It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, by Stuart Stevens (Knopf, 256 pages, $26.95)
No matter how we regard the influence of President Donald Trump — as prime source of things gone wrong in politics or as deeply resented corrective — November 6, 2012, holds as good a claim as any date to being remembered as a turn of history and point of departure in the remaking of the Republican Party. Without Romney’s defeat, no Trump takeover. And no Republican other than Utah’s freshman senator himself had more to do with the fateful outcome on that Election Day than Mitt Romney’s sole campaign strategist in 2012, principal advertising consultant, and convention speechwriter, Stuart Stevens. Strange, then, to pick up Stevens’s new book, It Was All a Lie, to find him accusing Republican voters of all manner of sins, failures of judgment, and squandered opportunities, as if they were due the harsh accounting and he was the one left disappointed.
The book is billed as a “lacerating mea culpa,” a painful outpouring of regret by “the most successful political operative of his generation,” though in practice what the penitent mostly confesses is having for too long overlooked the faults of others, and having kept the wrong company when he should have known better. Presenting himself as the battle-weary veteran of many a campaign, with “the best win-loss record of anyone in my business,” Stevens shares his sadness and remorse at having labored so long as a Republican consultant, in service to people he now realizes are mostly frauds and to ideas he now regards as “lies” unworthy of his talents.
“If I look back on my years in politics,” he reflects, “the long-standing hypocrisy of the Republican Party should have been obvious.” But it wasn’t, and now in atonement he is prepared to testify that Donald Trump’s arrival merely revealed “the essence” of a selfish, backward, hateful, hopelessly racist “white grievance party” — defined by “the kooks and weirdos and social misfits of a conservative ideology” — our lofty Republican ideals all along just for show. As he tells us in his Prologue, “This is a book I never thought I’d write, that I didn’t want to write. But it’s the book I now must write. It’s a truth to which I can bear witness.”
Replace “book” with “review” in that bit of melodrama and it captures something of my own state of mind while reading as the author, a colleague in both the Bush campaign of 2000 and the Romney enterprise in 2012, airs his thoroughgoing contempt for the political party whose fortunes were entrusted to him just eight years ago. Nor does it quite ring true that all of this came to him as a sudden revelation during the Trump era. Though Stuart has some admirable traits and gifts, with It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump we have not the timely manifesto for 2020 that he intended but instead a valuable contribution to the historical record. The book helps to explain his own influence in the Romney campaign, which was ruinous. And it perfectly illustrates why so many Republican voters in 2012 sensed a lack of respect from the party establishment, leaving them receptive to something so dramatically different the next time around.
Stevens’s case — “my j’accuse,” he calls it — leaves a lot to be sorted out. Basically he levels four broad assertions: Republicans are nasty and uncivil and have been so for decades. Racial animus is pervasive in the party and has long been the key to its electoral success. Social conservatism is just a scam and “‘otherness’ tool” of “white evangelicals” to divide our country and gain power. And the sum effect is to make the Republican cause in 2020 destructive and immoral. The party, in short, is mean, racist, extremist, and corrupt.
His first point, calling on us all to remember the “guardrails of political and civil standards,” offers a case study in the hazards of sustaining a never-Trump posture year after year, dismissing any accomplishments of the president, and scoffing at the reasons others might have for preferring any Republican president to the real-world alternative of a progressive Democratic administration. The book in this way is not to be confused with the writings of serious people among Republicans who disapprove of Trump and have laid out a case we can take or leave. Principled men and women can follow their best lights in sometimes opposite directions, but whether it is George Will, William Kristol, and David French one finds more persuasive, or Roger Kimball, Bill Bennett, and the learned and wise Victor Davis Hanson, attention is owed, and the argument can stop well short of bitter accusation.
Stevens enters the picture in a different spirit, renouncing the GOP whose candidates, as we’re frequently reminded, he has been so successful in electing. Though the book’s “mea culpa” routine has him several times repeating “blame me” for all our woes, “blame me” for this rotten party, the impression is one of self-importance disguised as contrition (“blame me” for being the best damn strategist in the business), and if he has truly been on some journey of introspection it has yet to teach him charity. The hectoring tone doesn’t invite meditation on his claim that “the Trump Republican Party has abandoned any pretense of kindness or compassion as a desirable human quality.” Nor does Stevens’s habit of handing down psychiatric assessments of political figures he doesn’t care for, the mix of “deeply damaged” people, “cripples from dysfunctional families,” and other “oddballs and kooks” who have so offended his sense of fair play and his devotion to “civil standards.”
