Stuart Stevens spent four decades helping Republicans—a lot of Republicans—win. He's one of the most successful political operatives of his generation, crafting ads and devising strategies for President George W. Bush, Republican presidential nominees Mitt Romney and Bob Dole, and dozens of GOP governors, senators and congressmen. He didn't win every race, but he thinks he had the best won-lost record in Republican campaign world.
And now he feels terrible about it.
Stevens now believes the Republican Party is, not to put too fine a point on it, a malign force jeopardizing the survival of American democracy. He's written a searing apologia of a book called It Was All a Lie [How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump] that compares his lifelong party to the Mafia, to Bernie Madoff's fraud scheme, to the segregationist movement, even to the Nazis. He's pretty disillusioned.
While Stevens is one of the most prominent "Never Trump" Republicans, and It Was All a Lie is predictably scathing about the failures of President Donald Trump, the book does not blame Trump for the failures of the party he leads. It essentially takes for granted that Trump is as bad a president and a human being as his worst Democratic critics say—and that he constantly violates supposedly bedrock Republican commitments to free trade, family values, limited government and the Constitution. His point is that Trump is a fitting representative of the modern GOP.
It Was All a Lie is really about the party that spawned Trump and now marches in near-lockstep behind him—the party to which 67-year-old Stevens has devoted his career. The GOP's abject surrender to its unorthodox and unconservative leader was a surprise to Stevens, but he has concluded that he shouldn't have been surprised. ...
Politico Magazine senior writer Michael Grunwald first met Stevens 25 years ago ... Grunwald talked with Stevens last week about the evolution of the Republican Party, its "conspiracy of cowardice" under Trump ... and his fears for the 2020 election, which he expects Trump to try to steal. ...
Michael Grunwald: You've written a really provocative book.
Stuart Stevens: I told a friend: It's depressing, but it's short. He said: Yeah, so are suicide notes. ...
Grunwald: You're brutal when you talk about the Republican Party right now. You compare it to Bernie Madoff, to the Mafia, you even have a bunch of Nazi Germany comparisons. What's been the reaction of the people you used to work with?
Stevens: I really don't talk to most of those people. Look, I wanted to be careful not to make the book a bill of indictment against individuals, because that's a cop-out. ... Look, these people know who they are. They all know Donald Trump shouldn't be president. They all know something wrong has happened in the party. For the most part, they're just quiet about it. You won't hear them defend Trump except as a necessary evil. You know, it really struck me when I read the memoir by [the late German Chancellor] Franz von Papen, it's exactly the same message you hear today. In 1953, he was still trying to justify Hitler: "You have to understand, the Bolsheviks were a threat, we had to counter them." Of all the books I read to write my book, the Franz von Papen thing haunts me the most. It's not to say that what happened in Germany is going to happen here. But the idea that you can't talk about that—well, I think you have to talk about that. The parallel is so striking.
Grunwald: That's pretty harsh. What's the specific parallel you're talking about?
Stevens: You have good people letting evil happen. For the most part, these Republicans aren't bad people. If you moved in next door, they'd be a great neighbor. But that was true of a lot of segregationists I knew growing up in Mississippi. They wouldn't have used a racial slur for a million dollars, but they wouldn't stand up—"Oh, we need to be slow about change." And what is Germany but a story of people who faced a moral moment and failed? ... All these Republicans who know Donald Trump is a disaster will try to justify it, because they got something they wanted. Mitch McConnell thinks Trump will be remembered as his fool, and I think the odds are pretty good it's going to be the other way around. Republicans always say that you can't negotiate with terrorists; well, Donald Trump is a terrorist, and the Republican Party decided to negotiate with him. How has that worked out? He's destroyed conservatism. He's the most anti-conservative president of my lifetime. ...
