Once President Obama's National Security Spokesperson, foreign policy obsessive Vietor has a fascination with the world outside of American borders. Even so, when he and former Obama speechwriters Jon Lovett and Jon Favreau released the first episode of Pod Save America last January, they had no idea that they would be touring Europe just a year later.
Hundreds of millions of downloads, hailed by the New York Times as the left's answer to conservative talk radio: Are you surprised by how quickly the podcast has become a success since it launched, not least an international one?
I'm stunned by it on a daily basis. I remember on the last election night when we decided to do it and the decision was part out of guilt over the fact that we hadn’t been involved in the 2016 elections and this calamitous event had happened with Donald Trump getting elected, but also profound frustration that the way we talk about politics in the US is so fundamentally broken.
Even today, with this giant tax bill being passed, it’s talked about as a ‘win’ or a ‘loss’ for the Republicans, and not about the actual stakes for people who are on low incomes. We wanted to try and help solve that problem, and we also knew there were a bunch of engaged Democrats in the country who were worried, upset and frightened about what was happening but didn’t know how they could get involved and make a difference.
That was the goal. But the results are shocking – we’re going to Europe to do a podcast? Are you kidding me? I don’t know how that happened! But it speaks to the fact that there’s a bit of a political awakening for a lot of the people in the US at a very scary time.
How did the idea of taking the podcast on tour in Europe come around?
There was an opportunity to do one event in Oslo, and it seemed like an exciting, totally different opportunity. We have some limited data about who our audience is, and we know a bit about where they are. We know we have a decent percentage of international listeners – it was around 10 percent a while ago and I think it’s slightly higher for my foreign policy show Pod Save The World [the Pod Save America founders also created liberal-leaning media company Crooked Media, which now boasts eight podcasts and online content].
So we thought, why not? It'll be fun, it'll be different. You always learn something. We’re talking through the issues we want to talk about, and thinking about topics like the rise of nationalist parties across Europe – which is obviously meaningful in the US right now too. We’re talking about refugees, how that issue is covered in media. So these are all issues that an audience in America can relate to and benefit from, and that we as hosts could benefit from hearing about in perspective. I’m really excited about it.
And travelling with Obama was a huge part of my job – I worked on foreign policy, so last time I was in Oslo, he won the Nobel Peace Prize!
The podcast has already been touring America. Photo: Crooked Media
Looking at the tour dates, the podcast will be coming to Oslo, Amsterdam, London, and Stockholm – these are all comparatively speaking fairly progressive cities. I'm guessing it's not a surprise you have an audience there?
It does make sense, though part of me does wonder if anyone will show up. But during the last Presidential campaign, way before we were doing a pod, I went to a political conference in Germany to meet people and speak, and the… morbid curiosity around the Trump campaign then was massive. I can't imagine how high that desire to figure out what the hell is going on in the US is now. You must think we’ve lost our minds – which is partly true.
Did you get a chance to visit Sweden when you were working with President Obama?
No (Vietor stopped working with him before the presidential visit to Sweden in 2013) but he used to pull us aside, say for example after doing a call with (former Afghan leader Hamid) Karzai. Obama would just want to put his head on the desk when those calls were over. Then he would do a call with one of the leaders in the Nordics and say “if everyone was as rational as these folks it would be a whole lot easier to reach agreement on things we care about”.
Was he impressed by the Nordic way of doing politics? Were you?
I wish I knew what the Nordic secret was, but it’s an observation President Obama had and it’s an observation I had. It seems like there is a much bigger role for reason over emotion in debates in those countries. In the US it’s all emotion: look at our policies around terrorism. The resourcing that goes towards counter-terrorism work compared to the resourcing that goes towards things that kill exponentially more people is totally out of whack. It’s hard to even have a conversation about it, because people act emotionally.
I don’t know how to fix that, how to fix a broken political problem like that. That’s why politics is so much about art and not science. Even someone as thoughtful and smart like Barack Obama couldn’t necessarily win every debate, if not most debates, because we have a broken system.
I’m hoping to speak to people while I’m over in Sweden about exactly that and figure out how you folks have managed to be a little more thoughtful about these issues.
Let’s talk about the current president: he has a slightly different take on Sweden. What is it about Sweden that seems to rub Trump and people like him the wrong way? Is its presence as a functioning progressive democracy a thorn in his side?
I think so. We had a big meeting a couple of days ago talking about ideas and topics for the tour, and I’d forgotten that Trump saw, I think it was a Tucker Carlson segment about Sweden, he thought there was an attack?
Yes. The 'last night in Sweden' moment as it’s known here. He made comments at a rally in Florida implying there was an attack. It later emerged that he had based that on an interview Carlson had conducted with a filmmaker who had visited Sweden.
I think your original point is exactly right. Trump made banning Muslims and locking down immigration a centrepiece of his campaign. When you see someone like Angela Merkel for example welcoming refugees, or countries treating people with decency and as human beings, and remembering our history of the evil decisions to lock Jews out of countries before World War II, and trying to learn from that, it undercuts their theory that the only way to deal with the problem is to lock people out. They seek to undercut that narrative in any way possible.
It’s not fact-based: certainly, Merkel has had some political problems as a result of Syria and the refugee crisis, but the attacks are more cynical than anything else. It’s hard to watch.
In the case of a country like Sweden, is it easier to myth-build around that place because it’s a small nation that a significant number of people in the US perhaps don't have a deep knowledge of?
Totally. One hundred percent. I don't think the President has much knowledge of Sweden, if he has even been there. It’s easy to be a demagogue about these issues if they sound far away, and if you can find a scary image or emotional story. If you look at the stories he seizes on, they’re about individual tragedies: people killed by a refugee, or a person who came to the US illegally. It’s an effort to subvert facts and get us all fired up.
