Exposing the GOP’s dark turn: How the party’s very survival now hinges on embracing autocracy over democracy and its foundational values.
Liz Cheney, deeply rooted in Republican royalty, currently levels a significant critique against her party’s electoral path. But she’s not alone.
On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Stuart Stevens, a longtime strategist even more intricately intimately acquainted with the GOP than Cheney. His extensive experience in orchestrating numerous Republican campaigns grants him a unique perspective on the party’s radical transformation and his turn to the “Never Trump” camp.
Stevens, author of The Conspiracy to End America: Five Ways My Old Party Is Driving Our Democracy to Autocracy, presents a forthright assessment of the GOP’s shift away from its once-proclaimed principles, suggesting that these principles were, for recent generations of Republicans, more akin to marketing strategies than genuine beliefs.
He argues that Donald Trump’s ascent did not revolutionize the party but rather exposed its authentic nature. He believes that, given the GOP’s unease with a diversifying electorate, the party deliberately turned its back on democratic norms in order to achieve electoral success.
Having closely worked with many of today’s Republican leaders, some of whom he helped elect, Stevens does not hold back in criticizing their growing embrace of autocratic methods. He boldly addresses the racial factors driving Trump’s support and the party’s neglect of non-white voters.
Although Stevens paints a somber outlook for the GOP’s current course, he emphasizes the continuing need for a sensible center-right presence in American politics. Indeed, he adopts a hopeful stance regarding the role of younger, more diverse voters in molding the country’s future.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. In 2012, the Republican Party put forth Mitt Romney as their standard bearer. A quintessential figure of the GOP establishment, a former governor of Massachusetts, a son of Utah, offspring of a deeply respected Republican governor of Michigan, and a man with deep ties to Wall Street. Romney’s candidacy was in many ways the embodiment of traditional Republican values.
Yet, just four years later, the party and subsequently the country, towards a figure as unconventional as they come. The seismic shift from Romney to Trump was not merely a change in personnel, but a stark transformation of ethos. But the chasm was even larger. Remember, there were 8 million voters in 2016 who voted for Obama in 2012. The implications were murky at the outset, but one thing became unmistakably clear, the electorate was ready to upend the established order. A giant middle finger was given to all of us.
This upheaval was a confluence of the most virulent aspects of our era. The echo chamber of social media, right-wing talk radio, Fox News, the cult of celebrity, and a faction of the electorate that Hillary Clinton infamously dubbed “a basket of deplorables”. It was a moment of reckoning, a deviation from the norm that our founding fathers had anticipated, but had built safeguards against. Mechanisms designed to temper the excesses and preserve the republic.
But in the face of this challenge, the traditional guardrails weakened. Donald Trump’s presidency, and worse yet, his potential future presidency, was not just a rebellion against the American establishment, but an insidious force that cleaved the nation and fostered the contagion of division, hate, and authoritarianism. Today, we’re going to talk about this with my guest, Stuart Stevens. A man who has witnessed the inner workings and transformation of the Republican Party like few others.
With a career spanning decades in the political arena, Stevens has been a strategist in the upper echelons of Republican campaigns and has grappled with the gritty realities of grassroots politics. In his latest book, The Conspiracy to End America, he sounds an urgent alarm, a red flare really, illuminating the dark ambitions that have taken root within his former political home. But more than just an exposé, it’s a plea to confront and quell the dangers that threaten to undermine the very foundations of democracy itself.
It is my pleasure to welcome Stuart Stevens here to talk about The Conspiracy to End America: Five Ways My Old Party Is Driving Our Democracy to Autocracy. Stuart Stevens, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Stuart Stevens: Thanks for asking me to the party, Jeff. I got to tell you, man, that introduction you did about describing the party, I think I’m just going to shut up and let you keep talking. [unintelligible 00:03:04]
Jeff: [crosstalk] Thank you so much.
Stuart: That was a fantastic summation of how we got here and really beautifully stated.
Jeff: Thank you. I want to talk about the party because the question really is the degree to which the party has responsibility for where we’ve gotten to today. There was a time when people thought early on that Donald Trump was a sui generis character. And, in fact, what has happened is that Trumpism, for whatever it is, has infected the entire Republican Party like a virus. Talk about that first.
