Column: GOP strategist Rick Wilson on Trump’s ‘loud, messy, ugly’ 2020 campaign
When a fresh news poll finds that a majority of Republicans believe that Donald Trump is a better president than Abraham Lincoln was, what’s an old-school, never-Trump Republican to do? For Rick Wilson, it’s more of the same, with even more fire and fury — talking on television, and writing another book. The new one, “Running Against the Devil,” is out next month, and in it, the veteran GOP campaign strategist offers up instructions for the tactical and strategic political fire to fight the fire of what he calls the president’s 2020 “war machine.” With his earlier book, “Everything Trump Touches Dies,” Wilson became a Wicked Wit of cable news talk shows, a fulminator in chief relentlessly taking on the commander in chief who commandeered the party Wilson spent his career working for.
What is going on with the democratic institutions in this country under the stress of a Trump presidency?
We are on a very swift decline. I mean, there’s no other way to put it. There’s no way to make it pretty or gussy it up or to have an optimistic side channel on this.
This is a man who is willfully destroying the rules, norms, laws, regulations, traditions and understandings of the American people, and at a speed and to a degree which I find absolutely reprehensible.
And I come at this not as the typical partisan opponent of Trump.
I come at this as a conservative who believes that things move slowly and change slowly when both parties engage in a dynamic back and forth that has marked our politics for a very long time.
This push and pull was always just part of our politics, because both sides played by the rules. Both sides recognized that institutions and the laws matter and they sometimes nudged further one direction or the other.
But it generally kept our nation in a sort of balance between the ideological polarities. Well, Trump isn’t really a liberal or conservative. He’s an authoritarian and a statist and a nationalist.
And so all the things that used to protect us — it’s important to Trump to destroy those things. It’s important to Trump to remove those guardrails, to prevent those security buffers from preventing this kind of behavior.
The presidency is the head of the executive, not the head of the entire government. There are two other branches of government. What’s happening with other Republicans in the legislative branch of government who may be thinking, like you, this is about the institutions, not about the party?
One of the most disappointing things for me was this evolution of what used to be my political party and is no longer.
What I saw in the initial going was that the vast majority Republicans in the 2016 election deeply opposed Donald Trump for legitimate reasons. He was morally and politically and ethically completely unsound for the job, psychologically, etc.
Then we ended up in the first term and the first year or so with a certain number of Republicans thinking, I’m going to work with him, I’m going to try to make the best of this. It’s horrible, but we’ll see what I can do.
And there were a few true believers, but most of them were just scared of him.
Well, the soft targets all disappeared after 2018. The low-hanging fruit, people who couldn’t stand Trump, who couldn’t stomach it morally — they got out, which was the honorable thing to do.
The flip side of that is, the ones that are left are the believers. They’re the hard core that treat him like a king.
Ronald Reagan was admired, even loved, Barack Obama immensely respected. What is it about Trump that there are so many people willing to throw themselves into the cannon’s mouth to defend him?
Well, a lot of these folks recognize that Donald Trump has a hold over their party that is empowered by Fox News. Fox News is the defining, shaping mechanism of the Republican Party today. And it is extraordinarily powerful at making the audience think what it wants them to think.
And in Donald Trump’s case, that audience is told every day, it’s him or the apocalypse. It’s Donald Trump or sharia law. It’s Donald Trump or mandatory gay marriage. It’s Donald Trump or whatever crazy right-wing fantasy you want to dig up.
So because of that, because of that power and relationship with Fox, none of them are going to cross Donald Trump. He’s also got 60 million Twitter followers and they are absolutely petrified of his Twitter feed.
And yet, isn’t Mike Pence sitting in his office thinking, what am I, chopped liver? I can nominate judges. I can sign executive orders. I can build walls.
