The battle for power and influence in the nation’s capital is more shameless, desperate, and embarrassing than ever.
A review: Ben Terris, The Big Break: The Gamblers, Party Animals, and True Believers Trying to Win in Washington While America Loses Its Mind,
Books about Washington politics are a tricky genre. The modal American book-buyer is not interested in the kind of peek behind the curtain that the very best access journalism offers, while the kind of person who knows the names of various behind-the-scenes politicos—consultants, pollsters, White House and Capitol Hill functionaries—is probably enough of a news junkie to know most of what such a book can tell them. In this age of social media as a gold mine of D.C. gossip and minutiae, books in which Washington Plays Itself have to do more than promise some titillating drama.
One of the best entries in this genre, Mark Leibovich’s 2013 book, This Town, opens in 2008 at the star-studded funeral of Meet the Press’s Tim Russert (“Tim Russert was dead. But the room was alive”). Political celebrities pour into the room, with each appearance sending a wave of excited titters through the gallery of lanyard-wearing mortals hoping to bask in a bit of reflected glory. The Washington featured in This Town is bathed in the assumptions of the Obama Era; politicos may be easy to satirize for their pompous excesses, but fundamentally they have things under control. A new contribution, Washington Post writer Ben Terris’s The Big Break: The Gamblers, Party Animals, and True Believers Trying to Win in Washington While America Loses Its Mind, has a more modest opening. It begins at a poker game in the sparsely furnished bachelor pad of Data for Progress founder Sean McElwee. For star-studded glamour, the reader must make do with liberal pollster David Shor’s attendance. And the Washington it reveals is a chaotic place teetering much closer to the abyss.
That contrast—between the glitzy high-roller Washington of the Obama era and the people trying to make names for themselves in the shadows of the mighty today—informs The Big Break’s main project: teasing out how Donald Trump changed Washington. Terris is interested not in D.C.’s formal institutions, but in the nature and character of what the former president loved to call The Swamp. That Trump ever intended to “drain the swamp” is doubtful, and if he did intend anything like that, he clearly failed. But Terris’s book offers persuasive evidence that the Trump years certainly changed the type of creature that inhabits it. The era of the confident political professional class is over. What remains is a battle for power and influence among people whose careers reek of fin de siècle uncertainty bordering on desperation.
The story is told through a variety of supporting characters in the Washington ecosystem. There’s pollster McElwee; progressive fundraiser (and Hunt oil heiress) Leah Hunt-Hendrix (whose first appearance in the story finds her dismayed when neither Matt Yglesias nor recent White House chief of staff Ron Klain shows up to her Christmas party); CPAC apostate Ian Walters; Trump-GOP power couple Matt and Mercedes Schlapp; burned-out ex–Dianne Feinstein staffer Jamarcus Purley; Trump-adjacent lobbyist Robert Stryk (who makes a mint selling access to The Great Man to the most reprehensible foreign governments); and “effective altruism” evangelists Sam and Gabe Bankman-Fried. While an author could easily, and with justification, write about such people with a glib, condescending tone, Terris seems legitimately to like his subjects. He texts Stryk, for example, to inquire about his safety and well-being when the lobbyist finds himself in Belarus (pocketing fees from the loathsome Lukashenko regime) at the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Stryk repays the author’s kindness a short while later by baselessly, bizarrely accusing him of being a pedophile.
Therein lies the dilemma in every book about Washington political culture. Terris is a writer of true skill, in the best tradition of old-school newspaper journalism. He writes succinctly, without ornament, and allows his subjects to show us who they are without the heavy hand of the author steering the narrative. Yet the more we see and read about these people as they truly are, the more we dislike them. Even in the hands of a gifted chronicler, the subjects are too self-centered for readers to connect with on an emotional level. Instead of revealing the finer points of the political process, their stories simply underline the rampant self-interest and hollowness that the Trump years already made apparent every day in the news.
The book succeeds in its task of shedding light on the culture of post-Trump Washington. It also makes, unintentionally, a powerful argument that those changes may have finally rendered this genre of navel-gazing, Inside Washington book obsolete.
Following Sean McElwee and his friends the Bankman-Frieds around, on and off for 300-plus pages, perfectly replicates the horror and anticipation of the famous scene in Goodfellas when Joe Pesci’s character believes he is on his way to be “made.” That everybody except him understands where he’s really going heightens the pathos and the black comedy. But despite being a violent criminal, Pesci’s character also succeeded in doing a few things to endear himself to the audience. We foresaw his downfall, realized he essentially deserved it, and still managed to feel a little bad for him.
