Many Republicans have joined the Never Trump camp, but few have previously been more important to the Party than Stuart Stevens. After working on George W. Bush’s two Presidential campaigns and serving as a consultant for several major congressional candidates, Stevens was Mitt Romney’s top strategist in 2012. He began speaking out against Donald Trump in 2016 and today is an adviser to the Lincoln Project, a political-action committee formed by current and former Republicans to prevent Trump’s reëlection. In Stevens’s new book, “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump,” he tells the story of his long career in politics and how the party he once worked for has been subsumed by nativism, bigotry, and cruelty. But Stevens doesn’t believe that the G.O.P. was taken over by someone entirely alien to its ideology or behavior. As he writes, “How do you abandon deeply held beliefs about character, personal responsibility, foreign policy, and the national debt in a matter of months? You don’t. The obvious answer is those beliefs weren’t deeply held.”
I recently spoke by phone with Stevens, who was in Vermont. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what a Romney Presidency might have looked like, the ethics of campaign consultants, and how we should evaluate the George W. Bush years.
Your book differs from others in arguing not that the Republican Party has gone wrong with Donald Trump, but that the Republican Party has been going wrong for a very long time. What is the difference in your mind between those two critiques, and why did you think it was important to make the latter one?
I think I wanted to believe for a long time that when Donald Trump came along he was hijacking the Party. A lot of people were wrong about Trump in 2016, but it’s hard to find somebody more wrong than I was. I predicted he wouldn’t win the primary, and I predicted he wouldn’t win the general election. In retrospect, a lot of that was that I didn’t want to believe it. He says he has ninety-five per cent Republican approval, and that’s probably an exaggeration, but let’s say it is eighty-nine per cent or so. You look at what Trump is saying, and the degree to which the Party is comfortable with it, and I don’t know what conclusion to come to other than that Trump very well suits the Republican Party. In the book, I trace the history of the Party from the post-World War Two era, and Trump is one direction the Party could have gone in. I don’t know how else to say it, but it did go in that direction.
Without getting into a question about cause and effect, and how the universe functions, and whether a different future was possible, what do you think held the Republican Party together pre-Trump, and what was attractive to you about it?
What appealed to me was a party that believed in personal responsibility, that character counts, and that was strong on Russia and free trade, and strongly pro legal immigration. It’s not just that the Party has drifted away from those principles, like parties do. As far as I can tell, the Party is actively against every one of them. We’re the “character doesn’t count” party. We’re the anti-personal-responsibility party. We’re the pro-Putin party. I think the only conclusion is that a party that said it believed in these things didn’t really believe in them. If a George Wallace type had run in the Democratic primary in 2016, would that person have won? No. Had that person by some freak accident won, would the Party establishment have coalesced around him? No. They would have said, “This isn’t what the Democratic Party stands for.”
Your book has a huge chapter about racism and the degree to which it’s always been a part of the modern Republican Party. How do you see the effect it had before Trump?
There are always these tensions. There was Eisenhower; there was McCarthy. We look at William F. Buckley now and mourn him for the loss of this erudite voice. Instead we have Sean Hannity. But we forget Buckley started out as a stone-cold racist arguing for segregation. If you go to the Bush campaign that I worked on in 1999 and 2000, when Bush called himself a compassionate conservative and was criticized on the right, he tried to articulate a different vision. Had Bush not become a wartime President, I think it’s fascinating to think what would have happened.
But the Party has existed predominantly as a white party. I think if you’re a business, and you spend sixty years appealing to one segment of the market, you get good at that and not very good at the other. What I think is really striking is that we used to admit this was a failure and talk about it. We used to talk a lot about a big tent. I go back to 2005, when Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Party, went before the N.A.A.C.P. and apologized for the Southern strategy.
This was the same Ken Mehlman who helped run the Bush reëlection campaign, which used anti-gay-marriage initiatives to turn out Republicans in key states.
What I say about this is that we were far from perfect in Bush world. We played too much to the dark side. But we had an aspiration to be better than we were. I think that’s important. With Trump, he takes your worst self and validates that as your best self. That part of you, we all have it, that feels aggrieved, that feels cheated—the side of you that, when someone cuts you off in traffic, you have that little spirit of road rage. Trump said, That’s your best self. You should empower that. I think that that’s an important distinction.
