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Hello from the Lincoln Project and welcome back. I'm runs Tesla in this episode, I'm going to talk with Lincoln Project senior adviser and veteran political consultant Stuart Stevens about his brand new book. It was all a lie. Stewart is considered one of the preeminent Republican political operatives of his generation and has spent decades electing Republicans at every level. He's worked with George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Bob Dole and Chuck Grassley, just to name a few. He's a contributor to The Daily Beast and recently published his eighth book, It Was All a Lie, which is available starting today.
It is an examination of a party that has lost its moral and political compass. So before we dig in, Stuart, and I'm so glad that you're taking the time today. I have heard that you have the best win loss percentage in the world of Republican campaign consulting. Is that true?
Well, you know, I used to say that in kitchens, and then we actually had someone who worked for us figured it out. And it turns out it is true. So that would be of people and my. Area, which is a media consultant, which has changed a lot since I started, but yeah, as media consultant, that's true. But of course, you know, the secret to success is a political consultant discovered early on is to work for people who are going to win anyway and just don't screw it up.
So it's sort of like being a baseball manager, like helps to have, like, really good players. So I think most of the credit for that is, if not all, it's just due to the fact that I was lucky enough to get really good clients.
We've got a lot of ground to cover here. So before we do, I just want to give our listeners some general background information. So could you walk us through maybe a brief history of your work in Republican politics?
Sure. You know, I grew up in Mississippi. I'm actually a seventh generation Mississippian in the battle of Mississippi Burning. In the nineteen sixties when I was a kid, my family was close to a guy who was running for governor named William Winter. He was running in the Democratic primary for governor. There really only was a Democratic Party in Mississippi then. Everything in Mississippi then. And in a way, it still is. But then it was very obvious, was defined by race.
And where you stood on race was sort of the definition of your candidacy. And when I was running against the last avowed segregationist who was elected in Mississippi, I got a John Williams. So I was a kid and did the things you do as a kid in the campaign, you walk precincts, hung around with them some and that when I lost that race, but I had this experience in it that really just sort of drew me to politics. When was what we would have called then a modern human race, a pretty progressive on race, which means he was not a segregationist and he got a lot of death threats.
And we know this in part, they've been recorded because Bobby Kennedy wiretapped everybody and they have these recordings. And I remember when one Friday night when I was with Winter and my father was traveling with him then and he was in a locker room of a high school stadium down the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And it was kind of a foggy Friday night. And he got in this very specific threat that if he went out and spoke to this crowd and high school football stadium, he would be shot.
And, you know, like most governors races then and now, he went or didn't have any formal security, but he did have a group of sort of law enforcement types who were trying to help, trying to keep him alive. My father was one of those. He had been an FBI agent. And I can remember vividly, I was just a kid. These men trying to convince William Winter not to give the speech and Mrs. Winter was there.
It was a very dramatic moment. And now I was just a kid sitting there watching this and winner who's a very tough guy, refused not to give it. And somebody went out and came back to the car and the car came back with a bulky bulletproof vest and he put it on and these guys went out and got rifles out of their cars and stuck them under their, like, raincoats. And then when I walked out and to give the speech, I thought was the bravest thing I had ever seen.
And if that was politics, it was just so dramatic and compelling.
And as it turned out, they like to discover there was a guy there who was going to shoot and probably didn't, in part because he sort of had this little posse of bodyguards. So that was how I was drawn to it. I worked as a page in high school on Capitol Hill for congressmen, and I'd always been interested sort of in politics, film and writing in my life. So. I went to school for too long, but I studied English and undergrad and grad school, and then I went to UCLA film school to get an MFA.
And when I was in at UCLA, the guy who had been chief of staff to the congressman that I have been a page for ran for Congress and that congressman his name was Thad Cochran, was running for the Senate. And he Cochran was the first Republican elected to Congress in Mississippi since Reconstruction. And he was this progressive young ish lawyer sort of in opposition to the old line Democratic Party in Mississippi, which then was defined by these sort of giants of segregation, Jim Eastland, John Stennis.
So this guy who had been chief of staff called me up and we got to be friends. When I was a page, he was running against Senator Stennis, a son for the congressional seat. So nobody thought he had a chance and he'd never run for anything before. He'd just been a Capitol Hill staffer. So we didn't have any money. And he basically said, well, I'm doing this and you have to make commercials for me. I said, well, it's great, except like I don't know how to make commercials.
I just make these stupid little films.
It doesn't matter. You have to do it. So I did. And he ended up winning. Had nothing to do with anything I did. He was just the right person at the right time. And then I discovered that people would hire me to make commercials for him. And nobody wanted to hire me right then so I could kind of go work in campaigns and do it sort of like migrant labor work. And I started out working for Republicans in Mississippi.
And the way it goes, you know, once you start out on one side of the street, it's very hard to change. So I kept doing it. Then I got to a point where people would hire me to write. But I still liked the political consulting. It was very different than writing. You know, she's very solitary. I like the fact that you work with people in campaigns and I'm one of these hyper competitive freaks. And I like that you won or lost that.
That drew me to it a lot. So, you know, I started out doing it work for some people who won. And then when that happens, you get invited to bigger races. And I started doing international races and. I started a firm in the early 90s, and we were we were very fortunate, we want a lot of races. I went down in the spring of ninety nine to work for then Governor Bush's campaign, which in Austin in the Bush campaign, it was interesting.
They wanted everybody to live in Austin, which I think was very smart, and they wanted everybody to only work on the Bush campaign. There was none of this. You're going to be a consultant work on other campaigns. And that extended all the way to Karl Rove, who had to sell his direct mail company at a huge financial hit. So I just kind of continued I continued working in campaigns and writing and I sort of pursued that. I started writing for television.
