-Washington types are shown mourning Tim Russert, the funeral is an easily-mocked arena for one-upmanship by a bipartisan, self-perpetuating team that shows no fear of losing their special status. In Thank You for Your Servitude, it’s George H.W. Bush’s funeral, and the mourners are depicted — sans mockery this time — as a powerless bunch, yesterday’s people, grieving not so much for a man as for the secure era he represented.
It takes a while for the judgmental mood to sneak in. Much like his prior Washington book, and much like the hashtag it inspired, most of the pages of Thank You for Your Servitude depict misdemeanors, not felonies. But as they accrete, the misdemeanors point not to a generalized absurdity, but to a major crime. That makes it a comparatively gentle outlier in a season of full-throated denunciations. But maybe that’s the way outrages actually come together, acquiring menace while lots of people are busy giggling at the protagonists.
Which brings us back to This Town. Was that book itself an accelerant for the Trumpism that its author now condemns (but didn’t see coming back in 2013)? He allows that it may have supplied some of the specific images Trump used when he deployed the centuries-old American political tactic of running against the crooked capital city. “I do think that the Washington Trump ran against to great effect was that book,” he says. “Not that Trump read the book or was influenced by the book. But there was a level of revulsion that people have been running against for decades. And Trump just took the trope of Washington, and he made them parasitic hedge fund managers and sleazy lobbyists and these guys on TV with bad hair. He made it a carnival act and it worked.”