Stuart: Look, I’m really glad we’re talking about this because I think it’s an essential question of the moment. A lot of people were wrong about Trump in 2016, but it is really, really hard to find somebody who was more wrong than me. I didn’t think he’d win the primary or the general. And when he did, I had a lot of Republican friends from Bush world, the Romney world, that establishment world, as you rightly put it, they said, “Donald Trump hijacked our party.”
And I’m like, “You know guys, I don’t know. When a plane gets hijacked, the hijacker isn’t really popular. Nobody is saying I’m glad we’re not going to grandma’s, we’re going to Cuba. So I don’t get this. I don’t think we can say that. Donald Trump is by far the most popular figure in the Republican Party.” And that led me to ask, “How did this happen?” And which led me to write my first book It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump.
And the conclusion I came to, which I thought was the only intellectually honest conclusion, it was not a fun one, was that a lot of these base principles we put out as values were values at all. They were marketing slogans and they didn’t really mean anything because I don’t think people change deeply held beliefs in a few years unless there’s some extraordinary intervention. I don’t believe in UFOs. If one lands and you put them on the show, Jeff, I’ll believe it. Not until then. And I don’t really know. And I think it’s that conclusion which could be stated basically that Donald Trump didn’t change the party, he revealed the party.
Jeff: There’s also the sense of a party being terrified of its own electorate.
Stuart: Yes, it’s fascinating. After Romney lost in 2012, the party went through this process, and I think it deserves credit for the so-called autopsy that runs. Priebus was the chairman of the party commission. Why have we not won the popular vote only once since 1988? And that was in 2004, and I worked on that campaign, and believe me, we were lucky to win it then. And the conclusions it came to were pretty obvious. But important to state, we needed to appeal to more non-White voters. We needed to appeal to more women who work outside the home. We needed to appeal to more young voters.
And then Trump came along and it was almost like this audible sigh of relief like, “Thank God, we don’t have to do this stuff. We can just win with White people.” And I really think race is at the core of this. Trump’s coalition is 85% White, in the last election. The country is 60% White and will be less so by the time we finish this podcast. We’re headed to a minority-majority country. In a way, we already are those who are 16 years and younger in America the majority are non-White. And I really, really like the odds that they’re going to be non-White when they turn 18.
So that is what the party is terrified of and why it’s going through these extraordinary efforts to change the way we vote because there’s been this shift. Democracy now has become the enemy. If you can’t win with democracy, you therefore look for another system. And it’s what Joe Biden means when he says, “Republicans are for democracy when they win, and they’re not for it when they lose,” and he is absolutely right.
So the party to me had a choice: do the necessary work, difficult to appeal to more non-White voters and expand the party or try to maximize the White vote. And I think sadly, it went down to the latter rather than the former.
Jeff: And yet there seems to be a bit of a metamorphosis taking place, not for the better, where we see in some of this latest polling that more and more Black voters and Hispanic voters are moving towards Trump.
Stuart: Yes, I’m skeptical of this, to be honest. And what does that movement mean? So, look, here’s some fascinating numbers. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower got 39% of the African American vote, 39%. Nixon got 33%. Jackie Robinson and Wilt Chamberlain campaigned for Nixon. Then it dropped to 7% with Goldwater in 1964 when he was opposed to the Civil Rights Act.
Now, you could have made a case that African Americans would drift back to the party once the Civil Rights bill was passed for shared values of cultural conservatism, faith, patriotism, entrepreneurship, but it didn’t happen. Trump got 8%. So that means you’ve gone up one point every 56 years. That’s going to take a while. So when I look at these numbers I think they’re different with Hispanics than they are with African Americans. I predict that we’ll be sitting here a few days after the November elections next year, and Joe Biden is going to have gotten 90% plus of the African-American vote.
The Hispanic vote is always more perplexing in politics because Hispanic in the census is a self-identifying quality. You opt-in to identify yourself as Hispanic or not. And there’s always been a divide among so-called Hispanic voters, among those who speak English at home and those who don’t. And I forget the exact number, but Romney did pretty damn well with those who spoke English at home.
