Longtime GOP consultant: This election "is the most dangerous period since the Civil War"

NeverTrumper Stuart Stevens on how the party he helped build became a crime cartel ruled by a failed casino owner

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 31, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Stuart Stevens (Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)
Stuart Stevens (Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

In response to the civil rights movement and Black America's embrace of the Democratic Party, the Republican Party chose to make racism the centerpiece of their electoral strategy.

From the "Southern strategy" and Richard Nixon's summoning of "law and order" to Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens" and appeals to "states' rights", Willie Horton, the Tea Party and "birtherism" — and now to Donald Trump's naked racial authoritarianism — racism and white supremacy have paid electoral dividends for the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

But this devil's bargain rests upon a very slippery foundation: as the country's racial demographics change from an absolute white majority toward one where white people are "just" a plurality as compared to Black and brown people, the Republican Party's power as a de facto "whites only" party is imperiled.

Instead of responding to these changes by offering ideas and policies that would make the Republican Party more attractive to nonwhite (and other) voters, its leaders have chosen to embrace overt white supremacy in a desperate effort to make sure that white people (specifically white right-wing Christians) remain in control of every aspect of America's social, political and economic life. In that way, Donald Trump and his white supremacist regime are both the apotheosis of the Republican Party's full-on embrace of white supremacy and racial animus and also, perhaps, the source of the party's ultimate self-destruction.

For three decades, Stuart Stevens has worked as a strategist and consultant for the Republican Party at the highest levels including with the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and John McCain. Stevens' essays and other writing have appeared in leading publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Daily Beast and Esquire. His new book is, "It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump."

Stevens now serves as a senior advisor to the Lincoln Project, a political advocacy group founded by "Never Trumpers" and former Republicans who are committed to defeating Donald Trump and his movement.

In this conversation, Stevens explains how the Republican Party became swallowed by Trumpism and the central role of racism and white supremacy in that union. He also explains how white supremacy and racism have made the Republican Party increasingly obsolete — and how, as the country continues to change demographically, this version of the Republican Party will die as a more inclusive era of center-left government wins power.

In addition, Stevens reflects on his career as a political strategist and demystifies the many claims that the Republican Party is somehow especially successful at politics, compared to the Democratic Party. He warns that Donald Trump and this version of the Republican Party are traitors who lack core principles and will use any means available, legal and illegal, to steal or subvert the 2020 presidential election and remain in power.

You can also listen to my conversation with Stuart Stevens on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling right now?

Watching the Republican Party is like watching your friend drink himself to death. The Republican Party has legitimized hate. History tells us that once such forces are unleashed, that is very difficult to undo. That hatred is not going to be even partially defeated until Donald Trump is defeated. The whole situation is very sad

It is difficult when you are in the middle of any moment, of course, to realize the consequences of that specific moment. But I think the Republican Party and Donald Trump are unlike anything in the country's recent history. The only thing I can liken it to is the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union. A major political force has become so disconnected that it just collapsed under its own weight. Chernobyl is basically a more benign version of the Republican Party.  

When one is in the middle of a world-historical moment, a time when great forces and changes are at work, it's often hard to make sense of it all. We cannot see the boundaries of the event to gain proper perspective.

What led me to write this book was a question: How did we get here? I was in the middle of how this all happened with the Republican Party and Donald Trump. I helped elect Republicans in over half the country. I worked on five Republican presidential campaigns.

In 2016, many people were wrong about Trump — but it's hard to find anybody who was more wrong than me. I said he wasn't going to win the primary. I said he wasn't going to win the general election. In retrospect, I just didn't want to believe it was possible. I didn't want to believe that the political party that I'd worked in and helped build would go along with a guy who was a failed casino owner who talked in public about having sex with his daughter. It just seemed kind of impossible.

Then, once Trump won, the Republican Party just completely collapsed and supported him. I went through a period of denial, telling myself that this was not really the Republican Party. But I could not sustain that denial. The Republican Party is now the party that endorsed Roy Moore and attacks John Bolton. Those are just facts. You have to embrace the facts and then ask yourself, what does it mean?  

The Republican Party's embrace of white supremacy is not a surprise to outside observers who study American politics, especially questions related to the color line, social movements, public opinion and related topics. The obvious example is the "Southern strategy" that mixed coded racial appeals with overt racism. You were a Republican insider. How did you make sense of that embrace of racism? For example, Reagan going to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to give a speech on "states' rights" in 1980?

I went to work for [George W.] Bush in April of 1999. You can make a good case that conservatism was a victim of its own success. The Cold War was over. We won. Crime, a classic conservative issue of the last 25 years, was going down. Taxes were way down. For the first time in a very long time, the deficit had been wrestled to a standstill by Bill Clinton, with help from Republicans to some degree.

