Rachel Maddow was trying to get to work. She only had to get from the glass door of her doctor’s office to the tinted-windowed S.U.V. that was idling at the curb, waiting to spirit her to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, but there was a hitch. Maddow had torn three ligaments in her left ankle — fishing accident — and one of those ligaments ripped off a piece of her bone, so now she was lumbering toward the sidewalk, her foot strapped into a boot, her lanky body bent over crutches that creaked and boomed with every hit to the sidewalk. In Manhattan, this had the effect of a kind of ritualistic drumbeat, alerting every liberal within earshot to her presence.
A woman with a graying ponytail suddenly wriggled into Maddow’s path. “Rachel,” she said, extending her phone to secure a selfie for a friend in Oregon who watches her show every single night and was going to bug out when she saw this. Maddow smiled for the camera as a man in long shorts planted himself 20 feet away, holding his own phone up horizontally to film the scene. When he saw Maddow see him, he smiled and waved slowly, as if he were a proud relative capturing a milestone. Farther down the block, a woman screamed something incomprehensible in her direction. As Maddow finally neared the curb, a woman with silver hair and chunky glasses materialized at her side and said with blasé familiarity: “I don’t know what happened to you, but I just want to say I love you. Keep up the good work. Can I give you a hug?”
Maddow balanced on her good foot. She spread her crutches out to accommodate the stranger’s embrace. “What’s your name?” Maddow asked brightly, as if she had hobbled out expressly for the purposes of saying hello. “Emily,” she said. She made a perfunctory gesture toward the silent bald man next to her. “This is Ed, my ex-husband.”
“Big fan of yours,” Ed said, and he went in for a handshake, which Maddow was eager to meet until she discovered, midreach, that her ankle could not make the pivot to a second greeter. “Whoa,” Maddow said. “No twisting! Sorry!”
“Be careful with her!” Emily said to Ed, and then, as she saw Maddow breaking away and toward the car, she urgently called out: “So — so what do you think? Elizabeth Warren?”
Finally sealed in the back seat, Maddow propped up the ankle. Then she turned and said, as if I were a friend and not yet another stranger pumping her for information: “That was dangerous! Did you see my twist with Ed?” The gathering swarm of fans — “that sort of thing doesn’t happen all the time,” she said. “In New York, there are people who are much more famous than me.” But Maddow is not just famous. She is the host of “The Rachel Maddow Show,” and her fans want something more from her than a star encounter. They want an explanation.
Maddow has hosted “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC at 9 p.m. five nights a week for 11 years. But over the past three, her figure has ascended, in the liberal imagination, from beloved cable-news host to a kind of oracle for the age of Trump. If her show started out as a smart, quirky, kind-of-meandering news program focusing on Republican misdeeds in the Obama years, it has become, since the 2016 election, the gathering place for a congregation of liberals hungering for an antidote to President Trump’s nihilism and disregard for civic norms.
Maddow does not administer beat-downs or deliver epic rants. She is not a master of the sound bite. Instead, she carries her viewers along on a wave of verbiage, delivering baroque soliloquies about the Russian state, Trump-administration corruption and American political history. Her show’s mantra is “increasing the amount of useful information in the world,” though the people who watch it do not exactly turn to it out of a need for more information. They already read the papers and scroll through Twitter all day. What Maddow provides is the exciting rush of chasing a set of facts until a sane vision of the world finally comes into focus.
Maddow’s typical fan has been branded (by Kat Stoeffel in The New York Times) as the “MSNBC Mom,” a woman who feels that the election has radicalized her; even if she has not moved to the left politically, her liberal sympathies and news consumption have swelled into a suddenly central part of her identity. (The network has monetized this lightly condescending label with a set of MSNBC Mom tote bags and latte mugs.) Molly Jong-Fast, a former novelist who once described her pre-Trump self as “completely selfish and disinterested in politics” and who is now a liberal Twitter influencer and columnist for the Never Trump site The Bulwark, told me that Maddow “made wonkiness cool.”