Oh, yes. I mean, look, you would have almost certainly gotten a [Supreme Court Justice Neil M.] Gorsuch or a [Justice Brett] M. Cavanaugh and all these other federal judges from Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. You would have seen regulatory reform. You would’ve seen a lot of different outcomes and you would have seen a lot of different perspectives. But you don’t, because we’re in a different world now.
When you think about the process of impeachment and trial, in all likelihood Donald Trump will not be convicted. What would a post-trial Trump administration look like? I don’t know how you would compare it to, say, Bill Clinton, who was not convicted, or Andrew Johnson, who was not convicted? What would this do to Trump and to his perhaps second term?
It would put Trump into a position where his inclinations to be corrupt and lawless already would be even further let off the chain. It would lead to an era where he believes that he got away with the abuse of executive power and executive privilege to protect himself.
So I think all of this would be a very difficult moment for the rest of the government, because Donald Trump will be absolutely without any sort of boundaries.
Beyond a tipping point for democracy, what about a tipping point for the Republican Party, for the two-party system? What is left of the Republican Party after Donald Trump, after Trump voters may decide, that’s all I cared about and I’m staying home?
That is a question that I’ve asked a lot, considered a lot, is that there is a conspicuous pattern right now that the Republican Party is losing races at a breakneck clip.
We’re losing those places, those seats in places that are not liberal hotbeds. They are moderate suburbs. We’re being written out of the place where 60% of Americans live. We’re being written out of the ability to win in those places.
And you end up with a very deeply rebranded party that is not ever going to be able to go back and say, well, the Trump thing was a joke. We just got rid of all of our principles because we wanted to win this one time.
It’s a stain. You don’t get rid of a stain like Trump easily, in my view.
What do you wake up thinking or looking for?
“Oh, God, what has he tweeted now?”
I wake up every day — I’m in a very sort of unique position, for a guy who was deep inside the Republican machine and helped — and, modestly speaking, I helped to build a lot of it.
I helped win a lot of races and build a lot of the systems we use today to win elections. Which is why my second book is basically telling the Democrats, here’s what the GOP is going to do to you. I know, because I helped write the manual for it.
A lot of the things I used to be able to help accomplish for the party and for candidates was, I was able to get people elected in blue states and in blue districts, I was able to get Republicans in office in places that we shouldn’t have been able to win, on paper. Well, that set of tricks, that portfolio is over now.
What else in your book is a prescription, maybe an inoculation for Americans, for your own party?
One of the things I describe in “Running Against the Devil” is that I tick-tock very clearly, here’s how Trump’s messaging is going to work:
What you’re going to see on Twitter is not going to be what people in the suburbs are going to see on digital media and on television. There’ll be multiple campaigns running, and it’s tempting for folks like us in the media bubble — we will be watching the sort of like noisy, loud, messy, ugly thing.
And Trump is surrounded by a lot of people who, in the campaign side in particular, have basically lashed themselves to the mast with Trump. They’re very talented people and they’re very amoral people and they’re very skillful at their work. And I know all of them.
They’re going to be making ads and making messages, communicating with the voters in ways that Democrats might not anticipate. And the biggest takeaway of the book is, this election is over in 35 states.
There is no race in California. There is no race in Mississippi. There is no race in Massachusetts. And there is no race in Arkansas.
I’ve also described very carefully the political geography and the political messaging that works in states like Wisconsin and Florida and Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania and Arizona, that are the swing states, that are going to be in play and that are going to be where this election is decided in 2020.
It’s not an ideological book. I write this as a guy who basically was a political craftsman for a long time. And I’m telling you Democrats very directly, here’s how they’ll do it. Here’s what Trump is going to have at his disposal from the party that I helped expand and create, a lot of these systems that they’re going to use against them.
There are Republicans who say, why are you doing the Democrats’ work? Are you doing the Democrats’ work?
I’m doing what I hope is the country’s work. I didn’t wake up one day and suddenly become a guy who thinks that individual liberty and the rule of law and all these other things are disposable.