So that's kind of how I ended up pursuing these interests.
So given everything that you've been through, everything you've achieved, working for Republican politicians up and down the ballot all around the country, all around the globe, what led you to the Lincoln Project? And and maybe most specifically, why do you think it's important now?
Well, you know, I was drawn to the party that was very optimistic. And I would have said that we disagree on issues within the party, but there's a framework of principles that we 90 percent of us could agree on very quickly. And what were those? It was character counts, personal responsibility. Free trade strong on Russia, pro legal immigration. Ronald Reagan announced in 1980 in front of the Statue of Liberty, he signed a bill as president who made everyone in the country before nineteen eighty three legal.
And these principles united us. So I look at Donald Trump and in twenty sixteen, I mean, a lot of people are wrong about Donald Trump, but I think it's hard to find anybody who is more wrong than me. I didn't think he'd win the primary. I didn't think he'd win the general election. And in retrospect, I realize a lot of this is because I didn't want to believe that Donald Trump could win in a party that I had devoted so much time and energy to.
I was appalled that he won the primary, appalled that when Mitt Romney went out and took this brave stance and spoke truth to power, that so few Republicans followed him. And I was appalled that so many people that I work for just sort of rolled over for Trump. You know, in 16, when I was out there beating up on Trump, you know, for all the good at it on television, what I would get these emails, I mean, I'd say maybe a third of the Republican Party was e-mailing me, like thanking me for doing this, saying, like, you know, I can't say this and I'm glad you are right up to about 10 o'clock on election night.
And then I started getting emails. I could you delete that? Maybe.
And I you know, I feel the same way I did at eight o'clock on election night. Nothing changed for me. Over a year ago. I left my firm because it's a Republican consulting firm and I really couldn't keep. Working for Republicans on the federal level now, I worked a lot with governors and a lot of governor clients, and you look around and Phil Scott in Vermont, Larry Hogan in Maryland, Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, these are all guys that worked in their campaigns and they're wildly successful.
And if the Republican Party had any sense, they look at these guys and say, you're selling our product in the hardest market, what can we do to educate you, to learn from you? But I just couldn't do it. I worked for Bill Weld, who I worked for him when he ran for governor for the first time in 1990, was actually my first governor's race. And we've had a succession of great Republican governors in Massachusetts. But when Weld ran, we haven't had a Republican governor in over 20 years and it was just considered Don Quixote tilting at windmills.
You want a huge tax cut. And then when Weld candidacy ended, you know, I really wanted to come over and keep fighting. Lincoln was are you guys doing great stuff and really appreciate being welcomed on board.
We are extremely lucky to have you on the team.
I think I think that that was a really good overview of when you left working for Republicans at the federal level. Your book is about the Republican Party and its decline. And I remember about a year ago we had a phone conversation and I think it was around the same time that you had just left your firm. And it was around the time when the world was running. And it was the first time we talked. And I remember that right off the bat I told you all of the reasons that I wasn't going to work for Republicans at the federal level.
And what I thought of the party and how I and when I finally set up you, you said that's essentially the book I'm writing in a nutshell. And so so it's it's it's really fun to now get to have this conversation with you a year later. So now let's move to the book a bit. So there's there's an underlying theme that Donald Trump didn't hijack the Republican Party, but that he's really the natural outcome of the last 50 years of Republican politics.
That's that's that's a different way of thinking about Donald Trump. He's not an aberration. He's actually the the the result of what the Republican Party has been doing, where it's been going, at least at the national level for the last 50 years. So can you begin to unpack that for us?
And this is you know, this is a book I never thought I'd write. It's a book I never wanted to write, but it's kind of a book I felt ultimately I had to write and impart like a lot of books. You started out as a question, how is it that this happened? And I really felt a personal need to try to figure this out, I really forced myself to go back in and look at a lot of the truth of the party in the history of the party.
And it's fascinating. I mean, if you go back to the history to post-World War two Republican Party, there had always been these two strains in the 50s. It was the Eisenhower strain and the McCarthy strain. And now we look back at William Buckley, for instance, as sort of a lost intellectual voice in the Republican Party, which is true, this brilliant, erudite man, and said we have like Sean Hannity now, but we tend to forget that in the 50s, William Buckley was a stone cold racist.
I mean, he wrote a famous piece defending segregation. Now, to his great credit, he came to a very different place, but that that tension in the party was always there and it just played out, continued to play out in. I talk a lot in the book about this memo that was written by Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips in the Nixon White House for their Nixon's re-election in seventy two. And it's an extraordinary document because it really outlines what later became known as the Southern Strategy.
And it's all about race. It's all about how to sort of sort of the assumption is that we're not going as Republicans be able to get many African-Americans to vote for us. And the best political move is to try to discourage African-Americans from voting. But those who are going to vote to try to help them be disenchanted with the Democratic Party. So, you know, if you go back and it seems like unbelievable, but it really struck me is that when I was looking at the numbers in nineteen fifty six, Eisenhower got almost 40 percent of the black vote, 60, Nixon got thirty three percent.
And in sixty four with Barry Goldwater, it fell off a cliff. Goldwater got seven percent. It was against the Civil Rights Act. So you could have made a case that after the Civil Rights Act passed, African-Americans in some significant numbers would come back to the Republican Party, that there was enough within that party that would appeal to cultural conservatism. You know, African-American community. The church is very important, entrepreneurial spirit, patriotism. But that never happened.