Presidential tweets, of course, figure heavily in the case, evidence of fallen guardrails in public dialogue and of how so many of us have failed “a fundamental test of civic decency.” Yet even here, where agreement is most easily obtained, he manages to be so off-putting himself as to quickly lose the reader. And Stevens’s own stream of tweets isn’t exactly a source of daily uplift. From a representative sampling of his recent offerings on Twitter, and as a happy outsider to that forum, I note five main categories of discourse:
First, there is pompous insult. To former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, for supporting Trump: “Go away, little man. You have shamed yourself enough.” Then there’s shallow caviling: at “angry freaks” in the conservative media, and at the White House press secretary he likens to Joseph Goebbels. Next comes cheap and self-serving gossip. Regarding Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway: “As just about everyone knows who worked in statewide & national Republican campaigns. @KellyannePolls was to be avoided. The sense was she would always try to make everything about her & would say anything to get attention. It’s why she’s in her 50’s & working on 1st national race.” Another category consists of dictums from Stevens that we ignore at our peril, such as: “You can love America or you can love Trump. You can’t do both.” And, last, regular and strained attempts at wit: “Have to wonder when the alien ship landed, were [Jared] Kushner and Tom Cotton the only two they off loaded in human form?” All of this along with tweets of ingratiating praise for various liberal media figures, and the occasional flash of insight:
In 1964, a Queens woman was stabbed to death while many of her neighbors watched & did nothing. Her name was Kitty Genovese. It shocked the nation & became symbolic of decline in civil society. Today decency is Kitty Genovese & Republicans do nothing while Trump stabs it over & over.
Apparently this is Stevens’s idea of the thinking man’s tweet, the Queens connection doubtless his inspiration. Quite an image to toss off in rebuke over a political disagreement. But when you suddenly regard yourself as the liberated truth-teller, self-deported from a party dominated by angry freaks and bigots, why hesitate to indict tens of millions of other people for remaining paralyzed by cowardice? “So what to do?” another Twitter user asks Stevens, given that “the gop that supports [Trump] is even more putrid + corrupt.” This returns him to his theme: “That’s easy. Burn it to the ground. It was all a lie.”
The power of progressive groupthink is to confer on new arrivals a thrilling sense of audacity as they take their place in the herd, although these conflicting postures of Stevens — as both to-hell-with-them-all political arsonist and conscience-stricken consultant pleading for civility — still need some work. In the next stage of his j’accuse, however — Republican “racism” — we may assume a higher degree of good intention than seems to inform the rest of the book.
“I played the race card in my very first race,” he tells us, recounting a congressional campaign in his native Mississippi, in which an African-American third-party entry was spotlighted in ads designed to split support for his candidate’s Democratic opponent. Yet anyone who knows Stuart would find it hard to imagine him going beyond that kind of expedient calculation, in any campaign carrying a taint of racial hatred, and one certainly hopes that is so. In any case, he must have a way of drifting into the wrong circles; in the speechwriting experiences of seven presidential general-election campaigns for Republicans, plus a lot of time around conservative activists and journalists, I have never come across anyone who suggested or would tolerate a racially motivated line or tactic. There are bad actors in any political organization, but history, fairness, and reason do not support his claim that “race has defined the modern Republican Party.” Still, you can credit his concern for the matter and presume his good faith, while also noting pertinent evidence he has overlooked.
In the short version, Republican deceits began in 1964, when, writes Stevens, “Barry Goldwater ran on a carefully crafted platform of coded racism.” This was the era of “Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, which became to conservatives what Mao’s Little Red Book was to the Red Guard.” William F. Buckley Jr. wasn’t any help in those days, on this account, advocating as he did limits on federal power along with the principle of a color-blind society that, says Stevens, we now know to be “perversely racist but reassuring to white people.” From which it follows that National Review’s founder was just “a more articulate version of the same deep ugliness and bigotry that is the hallmark of Trumpism.” He comes back to NR later on, pointing out that despite their own misgivings about Trump’s candidacy in 2016, some editors and writers have since been Trump’s well-wishers whenever he pursues conservative policies: “fanciful rationalizations.” The “racism” is gone but now NR’s problem is “moral collapse.”
