Veteran political consultant Stuart Stevens has spent years working as a strategist for Republican campaigns, including the presidential bids of Bob Dole, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. But Stevens didn't support the party's candidate in the 2016 presidential election — and he wasn't alone.
"In 2016, when I went out and attacked Trump on television," he says, "I would say maybe a third of the party hierarchy would email me and thank me for doing this."
But Stevens notes that many of the Republicans who had privately voiced concern about Trump changed their tune on election night. "I started getting emails like, 'Could you maybe delete that email?' " he says.
"It's an extraordinary contradiction," Stevens tells Fresh Air in an Internet interview.
He notes, "I've never heard any Republican officeholder speak of President Trump as if he should be president. ... They know he shouldn't be president. [But] he is president, and they still support him."
In his new book, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, Stevens argues that the party's support for Trump isn't just a pragmatic choice. Instead, he says, it reflects the party's complete abandonment of principles it long claimed to embrace, such as fiscal restraint, personal responsibility and family values.
Stevens acknowledges his own role in the party's shift: "One of the things that drew me to the Republican Party was the concept of personal responsibility. So I don't know where to begin with personal responsibility except to take responsibility personally."
On why he believes the leaders of the Republican Party became more extreme and anti-intellectual
I think one of the conclusions you have to come to is that leaders really matter in helping shape the party. And I think that it's an abdication of leadership on behalf of Republican Party leaders that have allowed these kooks and lunatics and anti-intellectuals to become dominant in the party. It didn't have to be that way.
There was a time when there was an intellectual core to the Republican Party. We used to say we were the party of big ideas and there was some truth to that. And one of those big ideas was opposing Communism. One of those big ideas was the role of society in helping people become less dependent on government. ... So you can make a good case that the Republican Party was a victim of its own success: We won the Cold War. Bill Clinton passed welfare reform.
And so around 2000, it was a question of how do you formulate a new policy? And we never really came to grips with that. And it has allowed those with the loudest voices to become dominant in the party. I compare it to sports teams. Who is it in the stands that gets the most attention? It's the person that takes their shirt off and runs out on the field. And that's really what's happened in our politics, but particularly in the Republican Party. And the leaders have not stepped in and stopped it.
On the GOP doing an "autopsy" after the 2012 election when Mitt Romney lost to Obama
I think Reince Priebus, who was the chairman of the party then, and there's a lot of credit for initiating that so-called autopsy. It's always difficult to be self-critical. And what's fascinating about that is the conclusions were fairly obvious. You had to appeal more to nonwhite, yet appeal more to younger voters who had to appeal more to women. But it was presented not only as a political necessity to win elections — because we'd only won the popular vote once since [the] 1988 presidential votes — it was presented as a moral mandate, that if you are going to deserve the right to be the governing party of this big, confusing, loud, changing country, you needed to reflect that. So then Donald Trump comes along, and you can almost hear this audible sigh of relief and all that got thrown out and go, "Well, thank God we don't have to pretend we care about this stuff. We can just win with white folks and we can just be comfortable with that." And I mean, it just showed how phony it was.
On Trump's campaign strategy for the fall
It's going to be a racial grievance campaign unlike we have ever seen on the national stage. I think it is going to be the ugliest campaign we've ever seen, by a desperate man. So Donald Trump is behind now and he's talking about suspending the elections. Think about a week out if he's behind: If I was a Canadian minister of defense, I'd be worried he's going to invade Ottawa. This is an unstable man who is headed to potentially a historic defeat. And I think he's going to wave the bloody shirt and try to scare white voters, and I think they're going to do everything they can to suppress nonwhite votes. Legal, illegal, quasi-legal. That's what they're going to try to do because they think that's the only way they can win.
On what he believes is next for the Republican Party
I really am extraordinarily negative on the prospects of the party, and it's an unusual position for me because I've always been sort of the eternal optimist and always thought that we could come back from any deficit. I came across a statistic recently that just absolutely blew my mind: Of Americans 15 years and under, the majority are nonwhite. ... And what does that mean for the Republican Party? It's just a stage 4 cancer warning and the party gives no reason that it's going to change.
