Former GOP chair Michael Steele on saving his party after Trump: "Terraform" it, or destroy it?

Onetime RNC head says GOP faces a moment of truth: "Is it the party of Lincoln, or is it the party of Trump?"

Published April 1, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Michael Steele, former RNC Chairman (Michael Schwartz/Getty Images)
Michael Steele, former RNC Chairman (Michael Schwartz/Getty Images)

Michael Steele is a man without a political party. True, Steele served as chair of the Republican National Committee from 2009 to 2011 and still considers himself a Republican. But as he discussed recently on "Salon Talks," unless things change, Steele and other more moderate Republicans grasp that they don't belong in this iteration of the GOP, which is increasingly embracing white nationalism and appears untroubled by the use of violence to achieve its political goals.

I asked Steele a simple question he's heard many times before: What is the future of the Republican Party? The MSNBC political analyst bluntly analogized the current GOP to a cancer patient. If the patient wants to get better and seeks treatment, that's one thing. But as Steele put it, today's GOP appears to be rejecting "treatment," and instead allowing the "cancer" of bigotry to metastasize throughout the party. 

The only course correction Steele sees happening will come after GOP suffers horrific political defeats. Then perhaps it will be reborn and led by Republicans like him, who still believe in the core conservative principles that attracted him as a young man to the party of Lincoln. He seemed deeply troubled, in our conversation, by his apparent powerlessness to prevent the party he still loves from slipping into white nationalism, conspiracy theory and flat-out grift, citing the ascent of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene as an obvious example. 

This should be of concern to all Americans. We only have two major political parties, and it impacts all of us, regardless of our political views, if one of these two parties fully morphs into a white nationalist movement that uses the type of violence we saw on Jan. 6 as a tactic to acquire and retain power. Watch my "Salon Talks" interview with the former RNC chair below or read the following transcript, lightly edited as usual for clarity and length.

Years ago, when you were RNC chair, if I asked you what the GOP stood for, you could tell me. I say this sincerely: From your point of view, what does today's Republican Party stand for?

Right now it stands for whatever Trump wants it to stand for. The party leadership has given itself over to a very small faction of the base, that sort of drives the overall narrative. When you look at it from a policy side, you see how we've walked away from long-term alliances, our friends and allies abroad. We've turned our enemies into our buddies and our buddies into our enemies. When you look at domestically what we've done on the economic front, a party that once stood for some level of fiscal balance and conservatism has now gone hog-wild.

That's kind of been the narrative for some time. This is nothing necessarily new with Donald Trump, in terms of government spending. We saw it under the Bush years, and of course the backdrop for that was terrorism and 9/11. In this instance, it's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. I like a good tax cut, but I prefer that tax cut be placed in the hands of people who actually need it, and can make the most of it, which of course is the middle class. We've walked away from the middle class. We beat our chest with great bravado about being out there for workers, but that's not necessarily our narrative.

The party right now is all over the map. It has no central moorings, no foundational idea. In fact, it has no platform that we can put out in front of the country and says, "This is what we philosophically orient toward. These are the things that matter and what we want to pursue." I think it makes it very difficult to engage the country around governing principles when you have not governed, and you have no principles that you can really put in front of them that don't sound like Donald Trump.

I can sense the rudderlessness of the party, as it goes from Dr. Seuss to immigration and back to cancel culture. In the past month we've seen things that perhaps, with different Republican leadership, would have led to a pushback. We saw Rep. Paul Gosar from Arizona as a keynote speaker at a white nationalist conference. We saw Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin tell us point blank that he was not worried about the Trump supporters who were carrying Confederate flags and other images of Nazis and white supremacy, and then Rep. Chip Roy from Texas waxed poetically about lynchings. He may or may not have said something inappropriately, that he didn't mean it that way, but we saw little pushback from the leadership of the GOP. There was a time when Paul Ryan would at least push back a little on Donald Trump. Now I don't hear it.

Even through the three examples that you gave, I wouldn't even mitigate against those. Those were consistent with what we've seen — the party's recent embrace of white nationalism, sort of this fake populism that's born out of the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon in the 1960s. Ken Mehlman when he was chairman, myself when I was chairman, declared that was an anathema to the party's basic philosophy and ideas. What we've been pushing has been pushed aside for an embrace of this. So having those members of Congress and senators go out and say these things, it's just an affirmation of that.

