Longreads Best of 2017: Political Writing

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in political writing.

Gabriel Sherman

Special correspondent for Vanity Fair and author of the New York Times best-selling biography of Roger Ailes.

The French Origins of ‘You Will Not Replace Us’ (Thomas Chatterton Williams, The New Yorker)

Anyone wanting to understand the forces that propelled Donald Trump to power needs to read Thomas Chatterton Williams’s fascinating profile of the French racial theorist Renaud Camus. Camus — no relation to Albert — popularized the alt-right theory that Muslim immigrants are reverse colonizing “white” Western Europe through mass migration. He is an unlikely progenitor of a political movement built around closing borders and preserving traditional culture. Camus works out of a 14th-century chateau and once wrote a travel book that describes itself as “a sexual odyssey — man-to-man.” Allan Ginsberg once said, “Camus’s world is completely that of a new urban homosexual; at ease in half a dozen countries.” While Williams doesn’t shy away from shining a light on the ugly racism that underpins Camus’s writings, he challenges liberals to reckon with the social and cultural effects of immigration in an increasingly globalized world.


Vanessa Grigoriadis
Author of Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair.

Alt-White: How the Breitbart Machine Laundered Racist Hate (Joseph Bernstein, Buzzfeed)

Back in the naive days of 2010, when James O’Keefe posed as a pimp to disgrace community group ACORN, I thought I’d write a story about the new wave of post-collegiate conservatives. A friend put me in contact with Andrew Breitbart, and I met him at his modern home in Los Angeles, next to the freeway, with the Big Government offices in the basement. He was gracious but told me he did not have any leads; it was clear that he preferred that I write about him. As I left, I expressed some libtard sentiment, and I suddenly saw the real Breitbart, yelling and balling his fists and turning bright red.

I wish I’d attached myself to Breitbart until his death from a heart attack a couple years later, and continued following the company after that. His unconventional media company morphed into a weapon against traditional conservatism, the alt-right’s version of Vice. (Where I’ve heard in an interesting piece of gossip, Steve Bannon’s nephew works today). Joshua Green’s recent book Devil’s Bargain and Gabriel Sherman’s end of year Vanity Fair tag-along with Steve Bannon were excellent, but for sheer reading pleasure, nothing tops Joseph Bernstein’s BuzzFeed story about Breitbart as an alt-right “killing machine,” to use Bannon’s phrase. I don’t know who leaked Breitbart’s crazy internal emails to BuzzFeed, which form the basis for this story, but my money’s on the guy who ghostwrites Milo Yiannopolous’s essays. Could there be any worse job, even in today’s media universe?


Chris Smith
The author of The Daily Show (The Book), a contributor to Vanity Fair, and a contributing editor at New York Magazine.

Down the Breitbart Hole (Wil Hylton, The New York Times Magazine)

Hylton’s feature has both stylish writing and great access to a world that doesn’t often open itself up to mainstream media. Bonus points for timing, though I’m still not sure if it was great or terrible: The story was published days before Steve Bannon was fired as Trump’s chief political strategist … and went straight back to Breitbart.

Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help. They Still Love Him Anyway (Michael Kruse, Politico)

Plenty of bigots and sexists voted for Trump — so did a lot of people with real problems. It was delusional to think Trump would fix them, of course, but what’s more important to try to comprehend is why sane but hopeless voters back Trump anyway. Kruse does a great job of getting at the Pennsylvania version of this phenomenon.

The Resegregation of Jefferson County (Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times Magazine)

Hannah-Jones was prescient in highlighting some of the issues that would come into play in the Roy Moore-Doug Jones Senate race, detailing tensions and policies that are fueling racial and economic divisions across the country.

The Danger of President Pence (Jane Mayer, The New Yorker)

A classic piece of deep reporting, including insightful, damning stuff from Pence’s relatives, plus a useful pocket history of the big money conservative world that spawned the vice president, and how he opportunistically became a Koch brothers tool when his political career was hitting a dead end.

What Putin Really Wants (Julia Ioffe, The Atlantic)

Trump / Russia has been 2017’s biggest political story, and while Ioffe has broken news on Don Jr. and Wikileaks this year, she has also made sense of the big picture, as she does here. Her background in Russian politics is invaluable and her writing always clear, no matter how complicated the games and players she’s explaining.

Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming From Inside the White House (Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair)

Lewis strays from the daily fray and digs deep into the Department of Energy to explore how dangerous Trumpism is to a functional government — not just now, but for decades to come. As this compellingly readable and horrifying story shows, Trump is on the verge of crippling America’s next generation of scientists and increasing the risk we’ll lose track of our nuclear weapons.