So I see the Republican Party, [what will] happening nationally, as what happens to the Republican Party in California. So California was the beating heart and soul of the Republican Party. It was an electoral citadel that we based all victory on. And now where's the Republican Party? It's in third place, not second, third [in registration]. ... And the Republican Party, really, for the most part, became irrelevant in the debate of policy in California. They've made themselves irrelevant. And I see the same thing happening with the national Republican Party.
There is a market for a center-right party and a need for it in America. I think something else will evolve. But to get a sense of how deep Trumpism is instilled, there's another Republican Party out there and that's these governors. So if you look at these very popular governors in blue states like [Larry] Hogan in Maryland, Charlie Baker, Massachusetts, Phil Scott here in Vermont, I work for all these guys. And if the Republican Party had any sense, I'd say, look, these guys are wildly popular in the hardest market. What can we learn from them? Instead, the party kind of treats them with benign neglect. But each of these governors, wildly popular as they are, they can't pick their own party chairman. They're Trump people, and the idea that a governor couldn't pick a party chairman is so mind-boggling, it just shows how deep Trumpism has become in the party.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
In the audio version of this story, we suggest that the vote on the 1964 Civil Rights Act represented a change in how the parties addressed race. A higher percentage of congressional Republicans voted for the law as compared with Democrats. However, that year the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater, who voted no, for president and saw the start of a migration of pro-segregation Southern Democrats to the GOP
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. My guest, Stuart Stevens, is a veteran political consultant who says he spent decades waking up every morning eager to fight Democrats. Stevens was a strategist for scores of Republican campaigns, including the presidential bids of Bob Dole, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. But now he's written a new book excoriating party leaders for their support of President Trump. The distinguishing characteristic of the current national Republican Party is cowardice, Stevens writes, the base price of admission is a willingness to accept that an unstable pathological liar leads it and pretend otherwise.
Stevens argues that the party's support for Trump isn't just a pragmatic choice. He says it reflects the party's complete abandonment of principles it long claimed to embrace, such as fiscal restraint, personal responsibility and family values. His book is called "It Was All A Lie: How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump."
Besides his work in politics, Stuart Stevens is the author of seven previous books and has written for several television series, including "Northern Exposure," "Commander In Chief" and "K Street." He spoke with me via an Internet connection from his home in Stowe, Vt.
Stuart Stevens, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, in the impeachment hearings that we heard in the House of Representatives and the trial in the Senate, that we saw a lot of Republicans making passionate, angry speeches in defense of President Trump. And if they have any private opinions that differ from what they said publicly, we don't get to hear them. You know a lot of these people. You elected many Republicans. What do they tell you privately about this president?
STUART STEVENS: I've never heard any Republican officeholder speak of President Trump as if he should be president. You know, in 2016, when I went out and attacked Trump on television, I would say maybe a third of the party hierarchy would email me and thank me for doing this, saying that they can't say this for one reason or another, right up to about 10 o'clock on election night. (Laughter) Then I started getting emails like, could you maybe delete that email? It's an extraordinary contradiction. They know he shouldn't be president. He is president, and they still support him.
DAVIES: One thing you hear is that Donald Trump has hijacked the Republican Party, made it something it isn't and turned it away from its core principles. You have a different take on this, don't you?
STEVENS: Yeah, I tried to convince myself that was true, just as in 2016, I tried to convince myself that Donald Trump wouldn't win. I was wrong, and I failed. When Trump says that he has 95% popularity with the Republican Party, that's an exaggeration, like he always does, but it's probably 89 or 90. I think you have to look at the Republican Party and see that it is very comfortable with Donald Trump. And you have to ask yourself what that means. And that really is what led me to write this book.
DAVIES: You wrote in a New York Times piece that kind of was spinning off of the book that racism is the original sin of the modern Republican Party. What do you mean?
STEVENS: Well, you know, if you go back to Eisenhower in 1956, he got almost 40% of the African American vote. That fell off a cliff with Goldwater in '64 to 7%. Now at the time, you could make the case that African Americans, after the Civil Rights Act was passed, would come back to the party - commonality of conservative culture, faith in the public square, entrepreneurship. That never happened. And as a result, since 1964, the party has failed completely, for the most part, to appeal to African Americans.
