Authors: Stuart Stevens;
I didn’t fall for the Russia hoax that CNN and other media outlets did because I worked hard at understanding the appeal of his candidacy even before the Russia narrative started. At the same time, I recognized how disruptive he was to the established order and the livelihoods of those who had grown comfortable in D.C. Unlike many reporters, I knew and loved many people who voted for Trump. My background as a media critic made me aware of information campaigns and how to resist them. My dislike of the interventionist foreign policy made me less susceptible to scaremongering about realist foreign policy.
This is the language not of journalism in search of truth but of a cult. She had been trained in “information campaigns and how to resist them.” Those information campaigns would be run by
The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
ABC News, CBS News, NBC News…and, yes, CNN. It wasn’t facts that led her to the conclusion but knowing “many people who voted for Trump,” as if it were impossible that many good people could have voted for Donald Trump and been unaware that his campaign had been working with Russians. That you know and love people who voted for Trump only proves that you know and love people who voted for Trump. The irony of this is that while the Mueller Report did not charge Trump or his campaign with criminal conspiracy, it did uncover the largest effort in American history by a hostile foreign power to influence the selection of our commander in chief. That was the actual “information campaign,” and it is a profound and deeply troubling revelation that is ignored by those eager to celebrate that Donald Trump was not indicted. The Russians’ intelligence agents working through the blandly named Internet Research Agency (IRA) referred to their efforts as “information warfare.” From the Mueller Report:
The IRA later used social media accounts and interest groups to sow discord in the U.S. political system through what it termed “information warfare.” The campaign evolved from a generalized program designed in 2014 and 2015 to undermine the U.S. electoral system, to a targeted operation that by early 2016 favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton. The IRA’s operation also included the purchase of political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities, as well as the staging of political rallies inside the United States.
In a sane world, a center-right party of a country facing an attack on the foundation of its democracy would lead the charge to defend the country. It was a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, who issued the ringing challenge to the Soviet Union “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” That party has now been transformed into Russian apologists, more concerned with defending Donald Trump than defending the country. It’s madness. The modern Republican Party that has pushed the Pentagon budget to over $700 billion a year, that supports American military personnel in over 150 countries—those same Republicans have suddenly decided that Russian attacks don’t matter because “our side” won.
Why? These are not stupid men and women, though more than a few do a fair imitation. They all will have their own justifications that amount to a personal Faustian bargain predicated on the self-delusion that some particular issue or cause is more important than their oath of office. But equally powerful will be the reinforcing group mentality that Congressman Justin Amash, the first and, as of this writing, the lone Republican congressman to call for Trump’s impeachment, describes:
My colleagues tell me all the time—in fact, you wouldn’t believe how many phone conversations I’ve had, or conversations in person with colleagues….A lot of them think I’m right about the Mueller Report. And they just won’t say it. A lot of Republicans. What they’ll say to me is, Justin, you know, going out publicly with that, you know the Democrats will never support you. You know that they’re hypocrites on this stuff. And I say, you know, some of them are and some of them aren’t. It doesn’t matter to me. Because you have to look at what you’re doing first. You have to care about what you’re doing. If you have a society where all we care about is that the other side is bad, and therefore we don’t have to do the right thing, that society will break down, and you will have no liberty. I refuse to be a part of that.
The Republican Party is held aloft by a large, powerful, and ever-growing industry of deceit. The purpose of much of conservative media is to lie to their audience. It is fitting that at the heart of the Trump presidency itself is a lie: Almost every Republican elected official in Washington knows Donald Trump is unfit to be president. They knew it on November 9 at 7:00 p.m. when they were planning on how to rebuild the party from the disaster of nominating a know-nothing racist for president, and they knew it at midnight, when they were all frantically calling the oddballs and kooks Trump had assembled into a campaign to lavishly praise their brilliance. The Republican Party stood by a candidate who ran on a religious test to enter the United States. They knew it was unconstitutional and indecent, but they were silent. All through 2016, I had conversations with what passed for leadership in the Republican Party on the need to stand up to Trump. Most of their responses went like this: “Trump is a disaster and a disgrace. But we have to let him lose on his own. If we, the establishment, put our thumbs on the scale, when he loses it will be our fault and not the fault of his racism, the alt-right, and those idiots at Breitbart. We will have elected Hillary Clinton. We have to let him lose and rebuild.”