And the failure since 1960 for the Republican Party to attract more African-Americans has always been the glaring failure of the party. Now, like those of us in the Bush campaign and now sort of part of the party, we recognized this and acknowledged it in part of what then Governor Bush called himself a compassionate conservative, was an attempt to to redefine what it was to be a conservative. And, you know, at the time, Bush got a lot of heat from a number of people on the right who said, well, you call yourself a compassionate conservative.
That means that you don't think conservatism is compassionate. And Bush's answer was, yeah, that's right. I don't I think we failed and we thought that we saw the dark side, a lot of us. And but we thought it was a recessive gene and that are we were on the right side of history with the party and we were wrong. I would invite everybody to go read the two thousand acceptance speech that George Bush gave at the Republican convention in Philadelphia.
It's an extraordinary document. It reads like something from a lost civilization. You cannot believe this was a Republican Party then. It's all about humility and service and compassion. I mean, that guy couldn't win 10 percent in the Republican primary day, so it. My conclusion is that, as I say in the book, the original sin of the modern Republican Party is race. And sort of two ways to look at this one is just in a sort of reality sense.
If you spend, say, 90 percent of your your 90 plus percent of your market comes from one of your business comes from one share of the market, you'll probably get really good at talking to that market and not very good talking to the other 10 percent. So I think part of this was almost sort of inevitable, but the other is that. The party really, you know, had an appeal to a racial racist element to it. And now Donald Trump is is a white grievance president.
He is basically George Wallace, though I think George Wallace was a lot smarter and had a lot more respect and understanding of the role of government in our lives. And the parties accepted it. And, you know, I think in our system, the political parties should form a circuit breaker function and nobody through the circuit breaker on Trump. And, you know, to me, it really the moment, the turning moment here that people, I think, will look back in history is in December of 2015, when Trump came out for a Muslim ban.
Which is completely unconstitutional, it's a religious test. And if nothing else, the Republican Party stick to the Constitution, I thought. And nobody gets. I mean, I think what Reince Priebus is chairman of the party then should have gone out and said was the same thing that he said when they got Todd Akin, who had been the 2012 Missouri Republican nominee, said terrible things about women and rape. And to his credit, you know, the chairman, Priebus, went out and said, we can't tell people not to vote for this guy.
He's the Republican nominee. We can't replace him. But the Republican Party is not going to support it. And he lost and it cost us a Senate seat, but it meant that we stood for something. And what Priebus should have done, I think, is go out and say, look, I can't tell people not to vote for Donald Trump, I can't tell Donald Trump not to run. But as long as I'm head of this Republican Party, we're not going to support Donald Trump.
We don't believe in a religious test. But instead, we just sort of everybody look the other way. And I understand why it happened. I mean, if you go back and remember that whole primary dynamic, 16 candidates, remember, and everybody was competing to get one on one with Trump because everybody was convinced that the Republican Party would never nominate someone who, you know, failed casino owner who talked in public about having sex with his daughter. Like that wasn't going to happen.
And Trump has always benefited from the inability to imagine him winning. And it was wrong. I mean, the Republican Party was quite happy to embrace him, so. You know, you ask yourself the how do people abandon deeply held beliefs and three, four years? I don't think they do. I think it only means that you didn't deeply hold those beliefs. That they were more marketing slogans than what you believed. I had to go through my own sort of process, deconstructing the way I saw myself in the Republican Party, and it turned out that I didn't fit it in anymore.
And as part of that, while I didn't live through the Southern Strategy and all of the campaigns during that era, I read as much as I could get my hands on about that period. And what I learned shocked me because it didn't align with what I thought the Republican Party stood for the the way we spent a good deal of time in an earlier episode with Tara Suttmeier talking about the development of the Southern Strategy as she's fabulous.
She's she's she's she's fantastic as a way to to win over voters who felt out of place in the pro civil rights Democratic Party. And I offered some remarks that our Cooper Union event back in February about, you know, having learned about the Southern Strategy and and recognizing that it was really the Republican Party's realization that they were never going to win a national election ever again because the electoral math was was not available to them. And and going down to the South to convert white Democrats to co-opt the church and to essentially create what appeared to be, on the surface, ideological positions or philosophical positions out of a cynical electoral calculation, because there was no there was no moral or or ideological foundation for those positions.
It all had to do with winning. And what I realized in twenty, fifteen, twenty sixteen was that actually winning is all that actually ever mattered.
One of the things I say when I open this book by saying, blame me. Because this isn't a book that sort of says, look what these these these other people did. I you know, I was part of this and, you know, I was a classic example of a guy who was only focused on winning. I mean, I was about the taking of Baghdad, not the running of Baghdad. That was like, I don't want to do that, like, run the sewage system.
Like, we funded that. So, you know, I probably represented the worst of the whole political system. I was into being a gunslinger. And, look, I was really good at it. I was really good at winning. And I quickly discovered that the pain of losing was far greater than the pleasure of winning. And that sort of drove me to win. And I in a way, I kind of looked at it like being a lawyer because I came from this whole family of lawyers and judges.
And it's kind of the way that maybe I thought about it and in part was a way not to think about it. So, you know, lawyers say, well, I can represent anyone. It doesn't matter if they're guilty or not part of the American legal system, they deserve a defense. And I sort of felt that way, all the candidates I work for, I will say I like them all. And respected them all, and that's part of my.
Incredible sadness about this moment, and one of the things I said up front in this book is I don't go through former clients who are now in office and detail where I think they should have done something or said, you know, I didn't want to do sort of like a bill of indictment for future political war crimes.
It's a collective failure. And I certainly was part of that failure. And, you know. I am very, very pessimistic about the future of the Republican Party, which is just bizarre for me because I was that guy in the campaign that always thought we could win. You know, that that we could be down 15 points a week out and, you know, if only we could come up with the right message, do the right thing, we could still win.