We used to talk about this as a failure and admit it was a failure and talk about a big (unintelligible). Ken Mehlman, who was chairman of the Republican Party in 2005, went to the NAACP and apologized for Nixon's Southern strategy, trying to divide African Americans from the Democratic Party. Now we don't. We just settled into this comfortableness of white grievance. And I think it's pretty clear that in this struggle between what the party would be, that the party that believes it should be a white-grievance party has emerged as dominant.
DAVIES: You, of course, have had some firsthand experience dealing with these issues as somebody who was a strategist for a lot of campaigns. You grew up in Jackson, Miss., at a time when the South was dominated by the Democratic Party. You went away to college and film school. Your first campaign, you write, was in Mississippi in 1978 for a Republican candidate for Congress. And you write that you played the race card in that, your very first race. You want to tell us what happened?
STEVENS: Yeah. Listen; one of the things I wanted to do with this book - I didn't want to, say, write a book that was like, look what all these other people did, 'cause I was part of this. And one of the things that drew me to - beliefs that drew me to the Republican Party was the concept of personal responsibility. So I don't know where to begin with personal responsibility except to take responsibility personally.
So I have to admit - 1978, I was working for a guy who had been chief of staff to a congressman. That congressman was, then, running for the Senate. I'd been a page in that office in high school. And there was a white Republican, the guy I was working for, a white Democrat and an African American independent. So I quickly saw in our polling that African Americans were either going to vote for the Democrat, for the most part, or they were going to vote for the African American independent. It was in our best interests if they voted for the African American so that the votes wouldn't go to the Democratic candidate.
So I made a commercial, which I thought at the time was very clever. It was basically like a voter ID spot like the League of Women Voters would do. They are three candidates running. I put up pictures - you know, white Democrat, white Republican and the Black African American. And that was sort of my first introduction into the lesson that race is the key in which a lot of our politics is played.
DAVIES: Yeah. You know, I've covered politics in Philadelphia for decades - and Pennsylvania. And there's just no doubt that among all political consultants, I mean, demographic analysis is an important starting point for strategy - certainly not the only one, but something that you do pay attention to. In that congressional race, I mean, you weren't, you know, blowing racial dog whistles. You were essentially saying, folks, there's three candidates here, because a lot of African Americans didn't actually realize that there was an independent African American in the race. And that simple fact would boost the prospects of the independent African American and help your candidate. As time went on, did you engage in other racially targeted messages which make you cringe now?
STEVENS: Well, you know, I never worked for anyone who I didn't like and respect. I never worked for anyone who I saw as a racist. I think it's very difficult to analyze these things without saying that race was an element. So in the '90s, when welfare was an issue - and the '80s - it was an issue for Republicans. Ronald Reagan talked about welfare queens. And I think the Republican Party was part of that.
I never really did anything that I would say was overtly trying to play to racism. But our failure to attract African Americans, I think, has to be seen as an inability to adjust to the reality of it. So I - you know, I don't look back and say, look; I did this Willie Horton spot, or, I did that, 'cause I didn't do that. But I certainly, as the party did, failed at attracting African American votes.
DAVIES: Yeah. One of the points you make in the book is that people would often talk about, how do we have a persuasive message to African American voters? How do we talk about jobs in ways that everybody wants jobs, right? And I think you make the point the problem is that African American voters kind of knew the policy record of the Republican Party. That was the fundamental problem.
STEVENS: Yeah, there was this belief in the Republican Party that the problem was just that we didn't know how to communicate with African Americans. And that spawned a whole industry of African American consultants working with Republican candidates in campaigns so that we would learn how to speak with African Americans and they would understand our message. And the assumption there was that the Republican message was one that should attract African Americans. And, in fact, I think that was all nonsense. I think African Americans understood exactly what the Republican Party was saying.
The fundamental problem here is reconciling two realities. In the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan had this joke, but it was an expression of a deep political belief - policy belief. The most dangerous words in the English language are, I'm here from the federal government to help. And, you know, we all thought that was great, funny and true. But how do you reconcile that with a group of people on the lower economic scale, for the most part, who believe, with good cause, that the federal government needs to be, could be and has been a positive force in their lives as far as raising themselves up to a better status? And we never came to grips with that.
