Stuart Stevens

Comorbidities of the GOP

Air Date: August 24, 2020

Republican presidential campaign veteran and Lincoln Project advisor Stuart Stevens discusses his new book “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump.”

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m honored to welcome to our broadcast today Stuart Stevens. He’s the author of “It Was All A Lie.” Stuart, it’s a pleasure to meet you virtually. Thanks so much for joining me today.

 

STEVENS: Good to be here, man.

 

HEFFNER: Stuart, when do you think the lie emerged? What is the genesis of the lie, because you, you are writing the thesis here that Donald Trump was not the disease; he is a symptom of a party that became Donald Trump.

 

STEVENS: Look, I think that in the book, I trace this back to the fifties where there was always this tension within the party. You had the Eisenhower wing then, and you had the McCarthy wing, and that tension sort of continued. You know, now we look back at William Buckley as sort of this lost intellectual voice, the Republicans look back, conservatives, and bemoan the fact that we don’t have that as much as an influence in the party, but we sort of forget that William Buckley started out in the fifties as a segregationist racist. Now to his great credit, he later recanted, but those roots were always in the party. It was always a tension. Now, you know, I come from the Bush wing of the party. I worked in Bush 43’s campaign, started in April of ‘99 down in Austin, wrote a book about the campaign. Bush called himself a compassionate conservative. And at the time he got a lot of criticism from some on the right, because it was like, well, you mean conservatism isn’t compassionate because if you’re saying you’re a compassionate conservative, it’s distinguishing you from other conservatives. And the answer to that was Bush pretty much said, yeah, that’s what I’m saying. So we saw this dark side, everybody did, but we thought that, a lot of us thought that it was really a recessive gene, not a dominant gene and that we could, that history was on our side and that the sort of better angels of the party would triumph. And I, you know, in 2016 when Trump ran, I mean, a lot of people were wrong about Trump in 2016, but it’s hard to find anybody more wrong than me. And I really, I didn’t think he’d win the nomination and I didn’t think he’d win the general. And in retrospect, I realized a lot of that was because I just didn’t want to admit what Trump meant. I didn’t want to admit to myself that this party that I’d worked in for all these years would nominate this guy, and that he would then be elected. And you know, as you trace this, there are a number of people who I have great respect for who at least certainly used to say for the first couple of years of Trump, it just really wasn’t the Republican Party, that Trump isn’t really a Republican and there’s a good case to be made for that. I mean he is a maxed out donor to Anthony Wiener. But I don’t really know how we can sustain that. He’s President of United States. He runs the Republican Party. I mean it is a simple fact the Republican Party is now a party that endorsed Roy Moore and attacks John Bolton, that’s who the party is. So I think that there’s a battle within the party and that this side of it, that really was a white grievance party is the side that is emerged triumphant.

 

HEFFNER: And that is the, the Dixiecrat, the George Wallace, the segregationist, and it’s difficult to reconcile with figures in the United States Senate and in the U.S. Congress who once stood for, declaratively for values immutably conservative values that have been rescinded, withdrawn, obliterated. So your thesis, your operating thesis wouldn’t really be possible if it were not for the cowardice of people like Susan Collins. But the truth is that the party has been demolished as a result of bleeding this Kool-Aid, drinking this Kool-Aid to cult levels.

 

