America’s Great Divide: Steve Schmidt Interview | FRONTLINE

Steve Schmidt served as a political strategist for George W. Bush and the John McCain presidential campaign. He is a political analyst for MSNBC and NBC News.

Schmidt’s candid, full interview was conducted with FRONTLINE during the making of the two-part January 2020 documentary series “America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump.”

Watch Part One here: https://youtu.be/SnMBYMOTwEs
And Part Two here: https://youtu.be/l5vyDPN19ww

 

 

50:57
And so when you see Donald Trump and you see the servility of the coequal branch of government,
51:05
the absolute unwillingness to confront him, to confront his excesses, his dishonesty, his degradations of the office,
51:14
his attacks on the institutions, is an utter, complete, total abdication of a responsibility and duty that’s historic.
51:26
The “zero tolerance” policy, the family separation issue, you’ve written a little bit about this, I think.
51:34
What’s at stake here?
51:37
I think you sort of pointed to the fact that this was an important point to understand,
51:42
that Trump basically owned the GOP at this point.
51:45
Explain—explain what you’re thinking.
51:46
This is a question of national honor.
51:49
The United States of America should not separate mothers and children
51:55
and lock the children into cages, into detention facilities.
52:00
Should not.
52:02
And it recalls the worst excesses in American history: the separation of African American mothers and children
52:11
during slavery; the separation of mothers and children who were Native Americans.
52:20
We have had great injustice in the country,
52:26
but the greatness of the country is the ability to make great progress combating it.
52:31
It’s wrong.
52:32
When you see a government official with an American flag on their shoulder committing that act, it’s disgraceful,
52:45
it’s dishonorable, it’s cruel, and it’s inhumane.
52:51
But we have become desensitized in this era of Trump to cruelty, to inhumanity, to indecency, to dishonesty,
53:03
to all of our great detriment.
53:06
Why did you leave the party?
53:08
Because the Republican Party—well, I’ll say this.
53:14
I think the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are both broken institutions, the Republican Party more so.
53:24
But while broken, they also are two of the most important institutions in world history
53:32
for the advancement of human dignity and freedom despite all of their flaws.
53:38
For me, I could no longer be a member of a political party that was so corrupted by Donald Trump
53:47
that he consumed lock, stock and barrel, and the leadership of the political party fundamentally capitulated to him.
53:59
The Republican Party’s not a conservative party anymore.
54:02
It’s a party that’s populist, that’s nonsensical at times, that’s illiberal a lot of the time.
54:12
And all of the things that I’ve believed in and have steadily believed in, I still believe in,
54:20
but that institution is no longer the vessel for them.
54:25
… The 2018 midterm elections.
54:28
So Trump uses the [Brett] Kavanaugh story and immigration as a way to excite the voters.
54:37
The media, Fox, stokes it, supports it totally.
54:46
There are a lot of lies that are told about exactly what’s going on.
54:50
What’s—what’s the result?
54:53
As a man who believes in the system and in politics and the way it needs to—how campaigns are run,
55:01
what was your view of what was taking place?
55:04
Well, there was only one issue in the 2018 election.
55:07
It wasn’t immigration; it wasn’t Brett Kavanaugh.
55:10
It was Donald Trump.
55:11
And the question before the nation in 2018 was, are we going to put a check on Donald Trump and the party of Trump?
55:19
And the answer to that question was a decisive yes.
55:23
And part of that decisive yes were millions and millions of Republican voters
55:28
who voted Democratic for the first time in their lives.
55:31
Right.
55:32
This election was also fascinating in the Democratic Party because there was a split within the Democratic Party as well.
55:37
And you’ve got progressives like AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and others who are—
55:44
who rise up and are elected and become very important voices and define the divide within the Democratic Party.
55:52
What’s going on within the Democratic Party, and in the end, how does it—how does it play out from your perspective?
56:00
Well, you’re seeing a rising extreme in the Democratic Party that is the mirror opposite
56:10
And I think Democrats make a big mistake if they answer Trumpism with dishonest progressivism.
56:16
If you go out and say that we’re going to give everybody free health care, free education;
56:22
give everybody reparations; … we can go and spend hundreds and hundreds of trillions of dollars—this is all fantasy.
56:30
And in a political contest dominated by dishonesty and fantasy—
56:35
and I would suggest that competing against Donald Trump is the equivalent of running a foot race against Usain Bolt.
56:42
Not going to win a dishonesty contest with Donald Trump.
56:45
And so in this moment, what Democrats, in my view, should be focused on is the assemblage of a grand coalition
56:55
that is fidelitous to small “L” liberalism, to our democratic values,
57:01
that Americans of all different types of political persuasion can come into and feel at home in.
57:09
The progressive agenda represented by AOC, a, won’t pass; b, doesn’t have a national constituency;
57:21
and c, could well be the reason that we see a second term for President Donald Trump.
57:27
You think that’s a real possibility?
57:29
Sure do.
57:29
Trump’s rhetoric has been blamed for rising tensions, white supremacists sort of being more blatant in their demands
57:41
and their marches and such, and it is tied directly to the El Paso massacre.
57:47
What is your overview on the power of rhetoric and the repetition of that rhetoric, especially if it’s based on falsities?
57:58
Well, Trump has debased his office; he’s debased the culture; he’s debased our political conversation,
58:06
and he’s done it thousands and thousands and thousands of times over the last three years.
58:11
He’s a racist; he’s a race baiter; he has worsened racial divisions in this country.
58:18
He has energized the white supremacist movement in the country,
58:22
and we know that’s true because the white supremacists thank him openly for doing so.
58:29
Now, we see a president who divides, who stokes, who incites, who appeals in almost every instance
58:40
not to the better angels but to the worst impulses,
