The week in radio: Pod Save America; The Long View

Miranda Sawyer
‘Straight talk’: Dan Pfeiffer and Jon Favreau of the ‘Pod Save America’ podcast. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Pod Save America (Crooked Media)
The Long View (BBC Radio 4) | iPlayer

This week I’m going back to a podcast that I think I reviewed too hastily a couple of columns ago. Pod Save America is a twice-weekly show that analyses US politics from the viewpoint of a liberal Washington insider. It’s very popular in the States – you can tell by the increasing number of high-status ads – and has a growing audience over here. I’ve found myself returning to it over and over these past few weeks.

Why? The short answer is: once you’re into it, it’s fascinating. If you’ve ever wanted to know the nitty-gritty of how US politics works, how America governs itself, how the roles of reporters, judiciary, opposition and voters interact with each other, particularly in today’s Trump era… tune in. All the presenters – Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett, Daniel Pfeiffer – have political form (they worked for Obama, mostly), and they’re all clever enough to know when to focus on minutiae and when to zoom out and explain. They get great interviewees – congressmen and women, journalists, operatives from both the Democrats and the Republicans – few of whom I knew before I heard them speak, all of whom were steeped in knowledge. This podcast is a show-by-show education in what’s actually happening in Washington.

I like the anger in there too – how Jon Lovett swears, whines, gets cross. All of the hosts get cross, to be fair, and they all have certain real-life hate figures that increase their ire. Trump is a “liar”, Marco Rubio a “coward”, Sean Spicer a “disgrace”. To hear such straight talk is a relief after the shilly-shallying of most on-air UK discussions, our broadcasters’ timid respect for a president who is utterly unqualified, in temperament or experience, for the job. The other day, Pod Save America pulled apart Trump’s proposed new healthcare legislation. The guest, Ezra Klein, was instructive as to why some Republicans might want to push the bill through (they feel they have one chance and it’s now), but also as to why it can’t work. Everyone made the point that Obama’s healthcare legislation took more than a year to get through the Senate, yet Trump wants his to pass in just a few weeks. It was thoroughly absorbing.

But. I do have caveats about the show, the biggest of which is: what does any of this – this knowledge, this anger, this cleverness – actually do? In one of the series’s most revealing programmes, US journalist Katie Couric questioned the team on this very topic. She made serious points, such as: most people are not that bothered about the inside workings of Washington; most Trump voters are happy with how he’s performing. How do you stop a charismatic outsider when you represent everything his supporters dislike? This podcast’s selling point is its intimacy. But intimacy also means insularity – just listen to last week’s programme, recorded in front of a live audience in Austin, Texas: everyone in that room feels the same. Pod Save America isn’t winning anyone new over to its side. It’s feeding anti-Trump feelings, but only in those who are already anti-Trump.

Radio 4’s The Long View returned last week with a programme on, guess what? Trump. Or Trump’s Mexican wall, anyway. Presenter Jonathan Freedland drew parallels with the 2,500 mile thorn hedge deliberately grown as a border around British India in the 1840s to separate it from the princely states. The producers took the correct decision to have a pro-Trump representative speaking, to hear the view of why the wall is deemed necessary by his supporters. It all comes down to fairness, she said: if you’re a law-abiding US citizen, working hard, trying your best, then you feel aggrieved if you see others, who don’t come from the US, not working like you do. Why should you pay your taxes when such people don’t? These are the kind of straightforward arguments that the Pod Save America crew don’t pay enough attention to. They’re too busy taking the mickey out of Sean Spicer to hear the Trump supporter’s point of view.

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