To which I always responded, “But what if he wins?” Truth was, though, I didn’t think he would win, and I wasn’t great at making the case for something I didn’t believe. What these Republican leaders were saying wasn’t crazy; it just proved to be wrong. And in that miscalculation began the surrender of any sense of self to Donald Trump. So now the nation is in full possession of the reality that Russians—Russians, for cryin’ out loud—worked on the same side as every Republican volunteer, donor, elected official, and Trump voter. When you learn that the bank you borrowed money from is actually owned by a drug cartel, should your first reaction be, “Well, we got a good interest rate”? The simple reality is that the Republican Party was in business with Russian intelligence efforts, what used to be known as the KGB, and precious few leading the Republican Party seem to give a damn.
I’ve spent decades waking up every morning eager to fight Democrats, trying to gain every bit of advantage for every battle. God knows we made mistakes and played too often on the dark side. But I never woke up knowing that somewhere out there a Russian agent was waking up with the same job I had.
My dad was in the FBI when Hoover ordered the roundup of Asian Americans. He hated it and quit, joined the navy, and spent the next three years fighting in the South Pacific. Like so many, he didn’t talk a lot about the war. But when it came to leaving the FBI, he told me once, “You can always say no.”
And that’s my question to all those Republicans who are more worried about defending Donald Trump than defending America: Is this why you went into politics? Is this why you put up with all the bullshit and stupidity that is integral to our political system, so you can be on the same side as the Russians?
You can always say no. I so wish Republican leaders would try it.
Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump.
The most distinguishing characteristic of the current national Republican Party is cowardice. The base price of admission is a willingness to accept that an unstable, pathological liar leads it and pretend otherwise. This means the party demands dishonesty as a trait of membership—unless you are a rare sociopath who defends pathological lying. They do exist. The vast majority of Republican elected officials know Donald Trump is unfit to be president and pretend otherwise.
Among Trump critics, it is often said that the Republican leaders lack the courage to stand up to Donald Trump. But even that analysis is flattering to Republicans. Courage is not standing up to a ludicrous man-child like Donald Trump. Courage is getting out of the boat when the soldier in front of you was just killed. That’s the legacy of the current generation of our politicians, and while there is failure of courage enough to go around across the political spectrum, my brief is the Republican Party and its total collapse as a moral force. Degree matters, and it is much easier to see a flawed Democratic Party at least attempting to hold to some semblance of its long-espoused values than the Republican Party tying itself in knots trying to justify a man they know is unqualified. If the Republican Party had been in charge in 1776, we’d all still be celebrating the queen’s birthday. They would have timidly said, “What are we going to do, fight England? Fight the king? The most powerful army in the world?” and then set about to negotiate how much of their dignity they could pretend to keep in a pathetic effort to please. Cowardice is one of the least appealing of human qualities, and a deeply damaged Cowardly Lion leads the Republican Party. 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.
Parties and elected officials don’t suddenly wake up one day and decide to betray avowed principles. It’s a gradual process of surrendering little bits of your soul and values while convincing yourself it is for a greater good. Rationalization is like a lot of things in life: the more you do it, the easier it becomes. The story of Faust is not just that Mephistopheles takes your soul; he also doesn’t deliver on what he promised. Cowardice, like courage, is contagious, and to be surrounded by cowards is to feel comforted in the knowledge that not only are there others like you but there is probably someone worse. The American political process with its deep dependence on the need to raise money is a system designed not for the best governance but for the selection of the person who can put up with being humiliated the longest. Those with the lowest standards willing to grovel and beg are often the recipients of the greatest rewards. That’s true across any party lines, but what is unique about the Republican Party is the clear direction in which it has allowed itself to be driven.
