Q&A: Journalist and Ex-Right Wing Activist Tina Nguyen Recounts Her Surreal Journey Inside the Conservative Movement
A conversation with a journalist who explains the colossus of the American right from the inside in a new book.
Tina Nguyen is a national correspondent for Puck, covering the world of Donald Trump and the American right. Previously, Nguyen was a White House reporter for Politico, a staff reporter for Vanity Fair Hive, and an editor at Mediaite. She is the author of a new book, The MAGA Diaries: My Surreal Adventures Inside the Right-Wing (And How I Got Out). Between 2008 and 2012, Nguyen was a right-wing activist at Claremont McKenna College -- where we overlapped -- and privy to the early makings of the Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement. Later, she became a journalist, working at the early days of Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller, and then covering the movement that she once was a part of. I spoke with Nguyen last week over Zoom from Washington, where she lives. Our conversation follows, condensed and edited for clarity.
Luke Johnson: You describe your book as "the past seven years of Trumpism crossed with The Devil Wears Prada." What do you mean by that?
Tina Nguyen: I find when people write about the conservative world, they try to do so from a neutral academic perspective: a little anthropological, very removed. I think you can only understand the right wing if you are someone who's gone through it, or at least understand the emotional connection that people have to it. I'm the type of person who you would normally not expect to be in that world. I view [the book] as a travelogue and a coming-of-age story of a young woman who happened to witness the rise of Trumpism.
LJ: Would Tucker Carlson be your Meryl Streep character?
TN: He is a Meryl Streep character. There are three people in the book that I position in pivotal moments in my journey. First, my ex-boyfriend who ended up becoming prominent in right-wing politics: Charles Johnson, who introduced me to Claremont McKenna. The second was my first mentor in journalism, John Elliott, through a formal program called the Institute for Humane Studies, which is obliquely funded by the Kochs. He was teaching me how to get a job. The more that he boosted my career, the more I thought, "Oh my God, this is fantastic. I'm so happy to have a mentor." And then, seven or eight years later, I learned that he was secretly putting together a ring of white nationalist journalists who were trying to insert these ideas into conservative journalism. I thought, "Oh my god, what you were doing was trying to cultivate a generation of conservatives and finding the right ones to take into a secret world you're building, which is really messed up!" Tucker Carlson was my former boss; the person who I wanted to emulate in journalism. I traced his journey into the right and wondered, "What would have happened if I stuck around?"
LJ: How do you understand his evolution? You spoke to him for the book last year.
TN: It's been really weird, especially as someone who was young when she first met him and then not young when she reached back out. I view it as many small natural instincts of his magnified in the MAGA era. First of all, I think that he is a fantastic print journalist. He loves to explore things, listen to people, and is amazing at putting together a withering sentence. When you take that instinct and put it on Fox News, where you are incentivized to be a right-wing blowhard, you can see the outcome of what Tucker Carlson's become. I can't really judge him for doing it. I'm just watching along the way.
LJ: What motivated you to join conservative movements as a younger person?
TN: It was an accidental driftward right, until I realized what the career path demanded of me. When I went to Claremont McKenna, I was a big Founding Fathers geek. There were these research institutions there that were explicitly designed to study the values that the founders espoused. There is one group called the Claremont Institute, whose motto was preserving the ideas of the American founding. It is not formally affiliated with Claremont McKenna, but it is loosely connected. There is enough of a pipeline there to make it pretty easy to mine the Claremont student body for promising conservative figures in the future. The moment I got there, I thought, "You can build a career in this? This is cool. Big names will talk to me, and they're paying attention to us little babies." I thought this was a perfectly fine path to go down as a journalist: what's wrong with being a journalist who thinks outside the boundaries of what mainstream media dictates as to what is true or not? The problem is, once you get into that world, they start demanding that you twist the truth in a certain direction, otherwise you lose a job. That's when I started getting a little iffy about it.
