Stuart Stevens’ It Was All a Lie is a sustained attack, both jeremiad and confession, on the Republican party he served for 40 years. His is the hand at Belshazzar’s political feast: “All of these immutable truths turned out to be marketing slogans. None of it meant anything. I was the guy working for Bernie Madoff who actually thought we were really smart and just crushing the market.”
Stevens, a consultant, is refreshingly frank about his role and responsibility. “Blame me,” he writes, adding: “I had been lying to myself for decades.” He seeks a new leaf on a “crazy idea that a return to personal responsibility begins with personal responsibility”.
Unsurprisingly, he starts with race, “the original Republican sin … the key in which much of American politics and certainly all of southern politics was played.” Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Republicans have had difficulty appealing to African American voters. Stevens is not surprised.
“What happens if you spend decades focused on appealing to white voters and treating non-white voters with, at best, benign neglect? You get good at doing what it takes to appeal to white voters.” How, for instance, does a black person hear an “avowed hatred of government”?
The policy effects are shocking; the electoral effects only recently came into focus as demographics change. Yet the strategy “was so obvious that even the Russians adopted it, attempting to instigate tensions among black voters to help Trump win”.
This self-deception extends to other areas, notably foreign policy, in which “the Republican party has gone from ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ to a Republican president who responds to Vladimir Putin like a stray dog, eager to follow him home”. All without much protest from those who know better.
Stevens believes Donald Trump “just removes the necessity of pretending” Republicans care about social issues. Instead, it’s all about “attacking and defining Democrats”. The idea that “character counts”, so prominent in earlier decades, is forgotten.
In short, stripped “of any pretense of governing philosophy, a political party will default to being controlled by those who shout the loudest and are unhindered by any semblance of normalcy”. The first casualty is the truth. “Large elements of the Republican party have made a collective decision that there is no objective truth” and that a cause or simple access to power is more important.
Rather than saying the sky is green, the new strategy is “to build a world in which the sky is in fact green. Then everyone who says it is blue is clearly a liar.” Sadly, it has worked. Stevens notes that once “there is no challenge to the craziest of ideas that have no basis in fact, it is easy for Trump to take one small bit of truth and spin it into an elaborate fantasy.”
He rightly calls this fear and cowardice: “To willingly follow a coward against your own values and to put your own power above the good of the nation is to become a coward.” People know better – including Republican members of Congress – but will not speak. Yet Stevens recalls that the “story of Faust is not just that Mephistopheles takes your soul, he also doesn’t deliver on what he promised.”
The remedy is simple. “You can always say no. I so wish Republican leaders would try it”.
What was Trump’s role in all this? Both enabler and someone who took a shaky foundation and crushed it. Trump “brought it all into clarity and made the pretending impossible”. For Stevens, the GOP “rallied behind Donald Trump because if that was the deal needed to regain power, what was the problem? Because it had always been about power.”
Stevens has high praise for two former clients, George W Bush and Mitt Romney, “decent men who tried to live their lives by a set of values that represented the best of our society”. Yet neither could win today. He quotes George HW Bush’s impassioned resignation letter from the National Rifle Association after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and realizes few would do so now.
Stevens is deeply concerned about the future of American democracy, comparing some tests in the study How Democracies Die with actions under the Trump administration.
With one party having failed its “circuit-breaker” role, he cites the “urgent need for a center-right party to argue for a different vision and governing philosophy” as Democrats drift left. Though moderate Republican governors remain popular, he is distinctly pessimistic today’s Republicans can be that party, as they have “legitimized bigotry and hate as an organizing principle for a political party in a country with a unique role in the world”.
Stevens has little hope the GOP will save itself from Trump or rise to the challenge of adapting to an increasingly non-white America. Losing, badly, is his only hope for concentrating Republican minds to the new reality of American demographics. Absent that, his prescription is definitive: “Burn it to the ground and start over.”
The former may happen. The latter is less predictable.