Special interest groups are like terrorists: they test for weakness and exploit fear. What happened to the Republican Party is that slowly over half a century the kooks and weirdos and social misfits of a conservative ideology started discovering that they could force reasonable people to support unreasonable positions through fear. The transition of the National Rifle Association is a perfect parable: over a couple of decades, it evolved from a gun-safety education organization to a thuggish gang that rewards those at the top with millions of dollars based on proven ability to muscle elected officials into doing what they mostly know is wrong. Today the leaders of the Republican Party follow Donald Trump’s lead and routinely attack the foundations of law enforcement, from the FBI to the Justice Department to the judiciary. At first glance it seems stunning to witness a party that once defined itself as a “law-and-order party” take the same position as every drug dealer, child pornographer, Mafia don, and human trafficker who claims innocence and attacks government officials for unfair tactics. Like another guy who lived in Queens named John Gotti, Donald Trump calls criminals who tell the truth “rats” and uses a deep bench of corrupt and compromised lawyers like Rudy Giuliani to plead his case in public and rally support against law enforcement for doing their jobs.
Shocking as it seems to hear the White House sound like a recording from the famed Mafia hangout the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy, the precedent for the Republican Party’s attacking law enforcement has been established for decades by the National Rifle Association. In 1995, the head of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, attacked a federal assault weapons ban for giving “jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” Under President Bill Clinton, LaPierre charged, “if you have a badge, you have the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.” This is the sort of language used by any homegrown terrorist group, from neo-Nazis to the 1960s radical-left bombers of the Students for a Democratic Society.
That was enough to make President George H. W. Bush resign his lifetime NRA membership in a blistering letter. It’s worth reading the whole text to get a sense of the totality of Bush’s fury:
I was outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of N.R.A., defended his attack on federal agents as “jack-booted thugs.” To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as “wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms” wanting to “attack law abiding citizens” is a vicious slander on good people.
Al Whicher, who served on my [U.S. Secret Service] detail when I was Vice President and President, was killed in Oklahoma City. He was no Nazi. He was a kind man, a loving parent, a man dedicated to serving his country—and serve it well he did.
In 1993, I attended the wake for A.T.F. agent Steve Willis, another dedicated officer who did his duty. I can assure you that this honorable man, killed by weird cultists, was no Nazi.
John Magaw, who used to head the U.S.S.S. and now heads A.T.F., is one of the most principled, decent men I have ever known. He would be the last to condone the kind of illegal behavior your ugly letter charges. The same is true for the F.B.I.’s able Director Louis Freeh. I appointed Mr. Freeh to the Federal Bench. His integrity and honor are beyond question.
Both John Magaw and Judge Freeh were in office when I was President. They both now serve in the current administration. They both have badges. Neither of them would ever give the government’s “go ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law abiding citizens.” (Your words) I am a gun owner and an avid hunter. Over the years I have agreed with most of N.R.A.’s objectives, particularly your educational and training efforts, and your fundamental stance in favor of owning guns.
However, your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.
You have not repudiated Mr. LaPierre’s unwarranted attack. Therefore, I resign as a Life Member of N.R.A., said resignation to be effective upon your receipt of this letter. Please remove my name from your membership list. Sincerely, [signed] George Bush
In 1994, I was working on the campaign of the then congressman Tom Ridge, who was running for governor of Pennsylvania. Ridge was from Erie, and when he announced, a prominent political columnist for the
Philadelphia Daily News
called Ridge “the man no one had ever heard of from the city no one had ever seen.” He started out toward the bottom in a field of five running for the Republican nomination. He’d been the first to graduate from college in his family, went to Harvard on a scholarship, and, when drafted, went to Vietnam as a grunt, one of the few college graduates who chose not to seek an officer’s commission. It was a hard, complicated race, and two weeks before the primary four candidates had a shot to win.
A week before the Republican primary, a long-debated bill to ban assault weapons came up for a vote in Congress. For a Republican running in a primary, the obvious and easy answer was to vote against it. James Carville once described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia to the east, Pittsburgh to the west, and Alabama in the middle. I remember well a tense conference call when the campaign pollster went through the likely fallout of supporting the ban, and it was all bad, no upside. Ridge had been a prosecutor in Erie and was familiar, like everyone who worked in law enforcement, with the terrible consequences of gun violence. Ridge listened to the numbers and didn’t hesitate: “I’m voting for it. If I lose, I lose. Screw ’em.” Only thirty-eight Republicans voted for it, and it passed by two votes. A week later, Ridge won the primary. Then he went on to win the general election and is the last Republican in Pennsylvania to have been reelected as governor.
