“The most distinguishing characteristic of the current national Republican Party is cowardice . . . the party demands dishonesty as a trait of membership.”
“If the Republican Party had been in charge in 1776, we’d all still be celebrating the queen’s birthday.”
“One of the hallmarks of the Trump era is the alacrity with which intelligent people embrace stupidity.”
You might imagine these are the words of a partisan Democrat or a political columnist for a large metropolitan daily.
But they come from “It Was All A Lie,” a new book by Stuart Stevens, a political consultant who has spent much of this adult life trying to get Republicans elected to office, including a number of presidential candidates.
Stevens’ book is a blistering attack on the modern Republican Party and its wholesale surrender to Donald Trump.
For Stevens, that surrender hardly comes as a surprise. The GOP is, at its heart, a “white grievance party,” he writes. And with Trump’s victory in 2016, it could “breathe a sigh of relief that no longer did it need to pretend that it must reach out more to nonwhite voters.”
Nominating a morally challenged, credibly accused sexual predator to be president might seem discordant for a party that has long talked about the importance of “family values” and character. But for Stevens it just showed how little Republicans cared about the principles they so loudly proclaim.
Talk of fiscal responsibility is another lie, says Stevens. In reality, neither Republican voters nor their leaders are all that interested in cutting federal spending or balancing the budget.
Stevens even takes on the intellectual heavyweights of the conservative movement like Bill Bennett, who in the 1990s bemoaned the coarsening of American culture and lacerated Bill Clinton for his moral failings. Rather than be aghast at Trump’s rise, Stevens notes, Bennett lauded it and attacked fellow Republicans who failed to get on board. A party so bereft of an ideological underpinning, Stevens says, is little more than a rabid fan base intent on defeating its key rival. Winning is now the only metric that matters.
Trump’s takeover, as far as Stevens is concerned, was the logical end point of the GOP’s twisted trajectory — and his ascendancy gave lie to every ideological argument and every talking point uttered by party leaders.
This analysis may sound familiar to close observers of American politics. Yet, it is striking to see an actual practitioner of these black arts point a finger at himself.
In the book, Stevens is honest enough to acknowledge the subtle ways he played the game of racial politics. He’s honest enough to write about how he cut ads that shaded the truth and put victory above all other considerations.
Some will characterize Stevens’ book as self-serving and disingenuous. Surely, he must have realized what he was doing for the GOP — and to the country — at the time. But he insists he was in denial. “Had Trump not been the nominee and won the election,” Stevens told me in an interview, “I probably could have kept denying it to myself. Most of us go through life trying to avoid moral crisis but Trump made it impossible to ignore.”
He told me that what initially drew him to the GOP was the notion of “personal responsibility.” And he didn’t know where else to begin but by taking responsibility for his own actions.
Stevens writes in the book, “It is a strange, melancholy feeling to turn 65 and realize that what you have spent a good portion of your life working for and toward was not only meritless but also destructive.”
He told me it would be “a very fulfilling thing to believe that a greater good had been accomplished” by his work for Republican politicians but, “I don’t have that. I have an empty feeling about it.”
Stevens said he wrote this book for the purpose of “testimony, not conversion.” Nonetheless, his willingness to tell the truth should serve as a model for the mea culpas that Republicans who enabled Trump’s corruption, norm-shattering, and immorality owe us.
When the Trump nightmare passes and Democrats take back the White House, Republicans will no doubt revert to the empty moralism and more subtle racism they employed pre-Trump. They will almost certainly try to downplay their support for, and enabling of, the president. That cannot stand.
“There’s no coherent center-right philosophy in American politics today,” Stevens told me, and he clearly believes there needs to be one. But with good reason, he holds out little hope that the current incarnation of the GOP can be the standard-bearer for such a philosophy.
It’s clear now, if it wasn’t before, that the Republican Party under Trump is not an anomaly. The GOP was, is, and remains a broken party uninterested in public policy, committed to the politics of racial resentment, and focused exclusively on political power. Stuart Stevens might have had his moment of introspection. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the rest of the party to follow his lead.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.