To your point about the broader response of the party leaders, no, they're not going to push back against that, because they don't want to get primaried. They don't want a nasty soundbite from Donald Trump, or a member of the Trump family or Lindsey Graham or somebody who's going to side against them. They don't want to see what happened to Liz Cheney and others who stood on principle and supported taking down the insurrectionist acts of certain members of our community and leaders in our party. They find themselves in this very uncomfortable space where you have a Marjorie Taylor Greene and you've got a Gosar. You've got others out there saying and doing things, and the leadership is feckless. They're inept. They have been emasculated in many ways because they are not willing to risk that leadership, nor are they willing to risk their elective position, to go against those who are undermining the very fabric of who we are as a country, because there's more value in grifting off of that, raising money.

You look at the moment Ron Johnson says this stuff, he goes out and plays the victim, and he sends out a fundraising letter. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the same thing. The party has become one big grift in many respects. That's unfortunate, because that's not who we are. But we've been in that space for 21 years now. This goes back to the 2000 election. You can almost pinpoint those transformative moments in the '80s and '90s, as well. So, there's a history here that is in many respects an ongoing march by the party, and it's going to end in a not so happy place. When it does, it will resolve itself, and out of that will be born a new effort, a new party or something different. We will terraform the party in such a way that we free ourselves of this ugliness and right ourselves, or we give into it completely.

I wonder what the legacy of Trump is going to be. Is it the idea that if you're a Republican you can say whatever pigheaded thing you want, because there's really no penalty in your party? In fact, it might make some in your base, the more extreme ones, send you money. You might get more Twitter followers. You might get booked on Fox News or Newsmax. It seems that's potentially the legacy that Trump left us. Do you agree with that, or was that there before Trump?

It was there before Trump, in many respects. Trump just knew how to animate it, to bring it to life, to make use of it. But, actually, I'll take it one step further. I think in order for us to get to a different level of discussion, I'm prepared to set Trump aside. I'm tired of talking about him. I'm tired of talking about the future of the party. You can talk about the future of a cancer patient. If that cancer patient, wants to have a future free of cancer, then all right. But if they give up and give in to the thing that is killing them, there's not much more you can do. There is no further conversation you can have.

In many respects, all of us, particularly those inside the party, have to wait and see how this plays itself out. It will define itself. It will tell you what it is or what it wants to be. Then, as Maya Angelou says, accept it. Don't try to fight against it. Don't try to change it, if it doesn't want to be changed. I am past the point in the discussion of trying to figure out the future. I don't have that crystal ball. The only thing I can do is wait and see what the leadership does, what the base does, such as it is, what actions Trump takes, how people respond to it, and to see exactly what this party is going to be. In the meantime, what I and many others will continue to do, is put in front of it those Lincoln ideals that drew me in as a 17-year-old kid, many years ago, to this principle, understanding that the words in our Constitution apply to everyone. As a party, what we conserve is that fight, that power, those rights. All the other stuff is just ancillary, whether you're pro-this or anti-that, whether you're up or down on this policy.

If you're not about the foundational idea — what we're seeing happening in the voting space, by states like Georgia and Arizona. where Republicans in those states are trying to disenfranchise people. That's antithetical to the very founding ideas and principles laid out in the Constitution, even though they were written by men who did not include me in that conversation at the time. Well guess what? I'm in it now, and dammit, you're not going to take me out of it, Republicans in Georgia and Arizona — that's the fight. I'm waiting to see how that plays out, because that will tell you whether or not this party is of a mind to move off this or they just embrace it and go deeper into it, in which case then we know what we've got in front of us.

There was a new Monmouth Poll last week that asked Americans if they think white nationalism is a problem in the United States. Sixty-four percent of all Americans said yes. That actual number was actually dragged down by Republicans, because only 38 percent of Republicans thought it was a problem. When you just put independents and Democrats, you're way over 70 percent of Americans who think it's a problem. Sixty-two percent of Republicans don't think white nationalism is a problem. Either they don't believe it exists — like Tucker Carlson, who calls it a hoax — or they're down with it, or whatever, they don't really care. Everything's fine with their life.

