The Republican Party's embrace of Donald Trump made Stevens realise that he had been deceiving himself and the country for 40 years as a political strategist.
3 January 2021
I bought this book in August 2020 after hearing Stuart Stevens being interviewed about it on The Lincoln Project podcast. While I often allow a long time to elapse between buying a book and reading it, with the US presidential election campaign being underway, I read it almost immediately.
It must have been a very difficult book to write.
The dust cover says:
“Stuart Stevens is the author of seven previous books, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Esquire, and Outside, among other publications. He has written extensively for television shows, including Northern Exposure, Commander-In-Chief, and K Street.
For 25 years he was the lead strategist and media consultant for some of the nation’s toughest political campaigns.
He attended Colorado College; Pembroke College, Oxford; Middlebury College; and UCLA film school. He is a former fellow of the American Film Institute.”
The back of the dust cover has an impassioned letter from the author to the reader.
“Burn it to the ground and start over.”
That’s the answer I find myself giving when asked what should be done with the Trump Republican Party. I’ve been guiding Republican campaigns for decades, including five presidential races, and I know the party as well as anyone in America.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to realise that Donald Trump didn’t hijack the GOP, as much as some of us would like to assert. Sadly, the party had already become Trump, and he or his like was inevitable. This book traces the history of the Republican Party over the past 50 years and lays out how it became the white grievance party that it is today.
This is a book I never thought I’d write. Some of my conservative friends have written some very good books about Trump, but no one has written a book based on personal experience that is so critical of the party itself.
I don’t know where the Republican Party will go from here, but I do know that I feel enormous sorrow and some personal shame about what it has become. Thank you for reading.
The book comprises 202 pages +35 pages of Acknowledgments, Notes and Bibliography. It has the following chapters:
Prologue: It Was All a Lie
Below are short extracts from the first and last chapter.
The author begins this chapter with a confession: “I played the race card in my very first race.”
In 1978, his first client was Jon Hinson, who was running as a Republican for a congressional seat in Mississippi. His Democratic opponent, John Hampton Stennis, was a state representative and “the son of Senator John Stennis, a Mississippi icon of the Democratic party.”
Everyone assumed that Stennis would win easily. The author was hired to make some television commercials for Hinson’s campaign.
The congressional district concerned was about 30% African American, and Hinson was polling less than 10% amongst African Americans.
As well as the two main candidates, there was also an independent African American candidate, Evan Doss Jr. The presence of such an Independent candidate, if he drew significant numbers of African American votes, would help the Republican. The problem was that Evan Doss was not famous:
“…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.” I put all three on the screen with their names. “Jon Hinson is the Republican nominee. John Hampton Stennis is the Democratic nominee. Evan Doss is running as an Independent and would be the first African American candidate elected to Congress in Mississippi since reconstruction.”
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 choices 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.
In my first race, I had stumbled onto a truth as basic and immutable as the fact that water freezes below 32°F: race was the key in which much of American politics and certainly all of southern politics was played. It was really very simple: the Democratic candidate needed 90-plus percent of black votes to win. If a significant portion voted for a third party, the Republican would win.
It hadn’t always been this way. Before 1964, Republican presidential candidates could expect to get between 30 and 40 percent of the African American vote. Dwight Eisenhower got 39% in 1956. Four years later, Richard Nixon campaigned with Jackie Robinson and won 32% of black voters. In 1964, Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, and his black support plummeted to 7%. Since 1964, no Republican presidential candidate has broken 17% with African American voters, and by 2016 only 3% considered themselves Republican.”
The author spells out what this means.
“What happens if you spend decades focused on appealing to white voters and treating nonwhite voters with, at best, benign neglect? You get good at doing what it takes to appeal to white voters. That is the truth that led to what is famously called “the southern strategy.” That is the path that leads you to becoming what the Republican Party now proudly embraces: a white grievance party.”
The author goes on to emphasise that black voters are not mistaken. When Republicans are in office, they have pursued policies inimical to African Americans.
Below are the authors concluding words.
“Donald Trump has served a useful purpose by exposing the deep flaws of a major American political party. Like a heavy truck driven over a bridge on the edge of collapse, Trump has made it impossible to ignore the long-developing fault lines and failures of the Republican Party. A party rooted in decency and values does not embrace the vicious hate that Donald Trump peddles as patriotism.
But the Republican Party did and does. This moment should signal a day of reckoning for the party and all who claim it as a political identity. Will it? I’m not hopeful. Better than most, I know the seductive lure of believing what you prefer to believe and ignoring the obvious truth.
What the Republican Party must realise is that it needs America more than America needs the party. And the America needs is the one that is 320 million Americans and growing, a country of immigrants and less white every day: the real America, not the gauzy Shangri-La of suburban bliss that never existed.
I’d like to say that I believe the party I spent so many years fighting for could rise to that challenge. But that would be a lie, and there had been too many lies for too long.”
I have followed American politics closely since the age of 10, because my interest was awakened by the campaign of John F. Kennedy in 1960. I still remember how appalled I was by the 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater.
Since then, I have always thought of the Republican Party as somewhat right-wing but a credible party of government. For example, in 2012 I considered Mitt Romney a perfectly plausible candidate for president, but simply preferred Barack Obama.
Donald Trump of course disgusted me. During 2020 it has become apparent just how much he has corrupted the Republican Party as a whole. Especially looking at reactions after the November 2020 presidential election results were announced.
A democracy requires there to be at least two credible parties of government. To the extent that is no longer true in America, the consequences are incredibly important since it risks the survival of American democracy itself.
While on 3 November 2020 American voters rejected Donald Trump, many Republican candidates with extreme views were elected to Congress and to state legislative bodies. We have seen with the refusal of many Republican leaders (let alone grassroots Republican voters) to accept the results of the presidential election how much the Republican Party has abandoned the democratic norms that have held America together for nearly 250 years. This is a serious problem.
The book is very easy to read.
As the above extracts show, the author is extremely passionate about his concerns regarding what the Republican Party has become, and repentant that he spent so many years working to elect Republican candidates.