Recently, I went to dinner at the home of Rebecca Kee, a preschool principal in San Francisco who turned to Maddow in her depression and confusion over the 2016 election. I brought a bottle of rosé, and she poured it into glasses decorated with charms that featured Russia-investigation figures on one side and characters from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” on the other. I sipped from the Hope Hicks/Beverly Crusher glass, and we watched Maddow’s show over veggie enchiladas. “I think of her as a news doula: You know the news is going to be painful no matter what, so we might as well have someone who helps us survive it,” Kee told me. Last year, Kee had a Maddow-themed birthday party, at which her friends and her two young sons put on big black glasses and slicked their hair to the side. Also in attendance was a life-size cardboard cutout of Maddow, which is now in storage so as not to startle guests.
On TV, Maddow appears in slim black blazers over black shirts. She wears smoky eye shadow and subtly glossy lipstick, and her short hair is swept elegantly away from her forehead. The only tell that her business-casual femininity is a mirage created for television is that she has not modified her look for 11 years. It is a uniform she selected for work and steps into every day, so that she never has to make an aesthetic choice that can be picked apart by the commentariat and elevated above what she has to say. When the show is over, she wipes off her makeup, removes her contacts and changes into her civilian clothing.
When I picked her up from rehab, she wore glasses, a denim shirt and jeans, and a vintage belt buckle engraved with the words “Texas Nuclear,” signaling one of her obsessions: This month, she publishes her second book, “Blowout,” about the political impact of the oil-and-gas industry. She has described herself as “a cross between the jock and the antisocial girl who bit people” in a John Hughes film, and it tracks: She could be the love child of Ally Sheedy and Emilio Estevez.
“This is the hardest part of my day,” Maddow said as she approached the nickel-bronze revolving doors of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, before lifting her crutches and hopping easily through the obstacle. Just as she approached the threshold of the secure elevator bank, Maddow was detained by another fan, who pulled her back into the lobby for one more selfie.
“People think I have secret information,” Maddow told me. “I definitely get the instant, like, But what’s the real story?” Recently, she said on air that she expects more Democratic candidates to drop out of the presidential race soon, and she had to instantly clarify that she was not some kind of soothsayer divining answers from the wonk crystal ball that she keeps tucked under the anchor desk. When she told me this, she waved her arms in front of her, as if wielding a pair of orange safety batons on the tarmac of her reputation. Then she mimicked herself desperately trying to ground her viewers: “I don’t know that any candidate is going to drop out! I am just surmising from publicly available data!”
At 8:57 on Sept. 23, the night before Representative Nancy Pelosi would call for an impeachment inquiry into Trump, Maddow limped out onto her show’s cavernous soundstage in Adidas sneakers and a black velvet blazer. She dumped her crutches, slid into her anchor chair and used the three minutes before she went on the air to scan a document and type silently into a computer hidden in her desktop. She wore a resting frown. Then, at precisely 9, she looked up into the camera lens, inhaled sharply and, suddenly animated, burst out: “What a time to be alive, right?”
She leaned familiarly toward the lens and put a bright spin on the latest Trump scandal that was swiftly coming into view. “You will always be able to look back at this time in your life and say: ‘You know, I was alive during that presidency. I remember how crazy it was,’ ” she said. Then she segued into her signature move: a 25-minute soliloquy on the convoluted schemes swirling around the Trump-Ukraine incident, burrowing into a dense network of connections among Paul Manafort, Senator Mitch McConnell, Rudy Giuliani, the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, the Ukrainian natural-gas billionaire Dmitry V. Firtash and the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. By the time she cut to her first commercial break, she had zoomed out so far that Trump’s July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine appeared to be just one little pushpin on a map of vast global corruption.