That's because a lot of them are white. A lot of them have embraced this, and look, the thread that's kind of driving this narrative is this decision that was made at some point in this evolution to just stick it to Democrats. If the Democrats are for something, they're going to be against it, because they want to stick it. They want to screw Democrats. They want to defeat Democrats. This, for me, kind of goes back to how our politics devolved into a red versus blue, us versus them, "They're our enemy," with Democrats going from being our opponents to being our enemies.

When you have that kind of transformation in the political dialogue, you've now gone to a level of ugliness. That kind of poll makes sense, in that regard, because a lot of that is this idea that, well, you're just pushing back on white folks, because you don't want to recognize how we've been disadvantaged. This whole mindset is just turned upside down and that's what makes this discussion that much harder, because we want to inject our political biases into the conversation. When you do that, you're going to see this kind of result. It's just reflective of how broken the politics have become.

I don't know how you get around that, other than to go through it. You just got to go through it, and the country has to state declaratively — and this could mean the end of the party, in one sense, that we don't want you governing anything until you get on the page with 70 to 80 percent of the American people, who see white nationalism as a problem. You send us Marjorie Taylor Greene as your nominee, guess what? You're not getting elected. I think that's the space we're kind of moving into now, which sets up 2022, as a particularly interesting battleground, I would say almost on par with 2020. Which was important for a whole lot of reasons That we know.

While 2020 was about the election of one man, 2022 is about the election of an idea, an ideology, because there are a lot of candidates carrying this particular water into those fights. How does the nation respond on a congressional level, on a statewide level, on a state legislative level, to candidates who espouse that white nationalism is OK, white people are victims, Black lives don't matter? In fact, Blacks shouldn't even be allowed to vote in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc., because we don't like the way they vote. To help make that point, we're going to pull back on the privilege, on the right to vote in these areas. So that's going to be an interesting narrative for the Republicans to defend, and an interesting one for the country to decide that they reject it or not.

I'm not as optimistic that white nationalism isn't a winning strategy, given the demographic change happening in this country. There might be more white people who don't admit it in polls.

I agree.

That's what concerns me, that the GOP is not going to fade away and die. It's going to grow. Polls have even showed some Republicans and numbers I've never believed to be true. There was an AEI poll, from the American Enterprise Institute, which is right wing, that showed 56 percent of Republicans said it's OK to use force to stop the decline of the traditional American way of life. Where are we going?

What is the "traditional American way of life"? See, that's what we need to peel back because the traditional way of American life is very different for me and you than it is for some white guy from Alabama, who is hearkening back to a time that, quite honestly, was not good for any Americans. This idea of, "We want to return to the way America used to be," well, when I hear that, what that says to me is what you want to return to segregation. You want to return to lynching. We've heard a member of Congress say, "Hey, that's OK, because that's how we enforce the rule of law." What are you saying when you hear that and when you say that? That's what we need to drill down on, because when you just ask that question generically, people have this red, white and blue, star-spangled kind of view of America. Well, America has never been that. It's an idea on a postcard, but it has never been the lived experience of Asians, African-Americans, Jews, lesbians and gays, etc., in this country.

If Donald Trump were criminally charged, prosecuted and went to jail before 2022, how do you think that impacts the midterm election? Because it could happen. In New York, he's being investigated. In Georgia, he's being investigated. We've heard they are looking into him on the federal level. Do you think it helps the GOP if Trump is in prison. Does he become this martyr?

I think anything that happens to Donald Trump, by the system, by the "deep state," sets him up to be a martyr and he'll make himself to be a martyr. Look, the man is out there trying to create his own social media platform. Let us not fool ourselves. There will be a bazillion people who will sign onto that platform. Let's not act surprised when it happens. Let's not start wringing our hands again because, like you've just said, there are a whole lot of people who line up with Donald Trump and are down with what he says and what he's done. How do we know that? Well, 7 million more of them voted for him in 2020 [than in 2016].