I mean, I've sort of mocked for this being the guy who, like, always thought we could win and now I'm, you know, incredibly pessimistic. And I think we're going to I think we're in for a period of very left government for a good period of time. Until. Something else emerges, which it will, but I think it's going to take a long time. I mean, if you look at history when a major political party validates.
And embraces hate as the current Republican Party has to undo, that is a long and torturous, often blood filled process. And, you know, you look at the country. Those who are 15 years of old age and younger majority in America are non-white. So there's some reason to believe they're going to turn 18 and remain non-white, and that's sort of like a stage four cancer warning for the Republican Party as it currently is. Yeah, and one of the things I found so telling here is it's not just African-Americans.
I mean, we used to win Asian-Americans like 70 plus percent. And now we lose some 70 plus percent, so why is that? It wasn't like we went out and attacked Asian-Americans, at least not until recently when China has coming out and attacked the Chinese. But they got the message that if they weren't white, they weren't welcome in the party. And that's the message the party has sent. And people got one of the things I've always had to really respect voters.
You know, I I think voters are very smart. And we all get all this stuff about low information, voters are high and low, I think voters are pretty good at picking up the essence of candidates.
Is, is that when you mean when you talk about this perception that Republicans don't win a higher percentage of votes from from black people because of a communications issue?
Well, you know, this was a thing. It was always. This idea, like the Republican Party, should appeal to African-Americans, we're conservative, we're entrepreneurial, patriotic. And the reason that African-Americans aren't supporting the Republican Party in any serious numbers, it's just that we don't know how to communicate this to African-Americans. Which is not a crazy theory, so. You know, there was this whole industry of African-American Republican consultants who had come talk to you in a campaign, you had a white candidate, mostly white staff, usually to explain to you how to talk to black voters.
And, you know, I think that was completely misguided. I think African-Americans understood exactly what we were saying. They just didn't like it. And there was always this tension that still exists and you see it played out. And tragic numbers with covid-19, so we were the party that we all laughed and embraced this idea when Ronald Reagan went out and said, you know, the most dangerous words in the English language are, I'm from the federal government, I'm here to help.
We thought that was great, it was both a great joke and it was also sort of said to spoke to a truth that we believed. So how do you square that with those in our society who look to government as one of the key ways to advance themselves in life? And it's a it's a circle we never squared. And it just couldn't we never came to grips with that we tried in the Bush campaign in 2000, you know, I think had Bush not become a wartime president, I think it could have happened.
And if you go back, you know, Bush was driven by education. He knew a lot about education. He had a real passion for it, you know, in that campaign, whenever we didn't know what to do, like, you know how it is, you look at a schedule like you want to go into a market, what are you going to do? Our default was to go to school, usually a school with underprivileged kids. And Governor Bush would light up like a Christmas tree.
And he just loved it and. What was the first of all, legislation of significant city passed No Child Left Behind, which you go back, he's signing this thing in the Oval Office with Ted Kennedy on his right shoulder. I mean, that sort of thing would be used now like a war crimes trial in Republican Party. How do you how dare you? And I think that he governed that way in Texas, which had a dominant Texas conservative but Democratic legislation legislature.
And it's Bush's nature to work with people. When we used to he used to say, I'm a uniter, not a divider. It was true. It's just how he looked at life and. All of that sort of became secondary when 9/11 happened. And there's sort of a parlor game amongst those of us who work for Bush. Some of us would have been like for the Bush presidency, what it would have done if there hadn't been a wartime president.
And, you know, it occurred to me recently know, I took me so long, but that's a German. I was watching Nicole Wallace. And it occurred to me like there's a group of us that we literally all used to sit in the same room and they came to me in the cold. Steve Schmidt would be in that room sometimes. Michael Gerson, who writes for The Post, who wrote Bush's beautiful twin acceptance speech. Pete Wayner is a writer, writes The Atlantic and New York Times now, Mark McKinnon.
Who really ran the media show in 2000? I really worked for Mark in 2000 and 2004. And we've all come to the same place about Trump. And it's not like we got together, but it's just so abhorrent to what we thought we aspired to, and it's not like the Bush campaign, we were perfect. I mean, God knows we pay too much to the dark side, I'm sure. But we aspire to something bigger than ourselves and for Trump.
That's a weakness. You know, Trump tells you that that side of you that like you're in traffic, somebody cuts you off, you have that little spurt of road rage. That's your best self. That if you let that person cut you off, you're weak, you need to embrace them. It's that score settling grievance side. That is the essence of traumatism. And, you know, when Ronald Reagan was president to be sworn in, America was to win life's lottery, you're the luckiest person on Earth.
Now is American and Trump's America, you're a sucker. You're at the mercy of these powerful forces that have taken advantage of you like Canada, and, you know, we're going to go out and settle the score and it's just Canada.
Yeah, Canada. Now, we can't even go to Canada.
So it's just a very different vision of the world and what it means to be an American in essence, and that's what the Lincoln Project uses, a slogan, America or Trump, to me, that's what it means. And like all great slogans, that can mean different things to different people. But to me, that's what it means. Who do you see yourself as an American? I'm the person that believes to be born in America. You've won life's lottery.
These differences between George W. Bush and Donald Trump aren't just personality differences, their fundamental differences in approaches to leadership altogether. What do you think Donald Trump's approach to leadership, if you can call it that? I don't think I don't think you can. What do you think that has done to the American psyche, to the American people, the experience of being an American and like you said, that feeling of having won the lottery, you know, Trump Trump has validated our worst side and all of us as individuals have dark sides.
I mean, we all have bitterness about this or that or grievances. We think back to things that, you know, we feel like we didn't get a fair shake when that happens to everybody in life. And Trump tells you that your best self. That you really you should embrace that bitterness and that anger and that you shouldn't work and aspire to something bigger. So, I mean, you look at the nineteen thirties in America, so why is it that all these countries in Europe are very similar to the United States became fascist party Germany?
But in Italy, there's a lot of German Americans and a lot of Italian Americans, why didn't we? Well. It's interesting, there was a strong fascist movement in America, the America first movement, headed by a great hero, Charles Lindbergh. And had Linberg been elected president, we probably would have become fascist and we would have been the same country. But we elected Roosevelt, so I think leaders matter. And you know, I say about Trump, if we elected a bank robber president, it's not the bank robbing become legal, but it probably would become less of a social stigma like, oh, well, you can be bank robber and president.
And I say the same about Trump and racism. You don't have to be a racist to vote for Trump. And, you know, whenever you talk about this, you know, my experiences people immediately, particularly trump people, they get in your face and say, are you saying that the sixty three million racist in America? Well, first of all, there probably are sixty three races in America, so they get like crazy here, three out of 20 million, we'd be lucky if there only are sixty three billion.
That's that's like low balling the number. But it's not that you have to be an active racist to support, but I think that you have to be willing to accept what you're getting from Trump is more important than having a racist dispersive. And I think that's sort of soul crushing. You know, we talk about fast and the Fallston bargain and what people forget about massive stuff, he says not just that he takes your soul, but he doesn't deliver. You don't get anything in return.
And that's really, I think, what's happened with Trump, you know, all these people say, well, I voted for him for judges, conservative judges, which is just kind of become this thing that Republicans say. They have no idea what it means. I mean, next time somebody says that to you, just ask him, OK? That's interesting. One of the five most important Supreme Court decisions of the last ten years in Europe, they can't name them and you can't name them.
And I think it's also because they they confuse conservative conservative judges. And I put air quotes around them with conservative jurisprudence, which are two completely, completely different things and.
That's why you're going to always be perpetually disappointed by that Souter or Roberts or Gorsuch so recently, I mean, you're all if that's how you're going to look at life, you're going to be disappointed to be disappointed.
And it's not the role of the judiciary in our system. So right now, what I just find most striking about this moment is I don't know what it means to be a Republican now. I don't know what it means to be a conservative. Somebody held a gun to my head and said, tell me what it means to be a conservative in America. And 20, 20, I'd say, shoot, go ahead, because this isn't going to work.
I can't tell you. I have no idea.
And you know exactly what I say. Say what you will about Elizabeth Warren. She can articulate a coherent theory of government. Now, you can think that's the worst thing you ever heard in your life. He thinks the greatest, but you can argue with it and she will defend it and she will be articulate. We don't have anybody of significance who can do that in the Republican Party with credibility. Beyond probably Mitt Romney and his credibility to be able to do this is undermined by the party.
So, I mean, we're going to go out and talk about national debt, really? I mean, are you kidding me? I mean, what are we going to do if, you know Elizabeth Warren, President, United States, you wanted to send a yoga mat to everybody. What we're going to say, like we can't afford, like, are you kidding me? After Trump, I mean, after what we've done to the deficit, is this one area of fiscal conservatism.
Do you think this is one area where the Republican Party's commitment to or historical commitment to fiscal responsibility has been a charade?
And I do think it's betrayed. And which is why you look at the history of the deficit. It goes up higher and we have a Republican president.
Why does it persist? Because the voters like to hear a lot of people say that they're. Going to lose weight and don't you want to believe both of you want to believe you could do it, but you also want to keep eating? So. You think you like the idea, like I'm fiscally conservative. That's like a good thing. It's good. But you don't want to be fiscally conservative because that can bring pain. So, you know, you're the alcoholic at the bar who says you can quit tomorrow, but you never do.
It's George Bush is saying, I always love you because, you know, a lot of the hard things never get done because they're hard and being a fiscal conservative is hard and it takes discipline. And we haven't had the discipline to do it. We haven't had the George Graham Rudman legislation. We haven't had a mandatory physical structure that forced us to do it like a lot of states do. We're required by law to balance our budget. So it hasn't happened, I think, with terrible consequences.
For the future, terrible consequences now, do you think voters actually care? I don't think voters give a damn. That's part of the problem. It's the numbers are meaningless, it's too big. I was hired by HBO to write this for our movie about about Katrina and New Orleans, and it was really about how Katrina happened with the government. And HBO ended up never making this, but I spent a lot of time with it and. You know, a lot of money was allocated to build levees in New Orleans that didn't go to building levees, and there was a long time governor of a long time mayor of New Orleans, Moon Landrieu.
His daughter became a senator. His son became lieutenant governor and governor. And Landrieu famously said nobody ever voted for a levee. And he built he took the money and he built this thing in New Orleans around the French Quarter called the Moonwalk, which was this great tourist attraction of this riverside walk. He just diverted Levy money for that and it helped him get elected. And people could go out on the moonwalk, that was like a good thing. And I think that sort of phenomenon carries on, people vote for what they get, not what they don't get.
So. I don't think voters care. I mean, look at all the southern states. Like my home state of Mississippi, 40 percent of the budget, Mississippi comes to the federal government. And if we get three and a half dollars back for every dollar that we pay in taxes and yet we go out and we attack California. Mean one for hardworking taxpayers in California, Mississippi would just blow away in New York, Retek, New York. I mean, the ultimate welfare states are these red southern states, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina.
I mean, when Nikki Haley goes out and rails against socialism, it's like, really? You want to give away the OK. You want to give back that money from the federal government, because that's kind of socialism, it's just a sort of disingenuous phoniness about it.
Do you think it has to do with more of a culture conflict, a cultural war, than it does the actual merits of the budget?
The fundamental problem with the Republican Party is that it's not very diverse and there are a lot of problems in the Democratic Party that come from diversity. I mean, you have the Bernie Sanders wing and you you know, you have Joe Biden. That's a that's a long walk from one to another. But you don't have that in the Republican Party. So if you take a forty five year old Republican school teacher, they're probably white and what they think about taxes is probably the same as a forty five year old hedge fund manager who's probably quite the Democratic Party.
You take a forty five year old teacher and what they think about taxes is probably different than a forty five year old hedge fund manager who's a Democrat. And that diversity is ultimately a strength of the Democratic Party. Because it reflects. More the country, it stops it from being captured by one set or another, we used to talk a lot about being a big tent Republican Party and saw that as an aspirational goal. Nobody really talks about that anymore.
Yeah, so I mean, the last time. Last time they came up was in that I think the last time that came up in earnest was after 2012. Yeah, so let's talk about that.
So Romney loses in 2012. Reince Priebus commissions this so-called autopsy examined by the party's law, as it is called, the Growth and Opportunity Report.
Anybody wants to look it up.
Yes, it's incredibly depressing to go back and read it. And look, I think Democrats deserves a lot of credit for that charge to be self-critical. Any organization. And look, the conclusions were pretty obvious. We need to appeal more to women. We need to appeal more to nonwhites. We need to appeal to younger voters. And this was presented, if you read it, and this is really important, it was presented not just as a political mandate, but as a moral necessity, that if we're going to be a governing party for this loud.
Growing, changing America, we needed to reflect that. So then Trump comes along and there's almost like an audible sigh of relief that over your old God we can to pretend we care about that stuff anymore, we can win just with white people. Thank God it's it's really tiring and it's exhausting being diverse.
So we have to pretend we care about these other people. And it is just show the in the shopping. They're perfectly happy being a whites only party if they can keep winning as a whites only party. I mean, there's this industry in America now analyzing how Donald Trump won Trump voters, blah, blah, blah. But look, Trump won with forty six point one percent. Mitt Romney lost with forty seven point two percent. So on one very fundamental level, Trump won because he ran in here with forty six point one percent was enough to win his Republican.
And Romney running in that area would have won overwhelmingly. I mean, look at Wisconsin. Romney lost Wisconsin by seven points. Trump won by a little under one point. Romney got more votes. He was just a different year, so. That's sort of critical decision that the party had to make. And force itself to stay, too. Are we going to expand? Or are we going to double down on being a white party? Pretty much thrown in the towel and expanding.
And we've just thrown into our. I mean, I can't tell you how soul crushing it was, is a seventh generation Mississippian whose name for Jeb Stuart is finally in Mississippi. Our state flag was basically the Confederate battle flag. And a few weekends ago, they voted, the state legislature did, to take it down and we'll have a new flag yet to be determined. And at that same time, yeah, Donald Trump is defending Confederate monuments and refuses to condemn the flag itself, which which, by the way, I just I just learned this recently.
But the Confederate flag, I think maybe most people who aren't exposed to it on a regular basis and don't or don't live in or near the south, see it as the Confederate flag. And they and they understand. They understand it stands for racism to understand it stands for treason. But I think something something I learned was that the Confederate flag, as we know it, is a Confederate battle flag. It was flown during a butterfly when. Right, exactly.
Yeah. And and so when we when we hear claims of heritage or history or or legacy, what we're actually looking at is a flag that was flown in the middle of the civil war against the north. I mean, look at part of the great, great, great uncle that rode with Moseby in the civil war, came back and had seven sons and then of all four Confederate Calvary generals for only the luck of the draw, I'm not my first name is exactly Cougher.
And growing up I got for Bonzai, but I mean it.
When I grew up in the South, you know, we didn't really celebrate the Fourth of July because it was one Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Phil. I mean, I wrote a piece about this prompted by the taking down the Mississippi flag, you can't. It's difficult to understand unless you're a Southerner, what the Confederate flag meant at the University of Mississippi, right? So I wrote a book after the Romney campaign. I found that losing makes you much more reflective than winning.
I went out next fall and my dad had just turned ninety five, and when I was growing up in Mississippi a lot of the way my dad and I bonded was by going to college football games, particularly Ole Miss games. So when he was ninety five, the fall of twenty thirteen, he and I and my mom, we went to all the Ole Miss games that season and I wrote a book about it. I used it as a framework to write a book called The Last Season, and I write about it a lot in that book, but.
University of Mississippi in Mississippi, I think is the most southern state, I think University of Mississippi, Ole Miss is the most Southern University. So when I went to these games, you know, at halftime, they would roll out what was billed as the largest Confederate flag in the whole field. I can remember being like a kid thinking like, what is the second largest Confederate flag? How big is that? And they would throw the cheerleaders would throw bundled Confederate flags in the stadium and we'd all sing Dixie.
And at the end we shot the South Rose again. I mean, the Mississippi College Band, their uniforms or the Confederate battle uniforms. I mean, up until, like, you know, eight years ago, you know, maybe like a fourth or more of the band was black. Yeah. Colonel Reb, who was the mascot. And it was this whole culture of the lost cause. You know, in 1860, when the entire student body of almost all men, of course, mustered out and joined the Confederate Army in the first Mississippi Regiment.
They did it on that area, on the Ole Miss campus called The Grove, which is now famous as being sort of the greatest tailgate party football college scene in America and around Gettysburg. They led Pickett's charge in eighty five percent casualties, which was not particularly good for the gene pool in Mississippi. You know, when you take people are going to university and kill eighty five percent of them.
And it was there in 1962 when Ole Miss was integrated by James Meredith that really the last battle of the civil war was fought right there on the grove. It took thirty thousand troops to integrate one African-American into the University of Mississippi. Now, the only time you do have a riot over something like that at Ole Miss is if an African-American athlete committed Ole Miss and denied, committed and went to Alabama. It is not going to come to this. We're going to riot.
So just the culture of this is so ingrained.
And, you know, I think, honest to its credit, has gone through a lot of soul searching. I know it has and it's been very hard and I think Mississippi's gone through a lot of soul searching. And it's so dispiriting to see this guy from Queens whose family didn't even live in America in the Civil War. Whose family has never fought in any war. They have a history of being draft dodgers who go back generations. To celebrate our heritage, it's like, what are you talking about, your heritage, dude?
I mean, you're like some rich Yankee from Queens. What are you talking about?
Yeah, and it's so. Just dispiriting to see this and. It's the wrong side of history. I mean, I can tell you that, I mean, you take your average teenager in Mississippi now a white teenager, take a lot, rather be a famous black rap artist and Robert E. Lee. I mean, they're culturally they're cultural icons are not the civil war, they're not looking at the Confederate flag, you know. You know, I mean, these states, places like Mississippi, that really is this deep, deep desire.
To move beyond all this, and it's complicated and it's a mess and part of it is economic because it hurts the state so economically, part of it is just because it's wrong as a human being. But it's a painful process and it's a process that the state continues to go through. And trumpet's just. You know, the idea that you had this guy's chief of staff, General Kelly, of the White House, arguing that slavery is causing a civil war.
So this year they wrote what causing the civil war. Each state did articles of secession. Ever read them there? It's all about so, yeah, it's you know, that the Republican Party has embraced that. I just find it incredibly depressing. And it's an extension of look, it's all about hate. I mean, Trump announces in the. What was this campaign about hating Muslims, hating Mexicans, hating, you know, calling a judge from Indiana, a Mexican.
Chop chop is the list is too long to respond. Yeah, yeah, I mean, if anybody is a perfect example of an immigrant who didn't assimilate in America, it's Donald Trump. He never absorbed American values. And it's. He and the Murdochs never understood what it's meant to be American, and, you know, there's always been a huge industry in America. Always has been I mean, the is your father, Colin, and it just never was a dominant industry.
I mean, Breitbart day and. Sure, yeah. But you know, you wouldn't let some freak like Steve Bannon near a campaign. I mean, all these people around Trump, they all wanted to be in campaigns before. Believe me, I was there, but nobody wanted them.
Corey Lewandowski, Steven Miller, all these Jason Miller. Jason Miller was an intern of mine. You know, I continue to apologize to the world for it. I mean, nobody would hire these people because they were very good and they were all sort of damaged human beings.
And that to trumpet tracks, you know, you look at this guy, Chad Wolf, who's running homeland security is just a low level kind of do nothing bureaucrat advocate, sort of a small town lobbyist. I mean, who started Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, so I work for Tom Ridge, the last Republican elected re-elected governor of Pennsylvania. So Ridge grows up in public housing, veteran assistant public housing. He's the first ever to graduate from college and his family got a scholarship to Harvard, went to Vietnam, refused to be an officer.
A few people. Go to Vietnam, who was a college graduate, Ivy League graduate, who didn't take an officer's commission because he wanted to be a grunt. Bronze Star. Goes back to Erie to prosecutor gets elected governor. And that's a great man. And you heard what he said today about Wolf, like, you know, hell would freeze over before I would let out of state federal trade goons come into my state.
This is talking about Portland and that the federal federal troops essentially who are taking protesters off of the street in unmarked cars without names on their uniforms. This is all very alarming.
Well, this is less of a project. Lincoln so important. Because project is a way to defeat Trump and it's a way to defeat Trump ism, and it's really I mean, John Weaver uses this phrase, the coalition of the decent. And that's really what this is about. I mean, listen, man, these people say some people say to me, you know, these Democrats, they attacked Romney unfairly. How can you? I look at George Bush, right?
So George Bush's father.
Was attacked. Viciously, here's a guy at 18 years old was the youngest Navy pilot, shot down, rescued a war hero, and the press called him a wimp and Democrats attacked him. But George Bush's son was a bitter. He still was positive and Bill Clinton defeated his father and Bill Clinton and George Bush have bonded and do a lot of good things together for a greater cause. And that's that's who you want to be. And, you know, I worked against a lot of these Democrats, I mean, we went up against each other all the time.
So, no, I want to have that one. I think a lot of things that was done by the Obama campaign, some things would be on the mark. But you have to look beyond that. And to a greater sort of unifying principle. And. I. If you're not against Trump ism, it's just isn't realistic to me. This is a good five to two closing questions for you, and this is a good segue to the first one, which is that we get a lot of questions from people about how they can talk to their friends and family who may still vote for Donald Trump.
May not. And and you know how if you're in that echo chamber, if you're in that political culture, it can feel very lonely when you start to feel that tugging at your conscience when you know you've gotten in too deep to something that you can't reconcile that isn't right. You just know it isn't right. What advice would you have for those people and for anyone who wants to talk to their family members, their friends or contacts, who they think are sincerely struggling with who to vote for?
You know, most of our life is instead involved in politics. You're involved in your family, your church, Boy Scouts, your school, your neighborhood, whatever charities are involved in. So I say, like, what if you had a Boy Scout leader who was like Donald Trump, would you want your kid to be that troop? What if Donald Trump was a coach and the coach, you kid? What if he's a teacher? What if he ran a local plant?
Would you want him as a boss? So why would you want him as president? It's just a terrible human being. I mean, do you teach your kids to be like Donald Trump? No one does that matters. One of the things that just blows my mind about this is, you know, as Republicans we said culture was the most important thing in a country. The culture to the soul of a country and if you go back and you read William Bennett's beautiful book, A Book of Virtue, and he later wrote a book about necessity, necessity to impeach Clinton, and now those people for Donald Trump.
How do you square that? I mean, people say to me, well, sometimes people say, well, you know, well, what about Bill Clinton? I was against Bill Clinton, against Clinton. I haven't changed. I thought Clinton was a disgrace, I think, in the Bush campaign. Really, the only message we had that really moved numbers was restoring honor and dignity to the White House. I mean, that Bush won that two thousand election, it's just incredible.
I mean. On Election Day, consumer confidence was the highest it had ever been on any election day, since we track consumer confidence, that's that's an election in which an incumbent should win.
I remember vividly what is a bit of a nail biter.
I mean, we used to joke in the Bush campaign, you know, like anybody can win when you get more votes. It takes professionals when you get fewer votes, which used to seem funnier than it does now. You know, if you talk to you know, I've always been struck. And if you talk to anybody who's been a foreign correspondent for a while and gone around the world in troubled war zones, one of the things that they always talk about, my experience is how fast a society can deteriorate.
And there's no reason that can happen in America. I mean, look look at how does the Sarajevo Olympic Stadium go from being an Olympic stadium to eight years later a torture center, the same people, there's nothing to say that America, what holds America together, will continue to hold America together. What is best about America? And what angers me the most and disgusts me the most about these current Republicans is, you know, they're heir to the greatest generation.
So, you know, my father was a classic example. He was like millions, he went in the Navy. He it was he was an FBI agent, really like being an FBI agent. He was in New York City basically chasing spies. Then he was ordered to round up Asian Americans. And he did it for one day, then he quit and as he used to always tell me, you know, you can always say no and went in the Navy.
So he spent three years in the South Pacific. Twenty eight Ilim landings came back and built to life like millions of these guys, and that's the legacy that's been inherited by these current Republican politicians, all politicians and courage isn't standing up to some fat, ridiculous figure like Donald Trump. Courage is getting out of the boat when the guy in front of you just got shot. And they don't have that they don't have the courage to stand up to Donald Trump.
I mean, no one can tell me if these current Republicans have been around in like seventeen seventy five, we still wouldn't be celebrating the Queen's birthday. And what would they say, what we're going to fight, you know what they say, we're going to fight the king. The most powerful army in the world. Are you crazy? We're just going to work this thing out. And they're just they're just weak and maybe that shouldn't surprise us. They're more afraid of yeah, they're more afraid of tweets than their predecessors were of bullets.
And and maybe that should not surprise us. Maybe cowardice is the norm and courage is the exception. But I think you're a disgrace. And. You know, I look at these so many that I helped elect, and I just kind of feel ashamed that I helped elect him. You know, none of us go through life or very few of us go through life, certainly I don't go through life looking for moral test there, like a shot of sperm.
I like avoiding moral test. It's like uncomfortable. But Donald Trump was the moral test.
And the Republican Party failed. And. I think that's pretty unforgivable and weak. And. I think that's, you know. And it's our responsibility to right. Yeah, and the Lincoln Project, the project Lincoln is really. Trying to be the Kurds that they don't have. And what I don't get, Ron, is most politicians have pretty big egos, which doesn't bother me in the least great athletes, artists, musicians have big egos. But why is it that they can't see how they're going to be remembered?
And I'm not talking remember 50 years and they're not remembered in three years. You know, I mean, George Wallace is governor, actually did some good stuff, he like passed free textbooks, but nobody's remembered is the free textbook George Wallace guy. You are the George Wallace guy. And that's how it's going to be trials. You're not going to be remembered as the where we lowered marginal corporate tax rates Trump guy because nobody cares. Nobody care. You're going to be the Trump will be the Trump guy.
Yeah. And it that's how it is. I mean, I think that Mitch McConnell thinks that Donald Trump can be remembered as his fool, and I'm pretty sure it's going to be the other way around.
Stuart, I have one last question for you. I've asked several other guests to tell us what they would say. They had five minutes alone with Donald Trump in a room. Just just the two of you. There's nobody watching. There's no cameras, nothing. What do you say to to the man?
Well, the first thing I'd say is resign. But listen, I think that Donald Trump is a very broken human being for a lot of reasons. You can read Mary Trump's book, but he's he's a deeply disturbed individual. The only thing Trump cares about is self-preservation. So, you know, what I would say to Trump is, look, forget doing the right thing because it's decent. But the right thing is actually in your best interest, so it's better for you if Americans are dying covid-19.
So get your shit together and focus on this and that's going to help you in a very personal sense. And, you know, give up on all this hate confederacy stuff because it's not going to work. Ronald Reagan won a sweeping landslide in 1980. Forty four states with 55 percent of the white vote, John McCain lost with fifty five percent of the white vote. So don't just because you won this free election in 16, don't think that by stirring up hate like this, you're going to be able to win again.
So in your own best interest, try to pretend that you're a better person. And I think that's the only way to communicate to him, I think you're a man, he's a gangster who cares about nothing. It's why he has this. Thuggish family around them, just a gangster. So the only way to deal with a gangster is to show them that it's in his own best interest. A big thank you to Stuart Stevens for coming on the show.
And thanks to all of you at home for listening. I hope you enjoyed our conversation as much as I did. Stewart's new book, It Was All a Lie How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump is available starting today. You can find more information about our movement at Lincoln Project, not us. And if you have advice or questions about the podcast, you can email us at podcast and link and project us even if we don't get back to you.
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