I still believe in the maximization of individual freedom over the power of the state. And I still believe in fundamental conservative principles — not in the checklist of issues, necessarily, but also in the book.
Also, more importantly, I think, in the way that you treat people and in the respect for human dignity and in the idea that government shouldn’t make decisions for you.
My position for my entire life basically on things like gay marriage was, why should the government make that decision? Why should it have any business telling to people who want to get married, to adults who want to get married, whether they can or not?
I believe in markets. I believe in the power of individual innovation. And so if I can help restore some of the political culture that values those things, I can suffer through some policy fights with Democrats for a few years on issues that I may care about, and on issues that we may disagree on.
There are a lot of ways to do that. And there are a lot of ways to rebuild a nation that has been torn apart.
I’m looking to try to help restore that point where we’re going to get back to having a regular political dynamic between two big schools of thought as opposed to re-forming the Republican Party [to be] about one man and essentially has become a personality cult.
What will happen to the presidency after Trump? It seems like there are two options. There’s the option that the Trump footprint is here to stay — the executive orders, the “I will obviate the chain of command if I need to” for the military or anything else.
This is truly one of the most powerful inflection points if there’s a Democratic president. There will always be people who whisper in the ear of any leader, well, X did this, so you can too.
If Republicans are shocked by a Democratic president suddenly issuing a raft of executive orders, for instance, of dubious constitutionality on any number of issues — maybe it’s gun control, maybe it’s healthcare, or maybe it’s abortion, maybe it’s whatever. They’ve opened the gates.
And it’s going to be difficult for Democrats to resist the siren call of what would be the justification of, oh my God, it’s such a mess, we’ve got to clean this up.
It’s going to be very difficult for them to do that without giving in to the temptation of abusing the same powers Trump is abusing.
Another area that may be hard to recover from is our international standing, to get our allies to trust us again.
It is certainly going to be something we pay for, for a generation. Sadly, we will probably pay for it not just in stature and reputation, but we will probably pay for it in blood at some point. Because the president is acting as if this is a mercenary force, not the American military pursuing our national security interests abroad.
He is acting like the alliances that have shaped our security for 75 years, with NATO in particular, are meaningless, and that his transitory associations and romances with people like Vladimir Putin and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan are much more important because, quote unquote, they’re nice to him.
What happened to the theory that the people inside the Trump administration were the ones who would put the brakes on him, would protect us and him from his worst impulses?
It was always a self-serving lie by people who want it both ways. They want the idea that they are the good guys inside this administration. They also want the idea that they are part of the new power structure in America.
They can write all the books they want about the steady state or the guys inside trying to do the right thing. But everything they’re doing is empowering Donald Trump. And everything they’re doing is giving him additional leeway and additional status to continue to do things that are utterly and knowingly unconstitutional.
What happens to the MAGA population when Trump is gone? Were they ever really Republicans?
There are three realities about the MAGA population. One is Trump is sui generis. This is a guy who was a reality TV star for 15 years, and the MAGAs tend to be demographically and, from research that we know about their viewing habits — they’re reality TV people. Reality TV is the MAGA audience, less educated, etc. The image of the guy they saw on TV, they believed it and they loved it.
He was going to do two things for them. First, he was going to give them a sense, finally, of security. He was going to get their jobs back and restore the economies in those Midwestern Rust Belt states.
He was also going to take revenge on the elites and the smart people and the educated people who always get out of trouble and who weren’t the ones whose kids were having to serve a fifth tour overseas and all that.
So none of it makes this easy for them to transition. There is no substitute for Donald Trump. What happens after — I honestly think Don Jr. or Ivanka will be the nominee in 2024.
Yep. Because the party doesn’t care about any of the issues that used to drive the party. Now they care about Trump.
That suggests that the party won’t be recovering from Trump.
I don’t think the party has any shot at recovering from Trump. I think someday there will again be a center-right economic and individual liberty conservative party again. But I don’t think it’ll have a Republican brand.
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