I would say in the 2000 Bush campaign, we made the most serious attempt to. When then-Governor Bush referred to himself as a compassionate conservative, he got a lot of grief from the right. In some quarters, they're saying, are you telling us that conservatism isn't perceived as compassionate? And for the most part, Governor Bush's answer was, yeah, that's right; that's what I'm saying. And we really struggle with that. And we could talk about what that meant, but a lot of those efforts really died on 9/11, when President Bush became a wartime president.
DAVIES: You know, you're right about how, you know, if you go back to Eisenhower's day, even Nixon in 1960 got a substantial portion of African American votes.
DAVIES: And that changed when the Civil Rights Act came before Congress and Republicans made a different choice from Democrats, and people noticed it. And then, as you said, I mean, Nixon saw the Southern strategy of racial appeals to white voters, which would help build them - build the coalition they needed. Ronald Reagan embraced it.
And I guess what I wonder is if, as you say, this was partly based on this suspicion of the government, that the government shouldn't be out there affirmatively trying to better people's lives, less government is better - if that was going to leave African Americans who needed protections and assistance in order to improve their circumstance in the country. I'm just wondering how you regarded it. Did it bother you that that was the approach?
STEVENS: Well, to be honest with you, I didn't really think a lot about the policy. I think in many ways, I represent the worst of the American political system because I was just focused on campaigns. I wasn't a guy who was deeply involved in policy. I never worked in government. And I was about the taking of Baghdad, not the running of Baghdad. And in retrospect, I think that was a mistake. I wish I'd thought more about it.
I approached it - you know, I come - my father was a lawyer. I come from this, you know, family of lawyers and judges. And I kind of convinced myself it was like being a lawyer - that everybody deserved a defense. You know, famously, lawyers don't ask clients if they're guilty or not in criminal defense. They just defend them. And that's sort of how I saw it. And the ramifications of it - you know, I kind of elect them, and they're on their own. In retrospect, I should have thought more about it, and I wish I had.
DAVIES: You know, I've - covering politics, I've known a lot of people in your business. And my general feeling is that those who stay in it for a long time are very smart and very competitive. I mean, they want to win. They also tend to pick one side or the other. I think you say that in politics, you join a tribe. Your tribe was the Republican Party. And I guess after a while, that's your contacts. That's your people. That's kind of where you live.
STEVENS: Yeah. You know, what happened - I grew up in Mississippi when there's only really a Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party then was defined by old-line segregationists like Big Jim Eastland and John Stennis, the two senators forever (ph). I worked for a Republican congressman named Thad Cochran, who was the first Republican congressman elected in Mississippi since Reconstruction. I was a page in his office in high school. He was a bright, young, progressive alternative to these segregationists. So I worked in the Republican Party. We didn't really know what Republicans were. We didn't - we knew we didn't want to be like, you know, Jim Eastland or John Stennis. I mean, unless you were trying to get yourself appointed like a judge in Yalobusha County, why would you want to do that? And then once you start working one side, it's very difficult to go back-and-forth. It ends up neither side trusts you.
In truth, you know, I was very comfortable with a lot of Democrats. I was never a hater in politics. I never hated the other guy. I wanted to win, but I never felt that if we lost, democracy was at stake or the country was at stake. And I think that's how democracies should work. I think that's a positive. But there are a lot of Democrats that I would've been very comfortable supporting. I just couldn't work for them.
DAVIES: Stuart Stevens' book is "It Was All A Lie: How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump." We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Stuart Stevens. He spent decades as a political consultant helping elect Republican candidates. He now has a book condemning party leaders for their support of Donald Trump. The book is called "It Was All A Lie."
The title of your book, "It Was All A Lie," is rooted in your belief that the Republican Party, when you look at it carefully, was really never truly committed to a lot of principles that it claimed to embrace. Among them - you go through them in the book. One of them is family values. You say it was never a set of morals that the party intended to live by; it was something useful in attacking and defining Democrats. I think a lot of Republicans would object to that. They say that, you know, religion and family strength meant a lot to them.
