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The State Of The Union Is Oof, With Jason Zengerle

Joe Biden speaks at a rally in Wisconsin, with The Distraction logo in there.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

American politics, am I right? It’s not what you want, unless what you want is a brutal real-time satire of every truism of basic middle-school civics in which every institution is thwarted, or starving, or co-opted to the point that it actively works against its ostensible purpose. If that is what you are into, then you are probably having a blast living in the United States at the moment. If you want more from the most powerful institutions in the culture than neglect, graft, and spite, you are almost certainly not having as much fun. This is a tough break for everyone, really. But there is some good news: if you are someone who gets upset about this kind of thing, this episode of The Distraction is just for you!

This week, Drew and I welcomed Jason Zengerle, who writes about politics for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of the definitive Donald Trump Jr. In Hell feature. (It was so good, in fact, that my editors at The New Republic had to lift big quoted chunks of it from my own attempt at such a story.) Talking about national politics is pretty grim business as a general rule, and this is a decently grim moment in which to do it, but Jason was a delightful conversationalist in the moments when I was not actively sucking all the oxygen out of the conversation. Those moments were thrilling, of course, and any listeners unsure where I stood on issues like “it is important for the government to do things” and “I feel like I am losing my mind every single day” will have their questions answered at long last. Also Jason told a story about seeing Don Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle do their creepy-horny Sonny and Cher routine for a bunch of old Republicans in North Carolina during the 2020 campaign that I have had a very difficult time getting out of my head since.

If it seems like a hard pivot, here at the top of this paragraph, to go from talking about institutional apathy and atrophy to talking about college basketball, then you are going to love the version of it that appears in the podcast. I made the case for taking The Rutgers Pill to the extent I could, and in so doing got more or less back to normal; Jason explained how and why his 21-win UNC team somehow makes him sad. But once we made that pivot away from politics, nothing was out of bounds. Not Wright Thompson’s honeysuckle afternoon prose stylings, not a dramatic reappraisal of former Duke sharpshooter and Coach K heir apparent Jonathan Scheyer, not the new surveillance-driven Whole Foods and the strange future it portends, and not even the preposterous but entirely real sponsor-endowed center position on the University of North Carolina’s basketball team. We answered just one Funbag question, but it built upon our previous, Fury Road-centric episode in a strange and vivid way. In a difficult moment, in the middle of all this dread and inertia, it is nice to be reminded of what a powerful thing it is to spend a few minutes really thinking about Eric Montross instead of thinking about anything else.

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