Meet the Fellows: Interview with Tara Setmayer

Tara Setmayer is a CNN Political Commentator, ABC News Political Contributor, and hosts her own podcast, “Honestly Speaking with Tara Setmayer.” She has appeared regularly on CNN’s primetime programs, including “Erin Burnett OutFront” and “Anderson Cooper 360°”, and is well-known for her fact-focused, no-nonsense approach, especially during the 2016 presidential elections, receiving a designation from Vulture as one of 2016’s “Top 20 Election Coverage Stars” on TV. She has formerly served as a GOP communications director on Capitol Hill, handling immigration and law enforcement policy as well. She is currently a spring 2020 Fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics.


Harvard Political Review: In general, how has your upbringing and your multiethnic background affected your career path and your political views, if at all?


Tara Setmayer: Well, my upbringing was very nontraditional. My mom was a single parent until I was 15 years old. [My family] lived in a very blue-collar neighborhood in Paramus, New Jersey. I’m the first person to go to college in my family. [My mom] exposed me to lots of different cultures when I was younger, which helped to round out my worldview. Being from New Jersey, [which is] so close to New York City, you have access to the greatest city in the world and all of its resources. I wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything in the world. So, my mom was an incredible influence in my life from the time I could speak. She always encouraged me to be inquisitive [and to] ask questions. If we didn’t know the answer, we’d find out why together. She always told me never to be afraid to get involved. If you see something that’s not right, or see someone else being mistreated, never be afraid to stand up and speak out on behalf of others. She taught me that at a very, very young age. So it’s been a part of my DNA. And, being a single parent for so long, [my mom] realized that she would never [want to] be a victim of [her] circumstances and would teach me never to be a victim of mine. So that was the foundation for our conservatism. And then, as we paid more attention to issues, we realized that some of the other more conservative [beliefs] of smaller government, lower taxation, individual empowerment — things like that —  aligned with our worldview. 


HPR: How do you define small-“c” conservatism? How does that differentiate from the “Trumpism” model of conservatism today?


TS: So [small-“c”] conservatism, you know, the idea of being a conservative — not necessarily capital “R” Republican — comes from the idea of individual empowerment, right? You don’t want a massive centralized government making decisions. You want federalism to be the focus and allow states and localities to make more of the decisions so that individuals can make their own decisions in their lives. There is a role for government, yes, but the idea of massive government intervention in business, in healthcare, in [our] day-to-day lives is something that we think goes against life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness because that takes away individual freedom and decision-making. Jack Kemp, who was very influential in my conservative maturity, believed in creating ladders of opportunity for people so that they could see the pathways to being more successful in this country — not just giving [opportunities] to them. Unfortunately, Trumpism is this idea of nationalist populism that is a perversion of any kind of classic conservatism.  It’s actually quite antithetical to a lot of the things that [small-“c” conservatives] believe. You know, protectionism in trade, that’s not a traditional Republican [ideal]. Republicans are free traders. We believe in opening up markets and private job creation. Isolationism and protectionism don’t do that. Also, even just the morality part of this, watching Evangelicals completely disregard their Christian beliefs in order to make excuses for someone like Donald Trump — the way he treats people, the things that he says — is troubling to me. I will continue to call out that level of hypocrisy, because when virtue doesn’t matter anymore, how do we hold our leaders accountable? Even our Founding Fathers recognized the importance of that.


HPR: Let’s shift to the current top news topic worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you predict that the president’s handling of the crisis will continue? And how do you think it will affect his showing in the upcoming presidential elections, if at all?


TS: So those of us who have been part of the Never Trump movement from the beginning, like me and others, we now call ourselves principled conservatives. Donald Trump and his response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been the biggest example of why leadership matters, why telling the truth matters, why holding our leaders accountable matters, [and] why not attacking our free press matters. All of the issues that we’ve raised over the last five years concerning Donald Trump are now converging at one time when the country and the world are facing a global calamity. Because Donald Trump [is] so consistently dishonest, his attacks on the media and undermining [of] the institutions that people need in a time of crisis has translated now into a worse response than [is] necessary. All you have to do is watch the president during the daily coronavirus briefings. His inability to empathize, his inability to take responsibility, his inability to be truthful — these things are all on full display during these briefings every day. His indecision early on not to close things sooner [was a result of] his constant need to be praised. Medical professionals, scientists and disaster planners, people who’ve been doing these things for decades, who are experts in these areas, they’re basically hamstrung from being completely honest with the American people for fear of offending Donald Trump’s ego. And now we’re looking at the way [in which] the United States is suffering and the acceleration of the positive [coronavirus] tests — and unfortunately, we’ll probably see more deaths soon — [and seeing that all of this] is a manifestation of Donald Trump’s inability to be a strong leader and take other people into consideration. When he makes these decisions, it’s very, very frustrating to watch. This is the first time where Donald Trump’s leadership and character deficit may actually cost lives. 


