Steve Schmidt: Fighting an Autocratic Coalition
Steve Schmidt, longtime Republican political strategist and co-founder of The Lincoln Project, comes on Burn the Boats to talk about his work fighting Trump and Trumpism.
Steve worked on the campaigns of President George W. Bush and John McCain. He served in the White House as a senior advisor to both President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and was largely responsible for the Supreme Court nominations of Justices Alito and Roberts. Steve formally left the Republican Party in 2018 and co-founded The Lincoln Project in 2019.
Find Steve on Twitter at @SteveSchmidtSES.
Ken Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to Vote
Steve Schmidt: I know that autocratic coalition can't take power again, that it has to be shrunk, that it's got to be confronted, that it's got to be defeated. That's joyful work...It's an honor to be involved in that.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today is Steve Schmidt, a longtime Republican political strategist who worked on the campaigns of President George W. Bush and John McCain. He served in the White House as a senior advisor to both President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and was largely responsible for the Supreme Court nominations of Justices Alito and Roberts. But, in 2018, Steve formally left the Republican Party, and, in 2019, he co-founded The Lincoln Project, which was created to help pull Republican voters away from President Trump. We're going to talk about how that went and much more. Steve, welcome to Burn the Boats.
SS: It is good to be with you.
KH: Steve, at the formation of The Lincoln Project, the founders, you among them, wrote this: "The 2020 general election, by every indication, will be about persuasion. Our efforts are aimed at persuading disaffected conservatives, Republicans, and Republican-leaning independents in swing states and districts." As you well know, President Trump did pretty damn well with Republican voters in 2020, who still overwhelmingly, even after January 6th, support him. Is the era of persuasion over?
SS: Well, no, it can't be. And, look, when you look at the performance at the presidential level with President Biden, who got more votes than any presidential candidate in American history, when you look at the drop-off, then, below that, down ballot, one of the groups that was very decisive in this was independent white men. And Democrats in this fight are going to have to be able to win races in rural America because the divide we have is destabilizing to our democracy, frankly. And so, when you look at the totality of the race, you have millions of people who were persuaded through evidence, I suspect, mostly, that this was the worst president in American history. He was a crook and a liar. He was responsible for hundreds of thousands of dead Americans through his incompetence, malfeasance, and negligence. He was, in these last months, poisoning democracy, poisoning faith and belief in the legitimacy of the system, with the espousing of a big lie that was always coming, that was always predictable, that you saw cynical elites like Cruz and Hawley jump onto. And, you saw it end in an act of seditious violence against the people of the United States. And I just want to say one thing about this, which is that, for a period of time, the Capitol of the United States fell. Fell. The American flag was ripped out, literally, and a MAGA flag was hoisted in its place. That's a fascistic flag. That's a flag that stands opposed to the Constitution of the United States and the American Republic. For the first time in American history, 156 years after Lee surrendered to Grant, we saw a Confederate flag breach the rotunda of the Capitol, a Confederate battle flag on its way to desecrate the floors of the House of Representatives and the United States Senate with its presence.
KH: Steve, how do you apportion responsibility for that outrage? On the one hand, it is so easy to direct all of our ire at the immediate perpetrators, those who broke the glass, who breached those sacred grounds and defiled The People's House. But, on the other hand, and I hear people in your camp acknowledge this, if over the course of four years you've actually come to believe in your heart that Democrats are blood-drinking pedophiles and are going to steal Christmas, then, in some ways, the turn to violence is only logical, which is setting you up to, I hope, direct blame where it really lies.
SS: So let's look at all of the elements of this. First, though, we got to ask a question, and the question is this. Do we or do we not have an autocratic movement in the United States of America that has fascistic markers and is comprised of the following elements? What do you think?
KH: Yes. I think the evidence is unmistakable for anyone who knows history and for anyone who can recognize those same fascistic elements in certain leaders on the right today-
SS: So, let's go around the flywheel here and talk about how it all comes together and the nature of what we have to do. So, first element? Charismatic leader, autocratic disposition, who builds a cult of personality. That cult of personality requires two elements to be a member in good standing: obedience and loyalty. In fact, the Republican Party, third oldest political party in the world, Republican Party's platform is eviscerated, and really the only requirements in the platform now are obedience and loyalty to Trump.
KH: You think that still holds?
