Why Stuart Stevens Wants to Defeat Donald Trump

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.

Exactly.

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.

Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment

“Dunbar-Ortiz demonstrates that the violence sanctioned by the Second Amendment was a key factor in transforming America into a ‘militaristic-capitalist’ powerhouse. . . . Dunbar-Ortiz’s unhealthy relationship with guns ended after about two years. America’s has lasted a lot longer, but in the wake of Stoneman Douglas, there might be reason, at last, for some very cautious optimism.”–Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle

“There’s a new book that just came out that lays out a provocative argument for getting rid of the Second Amendment in its entirety, and the book asserts that the NRA has become a white nationalist organization.”–Jeremy Scahill, The Intercept

“Dunbar-Ortiz’s subtle deconstructions of the various works which contributed to our misunderstandings of the Second Amendment’s roots are vitally required reading, especially in our current era of daily mass shootings and political inaction toward better gun control. The white supremacy that Dunbar-Ortiz exposes with surgical exactness is the true foundation of the America we know today.”—Sezin Koehler, Wear Your Voice Magazine

Loaded recognizes the central truth about our ‘gun culture’: that the privileged place of guns in American law and society is the by-product of the racial and class violence that has marked our history from its beginnings.”—Richard Slotkin, author of Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America

“From an eminent scholar comes this timely and urgent intervention on U.S. gun culture. Loaded is a high-impact assault on the idea that Second Amendment rights were ever intended for all Americans. A timely antidote to our national amnesia about the white supremacist and settler colonialist roots of the Second Amendment.”—Caroline Light, author of Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense

Loaded unleashes a sweeping and unsettling history of gun laws in the United States, beginning with anti-Native militias and anti-Black slave patrols. From the roots of white men armed to forge the settler state, the Second Amendment evolved as a tool for protecting white, male property owners. It’s a must read for anyone who wants to uncover the long fetch of contemporary Second Amendment battles.”—Kelly Lytle Hernandez, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965

“Now, in Loaded, she widens her lens to propose that the addiction to violence characteristic of American domestic institutions also derives from the frontiersman’s belief in solving problems by killing. Whether expressed in individual cruelty like the collection of scalps or group barbarism by settler colonialists calling themselves ‘militias,’ violence has become an ever-widening theme of life in the United States.”—Staughton Lynd, author of Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution

“For anyone who believes we need more than ‘thoughts and prayers’ to address our national gun crisis, Loaded is required reading. Beyond the Second Amendment, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz presents essential arguments missing from public debate. She forces readers to confront hard truths about the history of gun ownership, linking it to ongoing structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and racial capitalism. These are the open secrets of North American history. It is our anxious denial as much as our public policies that perpetrate violence. Only by coming to peace with our history can we ever be at peace with ourselves. This, for me, is the great lesson of Loaded.”—Christina Heatherton, co-editor of Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter

“Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz’s Loaded argues U.S. history is quintessential gun history, and gun history is a history of racial terror and genocide. In other words, gun culture has never been about hunting. From crushing slave rebellions to Indigenous resistance, arming individual white settler men has always been the strategy for maintaining racial and class rule and for taking Indigenous land from the founding of the settler nation to the present. With clarity and urgency, Dunbar-Ortiz asks us not to think of our current moment as an exceptional era of mass-shootings. Instead, the very essence of the Second Amendment and the very project of U.S. ‘settler democracy’ has required immense violence that began with Indigenous genocide and has expanded to endless war-making across the globe. This is a must read for any student of U.S. history.”—Nick Estes, author of the forthcoming book Our History is the Future: Mni Wiconi and Native Liberation

“With her usual unassailable rigor for detail and deep perspective, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has potentially changed the debate about gun control in the United States. She meticulously and convincingly argues that U.S. gun culture—and the domestic and global massacres that have flowed from it—must be linked to an understanding of the ideological, historical, and practical role of guns in seizing Native American lands, black enslavement, and global imperialism. This is an essential work for policy-makers, street activists, and educators who are concerned with Second Amendment debates, #blacklivematters campaigns, global peace, and community-based security.”—Clarence Lusane, Chairman and Professor of Political Science at Howard University and author of The Black History of the White House