Bush clearly is a nice guy in certain ways that Trump is not a nice guy. But when you look back at the Bush Administration, and you look at what’s going on now—when you talk about contempt for science and you look at the way the Bush Administration dealt with global warming, when you look at spurning expertise and making decisions and how Iraq ended up playing out and Katrina played out, do you think that even if we see that the intentions were different and that cruelty was not the point of the Bush Administration, to take a phrase from another writer, that there were more commonalities there? And that it’s not a coincidence that the last two Republican Presidencies are ending in failure, assuming that Trump’s Presidency is ending soon?
I think the answer is, yes, those elements were there. Definitely. Look, Bush gets elected. If you look at that picture of him signing [No Child Left Behind] with Ted Kennedy behind him, I mean, today that would be submitted in a war-crimes trial in the Republican Party. It’s unimaginable that that would happen with Trump. There was that side of Bush. What happened after 9/11? Did he demonize Muslims? No, he didn’t. He defended Muslims. There’s that side of him. Obviously, Iraq was a debacle, and we can argue about how that happened, why it happened, what they believed when they went in—but it was a disaster, undoubtedly, one of the great disasters in American history.
I think we played too much on the social-conservative side, particularly, with the same-sex-marriage referendum. I think that’s regrettable. So I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think both. What I’m describing is the tension within that party, that both elements existed. Now that’s not uncommon for a party. You can look at Joe Biden and you can look at Bernie Sanders, and they exist in the same party. There’s an argument to be made that diversity is a strength, though I think the sort of know-nothingness of anti-science is not a strength. I don’t think that’s diversity. I think it’s ignorance.
I think that Bush being there as a leader made a huge difference in an ability to at least assert values of commonality that were not our worst selves. I think with Trump that has been abandoned. Then the question becomes, Do you accept that? In 2015, when I went out against Trump, I can’t tell you how many people in the Republican Party, high levels, were e-mailing me and saying, Thank you for doing this. I can’t do it because of X, Y, and Z, right up to about ten o’clock on Election Night. Then I started getting e-mails saying, Could you maybe erase that e-mail I sent? I think in many ways everything that a lot of us said about Trump in 2015 turned out to be overly optimistic.
If I had said in 2016 that it’s going to be July, 2020, and we’re going to have the worst economy ever in the history of America, the greatest decline in G.D.P. in American history, over a hundred and fifty thousand Americans dead in a pandemic in the last four months, and Donald Trump is talking about suspending elections, people would have said I’m crazy.
It’s not ideal. Let me ask you, though, about your mental state. You write about the deficit and “out of control” federal spending being a phrase Republicans use. And then you say, “But no one really believes in it any more than communicants believe they are actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ.” Putting the latter aside for a minute, when you say no one really believes it, are you implying that no Republicans really believe it, or that you didn’t believe it when you were working in Republican politics?
I’ve said before that I probably represented the worst of the American political system. I was a guy who was drawn to politics because of campaigns and not government. You know, I didn’t think I’d be very good at government. I briefly worked on the Hill and I was probably the world’s worst staffer, which, there’s a lot of competition for that. The process of government, which at its base level is usually pretty boring and tedious, just didn’t appeal to me. I really didn’t think about this stuff a lot. I should have thought about it more. You’re not powerless. You can have an impact on this.
The deficit line is just something people say, in the way you say when you see someone you don’t like, “It’s nice to see you.” It’s sort of like a social nicety. If you said to them, “Are you for major deficits?” They would say, “No,” and they would have passed that lie-detector test. But if you had said, “Are you willing to do what it takes to end the deficit?” The answer would have been what happened, “No.” It’s really even worse than that. If you go and you look at the last time that the deficit got wrestled under control, it was under Clinton. In part, that was because Clinton passed a tax increase. If you go back and you look at what we all predicted, and I made a million spots, we predicted economic Armageddon after the Clinton days. Instead, we had the beginning of the greatest period of growth in American history. We were wrong. I think we have to admit that and look at what happened.