STEVENS: Well, and I think that would be true. I think it was also true of Democrats. I mean, who's been the most publicly religious president we've had was Jimmy Carter, probably, in our lifetime. I think it was this weaponization of religion and a certain set of moral values that the Republican Party tried to use. It was part of a larger strategy of defining what it is to be an American. Like, we are what America is, and there's an otherness about these people. And you see this playing out - just tremendous clarity today with Donald Trump.
DAVIES: Another principle that you say that was espoused but never really believed was that of fiscal responsibility and controlling the federal deficit. What's the party's record there?
STEVENS: Well, look; you just look at the numbers. The deficit goes up more under Republican presidents than Democratic presidents. I think it's one of these things that, look; if you said to Republicans, are you for massive deficit spending, they would say, absolutely not. But are you willing to make the sacrifices that getting fiscal control of the government requires, and the answer to that pretty much is no.
So you go back to 1994. Bill Clinton gets elected president in 1992. He has a tax increase. I made a lot of ads, as every Republican consultant did, predicting that these tax increases would crash the economy. I mean, people referred to it as a Kevorkian - Dr. Kevorkian, who was the assisted suicide doctor. It was a Kevorkian tax increase. OK, the tax increase passed. And guess what. We were wrong. Those are just facts. And you can't look at that and say, well, OK, we were right, because reality didn't line up with what we said. And I think you have to look at that and you have to ask yourself, what does that mean?
And Republicans have controlled the government under Trump, and the deficit has just skyrocketed. It's risen faster than any other period in our history. And Trump doesn't even talk about the deficit anymore. I mean, occasionally now, you see Republicans going out and saying, well, we have to, you know, get the deficit under control, and I think they're just preparing to say this stuff under a President Biden.
DAVIES: You know, you're right that the Republican Party has essentially set up some gatekeepers. The NRA - they're terrified of opposing the NRA. Grover Norquist, you know, the Washington anti-tax advocate, you know, asks people to sign a pledge, and they do it, even sometimes against their better judgment.
STEVENS: Yeah. I think that, look; at the root of this - and I really thought a lot about this - is a lack of diversity in the Republican Party, which allows these groups to come in and play an inordinate role in shaping policy. So what do I mean by that? OK, if you take your average 35-year-old teacher who's a Republican and ask their view on taxes, it's probably going to be pretty much the same as a 65-year-old Republican hedge fund manager. So look in the Democratic Party. Thirty-five-year-old teacher - first of all, that 35-year-old teacher - odds are much greater that they won't be white. And then you've got a 65-year-old hedge fund manager in the Democratic Party. You know, statistically, odds are they will be white. They're probably going to have really different views on taxes. And I think that that is both a problem for the Democratic Party, and you have these internal fights, but ultimately, it's a strength because the country is rapidly changing, and the ability to be a governing party includes the responsibility to represent all these different, disparate elements of society. And as the Republican Party has grown increasingly white, this just becomes where you're appealing to more of a homogeneous sector of society. And it, I think, ultimately reduces your ability to appeal to a broader set.
DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. Stuart Stevens spent decades as a political strategist for Republican candidates. His new book is "It Was All A Lie: How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump." He'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Stuart Stevens, who spent decades as a political consultant helping elect Republican candidates. He has a new book condemning national Republican leaders for their support of President Trump called "It Was All A Lie: How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump."
You write in the book that the intellectual leaders of the Republican Party today are the paranoids, kooks, know-nothings and bigots who once could be heard only on late-night radio talk shows. If that's true, I think what that means is that core Republican voters have moved much more uniformly in kind of ideologically hardened positions. Why does that happen?
STEVENS: I think one of the conclusions you have to come to is that leaders really matter in helping shape a party. And I think it's an abdication of leadership on the behalf of Republican Party leaders that have allowed these kooks and lunatics and anti-intellectuals to become dominant in the party. It didn't have to be that way. I mean, there was a time when there was an intellectual core to the Republican Party. I mean, we used to say we were the party of big ideas. And there was some truth to that. And one of those big ideas was opposing communism. One of those big ideas was the role of society in helping people become less dependent on government and more dependent.