That moment didn't happen to me until after I was fired from The Daily Caller; back then, it had a noble journalistic mission. I went back to [my] mentor, John Elliott, and he started connecting me with these job opportunities. The more I looked into them, the more I thought these are right-wing content factories that deliberately are asking me to take something that's true, remove parts that are also true, that would make the story a hit job, under the guise of truth. I thought, "No, I can't do this. Absolutely not. I'm out." Keep in mind, there wasn't really a big risk for me to get out. I was 22 and had a bit more risk tolerance.
LJ: You were a reporter when Trump was elected in 2016, not a conservative activist. On one level, you would think a movement would want somebody who knows about it and can explain their story to a broader audience. But at the same time, Trump has called the media the "enemy of the people," and the MAGA movement has their own YouTube channels and podcasts. How do your former colleagues view you?
TN: It does help that I left the movement way before Trumpism was even a thing. I never pitched myself when I was applying to mainstream media as someone who spoke conservative, and frankly, I think that was a liability back then for a lot of mainstream institutions. As someone who covers the conservative movement now, there is a little bit of initial suspicion, but the moment that I start talking in the language that they've been speaking for their entire lives, it's skipping steps of right-wing Duolingo. I think this is the reason I have a really good facility in covering MAGA politics.
It is like if you were asked to report a story in Japan, it's so much easier if you speak the language, know the history, and if you understand the cultural norms, instead of just going straight to Japan for the first time and looking at the way they eat raw fish, which I think is how a lot of mainstream reporters go into the [MAGA] world.
LJ: I understand that. I'm also curious if the Trump rhetoric about fake news or the "enemy of the people" even hits you.
TN: For some reason, not as hard as it has hit my colleagues. I have a couple of theories as to why. One is because I am more anarchical in my approach to people. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, I don't have the initial shock going into these conversations. I think I'm good at meeting conservatives where they are, and I'll know my blind spots, which in my case is Christianity, but then I'll know where it is that I can connect with people, which is the founding documents and understanding that sometimes people will have different values than you, and that's your job as a journalist to explain.
LJ: Is it possible that people are friendly to you in the conservative movement because these plans are not particularly secret? Trump says openly what he believes. Conservatives talked for 30 years about repealing Roe vs. Wade, they went on to repeal Roe vs. Wade. How open are these movements?
TN: They're really open. It's just a matter of people not looking in the right direction. it's not like they don't talk about it ever. I would really say that the mainstream media always considers them way too fringe to even pay attention to and they think there's no way this could ever happen.
I always run into this problem where I bring something that's completely true to my editors. Then they spend a lot of time trying to convince me that the thing that I am telling them is either not true, or too fringe. After a while, I thought, maybe they're right. Maybe I'm focused on too fringy stuff.
My therapist said, "I think what it is that you're telling them things that they cannot accept. It just goes against their worldview. It goes against their understanding of how society should work. And it's scary to them." The moment I realized that I thought, "Okay, it's not that I'm a bad person or bad journalist. It's just that I'm bringing information that terrifies them." For some reason, that gave me the strength to keep going.
LJ: Do I have this right from the book -- your therapist said you were catastrophizing before January 6?
TN: Yeah. And then she recanted that after January 6. I was covering January 6, which was a Wednesday. I did a whole bunch of reporting [from the Capitol]. Then on Friday, I had a session with her and the first thing I do when I pick up the phone is just yell, "Do you think I'm catastrophizing now?"
LJ: And what did she say?
TN: She said, "Yeah, you were right. I just couldn't allow myself to believe that this could happen." It's nice when your therapist is understanding.
LJ: Can you explain what the Convention of the States project is?
TN: Oh boy. Right-wing groups have this degree of flexibility and creativity, the further out you go, the more out there they get. The Convention of the States is a project that's been around since the early Tea Party days. There's a provision in Article V of the Constitution that says that state legislatures can call conventions to rewrite the Constitution, and we can vote on them and no one else can vote on them. It doesn't go from Congress to the legislatures, which is the way that every amendment has ever been passed. You realize that a lot of state legislatures have been filled to the brim with Republicans.
There have been dry runs of what a convention would look like, funded by this group. If you are a Republican who is trying to signal to the base that you are a true conservative, you will see their endorsements. DeSantis, for instance, ran an ad in Idaho calling for an Article V convention. This group was initially founded to try to get rid of taxes because it was the Tea Party, and that's what they did. But just because a thing was founded to fulfill a purpose, that political purpose isn't always going to stick around. That's a little scary to me.