SS: Right. That is, Trump is the leader of a cult of personality on top of an autocratic movement. That's not enough. What else does he need? Well, you need the propagandists. All of this is always sustained by lies. There's a straight line from Sean Spicer's first lie about the inauguration to the deadly lies about COVID, and, ultimately, the big lie that incited the insurrection and the attack on the Capitol. It is important to understand the nature of Trump's lying as different, typically, though he's mainstreamed this now. But, before Trump started this, most politicians lied for personal expediency. “I didn't have sex with that woman” to avoid embarrassment. It's a strange business. It requires puffery, right? Most places, if you went to work and talked about how great you were, and you talked about all the ways that politicians talk about themselves, you'd want your coworker institutionalized. Right?
SS: Right. So, it's that type of lies, lies of aggrandizement. Trump's lies were always about lies of power. Lies of authority. The autocrat's lie. So, when Spicer goes out there, and he tells you, you must believe what the leader tells you is true, not what your eyes tell you is true, this is the point that Orwell's making in 1984, when at the end Winston being tortured by the party official is asked, "How many fingers I'm holding up?" Winston, crying, says, "I only see four fingers. I only see four fingers." And, the party official says, "You'll see as many as the party tells you are there." Lies of authority. But, it's not enough to have a lying leader of a cult of personality. You need the propagandists to spread it. Fox News, OAN, Newsmax, Sean Spicer, Kayleigh McEnany, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Baghdad Bob-level lying with malice in their hearts towards our system of government and the Constitution of the United States.
KH: You're speaking as if the threat hasn't even been remotely vanquished. I mean, I don't see The Lincoln Project taking a victory lap. I hear your language really being prospective about what Trump ... as a means going forward. The arrival of Trumpism surprised a lot of people. Four years later, it now dominates our political discourse. But, as quick as its arrival was, its departure is by no means guaranteed and not even tied to Trump himself. Is that your view? Is that The Lincoln Project's view?
SS: Yeah. And, let me keep going around the wheel, right? Because we're going to get to everyone on this. But the propagandists and a leader aren't enough. So who was it that we saw ransacking the Capitol? A hundred years ago, these people would've been wearing black and brown in Italy and Germany. They're the SA and what they're made up of mostly are society's losers. They're not losers because of how much money they make or that they didn't go to college, maybe, because many, many, many of them did, maybe most of them. They're losers because of their sense of grievance and entitlement. This idea that they're owed something for doing nothing. And 20 years ago in our society, most of society would've looked at those people and understood exactly who they are, the thugs, the menace of violence. So, this amalgam of fascists, The Proud Boys teaming with menace and violence, right-wing political violence. White nationalists, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, QAnon, and the list goes on. Religious nuts ... an amalgam of toxic, toxic people.
But, that's not enough. You always need the cynicism of the elites. So let's look at Josh Hawley of Stanford University, Yale Law School, a professorship at Oxford. Ted Cruz, Harvard Law School. Universally loathed, but everybody talks about his intelligence, his intellect. But, men without a core, without a soul, amoral in the discharge of their sacred duties and trust as United States senators. Pissed all over their oaths. It's always the cynicism of the elites who think that they can manage and manipulate the whole thing, who will do the business with a Trump. Try to exploit those people, the losers of society out on that Mall ready to do the violence while they sit and plot.
And, then, there's the last element, and I want to talk about this, a Lincoln Project activity, which is the financiers and the hundreds of millions of dollars of money that corporate America has put into this. We are organizing and reaching out to partners and hopefully have had an impact in dissuading corporate America from giving money in support of sedition, in support of the poisoning of faith and belief in American democracy. But, there's another reason, also. After the ransacking of the Capitol, after a Capitol policeman was beaten to death, after the Trump flag was raised high, desecrating The People's House, 147 members, Republican members stood up to make a vote for the first time in history to take a federal action to decertify the results of an election that had been certified in the states, on the premise of a lie that, had it succeeded, would've led to the downfall of the American Republic in its 244th year. That action would have thrown out a majority of Black votes, just because, in 2021. That's never happened before. And so, how many American companies have made statements in support of racial justice? How many have supported Black Lives Matter? Yet, they're going to fund a new Jim Crow, the effort to take away the franchise of millions and millions of Black voters because they voted against Donald Trump? So, I don't see that money ever coming back to Kevin McCarthy's Super PAC, to the NRCC. I don't see how these companies ever do it. But, if they do, we're prepared to run pressure campaigns that will be aimed at employees, at shareholders, at the executives, that have the hallmarks of the aggressiveness that we took the fight to Donald Trump, because we want to weaken the autocratic movement, that we all have to understand we can never lose another election to ever again. Never. The battle you're seeing play out now in the Republican Party is not dissimilar to what happened to the Whig Party in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed for the expansion of slavery westward. The slavery and the abolitionists couldn't stay in a coalition any longer, and the Whig Party collapsed. You had 147 autocrats, and then you have a pro-democracy conservative Liz Cheney, who votes to impeach Trump and now is being threatened to have her leadership position taken away by the autocratic faction. So, there's a fight that's going to play out now in American politics, at the primary levels, in '22, in the Congress and leadership fights, and it's between the autocrats and the conservatives.
