Is the Republican Party falling apart? Steve Schmidt — a GOP consultant who worked on George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004 and ran John McCain’s campaign in 2008 — thinks it very well might be.
“There will be the alt-right party; then there will be a center-right conservative party,” he told me on Thursday. “I think what you’re gonna see is [Trump campaign CEO and Breitbart News chief] Steve Bannon monetizing 30 percent of the electorate into a UKIP-style movement and a billion-dollar media business.”
Schmidt was ahead of the curve in analyzing Donald Trump’s rise, arguing to me in August 2015 that, contrary to the beliefs of many experts, the GOP establishment had “no ability to stop” Trump because actual Republican voters no longer paid any mind to what their party elites thought.
So I got in touch with him for his thoughts on what’s happened since, and he unloaded on Trump (“manifestly unfit in every conceivable way”), Republican Party leadership (“political cowardice on a massive level”), and evangelical leaders standing by the nominee despite everything (“literally the modern-day Pharisees”). This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Stepping back a bit from the swirl of allegations about Trump’s personal behavior in the news, what’s your big-picture view of the state of the Republican Party right now, and our politics in general?
One of John McCain’s famous quotes was quoting Chairman Mao: “It’s always darkest before it’s completely black.”
The Trump campaign is over — Hillary Clinton is going to be elected president. The question that remains here, the open question, is the degree of the collateral damage, right? The Republicans are going to lose the US Senate. The question is how many seats can they lose in the House. It is possible but not probable yet that they lose the House majority. So the question is, how far below 40 percent is Trump in the popular vote?
Then there’s a long-term implication for the civic life of the country, the vandalism being done, which will culminate for the first time in American history with his refusal to make an ordinary concession where he grants to the winner legitimacy by recognizing the legitimacy of the election. I think it’s very clear he’s going to go out saying it’s a rigged system.
And I think the Republican Party has an outstanding chance of fracturing. There will be the alt-right party; then there will be a center-right conservative party that has an opportunity to reach out, repair damage, and rebuild the brand over time. America, ideologically right now, is a centrist country — it used to be a center-right country — but it’s by no means a Bernie Sanders country. Not even close. The market will demand a center-right party.
The last implication for it behaviorally is it exposes at such a massive scale and at such magnitude the hypocrisy of the Tony Perkinses and the Jerry Falwell Jrs. and the Pat Robertsons. These people are literally the modern-day Pharisees, they are the money changers in the temple, and they will forever be destroyed from a credibility perspective.
There are millions of decent, faithful, committed evangelicals in this country who have every right to participate in the political process. But this country doesn’t ever need to hear a lecture from any one of these people [Perkins, Falwell, etc.] again on a values issue, or their denigration of good and decent gay people in this country.
Back in 2012, Democrats argued that the Republican Party was waging a “war on women,” and many GOP politicians furiously denied it. Will the fact that the party is standing by Trump now do long-term damage to its brand among women?
As a political device, the “war on women” trope was effective. Republicans had an unfortunate series of candidates who were able to caricature the party.
But the defense of Trump, the cowardice of so many Republican elected officials who won’t confront this — what it exposes is political cowardice on a massive level. It exposes a political class in the Republican Party that simply is unfit to lead the country.
As a conservative Republican, I find anathematic the regulatory and tax policies of liberal Democrats. But there’s no question that Republicans — as an institution and what we’re led by — are unfit to run the country, or to govern the country.
You have a massive reckoning coming due that will play out over years on the serially putting party above country. We’ve reached the moment in time that George Washington warned about in his farewell address with the danger of factions. You have basically warring tribes that subordinate the national interest to their tribal interest.
There’s no higher value obviously for most — though not all — Republican elected officials than maintaining fidelity to Donald Trump. What’s extraordinary about that is that in America, we don’t take an oath to a strongman leader; we take it to the Constitution of the United States. And Donald Trump is obviously manifestly unfit in every conceivable way to occupy the office of the American head of state.
Does this line of attack have a chance of actually working, or is it more aimed at satisfying, say, the future audience of the media company Trump is rumored to want to start if he loses?
Trump’s surrounded by people who have made a living in the Clinton conspiracy business. What’s the point they’re trying to make? That there’s a double standard in the media about how he’s been covered? There is!
But this isn’t a strategy for winning a presidential election. This is a strategy born from the fevered imaginations of people who are living in an alternate reality universe.
And it won’t be effective. I made this point the other day on MSNBC, and it’s true. In World War II the Japanese adopted a new tactic, kamikaze missions, manned aircraft, fully fueled missions, to fly into American ships. Twenty percent of the kamikaze missions were effective. They hit their targets, they caused death, they were instruments of terror. It was a tactic born from desperation.
But it didn’t change the war’s outcome. Yet as the war neared its end, the desperation and the attacks increased. And that’s what’s happening as this race comes to an end.
So what would your advice be for Republican candidates on the ballot this year — let’s say for someone who’s supported Trump so far but hasn’t been all that enthusiastic. Is it too late to unendorse?
Winston Churchill was a keen observer of character and he said, Americans will always do the right thing, but they’ll wait till the last possible second to do it. And there’s something to that in our national character.
Obviously the decision to jump off the Trump train will have been a late one, and it will be criticized by some people. They’ll say, “What was the last straw that broke the camel’s back?” I don’t know if there’s an answer for that. But people who are straddling the line with absurd propositions, like, “I’m voting for him but I don’t endorse him,” it’s a chickenshit position.
From a political perspective, isn’t there a counterargument that Republican officials going too openly against Trump would depress base turnout and lead to a bigger loss, handing over more seats to the Democrats?
Candidates for federal office have duties and obligations toward the national interest that supersede tactical calculations. And the question is this — I suppose if you believe that Donald Trump has demonstrated fitness to sit atop the national command authority as commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military and its most sophisticated nuclear arsenal, then you should continue to endorse Donald Trump.
But for sure, when the election’s over, you’re locked into that position for all time. And the question is, if we haven’t hit the line where you can say, “I can’t support the nominee of the party” — then where is the line?