So you can make a good case that the Republican Party was a victim of its own success. We won the Cold War. Bill Clinton passed welfare reform. Crime was a big issue. How do you address crime? Well, crime went down as an issue. And so, you know, around 2000, there was a question of how do you formulate a new policy. And we never really came to grips with that. And it has allowed those with the loudest voices to become dominant in the party.
I compare it to, like, sports teams. Who is it in the stands that gets the most attention? You know, it's a person, you know, that takes their shirt off and runs out on the field. And that's really what's happened in our politics, but particularly on the Republican Party. And the leaders have not stepped in and stopped this. And I think right now, when you have this belief that is evolving in the Republican Party, becoming dominant in the Republican Party, that somehow higher education is conversion therapy to socialism, I think anytime you start devaluing education in a society, you are just on the fast road to decline.
So if you look, say, the people running for president in 2024 - and already the race for president on the Republican side in 2024 has begun - look at someone like Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. I mean, here's someone - he went to Stanford, then he taught at St. Paul's, I think, in London, which was founded, like, in 1450 or something. He went to Yale Law School, wrote a very good book of - a biography of Teddy Roosevelt that he published with Yale University Press at age 28. And he's running against the elites. It's like, really, Josh? Really? I mean, Yale, Stanford, and you're running against the elites? And it's just incredibly phony.
DAVIES: You know, after the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama, the party kind of did an autopsy, right? What's happening here? What does the Republican Party need to change? And one of the obvious things that was observed was that the demographics of the country are changing, and that a party that is primarily white and sees, as you said, itself as the party of white grievance is going to be an increasingly poor fit for those demographics. How is the party responding to this?
STEVENS: Well, look; I think Reince Priebus deserves a - he was chairman of the party then - deserves a lot of credit for initiating that so-called autopsy. It's always difficult to be self-critical. And what's fascinating about that is the conclusions were fairly obvious. You had to appeal more to nonwhites. You had to appeal more to younger voters. You had to appeal more to women. But it was presented not only as a political necessity to win elections - because we'd only won the popular vote once since 1988 in presidential votes - it was presented as a moral, a mandate, that if you are going to deserve the right to be the governing party of this big, confusing, loud, changing country, you needed to reflect that.
So then Donald Trump comes along, and you can almost hear this audible sigh of relief when all of that get thrown out and we go, well, thank God we don't have to pretend we care about this stuff. We can't just win with white folks, and we can just be comfortable with that. And, I mean, it just showed how phony it was.
DAVIES: How did you get into politics?
STEVENS: So I grew up in Mississippi in the bad, old "Mississippi Burning" days. And at that time, the central question that defined all politics - it was really only a Democratic Party thing - was a phrase that people would use, are you good on race or bad on race? And that basically came down to whether or not you're a segregationist or not. My family was of that category - you know, moderate, white, middle-class voters who were good on race. And my parents had been close to a man named William Winter - they'd gone to Ole Miss with him - who was running for governor in 1967 against the last avowed segregationist who ran for governor in Mississippi, a guy named John Bell Williams.
So I was a kid, and I worked in that campaign and did the things you did, like walking precincts. And it was incredibly dramatic. I have this vivid memory of being in a high school locker room down in south Mississippi on the Gulf Coast with William Winter and my father and some other men. And William Winter were supposed to give a speech Friday night in the high school stadium, and there had been death threats. And these men were trying to convince him not to go out. And, you know, Winter, like most gubernatorial candidates even today, had no formal security, but these were formal law enforcement people, some current law enforcement people, including my dad, who'd been an FBI agent. And Winter was a very tough guy, and he said, no, I'm going to do this. And somebody went out and got one of those old-fashioned, big bulletproof vests, and he put it on. And these men went out to the car and got rifles and brought it out under their coats, and then Winter went out there. And I just remember seeing this, and I just thought, this is the bravest thing I'd ever seen. And if this was politics, how could you not be drawn to it?
So that's really when I fell in love with politics. And I've always kind of had three interests in my life - politics, film and writing. And I've tried to pursue all three, and I'm one of those lucky guys that have been able to do, you know, avocations out of these passions.