You can't sit back and pretend that somehow this is an aberration. It is not. It is part of the natural course of things, and so to your point about anything, legally or otherwise, that befalls Donald Trump: He will wear it like the best victim could ever wear it. He will milk it and make the most of it, and he will drive dollars and drive supporters and ultimately drive votes behind it.

Mitch McConnell is threatening scorched earth against Democrats if they end the filibuster. What do you think?

You better listen to McConnell.

You think he's being sincere?

Of course he is. I mean, he was sincere after they got control of the Senate and Merrick Garland's nomination came up. He warned Harry Reid that's what he was going to do. He made it very clear. "I'm all about the judiciary, and I'm going to do everything I can to reshape it for conservatives and undermine it for Democrats." Now he's just broadened the warning. He's saying, not only is it not just the judiciary, it's going to be everything else.

That's not to say, however, that Democrats don't have a strategy they can employ, and that they should cower in the corner and fear the man who presumably should have no power, but  does. They can still go in and play the game in a way that — look, pick and choose your battles. You don't have to eliminate the filibuster, period. You can just eliminate it on certain votes.

Stacey Abrams has talked about an exception for voting rights or civil rights.

Yeah, exactly. So, there's a way to do it, and then use that to pivot off to build the narrative for why you need to have more than 50 votes in the Senate in 2022. Give us a Senate that will support the policies that 70 percent of the American people want. We're not the party saying no. We're not the party saying, "You can't recover from COVID." We're not the party saying, "You can't have shovel-ready jobs in your community." We're the party that's trying to work with workers in unions, so America can rebuild itself. We're not the party standing in the way of those things. So give us the Senate that will allow this president to do the things that clearly you like him doing, Republicans, independents and Democrats out there across the country. Make the case.

When you talk to Republicans who are not Trumpists, where do you see yourselves in the future? Do you have a decent chance of fighting and changing this party and pulling it back?

It's a good question. It's one that a lot of us are grappling with. There are a lot of conversations being had in that regard. You fight the battle in front of you. Can't fight the one that's behind, that's done. We either won or lost. In some cases, we won, and in others we lost and we lost big. Right now the battle in front of us is over what this party will be. Is it the party of Lincoln, or is it the party of Trump? For me, it's a very straightforward question to ask. I'd like it to be the party of Lincoln. But if others prevail, and say, "No, we want Trump and Trumpism," then guess what? Brother picks up his bag and moves on. Look, you can only stay so long in a place you're not wanted.

At the end of the day, they've made it very clear. There is no going back to Lincoln-style philosophies and policies that are oriented around the freedom of individuals, and the rights of citizens. Instead it's sort of this hodgepodge of whatever Donald Trump feels on the day he wakes up. So, OK, that's the choice you've made as a party. It will fracture. It will break. It will re-shatter and reform, or shatter and reform into something else, and the rest of us will move on. Some have already moved on. I may have told you, well over a year ago, that I look at it as someone coming into my house and breaking my furniture, writing on my walls, and threatening my family. So, do I leave or do I stay? I stay as long as I can, and to the extent that they get the upper hand, OK, I collect my family and I go.

In a nation where we only have two major parties, all of us have to be concerned about where the GOP is going because it impacts our entire nation. If it becomes truly a white nationalist party embracing violence going forward, that affects all of us.

Yeah, it does. And I think an important thing about that, Dean, is the fact that more and more Americans are now open to the idea of expanding and broadening the opportunities for the creation of more than two parties. I think more and more Americans need to embrace that. I have advocated that since I was a county chairman. Why? Because I love the idea of competition. It gives you a chance to hone your thinking and reasoning skills around the philosophy that you articulate for, and it gives you a chance to declaratively say, "This is what we stand for. This is what we believe." When you can no longer do that with the embrace of the American people, then it's time for the American people to look at other alternatives, and those alternatives are there. Now it's just a matter of how they take shape and form.

There are Republicans who are actively pursuing those alternatives. I've been in those conversations and will remain in those conversations. There are Republicans who are also actively trying to do what I call terraforming the current party. That is tearing up this old dirt, that has grown incapable of bearing good fruit, and laying down some new seeds. If we are unsuccessful in that, then we will have someplace else to go. There is a lot of traction and traffic going on right now in this space, and I think that's a good thing for the country in the long run.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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