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Trump Is No Aberration: Veteran GOP Strategist Stuart Stevens Says Racism Is Party’s “Original Sin”

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As party loyalists gather for the Republican National Convention, a group of veteran Republican operatives who want to defeat President Trump have launched a $4 million advertising blitz targeting voters in swing states. The anti-Trump ads are funded by The Lincoln Project, a super PAC that can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money. We speak with longtime Republican political consultant Stuart Stevens, a senior adviser to The Lincoln Project who worked as a strategist on five Republican presidential campaigns, about Trump’s takeover of the party and efforts by so-called “Never Trump” Republicans to prevent his reelection, and why he says “race is the original sin of the modern Republican Party.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We’re breaking with convention. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As the Republican National Convention kicked off Monday, the Republican Party announced it would not adopt a new platform, and instead pledged its support to President Donald Trump. At the same time, a group of veteran Republican operatives who want to defeat Trump launched a $4 million advertising blitz this week that targets voters in swing states.

THE LINCOLN PROJECT AD: There’s mourning in America. Today, more than 175,000 Americans have died from a deadly virus Donald Trump ignored, praising China’s response instead of heeding the warnings, then blaming them to cover his own failures. With the economy in shambles, more than 30 million Americans are out of work — the worst economy in decades. This afternoon, millions of Americans will apply for unemployment. And with their savings run out, many are giving up hope. Millions worry that a loved one won’t survive COVID-19. There’s mourning in America. And under the leadership of Donald Trump, our country is weaker and sicker and poorer. And now Americans are asking, “If we have another four years like this, will there even be an America?”

The Lincoln Project is responsible for the content of this advertising.

AMY GOODMAN: That ad called “Mourning in America,” spelled M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G. The anti-Trump ads will run on TV and online throughout this week’s convention coverage and are paid for by The Lincoln Project, a super PAC that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. On Monday, former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele announced he’s joining the group.

This comes as longtime White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said she plans to leave her job at the end of this month, citing her family. And her husband, George Conway, who co-founded The Lincoln Project, is also leaving The Lincoln Project. The couple’s 15-year-old daughter, Claudia Conway, had said she’s seeking emancipation from her parents, and tweeted she’s “devastated” her mother is speaking at the Republican National Convention. Conway replied, talking about stepping back from her job as a top senior adviser and counsel to the president, from now on, “less drama, more mama.”

Meanwhile, the pro-Biden super PAC, American Bridge, launched an ad campaign Monday that features Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen.

For more, we’re joined by someone who is a senior adviser to The Lincoln Project and much more. Stuart Stevens is a longtime Republican political consultant who worked as a strategist for five Republican presidential campaigns, including Bob Dole, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, as well as senators, congressmen and governors. Politico calls him “one of the most successful political operatives of his generation.” Stevens did not support Donald Trump as the Republican candidate in 2016. His new book is out this month; it’s titled It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump. In it, he compares his lifelong political party to the Mafia, the segregationist movement, and even to the Nazis.

Stuart Stevens, welcome to Democracy Now! Thank you for joining us from your home in Stowe, Vermont. You have said that race and racism is at the core of the Republican project. Can you talk about why you feel it’s not just Donald Trump? I mean, many even in The Lincoln Project say their party left them, but you are saying that the original sin of the Republican Party — racism — is at its core; it’s not just Donald Trump. Please explain.

STUART STEVENS: First, great to be here.

It really goes back — and in this book, I wanted to trace this — to the post-World War II history of the modern Republican Party. 1956, Dwight Eisenhower got almost 40% of the African American vote. That fell off a cliff with Barry Goldwater in 1964. He got 7%. He opposed the Civil Rights Act. Now, you could have made a case at the time that African Americans would drift back to the Republican Party in some substantial numbers because of cultural conservatism, faith, entrepreneurship, patriotism. But that never happened. So, since 1964, the Republican Party has failed to attract African Americans in any numbers over 10% in most races. And what does that mean? It means, really, that you get very good at one thing and not very good at the other.