LJ: Why did you include it in the book?
TN: I wanted to show the degree of creativity that is endemic in the right. It's one of those things that creeped up in the background until it became a giant thing, which has always been the history of conservative movement.
LJ: Like Stop the Steal?
TN: Yeah, Stop the Steal. But most of Stop the Steal was engineered organically. There were all these smaller groups who used that movement as a way to build up a crowd around the Capitol that infiltrated and stormed it. The Proud Boys was a prominent troop that had a very specific ideology. The Three Percenters and Oath Keepers have their own highly specific interpretation of the Constitution, where they think that power is being improperly seized, then they are empowered to do whatever it takes to solve it, like taking over the government. There were these other caravans that were taking people from outside DC to DC that were being promoted through InfoWars, Tea Party Patriots, and a handful of other groups. The fact that they were all deciding to go to these events at the same time was not so much coordinated by one group, it's that people who knew each other in the conservative space said, "Hey, let's all do this on one day, and then tell our people to all come here."
LJ: The New York Times reported a poll this December that voters aged 18-29 favored Trump over Biden by a 49-43 margin. I think many people will find that surprising. You cover a lot of these events for young people; I'm wondering what your take on that finding is.
TN: A lot of it is social media and the fact that the right-wing has invested so much in not just news-gathering, but opinion and entertainment. I describe the former conservative media ecosystem as a walled garden of institutions like the National Review and Fox News being able to say this is and is not conservatism. If someone goes outside the boundaries, they can say you have no more platform.
But the rise of these alternative Internet platforms and [using them] to attack the news media means that these institutions don't have control over what is on the right anymore. I call this the infinite fringe: there's no one stopping anybody from going to another platform or creating their own space, building their own version of reality where they can be hateful or peddle misinformation.
LJ: But what would you say to people who say that Tucker Carlson was fired from Fox News, and now he's a diminished figure? He doesn't have the platform that he did on Fox.
TN: [Fox News] does matter. But for older people -- what younger person is listening to Fox?
LJ: Your sources are not?
TN: No! My sources think that Fox is like fake news media now. I think they lost a giant segment of the Republican Party first when they called Arizona for Biden early. Second, when they fired Tucker and were not able to control the narrative of why Tucker was fired. He was able to make a really good case for himself among a certain segment of Fox viewers that like he had been canceled for the truth of saying what he believes. He was already good at YouTube: whenever his monologues appeared online, they would get around a million views each. A younger person is more able to find wherever Tucker Carlson goes next than an older person who does not understand the Internet. Tucker, for instance, going directly onto Elon Musk's X [formerly Twitter], and Elon welcoming him is a huge validator to young people who already don't like corporate media. Tucker being able to exist on that platform is even more authentic to this generation.
LJ: What do you think this means for 2024 that so much of the news is on all these alternative platforms that I don't think many people are paying attention to?
TN: It all really depends on who has the best facility in engaging online media discourse. The DeSantis people weren't able to drive the narrative as well as they wanted to. Trump, however, is really good at pushing his clips to blogs and online. I remember talking to someone in his camp about what was happening with him not being on Twitter, and [the person] said, we're worried because it's not that Trump doesn't have a platform, the news media is still going to report on what he says.
LJ: And then Trump has this whole other platform on Truth Social that has all these other [right-wing] influencers on it.
TN: Right. But then he also doesn't infect the rest of the media sphere with his crazy. It's sort of a silo, bringing him to a rage, and then he gets his ego gratified. The rest of America does not remember why it is that they disliked him in the first place, because they thought, "You are chaotic. You are too much for us. You are full of drama. We can't deal with you anymore."
LJ: That sounds like an advantage for him.
TN: Yeah. It's a convenient way to memory-hole the Trump years. Then they can hammer that life was better under Trump in terms of how much food costs, how much you were making, your ability to go to church, or whatever. Why not make America like 2017 or 2018 again in that calculus?
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