If Fox News’s biggest star, Sean Hannity, specializes in angry rants, magnifying internet conspiracy theories and coordinating with Trump, Maddow deals in high-toned if sometimes exasperated argumentation. Her mode is sunny rationalism and bemused exuberance — she is a former Rhodes scholar parsing a chaotic world. On her show, the news is “weird,” “nuts,” “absolutely bonkers” and “a clown car full of crazy.” She enlists members of Congress and enlarged images of court documents to underpin her hour. The nerdy details that pop up in the dark landscape of the news delight her.
In its first eight years on the air, her show averaged 1.1 million viewers a night, but since Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the number has leapt to 2.7 million. Media observers often position MSNBC as a rival of Fox News, but Maddow’s success has not sapped Fox of its power. (Hannity’s viewership consistently outranks hers.) Instead, she has helped convert a significant number of liberals who may have once seen themselves as readers into the kind of people who watch cable news all day.
Appealing to those viewers means flattering their sense of intellectualism. Maddow’s is the rare television news show that requires an active listener. It feels participatory. When Robert Mueller submitted his special-counsel report on the Russia investigation in March, she said that “our job tonight as a country” is “trying to figure out what it means.” After Mueller testified before Congress, she gestured at “the paths that we next follow to try to get to the bottom of this still-open scandal.” She lends her viewers a cozy sense of mastery over a political situation that feels unmanageable. If today’s dominant political recreational metaphor is that of the three-dimensional chess game, Maddow is hunched over in the corner of the rec room, methodically putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
Her approach has prompted her fans to boost her as a heroine of the #resistance, and her critics to draw her as a fool. Not just the predictable figures on the right — Hannity, who mirrors her on Fox News at 9 p.m., has nicknamed her “Roswell Rachel Maddow” — but also observers from the center and the left. In 2017, when Maddow secured two pages of Trump’s 2005 tax return, she teased the reveal on Twitter and saw a huge audience surge to the show. They then had to endure her extended monologue before she presented the document, which showed that he had paid $38 million in taxes. The Daily Beast called it “overhyping in the cheesy tradition of reality shows.” She has been labeled “conspiratorial” (in Slate), a “partisan hack” (by Glenn Greenwald, a former friend), “the queen of collusion” (in The Washington Post) and “much smarter than this” (in The Guardian). As the Mueller investigation limped to its conclusion, Paul Farhi, a media columnist at The Washington Post, rhetorically rolled his eyes at how Maddow “won’t let the Mueller probe go.”
“I’m happy to admit that I’m obsessed with Russia,” Maddow told me over the summer as — unknown to the public — the whistle-blower saga was quietly unspooling across Washington. “I realize it’s controversial, and people give me a lot of grief for focusing on it. But I make no apologies. I think it’s absolutely compelling. Still mysterious. Super interesting.”
Maddow’s persona has expanded beyond the confines of her television hour, and for those who do not regularly tune in, her carefully constructed messages could be seen as fanning the flames of hysteria. Last year, the leftist YouTube show “The Young Turks” circulated a mash-up of Maddow saying “Russia” dozens of times in just one episode, twisting her in-depth approach into a damning obsession. Critics at The Guardian and The Intercept have implied that Maddow leaned into Russia for the ratings. But her stubborn focus also represented a counterweight to the shiny outrage of the day served up by Trump: tweeting “covfefe” or apparently scribbling on a hurricane forecast map with a Sharpie. Even as she dove into domestic matters — for several nights in a row in August, she covered the story of sick immigrant children suddenly marked for deportation before The New York Times did — she always kept one eye on Eastern Europe.
One night in August, Maddow sat in her anchor chair discussing the latest news drip from the trial of Gregory B. Craig, a former White House counsel under President Barack Obama whose dealings with Manafort and Ukraine were uncovered as part of the Russia investigation. She brought the Politico reporter Josh Gerstein on to deliver a play-by-play of the day’s “legal drama,” a scandal that “seems to be metastasizing all across high-power Washington,” as she put it. Maddow asked him if the testimony of Rick Gates, Trump’s former deputy campaign manager, caused as much of a stir in the courtroom as it had inside her when she read the reports. “There aren’t as many people interested in Greg Craig,” Gerstein said, “as there were in Paul Manafort.”