58:43
the worst instincts and the basest, darkest aspects of American history and American life.
58:51
And what does this mean long term for your GOP, your party that you used to belong to?
58:58
Well, the Republican Party will be completely transformed, probably fatally, by its contact with Donald Trump.
59:08
And that may play out over five years, over 10 years.
59:13
But when you look at the demographics in the country, there will always be a market for a conservative message.
59:21
But Trumpism is cancerous, and everything it touches will ultimately be consumed by it.
59:30
But far more important than the effect of the Republican Party is the effect on the country.
59:38
It weakens American democracy.
59:42
And I think it’s also important to understand that the Democratic Party will not remain untouched by Trumpism also.
59:52
How so?
59:53
Well, if crudity, if meanness, if vulgarity, if inhumanity become mainstreamed,
60:02
if the lesson of this generation of progressive politicians is to be like Trump but with different policies,
60:11
then the Democratic Party will be consumed by it as the Republican Party has.
60:16
The—both sides coming up to the upcoming elections warn about apocalypse.
60:26
The consequences if the other side wins are just unfathomable.
60:32
Is this the new norm?
60:35
Each election has always been the most important election in American history,
60:41
and the men and women running for president have always made it clear that their candidacy represents
60:48
the decisive moment and the last chance to avoid the apocalypse.
60:56
It may be true in this election.
60:58
This country will be changed in ways that will be difficult to unmake if Donald Trump gets a second term. …
61:10
Donald Trump is cruel, vile; he’s debased his office; he’s incompetent.
61:17
But it’s a mistake to dismiss him as inconsequential.
61:21
We are at the end of the long life spans of the people who stormed the beaches in Normandy,
61:28
who survived the death camps.
61:30
And what Franklin Roosevelt’s goal when he envisioned the world that we live in today,
61:35
when he architected the post-World War II U.S.-led liberal global order that was maintained
61:43
from President Truman through President Obama, his aspiration wasn’t that it would endure forever.
61:51
What he said is he wanted it to endure so long as every person
61:57
who was living in the country during the war was alive on the earth.
62:04
We’re at the end of that era.
62:06
And we see Donald Trump unraveling that U.S.-led liberal global order.
62:13
We see a regression of democracy all over the world.
62:17
We have an illiberal president who assaults our institutions, our values, our democracy, who debases our culture.
62:29
Another term for Donald Trump will validate his election; it will validate his behavior.
62:36
He will be unchecked, and the damage will be much, much harder to undo if it can ever be undone.
62:44
So we’ve talked about two presidents that were change candidates,
62:51
that the public turned to because they were so angry with the status quo in Washington and in the country.
62:59
What did we learn from that, and where do we go from here?
63:07
Another change candidate but in another direction?
63:12
I mean, as [David] Axelrod says, you always go to the opposite on the next election
63:19
because the people are tired of what the last guy did.
63:22
What’s your take on American politics and where we go from here?
63:29
The Democratic Party’s obligation in this election is to produce a political leader who can defeat Donald Trump
63:40
and to defeat Trumpism, not to defeat Trump by being a mirror of Trump, but to assemble a coalition
63:49
that can inspire the nation to move past this depraved era
63:54
and to face the challenges that the country has to face full-on, head-on.
64:00
And so when we look at the Democratic Party right now, it’s no accident that Trump is labeling Democrats,
64:07
and some of those Democratic politicians are making it easy for them when he calls them socialists,
64:12
because Trump understands this: In America, the socialist loses to a sociopath in every election,
64:21
every day of the week, and twice on Sunday.
64:25
I just have one question about Trump’s use of social media.
64:30
Some have said he’s the first politician to ever do that,
64:34
but it seems that Sarah Palin was really pretty instrumental in using Facebook as a way to reach her audience.
64:39
Can you just connect those two ideas?
64:42
Well, I don’t—look, I don’t think they’re analogous.
64:51
IPhones were invented in 2007, so the ubiquity of social media, the portability of social media, the instant nature
65:03
of social media is something that didn’t exist in 2008 but certainly does now, and he uses it to great effect.
65:12
… One other small thing is the use of divisive issues that he—that he falls back on, like the NFL.
65:24
How powerful is that, and why does he do it?
65:30
Well, Trump understands—Trump understands the power of symbols,
65:38
and he understands the emotional resonance of those symbols to millions and millions of Americans.
65:46
And so he is a—he is a very talented demagogue.
65:55
He is a very skilled liar.
65:59
He is an excellent communicator, and he speaks in a language that people can relate to and that people can understand.
66:10
That’s an important thing for his political opponents to understand also.
66:14
And this immigration issue, which is so central to—I mean, does it remain central in the upcoming elections?
66:22
I mean, why?
66:24
Does the potency wear off at some point?
66:28
Well, what you’re seeing now is a reciprocal extremism from a lot of the Democrats.
66:34
Now you watch the Democratic debates, it’s fair to ask, well, do you believe there should be a border at all?
66:41
And so most Americans, overwhelmingly, Republicans and Democrats, believe yes, there ought to be a sovereign border.
66:50
We should know who’s in the country.
66:52
And so there’s no constituency for the most extreme positions that you’re seeing on the Democratic side.
66:59
Trump understands that.
67:01
And so we have an immigration debate that’s not just venal; it’s completely detached from reality.
67:08
When the debate is we’re talking about Mexican-built walls,
67:12
we are sending military to the border in publicity-stunt exercises as if there was a Panzer division
67:20
about to break through the southern border en route to Washington.
67:24
It’s a theater of the absurd playing out as opposed to an issue that needs to be reckoned with
67:31
and dealt with in a humane, responsible and commonsensical way.