“Just what did the founding fathers intend the Second Amendment to do? Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s answer to that question will unsettle liberal gun control advocates and open-carry aficionados alike. She follows the bloodstains of today’s mass shootings back to the slave patrols and Indian Wars. There are no easy answers here, just the tough reckoning with history needed to navigate ourselves away from a future filled with more tragedies.James Tracy, co-author of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times

“Gun violence, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz compellingly shows, is as U.S. American as apple pie. This important book peels back the painful and bloody layers of gun culture in the United States, and exposes their deep roots in the killing and dispossession of Native peoples, slavery and its aftermath, and U.S. empire-making. They are roots with which all who are concerned with matters of justice, basic decency, and the enduring tragedy of the U.S. love affair with guns must grapple.”—Joseph Nevins, author of Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid

Loaded is a masterful synthesis of the historical origins of violence and militarism in the US. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reminds us of what we’ve chosen to forget at our own peril: that from mass shootings to the routine deployment of violence against civilians by the US military, American violence flows from the normalization of racialized violence in our country’s founding history.”—Johanna Fernández, Assistant Professor of History at Baruch College of the City University, and author of the forthcoming book, When the World Was Their Stage: A History of the Young Lords Party, 1968–1976

“More than a history of the Second Amendment, this is a powerful history of the forging of white nationalism and empire through racist and naked violence. Explosively, it also shows how even liberal—and some leftist—pop culture icons have been complicit in the myth-making that has shrouded this potent historical truth.”—Gerarld Horne, author of The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the USA

“Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has done an outstanding job of resituating the so-called gun debate into the context of race and settler colonialism. The result is that the discussion about individual gun ownership is no longer viewed as an abstract moral question and instead understood as standing at the very foundation of U.S. capitalism. My attention was captured from the first page.”—Bill Fletcher, Jr., former president of TransAfrica Forum and syndicated writer

“Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz provides a brilliant decolonization of the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. She describes how

  • the ‘savage wars’ against Indigenous Peoples,
  • slave patrols (which policing in the U.S. originates from),
  • today’s mass shootings, and
  • the rise in white Nationalism

are connected to the Second Amendment. This is a critically important work for all social science disciplines.”—Michael Yellow Bird, professor and director of Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Studies at North Dakota State University

“This explosive, ground-breaking book dispels the confusion and shatters the sanctimony that surrounds the Second Amendment, revealing the colonial, racist core of the right to bear arms. You simply cannot understand the United States and its disastrous gun-mania without the brilliant Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz as a guide.”—Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

“There is no more interesting historian of the United States than Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. And with Loaded she has done it again, taking a topic about which so much has already been written, distilling it down, turning it inside out, and allowing us to see American history anew.”—Walter Johnson, author of River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Mississippi Valley’s Cotton Kingdom

“Loaded is a compelling antidote to historical amnesia about the brutal origins of the United States’ unique ‘gun culture.’ Dunbar-Ortiz draws on decades of historical scholarship to illuminate the practice of Native genocide while framing the Second Amendment as the grounds for a violence-based nationalism.”—Caroline E. Light, “Public Books”

About the Author

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book The Great Sioux Nation was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the author or editor of many books, including her acclaimed An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. She is the recipient of the Cultural Freedom Prize for Lifetime Achievement by the Lannan Foundation, and she lives in San Francisco, CA.

American Paganism

It’s not what the Religious Right thinks it is.

Claims of moral decline are a perennial feature of conservative rhetoric. But in recent years, pro-Trump Christians have emphasized a new reason to be afraid. The United States, they say, is devolving into such wanton “paganism” that the country may not survive. The true America awaits rescue by the Christian faithful, and in such an existential struggle, nearly any means are justified—even reelecting a morally abhorrent president.