DAVIES: Right. You went to the UCLA film school, and that led you to doing political commercials. You know, one of the things as I've covered politics, I didn't realize until I started looking at campaign finance reports how well media consultants can do in campaigns because, you know, you - once you're good at this and you work for a fairly big budget campaign, you know, you help develop the messaging with the candidate. You make the spots. And then you place the spots with TV stations. And that's expensive. I mean, it costs a lot of money to place a lot of ads on "Jeopardy!" and whatever. And the media consultants typically keep, like, a percentage of that ad buy - like, 15% or so, as I recall. I mean, so if you have a $10 million ad budget, that can be a lot of money for a political consultant. This is not just fun, but you can make a good living at it, too, can't you?
STEVENS: Yeah. Listen; in a just world in which teachers made more than NBA players, consultants would make less than teachers. We're a weird aberration of the American political system. There's not even a mention of parties in the Constitution. There (laughter) sure isn't a mention of political consultants. You know, I fell into it. And I discovered that people would actually hire me to make commercials. No one would hire me to write at the time. And I could do it kind of like migrant labor work. I could go work in a campaign. And then in the off season, I could try to write.
Then eventually, I got to a point where people would pay me to write. But I kept doing it. And for me, what I really loved about it was the competition. I would fall into that category of hypercompetitive. And I loved that you won or lost. And I like how different it works than writing. You did it with a group of people. And there was a score. And I just fell into that. You know, I got into being a gunslinger. And, you know, the secret to success in political consulting is to work for people who are going to win anyway. And then you just don't screw it up.
STEVENS: And I was lucky enough to get really good candidates. And I won a lot of races. Then you start doing more races, bigger races, presidential races - started doing races abroad, which I found really interesting because I was...
DAVIES: Albania you worked in, right?
STEVENS: I'm huge in Albania. I'm huge. If you ever run in Albania, dude, you should call me. I found it fascinating. I worked in the Congo. I worked in Israel. I worked in the Philippines. I worked in Nigeria.
DAVIES: We're going to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Stuart Stevens. His new book is "It Was All A Lie: How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Stuart Stevens. He was a veteran political consultant for many years helping Republican candidates run for office. He's now written a new book called "It Was All A Lie: How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump."
You know, I have to just mention one ad. You were involved in the media campaign for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign - right? - against...
DAVIES: ...Barack Obama. There was an ad in that - I don't know if it was your firm. But I thought it was maybe the single most dishonest ad I've ever seen. It's the one in which you see film of Barack Obama saying, if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose. But, in fact (laughter), that's taken from a film clip, I think, from four years before in which he was talking about the John McCain campaign having said, if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose. And the ad just literally turned Obama's words around from their - to their opposite. Was that one yours?
STEVENS: Yes. I can defend that ad completely.
DAVIES: OK. Let's hear it (laughter).
STEVENS: You know, when you look at that ad - and I haven't looked at it in a while. You know, it's not - ads are - they're art, you know? I mean, it's like looking at, like, "Nude Descending A Staircase" and saying, where's the nude? You're putting together impressions here. And it's not a documentary. It's an ad. And, look; in that campaign - and I'm not bitter about this at all. They attacked Mitt Romney and basically accused him of murdering people because of, like, something that happened at a company.
The majority leader of the Senate went out and said that Mitt Romney - he had information that Mitt Romney hadn't paid taxes. I think that was much more dishonest than that ad. I think that ad captured a moment where the economy was a central issue and where there were two different opinions, where Barack Obama had the opinion that the economy was recovering at an adequate speed. And our belief was that it wasn't.
DAVIES: Right. But he never said if we (laughter), the Obama campaign, keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose. He just never said that. And it made it look like that's what he was saying.
DAVIES: I agree there were tough ads against Romney, too. But...
STEVENS: We'd have to go back and look at it. But I had a lot of arguments with that. But I think that's the nature of - I mean, look; when Chevrolet says this is the heartbeat of America, do you think, OK, like, there's a heart in there? We're going to take it to a cardiologist?
STEVENS: But I have to say, the ad - you know, because there was this controversy about it, I would say the ad became not effective. You know, I don't think the ad really worked because we talked a lot about the ad instead of the message. So - and I take complete responsibility for that. That's on me. If I had a do-over, I'd do it differently.