Would Mitt Romney have made a good President if he had been elected in 2012?
I think Mitt Romney would have been a great President, and every day I wish that he were President.
Maybe this gets to the fundamental issue we’ve been going back and forth on. I think a lot of people acknowledge that Romney is in many ways a pretty decent, honorable man. Certainly, I think a lot of liberals think this now, and a lot of centrists think this now. At the same time, you’ve just finished talking about how Iraq was a disaster and how Republican economic policies don’t really make much sense. Romney was, essentially, running on “doubling Guantánamo,” and an aggressive foreign policy, and the Paul Ryan budget. If Romney had been elected, would his have been another Republican Presidency that ended the way the Bush Presidency did? Is that sort of more important than the fact that Romney is an honorable guy?
I don’t think that all Republican Presidencies end badly. I don’t think that the Bush Forty-one Presidency ended badly. I think that the W. Bush Presidency is the tragedy of Iraq. I think Mitt Romney is someone who has a proven record of being able to bring people together and being able to solve problems in a practical way not driven by an extreme ideology. I believe that we would have had more control on deficit spending, because you would have had someone who actually could have done something about it, who would have actually believed in it. Unlike Donald Trump who says, “I’m the king of debt,” and can’t pass anything because he can’t bring people together.
It’s interesting why Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan, and it’s a very personal choice and I don’t want to speak for the senator, but I think he picked him as a governing choice. I mean, he said as much. I think it’s correct. He had no experience on Capitol Hill. He thought that having that experience would be important. Paul Ryan was someone who was well liked across the aisle. I think, together, they could have brought a lot of economic sanity to the country. I think they would have tried. Is it possible in America today to bring the budget down? I think so. I don’t know anyone on the conservative side that can do the same with any credibility.
But Paul Ryan helped pass the Trump tax cuts, which, as you say, were deficit-exploding. He was the one who shepherded it through the House.
Yes, yes. I think when not combined with cuts in the budget, it creates huge deficits that we have. If cutting taxes was a unified theory for Republicans, which it is in a certain class of Republicans, I think it’s proved to be a very false religion. I don’t think that what we invested in cutting taxes has proved to be accurate.
I’m less convinced that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and a Republican Congress would have gotten responsible about the federal budget in this alternate universe we’re talking about. Bush also had a budget-busting tax cut. It just seems very integral to what the Republican Party is, completely independent of Donald Trump.
Well, you can’t argue with that, O.K.? Whether or not Romney could have taken the Party in a more productive, rational fiscal policy, we’ll never know. I say this in the book, and I think it’s pretty much inarguable, the idea of so-called trickle-down economics has proved to be nonsense.
Do you think Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney and George W. Bush think it’s nonsense?
I can’t speak for them.
How do you understand his 2012 campaign—that Romney met with Trump—and things like this?
Listen, both those candidates had fifty per cent favorables. Romney got a lot of criticism for not going far enough on stuff. If you go back to the foreign-policy debate, he was criticized for not trying to make Benghazi the center of all evil. In the Republican primary, I remember this well, there was one of those awful raise-your-hand questions: Who believes Barack Obama is a socialist? Mitt Romney was the only person who didn’t raise his hand.
He did write a book called “No Apology,” presenting Obama as some sort of foreign-policy radical.
I think there were huge failures with Barack Obama’s foreign policy. I really don’t know how anybody would argue with that. You could argue that those failures were inevitable, but you can’t look at Syria, the greatest human-rights tragedy in the post-World War Two world, and not think that it was a tremendous, horrible failure. You can sustain two beliefs. I can. One, that Barack Obama is a decent human being, and if Barack Obama were President today the country would be better off. I say that without hesitation, while admitting that there were failures. I think that there was a failure on Obamacare not to be able to come to some greater ability to have both parties support part of it. And probably what we should have done on Obamacare is divide it into pieces. I think it’s governmentally problematic when you have one party pass it.
He did pass a version of Mitt Romney’s health-care plan, but let me ask you, Are you in touch with Romney?
I talk to Senator Romney some. Mainly about books we’re reading and just stuff going on in mutual friends’ lives. You know, the impeachment, for example, I had no idea how he would vote. The stuff that I talk to him about is more like personal stuff.