Now, I was part of the party that worked for George Bush — both George Bushes, actually. But I went down in April of ’99 to work for Governor Bush. And we saw that the party needed to change, tried to form a new formulation of conservatism that the governor called “compassionate conservatism.” Our feeling was — at least my feeling was, and I think others agreed with me, that we were almost inevitable, that the side of the party that we represented would emerge as dominant. I think, looking at Donald Trump, I have to admit I was wrong. I think that we were the recessive gene, not the dominant gene, and that the party now has become very comfortable with a white grievance. And I think you saw that on full display last night.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Stuart Stevens, following up on that, in your book, you have a chapter — I think it’s chapter eight — “The Empire’s Last Stand.”

STUART STEVENS: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you say in there, the Trump obsession with immigrants from Mexico and Central America is motivated by his own racism, but it also reflects the knowledge that every new nonwhite voter in America is a threat to the existence of the Republican Party. Could you elaborate on that?

STUART STEVENS: Well, that’s just a fact, if you look at the construct of the Republican Party now. The great danger and the reason the Republican Party, if it doesn’t change, is going to go away as a major political party, those Americans 15 years and under, the majority are nonwhite. Now, odds are good they’re going to turn 18 and still be nonwhite. And that really is a death sentence for the Republican Party as it’s currently constructed.

You know, it’s fascinating to look here — since '64, we haven't been able to get African Americans. We made a concerted attempt, President Bush did, to get more Hispanics, and it was very important to him. Got up to about 43%, 42% in 2004, and then it’s fallen back to 27% or so. But it’s not just Hispanics and African Americans. If you look at Asian Americans, Asian Americans used to support Republicans at like 70%, and now they oppose Republicans at like 70%. So, why is that? It’s not like Republicans were out attacking Asian Americans, or at least not until recently, when Donald Trump started attacking Chinese as if he had like a list of people to go down: “I forgot to attack the Chinese.” But they got the joke, I think, that if you weren’t white, you really weren’t welcome in the Republican Party.

And that’s really a death signal for a party. That’s what happened to the party in California. California was the beating heart of the Republican Party. It was the electoral citadel not that long ago. And now the Republican Party is in third place — not second place, third place. And I think the history of things happening in California and then rolling across the country is pretty good.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering also if you could talk about the foreign policy implications here. Nikki Haley spoke —

STUART STEVENS: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — last night. She was supposed to, as a former U.N. ambassador, be able to put the picture of what the Trump administration has done foreign policy-wise. As the rest of the world watches this convention and the language and the rhetoric and the apocalyptic vision that the Republican Party is espousing, what does it do to the standing of the United States in the world and among other political leaders?

STUART STEVENS: Well, you know, what I found just extraordinary about last night and Nikki Haley was, here, last week, we have Republican Senate committee, under Marco Rubio of Florida, puts out a report that says that the Russians were definitely involved in our elections and definitely trying to help Donald Trump. And there was no mention of it. This is the most serious attack on our electoral system by a hostile foreign power in the history of the United States, and we know they’re doing it again. And the Republicans aren’t even talking about it, even when their own party says that it’s happening. I find that incredibly anti-American and anti-patriotic. And it’s an utter disgrace.

The Republican Party that I signed up for, one of the great appeals was that it stood for freedom. When Ronald Reagan said, “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev,” that was powerful. And words had meaning. And the United States did help end the Cold War, and we did help bring a lot of people more into freedom. And now we’re on the side of dictators. It’s extraordinary. I never would have thought it possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Stuart Stevens, you mentioned Ronald Reagan. He launched his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which many felt was a clear signal. This is the place where the three civil rights activists, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, were murdered back in the early ’60s. And so, I want to go back even further than that, to you getting activated in Republican strategic consulting work, to this very interesting story. You had been what? An intern for Thad Cochran. He was running for — he ran for Senate.