STEVENS: You know I think that the role of parties in our political system, they should serve a certain circuit breaker function and the Republican Party never pulled a circuit breaker on Trump. And to me, I go back to December of 2015, when Trump came out for a Muslim ban that’s completely unconstitutional. It’s a religious test. And what should have happened is that Reince Priebus, who was Chairman of the Party then should have gone out and said the same thing he said, when that guy who was running for the Senate in Missouri, Todd Aiken said all these honorable things about rape and, and women, where the party to its credit. Reince, to his credit, went out and said, look, we’re not going to support this. We can’t stop you from voting for this guy, but we don’t consider him a Republican even though he won the nomination, that’s what Ryan should have done with Trump and others should have done. They should have come out and said, look, we can’t stop you from voting for Trump. We can stop Trump from winning, but this is not the party that we stand for and we will not back to them. So then maybe Trump still wins and Reince steps down and says, look, this isn’t the party’s spoken, but this is the party that I believed in. I think Reince would be a hero now. But nobody did anything. And part of this is Trump has always benefited in the past from the inability to imagine him winning. So if you go back to those 16 candidates running in 2015 and ’16, Republican nomination, there was this theory, and it wasn’t crazy. It just turned out to be wrong. And I’m not to say that if I was working in one of those campaigns, I wouldn’t have believed that also, that the whole purpose of the campaign should be to just emerge one-on-one with Trump, because clearly the Republican Party was not going to nominate a guy who was in the casino business who talked in public about dating his daughter. I mean this just wasn’t going to happen. So they spent most of the campaign beating each other up to the right to be one on one with Trump. Well, then it happened. So if you remember, Mitt Romney courageously went out and called Trump out for what he is, you know, a phony, a fraud, a terrible human being. And you know, you would’ve thought that others would have followed him, but they didn’t. And if you go back to the moment when the Access Hollywood video emerged, there were Republicans who went out, office holders, leaders of the party and said, well, I don’t like this so I’m not going to vote for Trump. I’m going to vote for Pence, which is sort of insane. I mean, our system doesn’t allow that; it’s sort of like getting on a plane and saying, I’m for where the first 10 rows of the plane are going, but not the next 10.

 

HEFFNER: Right.

 

STEVENS: I mean this thing is landing at the same place, man. And I don’t see any way to call it, but cowards.

 

HEFFNER: You Stuart, and your colleagues at the Lincoln Project have revealed the honest truth about conservatism. And that is that if you call yourself genuinely conservative, you’re voting for Joe Biden in 2020, you’re voting for the Democratic Party, you’re voting for whatever viable alternative there is to Donald Trump. In this climate, you would have thought that it would not have taken you and Schmidt and Weaver, but before John Bolton’s memoir, folks like Tillerson and others would have come out more full throatedly, and embraced the same message and James Mattis and Rex Tillerson and others who were shunned from the Trump orbit or who conscientiously objected to his policies and resigned. There hasn’t been an alliance analogous to the Lincoln Project of former public servants who were so disgusted that they resigned. Do you expect those figures to come out more vocally and visibly in these, in these couple of months remaining before Election Day?

 

STEVENS: You know, I’ve given up being hopeful, which is just an unusual position, different maybe because in campaigns, I’m always a perennial optimist; the guy that always felt we could win no matter what the odds were against us. It’s been sort of soul crushing for me to come to this conclusion, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no line that Donald Trump can cross that will cause Republicans to, in any large numbers, to call him out. Listen, I have some sympathy for those that served in the administration because, you know, they took the job, they did their best, they resigned, or they were fired, some combination. And I mean it is sort of distasteful to go back and talk about someone who hired you just in life. We’re talking that’s not a great thing. Still, I think there’s a greater good to be served here, which is the country. And I hope that they’ll come out more. Listen, we’re in this strange world where as we record this, Liz Cheney and John Bolton are being attacked as not being conservatives. And Donald Trump is; it’s like man,

 

HEFFNER: Bizarro world,

 

STEVENS: Really, we have really gone through the looking glass if Liz Cheney and John Bolton are not conservatives.

 

HEFFNER: Well, it is not just bizarro world, Stuart; it is unconstitutional land or unconstitutional world. So as we’re recording this, the Trump Administration, Donald Trump is in defiance of a Supreme Court decision about counting folks in the Census. Bill Barr and his goons are deploying federal troops to muzzle peaceful protesters in the greater Northwest. And we saw the beginning of that in the DC protests and the gassing of civilians on the street outside of the White House. So, you know, this is Defcon serious.

 

STEVENS: I, I agree.