When the show cut to commercial, Maddow called out into the vastness of the set: “People don’t really care about the Greg Craig trial, Rachel!” And then, softer, to herself: “I do.”
Then the whistle-blower story broke. Over the week that Pelosi called for an impeachment inquiry, Maddow’s ratings shot up to 3.3 million. On her show, she compared the day’s news to a Lazy Susan sitting on the countertop of world affairs. Slowly but surely, all her obsessions were coming back into view — the dirty international energy industry, the scummy Manafort, the American president accused of lobbying a foreign power to influence the outcome of the 2020 election, the Russia connection, the specter of impeachment. (Many of the players she discussed make appearances in “Blowout,” itself a sweeping narrative of international corruption looming over American democracy.) This new scandal felt “like a rerun” of Russiagate, she said, all the way down to the same cast of characters, presenting a rare opportunity in political news: a do-over.
Maddow was born in 1973 in Castro Valley, Calif., to Bob, a former Air Force captain, and Elaine, a school administrator. Maddow doesn’t recall reading children’s books when she was a kid. Instead, she paged through her dad’s law-school books and through stacks of local newspapers. Her father liked to watch sports on television on mute, listening along to the radio commentary instead, and Maddow intuited a media-literacy lesson from his habit: He had found a way to make television smarter. Now they have become MSNBC parents: Her father sends her insights to consider for the show, and her mother gives her notes. Maddow showed me a summer text from Elaine: “Hi hon. Another great show tonight. I hope you don’t mind a little fashion advice. I love your velvet jacket but I think it looks better for fall and winter.”
Maddow’s community was conservative and Catholic; in high school, even before she came out as gay, she was sneaking over to Oakland to volunteer at an AIDS clinic. She played three sports and acquired a collection of crutches. She enrolled at Stanford at 17 and came out almost immediately, in an open letter she posted inside every bathroom stall in her dorm. When the campus newspaper wrote about it, it characterized Maddow as suspicious of “the censoring effect of politically correct attitudes on campus.” The piece went on: “Maddow said that she would prefer if people who are against homosexuality felt comfortable enough to express their hostile feelings so that she could address the issue.” She found it instructive to interrogate the divide, face to face.
After college, Maddow won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, but she didn’t stay on campus long. “I wasn’t psyched about living in a student-dominated environment,” she told me. Instead, she hopped to London, where she worked at another AIDS clinic while she studied, and then on to rural Massachusetts, where she would complete her Oxford dissertation on H.I.V./AIDS health care outcomes in the prison system. She created a Listserv, PrisonPoz, and sent emails to other activists with lines like “Hello AIDSACT and pals (and lurking enemies).” She worked as an unskilled laborer to make money and met her girlfriend of 20 years, the photographer Susan Mikula, when she arrived at Mikula’s door to uproot tree stumps and clear thorny thickets from her lawn.
Maddow spent her late 20s working as an AIDS and prison-reform activist and playing the sidekick to a wacky Massachusetts radio personality on “Dave in the Morning” before pursuing her own morning slot, “The Big Breakfast,” on another station. From there, she snagged a role on the new left-leaning network Air America Radio, where her career as a kind of ideological narrator began in earnest.