Sarah Jones
Staff writer, The New Republic

Going It Alone (Rahawa Haile, Outside)

Haile starts her essay out in Damascus, Virginia, very close to where I grew up and where my grandfather lives now. This piece really forced me to think about how a space that feels so much like home can feel to a person of color. It also illustrates something that’s important to me, which is that writing doesn’t have to be horse race analysis to be political.


Mark Armstrong
Founder, Longreads

The First White President (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic)

Say one thing for the news media’s endless parade of feature stories about Trump voters: Publish enough of them and the truth will finally reveal itself. In The New York Times‘s March 2016 roundup, “This Is Trump Country,” we heard stories of economic uncertainty and jobs disappearing:

I think most people here realize this is a big opportunity to change the economy,” he said. “Who better to change the economy than a businessman?

Fast forward to November 2017, where Michael Kruse took the pulse of Trump voters in Johnstown, Pennsylvania:

The thing that irritates me to no end is this NFL shit,” Schilling told me in her living room. “I’m about ready to go over the top with this shit. We do not watch no NFL now.” They’re Dallas Cowboys fans. “We banned ’em. We don’t watch it.”

Schilling looked at her husband, Dave McCabe, who’s 67 and a retired high school basketball coach. She nodded at me. “Tell him,” she said to McCabe, “what you said the NFL is …”

McCabe looked momentarily wary. He laughed a little. “I don’t remember saying that,” he said unconvincingly.

Schilling was having none of it. “You’re the one that told me, liar,” she said.

She looked at me.

The NFL?

“Niggers for life,” Schilling said.

“For life,” McCabe added.

Few writers have done more to expose the racist truth of the Trump presidency than Ta-Nehisi Coates, who followed Trump from his birtherism roots to a presidency with no coherent mission other than to reject anything Obama supported. Even as Trump recently reversed an Obama-era stance, massively reducing the size of Bears Ear National Monument, I recall Coates’s words:  “Trump truly is something new — the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.”

 “The First White President” is an excerpt from We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of Coates’s essays from The Atlantic spanning the Obama era and now its dispiriting lurch backward. Within the first sentence, Coates answers the critical question: How could a person with zero political experience, a career of bullying, sexual assault allegations, and unethical business practices, ascend to the country’s highest office?  “It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact.”


Mike Dang
Editor-in-chief, Longreads

Donald Trump’s Worst Deal (Adam Davidson, The New Yorker)

In a year when headlines were dominated by soap opera-like entrances and exits within the Trump administration — so long, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Omarosa, and the Mooch — I was grateful when reporters like Adam Davidson took the time to dive deep into President Trump’s business background, revealing the way he operates and has always operated.

In “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal,” Davidson looks into the building of a Trump hotel in Azerbaijan, which is linked to notoriously corrupt oligarchs and financiers of terrorism. Did the Trump Organization knowingly work with a corrupt partner, or did its lax vetting process accidentally expose it to “terrorist financing, sanctions, money laundering, and other imprudent associations through their business holdings and connections”? Either way, none of this inspires confidence that Trump is fit to be president.


Dana Snitzky
Books editor, Longreads

Democratic House Candidates Were Also Targets of Russian Hacking (Eric Lipton and Scott Shane, The New York Times)

I’m sneaking in this report from December 2016 because it has colored my understanding of the Trump-Russia scandal for all of 2017. The Times revealed that the D.C.C.C. had also been hacked by Guccifer 2.0, and that the hackers had reached out to local journalists and bloggers in some of the most competitive House races in the country, hoping to damage the Democrats.

The scandalously under-reported fact of Russian support for Republicans in the House, and the free use most Republican candidates made of the hacked materials provided by Russian hackers calls into question the integrity of a many more people than Trump and his inner circle. As the political commentator Heather Digby Parton wrote in March,

Republican congressional leaders must be thanking their lucky stars daily that the Trump administration is such a scandal-ridden Dumpster fire. If things ever calm down in the White House, somebody might just turn his or her attention to the question of what Paul Ryan knew and when.


Michelle Legro
Senior editor, Longreads

Rise of the Valkyries (Seyward Darby, Harper’s)

The public face of the alt-right has been overwhelmingly male, trading in the masculine for its displays of power. But the women of the alt-right have been hard at work in their own way, gathering power in a system that would be considered deeply misogynist by most. Darby confronts these women head on, but also considers what kinds of confrontation are useful when reporting on these kinds of hate groups. This is a fascinating portrait of a subversion of femininity and power that stretches back to the origins of the KKK, where women were a driving influence in the spread of white supremacy.