Do you think that Romney or Bush will endorse Joe Biden? Do you think that they should?
I would be very surprised if they do. I think, particularly, for an ex-President the roles that they play—I mean, there’s a lot of talk about why didn’t President Obama weigh in more in the primary. I think it is a unique role that has serious gravity.
I would be very surprised if Senator Romney endorsed him. My experience with Romney is pretty much that on the record and off the record is the same these days. What he said is that he intends to do what he did last time. I think that’s what he’ll do.
Does that disappoint you in any way?
No. I think Mitt Romney has been heroic. I think the eternal shame of most of these Republicans is going to be, why didn’t we follow Mitt Romney? I mean, Mitt Romney went out [against Trump] in March of 2016, and, had the Republican Party rallied around him, we could have saved ourselves from this incredible debacle and disgrace and humiliation.
Did you ever figure out what his whole Secretary of State flirtation thing was? Do you think that was just trying to be an adult in the room?
I pretty much know what it was about, because I talked to him then. I think it’s pretty much what you would think—that there’s a greater duty to the country, and I think he thought that, out of respect for the office and the process, he should talk to Donald Trump. I think he’s very glad that he was never asked to be Secretary of State, because I think it would have been the shortest Secretary of State tenure in history. I don’t think he would have lasted two months.
Why are Southerners attracted to Donald Trump?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot, because in many ways Donald Trump is the caricature of the rich Yankee that we’re always warned about, who has no manners, no respect for anyone, including women, who is crass, and values money over everything. That’s Donald Trump, and he’s pretty much wildly popular with a lot of polite Southerners. I think that there is a perception of Donald Trump as a fighter that appeals to a Southern Scotch-Irish tradition that loves to fight. I think there was a sense that he was politically incorrect and would tell the establishment, “Screw you.” At the same time, in a lot of these states he did worse than Mitt Romney did. In many ways, Mitt Romney was an unusual fit being a Mormon and also being from Massachusetts. I think that there’s a lot of reluctance.
I’ve found the Roy Moore thing both the most inspiring and depressing event, because you say, “What would it take to get white Republicans to vote for a Democratic moderate?” You say, “O.K., what if the Republican was a child molester?” [In 2018, the Democrat Doug Jones defeated Moore in the race for a U.S. Senate seat, after Moore denied reports that he had made sexual advances toward underage girls in the seventies.] The positive is—and not for the first time—that Alabama was saved by African-Americans and saved by, particularly, African-American women. And saved by evangelicals. You know, one of the things that drives me absolutely crazy is we talk about evangelicals and say Trump is popular with evangelicals, and that’s not true. Trump is popular with white evangelicals.
Same with the way we talk about the working class.
The Lincoln Project ads have obviously been very effective in getting a lot of press. Do you think that they’re aimed more at élites to signal the Republican opposition to Trump, or are you really trying to get voters to switch? I’m not saying the first is necessarily unimportant, but what’s the goal?
I think there are multiple purposes here, and I think the purposes are shifting as the Lincoln Project starts spending more money on television. I think, in part, they’ve existed to give permission to others to say what needs to be said that isn’t being said. Look, I’m just kind of a backup singer in the Lincoln Project. It wasn’t my creation. I’m playing rhythm guitar on this thing. But not having a client is very liberating. You don’t have to worry that if you go too far, it’s going to blow back on your client, because you don’t have a client. I think that part of the role that the project has been able to play is to say what people are thinking, but you really can’t say that out loud. You say it out loud, and I think that’s positive, and I think it moves the needle of discussion. I think that it helps the Biden campaign.
I know that Trumpworld gives every indication of being obsessed with the Lincoln Project, and then it’s a joke when they attack us. Are you crazy? I mean, we’re not running for President. That’s a day that they’re not focussed on the Biden campaign.
Let’s say I’m a little bit of a cynical person, and let’s say I’m, like, look, these Lincoln Project ads have been really good, but the people who are doing it are these former Republican operatives like Steve Schmidt, who was working for Howard Schultz a year ago, and John Weaver, who got in trouble for agreeing to do lobbying for Russia a year ago. It’s all these operatives, and they’re coming together to make money off anti-Trumpism. Why is that too cynical?