Maddow made one of her first television appearances in 2004 alongside G. Gordon Liddy (who had become a pundit after helping orchestrate the burglary of the Democratic National Committee) on CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now.” Zahn introduced Maddow and Liddy and then set them loose to box over Bush-administration policies like a pair of blue and red Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. But her real break on television came in 2005, when Tucker Carlson launched a show on MSNBC and sought foils for his bowtie-Republican persona. “We were looking for a counterweight to his point of view, but we knew it had to be someone who was not just a partisan mouthpiece,” said Bill Wolff, who was Carlson’s executive producer and later, for a time, Maddow’s. “It had to be someone of intellectual heft.” He saw Maddow’s audition tape and ran it straight to the president of MSNBC.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Carlson and Maddow appeared on the same network, let alone the same show, but 15 years ago, the cable-news environment was a cross-pollinating ecosystem, and the debate format reigned. Soon the debate-show desk would be sliced straight down the middle, its partisan halves sold off to rival networks with polarized ideologies.
Unlike Fox News, which was formed in the gimlet eye of the Republican operative Roger Ailes, MSNBC was not conceived with a political orientation. Over the years it has tried on the costumes of liberalism and conservatism and straight-news-ism. Its ideological reputation arose somewhat accidentally, when Keith Olbermann blew a gasket during Hurricane Katrina and eviscerated President George W. Bush, proving that there was an audience for the scorched-earth liberal rant. At the tail end of the Bush years, after frequently guest-hosting for Olbermann, Maddow got a show of her own, in the time slot right after his, on which she pioneered a more jocular, cerebral approach to opinionating. Today, Maddow is viewed as the central avatar of both her network and her “side,” which is the broadly defined left, or at least the slice of it that watches the news on television.
Still, Maddow seeks out the views of her adversaries. At the 2011 Obama White House Christmas party, she struck up a conversation with Ailes. She asked him for tips, and he gave her notes on her angles, her affect, her presentation. He blurbed her first book, “Drift,” writing: “People who like Rachel will love the book. People who don’t will get angry, but aggressive debate is good for America.”
They did not talk much about politics. “He was a freaking very conspiratorial, very paranoid, very right-wing guy,” she said. “That was not an act. That was real.” Her interest was in his mastery of cable news and how he molded his talent. “I still think that there is some Roger Ailes special sauce there that nobody has quite figured out and that I used to ask him about all the time,” she said. “There’s this annoying word, ‘authenticity’: That’s part of it. There’s trustworthiness: That’s part of it. There’s likability: That’s part of it. There’s humor: That’s part of it. There’s gravitas: That’s part of it,” she said. Ailes died in 2017, and, she told me, “I regret that I never figured it out before he passed.”
From the very beginning of her show, Maddow knew she would never host partisan debate as blood sport. “I spent a long time doing the left-and-right, ‘Punch and Judy’ thing,” she said. “You know, two monkeys tied to each other in a cage.” She added, “That’s asking people to create the kinetic illusion of conflict so that we enjoy the sparring and nobody learns anything.” But she still believed there were insights to be found on the right. In the show’s early days, she invited on Pat Buchanan, the paleoconservative three-time presidential candidate who was an MSNBC contributor at the time, for a regular segment called “It’s Pat,” where she called him her “fake uncle” and drew him into friendly debates.
As her show developed, “I decided that I wouldn’t put anybody on TV who I didn’t feel like I could honestly and wholeheartedly recommend to my audience that they were worth watching,” she said. Only occasionally does she invite partisan pundits on to opinionate; her interview subjects are more typically reporters, politicians and bureaucrats. But Maddow rarely hosts conservatives on the show these days, because the ones she is willing to invite are not willing to come. This dynamic has intensified under the Trump administration. “We definitely went through — not soul searching — but like, a kind of gut check about covering statements from the White House.” In late 2016, Maddow had Kellyanne Conway on the show. Conway appealed to Maddow because she was highly professional, kind to the staff, reliable and willing. “Then she’d come on the air, and she would just say stuff that isn’t true,” Maddow said. “And yet I’m giving her, literally, a microphone attached to her dress so that she can say things to the American people under a banner that says ‘The Rachel Maddow Show.’ ”
Maddow’s staff also reassessed whether they should cover the stuff coming out of the president’s own mouth. They came up with a new framework for defining their approach: “Watch what they do, not what they say.” Trump is rarely quoted or shown onscreen; instead, she interprets his actions.