After Goldwater came Richard Nixon, with appeals to “forgotten Americans” — “code words” for “white.” And then our 40th president with his stories of the “welfare queen,” an unkind term often attributed to him but which he never used, although for Stevens enough to prove “a direct line from the more genteel prejudice of Ronald Reagan to the white nationalism of Donald Trump.” And then George Bush with the Willie Horton ad . . . and so on all the way up to the nightmarish present, in a chronology every freshman in poli sci has heard chillingly recited to explain why, in national contests, Democrats don’t always win but always deserve to.
Apparently the assigned reading these days is Dog Whistle Politics by a University of California at Berkeley expert in “critical race theory” and “white and Latinx racial identity.” With special attention to the chapter “The White Man’s Party,” this book rates citation by Stevens as some authoritative treatment of Republican politics, along with some obscure study explaining “the Republican decision to exploit the race issue” in 1964. But to see what Goldwater’s “carefully crafted platform of coded racism” actually looked like, you have to go fetch it yourself. Republicans in 1964 pledged “full implementation and faithful execution of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and all other civil rights statutes; . . . such additional administrative or legislative actions as may be required to end the denial, for whatever unlawful reason, of the right to vote; . . . continued opposition to discrimination based on race, creed, national origin or sex. We recognize that the elimination of any such discrimination is a matter of heart, conscience, and education, as well as of equal rights under law.”
Across the South, we’re to believe, ears went up at the dog whistle in this language, so subtle that even now no one else can pick it up. Even if Stevens’s point is that 1964 marked a sharp decline in African-American votes for Republicans, that proves only that the sum of Goldwater’s platform and convictions held less appeal to black citizens than did Lyndon Johnson’s activist government and Great Society agenda. As NR’s Kevin Williamson has skillfully explained, African-American support for Democrats began to rise long before the 1960s with the programs of the New Deal. Everything isn’t about race; presumably black voters acted in the belief that these economic policies best served their own and their country’s interests. And this despite the fact that many prominent Democrats themselves in that era, including LBJ, had disgraceful records on civil rights.
On that score it would have been relevant for Stevens to mention that Barry Goldwater — the most upright of men, whose reputation was good enough for the proud one-time “Goldwater Girl” nominated for president in 2016 — was a champion of and fundraiser for efforts to end segregation in Phoenix schools, in 1946 led the desegregation of the Arizona National Guard, and was a founding member of the Arizona NAACP. Easy to fault the senator now for overthinking constitutional objections to elements of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, despite his consistent votes for civil-rights bills before that, and to note adverse electoral consequences for his party. But to accuse Republicans of stirring up racial hatred with that man and that platform is a gross misstatement of fact.
As a rule of thumb, moreover, anyone so glib and presumptuous as to brush off as “ugliness and bigotry” the enduring political and moral legacy of William F. Buckley Jr. has, for that reason alone, no business involving himself in Republican affairs. And then there’s the “genteel prejudice” of Ronald Reagan: Here Stevens is referring to a man who one morning in 1982 read a Washington Post item about a persecuted black family in a white neighborhood in Maryland — their home had been vandalized, a burning cross left on their lawn — and then ordered Marine One fired up and that very afternoon paid the family a presidential visit, just to show what he thought about racists: an act entirely consistent with everything else in his character and life.
Other names that belong in Stevens’s discussion of race and of broad electoral trends never come up at all: George McGovern, for example, whose candidacy in 1972 re-sorted political allegiances for all kinds of reasons having nothing to do with race. Or Jack Kemp, our 1996 vice-presidential nominee, who was championing racial equality back when Stevens, in his own telling, “saw the warning signs but ignored them,” leaving civil-rights issues to others while he focused on that storied winning streak as ad man and consultant. Or Clarence Thomas, a mention of whose 1991 ordeal complicates any narrative of a Democratic Party that always puts the interests and dignity of black citizens first.
Conservative populism in the book becomes synonymous with “white nationalism.” Stevens writes as if only Trump had ever been subjected to constant accusations of racism, forgetting that at various points Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney (when Joe Biden in 2012 informed a mostly black audience in Virginia that Republicans aimed to “put y’all back in chains!”) all received lighter but likewise phony versions of the same treatment. All details that don’t serve Stevens’s argument are disregarded, such as the millions of voters who in 2012 voted for Barack Obama but in 2016 for Trump, somehow suddenly overcome by “white grievance.” Recall as well the Republican primary bids of Herman Cain leading up to 2012 and of Ben Carson in 2016, both of these African-American candidates having a turn as frontrunners, and nearly catching the populist lightning before Trump came along and picked up a winning set of issues that was anyone’s to take.