There are none of us that couldn’t be making a gazillion dollars working for Trump. The idea that you’re going to go out and run against your own party and that’s going to be beneficial financially is nonsense. Look, we’re political consultants. We even joked about this. “How is it that we became the conscience of the Party?” We’re supposed to be the hacks. We’re supposed to be the people who say, do anything. We don’t confuse ourselves with role models. We don’t confuse ourselves with being candidates. We’re operatives. We’re all appalled at what’s happened in the Republican Party. We have a few skills that we developed over the years, and our choice is one of three things: support Trump or say nothing; O.K., not going to do that. Be quiet; really don’t like that. Or try to use these skills that we have to make a difference.
You sound like Liam Neeson in “Taken.”
Yeah. Well, look, I mean, I don’t think society should look at the total gestalt of the political system and say, “You know, the people I really admire are consultants.” That would be a pretty sick society. You could argue whether or not we’re a necessary evil, but I don’t think that people are going to look at Jeffersonian democracy and say the problem with that Constitution is it didn’t have enough about political consultants. We’re an aberration of a system that has evolved, but it is our system, and we are good at some stuff.
Either Donald Trump is going to be elected President or he’s not. I hope he’s not. We are trying to employ that which we know how to do to achieve that goal. We’re not confusing it with personal nobility. We’re just guys and women that know how to do some stuff, and we’re trying to do it to beat Donald Trump.
In Trump’s mind, it’s still 1989.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Yes, Donald Trump is a vile racist. He regularly uses dehumanizing language about nonwhites, including members of Congress. And while some argue that this is a cynical strategy designed to turn out Trump’s base, it is at most a strategy that builds on Trump’s pre-existing bigotry. He would be saying these things regardless (and was saying such things long before he ran for president); his team is simply trying to turn bigoted lemons into political lemonade.
What I haven’t seen pointed out much, however, is that Trump’s racism rests on a vision of America that is decades out of date. In his mind it’s always 1989. And that’s not an accident: The ways America has changed over the past three decades, both good and bad, are utterly inconsistent with Trump-style racism.
Why 1989? That was the year he demanded bringing back the death penalty in response to the case of the Central Park Five, black and Latino teenagers convicted of raping a white jogger in Central Park. They were, in fact, innocent; their convictions were vacated in 2002. Trump, nevertheless, has refused to apologize or admit that he was wrong.
His behavior then and later was vicious, and it is no excuse to acknowledge that at the time America was suffering from a crime wave. Still, there was indeed such a wave, and it was fairly common to talk about social collapse in inner-city urban communities.
But Trump doesn’t seem to be aware that times have changed. His vision of “American carnage” is one of a nation whose principal social problem is inner-city violence, perpetrated by nonwhites. That’s a comfortable vision if you’re a racist who considers nonwhites inferior. But it’s completely wrong as a picture of America today.
For one thing, violent crime has fallen drastically since the early 1990s, especially in big cities. Our cities certainly aren’t perfectly safe, and some cities — like Baltimore — haven’t shared in the progress. But the social state of urban America is vastly better than it was.
On the other hand, the social state of rural America — white rural America — is deteriorating. To the extent that there really is such a thing as American carnage — and we are in fact seeing rising age-adjusted mortality and declining life expectancy — it’s concentrated among less-educated whites, especially in rural areas, who are suffering from a surge in “deaths of despair” from opioids, suicide and alcohol that has pushed their mortality rates above those of African-Americans.
And indicators of social collapse, like the percentage of prime-age men not working, have also surged in the small town and rural areas of the “eastern heartland,” with its mostly white population.
What this says to me is that the racists, and even those who claimed that there was some peculiar problem with black culture, were wrong, and the sociologist William Julius Wilson was right.
When social collapse seemed to be basically a problem for inner-city blacks, it was possible to argue that its roots lay in some unique cultural dysfunction, and quite a few commentators hinted — or in some cases declared openly — that there was something about being nonwhite that predisposed people toward antisocial behavior.