Astute readers already know that the Bankman-Frieds—Sam as principal of now-bust cryptocurrency exchange FTX, Gabe hoovering up some dark money from his brother’s wealthy friends with the advocacy group Guarding Against Pandemics—imploded spectacularly in November 2022, taking many people in their circle, including McElwee, with them. All have since gone silent. In December, McElwee left Data for Progress amid a staff revolt and, like most in the SBF orbit, may be more focused for the moment on damage control than career-building.
When Terris began following this crew in the waning days of the Trump presidency, they didn’t exactly swagger, but each seemed confident that they understood the New Washington and had a solid plan for charting their own personal course through it. Data for Progress was established in 2018 as a progressive polling firm—McElwee had previously achieved brief notoriety on social media as the guy who championed the phrase “Abolish ICE”—but both McElwee and the firm have proved ideologically malleable. By the closing months of the 2022 election cycle, McElwee was arguing that the Democratic Party needed more Joe Manchins than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes, and Terris documents well how he seems happy to blow with the ideological winds that promise to lead him to personal and financial success. We’re told that Gabe Bankman-Fried liked his style—“he liked that Sean seemed to know lots of people and was shameless about promotion”—and they formed a close relationship, with Gabe’s Protect Our Future PAC hiring Data for Progress, McElwee personally consulting for Guarding Against Pandemics.
As an author, Terris is more generous than critical toward his subjects. He bends over backward to try to humanize them and convey the stresses of their line of work. But McElwee and the other characters in the story do the work of making themselves look bad. Throughout The Big Break, McElwee gambles; boasts about gambling; incessantly pressures his young staffers and colleagues to gamble, too; and brushes off his gambling losses after he incorrectly anticipated a poor Democratic showing in the 2022 midterm elections. Placing bets, including on candidates for whom he and his organization are doing paid work, comes up every single time he appears in the story. Adherents of “Effective Altruism” claim that betting on political outcomes is a form of reinforcing one’s beliefs, a kind of putting money where one’s mouth is. Maybe so. But it comes off more as simply frattish behavior, a big kid with a big pot of money, blowing it on online poker with supreme confidence that there will always be more of someone else’s money with which to play.
At one point, Terris lets slip that he, the author shadowing McElwee, was likely a chess piece in “Sean’s grand plan for himself to become one of Washington’s main characters.” So what does that make us, the readers? If there’s anything to glean from these episodes, it’s a broader sense that if this is the kind of person who is a player in The System, then The System is not going to save us.
The other characters in The Big Break do not instill much more confidence. The overwhelming preoccupation of every person Terris profiles seems to be to convince us, and themselves, that they are not like everyone else in D.C. Which, of course, is what most clearly makes them exactly like everyone else in D.C. Everyone is in The Swamp but not of it. Everyone is the one person in D.C. for altruistic reasons, to do good, while beset on all sides by narcissistic careerists. The narrative inevitably feels like public relations on the part of people who gravitated to Washington to seek their own share of fame, power, and money, and who are very invested in letting the rest of us know that their motives are different, even admirable.
As a human-interest story, it simply doesn’t work. Every bit of goodwill the author can generate toward his subjects is immediately undone by their own words and actions. Leah Hunt-Hendrix comes to Washington politics with the noble goal of pushing the stubborn Democratic Party a few inches to the left of center with her fundraising; one of her big projects is the Wisconsin Senate campaign of Mandela Barnes, who narrowly failed to defeat Tea Party–era gargoyle Ron Johnson. The moment I almost started to feel sorry for her—pushing back against the preferences of the Democratic establishment to revert to the middle really does seem thankless!—she begins dating a “crypto attorney” and starts waxing about how “progressive cryptocurrency” is the answer to … it’s not really clear, except that it’s the answer for her, at least until the next fad comes along.
Stories meant to endear—the CPAC meet-cute and ensuing courtship of PR flack Ian Walters and his wife, Carin—go down like New York Times wedding announcements. The twining of well-connected elite hearts, of people who have surfed from one high-paying job after another on a wave of family connections, is not the stuff of tearjerkers. Much ink is devoted to Walters—arguably the co-star of the book, along with McElwee—who seems friendly and has the makings of a sympathetic story. He was among the handful of Republican activists who failed to embrace with vigor Trump’s election fraud claims in the wake of the 2020 balloting, and he briefly achieved viral notoriety for criticizing ex-RNC chair Michael Steele as an inept leader cynically chosen by the GOP as a token response to Obama. No doubt many conservatives made similar grumbles privately, but Walters forgot how much modern conservatism depends on a collective agreement never to say certain things out loud. And whatever reservations Walters felt, he, like every putative conservative apostate, ultimately can’t help coming back to the gravy train.
