Authors: Stuart Stevens;
With a Senate nominee voicing an opinion on “legitimate rape,” the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, called on Akin to withdraw from the race and blocked any official party support for him. But four years later, Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslims’ entering the United States, a clearly unconstitutional edict violating the Constitution’s Article VI clause against a religious test, and the Republican Party leadership did nothing. When asked to respond, Priebus told the
“I don’t agree. We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values.”
But there was no call for Trump to reverse his position or attempt to mobilize support against unconstitutional religious bigotry.
Why? The Republican Party was—and still is—afraid of Donald Trump. Early in the primary season, his threats to run as an independent neutralized any hint of courage the Republican Party establishment might have been able to muster. Then, as the primaries unfolded and the Republican version of George Wallace gained support, the leaders in the party quietly abandoned their principles and fell in line behind Donald Trump. Even when Mitt Romney stepped forward and called out Trump for what he clearly was—“a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University”
—no other Republicans of note rallied behind him to speak publicly what most were saying privately.
How do you abandon deeply held beliefs about character, personal responsibility, foreign policy, and the national debt in a matter of months? You don’t. The obvious answer is those beliefs weren’t deeply held. In the end, the Republican Party rallied behind Donald Trump because if that was the deal needed to regain power, what was the problem? Because it had always been about power.
The rest? The principles? The values? It was all a lie.
I almost laugh out loud when I hear Democrats saying things like “Jesus said suffer the little children to come unto me” and try to use that as the reason we should open up our borders.
—Jerry Falwell Jr.
Evangelicals still believe in the commandment, “Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star.”…However, whether the president violated that commandment or not is totally irrelevant for our support of him.
“There’s something I should have told you,” the congressman said in a flat voice. This was before cell phones, and he had somehow tracked me down by phone in a Midas Muffler shop. Later, as my career developed, I would learn these are the worst seven words a client ever utters. Whatever follows will be somewhere between the merely disastrous and the fatal.
The congressman proceeded to tell me that when he was working as a staffer for the previous congressman, whom he replaced, he had been arrested at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, for indecent behavior. That was how he phrased it, “indecent behavior.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what he was trying to say. This couldn’t have made it easier on him. “What do you mean?” I asked. There was a pause, and then, to his credit, he laughed. “You’re not joking just to make this harder, are you?” And then, for some reason, it connected. I digested it the way I was beginning to learn to do as a consultant, without any thought of the incident itself or any sympathy for the client but in a clinical analysis of the various options moving forward.
Then he said what I have learned are the worst three words: “But there’s more.” And there was. The newly elected congressman went on to describe how he had left his job as chief of staff one afternoon and walked over to a gay porno theater, Cinema Follies, in the then-seedy part of Southeast Washington. It was upstairs over a storefront. During the film, a worker was cleaning the carpet on the stairs while smoking and accidentally ignited the cleaning fluid, engulfing the stairs in flames. Of the ten men inside the theater, only one survived—my client.
He was calling to tell me this because he believed that a possible future opponent had learned of both incidents and it might come out in the press. I vividly remember getting this call. Waiting for the muffler of my ancient Volvo to be repaired, I felt exhilarated, like a field goal kicker called on the field to win the game. I hope I expressed some sympathy for his near-death experience, but I’m sure that’s not what I was thinking about. This was a problem, and it needed to be solved.
The solution was for the congressman to come forward and preempt any revelations by telling all to the press. It worked. Even in Mississippi, we were able to get him reelected. Then, a few months into his second term, he was arrested in a men’s bathroom on the sixth floor of the Longworth Building, a floor that then was mainly storage areas. The congressional police force had heard it was a meeting place for gays and had staked it out, assuming, I would imagine, they would catch only staffers. Instead, they caught a newly reelected Congressman from Mississippi, Jon Hinson. Hinson resigned from Congress shortly after his arrest.
So I launched my career in the party that prided itself on being the “family values” party. When pundits marvel that the Republican Party could accept a man like Donald Trump, who has five kids from three wives and talks in public about having sex with his daughter, they’re missing the point. Trump 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. Trump just removes the necessity of pretending. “Family values” was never a set of morals or values that the Republican Party really desired to live by; instead, “family values” was useful in attacking and defining Democrats. It was just another weapon to help portray those on the other side as being out of the mythical American mainstream. It was 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.” Like not being heterosexual is “other.” The entire modern Republican definition of the conservative movement is about efforts to define itself as “normal” and everything else as “not normal.”