KH: Can you call a majority movement a faction? Because that's my fear, is that the entire party is not only tainted by association, but overcome with this compulsion. You look at those gearing up for the 2024 presidential and they're all in this camp. And, the central issue - I hope you'll disagree with me but I don't think you will - the central issue on the Republican side in the next presidential election is going to be the big lie. It's going to be how the 2020 election was stolen. Am I wrong?
SS: No, of course not. It's the threshold issue. And so, the party will be consumed by that lie. But democracy will be poisoned alongside the consumption because democracy requires faith and belief in the legitimacy of the system. And so, wherever you look in the world, when you see a coalition of autocrats and conservatives together, if and when they take power, the first thing that happens is the autocrats always crush the remnant of the naïve pro-democracy conservatives in coalition with them who believe that they could tame the tiger, that they could ride the tiger.
And so, what will happen is many establishment Republicans, such as they are, and very few, if any, covered themselves in any glory during these Trump years. But, to the extent that a couple of them retain some semblance of normalcy, so they'll be rolled over by the autocratic side in the '22 primaries like the Belgian army was by the Wehrmacht in 1940. They'll be crushed. Now, some of those people will make it through to Congress, increasing the numbers of truly batshit crazy people like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene by some exponent number. However, most of them will be able to be picked off in districts that will make it possible to expand the Democratic majority in the House, which is essential, obviously, because Kevin McCarthy's another villain in this, who's completely unfit to ever hold Constitutional office, is an inciter of the violence with his repetitions of the big lie, and also someone who rose again in defense of the disenfranchisement of 10 million Black voters, at least, in these states, with the decertification, not understanding ... Or, maybe he does understand. I don't know. But, his failure and his betrayal of his oath of office is just staggering.
KH: Well, let's not give up yet, at least in this conversation, on the possibility that the Republican Party can rediscover its core principles and the spine to go along with them. Historically, the way autocratic tendencies or bad actors like this were flushed out is you had a functioning fourth estate. You had voters who would ultimately come to their senses and act on good information and throw the bums out, right? It looks to me in drilling down on The Lincoln Project's strategy that you've given up on that. And, as cynical as it may seem, your strategic decision is to go after the financiers. You'll still put out some great videos, but I don't think you're banking on them influencing the Republican primary voter as much as campaign dollars are going to affect the candidate field. Is that fair?
SS: Well, look, again, I think that the nature of the fight is around all those elements that I went through. You have to understand the nature of the fight. And so, defunding an autocratic movement to the tune of north of 150 million dollars and making companies be consistent with their stated core values, I think, is an important element. If Kevin McCarthy is the face of - and we're going to make him the face of the disenfranchisement of millions and millions of Black voters, right? Same with Rick Scott at the Senatorial Committee. Our position is that Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley must be expelled from the United States Senate. We want to see Ron Johnson censured in the United States Senate. Now, I think when the facts become clear about the activities of at least five or six House members, they should be expelled as well. We want to see the 14th Amendment, Section Three, applied to insurrectionists. No one wants revenge. No one wants retribution. We want accountability and justice for an attack on the Capitol of the United States. We shouldn't have bottom-down accountability where just the incited pay the criminal price. This was an attack we all watched with our own eyes. We saw the incitements. We saw the incitements of the president. We saw the incitements of the members of Congress. They knew how dangerous that situation was. We have to understand that we live in a country that has an autocratic movement that's taken root, that's teeming with menace and violence, that about 40% of the country is into it, on a bad day. That's very, very dangerous, and that fight's going to define our politics for all the balances of our time involved in the civic life of our nation.
KH: I think the most terrifying thing for me that I have to keep reminding people of about January 6th is that it was by no means the worst-case scenario. And the inauguration of Joe Biden in no way means the passing of Trumpism and these autocratic tendencies. But are your efforts and the efforts of others to hold the inciters accountable, is that enough to counter the big lie? Or, is it so ingrained now? And you referred to the facts coming out and how the facts, once they're known, will compel action. With our media ecosystem as fractured as it is, are facts going to reach enough people to create the kind of momentum that you would have to see for the expulsion of senators?
