For the past four years H+K Senior Advisor Mark McKinnon has been one of three hosts on The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth, the award-winning political documentary program on Showtime. The series has provided behind-the-scenes access to the roller coaster campaign trail and daily life in the White House and Congress. The Circus is a non-partisan, never-before-attempted take on one of the most fascinating and consequential political periods in modern American history.
Mark took a break from taping this week’s episode (spoiler: title is below) to be interviewed by H+K Managing Director Marvin Singleton.
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Marvin Singleton: Since the Circus aired its first show in January 2016, you’ve documented an increasingly ugly split in the nation’s political discourse. Where does it go from here?
Mark McKinnon: Hard to fathom, but it’s going to get uglier. President Trump is now talking about a coup and a civil war. Buckle up.
MS: Now in its 4th season, the Circus has had a five-month break since the first half of the programs. What changes are you and your colleagues sensing/seeing/experiencing over that time?
MM: Well, our cohost Alex had a baby, so we all got maternity leave. What has changed since May is that the Democratic field still has a lot of people running (20ish), but the list of truly viable candidates is down to about a half-dozen. And, of course, we are now in Impeachment Land (title of our next episode).
MS: The first official votes in the 2020 presidential race take place in just over 100 days. If there’s one thing Americans are trying to tell the political class that isn’t being heard, what is it?
MM: We’re exhausted.
MS: We are 14 months out from the next presidential general election. What are the false assumptions that each party is making – not only for that position but for all federal races?
MM: Democrats are assuming impeachment will be good for them, and Republicans think it will energize their base. Both could be wrong by the time the Senate votes.
MS: What does the Republican presidential nominee in 2020 need to do to win? What does the Democratic nominee need to do to win?
MM: Republicans need to make the race a choice not a referendum. Democrats need to make the race a referendum, not a choice.
MS: The president has had a contentious relationship with media and recently called reporters “scum” as part of his daily Twitter bombs. If you were his adviser, what would you suggest he do to expand his support beyond his base?
MM: Do what he should have done week one: propose an infrastructure plan to Rebuild America. With a ridiculously high price tag, Democrats would vote for it because they all want building projects in their districts. Same to some degree for Republicans, but they’ll hold their noses on the price tag because they don’t want to cross the president. This would provide a big bipartisan project to talk about going into the election.
MS: The president’s communication style throughout his tenure has surprised and shocked the corporate world, from trade wars to economic policy. What is the role of business leaders in this destabilized policymaking paradigm?
MM: I think the only people Trump actually listens to are Fortune 500 CEOs. He does understand that his political fortunes very much depend on the country’s economic outlook. And, from reports I hear, there have been a number of occasions during his presidency that Trump has shifted gears at the behest of business leaders.
MS: Examples of corporate instability seem all too common today, from IPOs being withdrawn, reputational challenges, to claims of overregulation. What’s needed to end this era of disruption or is this the new norm?
MM: I think it’s the new norm. As the economy becomes less stable and less predictable, investors are seeing through the glitz and glitter of IPOs. They’re demanding hardcore information and numbers.
MS: Assuming the President is impeached by the Democratic-held House, what does it do to the 2020 election landscape if Senate Majority Leader McConnell refuses to hold a trial?
MM: While it seems just the sort of thing McConnell might do, he actually said that he is bound by precedent in this case. I don’t see much political upside to refusing to hold a trial.
MS: Where does the Republican Party go from here?
MM: It depends on where Trump goes. If it’s another four years as President, I think the GOP will be, for the near future, a party that barely resembles the party of Reagan. If he’s defeated, there will be some serious efforts to rebuild and rebrand the party.