To his credit, Gov. George W. Bush started asking questions: What does it mean to be conservative today and looking forward to a new century? That led him to "compassionate conservatism."

I believe in hindsight that one can make a good argument that the potential for the Republican Party to remain the country's dominant center-right party ended with Sept. 11. That horrible event unleashed the Republican Party's dark side. If you go back to McCarthy and Eisenhower, it was always there, but a lot of us chose to believe that we were on the side of inevitability. The Republican Party would have to become more inclusive because if it did not then it would eventually die.

I'm a seventh-generation Mississippian, and I spent a lot of time thinking about Ronald Reagan going to Philadelphia, Mississippi. Mississippi was a swing state then. People forget that Carter carried Mississippi. I believe that going to Mississippi was not motivated by racial animus. Speaking at the Neshoba County Fair is a political ritual.

For a long time, I defended Reagan on going there. But when I go back and I read the speech that he delivered there it was very problematic. You can almost walk from the Neshoba County Fair to the dam where the bodies of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were buried by their murderers. For Reagan to not speak to that tragedy was highly regrettable. For Reagan to talk about "states' rights" and all of the history which comes with that language was also highly regrettable.

Even those of us who want to defend Ronald Reagan — and I'll defend Ronald Reagan on many fronts — should be able to see that there was a darker side to the Republican Party and his presidency as it relates to race. For example, see the "welfare queens" narrative. That was also a narrative furthered by Bill Clinton as well, with him promising to end "welfare as we know it." But I did not help to build the Democratic Party. I have to take responsibility for my role in the Republican Party.

What do Republicans understand about politics that the Democrats do not? The Republican Party has been very successful in controlling state governments, Congress and the presidency, and setting the national agenda, despite their positions being so unpopular with most Americans.

I have to push back a little on the premise. The Republican Party has only won the popular vote once since 1988. I worked on the 2004 campaign and one of the qualities about the Bush campaign culture was that we were not arrogant. We always considered ourselves lucky. We never thought we cracked the code. In that way we were very different from Trump's people.

How come Republicans are supposedly so good at politics if we cannot win the popular vote? I hear that a lot relative to the Lincoln Project where people will say to me, "Why can't the Democrats do the stuff you guys are doing now?" First, the Democrats are doing some really good work right now. The convention is an example. It's an astonishing achievement. I have worked on several conventions and putting together a successful event for four nights when everybody knows what's already going to happen is very difficult. The Democratic National Convention is a brilliant achievement that is going to be studied in the future. The Democrats really reinvented the format.

I liken the Republican Party to the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007. How it's going to end is more obvious than how long it will take. The future of the Republican Party is pretty clear. It's California. California was the beating heart of the Republican Party. It was the electoral citadel, and now we're in third place. Not second — third. That's what's going to happen to the Republican Party. It's inevitable.

Half the Americans 15 years old and under are non-white. It is the end of the Republican Party. It is just a question of how long that outcome will it take. Ronald Reagan won something like 44 states in 1980 with 55% of the white vote. In 2008, John McCain loses the election with 55% of the white vote.  

The Republican Party, to its credit, examined its losing propositions in terms of demography with the so-called autopsy report of 2012. It was a political necessity but also a moral one too. How will the Republicans be able to govern an increasingly diverse country? How can the party better represent the American people as the country's demographics shift?

Donald Trump comes along, and the lessons of 2012 and that report are just thrown out the window. It was almost like an audible sigh of relief for the Republican Party, something akin to, "Thank God, we don't have to pretend we care about this stuff. We can win with white people." That shows you how phony the Republican Party's introspections about winning over a more diverse America really were.

Republicans have lost Black voters for decades. They are now in the process of losing Hispanics because Trump is attacking them. The Republican Party has lost Asian-American voters too.

There is this narrative about Trump winning the "working class." In reality, Donald Trump did not win the working class. He lost it, if you consider the working class those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. Trump actually won the white working class. There is this narrative that Barack Obama did great with younger voters. However, Mitt Romney won under-30 voters — if they were white. They say there is this "gender gap." Not really. Republicans generally win white women overall, and that has been true overall until Trump.

The Republican Party is obsolescent. It is a white identity, "whites only" political party. How does that impact the party's political strategy?

They'll just lose. What'll happen? What's happening in California. Losing means that as a political party you are really not relevant in any major public policy decisions.

I believe that we are in for a period of center-left government for a good while. Eventually it will go too far, and then some coherent, moral center-right argument backed by policy will develop. At present, I do not know anyone on the right who can articulate a credible theory of conservative government.

