Former GOP strategist Rick Wilson on Putin's deep appeal to "dictator-friendly" Republicans

On Salon Talks, Rick Wilson breaks down the stakes of the "MAGA crazy" midterms and 2024, and what Dems need to win

Published February 25, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"Vladimir Putin has this deep appeal to the modern Republican Party because he believes in power, he believes in wealth, he believes in control," former GOP strategist Rick Wilson warned recently in a conversation with me on "Salon Talks." Wilson added bluntly, the GOP "have become very friendly to dictatorship, to authoritarianism…people like Putin." 

Wilson is no longer a Republican himself, but knows them from the inside and out — from their strengths to their dark, undemocratic desires. After all, he was one of the top political consultants building the party from behind the scenes for decades. Wilson, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, candidly described today's GOP as "an authoritarian, dictator-friendly party that has abandoned all of its ideological predicates except pure power, and these small-D democratic values." And he was just getting warmed up. Wilson added, "What the Republicans are doing, they're racing to make 2024 the very last election we ever have in this country…I don't want to seem like I'm exaggerating that, they don't want elections, they want power."

From there I spoke to Wilson, the New York Times best-selling author of "Running Against the Devil" and "Everything Trump Touches Dies," about this one question: What do Democrats need to do to win in 2022? He shared a litany of practical, real-world advice for Democrats, starting with raising alarm bells about the dangers posed by the GOP to our democratic republic. He also faulted Democrats for not demanding Trump be held accountable for his role in the January 6 attack and for not holding January 6 committee hearings weekly. Wilson is right when he says if a Democratic president had done what Donald Trump did after losing the 2020 election that the GOP "would have gone at this thing with 24/7 fists of fury."

Wilson also warned Democrats to punch back hard on the conservatives' culture war issues, such as their efforts to ban what they call "critical race theory." Wilson explained that "Democrats need to learn how to jujitsu the culture wars," by framing the issue in ways that work against Republicans. And Wilson shared a few colorful examples of how to just that. 2022 is a challenging year for Democrats but it's very winnable. Watch or read my "Salon Talks" with Wilson to learn more.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How do the political winds look today as you look at November 2022? What do Democrats got to do to win?

It's always difficult for the off-year of an incumbent party. It's always a problem. There are only three times in the last 150 years where the party in power gained seats, one of which was 2002, and that was only because the predicate of the election was national security after the attack by al-Qaida in New York on 9/11. Biden faces headwinds just generically in the very start. 

Now, I think there are a lot of difficulties. Democrats are retiring — there are 30 retirements so far. They are a divided party in Washington between the Biden/Obama/Clinton wing and the progressive wing. The progressives have not felt like they have had a sweeping set of victories that they wanted for Green New Deal and then the social spending stuff. They're a little grumpy right now sitting on the sidelines. 

Republicans are very, very good at raising money, recruiting candidates, staying on message and relentlessly nationalizing campaigns. If there's a single failing I think the Democrats are experiencing right now, it's that they're trying to nationalize the campaign on things that don't matter to voters right now. They're trying to nationalize the campaign on Build Back Better — fine and good, but it's not working. It's not big enough to change the daily lives of voters and to make them think, "Oh, gosh. If I don't support Democrats, I'm going to lose this great benefit that I have received from Build Back Better." They don't feel that Build Back Better has meaningfully improved their lives at this point. 

The other thing the Democrats are falling victim to, as they do — and I've written a lot about this, you and I have talked about this — culture wars are where the Democratic Party goes to die. When they don't understand the culture war that's being waged, and where they don't understand how it's being run against them, they get caught up in a very bad cycle where Republicans have found the notion that may be fake and made up and horrifying divisive, but they're really smart at deploying that issue. I'll give you a perfect example, that's critical race theory. Critical race theory, as we know, is not taught in schools, it's a fringe element of part of legal theory, blah, blah, blah. However, when Republicans say critical race theory, what Democrats tend to do is say, "Well, no, it's not taught in schools, it's an edge theory of this ..." and they start defending it and they start getting in this cycle of defending it. That is playing the Republicans' game, running their predicate, running their playbook. They will just walk them into this meat grinder every time. 