What Wilson argued, however, was that social dysfunction was an effect, not a cause. His work, culminating in the justly celebrated book “When Work Disappears,” made the case that declining job opportunities for urban workers, rather than some underlying cultural or racial disposition, explained the decline in prime-age employment, the decline of the traditional family, and more.
How might one test Wilson’s hypothesis? Well, you could destroy job opportunities for a number of white people, and see if they experienced a decline in propensity to work, stopped forming stable families, and so on. And sure enough, that’s exactly what has happened to parts of nonmetropolitan America effectively stranded by a changing economy.
I’m not saying that there’s something wrong or inferior about the inhabitants of, say, eastern Kentucky (and no American politician would dare suggest such a thing). On the contrary: What the changing face of American social problems shows is that people are pretty much the same, whatever the color of their skin. Give them reasonable opportunities for economic and personal advancement, and they will thrive; deprive them of those opportunities, and they won’t.
Which brings us back to Trump and his attack on Representative Elijah Cummings, whom he accused of representing a district that is a “mess” where “no human being would want to live.” Actually, part of the district is quite affluent and well educated, and in any case, Trump is debasing his office by, in effect, asserting that some Americans don’t deserve political representation.
But the real irony is that if you ask which congressional districts really are “messes” in the sense of suffering from severe social problems, many — probably most — strongly supported Trump in 2016. And Trump is, of course, doing nothing to help those districts. All he has to offer is hate.
Wednesday’s testimony and the crisis of American conscience.
I often wonder who didn’t love Donald Trump. I often wonder who left an affection void that he has tried to fill by winning attention, which is not the same thing. He’s turned his life into a marketing strategy. As Michael Cohen said in his testimony on Wednesday, even the presidential campaign was a marketing campaign to build the Trump brand.
In turning himself into a brand he’s turned himself into a human shell, so brittle and gilded that there is no place for people close to him to attach. His desperate attempts to be loved have made him unable to receive love.
Imagine what your own life would be like if you had no love in it, if you were just using people and being used. Trump, personifying the worst elements in our culture, is like a providentially sent gong meant to wake us up and direct us toward a better path.
Nonetheless, his kind of life has an allure for other lonely people who also live under the illusion that you can win love and respect with bling and buzz. Michael Cohen was one of these people. He testified that in serving Donald Trump he felt he was serving a cause larger than self. Those causes were celebrity and wealth.
.. Getting arrested seems to have been a good education for Cohen. He now realizes that Trump will not provide him with the sustenance he needs. I believe that Cohen basically told the truth in his testimony on Wednesday, but I don’t believe that he is a changed man.
There is none of the purgation of self and transformation of spirit that happens among people who have truly been altered. He’s just switched teams and concluded that the Democrats can now give him what he wants, so he says what appeals to them. That may be progress, but it is not moral renewal.
Cohen has left the Thugs for Trump club and passed that baton to certain House Republicans. I would have loved to have been in the strategy session when the House Republicans decided to be incurious about Trump’s sins and crimes but to rip the skin off Cohen.
Normal people have moral sentiments. Normal people are repulsed when the president of their own nation lies, cheats, practices bigotry, allegedly pays off porn star mistresses.
Were Republican House members enthusiastic or morose as they decided to turn off their own moral circuits, when they decided to be monumentally unconcerned by the fact that their leader may be a moral cretin?
Do they think that having anesthetized their moral sense in this case they will simply turn it on again down the road? Having turned off their soul at work, do they think they will be able to turn it on again when they go home to the spouse and kids?
Israel’s prime minister increasingly resembles America’s 37th president.
When the final chapter on Benjamin Netanyahu’s political life is written — and it may be a long time from now — he is likely to go down as the Richard Nixon of Israel: politically cunning, strategically canny, toxically flawed.
The flaws came further to light on Thursday when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he would indict the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu called the inquiry “a witch hunt” and accused Mandelblit of being “weak,” sounding (surely not by coincidence) just like Donald Trump on the subject of Jeff Sessions and the Russia investigation.
Israeli law allows Netanyahu to contest the indictment through a hearing, a process that could take as long as a year. He has no intention of resigning and hopes to win a fifth term when elections are held on April 9.
Perhaps he will. He shouldn’t.