 

HEFFNER: And I know you agree. So, understanding where we are, what do you think is most important for the public who are watching this, or listening to this to understand about how that lie that you talk about in the book has metastasized and how it can be unraveled?

 

STEVENS: Well, look, I think it’s always difficult when you’re in the middle of a moment to understand the moment, but I think what’s happened with the Republican Party is unlike anything that’s certainly happened in modern American politics and probably ever in American politics. It’s a complete moral collapse of a party. I mean, if you held a gun to my head today and asked me, what does it mean to be a Conservative or a Republican I’d tell you, just go ahead and shoot me because man, I have no idea. And the only thing I can find as an analogy is the collapse of the communist party in the Soviet Union, where, you know, if you watch Chernobyl or something where, what the parties said it was, and when it was finally, the dissonance became so great. I think this is why it’s so important to crush Trump and his enablers, not just to beat him, but to crush him because the only way that a legitimate coherent morally justified center right party will emerge in America is through fear. These people are not going to change because they think it’s good to the country. They’re only going to do it when they that it’s in their own best self-interest. And I’m very pessimistic about the near term future of the party and near term, really the next decade. You know, people don’t pay that much attention to this stuff, but it’s phenomenal when you look at these very popular Republican governors in blue states; Phil Scott in Vermont, Charlie Baker, Massachusetts, Larry Hogan in Maryland. I mean, these guys are all former clients of mine and they’re all wildly popular, but they can’t control their own state parties They have Trump people in charge of us parties, which used to be just unheard of the governor, can’t control his own party. And I think it just shows the degree to which this Trump ism has become dominant in the party. And history shows that when a major political party legitimizes hate, which is what the Republican Party has done it’s very difficult and long road to undo that. So I think it’s all,

 

HEFFNER: We’re not in a gray period anymore. There is real clarity about a party representing a return to normalcy and morality and a party that embodies the opposite of that. You know, so when you talk about the lie, part of it is the compassion, that was a lie, certainly concerned about deficits, that was a lie, the stability upholding Federalism, that was a lie. What was not a lie? Was there anything that was not a lie?

 

STEVENS: Well, look you know; I think back in the dark ages, say four years ago if you’d asked Republicans, what does the party agree on? You would’ve come to, you know, 90 percent agreement on a few points, character counts, personal responsibility, free trade, strongly pro legal immigration. I mean, Ronald Reagan announced in front of the Statue of Liberty, so on the bill and which made everyone in the country before 1983 legal. We would have said that Federalism and constitutionalism was a primary one. And it’s not just that the party has drifted away from those values which parties do from time to time, the parties now actively against those values,

 

HEFFNER: Right.

 

STEVENS: So we’re the anti character counts party, you know, we’re the anti personal responsibility party. We’re, we’re the white grievance party. So I mean, I think even the patriotism part of it was a lie. I mean, here we have Putin paying a bounty to kill Americans, and very few Republicans have said anything, as if it didn’t happen.

 

HEFFNER: And the intellectual, the intellectual honesty was maybe the most pervasive lie of all – the idea of

 

STEVENS: Alexander, this was a party of big ideas.

 

HEFFNER: Let’s call a spade, a spade. You know, that that whole concept is dead on arrival now. So, you know, one thing that the current Republicans who were enabling Trump agree on is that, you know, they’re going to do everything to rat*&$# this election. I mean, that is a verb. You can look it up. It’s not the exploitative, right. Well, I think I’m allowed to say that on public television, I should know I’ve been doing this six years, but I don’t know rat$%#ing is the name of the game if you want to steal an election. And I’m wondering, given that you’ve run half dozen presidential campaigns or have been in a key advisory role, what are you watchful of if you’re Vice President Biden, or if you’re the Democrats, certainly you don’t want to be complacent, but you know that the opposition is capable of severe criminality and malfeasance in its pursuit to try to get Donald Trump reelected.