Trump as president has reached out to African-American voters often, for reasons as politically sensible as they are honorable — saying recently, for example, that our nation aspires “to be better and braver, to do what is right, to dream bigger, aim higher, and always be bolder in pursuit of what is just, decent, and true. Every day of my presidency, we’ll strive to give every child, of every background and every race, religion, color, and creed, the best chance to reach that beautiful American Dream.” But Trump could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue shouting out such unifying sentiments and he wouldn’t lose any critics. The “racism” story will always keep coming no matter what.
“Racism” in It Was All a Lie is taken to mean whatever critics of the Republican Party have said it means. The more clearly defined the word, the less useful it is for the shaming and self-dramatizing that fill the book. Ultimately, just about everything Stevens doesn’t like about Republicans gets packed into an all-purpose smearing of the “whites-only party.” And judging by the tone in the third part of his j’accuse, directed at social conservatives, there was an awful lot he disliked long before his grievances could be transferred onto Trump.
The president, he writes, “doesn’t signal a lowering of standards of morality by Republican voters. Instead, he gives them a chance to prove how little they have always cared about those issues.” Social conservatism has always been just “an ‘otherness’ tool, as in those who didn’t loudly proclaim their strict adherence to its code were ‘other’ than normal. Like not being white is ‘other.’ Like not being Christian is ‘other.’” Today, “the entire modern Republican definition of the conservative movement is about efforts to define itself as ‘normal’ and everything else as ‘not normal.’” (Never mind that he’s out there calling people “freaks,” “cripples,” “weirdos,” and “oddballs.”) In truth, Stevens adds, “anger and racism and fear of the future have always lurked beneath the surface of the Christian right, like a menacing shark disturbing a calm ocean” — an arresting image leaving us to yearn for the shores of “a dying civilization, the socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republican Party.”
He goes on with more complaints about “the power a small group of right-wing zealots has over the Republican Party,” fanatics “mandating reproductive choices for women,” a “big tent,” etc., all as if none of this has ever been said before. As if, in this time of racist “Brownshirts” in red caps and “Nuremberg-rally-like chants of ‘Lock her up,’” someone must have the courage to come forward and explain where it all went wrong. You can go back to chairman Rich Bond in the 1990s, and before him to other forgotten figures of yesteryear’s GOP, to hear this staple of intraparty quarreling played out for as long as anyone can remember, the same kind of establishment scolds saying the same thing in more or less the same sanctimonious terms. But one figure we won’t find is a Republican who was elected president by adopting their attitudes or following their advice.
The effect is to leave one appreciating Trump only more for his indifference to such criticism. And if Stevens really wanted to set back Republicans in 2020, he would counsel Democrats to do some moderating of their own, by going easy on the PC talk, the pro-abortion extremism, the kneeling and disdain for police, the narrowing definition of allowable opinions, and other vulnerabilities of the Left that have helped to make Trump so resilient even with his faults. Meanwhile Stevens should spare us the diffuse “racism” accusations and think some more before slandering all those conservative activists in efforts, and above all the pro-life effort, that not only advance the Republican Party but ennoble it. Some people serve good political causes simply because they are good causes. Such men and women come in every race and they have nothing to learn from any representative of a political-consultant class that’s been getting rich in “the business.” If Stevens in his own career has exploited racial prejudice to chalk up a win, that’s his problem, and he should confine his regrets to his own behavior.
A truly contrite version of It Was All a Lie would have begun with the election of 2012, when Stevens for the first time was in charge of a presidential campaign, which brings us to the last main element of his j’accuse: its storyline of a party corrupted in the Trump era and its constant expression of disillusionment with Republican voters.
The posture is problematic on a number of counts, starting with the fact that the Romney campaign, in some features, left many voters and donors feeling quite disillusioned themselves. I know great people who worked in that campaign; I was happy to have a small part as an outside contributor in speechwriting for both Romney and running mate Paul Ryan, and I think the world of both of those men. But there were certain problems always in the air at headquarters in Boston, and a sense, amid the tension, of something important being missing or out of order that you never felt in the Bush campaign of 2000 in Austin, in which a collegial team of capable, methodical, alert, diligent, and salaried people like Karl Rove, all led by the candidate himself, saw it through to success. One bad sign in the 2012 effort became apparent only after the election, in reports of the Federal Election Commission that revealed something less than the kind of disciplined, focused, and transparent organization that wins presidential elections. Never have political consultants profited so much from defeat. An organization designed solely to enrich particular advisers and vendors could hardly have functioned more efficiently for that purpose.