That’s not because Netanyahu is necessarily guilty, or guilty of much. Previous Israeli leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin, have been subject to legal inquests that hinge on relatively trivial crimes. The charges against Netanyahu — the most serious of which involves the claim that he helped a businessman obtain favorable regulatory decisions in exchange for positive media coverage — are still far from conclusive.
Netanyahu’s solution has been to scrounge for votes on the farther — and farthest — right. A few of those votes will come from Otzma Yehudit (or “Jewish Power”), a racist party descended from Rabbi Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach Party. Its leader, Michael Ben-Ari, was denied a United States visa because Washington rightly considers Kach a terrorist organization. If Netanyahu manages to cobble together a ruling coalition, Ben-Ari could become a power broker within it.
That alone is reason enough to want to see Netanyahu given the boot. Add to the list his
- demagogic attacks on Israeli Arabs, his
- closeness to far-right European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and his
- public sympathy for an Israeli soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian terrorist in cold blood, and a consistent picture emerges.
Netanyahu is a man for whom no moral consideration comes before political interest and whose chief political interest is himself. He is a cynic wrapped in an ideology inside a scheme.
Nor is the blight simply moral. Jews the world over face a swelling and increasingly deadly tide of anti-Semitism, while Zionism has become a dirty word in left-wing circles. To have an Israeli prime minister lend credence to the slur that Zionism is a form of racism by prospectively bringing undoubted racists into his coalition is simply unforgivable. It emboldens the progressive assault on Israel. It leaves its defenders embarrassed and perplexed.
Most seriously, it weakens a central element in the defense of Israel and the Jews: moral self-confidence. Anti-Israel slanders may abound, but they will do little to hurt the state if a majority of Israelis understand they have no serious foundation in truth. Netanyahu’s behavior jeopardizes that confidence.
Is the world ready for the Great Schism?
The events of the past year brought American and Israeli Jews ever closer to a breaking point. President Trump, beloved in Israel and decidedly unloved by a majority of American Jews, moved the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, with the fiery evangelical pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress consecrating the ceremony.
In October, after the murder of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, President Trump went to that city to pay his respects. Members of the Jewish community there, in near silent mourning, came out to protest Mr. Trump’s arrival, declaring that he was not welcome until he gave a national address to renounce the rise of white nationalism and its attendant bigotry.
The only public official to greet the president at the Tree of Life was Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer.
At a Hanukkah celebration at the White House last month, the president raised eyebrows and age-old insinuations of dual loyalties when he told American Jews at the gathering that his vice president had great affection for “your country,” Israel.
Yossi Klein Halevi, the American-born Israeli author, has framed this moment starkly: Israeli Jews believe deeply that President Trump recognizes their existential threats. In scuttling the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, which many Israelis saw as imperiling their security, in moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in basically doing whatever the government of Benjamin Netanyahu asks, they see a president of the United States acting to save their lives.
American Jews, in contrast, see President Trump as their existential threat, a leader who they believe has stoked nationalist bigotry, stirred anti-Semitism and, time and time again, failed to renounce the violent hatred swirling around his political movement. The F.B.I. reports that hate crimes in the United States jumped 17 percent in 2017, with a 37 percent spike in crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions.
When neither side sees the other as caring for its basic well-being, “that is a gulf that cannot be bridged,” Michael Siegel, the head rabbi at Chicago’s conservative Anshe Emet Synagogue, told me recently. He is an ardent Zionist.
To be sure, a vocal minority of Jews in Israel remain queasy about the American president, just as a vocal minority of Jews in the United States strongly support him. But more than 75 percent of American Jews voted for the Democrats in the midterm elections; 69 percent of Israelis have a positive view of the United States under Mr. Trump, up from 49 percent in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. Israel is one of the few developed countries where opinion about the United States has improved since Mr. Trump took office.