 

STEVENS: Well, I think where you begin is that nothing’s out of bounds. I mean we now know that the Russians helped Donald Trump. And once you’re down that rabbit hole and you allow that and you know, Mitt Romney is the only Republican who voted for impeachment. Listen, I think that this is all about nonwhite turnout. So Donald Trump won in 2016 with 46.1 percent. Mitt Romney lost in 2012 with 47.2. So on one level for all this industry of Trump voters, how did Trump win, one very basic level, he won because he ran a year in which a Republican could win with 46.1? Now, why was that possible? Increase in third party voting, but nonwhite voting, typically African-American voting declined for the first time in 20 years. So I, I think as continued policy of the party, and this goes back to really 1964 there, there will be no real serious attempt by the Trump campaign to attract new African American voters. Their goal is reduce nonwhite turnout as a percentage of the total electorate. That’s their only path to victory. So they’ll use different methods to do that. Some of these are efforts that are, you can argue about, like voter ID which I think makes sense if you think about it for five minutes and it’s problematic, if you think about it for 10 minutes and you’d be looking at the impact of it. You look at Florida, Florida could very well turn on whether or not felons will be able to vote. There’s 1.7 billion former felons in Florida. You look at Georgia.

 

HEFFNER: Thanks, Stuart, that those factors, those realities and voter suppression is capable nationwide of stymieing Biden to the point of not having a robust Electoral College victory. Or do you think that that’s possible.

 

STEVENS: Oh, I said, you know, I’m a veteran of the Bush campaign in 2000 were 500 votes were important. So I don’t take any of that for granted. I mean, in 2000, I think we won or lost seven states by total of 15,000 votes. So

 

HEFFNER: Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, though, there is a legitimate fear that he is going to attempt to suppress the vote, not only on Election Day, but in the days and weeks leading up to it and perhaps employ law enforcement to intimidate people.

 

STEVENS: Listen, I think what he’s done is if you take this guy, Chad Wolf, who’s Acting Secretary of Homeland Security. I mean this guy was a former low-level staffer. He was a lobbyist and sort of a small time lobbyist and what’s happened, the Trump administration has elevated a lot of mediocre people to positions of power who feel that the only way they can prove themselves is by willing to show that they will go to greater extremes than someone else; is very analogous to what happened in 1930s Germany. So, you know, I worked for Tom Ridge, the last Republican Governor to win two, get reelected in Pennsylvania. He started Homeland Security and you saw Governor Ridge came out and said that the purpose of Homeland Security is protect Americans, not to be a private militia for the president. So you have to realize that there as there was in the Nixon Administration and the campaign, a bunch of people that don’t really have an ethical standard. And one of the things that we’ve been learning over and over again during the Trump years is how much of our system depends on self-imposed limits, normalcy. And I think you have to assume that there’s going to be very little of that in the in the Trump Administration. So,

HEFFNER: But you know, do you think there is enough still constitutionality and norms, whether it’s the Supreme Court or state governors imposing their will to ensure that there is not that kind of intimidation at polling places, of course, some of us vote early, you don’t have confidence in that, at this juncture,

 

STEVENS: I have zero competence in that. So, you know, I tweeted this out the other day, I was thinking about it. So say it’s November 4th. Trump has lost not by, you know, overwhelming margin, but he’s lost, lost the Electoral College. And he declares that the election results are invalid. Bill Barr will back him up. So make a list of the Republicans in the U.S. Congress that will object to them. I get a pretty short list. I mean, I really do. And I think that’s very chilling. You know, my theory, if you take someone like Lindsey Graham, right, he was a, how did Lindsey Graham change. You know, you went from being this McCain guy to this Trump guy. My view about that is Lindsey Graham didn’t change. He just showed us who Lindsey Graham really was because I don’t think adults change like that. And the really, what’s happened with the Republican Party is it exists to elect Republicans. There is no other purpose to it. So organizations like this, we normally call like a cartel, a syndicate. So what is the purpose of OPEC? We don’t go around saying, what does the higher moral purpose of OPEC, it’s to sell oil, a narco cartel is to sell dope, Republican Party is to elect Republicans, there is no other purpose to it. So it is the pursuit of power to no purpose other than to be in power. So I don’t think that they’re going to wake up all of a sudden and feel that they have some bolts of conscience they have to act. I think that they, for the most part, these people have advocated their, their oath of office have shown that they’re small men and women who are fearful and won’t do what it takes to protect the country.