SS: Well, at the end of the day, there's a question, right? It's this: imagine a guy who is hiking up a mountain, and our job is to make him drop his backpack. And I got an unlimited supply of weights with me to do that. Are we going to get him to drop the backpack? There are some people that will never drop the backpack. They'll crawl up that mountain, and they would crawl over broken glass. I don't think there's any of those people in the Senate. And so, at the end of the day, Texas and Missouri have Republican governors. They can get rid of two unpopular guys that bring shame to the Republican conference in the Senate and who are doing tremendous damage to their ability to move forward and to be able to raise money and to reset a decent conservatism in the country. So there's alignments of self-interest that could be made to happen, where they just get tossed overside because they're not worth it. And, in the end, having watched all the tapes to understand what they did, they deserve expulsion from the United States Senate. When we look at what happened, what they did, by orders of magnitude, is worse than anything that Joseph McCarthy ever did.
I just want to say one other thing about all of this. I'm being totally dead serious about this. I think they couldn't have picked a better person than one of America's greatest ass-kickers, Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, to get to the bottom of the security review of the Capitol. I think he's going to figure it out. There were definitely acts of heroism, but the failure is just staggering, the security failure. And I have a serious question. After the last couple of years, watching all types of different Black people be shot by police for no good reason at all, in many, many instances just completely unjustifiable. Crazy. Murderous. The door of the United States Senate swings open and there's a guy who walks in carrying an American flag. The Capitol's been overwhelmed. He's dressed like a Viking with racist tattoos all over him. And, there's a cop right there. It's truly amazing. If he was dressed like Bin Laden, what would've happened to him? Right? I mean, those people were there to kill. Within that mob were people looking to hang the Vice President and to kill the Speaker of the House. It might've been a massacre if they had gotten into the right room. We'll never know.
KH: I think we'll have a good idea. We already do based on the initial chatter, based on the fact that you don't bring tactical zip-ties to a peaceful protest. But I want to visit something you just said, referring to the reset of a decent conservatism. Do you believe that is possible in today's Republican Party? You left the party out-
SS: No. I don't.
KH: ... of frustration. You have alluded to inherent racism within the Republican Party. So, you're hoping against hope with that phrase.
SS: Well, I'm saying, look, hope springs eternal. For example, look at Nancy Mace, who is a freshman member from South Carolina who seems to be a totally normal person, who's been on television. She seems to be a reset to something that could be decent again, though she's profoundly outnumbered. But, it's a start. Over time, there's only two ways to win a fight. You bring your opponent to submission, or they bring you exhaustion. There's no place to meet in the middle here with the seditionists.
KH: What do you make of all of these calls for unity, turning the page?
SS: Well, unity does not mean kowtowing to a small number of people who have demonstrated bad faith over and over, thousands of times. Let's talk about what the president said in a call for unity. What he called for was a unity of purpose on the behalf of the American people to rise to face great crises. And there's two of them that he talked about specifically, that we should all be unified on. That's fidelity to American democracy, number one, and crushing the coronavirus and getting economic relief to people. Now, unity of purpose has to be based on facts, has to be based on reality. There are many things the American people are unified about, but the president is saying to the American people, "Let us be unified in confronting these challenges." Now, there's an opposing definition of unity that John Cornyn, for example, was making. The president asserted his presidential authority by signing executive orders, and John Cornyn said, "Well, he's being hypocritical about unity." Unity does not mean the submission by the winner to the losers' sense of ego and entitlement, particularly in the furtherance of the stroking of the ego of the leader of their cult of personality.
KH: When it comes to hypocrisy about invoking unity, there's none greater than Cruz and Hawley calling for it. Unity without accountability is farcical.
SS: No. That accountability requires it. We're a nation of laws. There must be equal justice under the law. The idea that being a United States Senator immunizes you from criminal activity, immunizes you from moral accountability - nonsense. The magnitude of their betrayal in our times is exceeded only maybe by an Aldrich Ames, a Robert Hanssen. What they did is unforgivable, all of them. And, the majority of the people in this country demand accountability and justice for an attack on the government of the people, by the people, for the people, as that government was exercising its constitutionally mandated responsibility to continue the process of the transfer of power.
Now, until Donald Trump became president, from 1797 through 2021, that transfer of power was peaceful. This was not a peaceful transition of power. The transition of power isn't a moment, it's a process, and this one was blood-soaked because of Donald Trump. When you think about all the great things that have been invented in America, you think about cars and airplanes, medical advancements, the ingenuity, electricity, telephones, all of it. The greatest invention to ever light the world from these shores is that, the peaceful transition of power under the rule of law in a government where the people are the sovereign. That is the greatest thing that's ever been invented here, and it speaks to the greatness that was George Washington. King George III asked, "What would Washington do?" He was told that he'll go back to Virginia. He couldn't believe it. He said, "If he does that, he'll be the greatest man of this or any age." He voluntarily gave up power. And, then, his successor, in a closely contested election that was about even, decided in the House of Representatives, John Adams voluntarily leaves office. The peaceful transition of power, uninterrupted since 1797.