The Republican use of “family values” was the weaponization of two key elements of its power structure: racial prejudice and a politically conservative Christianity, from Catholics to evangelicals. Seth Dowland summed it up perfectly in
Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right:
In the early 1970s, white conservatives surveyed the American landscape and saw economic crises, spiraling crime, urban riots, and endless wars—both hot and cold. They determined that the nation had gone off the track. In particular, conservatives sensed that liberals had undermined traditional values. This climate was ripe for a politics that celebrated a nostalgic ideal of the home.
For Republicans, that “home” invariably meant a gauzy view of an idealized America somewhere in the 1950s that never existed. Those roles continue to drive the structure of Republican politics and remain the key building blocks of the party’s DNA. When Brett Kavanaugh testified in response to sexual assault allegations by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, he painted a portrait of family life that was reassuringly out of the 1950s:
During the weekdays in the summer of 1982, as you can see, I was out of town for two weeks of the summer for a trip to the beach with friends and at the legendary Five-Star Basketball Camp in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. When I was in town, I spent much of my time working, working out, lifting weights, playing basketball, or hanging out and having some beers with friends as we talked about life, and football, and school and girls.
Some have noticed that I didn’t have church on Sundays on my calendars. I also didn’t list brushing my teeth. And for me, going to church on Sundays was like brushing my teeth, automatic. It still is.
The described world is one in which everyone knows their roles: a hermetically sealed world that could exist in any white American suburb. Though this world was perched on the edge of a predominantly African American city that had been torn apart by racial riots fifteen years earlier, it might as well have been Sioux City, Iowa, or Plano, Texas. Kavanaugh’s audience for this homily was the Trump base that would assume if he lived such a life, he could not have assaulted a woman. He described a movie that white conservative voters could easily play in their heads, casting himself as the good boy whose idea of raising hell was drinking beer. It was a world without sex, as Kavanaugh describes it:
As to sex, this is not a topic I ever imagined would come up at a judicial confirmation hearing, but I want to give you a full picture of who I was. I never had sexual intercourse, or anything close to it, during high school, or for many years after that. In some crowds, I was probably a little outwardly shy about my inexperience; tried to hide that. At the same time, I was also inwardly proud of it. For me and the girls who I was friends with, that lack of major rampant sexual activity in high school was a matter of faith and respect and caution.
The family values that the Republican Party not only embraced as a personal ethos but wielded as a club against political opponents was built on the fantasy that sex did not exist. Liberals had sex, too much of it. Abortion would not be needed if men and women just quit having sex. Or any more sex than necessary to have children. The Equal Rights Amendment would not be needed if women would only accept their roles as defined by their sex, which was a far different thing from their sexuality. As Robert O. Self wrote in
All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s,
Behind the competing visions of American life were two ideas with far-reaching political consequences: citizens have
sex and they
sex. Prior to the second half of the twentieth century, the United States, like most societies in the West, rarely recognized the first proposition. Citizens were not imbued with the gender differences assigned by biology. The universal subject of modern democracies was assumed to be a white heterosexual male. Americans did recognize the second proposition, but its implications were hidden behind the all-important distinction between public and private so long employed to divide political from domestic life in classic political thinking. Even as the state regulated everything from women’s reproduction to sexual behavior and marriage, sex and sexuality were imagined as private. They were thought to have no meaningful relationship to democratic citizenship.
The Christian right would like the world to believe it was the political arm of Jesus Christ, come to life to save a sinful America. In practice it operates more like a Christian-related super PAC for a white America. The professional politicization of Christianity as a right-wing force was always more about the acquisition of power than a commitment to Christianity. It was where the commercialization of Christianity meets the politicization of Christianity. The long list of high-profile evangelical figures who scammed the public and lived their lives exactly opposite of what they preached reveals the essential truth of the Moral Majority and the like efforts it spawned. In
The Immoral Majority,
Ben Howe, an evangelical who grew up in the movement, describes the long list of disgraced preachers as “figures who were cartoonish, dramatic, deceitful, wealthy, white, smarmy, judgmental, callous, and, above all, hypocritical. Charlatans.”