DAVIES: Let's talk a little bit about this race ahead. You're involved, at least in some way, in The Lincoln Project, right? You want to just explain what that is and who got it going?
STEVENS: The Lincoln project is - was really the idea of John Weaver, who is a Republican political consultant. He had the idea of bringing together Republican consultants who felt that Donald Trump was a disaster and to try to make a difference in the race.
DAVIES: A lot of the ads of The Lincoln Project are really tough. I mean, they attack Trump. One says Trump is not well. It kind of suggests he's shaky and weak and not physically up to the job. And I wonder, who are the ads aimed at?
STEVENS: Well, some of these ads are aimed at Donald Trump, who is uniquely vulnerable to this because he's self-obsessed. In this period, Donald Trump should have been out there attacking Joe Biden and articulating a case against Joe Biden, and they haven't really done that. Instead, he's, like, out there attacking The Lincoln Project. I think that we have a good feel for Donald Trump, and we have a good feel for the people around Donald Trump because we know these people. They're the people who always wanted to work in presidential races we did and nobody would hire them.
DAVIES: It goes without saying this is just an extremely weird year with the COVID-19 pandemic and a lot of the issues with voting, et cetera. What do you expect the Trump campaign's strategy to be in the fall?
STEVENS: It's - Trump is going to run as George Wallace. It's going to be a racial grievance campaign unlike we have ever seen on the national stage. I think it is going to be the ugliest campaign we've ever seen by a desperate man.
So Donald Trump's behind now, and he's talking about suspending the elections. Think about a week out if he's behind. I mean, if I was the Canadian minister of defense, I'd be worried he's going to invade Ottawa. This is an unstable man who is headed to potentially a historic defeat. And I think he's going to wage a bloody shirt and try to scare white voters. And I think they're going to do everything they can to suppress non-white votes. Legal, illegal, quasi-legal - that's what they're going to try to do because they think that's the only way they can win.
DAVIES: So where does the party go? Can it be redeemed?
STEVENS: I really am extraordinarily negative on the prospects of the party. And it's an unusual position for me because I've always been sort of the eternal optimist and always thought that we could come back from any deficit. I came across a statistic recently that just absolutely blew my mind. Of Americans 15 years and under, the majority are non-white. So odds are good they're going to turn 18 and still be non-white. And what does that mean for the Republican Party? It's just a stage-four cancer warning. And the party gives no reason that it's going to change.
So I see the Republican Party as - happening nationally what happened in the Republican Party in California. So California was the beating heart and soul of the Republican Party. It was an electoral citadel that we based all victory on. And now where's the Republican Party? It's in third place. Not second, third - Democrats and independent.
DAVIES: In terms of party registration in California.
STEVENS: In party registration.
STEVENS: And the Republican Party has really, for the most part, become irrelevant in the debate of policy in California. They've made themselves irrelevant. And I see the same thing happening with the national Republican Party. There is a market for a center-right party and a need for it in America. I think something else will evolve. But to get us a sense of how deep Trumpism is instilled, you know, there are - there's another Republican Party out there, and that's these governors.
So if you look at these very popular governors in blue states, like Hogan in Maryland, Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Phil Scott here in Vermont - I work for all these guys. And if the Republican Party had any sense, they'd - look; these guys are wildly popular in the hardest market. What can we learn from them? Instead, the party kind of treats them with benign neglect.
But each of these governors, wildly popular as they are, they can't pick their own party chairman. They're Trump people. And the idea that a governor couldn't pick a party chairman is so mind-boggling. It just shows how deep Trumpism has become in the party. And I think it's got to burn itself out, and eventually something will emerge. But to me, the future of America is going to be decided by the debate within the Democratic Party. And that's, I think, the fault of the Republican Party to be relevant.
DAVIES: Well, Stuart Stevens, thanks so much for speaking with us.
STEVENS: Thank you - enjoyed it.
DAVIES: Stuart Stevens spent decades as a political strategist for Republican candidates. His new book is "It Was All A Lie: How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the latest series in the "Star Trek" canon. This is FRESH AIR.
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