Examples of this rhetoric are not in short supply, among pundits and even in more scholarly work. In an essay praising Donald Trump’s “animal instinct” for “order” and “social cohesion,” Sohrab Ahmari opposed an America of “traditional Christianity” to one of “libertine ways and paganized ideology.” These are our only choices, he insisted. Between such incompatible enemies, there can be only “war and enmity,” so true believers should be ready to sacrifice civility in the battles ahead to reconquer the public squareRod Dreher has speculated that Trump, while unpalatable, could be a divine emissary holding back the horrors of Christian persecution, like the biblical figure of He Who Delays the Antichrist, an implicit nod to old pagan enemies. “If Christians like me vote for Trump in 2020,” Dreher warns, “it is only because of his role as katechon in restraining what is far worse.” Though in a calmer tone, Ross Douthat entertained similar ideas in his column “The Return of Paganism,” wondering if the pantheist tendencies in American civil religion could morph into a neo-paganism hostile to Christian faith.

Douthat cites a recent book by law professor Steven D. Smith, Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. According to Smith, what we know as “secularismis actually ancient paganism in modern guise. Since paganism is inherently anti-Christian, this means Christians should oppose both secular politics and secular universities at any cost. They are not fighting against a neutral arbiter, but against the wiles of pagan Rome redivivus, a strain of this-worldly sexualized spirituality nearly eradicated by Christianity, but now mutated and all the more lethal.

Smith is only the most recent Christian author to invoke the specter of paganism. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, wrote Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society on the eve of the 2016 election, apparently anticipating a Clinton victory. The book’s title alludes to T. S. Eliot’s 1938 essay on “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in which Eliot condemns the rise of “modern paganism.” Reno told his readers to view 2016 in light of 1938. “Would the West seek a Christian future or a pagan one?” he asked. “We face a similar decision today. Will we seek to live in accord with the idea of a Christian society, or will we accept the tutelage of a pagan society?” Yuval Levin called Reno’s book a “call to arms against a postmodern paganism.”

This charge of looming paganism exerts a twofold political function. First, it

  1. rationalizes Trumpism, casting our situation as a state of emergency that threatens the survival of U.S. Christians.
  2. Second, the sacrilege of pagan religion prevents Trump’s supporters from indulging in political moderation by making that seem like a form of apostasy. It’s probably not a coincidence that “paganism” is on the rise just as Christian conservatives decide whether to support the current administration in an election year. It is challenging to explain how Trump’s policies are Christian. It is far easier to label his opponents as pagans, and thus align the president with Christianity by default. But there are fundamental problems with the conservative narrative of a resurgent paganism.

In the first place, the term “paganism” only works in this maneuver because it is vague and perspectival. It always has been, ever since Christians invented it. Ancient Christians stuck the name on those who continued the traditional rites of Greco-Roman religion rather than adopt the true faith. Indeed the largely urban Christians meant it as a mild pejorative for the rural country bumpkins, the pagani, who lived far from imperial centers and persisted in their benighted worship of the old gods. In our terms, the first “pagans” lived in flyover country and clung to their traditional religion. 

Since “pagan” has come to mean “un-Christian,” every invocation of “pagan” brings with it an implicit understanding of “Christian.” The meaning of the former is parasitic on the latter. Misunderstanding the essence of paganism, therefore, also means misunderstanding the demands of Christianity, and vice versa.

More left-leaning Christians might well agree with Smith and Reno in one sense: there is indeed an ascendant paganism afoot in our country today. It threatens the social and moral fabric of American public life and contends directly against the voice of Christian truth. One can brook no compromise in resisting it. The difference comes in how that paganism is defined. The debate is not whether paganism is real, but where it lives, how it appears, and what it does. If conservatives have mistaken its location, they might be training their weapons in the wrong direction.

Much hangs, then, on accurately discerning the meaning of “modern paganism.” Let us consider three proposals: Steven Smith’s recent version, T. S. Eliot’s original version, and another timely version from First Things.

Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of divine immanence in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.

Steven Smith suggests that secularism is not a neutral space, but conceals its own religious identity, which is essentially pagan. It venerates the sacred within the natural world, knows only the cycle of birth and death, and thus celebrates a libertine sexuality. As opposed to Abrahamic religions that affirm the “transcendent sacred,” paganisms old and new prefer the “immanent sacred.” Smith delves into the emergence of Christians in the Roman Empire and vividly evokes the oddity of Christianity in the ancient world, heeding the scholarship of Peter Brown, Jan Assmann, and Kyle Harper (but Edward Gibbon most of all). Smith then applies his ancient model to American constitutional law and finds it confirms conservative positions on religious freedom, public symbols, and sexual norms.