Democrats need to learn how to jujitsu the culture wars. What they should say is, "Just tell us the truth, Republican candidate X. You just want to say the N-word, you just want permission to say the N-word. That's what this is really about. You don't want African Americans to vote, you're telling us that every day by all these new voting restrictions. But you really, really want to make sure we don't talk about anything that makes you uncomfortable, right? Not being able to say the N-word makes you uncomfortable, doesn't it?" 

They don't fight with the knives-out, full-throttle, go-for-the-kill aspect that guys like me who grew up in the Republican system have lived and breathed our entire careers. They don't understand that the psychological nature of the culture war thing comes from a really significant Republican understanding of the country, that it is not homogenous ideologically. I've seen Democrats before who say, "Oh, well, we've got this pretty good candidate in Tennessee or Kentucky or Arkansas, however, we can't get behind him or her because they're not aggressively pro-choice enough, they're not exactly right on every single issue, they're not a perfect clone of somebody from Oregon or Massachusetts or California or Washington State or New York." Republicans get it. They give their candidates permission, in some weird and subtle ways sometimes, to be off the ideological agenda, as long as they can win the seat.

In 2018, the Democrats, and Speaker Pelosi gets a lot of credit for this, very smartly went out and said, "Find candidates in these districts who can win, not the most progressive, not the most ideologically perfect, find people who can win." They did a really good job — 41 seats that year. Now, that wasn't just the effect of the first term-itis, it was also the effect of good candidate selection of candidates who matched their districts. 

The country still has a tremendous amount of ideological political diversity, because I will tell you, a Democratic voter in Oklahoma is not as progressive as a Democratic voter in San Francisco. If you pick candidates and recruit candidates based on win-ability and electability, you're going to be in a lot better position than if they meet every single one of your ideological tests. You give me 50 Conor Lambs, I'll go out and win you 35 new Congressional seats. You give me 50 AOCs, I'll get one or two. Conor Lamb looks a lot more like the Democratic voters in a lot of these states than AOC does. I pick Conor Lamb just as one example because the temptation of ideological purity, and this in some cases happens with Republicans too, the temptation of getting the ideological dream date that leads you down to ineffective candidate or campaign is a danger for a party. 

Now, look, Republicans are going to get their wish for the most MAGA crazy people in some of these races in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, in the Senate side particularly, and the Democrats are going to have a much better chance of winning in the Senate because you're going to end up with a Josh Mandel or a J.D. Vance or some other lunatic on Ohio. You may end up with a Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania. Anytime you can match moderate to crazy, you're in a great spot, you're in a fantastic position. Anytime you can match a person who does not meet every single right-line ideological test, but appeals to voters in the state or district, you're in great shape.

It's good to have the proverbial Sister Souljah moment. It's good for voters to see you being able to say, "Look, I'm going to stand up for you in this state, in this district, I'm going to fight for you. I don't care about what they do in Washington, I don't care about what they say on the pages of the Times editorial page, I care about the people here in Altoona, Pennsylvania or Maitland, Florida or Mecklenburg County, North Carolina." Getting into that idea that the country is not homogenous ideologically is really smart. 

The third thing is, this is not going to be an election about policy, it will be about personality. It will be about a broad sense of whether we're going to pick one major path in the future of this country or another. There are people in D.C. who say, "Oh, the election will be about prescription drug coverage and Build Back Better." Horses**t. Get out of here. The election's going to be a decision between whether or not you have an authoritarian, dictator-friendly party that has abandoned all of its ideological predicates except pure power, and these small-D democratic values that inform this country, or whether you're going to have a country that may be messy and we may fight all the time and it may be a little bit broken around the edges, but it still embraces the passionate political arguments and diversity that the country really has and requires politically. 