READ ALSO: Sweden fires back at Trump with 'facts'
The podcast is very current events heavy, but do you already have anything in mind for the Stockholm show?
The first segment is usually 30-40 minutes on what happened in the news, both the US and international. Personally I love the days where there's a foreign policy topic because it’s what I find interesting.
It will likely be something we decide on the morning of the show, but we'll try to approach it in a way that doesn't assume knowledge. The crazy thing about our audiences is that, when John Lovett does his live show (Lovett Or Leave it) for example on a Friday night at around seven, at five something big will happen and we have to tear up the show in response to some crazy news.
We'll go on at seven, people will be shouting and hollering and will have read the stories, know it inside out, the information level is insane. I think we won’t assume as much obsessive knowledge when we’re abroad, and we want to talk about things that are perhaps more the bigger picture. I sense we’ll approach it that way.
Then some of the topics we spoke about earlier: the rise of right wing parties and nationalism across Europe, a topic I think is really interesting. That’ll be something we’ll likely talk about. And we’d like to do some Q&A with the audience and make it more of a conversation about some of the topics we discussed earlier – how are you guys able to get it right, what can we learn from you?
There will likely be some ex-pats in the crowd too and it’s always fun encouraging them to get engaged. I feel a lot of it will depend on that morning’s news though – who knows what that will be. Bob Mueller, fired (laughs).
The turnaround period for recording the pod and releasing it is fast, but even then, are there ever times when you miss something huge by a couple of hours? The news cycle moves quickly these days.
Every episode! In every episode we feel like we can’t believe that between the time we recorded, edited and posted online something new has happened. In some sense I think it’s a good thing for us – we’re not reporters, we’re not journalists, we don’t know how to do what you guys do with in terms of pounding sources, getting facts, figuring things out so quickly. We rely on great reporting.
I think our episodes are best when an issue has been in the news for a few hours at least and we can try to step back and provide a bit of context on where in our experiences we dealt with something similar, what should or should not be happening, and the political consequences. Or: what can we do from an organising perspective to get involved.
There’s some concern among some people outside of the US at the moment regarding the turn your country is taking in terms of foreign policy for example. Is there any cause for optimism there, that America will perhaps become a bit friendlier again?
That’s something I think about obsessively. The great and less great thing about America is you can go from George W Bush, to Barack Obama – an African American who had only been in the Senate for two years – to Donald Trump. It's quite a roller coaster ride.”
Elections and the events related to them are viewed through the prism of who won, but say 70,000 votes go a different direction in key states, you have a very different conversation, Hillary Clinton is President. So if the Democratic party can get its shit together a little bit we can prevent this from continuing.
In the meantime, I think there was a lot of fear when Trump was elected, and he had both the House and the Senate, that he would just steam-roll everything Obama had ever done and then jam through his agenda. The fact that there has been a real resistance effort and it is maintained throughout a year is impressive. The fact that Democrats just won a senate seat in Alabama – granted it was against one of the worst people in the history of our country to run – that’s enormously hopeful.
Success begets success. People will look at those outcomes and think, I want to run for office, I want to give money, I want to volunteer. I think 2018 could be a very important year for restoring some balance to our political process and being a check on the Trump administration’s policy.
It’s harder on foreign policy because the president has so much authority, and that’s something that makes you worry. I’m having a conversation today with a woman who worked in the department of defence and was on the McCain-Palin campaign, and she wrote an op-ed about how the rhetoric around North Korea sounds a lot like the pre-Iraq War rhetoric. We have to watch those things, call them out, demand a better examination by the US media and Congress, but I do feel a hell of a lot better than I did a year ago.
Look, of course: I’m a privileged white guy in a job enabled by this nightmare we live in. I’m not a Dreamer being kicked out the country or a Muslim being told my religion means I’m banned, but we can all fight for those people and make things better.
The European shows will follow a similar format to previous live events, but with a broader focus. Photo: Crooked Media
Is one of the lessons of these last few years that progress isn't linear? There’s a tendency to think it’s continuous, but maybe now we’re seeing that things can go backwards, and apathy is the enemy of that progress?
Barack Obama used to constantly tell us, the younger people (in his staff) 'guys, this isn’t going to be easy’. I’m 37, and I came of age politically during the (George W.) Bush administration when the Iraq war happened, very brutal political times for our country. People a little younger than me started with Barack Obama, this incredible family, good man, and that amazing story was all they knew.
You’re right, this will help in the sense that we learn the only way to keep on the right path is to work your ass off. It’s a good lesson.
Looking to the future, do you have any further plans to engage with Europe, beyond this tour?
We’ve been talking a lot about what we should do next year and through 2020. What we realised is that – early on we had business goals and political goals – but now I’ve realised that all of our goals are political in nature. It’s about helping people to be more engaged politically. Everything we do next year will feed into that, so that’ll be a lot of domestic travel and a lot of building our infrastructure to help organize and get people to the polls.
The international side is a very cool, fun thing that I’m excited to dip into, and for my show – Pod Save the World – where I’ve failed is bringing the internationals to the international show. So I want to find a way to get more actual foreign voices, not just Americans talking about places abroad. I’ll work on that. I’d love to spend more time in Europe too – never say never.
Pod Save America will be at Stockholm's China Theatre on January 7th, Sentrum Scene in Oslo on January 10th, De Meervaart Amsterdam on January 11th and Cadogan Hall, London on January 13th. Tickets are available on the Crooked Media website.