From that angle, It Was All a Lie is a must-read if you need reminding of why, when many voters and party donors think back on Republican opposition during the Obama years, they don’t find much to miss. And Stevens’s own candor about what he loathes in the party invites a reply in kind about what Republicans in 2012 got from the consultants in exchange for their money and trust: an all-but-themeless presidential campaign, one strategic error after another, bland and mistimed TV ads, unanswered Obama ads attacking the bloodsucker from Bain Capital, for the economy a “59 Point Plan” to capture the imagination of voters, a jarringly pedestrian convention speech, a “state-of-the-art” voter-targeting system crashing on Election Day, internal polls still predicting victory early on election night. All of this under the supervision of Stuart Stevens, and even now the question lingers: When do we get the “mea culpa” for all that?
In that campaign, Stevens had actual responsibility for the Republican Party’s future, and not some imagined responsibility as a star witness to all its moral failings. His book is a true confession in its own way, revealing how an entirely winnable contest was thrown away, even with such a first-rate man as the nominee. Here was a strategist so miscast for his role, so estranged from the convictions of the voters he now regards as misfits and riffraff, and so lost in a haze of liberal clichés about the Republican creed and the party’s history, that the campaign he designed managed to lose decisively even as President Obama received 3.5 million fewer votes than he had in 2008 against John McCain.
One verdict of post-election analysis was that the voters never really got a feel for Romney as a person. And one reason for that was some intrigue involving Stevens’s disastrous authorship of the big speech in Tampa, a process of convention-week meetings and group editing sessions I was content to be clear of. Around convention time, as the Boston Globe later reported, “David Axelrod, Obama’s senior strategist, felt he had been given a gift. For months, he had worried that the Romney campaign would find a way to present its candidate in a compelling fashion. But as far as Axelrod could tell, the Romney campaign had no such strategy.” The nominee’s acceptance speech was a chance to accomplish this, and Romney himself had written down some notes.
The notes were revealing and perfect for the moment: recollections and disarmingly humble thoughts about his life, his mother and father, his upbringing, experiences he was grateful for, things he had learned about himself, one particular regret as a young man and a lesson it had left, and more. Anyone reading these would have been moved. The truly lovely reflections of a good man, shining with sincerity, free of the self-regarding stories or stock sentiments voters are used to hearing in such addresses. In other words: exactly the kind of thing Axelrod had in mind as a way in which a candidate defines himself in “compelling fashion.”
These reflections from the candidate were the basis for a proposed concluding section of the speech, which Romney reviewed and by all accounts liked. Stevens had his own ideas, however, and they didn’t involve simply letting Mitt Romney define himself with his own heartfelt thoughts. Why such arrogance was ever tolerated is a mystery, but the result (except for a few surviving sentences) was a speech notable only for its generic quality, trite phrasing, lack of grace and warmth, and general failure to connect with voters. So it makes tough reading, in It Was All a Lie, to find him extolling the “decency, kindness, humility, and compassion” of Mitt Romney that Stevens now faults the voters for failing to see.
Recall October 3, 2012, when Romney turned in the finest performance ever in a televised presidential debate. The man in top form: astute, confident, charming, funny, modest and yet with a distinct air of command, so impressive that by ten minutes into the debate he had set the entire Democratic Party into a state of panic. How do you lose a national election with talent like that? You start by hiring a strategist who is a just few years away from publicly announcing that he despises Republican voters. And yet for all Stevens’s outrage over Trump, take any winning issue of 2016 — the integrity of the border, constitutionalists on the courts, no more selling out workers to drive up shareholder value, no more sacrificing American interests and sovereignty to globalist delusions, and all the rest — and there is not one that Romney in 2012 could not forcefully have advocated, in his own terms and manner, to make a better fight of it and probably to prevail. Missing was a strategic guru nearby with any real appreciation of the people and the ideals whose cause was on the line.
Sharp strategic instincts right now would have our “burn it to the ground” maligner of the Republican Party just give it a rest. We needn’t advise him, in his own phrase, “Go away, little man. You have shamed yourself enough,” because that’s uncivil and nice people don’t talk that way. A quiet disengagement from the 2020 scene, taking his j’accuse with him, would be sufficient, leaving others to guide a vital 166-year-old institution that has been and remains an irreplaceable force for good in this country and this world. There is never a bad time for examinations of conscience in a political party, and I’m always up for some collective soul-searching, but this is not the guy we want taking the lead.