It is going to be a matter of groups like mine and many others to convince enough Republican voters, and they're still out there, in fact there's some research now telling us the number's a little bigger than it used to be of voters who are like, "I'm done with the Trump crazies, I'm done with the QAnon, I'm done with the conspiracies, I'm done with the anti-vaccination stuff." That number's a little bigger than it was in 2020, but it's not a majority by any stretch of the imagination. 

Democrats have to find a way in state and district races to pull across what we call the Bannon Line voters. Steve Bannon hates me with affirming passion, but he came up with a line one time, he said, "If those Lincoln Project guys can pull between three and eight-percent of Republicans away from Trump, he's going to lose." Well, that was exactly the model we were looking at and exactly the model we executed on these states. It's a game of small numbers, the Democrats need to execute on that small number game. They need to work that small number targeting, they need to go after the people. You've got to sell these voters on the fact that the Democratic Party for them is an Airbnb, okay? It's not a house, you're not buying the house and moving in forever, you're not even renting the house for a year, you're going to stay for a little while because the circumstances outside mean you need to stay for a little while. 

If you're in say Michigan, would you rather have that moderate Republican woman voter who thinks taxes are too high and wants her kids back in school because she's sick of staying home with them? Even though she wants lower taxes and she might even be pro-life, do you want her or not? You should want her. It's not going to make your party suddenly a bunch of conservatives, you're not going to all turn into George Bush neocons, you're not going to turn into Evangelical Christians, but you're recruiting a group of voters who are willing to stand up against a party that, as we are witnessing right now in this country, will do anything to hold power. 

You've answered every one of my questions in one long answer, Rick. Now let's break it down a little bit. Should Democratic leaders—and I don't mean grassroots because I know the grassroots people and I talk to them—Democratic leaders, should they be talking about the threat this version of the GOP poses to democracy?

100 percent.

RELATED: From "crack pipes" to "critical race theory": GOP's 2022 midterm strategy is overt racism

Should they be making that one of the primary issues going into 2022?

I absolutely believe that is the case, and I'll tell you why. They sense it viscerally, they understand it. They are seeing this happen in Florida, in Texas, in Georgia, in other Republican-led states right now, and again. it is not that a suburban Republican professional woman in Tampa, Florida, is a raving progressive, but when she sees that there's a bill that will forbid a teacher or a counselor in a school from talking to a kid about whether they're gay or not, that scares her. When they understand that if they want to go get an abortion, whether they think it's a great idea or not morally speaking, that there's a new government snitch program that will reward weirdos for stalking abortion clinics, that's the too-much level. 

What the Republicans are doing [is] they're racing to make 2024 the very last election we ever have in this country. I don't want to seem like I'm exaggerating that. They don't want elections, they want power. They're going to do everything they can to gain and then retain that power, and that is starting to be an element where folks in the electorate are realizing it, it's making them feel uncomfortable, it's making them feel troubled, and if you can break out of the culture war bubble, you can snatch some of those voters. 

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Do you think that Democratic leaders so far have been raising the alarm bells the way they should on this issue in a loud voice?

No, I think they spent a lot of last year fighting over the budget bill, fighting over Build Back Better, and Joe Biden's progressive allies that had zero favors in that. One thing about Republicans is that when they get on a message and they get on a strategy that's dictated down from the leadership, they stay with that thing until it's dead. 

You ended up with Biden getting shanked on the left side of his party by the progressives and shanked on the right side of his party by Manchin and Sinema. It was really shortsighted by a lot of those folks, both Manchin and Sinema and that wing of the party and by the progressives, it was shortsighted to say, "Hey, we're going to do everything we can to hamstring Joe Biden and screw him over for right now, because it makes it more likely that we're going to get what we want in some imaginary scenario." The people that were benefiting from that were Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the cuckoo caucus that is going to be a much larger part of that Republican demo in the coming year. 

What about the idea of Democratic leaders calling for Donald Trump to be held accountable for the coup attempt that we know about, the January 6th attempt? If a Democratic president did what Donald Trump did, every day on Fox News there would be a countdown to his indictment.