HPR: Even just now when you refer back to the facts and your common sense approach, how do you see that as part of what you’ve termed the “revolution” and how does your own reporting and commentating reflect this understanding?


TS: So, you know, there are a lot of people during the Trump era who have created brands for themselves. And I never got into this business with the intention of being a brand. I took the opportunity reluctantly, by the way, to go full-time media because I saw it as an opportunity to be able to present conservatism in a way that was much more relatable for people. And I saw it as a way, because I’m a unique messenger, to bring that conservative message on policy and other things to a much larger audience and just put a different face on things. Clearly, that plan derailed once Donald Trump became the Republican nominee and then [the] president because of the level of disinformation and just flat out dishonesty [in his campaign]. I was not willing to compromise my principles and what I know to be true in order to pledge fealty to a party or a person. I think that a cult of personality is a very dangerous thing. And it’s also a direct threat. I think Donald Trump’s presidency represents an existential threat to our constitutional republic and our democracy. So when I say that it’s important to be part of the revolution in making sure that the truth is told, that’s what I’m referring to. We need to continue to hold Trump and his surrogates accountable for mistruths and misleading statements to the American people and giving them a false sense of security when it comes to the coronavirus — that’s just one example. 


HPR: Referring back to how you’re combating the epoch of fake news, especially with a variety of news sources, how do you remain up to date and informed on today’s political scene, and how do you recommend others do so?


TS: This is a question I’m asked a lot actually because people who are not into politics or who are not in political media, they’re nowhere near as engulfed in it all as people like me are. [They ask me,]  “How do you keep up with all of this?” Well, first of all, [media] is a passion for me. It’s not just a career. It’s something I’m really passionate about. Also, because I’ve been in politics for over 20 years, I know what sources I can go to for information. I have a lot of relationships with people who are experts in certain industries and subject matters, where I know that I can go to them and say “Hey, what do you think of this?” or “Where can I get more information on this?” This also comes along with experience and knowing where to go to get that information. But it is all-encompassing, I will say that. I probably don’t follow the guidelines of when to put your phone down and how much screen time you’re supposed to have. [My work] is constant; it is non-stop. I’m never on vacation, but that’s my choice because I feel, like I said, that I have a responsibility to be that kind of “sentinel in the watchtower” when it comes to making sure that I know what the truth is. So when I’m called to speak about certain issues, I’m prepared, and anyone who’s been up against me in a political debate will tell you that I’m a tough opponent. One of the things you learn in political debate is that you have to be able to anticipate what the opposition is going to say. If you don’t know what the other person’s argument is as well as they do, it’s difficult for you to combat it. So I make sure that I’m well versed in whatever the opposing viewpoint is, so that I’m able to combat every point.


HPR: To switch it up a little bit, how has your new role as an IOP Fellow compared to your previous roles as political commentator, communications director on Capitol Hill, etc.?


TS: Well, my opportunity as an IOP Fellow has been absolutely extraordinary. I was thrilled when I found out I’d been selected [as a Fellow]. I’ve had the time of my life. It is nowhere near as stressful as previous positions in the media. It’s great because I really have an opportunity to learn as much from the students as they do from me. That has been the most rewarding part of being an IOP Fellow: getting to know the students in the program and interacting with the faculty, which is top-notch at the IOP, and at Harvard in general. The interactions I’ve had, they’ve just been extraordinary. I think the biggest difference is that it’s a much more relaxed environment where we get to learn from each other and talk about issues from a really intellectual point of view. The hunger and the desire from students who participate in the study groups is great. The full immersi[ve] experience of being a resident Fellow is so unique, and I’m just grateful that I’m at a point in my life where I’m able to take advantage of that. The status of the Fellowships are now obviously in question because things have been cut short so abruptly due to the coronavirus. But I’m hoping that we’re perhaps able to come back and kind of have a redo. 

Image Credit: Harvard Institute of Politics

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