KH: What you're highlighting with those examples and, in fact, everyone since then until FDR, is just how much our system depends on, not on laws, but on practice. And, I think the last couple of weeks especially, but really the last four years, have exposed just how vulnerable that system is to the autocratic thinking of someone like Trump and his minions.
SS: It is. When you think about history, you think about the worst presidents ever - Lincoln was preceded by, until Trump, the worst president in the country's history, Buchanan. And, then, when he was assassinated, he was succeeded by the second worst president in the history of the country, Johnson, who was impeached and who was incompetent, who did not follow, did not agree with Lincoln's vision about how to bring the country back together. The man who did, who tried to fulfill Lincoln's vision to the best of his ability was the man who beat Johnson and that was Ulysses Grant. And, the last time a president refused to be with a predecessor or successor in public on the way to the inauguration was that one, when Grant refused to ride in a carriage with Johnson out of a sense of honor because Johnson had so debased Lincoln's legacy, in Grant's view.
KH: Well, this has been a pretty dark conversation overall. I want to see if we can end on something of a high note. What are your hopes for the next four years? Do you see the possibility of sunlight breaking through? I mean, the big lie feels pretty darn entrenched, but if you can hold its biggest purveyors accountable, if you can elevate the Liz Cheneys - and, I can't leave out Peter Meijer. What a heroic representative he turned out to be. Is there some hope for a renewal?
SS: Well, look. I think that we're in a fight. And I can't tell you who's going to win that fight. I know that that autocratic coalition can't take power again, that it has to be shrunk, that it's got to be confronted, that it's got to be defeated. That's joyful work. It's an honor to be involved in that. I think we saw a flawless transition. I think Joe Biden's the right man at the right moment. I think he might well turn out to be not just a good president, but a great president. But, when we look back at events, my junior in high school, my daughter is studying World War II in a high school history class, and they jump right to Normandy. She's going to study Normandy. It's a piece. An epic day. But there's meaning beyond the day that shaped why that day happened. And so, when you look back 100 years from now in this moment in time, or 50 years from now, I believe we'll get through this, and the right side will win the fight. But it requires fierceness, not complacency. And the pro-democracy side can't be the gentle side of the fight. This has to be confronted. We can't be naïve about what faces us. Can't keep looking away from it. It's dangerous. Can't be naive about that.
Donald Trump will be out again soon, and he'll be holding rallies. His family will be out there maneuvering to seek elected office. I mean, I'm sure Marco Rubio's terrified about the thought of the Ivanka primary that's probably looming. When you look at this, it's going to go the direction of the California party. As the party becomes more extreme, it will shrink within the totality of our voting population and in our country. But shrinking it nationally means potentially watching it expand to consume the whole of the Republican Party, to see it go to a next level of crazy. That's terrible for the institution of the Republican Party, but that may well turn out to be good for America.
KH: I will take that trade-off any day. Steve, we end every episode of Burn the Boats with the same question. What is the bravest decision that you've ever been a part of?
SS: Well, I'm not going to - I think it's wrong to ascribe bravery to yourself. I don't think that's something you get to do. But I'll tell you what I thought was a brave decision. It's Barack Obama with the mission to kill Bin Laden. He staked his entire presidency on the success of that mission, which, as you know, they lost a helicopter during it, almost had a disaster. But, if that mission had failed-
KH: Carter redux.
SS: It would've been Carter redux. It was a moment when someone was all in, and if you look at the statements of the preceding administration that I was part of, it was pretty clear, and I suspect it's true, that mission would not have been green-lighted in terms of going into encroaching Pakistani sovereignty - might've dropped a bomb on the compound. But, the decision that he needed to be killed at close order, and he needed to be identified, we needed to know for sure that the last thing that guy was ever going to see in his life was an American sailor coming to kill him was an important thing. I just think that's the ballsiest political decision, presidential decision, I've seen in my life.
KH: Well, thanks for sharing, Steve. It's been great having you.
Thanks again to Steve Schmidt for joining me.
In the next episode of Burn the Boats, we’ll continue to explore the Lincoln Project and the pushback against Trumpism from conservatives. I’m talking to Dan Barkhuff, star of two viral videos from the Lincoln Project last summer. He is also a former Navy SEAL and founder of Veterans for Responsible Leadership, an organization founded to help counter Trumpism.
If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.
Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.
Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.