I worked for more than 30 years at the highest levels in the Republican Party and even I cannot tell you what being a conservative means right now. Right now, all the Republican Party cares about is power. The Republican Party exists to elect Republicans. That's it. In that way, it is like a cartel. There is no higher moral good. All they exist to do is beat Democrats.

To that end, today's Republicans are against multiracial democracy and will do anything to stay in control by asserting white power over an increasingly diverse country. It is racial authoritarianism.

The current Republican Party has shown all the people who argued against us to be correct. They were right. That is the reality.   

For example, the president of United States, at the White House, actually wished a woman well who was just arrested at the center of an international child-rape ring. In response, the Republicans, for the most part, did nothing. Republicans complain to us at the Lincoln Project, "Why do you guys want to burn the Republican Party down?" We didn't burn it down. We didn't walk away. It was today's Republican leaders who did. If you can't object to the head of your party and the president of the United States supporting a woman who was arrested in an international child-rape ring, then what is your existence as a public figure about? That is why we at the Lincoln Project are trying to beat Trump and elect Joe Biden.

Why have Republicans so quickly surrendered to Trump and his neofascism and authoritarianism? Are they cowards? Or is it that Trump is advancing the goals of the Republican Party, and how he does it is irrelevant to them?  

These people are the heirs to the "Greatest Generation," right? Courage is not standing up to Donald Trump. Courage is getting out of the boat when the guy in front of you just got shot. My dad spent three years fighting in the South Pacific, he made 28 island landings. His brother, my uncle, was grievously wounded, machine-gunned in Europe and he never really recovered. They are just like the many hundreds of thousands of Americans, men and women, who served during that war. That is the legacy the Republican Party was handed, and the party's leaders have now just completely shamed it.

I say this in all sincerity: Can anybody make a credible case that if these Republicans had been around in 1776, that we would not be celebrating the Queen's birthday today? These Republicans are not going to stand up to Donald Trump. Would today's Republicans have fought against the king of England and the most powerful army in the world? Are you insane? Maybe we should not be surprised by their cowardice. Maybe we should instead remember just how unusual courage is.

The Senate just released a report showing that Trump and his inner circle actively colluded, if not conspired, with Vladimir Putin and his agents to steal the 2020 presidential election. Those efforts are ongoing. Trump and his inner circle are de facto traitors to the United States. How do Republicans reconcile their support of him with their loud claims to be so "patriotic"?

Power for power's sake. That's exactly what it is. It's not complicated. It's not new. It's not novel. It's not elegant. It's just power. In 1938, in Germany, that was true too. With Trump and this Republican Party, it is not going to end up the same way because America is not Germany in that era. But it is the same good people allowing bad things to happen because they believe it's good for them. That is where America is right now.

Why has it taken so long for the chattering class and the American people as a group to wake up to the fact that Trump is a fascist and an authoritarian, and that he and his movement are a threat to the United States?

Donald Trump has always benefited from the inability to imagine Donald Trump. During the primaries there were 16 candidates who spent most of the time attacking each other because all they thought they needed to do to win was be one-on-one with Donald Trump. They believed that the Republican Party was not going to nominate a failed casino owner who talked in public about having sex with his daughter. It was like, are you kidding me? It's not going to happen. But it did.

Normal people believe that when we see someone acting abnormally, they will eventually revert to normality. They'll come to their senses. That is a great weapon and tool that Donald Trump has used because he is not a normal person. He senses weakness. Trump saw that the Republican Party was full of weak people and he could just come on in and take over.

Donald Trump also understood that racial animus was a root, unifying principle of the Republican Party. That meant that he could just walk on in and say things that other people would not. Want a Muslim ban? He's 100% for it. Trump gave Republican voters a raw, unfiltered version of what they really want. Donald Trump is a national emergency. I do not understand how you can call yourself a patriotic American and support someone who was elected with the help of the Russians. I've seen a lot of things during my time working on campaigns, but — man, I never woke up and worked on the same side as the Russians. Today's Republicans do.

There has been this premature celebration by many Democrats that Trump's defeat seems inevitable, given Biden's lead in the polls. It is way too early to celebrate. There is also the issue of Trump finding some way to cancel the elections or somehow declare a state of emergency. Of course, there are all active efforts to ensure that the vote is not free and fair. Trump's defeat is very much in doubt. Am I being too worried?

In 1976, campaign finance reform became law. One of its elements was that each presidential nominee got the same amount of money. That cleaned up the money issue, but it also leveled the playing field. Under that system, Carter lost, Bush lost. Obama blew up that system, which I think is one of his more unfortunate legacies. He ended up winning twice, of course.