So at a certain point, you say, “Okay, what point are they not identifying as Hispanics anymore than people are identifying as Italian American or Irish American?” And they’re voting less driven by their ethnicity, less by their heritage. So, look, I think it’s something the Democratic Party should worry about. In the Bush world, we really focused on this. We got up to, I forget the exact number, but north of 40%, not very north of 40%, 41%, 42% of Hispanic vote. I think the Democratic Party should be worried about it. Should be focused on it. But still, overwhelmingly, the Republican Party is a White, increasingly regional party.
Jeff: And talk a little bit about the party itself. The party apparatus today, you have seeded, evolved to where it is today, and how much of the blame should lie with the party itself for getting us to where we are?
Stuart: I think on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say about a 100. Going back to this moment in December, I think it was December 15th, 2015 when Donald Trump called for a Muslim ban. Now, a Muslim ban is a religious test. I’ve got an English passport and I show up at JFK and they say, “What are you?” And I say, “I’m a Quaker.” I used to be a Muslim, but now I’m a Quaker. What are they going to do? Ask me trivia questions about William Penn or something. It’s absurd. It’s a religious test.
And what ranks previous and the party should have done is say, “Look, we can’t stop people from voting for Donald Trump. We can’t stop Donald Trump from running, but if this party supports anything, the Constitution, and this party speaking as right as before, as long as I’m chairman, will not support a candidate who does not believe in the Constitution. If that means I shouldn’t be chairman of this party, so be it.” And had they gone down that road, it would’ve been the right thing to do, the morally correct thing to do, the political consequences, I think are incalculable.
But up and down, say four days after the election when it was clear Donald Trump won, it was really clear 24 hours after the election for anybody that knew anything about politics, but okay, give it four days. If every elected Republican in Washington had just had their comm shop put out a simple statement congratulating the President-elect, the United States, Trump would’ve been isolated. It would’ve limited the ability for him to rally crowds because a lot of it is people who have doubts about Trump. They think he’s a little weird, but then their senator, who they think is perfectly normal, supports Trump. They go,”That person knows Trump better than I do. He must be okay,” and that happens up and down the party.
So I think it’s a complete collapse of the party. And I think it’s extraordinarily anti-American. It’s a violation of the legacy that they were handed by the greatest generation. People like my dad, who spent three years fighting in the South Pacific, 28 island landings, came home, never talked about it like hundreds of thousands of others. That’s the legacy. And they can’t even get their comm shop to congratulate the President-elect, the United States, compared to 28 island landings, that’s a pretty easy lift.
And we now live in a country in which the majority of one of the two major parties in America doesn’t believe that we live in a democracy. They don’t believe Joe Biden was legally elected. That means we don’t live in a democracy. And I think we’re still just at the beginning of the beginning to understand what that means for our body politic and our society and our specific ties to each other.
Jeff: It is frightening. And in many ways, we can get a mathematician here, but the odds are overwhelming. It seems that the entire party showed so little courage that so few people from the party would come forward to do the right thing. We could dame them on one hand.
Stuart: Listen, brother, I can’t agree more. Honestly, when my book came out in 2020, it was all a lie and somebody would say something in an interview like you just said, and I would start to talk about it. And it really was difficult for me to talk about without getting very emotional because I felt so betrayed, so lied to. I help elect a lot of these people. I would’ve bet everything in the world that they would never do this and they did. I worked in Chris Christie’s election. I love the guys.
When I was in an airport when Chris Christie in 2016 endorsed Donald Trump and tears came to my eyes. I felt like I was watching a friend overdose. And now Chris is out there saying the right things but it’s like, “Dude, why? Why?” The guy even tried to kill you in 2020 in debate prep with COVID. He waited until January 6th to try to kill Mike Pence. Clearly, I don’t get it. But I tell you, man, I will never ask myself how 1930s Germany happened because it’s a straight-up repeat.
Now, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the same results. I don’t think we’re going to have 100 million people die. I don’t think we’re going to have a world war, but it is good people who know better doing the wrong thing for a deeply corrupt reason, and it’s extraordinary. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it in American history. And I wrote this latest book because I think we honestly can’t say how it’s going to turn out. I think if Donald Trump wins, it’ll be the last election we can recognize there’s an American election. I know it will be.