Why does the Republican Party exist today? It exists to beat Democrats. That's not a political party. That's a cartel. Why do bowling clubs exist? Because you like to go bowling. Fine. Just don't kid yourself that you're joining anything to do with principle or purpose. And I don't think you can undo this stuff. What happened to the party in 1964 with African Americans? You went from 40 percent with Eisenhower to 7 percent with Goldwater and they never came back. Is this going to happen with Hispanics? Goldwater wasn't out attacking black people; he just wasn't for the civil rights bill. I wouldn't call him a bigot. Trump is out there attacking Hispanics. Why did Republicans used to get 70 percent of Asian Americans, now we lose 70 percent? It wasn't even like we were out attacking Asian-Americans, at least until recently, when Trump had a list of people he hadn't attacked and he finally got to the Chinese. But they got the message that if you weren't white, you weren't welcome in the party. How does the party allow that to happen? How does the party that's supposed to be for family values stand by while the president, the head of the Republican Party, wishes a woman well who's just been arrested for being at the center of an international child rape ring? It's like a "Saturday Night Live" skit: What would it take for Republicans to support a moderate Democrat. What if the Republican candidate was a child molester? Nope! Not a problem! We'll vote for Roy Moore. ...
Right now, are there Republicans out there willing to lose an election to fight for what Republicans say we believe in? Not very many. What conclusion do you come to other than that you never believed this stuff?
Grunwald: OK, let's say Bush defending Muslims is a good example of decency and leadership and principles. But you mentioned that a core Republican principle was fiscal sanity. Even during your career, long before Trump, when has the Republican Party stood for fiscal sanity? It's blown up the deficit every time it's taken power.
Stevens: You're right! In 1994, after Bill Clinton raised taxes, I and every other Republican consultant made a million ads about how this would lead to the Dust Bowl. Instead, it led to the greatest period of economic expansion in American history. He was the last president to wrestle the deficit to a standstill.
Grunwald: Obama cut the deficit, too.
Stevens: It's true. The deficit has gone down much more under Democrats than Republicans. That's a fact. You can't argue with that. It's a perfect example of how Republicans never believed what they were saying. If you asked them to take a lie detector test, do you believe in lower deficits, they'd say yes and pass. But they were never willing to do anything to back it up. ...
Grunwald: [L]et me name a few Republicans who aren't standing up to Trump. Chuck Grassley. Roy Blunt. Rob Portman. John Cornyn.
Stevens: I worked for all those guys.
Grunwald: I know. You presumably didn't work for them because you thought they were hypocrites. What happened?
Stevens: I'm not going to get into criticizing each of these. But let me just say: I never would have believed what's happening now would happen. I never would've believed that John Cornyn, serious Texas Supreme Court jurist, reluctant politician, would be tweeting complaints about how nine out of 10 new Texans are Hispanic. I don't understand it. I don't understand how we could have the worst economy in the history of America, more Americans have died from a disease in the last four months than have ever died of anything in America, and John Cornyn is in a hearing asking questions about Hillary Clinton's emails. I don't get it.
Grunwald: You spent time with these guys.
Stevens: Listen, dude. So much time. I really don't understand it, but I'll never wonder again how 1938 happened in Germany. The cowardice is contagious. I think there's a sort of conspiracy of cowardice—when everyone's a coward, you don't feel like a coward. That's why these Republicans resent Mitt Romney. He reminds them that they don't have to be cowards, and it makes them feel bad. ...
Grunwald: If Trump loses, are Republicans going to be like: Donald who? Never knew the guy…
Stevens: I don't think so. History says that when a major political party endorses hate, and that's what Trumpism is, that's very hard to undo. It takes a lot of time and sometimes a lot of blood to undo; I hope it doesn't take a lot of blood. It's odd, because the successful and wildly popular Republicans right now are the governors—Baker, Hogan, Scott. If Republicans could win their states in a presidential race, it's over. Shouldn't the party say: What can we learn from them? They're selling our product in the hardest markets, and they're selling the hell out of it. But they're treated with benign neglect. That just says it all about where the party is. You don't undo this stuff. Look at Nikki Haley, a once-serious person, trying to negotiate with this, like she's going to be the good segregationist. You can't do it. You just can't do it. ...
Who are the intellectual leaders of the Republican Party? People like Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity. Laura and Tucker are smart people who are saying stupid things because it's good for their careers, and because they have some sort of strange emotional issues they're working through publicly. They're both angry people. Hannity is just a guy who never graduated from college having the time of his life. But they're the intellectual leaders of the party. That's one of the reasons I felt it was so important to track William Buckley in the book. Now, there's this lost sense of intellectual seriousness that Buckley personified. And that's true. But Buckley also started as a stone-cold segregationist.