It is a reasonable question to ask: When was the last time when you had an incumbent not in the federal funding system and a challenger not in the federal funding system, when an incumbent lost? That was Herbert Hoover in 1932 — and he had a very bad year.

Should Trump win? Of course he should win. Will he win? I hope not. I wake up every day to fight against that outcome. In terms of the law and Trump delaying the election or doing other things? He is not going to ask permission. He will just do it. I have challenged Republicans with the following scenario. I have not found one who can sensibly respond.

In November there are reports of voting irregularities in Dade County, Florida. There usually are. They usually do not mean anything. Donald Trump orders Chad Wolf to send those camo-wearing paramilitaries who were deployed in D.C. and Portland into the Dade County Courthouse and they seize the boxes of votes. The courts go crazy. They order the boxes returned. But let's say some of those boxes are opened. Now there is a problem with the chain of custody.

What happens then? Are the votes in Dade County thrown out? How do you have a national election without Dade County? Who would stop this? Security guards at the Dade County courthouse aren't going to stop guys in camouflage with automatic weapons. Trump would give those orders to seize the boxes and interfere with the 2020 election. Trump is testing whether the Republicans will stand up to him. Bill Barr won't stop him. That is for sure.

Moreover, why do all these people around Donald Trump keep getting arrested? It is because they are crooks. It's not as if they didn't want to work in presidential politics before. It was just that no one would hire them. The campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, the foreign policy adviser, the national security adviser, the chief political adviser — all those guys are felons. Now Steve Bannon's been arrested, and he'll probably be a felon too. Donald Trump is a wannabe gangster. Gangsters hire other gangsters.

Here is my scenario. Trump, the Republicans and their media machine keep making up lies about the Democrats and voter fraud, obviously creating a pretext for calling into doubt the credibility of the election. In reality, the people who have been caught rigging votes are Republicans. If I were a Republican operative, I would just mail in tens of thousands of fake ballots myself. That way Trump and his agents can declare an emergency on Election Day that they themselves created.

Much of civil society is based on mutual agreement of right and wrong. At every red light there is not a police officer who is going to shoot you if you run through the light. People stop anyway. Donald Trump does not respect those norms. Donald Trump is someone who has actively worked with Russians, and will still do so. I am very comfortable calling Trump a traitor. I don't know what else you would call him. So yes, Donald Trump would do just what you suggested.

The 2020 election is the most dangerous period in American history since the Civil War. I know many of the people around Trump. They're not going to stand up to him. They're not going to wake up in the morning and say, "I want to go do this illegal act." But when someone tells them to commit a crime they are not going to say no. That is why Trump picked them.

Who is running the Trump campaign? Some guy that is sleeping with the boss's daughter. What else do you need to know? That's how it is.

If we presume that Trump is defeated on Election Day, what does he do next? He has several months to create mayhem and disaster.

What will stop him is fear of prison. Why has the postmaster general kind of backtracked? He does not want to go to jail. He's willing to do a lot of stuff for Trump, but he didn't want to go to jail. The postmaster perhaps stopping his interference with the mail and the 2020 election has got nothing to do with patriotism or anything else. He's just worried about going to jail. That fear is what would stop Trump. If I had to make a prediction, I think Bannon will be the ultimate rat, to use Trump's own language, unless Trump pardons him.                                           

What do you want the American people to understand about today's Republican Party and its leaders? What would you tell them?

The Republican Party right now is anti-American. If America is anything, it's a nation of immigrants, and they're an anti-immigrant party. If America is anything, it's supporting the Bill of Rights. Today's Republicans are against many parts of the Bill of Rights. Trump does not believe in freedom of the press. Trump does not believe in freedom of assembly. Trump and today's Republican Party are anti-American.

In the 1930s, there was a huge fascist element in America. Why did America not fall to fascism like Italy and Germany and other European countries? Probably because Roosevelt was president and not Charles Lindbergh. One of the critical lessons I take away from Donald Trump's presidency is that leaders matter.

This entire election is about one thing: the nonwhite vote. Trump got elected in many ways for one simple reason: he ran in a year in which you could win with 46.1% of the nonwhite vote. Romney lost with 47.2. Why did Trump win with that percentage? Because third-party voting increased and for the first time in 20 years the nonwhite vote went down. If you overlay 2012, 2008 and 2004 turnout, Trump loses if he ran in any of those years.

Republicans are trying to suppress nonwhite votes in every way they can, be it legal or illegal. They want to suppress the nonwhite vote and maximize the white vote. That is all. Donald Trump is a white-grievance president. That may not be all of what Trump represents, but it is a great deal of it.

If a historian or political scientist asked you to write the epitaph of this version of the Republican Party, what would it be?

The Republican Party was killed by a changing America. It became a white party and there were not enough white people.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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