And you know part of the problem, Jeff, and you struggle with this every day, is how do you talk about this without sounding alarmist or crazy? And to me, it’s like a serious pandemic. Whatever you say at the beginning would be alarmist, but whatever you say at the end, it’s going to prove to be inadequate. So I think we have to realize that this is an existential crisis for America and act accordingly.
Jeff: There is this sense that people think or we want to think that at some point the fever will break. And it seems that everything that happens has exactly the opposite effect. It not only prevents the fever from breaking, it increases the fever, it increases the craziness of it all.
Stuart: It’s how it happens. Extremist movements, which the Republican party has become, become more extreme. They get more obsessed with purity tests. Happened with the Red Guard, it happened with the Khmer Rouge, it happened with the Republican Party. Just step back and look at it. So Donald Trump organized a mob that broke into the United States Capitol and tried to kill Republicans, and hang Mike Pence, and they still supported most of them.
So if a guy organizes a mob that breaks into your workplace and tries to kill you, and you still support him, you think there’s some principle he is going to violate that’s going to make you want to be against him? I don’t know, that’s too much what he said about Putin. No, it’s a complete collapse. And look, I think we have to accept that Trump runs the Republican Party, which he does because the Republican Party likes Donald Trump. They want to beat Donald Trump. And you can ask yourself what that says about America.
But I really am at a point where I don’t care. I just want to beat these people. I think there is an extraordinary reluctance among our journalist class, of which I have many dear friends to call it racism, all these Trump voters in a diner in Ohio pieces. To me, it’s like sending the best journalists in America to a strip club to try to figure out why men go to strip clubs. And it’s just such a fascinating question. Maybe because there’s naked women. And I think that it is driven by race.
And when I have these conversations with my poker friends, they go, “Oh, come on, you’re saying that everybody voted for Donald Trump’s a racist.” I go, “No, but I think overwhelmingly voting for Donald Trump means that you care about something more important than having a racist as president because you can’t call Donald Trump, not a racist.” So where were all the votes that they said were illegal and we can’t certify?
Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit. Huh, funny about that. What do they have in common? Overwhelmingly Black majorities and those are the votes they say are illegal. That’s just straight-up Jim Crow racism. They couldn’t stop them from voting so they wanted to stop them from being counted. Call it out for what it is.
Jeff: How much of it is pure racism in that sense? Certainly, a portion of it is. There’s no question about that. But the other part of it is that at least gave impetus to it early on, it may have gotten beyond that now is the idea that it is that, and it goes back to what you were saying earlier about demographics, the changing face of the country, the way the country’s changed, the way technology has changed that it’s not the 1950s anymore and that there is this pent up anger that is feeding this. And somebody like Donald Trump comes along and has done such a powerful job of cleaving that even more and building up that anger.
Stuart: Yes, but I still think that’s about race. The one economic group that Donald Trump carried in 2020 were those who make over $100,000 a year. This isn’t about economic anxiety. Look at those who are being convicted on January 6th for the insurgency. Hell, some of them took private planes. These are middle-class folks, and that’s one of the deeply troubling things about it. When you read much brilliant rioting that’s done about how to stop militant movements, fringe movements, right-wing movements, it usually begins with economics. Try to integrate them more into society, true of say the Branch Davidians or Randy Weaver but these are people very well integrated in society.
And what I come back to here is why is it? There is one group of Americans who really have been discriminated, who really have a reason not to believe in America, who have been murdered, tortured, raped, laws passed to blocked him, enslaved and these are Black people. So how come Black people didn’t storm the Capitol? How come they have marches?
How come they keep registering voters? How come they keep believing in America? They believe in America. And these domestic terrorists who are storming the Capitol overwhelmingly White, they don’t believe in America anymore. So I don’t know. I don’t buy the economic anxiety. Trump lost working class voters. He won White working class voters. And let’s don’t forget Mitt Romney got 47.2% of the vote and lost. Trump got 46.2% and 16% and won, and got 46.9% and 20% and lost. He’s never gotten more than 47%. So I don’t know. I had a going out of business sale or any optimism about the Republican party. And I do judge these people. I judge them harshly. I think they’re portraying what it means to be an American, and I’ll die on that hill. They may be Americans by accident of birth, but not by their beliefs.