They would build a gibbet outside of the White House lawn. He would have been impeached 47 times already. There would be nonstop hearings every day. We would never have had a break in the hearings. They would have crushed every witness who tried not to testify. They would have subpoenaed everybody in sight, including the janitor. They would have interviewed the White House cat. They would have gone at this thing with 24/7 fists of fury. I'm glad the committee is subpoenaing a lot of people, but what I've been hearing from the beginning is they want to get this over with, they want to go on to Build Back Better, they want to go on to Green New Deal, they want to go on to prescription drug coverage. Stop it. It's a huge deal. They tried to overthrow a legitimate American election and engage in an outright act of sedition. If you don't, as members of Congress, seek to hold every single one of those scumbag weasels accountable, then you are absolutely abandoning your duty and you're abandoning a political angle that is a fundamental inflection point.

While there are still a lot of behavioral Republicans, there is a large number, it's not a majority, it's not a plurality, but there's a meaningful fraction of those people who did not like seeing people take a s**t in the White House rotunda, who did not like seeing the Confederate battle flag carried into the Capitol of the American Republic, who did not like seeing cops beaten, who did not like seeing the building that is the centerpiece of our representative democracy turned into a war zone. 
If you don't hold those people accountable, if you don't crack heads on that ... Look, the Justice Department has its role to play in this and nobody can control that situation, unfortunately, but if you don't make a spectacle out of it, the Republicans will memory-hole it. They will rewrite history. They're great at it. They're enormously skilled at rewriting history, they will turn this into "ordinary tourists who were just upset by the stolen election." They will say it and they will say it, and they will say it, and they will say it a hundred-million times until Republicans all believe it, including the ones you have to get. You have to wedge out those people from the GOP, you have to drive a wedge in there, you have to block that wedge from closing back up. 

What you're getting at is that message over and over, about how this is not partisan, this is about patriotism, this is about protecting our democracy, our democratic republic to make it clear that even for a Democratic president, you can never do that. That's the thing for me. A Democrat should be going like, "If a Democratic president would be doing this, we'd be calling for them to be held accountable, so when we're calling for Trump to be held accountable, it's not partisan, it's patriotism." It's remarkable to see the timidity among leading Democrats, with a few exceptions — Jamie Raskin, Ruben Gallego, a few others.

Raskin, Swalwell, Gallego, Liu and a few others have been fighting in that Truman-esque tradition of going up there and scrapping with bad people. I will say this: I'm not a Republican anymore. I left the Republican Party because it does not exist as a political enterprise that I can support in any capacity. I am still a constitutional conservative where I believe the Constitution is the law and the rule of the land and it must be followed and implemented appropriately. The Constitution sets out these standards and criteria for American elections. They were followed; only one side attempted to subvert those standards and those constitutional rules. They must be held accountable; they must be punished for it. If you don't think that putting Republicans on the back foot is good politics, you're out of your mind. 

We've got three governorships up that are in key states.

Enormously important. 

Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, GOP legislatures, the only thing thwarting their fever dreams of a Democratic governor. I just want to get from your point of view, as a former Republican, how important it is, because if they win those governorships, they will rig the election for 2024. 

They won't even bother to rig it. The laws in all those states now that have been passed allow them to just, with the stroke of a pen, say, "No, the actual result is X." So it's important that we look at Georgia, Wisconsin — Florida is a long shot, unfortunately Ron DeSantis has a very good chance of being reelected right now, because God bless my friends in the Florida Democratic Party, but they cannot organize a two-car motorcade. 

Michigan and Wisconsin are enormously important, and if you look at the margin of victory in 2020, it's 44,000 votes in those three states. You better do better, and holding onto those governorships is enormously important. I think Governor Whitmer is in better shape than she was six weeks ago, but that's one where we're watching very, very closely. Wisconsin's one we're watching very, very closely as well. 

I want to touch on Ukraine, we don't know how it's going to play out, it's a snapshot in time as we're talking about it right now. But what do you think, do you think this ends up playing a role in 2022?