Grunwald: Sure, but it wasn't like you didn't know about Buckley's history. I guess you just thought it wasn't the important part of Republican history.
Stevens: I thought the evolution Buckley went through was almost a biological evolution that any intelligent person would go through. I thought you would have to come to grips with the reality that racism was a flawed conceit. I thought that was inevitable. I wouldn't have thought it possible that a president in 2020 would be defending Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag, or that his chief of staff John Kelly would be arguing that slavery wasn't the cause of Civil War. I would've thought it was no more likely than that we'd be having a debate about gravity. I was wrong.
Grunwald: I'm a climate obsessive, so from my perspective I've been covering a debate about gravity for 15 years, and almost every Republican has been on the wrong side of it. So why wouldn't they be on the wrong side of other gravity-type debates?
Stevens: My response to that is: I was wrong and you were right. And now, the same tendencies that led to denying climate change has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans from a virus. There's no other way to look at it.
Grunwald: Obama said after his election that maybe now the fever will break, which was obviously wrong. You don't think that if the Democrats win big, the fever will break?
Stevens: No. I think Trump and the Republican Party have officially validated hate as an acceptable response to politics. Just as if we elected a bank robber president, bank robbery will become more socially acceptable, the same thing has happened here. That won't change. What's going to change is they're going to lose. We don't know how long it will take before they lose. Maybe they'll hang on longer than we expect. But the majority of Americans under 15 are nonwhite. The odds are damn good that when they turn 18 they'll still be nonwhite. That's a death sentence for the Republican Party. We know what's going to happen: Look at California. It was the beating heart of the Republican Party, and now not much happens there that the Republican Party is involved in.
Grunwald: If this white grievance party sees power slipping away, what happens? You said earlier you hope it won't be bloody.
Stevens: I think we're in the most dangerous period for American democracy since the Civil War. I ask this question in all seriousness: What could you tell Donald Trump that X bad thing will happen to America but you'll win, where he would say no? I can't think of anything. If you told Trump that Putin will control America, but you'll get to stay president, he'd say what's the catch? And you can't come up with a handful of Republicans who would stand up to him. ...
Look, in July, Trump was already talking about suspending the elections. What do you think he's going to do in October? Tell me what's wrong with this scenario: It's November 1, he's losing, there are reports of voter irregularities in Florida, like there always are, and he sends those guys in camouflage into Miami-Dade County to seize the ballot boxes. Who's going to stop him? The county security guards? They're not going to phone ahead. What are the courts going to do? Order another election? Throw out Dade County? I don't know. Who would object? [Attorney General William] Barr would go right along with it. The inability to imagine Trump has always been his greatest advantage. Normal people expect people who are acting abnormally to revert to normality. Trump understands that and he's not a normal person. With the United States government, you've given Tony Soprano the paving contract and you're acting shocked that he doesn't seem interested in getting the road paved.
Grunwald: Maybe it's unrealistic to expect normal Republican politicians to act any differently than they've been acting. Maybe courage would be the abnormal approach.
Stevens: Can you tell me these people care about America? About patriotism? I know they don't. If these Republicans were in charge in 1775, do you think there would've been a revolution? Not in a million years! They would say: What, we're going to fight the king? Are you crazy? The people afraid of a Donald Trump tweet would've been afraid of the king. It's pretty obvious. But I don't think we've ever seen anything like what we're seeing right now. It's always hard when you're in the middle of something to realize it's extraordinary.
Wednesday, August 19, 2020
Stuart Stevens, Republican Political Operative For 40+ Years:
"We're In The Most Dangerous Period For American Democracy Since The Civil War. ... Republicans Always Say That You Can't Negotiate With Terrorists; Well, Donald Trump Is A Terrorist, And The Republican Party Decided To Negotiate With Him. … I'll Never Wonder Again How 1938 Happened In Germany."
Michael Grunwald, Politico, August 19, 2020: