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Hello from the Lincoln Project and welcome back, I'm Rhonda Tussler. On today's episode, we're going to look at the path from political polarization to the radicalization we're witnessing during Trump's presidency. Hyperpolarization has been the norm in America for over a decade, but today we're going to look at how the original design of our electoral system morphed into polarization and how that division evolved into the radicalization we're witnessing as President Trump fans, the flames of division and chaos to help me break this down.


Today, I have national political strategist and my fellow Lincoln Project co-founder, Steve Schmidt, and veteran strategist and media consultant and Lincoln Project senior adviser Stuart Stevens. Steve, before we get started to dig in here, I'd love for you to set the stage for us by talking a bit about how the American political system is unique. That is how it's supposed to be working and all the ways that it isn't living up to its original design right now. Well, the American political system is unique in the sense that we are the oldest constitutional republic in the world and the birth of the country.


The idea that there would be a government of the people, by the people, for the people, that the people could decide, that people could vote, that the leaders of the country, the head of state of the country, would be selected, not hereditary titles. This was a revolutionary concept in the world. There wasn't such a thing as a president before. There was the American president and the Constitution of the United States as a governing framework has turned out to be a work of profound genius.


And over time, it's been through the framework of the American constitution that's allowed for the country to more closely evolve to its founding ideals and ideals which were found in the Declaration of Independence. The idea that we're all created equal, endowed by our creator with inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And so that the head of state in this country is the president chosen by the chosen by the people. But there's no person, no office that is above the rule of law that supreme in this country.


Right. That's that's the point of a constitutional republic now. For much of the history, our politics have been shaped by political parties and George Washington warned about them, he saw them rising towards the end of his first term. And the contest between the Democratic Republicans and the Federalists was something that in his farewell address, he said to the country that he warned about the danger of foreign entanglements, but also faction, which was the word of that era for partisanship, for tribal parties that would subordinate the national interest for parochial interests.


And so we've had a stable two party system in this country, really since the founding of the Republican Party in 1854. And the two American political parties, Democratic Party and the Republican Party are respectively the first and the third oldest political parties in the world. And for much of the country's history, the parties have been stabilising institutions in our country because the parties were strong. And the parties were also diverse. They were not regionally or ideologically homogenous. So, for example, I grew up in New Jersey and there was a tremendous tradition of Republicanism, all of whom happen to be pretty liberal.


Stewart grew up in Mississippi. Mississippi was a Democratic state, in fact. And I think I'm correct about this, is that. There were only three elected federal officeholders in the Republican Party from south of the Mason-Dixon Line on the day that Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. So there were a lot of conservatives in the Democratic Party, in states like Mississippi and Alabama, in Texas. And so we've seen a number of things that have happened over recent years.


That you can all lay blame for this? Well, one of the first is the admission of TV cameras into the House chamber. There was an opportunistic young congressman named Newt Gingrich who utilized that feature C-SPAN to deliver polemic speeches on the floor and became famous for issuing guidance and language, talking about his political opponents as enemies, as degenerates. And he found an audience for it. The second thing is a campaign finance regime that has over the last 40 years looked at money in American politics and said.


That of all of the categories of money, the most pernicious type of money is the money that flows to a candidate or a. Political party. That those are the most corrupting dollars in the process. And and in fact, as money has flown away from the parties, it has not diminished. The amount of money being spent on American politics has never been higher. It just simply is spent in outside groups. And a lot of those outside groups enforce single issue discipline now a political party has to, by virtue of its ambition, to be a national organization.


Has to accommodate a diversity of views or it's going to be a faction, it's going to be a minority, so political parties have always been about building broad basis. But as the parties have weakened, the outside groups have grown. And politicians are terrified about being deviant on any issue that strains it, the financial. Incentives around the maintenance of an orthodoxy of position on any one of a number of different subjects, and that matters because of now the total brokenness of the redistricting and gerrymandering process is which decides how we draw congressional lines.


And in a democracy. You want the voters to pick the politicians, we live in a country where in most instances the politicians pick their voters. So we have very few competitive elections. And the danger to politicians in losing their seats comes through a primary process where the money will come from an ideological outside group because there's been some type of apostasy on some issue. Remember, Ronald Reagan was the one who said that someone who agrees with me, 80 percent in politics is not my political opponent, someone who agrees with me 80 percent of the time.


To all of these combinations of factors. Combined together. To put us in this moment of profound governing dysfunction, and I haven't mentioned yet the rise of right wing media. Fox News in a vast and sophisticated misinformation echo chamber from Facebook and all the other social media outlets as well. All of this combined. Is putting tremendous downward pressure on the structures of how the system is supposed to work and it's broken it over the last 30 to thirty five years and and the evidence of that.


Is this simple and astonishing fact? On issue after issue in this country, whether it's on immigration reform, whether it's on taxation, whether it's on spending, whether it's on criminal justice reform, whether it's on gun control. The overwhelming majority of the country, and by overwhelming majority, I'm talking about 80 percent or so support common sense solutions, both Republicans, Democrats and independents. But they cannot move that legislation through the Congress for all of the reasons I said, and so you have a situation where 90 percent of the country after a mass shooting, should say that, well, we think this is common sense.


We want to do this. Impossible to do. Right. So the broad middle of the country that looks at immigration and says we got to fix the issue. It basically has a formula that says if you're not a law breaker and you work honestly and you're here and you've been here, you can stay. You pay a fine, you get in the back of the line behind the last person in line for a green card through a regular order process, and that's where the country is.


To be able to be able to work this out, but but you cannot get these things done because of all those reasons that I talked about. And so polarization has become elemental to an election strategy. Where the broad middle has been completely disenfranchised and the polarization has started to yield to a radicalization. Of the most intense members of both parties, but most acutely in the Republican Party, where its most toxic and most dangerous and overwhelmingly so right now, and we're going to dig into that.


So is it fair to summarize as a starting point to begin with?


At least right now, we have a system that is no longer responsive to the inputs of its primary stakeholders, his constituents. Exactly right.


OK, Stuart, maybe you can comment on how we got to the point where it's not about the merits of the ideas of how to govern, but about who can most effectively weaponize the intensity of emotion on the opposite side purely to win. And I think this gets at the radicalization point that Steve brought us to. Yeah, you know, I think it's we have to be careful here that not the sort of both sides this right, because I think, yes, both parties are guilty of this.


And I spent 30 years pointing out flaws in the Democratic Party. You know, I got my bases covered there. But I think that the Republican Party is much more guilty of this. And why? Well, the fundamental reason I think it's a Republican Party is much more homogeneous. So Democratic Party I mean, I would argue today and we talk about three parties buying their third party in America, that there sort of is a third party, that there's really two parties which are the Democratic Party.


So, you know, example I used and I think it is shown out the tremendous power that we've had with, like the tax pledge. Grover Norquist, it would be reasonable to say that if you take a 35 year old Republican schoolteacher, probably how they feel about taxes is going to be the same as a 65 year old hedge fund manager. Why is that? Well, probably both are going to be white and probably both are going to believe that paying less taxes is good.


So you think the Democratic Party, 35 year old school teacher odds are less great that that person will be white and they'll probably have a different view that a 65 year old Hedgeman now that makes running a party difficult and makes it contradictory, makes it pretty easy to get a coalition to make these fights that you have. But ultimately, there's a strength in it. And issues like the NRA and Grover Norquist, they have given an outside power disproportionate to the way that voters view these issues and they've become toxic.


Let's don't forget that President Bush 41, after he was president, wrote a long, blistering letter to the NRA resigning his lifetime membership after they referred to federal authorities as jackbooted thugs. I think that the Republican Party has been shaped by this and limited in its growth by this much more than the Democratic Party.


So maybe you can break down for listeners what we mean when we say an issue set in political campaigns, because I think this gets to how issues have begun to matter less in terms of the ideas for how to govern and and more about how you can manipulate popular opinion based on it, based on a set of issues and the intensity around those issues.


Yes, I mean, and political consultants are at fault here. You know, I've said before, I probably represent the worst of the American political system because I've just focused on winning campaigns.


But we sort of have a different role and than those that we work for once elected. I think the essence of this goes to what is governing. Governing is all about compromise. I mean, he goes what Steve was saying, Ronald Reagan's go to about 80 percent. And we're at a point now where their purity test, the purity test on both sides. But the Republican Party purity test is much smaller and more defined. What is extraordinary about this is you have someone like Donald Trump who comes along and by every standard, Donald Trump is basically a guest for the Republican Party, said it was for four decades character counts, personal responsibility, strong on Russia, strongly pro illegal immigration.


Ronald Reagan announced in front of the Statue of Liberty, signed a bill that made everybody in the country before 1983 legal free trade trump against all of those things. And yet Republicans support him. Why? Well, a lot of reasons. And I think race has a lot to do with this, but the purpose of the Republican Party now is just to defeat Democrats. And that really doesn't go beyond that. And the sort of a penalty of that sort of two examples of that would be.


The party platform, I never thought we put this in writing. I wrote a book about the Republican Party is pretty bleak. I finished it a year ago. It turns out I was overly optimistic. I mean, that they're going to put in writing that the only thing the party believes in is what Donald Trump believes in mean. That's extraordinary. And the other thing is here we have a you know, this moment where the United States, to his ineptitude, stupidity, incompetence, vanity, lack of ability to focus, is killing tens of thousands of Americans.


And they were caught in this. We have the Woodward tapes that come out where he says that he deliberately hid from the public the seriousness of this. And that's what more of a test can you get than the fact that he's killing us and Republicans are still supporting him. I mean, if we had the same fatality rate for covid-19 is Germany one hundred and forty thousand or so more Americans would still be alive. I mean, that's just an extraordinary number, so it's sort of the ultimate test, okay, even if he's going to kill me, will I still support him in this?


And I would have to say this to some degree. Run the boundary line between a political question in a and a sociological question. It's deeply rooted to the character of the country and into the concept of Americanism. And if there was if there was one thing that that's rooted to Americanism, it's the idea of individualism that Americans aren't immune from being cult members. But we have as a nation been immune to having a cult of personality disfigure one of our two political parties and our politics.


But that's what we have today in the country. We have a we have a multibillion dollar anger industry. That drives American politics appealing to the hardest core. Right, the most intense core of a 30 percent at the most base of the country that has surrendered fundamentally its agency to a leader who is illiberal and thoughts on American who has autocratic and authoritarian tendencies. And this was validated. In the platform, as Stuart pointed out, of the party, that essentially said, I want to be a Republican, all you have to believe in is Trump.


And all you have to do is, is be obedient to the leader. The American response to that, frankly, is go fuck yourself, no, thank you. It's not in the national character to see that and so. You now look at something that's come out today is that it's astonishing, right in this goes to this boundary between our polarization. In the radicalization, right, that's that's that's that's metastasized from it and it has overwhelmed the whole of the Republican Party, where there's a crisis of cowardice in the leadership of the senators, with the exception of Mitt Romney, refused to speak out against any of this.


We have a crisis of of decency where people who are pillars of the conservative. Media and intellectual establishment look another way at all of this. But here's what we know now. We we have. A president of the United States. Who admitted? On tape. To premeditatedly and deliberately lying to the country over and over and over and over again, about covid calling it a hoax, calling people to take hydroxy chloroquine, telling people to ingest whole, telling people that it would be gone, would be gone by Easter, you'd be gone by the beginning of July.


And so what do we have?


We got a guy. Who lied and committed the greatest act of negligence and malfeasance in the history of the country, bar none. That has killed almost two hundred thousand people. Before it's done, will kill more Americans than were killed in the whole of the Second World War. Has devastated the economy. Has fundamentally disrupted the education of every kid in the country. Has ended the American way of life. From being able to be together as families, being able to travel, being able to get together for a tailgate at a college football game, it's all gone.


Because of the mismanagement, the incompetence of the clown who sits behind the resolute desk in the Oval Office, who has precipitated a nosedive of a decline in the most powerful, most advanced economy in science and math country on the face of the Earth. And 30 percent of the country, no matter what. Our wisdom. Do you think this gets to negative partisanship? Well, look, I think that. The failure here is of the Republican Party as an entity.


I mean, our parties have to form a sort of circuit breaker switch and Republicans never pull the circuit breaker on Trump. And it wasn't because they didn't know who Trump was. Donald Trump was the least surprising human on the planet. He's the most predictable person on the planet. He's told us for decades who he is. There's no sleight of hand here. There's no attempt to have a sleight of hand. And I think that Republicans. There's sort of two views of this.


One more benign, one less benign, the more benign is that they actually believed that if Democrats came into power, if Hillary Clinton was comfortable, Flight 93 peace that came in, that this would threaten democracy, that they had to do this. Now, I think to believe that is very un-American, because the essence of democracy is I was told once by a U.N. adviser when I was working in elections in the Congo, he said, you know, man, the thing about this democracy thing is somebody's got to be willing to lose.


And when you take the attitude that you'll support someone who's completely unfit to be president because you're unwilling to lose, it's an anti-democratic Loades Democratic instinct. The less benign view, which is really where I come down, is it's just cowardice is not interesting. It's not novel. It's there's nothing about it that we haven't seen before, but that these are really a group of not particularly bold, brave people. And there's something to be said about our system that is self selected.


This group of people that are best aren't willing to run for office, but that they've ended up here and cowardice is contagious. And cowards like to be surrounded by cowards because then they feel normal. And that's what models are. Right. And so the great betrayal here, I think, is among these Republican politicians who are heir to the greatest generation and they don't have the courage to stand up to Donald Trump. And courage is not standing up Donald Trump.


Courage is getting out of the boat when the guy in front of you got shot. And that's their legacy. And they've just squandered that. And I think it's disgraceful. I hope they'll look back on it with shame, but I know that history will record it is shame.


So, Steve, you mentioned blind loyalty a little bit earlier. I want to talk a little bit more about that as the next stage between sort of from polarization to radicalization, blind loyalty is sort of a stop along the way. So I wonder if you can dig into that a little bit more, talk about how diversity of thought has essentially evaporated within the Republican Party since 2008. And maybe the last really prominent stand of that was John McCain on health care repeal.


What I think is true historically is that the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are two of the most important institutions, not just in our country's history, but in world history for the advancement of human dignity and freedom. And each party almost providentially has produced the right leader. In the nation's moments of crisis. Whether it was Lincoln in the 19th century, the Democrats with FDR in the 20th century and. I'm somebody who has a right of center disposition, but believes FDR saved both democracy and capitalism before he saved the world from slavery.


What with the with the Republican Party was. Was the more conservative. Small C. Of the country's two small L liberal Democratic parties that argued, sometimes vituperative and vociferously. Between the 40 yard lines over, sometimes not such big disagreements, and that's the way it's supposed to work when you win an election, you advance your agenda. But you also were cognizant that forty six, forty five, forty seven percent of the country wasn't with you. That you have some understanding of the concept of restraint, and if you lose, you understand, you get the best deal that you can.


But the purpose of both political parties is to advance through advocacy for ideas, ideals and positions, a more perfect union. But both parties. As a as a broad proposition, despite the George Wallace's and the segregationists and those noxious elements of our history, the modern versions of these parties have been utterly fidelities. To the idea of democracy, to the idea of the US led liberal global order. The Republican Party in the Trump era that exists today. Is by any definition, as we said at the beginning, a cult, the person out to be a Republican now is about a belief in the role, an appropriate role of government with the size of government should be.


It's not about a philosophy on international relations or security or any other issue. It's about obedience to Donald Trump. And we saw at that Republican convention three things. We saw a level of breathtaking lying. From the moment the gavel came down to the moment the convention closed, it's unprecedented in the history of the country. We saw brazen lawlessness. Illegal lack after illegal act on the plain meaning of the law about the use of federal properties and taxpayer dollars for political purposes, it just didn't care.


The president reveled in the idea, according to reports, that no one could hold him accountable in. The last thing you saw was the co-option of the ecumenical symbols of the republic that belong to all of us. Trump's converting them into partisan totems and symbols of his authority. So when you do those three things, what are you declaring? Well, I think that what I saw was someone declaring and putting forward into an American election this proposition. That I am the truth, I am the law, and I am the state.


And when not a single legislator from the coequal branch of government. Stands up to oppose any of this, not to mention the constant usurpation of the checks and balances. He assaults on the rule of law on institutions where you have. For the first time fully in the country and in Liberal Party, it looks much more like some European far right party that Marine Le Pen would be a member of that you might see in Victor Orbanes, Hungary. Something that's alien to the American tradition.


And so in our two party system, we only have one party now that has faithfulness to democracy and that's the Democratic Party. And so we're in this moment in time where 60 days before an election, there's an issue on the table. And it's about the confrontation that must happen between the Democratic Party, any ideas or the ideals of the country and Trump ism. Which is, by definition, an un-American ideology. The times in our country's history where there has been an outbreak of extremism.


And there has been terrible things that have been done in the name of that. Extremism, the massacres that took place in the 70s, the. Terrible race murders in Tulsa. This stuff has littered our history. But but never has there been. An extreme movement like this one. That has seized power in the country. And now has put put forward the proposition. That any outcome in an election. That affirms any result other than remaining in power.


Is illegitimate. Which is an assault. To the foundational concepts of the United States of America. And that's what this election is about to, is this is this what you mean? Is this what we mean when we say radicalize? Because I want to end with this and I know we've only got a few more minutes left, but I'd like to hear from both of you exactly what we mean when we say that Trump is radicalizing.


Well, if you if you believe that you're defending between you and the Western civilization, you're the you're the Spartan in the gate. It gives you permission to do whatever is necessary to make sure that the opposing forces lose. Not this idea. We're two good people that we disagree. And the country is going to choose a path. It's the this is and they look at it and speak of it often is ordained by God that Trump is an angel, an avenging angel who has come to save us somebody how to do it.


And that gives you permission to do whatever is necessary. And once you're in that mindset, it's not a question of right or wrong because you're by you've been pardoned, you're in the right. And if that means that you're going to go shoot somebody, you go do that. Now, who does this affect the most? The weakest in our society, the most impressionable, the ones who are on the fringes of society, like this 18 year old kid who goes and gets a semi-automatic weapon and shoots two people at a protest.


But it's a short walk when they see Donald Trump elevating, putting on a national stage, glorifying two millionaire lawyers from St. Louis who are only on stage because they threaten black people, peaceful demonstrators with guns. So, you know, it just gives me a Republican said for decades, the culture was the most important element in the country. More important than any one issue was the soul of the nation. And guess what? We were right. And now we've just thrown this all out.


And this is a culture of hate that has been embraced by National Party and its. I don't think we've seen this. We've had elements of a politics of hate for a long time. I mean, the 30s, we had a huge element of this, but it wasn't adopted by major part. And I think that history will tell us that once a party does embrace this hate, it's very difficult, a long road to undo that. But the first step is to defeat Donald Trump.


It's necessary, but inadequate. Steve. We have an enormous problem in this country when seemingly out of the blue, and I say this to someone who reads a lot, lot of newspapers, a lot of magazines, a lot of books and watches a lot of news. I never heard of a boogaloo boy until they showed up armed to the teeth in tactical gear with our 15 armed force. Body armor and Hawaiian shirts fetishizing about a second civil war at the Michigan State Capital.


And. Since when? Is that OK in this country and armed assault? Demanding a meeting. To discuss a political grievance with the elected head of the state. Armed to the teeth. This isn't a banana republic. And so if you look at Trump's rhetoric, the young man that Stewart is speaking about, murderer now 17 years old, he was radicalized by Trump ism and we shouldn't shy away from talking about this. He sat there in the front row.


We heard everything. We can get the quotes out from Fox News and Judge Jeannine and Laura Ingraham in the rest of them can listen to the insanity of Infowars. And of course, that was one of the first people that Trump called Alex Jones after he was elected president. We can watch the conspiracies play out and all the dark recesses of the web, we should take the white nationalists and racists and Klansmen and neo-Nazis at their word when they feel that Trump has validated them and mainstream them and they exalt in his presidency.


We should understand the power and the American presidency when German far right parties are marching with banners of their new Führer, their leader, Donald Trump. We should understand all of this because we've devoted a lot of money and time in trying to understand how is it that a young man in the Middle East has no higher ambition in life than to strap on a suicide vest and go kill people in a market? Or to drive a car bomb into US troops.


No different. And so let's look at the cause and effect. That plainly exists. You have a you have a couple. Name the McCluskey's in St. Louis. Who were appropriately arrested and charged. To come out onto their lawn, pointing weapons at peacefully marching protesters. Almost all of them minorities. And they have no accomplishment, no no reason to be at the Republican convention except for that achievement period, full stop. And go back and listen to what they said.


Listen to the apocalypse they describe. Listen to the dystopia. That they are heralding is about to descend. On suburban America, listen to the words of Mac Gates at that convention. Listen to the messianic ravings of Kimberly Guilfoyle. Listen to it, listen to what Trump said. So what happened? 17 year old took his AR 15, got in his car and drove from Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin, a town where the country got to witness. An unarmed black man was shot in the back seven times.


And here you go with the 17 year old who's walking. In this chaotic situation past the cops, no problem, apparently strapped with this or 15, looking for trouble, and he found that he killed two people in the political culture that Donald Trump has stoked these flames is directly responsible. And it's no accident and it's no coincidence. That the violence we've seen at these rallies, the menace that has always changed on the edge of it. Is getting hotter and more dangerous and spreading and is likely to spread even more between now and the election.


In this isn't the type of country I would I would submit. That we should aspire to be in the third decade of the 21st century. But make no mistake. There is an extremist in this race, there is a radical element in this race. And it's Trump ism, it's Donald Trump, it's his family, it's his collaborators and enablers in the White House. It's his collaborators and enablers in the Congress, and it's his collaborators and enablers in the money set.


We believe that this is the pathway to special privilege. At the expense of the many. Which explains how Kanye West gets many millions of dollars of covid money when. Many, many small businesses were told that the well was dry and that their dreams were dead. Well, look, I just say what all this means is that the next days between now and the election, I think, are some of the most dangerous and important in the history of the country.


And that's really what Steve is saying. And I think that for people out there listening, what we do between now and November 3rd, I think there's a very good chance that, you know, in your last days you'll look back on this and be the most proud of what you did. The history we don't get to choose history, but history can choose us, and we have been chosen in this moment as a nation to decide what kind of country we are.


And it is really going to define who we are and each of us and collectively we know who Donald Trump is, he's not going to change. The question is, who are we? And I, I remain optimistic. That that our vision of a better angels will come through, but it's a fight. I mean, these people will fight to hold onto power. They'll fight because they believe that the alternative is the Antichrist and it's a struggle, but it's a fight worth having.


Let's leave it there, Steve. Stuart, thanks for being on the show today. And thanks to all of you at home for listening. You can find more information about our movement at Lincoln Project US if you have advice or questions for us. You can email us at podcast at Lincoln Project US. Please know that even if you don't receive a response, we read every email we get and we appreciate hearing from you. If you haven't yet, please make sure to subscribe rate and review the show wherever you get your podcasts.


This helps us stay up in the rankings so that more voters can find the show and join our movement to defeat Trump and Trump ism for the Lincoln Project. I'm Ron. I'll see you in the next episode.