Book Review: “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump”

I picked up Stuart Stevens’ It Was All a Lie after Chad Mayes mentioned it in his interview over at The Atlantic. Mayes, a life-long Republican and former head of the GOP-controlled California Assembly, cited the book as a part of his principled opposition to Trump. Mayes explained:

The moment I knew I that I had a problem with Trump being our nominee was when there was a question asked in one of the debates when someone said, “You filed bankruptcy four times,” and his response was something to the effect of, “Well, yeah, I used the law to my advantage.” In my household, you would never file bankruptcy, or if you had to, it was because something devastating happened to you. You would never go out and think that you were going to use that to your advantage, because there’s somebody on the other end of that that was being harmed. You’d never swing your arm with the purpose of hitting somebody.

And it seems as though that’s what conservatism had all of a sudden become. At one point in time, conservatism was this idea of liberty, of rugged individualism. But at the same time, there was this deep sense about responsibility. It was both liberty and responsibility. You could swing your arm, but you certainly weren’t going to swing your arm to where it was going to connect with somebody else’s nose. What we’ve gotten to today is: I’m going to swing my arm. You got in the way. That’s bad on you, not on me. That’s not what conservatism always was, but it’s what it’s become.

In this passage, Mayes makes it sound as if Trump is an aberration within the Republican party, a sudden shift in priorities from the “rugged individualism” coupled with personal responsibility. Stevens’ thesis is slightly different. Well, perhaps more than slightly different. Stevens argues that Trump is the culmination of decades of Republican strategy. All of the niceties were just a front, and Trump gave Republicans permission to take the mask off:

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 has always been about power.

The rest? The principles? The values? It was all a lie.

Who is Stevens anyway, to be levelling such harsh critiques? This isn’t an outside critique. Stevens is a life-long Republican and a top campaign strategist, aiding in the elections of George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. He knows that in the thick of things, winning was what really mattered. But he could always justify it, because he stood for something. But that all changed when Donald Trump was elected.

Stuart examines several historical events and figures to show that the party hasn’t changed overnight with the election of Donald Trump. He examines the debate between William Buckley and James Baldwin The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro to illustrate there was always a racist streak in the modern Republican party. He even recounts how he was complicit in the Southern strategy in an interesting anecdote about the election of a Southern senator:

What we needed in the Hinson campaign was a like dynamic of an independent African American drawing votes from the Democrat. And we had one: Evan Doss Jr, a thirty-year old African-American, had qualified to run as an independent for the Congressional seat. The problem was that he wasn’t famous like Charles Evers, so few, including those in the black community, knew he was running. So I did the obvious thing: I made ads that showed the Republican, the Democrat, and the independent, Evan Doss. I did it like a public service announcement: “In the Fourth Congressional District, three candidates are running.”…

That was it. I thought it was terribly clever, and it didn’t bother me a bit on any “I’m playing the race card” kind of level. What could be wrong with informing voters of the choice they faced? And it worked beautifully. On election day, Hinson won with 51.6% of the vote followed by John Hampton Stennis with 26.4% and Evan Doss with 19%. Every vote for Doss was a vote that would have gone to Stennis. In the end, Hinson might have won without the black independent, but it would have been very, very close.

Stuart chides the Republican party for either trying to split the minority vote or even outright suppress it rather than adapting to a changing demographic landscape. It isn’t a winning long-term strategy for one, and on a deeper level it is corrupt and immoral, not matter the justifications you try to make.

Another moment that haunts the Republican party of today is Barry Goldwater’s refusal to endorse the Civil Rights Act, the act that ended the era of Jim Crow. Goldwater painted it as a states’ rights issue, but that was just punting the ball. Before Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, the black vote was split between Republicans and Democrats pretty evenly. After Goldwater, Republicans never got more than 10% of the black vote, putting them on a trajectory that didn’t appeal to minority voters:

Stuart calls on a number of sources to make his case, studies on voter suppression and democracy, including How Democracies Die, another book I have read recently. I think the most interesting is the memoirs of Franz von Papen. If you’re not familiar with it, von Papen was an aristocrat who was the last elected chancellor in Germany before Hitler came to power. As a leader of the conservative party in his day, von Papen refused to take responsibility for his party’s enabling of Hitler to take control of the country. Stuart writes:

The ghost of Franz von Papen haunts today’s GOP. If I could make every Republican elected official read one book, it would be the memoirs of Papen, the aristocratic chancellor of Germany who dissolved the German parliament and enabled Adolf Hitler to rise to power. It is a study in self-deception by an intelligent man who knows he made terrible mistakes with horrific consequences but is still trying to explain that his choices were the best of bad ones available…

This is not an analogy of Trump to Hitler, but it is a cautionary warning on the collapse of norms in a society. Legitimizing hate is like a war: it is easier to begin than to stop.

I again am glad to find principled conservatives who are willing to challenge Trump. Stuart’s book doesn’t end optimistically. What will politics look like after Trump? When you break political norms, they don’t go back. Will we ever achieve a new normal again?

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