The same November day when Tom Ridge won the Pennsylvania governorship, Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in fifty years. This was the “Contract with America” election that made Newt Gingrich into the Death Star of the Republican Party. No single political figure better illustrates the predicate for Donald Trump than Newt Gingrich. Both men are deeply damaged psychological cripples from dysfunctional families. In
McKay Coppins described Gingrich’s stepfather as “a brooding, violent man who showed little affection for ‘Newtie,’ the pudgy, flat-footed, bookish boy his wife had foisted upon him.” His mother “struggled with manic depression, and spent much of her adult life in a fog of medication.”
Donald Trump’s relationship to his family is so tortured he has the bizarre need to reinvent their origins, claiming in
Art of the Deal
that his grandfather came to America “from Sweden as a child.”
Then, in 2019, he claimed his father was born in Germany. Trump tried to temper his complaints about Germany’s not paying enough to NATO by saying, “I have great respect for Angela [Merkel] and I have great respect for the country. My father is German, was German, born in a very wonderful place in Germany so I have a very great feeling for Germany.”
Trump’s father was actually born in New York and his grandfather in Germany.
Both Trump and Gingrich have a transparent need to compensate for their deep insecurities with childlike boasting. Coppins summed up Gingrich’s sense of self-grandeur:
He has described himself as a “transformational figure” and “the most serious, systematic revolutionary of modern times.” To one reporter, he declared, “I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it.” To another, he said, “People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz.”
Like Trump, Gingrich spent decades in the pursuit of what he considered “trading up” in wives, starting with his high school geometry teacher and ending up, as of this writing, with a former intern he was having sex with while leading the impeachment against Bill Clinton for lying about having sex with an intern. That the former House intern, Callista Gingrich, is now the American ambassador to the Vatican is further evidence both that irony is dead and that God has a sense of humor. In most normalized societies, Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump would be considered nonserious comic figures to be pitied if in a charitable mood and mocked if less generous. Both are total frauds at their self-described identities. As has been observed, Newt Gingrich is a dumb person’s idea of a smart person, and Donald Trump is a not-rich person’s idea of wealth. It says a lot about the Republican Party that both of these disturbed and broken men have become dominant figures. Their unifying thread is anger at a world that has treated them far more generously than they deserved.
When Tom Ridge voted in support of the assault weapons ban in 1994, joining him were Bob Michel, the Republican minority leader, and one of the House’s conservative leaders, Henry Hyde of Illinois, most known for his opposition to abortion. (The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, banned the use of federal funds for all abortions except in cases of rape or incest or to protect the life of the mother.) While thirty-eight Republicans voted for the assault weapons ban, seventy-seven Democrats voted against it, which accurately reflects the less polarized nature of Washington back then. Gingrich, of course, voted against it. As Republicans challenged Democrats for control of Congress, polarization increased. Interesting work has been done that suggests American political parties become more polarized as equal competition between the parties increases. The political science professor Frances Lee at the University of Maryland wrote in
The Washington Post,
Competition fuels party conflict by raising the political stakes of every policy dispute. When control of national institutions hangs in the balance, no party wants to grant political legitimacy to its opposition by voting for the measures it champions. After all, how can a party wage an effective campaign after supporting or collaborating with its opposition on public policy? Instead, parties in a competitive environment will want to amplify the differences voters perceive between themselves and their opposition.
It makes sense. The Princeton political science professor Nolan McCarty has written extensively on polarization and has come to a similar conclusion on the toxic mix of competition for control of Congress and the inability for a government to govern:
Polarization in Congress derives from both sincere ideological differences about policy means and ends and strategic behavior to exploit those differences to win elections. The combination of high ideological stakes and intense competition for party control of the national government has all but eliminated the incentives for significant bipartisan cooperation on important national problems. Consequently, polarization has reduced congressional capacity to govern.