Since Trump’s inauguration, an anxiety has arisen among the media commentariat over Maddow’s role. When NBC selected her to help moderate the first Democratic presidential debate, Farhi raised an eyebrow. The Times distanced its reporters who cover political subjects from her program over what it viewed as a “sharply opinionated” orientation. But these critiques do not track with her sense of self. She votes in Massachusetts, where she and Mikula retreat on the weekends, but says she registers a party affiliation only shortly before the primaries and then unregisters shortly afterward. She declined to ask anyone to write a blurb for “Blowout” because she considers the process ethically compromising. It’s better, in her business, not to feel as if she owes anyone a favor.
She is studiously objective about the outcome of the Democratic primary race: “There’s no current in me that I have to swim against in order to do that,” she said. Politicking is her subject, not her game. “I’m not trying to get anybody elected. I’m not trying to get any policy passed. I’m not trying to get people to call their member of Congress,” she said. “I’m trying to explain what’s going on in the world.”
When Maddow’s old debate partner Tucker Carlson, who hosts the 8 p.m. hour over on Fox News, goes off the air, he told me, he often walks out the back of his studio and into his office, where he catches the beginning of Maddow’s show. In the TV news business, Maddow is known for her unique approach to the “A block,” the opening act of the show before it cuts to commercial break. Rarely does she lead with the news. Instead, she backs into it, charging into a tale of some seemingly unrelated historical anecdote or long-lost news figure that zags unexpectedly toward a news peg. As her show dilates time, it imbues the day’s news with a sense of world-historical climax. The day after the sitting president was targeted for impeachment, one of her chyrons read, “LEAD PROSECUTOR IN AGNEW CASE WAS REPUBLICAN GEORGE BEAL.”
Recently, as Carlson was taking off his makeup and chatting with producers, they turned the volume up and watched her for 15 minutes, transfixed. “It was a legitimately esoteric story,” he told me in a tone of genuine admiration. “It was about Donald Trump’s campaign plane or something. I never fully understood the point she was making, but I found it totally compelling.”
Maddow essentially delivers an essay every night before moving into interviews and shorter blocks of analyses, all of which she writes with the help of a team of producers. She has called herself “the hermit of Rockefeller Center”: While other personalities stalk the halls, seeking influence over network politics, she is holed up in her office writing, pausing only to conduct the daily production meeting, where she and her staff map out the day’s show.
On the afternoon of Sept. 23, shortly after the Ukraine story broke, a couple of dozen staff members pooled into a corner of the office and waited for Maddow to emerge. They present as a humble assembly of New York’s high-achieving news geeks. “It feels like a library up there,” Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, told me. “I hate to go up there and disrupt the focus.” There are scratchy carpets, piles of books, walls papered with inside jokes. A dusty life-size wax figure of Dwight D. Eisenhower is seated in a fisherman’s hat at a receptionist’s desk. On the wall is a poster of “Trump Organization Projects and Partners,” over which has been tacked the image of Carrie Mathison, the “Homeland” C.I.A. officer known for her paranoid conspiracy walls and unhinged (but often on-point) investigations. Behind a warren of cubicles, a snaking list of dozens of potential topics to cover was carefully written in marker on a large white wall. At 2:45, Maddow crutched in silently, stood with her back to her staff and observed the list, drawing a thick black line next to topics that interested her.
Though this was the day before an announcement of an impeachment inquiry — a moment Maddow had been gesturing toward for several years — she did not dig into the whistle-blower story right away. Instead, she made her way through a pile of unrelated issues: a protest in Kashmir, Elizabeth Warren’s electability, changes to the Democratic National Committee’s debate thresholds. Even in the meeting, even on that day, she took her time to get to the news.