STUART STEVENS: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: He had been congressmember. You have the period in 1963 — you were just a little kid at the time, but Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in Mississippi. You grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. And you end up working for a congressmember who you realized the congressmember, the Republican congressmember, who was trying to be a congressmember, was white, the Democrat was white, and there was a Black independent. Talk about what you did and what you understood well at the time, and how that linked into Medgar Evers’ murder, particularly his brother Charles Evers.

STUART STEVENS: Sure. Well, you know, it’s a fascinating story. When I grew up in Mississippi, there really weren’t Republicans, and the Democrats were led by two segregationist senators, John Stennis and Big Jim Eastland. There was one moderate, positive, young lawyer who ran for Congress as a Republican, Thad Cochran. And he represented an alternative to that segregationist view. He was the first Republican elected to Congress since Reconstruction. He then ran in — and I was a page in his office when I was in high school. In ’78, he then ran for Senate. And I worked for the guy who had been his chief of staff, who was running for his old congressional seat.

So, as you say, my guy was white, the Republican. The Democratic candidate was white. But there was also an African American independent. And this was really the first race I had ever done. I’d been involved in a volunteer level before. But it became quickly apparent, just by looking at numbers, that 90%, at least, of those African Americans were either going to vote for the Democrat or they were going to vote for the African American independent. And it was in our best interest that they vote for the African American independent, so that the votes wouldn’t go to the Democratic candidate. I mean, it was simple math.

So, I made a spot — I thought it was very clever at the time — which was like a League of Women Voters voter information spot. It just said, here are the three candidates, and named them, you saw them. You saw that one was African American. Didn’t say anything negative about the African American candidate; to the contrary, I said he could be the first African American elected since Reconstruction. But the intent of it was to inform African American voters that there was an African American alternative.

Now, at the end of the day, my guy won with 51%, so maybe he would have won without, but it was a stark lesson to me that — how much our politics is played in the key of race. And that hasn’t changed. And I think what we’re seeing now —

AMY GOODMAN: Being repeated with Kanye West meeting secretly with Jared Kushner in Colorado —

STUART STEVENS: Same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: — as the Republicans try to get Kanye West on presidential ballots across the country?

STUART STEVENS: It’s the same strategy. And by the way, that’s illegal for Jared Kushner to have done that. And if we had a functional FEC, they would be all over Jared Kushner. And that ought to be investigated.

What we’re seeing now, and saw last night, is a comfortableness with the Republican Party, a Trump party, with white grievance. I mean, there were two people who spoke at the convention last night that the only reason that they were at the convention is because they waved guns at Black people. That’s their sole qualification. And this idea that you’re going to — these Black people are coming into the suburbs to get you white people is one of the oldest tropes of racist politics in the last 50, 70 years. I think it’s misplayed. I don’t think that’s how the suburbs are. I don’t think that most women in the suburbs like to be referred to as “suburban housewives,” as Donald Trump refers to them.

And I take, like, my home state of Mississippi. I’m a seventh-generation Mississippian. We finally took down the state flag, which was basically the Confederate battle flag. It was a powerful moment for a lot of us. And that same week, Donald Trump was defending the Confederate flag, so much so he got on the wrong side of a culture war with NASCAR, with bringing down the — banning Confederate flags from events.

So, I think that just indicates — the vision that they laid out last night at this convention, I think it’s wrong on a lot of levels, but I think it’s wrong politically. You know, you take your average teenager in Mississippi. Their cultural models are more Black rap stars than Robert E. Lee. They don’t want to go back to this. And I don’t think any of these suburban voters like to think of themselves as being afraid of Black people or afraid of those who are different from them. It’s a very 1978 kind of Queens divisive view of the world that Donald Trump has.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But your book lays out that this is the logical — that Trump is the logical extension of where the Republican Party is going, not that he was this hostile takeover that — with an outlier who somehow managed to gain control. But what about those mainstream Republicans — you mentioned George Bush, the Bush family — and those Republicans that have still been largely silent throughout this process as the Trump presidency has unfolded?