This is about as perfect a description of Donald Trump as one can find.
To understand how white evangelicals could embrace Donald Trump, consider him the ultimate white megachurch preacher. The congregation has been conditioned to accept leaders who are lying, philandering frauds who live extravagant lifestyles far above their own means. But even the larger-than-life flaws and sins of these men—and they are all men—serve to convince the flock that they are unworthy to judge such men. Their followers proudly claim they favor “authenticity” as a virtue but are drawn to the most elaborately artificial of men who cosmetically, chemically, and surgically alter their physical presence as if to affirm they were of a different, more godlike persona. Compare photographs of Jimmy Swaggart and Donald Trump, and they look like brothers from some strange union of Mardi Gras floats: huge heads, strange colors, balloon bodies, mouths disconnected from brains. The very strangeness of the figures makes them harder to judge by the standards of normal human behavior. Their entire artifice is to appear abnormal and thus escape judgment. These men are “different” and should be judged differently.
During the 2016 Republican primary, vast sums were spent by candidates other than Trump attacking one another rather than Trump. In retrospect, this seems quite insane, but at the time the theory made sense: Surely the Republican Party would not nominate a man who was in the casino business, had five children by three wives, and was a maxed-out donor to Anthony Weiner? Whoever got one-on-one with Trump would win because he was an open sewer of immorality and Republicans were the “Character Counts” party. Those of us who voiced this opinion were allowing ourselves to think that the Republican Party we wanted to exist actually did. It’s not that we were stupid, but we were foolish. At least I was. If I look back on my years in politics, the long-standing hypocrisy of the Republican Party should have been obvious. I should have known better because I was there.
The first large, heavily funded conservative political action committee was called the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC, pronounced
-pac). It was started in the mid-1970s with a mission to take advantage of a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to independent groups’ spending large sums of money on federal races. This was a way to circumvent the individual contribution limits on all federal races. I had never heard of NCPAC when I got a call from a Republican pollster named Arthur Finkelstein, asking me if I would like to make some ads for NCPAC. This was in 1982, when I had worked on a few winning campaigns. I had never heard of Arthur Finkelstein either, but he was the NCPAC pollster and a driving force behind conservatives like Jesse Helms. In retrospect, I’d like to say this troubled me, but the truth is that I was happy anyone wanted to hire me and I eagerly said yes.
Arthur was brilliant, darkly funny, deeply eccentric, and one of the more compelling characters I ever came across in politics. He was also gay and later moved to Massachusetts to avail himself of the LGBT rights that Governor Bill Weld helped pass. Arthur was a fierce defender of Jesse Helms, and when I once tried to raise the obvious contradictions of Helms’s homophobia and Arthur’s own sexual orientation, he actually burst out laughing. “Kid,” he said, “all we do is elect them. After that they’re on their own.” Then he got more serious. “Your dad is a lawyer, right?” I said he was. “Do lawyers take on clients they don’t agree with? Try to give them the best defense possible? Of course they do. That’s how the whole legal system works. Everybody is entitled to a defense. Criminal defense lawyers don’t even want to know if their guy is innocent. So if it’s good enough for lawyers, why not for us?” I remember being flattered that he would include me in the “us,” as though I had been admitted to some secret society of political consultants when I really was just a guy stumbling around in politics.
The head of NCPAC was Terry Dolan. He was also gay and later died of AIDS. As far as I could tell, NCPAC was a gay organization dedicated to electing the most conservative and antigay politicians in America. A typical NCPAC fund-raising letter would include sections like “Our nation’s moral fiber is being weakened by the growing homosexual movement and the fanatical ERA pushers (many of whom publicly brag they are lesbians).”
They worked closely with Jerry Falwell, whose Moral Majority sponsored the Family Protection Act introduced in 1979 by two of NCPAC’s favorite senators, Nevada’s Paul Laxalt (chairman of the Reagan presidential campaign) and Iowa’s Roger Jepsen. The major focus of the legislation was a broad attack on women, from limiting contraception to banning abortion and reaffirming the rightful place of women to be in the home. But it also was explicitly an attack on the sexual orientation of the leaders of NCPAC who so fervently advocated the election of the sponsors. The bill would cut off all federal funding for any organization “advocating, promoting, or suggesting homosexuality, male or female, as a life style.”