Part of the distance between Jews in the United States and Israeli Jews may come from the stance that Israel’s leader is taking on the world stage. Mr. Netanyahu has
- embraced the increasingly authoritarian Hungarian leader Victor Orban, who ran a blatantly anti-Semitic re-election campaign. He has
- aligned himself with ultranationalists like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines,
- Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and a
- Polish government that passed a law making it a crime to suggest the Poles had any responsibility for the Holocaust. The Israeli prime minister was one of the very few world leaders who reportedly
- ran interference for the Trump administration after the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and urged President Trump to maintain his alliance with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Mr. Netanyahu’s
- son Yair was temporarily kicked off Facebook for writing that he would “prefer” that “all the Muslims leave the land of Israel.” Last month,
- with multiple corruption investigations closing in on him and his conservative coalition fracturing, Mr. Netanyahu called for a snap election in April, hoping to fortify his political standing. If past is prologue, his election campaign will again challenge American Jewry’s values. As his 2015 campaign came to a close, Mr. Netanyahu
- darkly warned his supporters that “the right-wing government is in danger — Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” adding with a Trumpian flourish that left-wing organizations “are bringing them in buses.”
But an important group of NeverTrumpers identified with the right on a very specific set of issues — support for the 1990s-era free trade consensus, Wilsonian hawkishness, democracy promotion — that are unlikely to animate conservatism again any time soon no matter how the Trump presidency ends. These intellectuals and strategists aren’t particularly culturally conservative, they’re allergic to populism, they don’t have any reason to identify with a conservatism that’s wary of nation-building and globalization — and soon enough, they won’t.
.. Along with Rubin I’m thinking here of Max Boot, her fellow Post columnist and the author of a new book denouncing the Trump-era right, who self-defined as a conservative mostly because he favored a democratic imperialism of the kind that George W. Bush unsuccessfully promoted. I’m thinking of Evan McMullin, the third-party presidential candidate turned full-time anti-Trump activist, and certain Republican strategists from the Bush-McCain-Romney party, whose Twitter feeds suggest that they never much cared for the voters who supported their candidates anyway.
.. But observers trying to imagine what a decent right might look like after Trump should look elsewhere — to thinkers and writers who basically accept the populist turn, and whose goal is to supply coherence and intellectual ballast, to purge populism of its bigotries and inject good policy instead.
For an account of policy people working toward this goal, read Sam Tanenhaus in the latest Time Magazine, talking to conservatives on Capitol Hill who are trying to forge a Trumpism-after-Trump that genuinely serves working-class families instead of just starting racially charged feuds.
.. I don’t know if any of these efforts can pull the post-Trump right away from anti-intellectualism and chauvinism. But their project is the one that matters to what conservatism is right now, not what it might have been had John McCain been elected president, or had the Iraq War been something other than a misbegotten mess, or had the 2000-era opening to China gone the way free traders hoped.
Mr. Sessions isn’t currently planning to leave, but privately has said that he anticipates he may be asked to resign, according to people familiar with the matter. The attorney general, who was the first senator to endorse Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign, has told people the request may come on the president’s Twitter feed.
“This is actually the dumbest thing I’ve been asked to comment on in a while,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Flores.
..Replacing Mr. Sessions would present legal and political quandaries for the president.
.. Mr. Trump must find a successor who could win Senate confirmation, a job that senators say is harder given the president’s public suggestions that he wants a political ally as attorney general.
.. Many GOP senators are advocating for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) to succeed Mr. Sessions, especially after Mr. Graham’s vocal defense last week of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
.. “As I think about people who could be confirmed to that position in the Senate, Lindsey Graham is at the top of my list,” said John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican. “In fact, I can’t think of anybody else right now who could get confirmed.”.. Mr. Graham called Mr. Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot.” Mr. Trump said Mr. Graham was a “lightweight” and an “idiot,” and gave out Mr. Graham’s mobile number during a campaign rally... Another purported candidate, Sessions chief of staff Matthew Whitaker, has allies in the White House but also detractors, according to people familiar with the matter. As a commentator on CNN, Mr. Whitaker expressed skepticism about the special counsel probe and urged limits on its scope, a position likely to raise objections from Democrats and some Republicans... That leaves, for now at least, the five individuals currently under discussion at the White House. Three of them—Messrs. Azar, Bradbury and Sullivan—are serving in Senate-confirmed positions. They would have to be reconfirmed to serve as attorney general, but may have an advantage from having already won Senate approval.