I think it probably does actually, because we're at a point now, this is another one of those inflection point questions. Democracy is under threat abroad by a rising and empowered class of foreign dictators and authoritarians. The difference between America in this moment in time and America in the past is that no matter what political party they were in, Truman, Ike, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush, Reagan, anybody would have said, "Hey, an authoritarian dictatorship invading a sovereign nation is a bad thing, especially in the heart of Europe. This is a terrible outcome and America will be safer if we reinforce our alliances and stand up against this kind of behavior." But now we have an entire political party that at best shrugs it off, at best goes, "Eh, it's his business, it's his backyard." 

If Mexico invaded Arizona and said, "These people are more like us in Arizona than they are like the rest of America, we have a traditional historic relationship here" —  that is the same exact argument Putin is using right now. I guarantee you there would be blood in the streets from those folks if that happened. But they have become very friendly to dictatorship, to authoritarianism, and to people like Putin. Putin has this deep appeal to the modern Republican Party, because again, he believes in power, he believes in wealth, he believes in control. 

I tell my progressive and Democratic friends this all the time, I know some of you have this college dorm room desire to try true socialism somewhere, sometime. These people are not that. They are pure authoritarian kleptocrats. The Republican Party, it appeals to them because what is Trump? He's a pure authoritarian kleptocrat. He does what he wants, helps his friends, makes a lot of money. That's the world they're trying to build. That's why the Democrats need to fight the 2022 race, and thence 2024, with a pure understanding of who those people are and an understanding that they view the world in a very cold, clear-eyed, unequivocal way. 

They're not ever fooled by their own bulls**t, they don't ever believe their own bulls**, believe, trust me. These guys don't believe in any of this stuff. They believe in power. When they're talking about abortion or gun control or climate or any other thing that makes Democrats think that's the central issue, they're really only doing it to get you into a culture war so they can beat you, because they recognize that most Americans are somewhere in the middle. They'll scare those people to death. "It's also the Communists, it's also the people that will take away your hamburgers and your airplanes and your cars. It's us versus critical race theory. It's us versus drag queen story time at your library." All the crazy culture war stuff that is just nuts, they know it works on their people. I'm always telling Democrats, don't give them the sword to cut off your head. 

If you had one piece of advice for Democrats now, about 200-plus days from the election, what would you tell Democrats? I don't mean grassroots, grassroots are activated, they're engaged. 

They're getting up there, for sure. 

For leaders, what should they be doing right now? What should be the one piece of advice?

They should be making every Republican candidate, especially the ones who don't seem crazy on paper, they should be making them own January 6th, making them own QAnon, making them own the Putin love fest, they should be making them own all the craziest edges of the Republican Party today, because the craziest edge of the Republican Party is now a plurality of the Republican Party. Make those people, make those candidates own the craziness, make them own the evil, make them own the s**tty behavior. 

You need to take, in a game of small numbers, and split off three to eight percent of the Republican vote. Those people will tend to be female, they'll tend to be professional, they'll tend to live in the suburbs, in a more affluent area of suburbs, or they will be independent men who are educated but behaviorally vote Republican. That's the two demos that you're really, really after, and in that regard, they don't want to be seen as associated with a 300-pound fat guy with a Confederate flag in one hand and an AR-15 in the other, yelling about being a Christian nation. They don't want to be that guy. They don't want to be the guy who's wearing the horns taking a s**t in the Capitol. They don't want to be that guy. They don't want to be the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Patriot Front weirdo far-right fascist militias. They don't want to be those people. 

You have to associate the entire Republican Party with those kind of elements of it, which legitimately they are now a plurality or more of the party. It's not the party of John McCain, George Bush, George HW Bush, Ronald Reagan, Mitt Romney, or anybody else you've ever seen before. It is now a party of the kooks, the conspiracy theorists, the QAnon-ers, the nutcases, the bad guys, and the Big Lie people. In all those cases, it's important I think to link them together inextricably. 

More stories about Putin and Ukraine: 

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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