Call me a crank, but even the spotlights on people Terris seems genuinely to like leave me cold. I simply do not care if people who work for South Carolina Senator Tim Scott are unhappy. When Terris talks briefly to a staffer who seems mightily frustrated that the GOP is more or less openly hostile to people of color, one is left to wonder what such people expect of their careers, as cogs in the machinery Mitch McConnell is using to drag the country back to the nineteenth century. The American right’s agenda can hardly be called a secret, and they go in with their eyes open. Ian Walters spent a significant part of his adult life working for CPAC, essentially a white nationalist Bonnaroo, and we are expected to care that he is eventually shunned by the suburban D.C. bar band scene where he enjoys plying his musical skills. Just when I wonder if maybe the problem is me, that I’m reading these characters with malice, Walters the great apostate who bravely resisted Trumpism is getting back on his feet … doing contract work for Ralph Reed’s pro-Trump right-wing evangelical organization.
In an effort to redeem the conservatives profiled here, Terris drops reminders that the Trump and post-Trump right is a cesspool of nihilists and loons. We get the obligatory “Visit to CPAC” chapter, where we learn—spoiler alert!—that the typical CPAC attendee is absolutely barking mad, and the CPAC panelists are self-promoting charlatans crying about being canceled, despite having their faces and names plastered across every platform imaginable, endlessly. It works only to an extent. Absent any delusions about the ability of these activists to change the party from within, we are forced to conclude that Stryk, Walters, and the rest have made their peace with cashing in on the Republican project.
The overwhelming preoccupation of Terris’s whole cast of characters is simply their own progression into the elite circles in which they are so convinced they belong. Not one person Terris speaks to in depth has any discernible skill beyond getting rich friends, often connected through their own parents, to give them money. Washington is a place rife with Main Character Syndrome, and it’s on full display in these pages. Even the figures with whom the reader has considerable ideological overlap come off as cartoonishly self-absorbed, yearning to do good so long as it overlaps with their own career advancement.
And that ultimately makes this book worth reading: In the fullest sense, nothing has changed. Post-Trump Washington certainly feels different. But that’s largely because of a change in us—the politics junkies, the news readers, the observers, the activists, the hobbyists. Trump stripped all the glamour and ornamentation from Washington politics for those who had not seen through it before 2016. Biden’s efforts to restore that sheen, like any attempt to restore lost innocence, are bound to achieve little. We’ve seen too much. We’ve made the mistake of watching the “making of” feature of our favorite fantasy film and realized that the magnificent castle, from any but one carefully selected camera perspective, is a flimsy plywood facade. Without setting out to, Terris makes it pretty clear that if these are the people we have to count on to fix our politics, there’s not a whole lot of reason for optimism.
The most perceptible change stands out to readers who are familiar with other entries in the Washington access genre—for example, much of Bob Woodward’s output for the past three decades. Whereas Washington power brokers were once presented to us as creatures who oozed quiet confidence and knew exactly what they were—the power behind the throne—the people in The Big Break come off a lot more like infomercial pitchmen. They are not The System, they are a kind of person hovering over The System as it disintegrates, searching for opportunities.
And this is the final problem with books about Washington: People at the very heart of American politics tend not to be the kind of person we really want to read about. And the ones desperate to be profiled in a project like this tend to be the least appealing (a key difference between liberal pollster-consultants Shor and McElwee, it seems, is that the former is comfortable staying off the record, while the latter simply can’t help himself when a camera, microphone, or journalist is present). We know they are there and have a good sense of what they are like, and that is enough. Do we need hundreds of pages every few years to confirm our suspicions? Terris gamely tries to sidestep this qualm by structuring the story around the useful question of how Washington has changed, a before-and-after–Trump snapshot. Even better, he leaves it to the reader to draw conclusions, rather than hitting us over the head with a leaden homily in the concluding chapter.
The Big Break largely reinforces the sense that Trump changed the tone of our politics more than their substance. Everything feels cheaper, flimsier, more like a con. It always was, of course, but the city that took great pains to hide its unseemliness under layers of pomp and gravity no longer seems to try as hard. If things are going down the pan, nobody here seems especially concerned, as evidenced by the way the Bankman-Frieds and their ally McElwee saunter through this story blissfully unaware of what is in store for them. This is a book about people who believe themselves safely insulated from whatever happens and for whom everything will always be fine, which of course they are, and it will be—right up to the moment at which they aren’t, and it isn’t.