WASHINGTON – Steve Schmidt has worked at the highest levels of Republican politics. He helped run George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign and oversaw the confirmations of Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. He led Sen. John McCain’s ’08 presidential bid and helped introduce Sarah Palin to the world. The American Association of Political Consultants once named him its “GOP Campaign Manager of the Year.”
But today, Schmidt is finished with the Republican Party. He renounced his membership last week in a series of withering tweets that quickly went viral. Under Trump, he wrote, the party had become “corrupt, indecent, and immoral.” With the exception of a select few, the GOP was “filled with feckless cowards who disgrace and dishonor the legacies of the party’s greatest leaders.” He pointed to the Trump administration’s family separation policy and use of detention centers for young immigrant children – “internment camps for babies” – and the refusal of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to repudiate the president.
29 years and nine months ago I registered to vote and became a member of The Republican Party which was founded in 1854 to oppose slavery and stand for the dignity of human life. Today I renounce my membership in the Republican Party. It is fully the party of Trump.
— Steve Schmidt (@SteveSchmidtSES) June 20, 2018
In the days since, Schmidt’s former party brethren appear to have confirmed his prognosis. First, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tweeted an image of five heavily tattooed Hispanic-looking men – ostensibly gang members – with the message: “Nancy Pelosi introduces her campaign committee for the take back of the House.” Huckabee’s tweet was roundly criticized as bigoted and xenophobic. (He stiff-armed these accusations.) On Sunday, David Bossie, a veteran conservative activist who was Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016, told a black panelist on Fox News that he was “out of his cotton-picking mind.” (Bossie later apologized.) These weren’t the dog whistles of yore; this was plain-as-day bigotry and racism.
Schmidt’s decision to cut ties with Republicans didn’t exactly come as a surprise. He has for years served as one of the GOP’s staunchest critics from within. (You’ve probably seen him on MSNBC as the network’s go-to talking head for diagnosing the ills of the modern Republican Party.) Still, his perspective is a unique one, the star consultant who swore off his party and sounded the alarm on his way out. I spoke with Schmidt on Monday afternoon.
Why did you finally decide to leave the Republican Party?
I think it’s fair to say I’ve been estranged from the party on a number of issues going back to my advocacy and support for marriage equality in 2009 and then my opposition to the populism and the nationalism that we’ve seen. The reality that I’ve come to is that the party stands at an hour at which it is irredeemable, where it has died and bled out because of the cowardice and fecklessness of its leaders.
When Trump was elected, there were three parties in Washington: the Trump party, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The Republican Party had every chance to put a check on his vile personal conduct, his administration’s outlandish corruption, his fetishizing and affinity for autocrats around the world and his undermining of the western alliance.
How did it get to this point?
I think it’s important to understand the history of the Republican Party. It was founded in 1854 because of the moral collapse of the Whig Party, specifically around the question of race and the expansion of slavery into the western territories.
The Republican Party remained the party of the North and the West culturally in this country until the Civil Rights Act. On the day that LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act, he says, “I feel like I’ve lost the South.” Over time, beginning with Richard Nixon in ’68, with the Southern Strategy and the appeal to white working-class Southerners, the Republican Party is uprooted from the North and the West. That is the party I was born into.
This present strain of know-nothingism has long been in the party’s DNA.
This cancer has always been there. This dormant cancer. But it has become fully embraced in this moment. We’re seeing at this moment a president of the United States do five things. He is using mass rallies that are fueled by constant lying to incite fervor and devotion in his political base. The second thing we see him do is to affix blame for every problem in the world. Many of them are complex, not so different from the issues faced at the end of Agrarian age and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. We see him attack minority populations with words like “invade” and “infest.” The third thing he does is a create a shared sense of victimization caused by the scapegoated populations. This is the high act of Trumpism: From Trump to Sean Hannity to Laura Ingraham, everyone is a victim. The fourth thing he does is he alleges conspiracy by nefarious and unseen hidden forces – the “deep state.” And the fifth thing is the assertion that “I am the law, that I am above it.” He just said immigrants don’t get a hearing; they don’t get a court representation.
So the party’s evolution is as much cultural as it is political or ideological.
The two parties for a long time were not homogeneous ideologically. There were plenty of conservatives in the Democratic Party, and there were no small number of liberals in the Republican Party. Now, culturally, we’re in thrall to theocratic crackpots like Mike Huckabee and Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, where you’re able to justify the candidacy of a Roy Moore because you want to keep the Senate seat. The theocracy and crackpot sewer conservatism has taken over.
What you’ve seen is this rapid devolution over the last 18 months of the Republican Party becoming a white ethno-nationalist party, a blood-and-soil party that is protectionist, isolationist, that is rooted in resentment and grievance.
The Republican Party isn’t going to die because of Trump. It’s going to die because of Ryan and McConnell. You’re now left with one political party in support of liberal democracy.
Would these same forces have reared their heads if we’d had a Marco Rubio or a Hillary Clinton presidency?
It’s always been there. It’s been there from the Know-Nothing movement in the 1840s. The effect of Trump is the justification it gives to people who are angered by Trump to act more like Trump. To debase themselves into opposition. If you want to oppose Trump, the first thing you should do is say, “I’m not going to do one thing that makes it worse.” Because making it worse helps Trump. Part of the damage of this era is his debasement and his purposeful divisions. That’s unique in all of history.
President Obama said he draws a straight line from McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate to Trump’s election. You helped McCain pick Palin in 2008. Did she usher in the Trump era?
I think people miss the point on Sarah Palin. She’s not the cause. She’s a symptom. The sickness is how people reacted to her after you knew what she was. There’s never been an era absent of demagogues. What there hasn’t been is an ability of those demagogues to gain actual power – certainly not at a national level. We threw the ball down the field [by picking Palin] and it didn’t work. I had no idea what she was and didn’t know until a couple days after we picked her. But by the time the race ends, everybody knows. Yet what happens? Palin gets a million-dollar TV contract on Fox.
Can the Republican Party be saved?
If the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower and Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan is to be redeemed and resurrected, then the party of Trump must be obliterated. Annihilated. Destroyed. And all of the collaborators, the complicit enablers, the school of cowards, need to go down. Maybe something can regenerate from that.
I don’t view it so much differently than I view a forest fire. A forest fire is part of a natural cycle of the forest. The forest burns, and through its burning and destruction, it is regenerated and made healthy again. For the Republican Party and the conservative movement, with its rot, its corruption, its indecency … before there can be any talk of restoration, there must be a season of burning.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.