But there are serious problems with Smith’s argument. Since the 1970s, scholars of religion have largely retired the vague categories formerly used to organize speculation about comparative religions—sacred and secular, immanent and transcendent, holy and profane, this-worldly and other-worldly. Major religious traditions are massive and multifarious in the ways they sustain rituals, ethics, and beliefs. Their communities cut across languages, continents, empires, and epochs, teeming with exceptions and discontinuities. The blunt tools applied by Smith are simply not up to the task of uncovering the essence of one religion, let alone two or three, and they are certainly not able to trace the notoriously complicated history of the “secular.”

For the sake of argument, though, let us grant Smith his chosen terms, and even focus on his central claim, that Christianity can lead the way in challenging modern secularity, since it insists on the “transcendent sacred” in a way that secular paganism does not. Smith’s proposal rests upon a fundamental analogy: paganism is to Christianity as immanence is to transcendence. Christians pray to the God beyond the world; pagans encounter divinity inside the weft of nature.

Even a cursory knowledge of Christianity is enough to refute this analogy. It is true that Judaism teaches the absolute transcendence of the one God, as do Islamic theologians today, and as did Neoplatonist pagan philosophers in antiquity who sought a divine One beyond every thought, word, and image. By contrast, orthodox Christians claim that God arrived and now eternally resides within the fabric of nature, as the Creator enters into creation in the body of Jesus Christ. To cite Smith’s definition of “paganism,” it is Christianity, in fact, that “refers to a religious orientation that locates the sacred within this world.” The Christian belief in the Incarnation is nothing if not a belief in the “immanent sacred.”

The new Christian movement distinguished itself from Greek philosophy, Roman cults, and Jewish faith alike by affirming an extensive and peculiar list of divine incursions into immanence: the Incarnation of God in the body of Jesus; Anne’s immaculate conception of Mary; Mary’s virginal conception and vaginal birth of the Son of God, making her Theotokos; the real flesh of Jesus suffering on the cross, against the Gnostics (Tertullian); the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and wine, also against the Gnostics; the Resurrection of the body after death; the bodily assumption of Mary; the martyrdom of the body as bloody birth into heaven (Perpetua) or as the grinding of flesh into bread (Ignatius of Antioch); the church birthed through the bleeding side wound of a dying Jesus; the church as maternal breast suckling the Christian with milk; the union of Christ and Christians as the exemplar of which sexual union is the image (Ephesians 5, Origen of Alexandria). Above all, the scandalous immanence that might have sounded pagan to Jesus’s disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6). The enemy of these traditional Christian teachings is not sacred immanence, but rather a gnosticism that dematerializes and disembodies the real presence of God within creation.

The radically immanent sacred of Christians scandalized the Romans. As Ramsay MacMullen observes, Christians worshipping a new transcendent deity would have passed unremarked. But the Christian belief that Jesus was neither prophet nor sage but a fleshly God would have been mocked by pagan intellectuals as a risible error. The late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes: “In the philosophical traditions, an ultimate and radically transcendent deity was often postulated, but you did not typically engage that transcendent deity directly.… But there was a still more unusual and, in the eyes of pagan sophisticates, outlandish Christian notion: the one, true, august God who transcended all things and had no need of anything, nevertheless, had deigned to create this world and, a still more remarkable notion, also now actively sought the redemption and reconciliation of individuals.” For pagan intellectuals, Hurtado concludes, “all this was, quite simply, preposterous.”

For instance, in his work On the True Doctrine (178 CE), the pagan philosopher Celsus is ready to accept that God exists, creates all things, and transcends nature. But in shades of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, Celsus laughs away the claim that God was incarnated in Jesus, or that the body could be resurrected. “I mean, what sort of body is it that could return to its original nature or become the same as it was before it rotted away?” he mocks. “And of course they have no reply for this one, and as in most cases where there is no reply they take cover by saying ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ A brilliant answer indeed! But the fact is, God cannot do what is contrary to nature.”