And America is more than a place on the maps with a flag. It’s an idea. And they’ve given up on that idea and that’s their right. And one of the hallmarks of when democracies fall into autocracies is that autocrats use the freedoms of democracy to end democracy, But I’m sure as hell going to fight them. And I’m sure so I’m not going to respect them.
Jeff: What happens to the Republican party if Trump loses this next time? What do you think?
Stuart: Fascinating question. I think the answer is not much because I think it takes repeated defeats to make the party change. Fear is the best and arguably the only– Fear and pain are the only teachers in politics. And I think the party has to be crushed in its current incarnation. If you have seven non-candidates on stage, raise their hands and say that they’ll support a guy if he wins a nomination. Even though he has been convicted of overthrowing the government in the United States, that’s a party that doesn’t deserve to exist. You gotta burn that party to the ground. And I say that as somebody who’s spent 30 years helping build a party, and pointing out flaws in the Democratic party.
But the Democratic Party, say what you will, it’s the only party in America that’s a pro-democracy party. And the best hope is that these Republicans lose and lose and lose and lose and finally change. We need a center right party that’s staying in America, but we don’t have a center right party in America now. What does it mean to be a conservative in America?
If you held a gun to my head and said, “Explain that in five minutes,” that would say, “Shoot me, it’s going to save time.” I’m not going to do this. I don’t know how.
Is it Ron DeSantis who uses the power of the state to attack Disney, the Happiness Company. This is a small government party. This isn’t a free enterprise party. Is it the party that believes it’s a deep, deep infringement on your personal liberties to have to wear a mask, but not to tell a 12-year-old girl who’s been raped and pregnant she has to carry the rapist child to term. That’s conservatism. I don’t think so. And say what you will about somebody like Elizabeth Warren, she has a theory of government. She can articulate it. She can argue with you. You can think it’s crazy. You can think it’s wonderful, but you can have a conversation.
You can’t have a conversation with Nikki Haley about a theory of government when she says that she will support someone to try to overthrow the government of the United States for President. You can’t. It ends there. So we need that and I hope one emerges, but I think the best hope is 2032.
Jeff: One of the things that’s remarkable to bring it back to where we started is how quickly the collapse came between 2012 and 2016.
Stuart: I spend a lot of sleepless nights thinking about this. You may have voted for Obama, more people did than didn’t. You may hate Mitt Romney, but say what you will. And I think people have a better sense of Mitt Romney now as a person. He would’ve led the party in a very different direction, and yet it would’ve been the same party. So maybe what it tells us is what we used to learn in civics classes when we had them is that leadership matters. Why is it that America didn’t go fascist in the ’30s when there was a huge fascist movement in America? Probably because Roosevelt was president not Henry Ford or Lindbergh that probably saved us.
So I think that history tells us that once a major party adopts hate as a platform, which the Republican party has, it’s very difficult to unwind. And I wrote this book because there are these five things that are always present when autocracies emerge from democracies. And what are they? Support of a major party, they’ve got that. Propagandist, we have that. Financiers, they have unlimited money. Shock troops, of course, we saw that on January 6th, and emerging legal theory to justify it.
So if Georgia passes a law that says that the state legislature can overturn the popular vote when they do it, it’ll be perfectly legal. And that’s really where the focus is now on changing how we vote. And it’s being done quietly. And it’s being led by the same people who led the Federalist Society to change America’s judiciary. They have been given $1.6 billion in the largest political contribution in American history. And they’re extraordinarily dangerous because they’re confident, they’re patient, they’re well funded, and they’re smart.
And you look at the Federalist Society, it started a little weekend retreat at Yale in 1984 called, I think it was called The Future of the Conservative Judiciary. That’s like a term paper. And out of that grew the Federalist Society, which it’s hard to say The Federalist Society didn’t win. And there was recently this test case in the Supreme Court on this judicial legislative theory that state legislatures have the ability and the right, not only to overturn presidential popular votes, but all popular votes.