STUART STEVENS: Look, I think that George Bush believed very passionately in the idea of compassionate conservatism. I know he did. I saw it. For him, this was education. And if you go back and you look at his first major piece of legislation as president, it was signing No Child Left Behind, a bill he signed with Ted Kennedy over his right shoulder. I mean, today that would be presented like at a war crimes tribunal of the Republican Party. That vision of what the party could have become, I think, ended on 9/11, when Bush became a wartime president.

So, there’s just — there are these different strains in the party. So, if you go back to when the first President Bush was president, David Duke became the Republican nominee down — for the Senate, down in Louisiana. President Bush actively worked to beat the Republican, who was David Duke. They established a committee of Republicans to beat David Duke. And that was the right thing to do. And the party has just lost that sense of right and wrong, as being led by Donald Trump.

And one of the lessons I really take from this is how much leaders matter. I think the party could have been led in a different direction. It reminds me of the 1930s. There was a huge fascist element in America. Why didn’t America become fascist like so many countries in Europe? Probably because Roosevelt was president, and Lindbergh wasn’t. And we wouldn’t have been the same country. And the same with the civil rights movement. Why was it nonviolent? Probably because Martin Luther King was leading it, instead of, say, Stokely Carmichael, who had a different vision. So, leaders have consequences. I mean, we’re taught that in school, and I think we’re kind of getting a living lesson of it now.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, before we break, about the significance of Jerry Falwell, who has reportedly resigned, though that was going back and forth, clearly trying to work this out with Liberty University, as president of the evangelical Christian school in Virginia, amidst the growing fallout over claims about his personal life — put on leave earlier this month after he posted a photo on Instagram in which he’s posing with an arm around a young woman, holding a drink, with his pants unzipped. And then, this week, a young man, Giancarlo Granda, a former hotel pool attendant who then became a business partner, said he had an affair with Falwell’s wife Becki, and he said that Falwell would look on as they had sex. Jerry Falwell is a prominent supporter of President Trump and shocked many in 2016 when he endorsed President Trump over — I think at the time Ted Cruz —

STUART STEVENS: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — was expecting to get that endorsement. Can you talk about the significance of Falwell and his throwing his support to Trump?

STUART STEVENS: Well, look, I think one of the truths that’s been revealed here is just the hollowness of much of the evangelical movement, by its leadership. I think that there’s what? Thirty-seven million or so evangelicals in America, many of them African American and Hispanic. So, I don’t think we can talk about all evangelicals. It was evangelicals who largely defeated Roy Moore in Alabama. It was Black evangelicals. But there’s been this corruption at the top of the white evangelical movement, that’s gone on for a very long time — I mean, Jimmy Swaggart, these conmen. And that’s what Falwell is. I could care less about Falwell’s personal life. And I actually think most people kind of feel that way.

It’s just the hypocrisy of it. And it’s — how do you sustain this, when you support Donald Trump? I mean, a guy who’s been married three times, has five kids by different — who talks in public about having sex with his daughter. It’s just — he says that he’s never asked God for forgiveness because he’s never done anything to be forgiven for.

AMY GOODMAN: Stuart Stevens, you say Black women will determine this next race, who will be president of the United States?

STUART STEVENS: I think so. And the numbers would indicate that, which I think is very hopeful. You know, Donald Trump won with 46.1%. We shouldn’t lose sight of this. Mitt Romney lost with 47.2%. African American turnout went down for the first time in 20 years in 2016, for a lot of reasons, including very active voter suppression. If African American and nonwhite turnout can just get back to the levels where it was before and where it was headed, there’s really no path to victory for Donald Trump. I think the Biden campaign, which I think is running a very, very good campaign, I think they understand this. I think Senator Harris will help. And it’s really, to me, this race is — if I was going to focus on one thing, I would focus on the percentage of the total turnout that will be nonwhite. I think if we knew that number today, we’d know who’s going to win this race.

AMY GOODMAN: Stuart Stevens, we want to thank you for being with us, veteran Republican political consultant. His new book, just out, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump.

When we come back, we speak with a formerly incarcerated firefighter about the climate-fueled wildfires engulfing California. Stay with us.

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