Christian philosophers saw the divide similarly. Tertullian admits that pagan philosophers might even discern that God exists by their own lights. But they always miss that God descended into a virgin and was made flesh in her womb. Augustine reports that he learned from the pagan philosopher Plotinus that the Logos was transcendent—but only Christians taught him how the Logos embraced the human body in all of its weakness and vulnerability, and its awful exposure to the whims of imperial violence.

To put it bluntly: paganism cannot simply mean divine immanence. On the contrary, Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of that principle in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.

The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by T.S. Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny.

A better starting point for defining “paganism” is T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” written in the dark days of 1938, where he proposes that the greatest enemy of modern Christianity is “modern paganism.” Reno and Smith alike summon Eliot as a sober authority in perilous times, but neither presents Eliot’s own account of the term in question. So how did Eliot define paganism? It’s important to stay as close as possible to his own words.

First, Eliot says paganism embraces an authoritarian politics that confuses religion and nationhood. The “distinguishing mark” of a Christian society, Eliot writes, is its productive “tension” between church and state, but pagan society seeks to “fuse” them. Pagan culture “de-Christianises” individuals gradually and unwittingly, as authoritarianism creeps in. Soon, he warns, one’s hymns are no longer to God alone, but also to the dear leader.

Second, Eliot says that modern paganism incites ecological destruction. The Christian lives in harmony with nature; the pagan destroys public resources for private profit. “Unregulated industrialism” and “the exhaustion of natural resources,” writes Eliot, lead to “the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale.” In a formulation that strikingly anticipates Laudato si’, he puts it succinctly: “A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.

Third, modern paganism imposes a puritanical public morality. It promotes, in Eliot’s words, “regimentation and conformity, without respect for the needs of the individual soul” and “the puritanism of a hygienic morality in the interest of efficiency.” According to Eliot, in fact, modern paganism will even attempt to elevate the status of Christian identity in society. But paganism embraces Christianity not because it’s true, but because it consolidates the nation and discourages dissent. He notes that authoritarians have always celebrated public morality. They want, in a way, more morality, even if their priorities are haphazardly formulated. Eliot warns that such a moralistic Christianity is not only a perversion of the faith: “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.” Such versions of Christianity might even “engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”

The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny. The “paganism” that future Christians will need to identify and resist, he warned, will appear as

  • unrestrained capitalist greed; as
  • authoritarianism seeking to weaken democratic norms; as
  • callous environmental degradation; as a
  • superficial Christian moralism seeking to fuse church and state; and as a
  • petty “sanctimonious nationalism.” 

In the poignant final paragraph of his essay, Eliot confesses that the churning political surprises of the 1930s had left him shaken, not only because of the events themselves, but in the revelation of his own country’s moral poverty. In the face of Britain’s failure to mount an adequate response to modern pagan violence, Eliot felt a justified “humiliation” that demanded of him “personal contrition” along with “repentance, and amendment.” He felt “deeply implicated and responsible” and began to question his country’s frequent claims to moral authority. When Eliot enjoins his readers to fight against modern paganism, it is specifically because its brew of authoritarianism and capitalism were already beginning to charm Christian intellectuals who should know better. Eliot’s final sentences prick the conscience today:

We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends? Such thoughts as these formed the starting point, and must remain the excuse, for saying what I have to say.

The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of will.

But there was at least one other account of paganism in the pages of First Things as Trump campaigned for the presidency—this time from Matthew Schmitz, an editor at the magazine. Over the summer of 2016, Schmitz displayed an admirable prescience while Christian conservatives were still hesitating to endorse the eventual Republican nominee. The “faith taught by Christ,” he wrote, “is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord.… In Trump, it [Christian faith] has curdled into pagan disdain.”

Schmitz’s analyses from April and August of 2016 really must be considered at length, given where they were published. Take this representative passage:

At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one…. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his ­fellow men.