In this setting, her loose, silly charisma sharpened into a steely deadpan. She operated with an almost Socratic method, quizzing her staff on the sourcing and suppositions undergirding the day’s news. As in a classroom, some producers spoke a lot, and others just listened. Maddow moved to Trump and Ukraine 20 minutes in. She wrote a series of letters, A to F, on the wall and began filling out the blocks of the show.
“I think the Ukraine thing is a very big deal,” she told her staff. “I don’t know how to do it in a way that increases the amount of useful information in the world.” And the current twist in the story — the nondenial denials from Trump and Giuliani — “falls under ‘Thing president has said.’ ” Even the biggest story of the Trump presidency would not move her to deviate from the carefully honed standards she had set for herself. But eventually, after weighing their options, Ukraine rose into the A-block slot, and Maddow drifted toward her office. She had five hours to write the thing.
After her show one evening, Maddow and I shared a car to Raoul’s, a French bistro in SoHo. She shimmied into a brown leather booth and lamented the time suck of her dumb hurt ankle. Between writing her book, making her show and reporting to physical therapy, she had no time to herself. “I’m realizing now — 10, 11 years into this — that it’s fine to work long days,” she told me. “But it’s not good for you to work incessant long days, five days a week, 50 weeks a year for 10 years.”
Early in Trump’s presidency, Maddow bumped into Carlson at a gala for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which supports outdoor recreation. Maddow and Carlson are about the same age — she’s 46, he’s 50 — and they each go fly-fishing to wipe the news from their brains. “It turned out we had both thrown our backs out within one week of each other, with neither of us having ever had a back problem ever before in our entire lives,” she said. “I had the gift of a very human-to-human, eye-contact moment with him, like: ‘We’re both doing this thing that’s killing us, and killing us at the same pace.’ ”
But also, I said, it’s almost as if she and Carlson are parallel-universe versions of each other, so that if he strains his back, her hurts, too. She laughed and said, “Exactly.”
Cable news in 2019 feels a little like the Hieronymus Bosch painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” On one channel, Trump presides over a landscape of harmonious abundance. On the other, he is leading American democracy into a miserable hellscape. (Betwixt them is a scene of sordid copulation: No matter where you stand in the cable-news wars, Trump is a lucrative story.)
Even as Maddow was unspooling the Ukraine story on her show, Hannity was just a remote click away, weaving his own narrative about “sleepy, creepy, crazy Uncle Joe” and his son Hunter Biden. “We are going to go chapter and verse very slowly,” Hannity said. “You will understand it. It gets a little complicated, but we’ve got the timeline down perfectly. The story they won’t tell you in the media.” As Maddow’s ratings rose, his did too.
The worlds of Fox News and MSNBC don’t operate under the same logic, or even speak the same language. Hannity has mounted the president’s podium at a rally, and he has the president’s ear. Last week, Trump tweeted out a Hannity clip as self-defense that featured a scrolling list of “PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS.” But Maddow is uninterested in cultivating such power relationships. She does not see herself as a leader of the left or an adversary of Trump in any way.
If Fox News anchors style themselves as generals in the culture wars, Maddow views herself as an observer peering in on the action. And while Fox News enlists its audience to join the fight, she moves her viewers to see themselves as storytellers, too. “I hope that if you watch my show,” she told me, you’ll acquire a set of “good, true stories about what’s going on and why it matters.”
After Rebecca Kee bought her Maddow cardboard cutout, she got a Robert Mueller one, too. For a time she would sit him in her front window, posing him near speech bubbles that she wrote herself. But after the real Mueller filed his report and failed to step into the role she had imagined for him, she tucked him away in the closet with Maddow. Now her car is decorated with Elizabeth Warren bumper stickers.
This summer, in the calm before the storm, I sat with Maddow in her office, and we discussed the perception, from both her fans and her critics, that she is a player in all this drama. “If anyone’s counting on me to make anything happen in the world,” she told me, “I am a bad thing to count on.”