So there was some celebration when it failed six to three, but then you go, “Wait a second, three people in the Supreme Court think that state legislatures can overturn any popular vote because of some nutty references in the Federalist Papers. Really? That’s a lot ahead of where they were in 1984 when they had that little weekend retreat at Yale.” So I wouldn’t get too cocky about it.
Jeff: Is there anything that makes you optimistic?
Stuart: No, I’m very depressed or I depressed myself. I gave my most recent book to a dear friend and said, “It’s short but depressing.” And he said, “Stuart, so are suicide note.” So yes, there’s something that makes me very, very optimistic and that’s younger voters. As I said, the majority of Americans under 16 are non-White. They’re the future of America. They are where the country is headed, and they are more in sync with the country at large than the Republican Party is.
There was always a trope in politics that younger voters don’t vote in large numbers and they’re proving that wrong. And I think they’re going to save us, that and our immigrants, and a lot of those are immigrants. And we have a history in America being saved by our immigrants, and I think it’ll happen again. And if we can just hold on, I think if we can get through the next two presidential elections and hand off something that looks like a democracy, we’ll be okay. But it really is depending on those younger voters. Biden’s best group in 20 with those under 30 for our oldest president. It’s pretty damn interesting.
And it is fascinating how quickly it changed, but look at an issue like same-sex marriage. 2008, every presidential candidate, Democrat and Republican was against same-sex marriage. And we don’t even talk about it anymore. Now, I have a theory, and I think I’m right, that Republicans for the most part, never really accepted same-sex marriage. They just shut up about it because it was a loser. And I think a lot of the venom and hysteria directed at trans Americans are a way to try to claw back that same-sex marriage vote. And certainly Justice Thomas has been very clear, Alito’s been very clear, they would vote against same-sex marriage in a heartbeat.
You read what they write, they’d vote against interracial marriage and ironic for Thomas. But if I ran the Democratic Party, God help us, Jeff, I would wake up every day trying to get in a cultural war because I think Republicans are in the minority on the cultural wars. Look at when Trump went to war with Nike over Colin Kaepernick. How’d that work out? Nike made $9 billion. [chuckles] And I think Nike later won.
How’d it work out when they went to war with NASCAR over the banning of the Confederate flag? The Republican Party got in a culture fight with NASCAR, and they lost. How’d it work out when they got in a fight with Walmart over mandatory masks in their stores? I don’t know, I think Walmart– And it’s the same with this hateful rhetoric that Trump uses and others. You’re supposed to fear non-Whites moving into the suburbs.
You know a lot of people that live in the suburbs. You might live in the suburbs. Everybody I know in the suburbs, if a non-White family moved next door, they would do everything they could to welcome them, or a Muslim family, to show their kids this is what you’re supposed to do. That’s where America really is. And say what you will about Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan saw the country that, “To be born in America, you had won life’s lottery.”
There were inequalities in America, disadvantages, but nobody was disadvantaged for having been born in America. So you cut Trump to America and to be born in America is to be a victim, you’re a sucker, you’re a chump. There are these powerful forces out there like Canada that are taking advantage of us and he’s going to even the score. It’s a completely different way of seeing yourself, seeing your relationship to your government, your country, and I find it extraordinarily humiliating to feel that. You really feel that. You really think that America’s not the greatest country in the world. Really? “Where do you want to live?” Unfortunately, for a lot of them, they would say Russia because they look at Russia and what they think Russia is, it’s not, but run by White men. There’s no women in power. No non-Whites in power. Elections are performative, not determinative as Putin says. “There’s no gay people in Russia.” That’s obvious and they like that. That looks good. And that’s a lot of why so many Republicans are supporting Putin against Ukraine. And that’s extraordinarily sobering and depressing.
Jeff: Stuart Stevens, his book is The Conspiracy to End America: Five Ways My Old Party Is Driving Our Democracy to Autocracy. Stuart, I thank you so very much for sharing your thoughts and spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Stuart: Jeff, thanks for asking me. Really appreciate it.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schectman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org\donate.