 

HEFFNER: Let me ask you this. Do you think Trump’s willingness to declare the results invalid is contingent upon it being a close electoral contest in that Biden does not exceed by more than 10 electoral votes to 70, or, or do you think that, that he could win with 352 electoral votes and it doesn’t matter and McConnell will legitimize his attempt to stay in power. That is the one thing I can’t say I’m hopeful of, but given that we’ve both observed in the immediate transition to the presidency on flag burning, on protests, some of the statements that came out via Twitter in the days after he was inaugurated, which suggested the authoritarian turn would be more instantaneous and it, and it wasn’t so instantaneous. I’m just wondering if you really think not withstanding, you know, your, basic thesis, that it could be a clear Electoral College victory and McConnell and Barr, maybe you can answer each separately will delegitimize the outcome with Trump, not just the Trump family.

STEVENS: Think of it like as embezzlement, if you’re embezzling a hundred dollars, it’s easier to get away with than if you’re embezzling a billion. So I think the margin does matter, but just passing the smell test. If you, if Trump, this is 1964 and Trump goes down like Goldwater. No, I don’t. I mean God knows what Trump will say. But it won’t matter. It won’t pass the smell test. If it’s 2000 or even 2016, then I think Trump will attempt to do so. It’s, I think degree here is important which is why I think it’s important and really critical, not only to beat Donald Trump, but to crush him. You know, it’s worth, we have to, we need unconditional surrender. You don’t want him in a position to be able to argue this.

 

HEFFNER: As a final line of inquiry steward, the Republicans famously had this audit obituary, this reevaluation autopsy, thank you, you know, better than anyone, that word, right, for 2016 and 2012 Obama’s reelection. And they decided to ignore really the core findings of the autopsy in terms of the alienation of the party from the nonwhite grievance constituency, which is now the majority of the U S electorate. So interestingly, you know, the Democrats did their own autopsies when it came to the Midwest, when it came to the disenfranchised, when it came to the disillusioned Obama crossover Trump voter, or even the Sanders Trump phenomenon, and maybe they’ve done that adequately, but they’ve done the opposite of what the Republicans did to shift from 2012 to 2016. And we know that the Republicans did the opposite of the autopsy, what the autopsy suggested they should do. And they won. It was a perfect storm, but they, but they got what they wanted. So by following the opposite direction and going with Joe Biden seems like at this juncture, the country is looking to restore its soul and go back to competence and scientific literacy and real care for human beings, which have been neglected during this God awful pandemic. Is that correct?

 

STEVENS: Well, listen. I think it’s very interesting to look at the autopsy. So Reince Priebus did I thought an almost courageous thing. You know, he it’s difficult for any organization to critique itself. He commissioned this, why is it Republicans have lost the popular vote every time except 2004 since 1988. So the answers were pretty obvious, but it’s good to state them, need to appeal to more nonwhite voters need to appeal to more younger voters, need to appeal to more women. So then Trump comes along and there’s almost like this audible sigh of relief within the party that we don’t have to pretend we care about these things. And then if you go back and you read the autopsy, it was presented not only as a political mandate, but as a moral necessity, that if you’re going to govern in this big, loud confusing country, you need to represent that more. So it was not just do we need this to win. So the phoniness of that was completely exposed with Trump and with oh God we can win, we don’t have to pretend that we care about these things.

 

HEFFNER: We have seconds left, but, but tell us in 10 seconds, if you think that the Democrats did the right thing in nominating Biden.

 

STEVENS: Absolutely, absolutely.

 

HEFFNER: Stuart Stevens, author of “It Was All A Lie.” I thank you so much for joining me today.

 

STEVENS: Thank you.

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