And here’s another:

In his contempt for losers, he [Trump] embodies one of the most unchristian ideals ever advanced in American politics. With a unique consistency and vehemence, he expresses his hatred of weakness. He ridicules the disabled, attacks women, and defends abortionists. This is the opposite of Christianity, which puts the weak first and exalts every loser…. Liberalism, much as I hate it, has preserved this Christian inheritance. The GOP before Trump, despite all its contempt for the 47 percent, was leavened by the influence of sincere Christians and so was never so sneering. Trump is an altogether more pagan figure.

By 2019, however, in the wake of the midterm battles over immigration and the mythic “caravan” of refugees at the southern border, Schmitz joined others to cheer on the “new nationalism” that Trump promoted at his rallies. Within a few months, Schmitz had decided that Christianity and liberalism could never be reconciled, since modern society—wait for it—had become paganized. “The Church,” he now saw, “is at odds with an increasingly pagan culture.”

If there was an ancient paganism of sacred immanence, it was soon outstripped by the more radical immanence of Christians in their claims of an Incarnation, a Resurrection, and above all the enduring food of the Eucharist. In every Mass the priest washes his hands in imitation of the pagan Pilate, but now as an act of humility and celebration. The  Catholic repeats as her own the words of the pagan centurion—Lord, I am not worthy—but now as an intimate prayer on the threshold of Communion. That version of paganism was overtaken and dissolved from within by the Christian sacralization of the body.

But there is another paganism that has survived into the present, and has emerged so vividly in contemporary politics that even First Things in 2016 could not miss it. This is not the paganism of immanence, but the paganism of cruelty and violence. It mocks the vulnerable, reviles the weak, and gains strength through hatred. We don’t have to look too far to discover the “postmodern paganism” threatening American Christianity today. 

Last summer the Trump administration argued in court that more than two thousand migrant and refugee children should be separated from their parents, concentrated in crude detention camps with minimal supervision, and locked in chilled rooms with the lights left on all night. The administration has yet to condemn the petty cruelty of some camp guards and instead has mused that such violence might be politically useful. Hundreds of children as young as two are deliberately denied diapers, soap, and toothbrushes for months at a time to punish their parents. Community donations of the same are turned away. Young women are denied tampons. Young children are denied inexpensive flu vaccines, and if they contract a terminal cancer, they are deported without medical care. Chickenpox and shingles are common. Federal contractors win upwards of $700 per day for each imprisoned child. Seven children have died in custody to date, and many more have been hospitalized. Doctors worry they cannot serve in the camps without violating the Hippocratic oath. The camps themselves were continued from the Obama administration, but the withdrawal of basic necessities is Trump’s innovation. What is this if not the very paganism conservatives decry?

This modern paganism ultimately means the nihilistic exercise of power for its own sake, especially power over weak and vulnerable bodies. In its purest form, it is expressed as conspicuous cruelty, both to render one’s power maximally visible and to increase that power by engendering fear. The cruelty is the point. This is the joyful paganism that Nietzsche sought to revive as the Wille zur Macht, retrieving from ancient Rome the glorious pleasure in cruelty that rewards the strong who exercise their strength. This is the reason Italian fascist Julius Evola hated Christianity for its compassion for the poor and weak.

We find this paganism exposed in the ancient world as well, in the Athenian mockery and massacre of the Melians in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, in Thrasymachus’s authoritarian attacks on Socrates in Plato’s Republic, or in Augustine’s shrewd deconstruction of imperial power in The City of God against the Pagans. John Milbank calls this Nietzschean worldview an ontology of eternal violence opposed to an Augustinian counter-ontology of eternal peace. As Schmitz himself suggests, the perfect example of pagan disdain for vulnerability and conspicuous cruelty is the Roman practice of public crucifixion. Pagan is to Christian not as immanent is to transcendent, but as Rome is to the Crucified—a cruel empire to its tortured victims.

But modern paganism can also assume subtler forms, whenever the common good is reduced to ruthless economic competition, confirming Eliot’s fears that we have no values more essential than our “belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends.” The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of wills, a nihilism ruled by the libido dominandi.

This paganism views moral responsibility as a fool’s errand for the weak, since all that matters is to dominate or be dominated. It sacralizes the emperor as an agent of God, scorns truth, despises the weak, and tortures the vulnerable. And it cloaks its nihilism, to cite Eliot once again, in “a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”