George H.W. Bush was the accidental catalyst that built the new Republican Party

It was a statement designed to jump-start budget talks that had been stalled for months. It did that and more, providing the catalyst that changed the Republican Party into an aggressive and hard-edge brand of conservatism that would hold sway for two decades.

The statement was a renunciation of one of the most famous campaign promises in modern American politics: Bush’s declaration of “no new taxes,” which he made as he accepted the Republican nomination in 1988. The pledge was a bow to conservatives, who always regarded him with suspicion, if not outright hostility. When he reneged on the promise, they exacted revenge.

.. As president, Bush proved that experience matters, that knowledge of the world is an asset, that careful and methodical can be more effective than big and bold, that responsibility to country takes precedence over loyalty to party, even if sometimes it comes at great cost, that compromise is not a dirty word.

..  If Reagan’s presidency hastened the end of the Cold War, it was left to Bush to manage the decline and fall of the Soviet empire and to do so safely and without bloodshed. He accomplished that with skill and strategy, aided by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a longtime friend, and trusted national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.
.. After the war ended, with U.S. forces ordered to stop short of Baghdad, Bush’s approval rating soared close to 90 percent, scaring away veteran Democrats who were thinking of challenging him. Twenty-one months later, he was driven from office by the voters. A transition inside the Republican Party that was already underway accelerated.
.. Two years after that, the House was in Republican hands for the first time in 40 years, and the dominant figure in the party was House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was the antithesis of the defeated president in so many ways. The party began to shift from a philosophy of smaller government to one of anti-government, particularly anti-Washington.
The statement that appeared on the bulletin board in the White House pressroom on that morning in June 1990 showed Bush to be a president who was prepared both to compromise with the Democrats, even if it meant breaking a campaign promise, for what he believed were the best interests of the country and to take personal responsibility for his actions.

.. The statement that appeared on the bulletin board in the White House pressroom on that morning in June 1990 showed Bush to be a president who was prepared both to compromise with the Democrats, even if it meant breaking a campaign promise, for what he believed were the best interests of the country and to take personal responsibility for his actions.

.. The conflicting interests of Bush and the Gingrich forces continued for the duration of Bush’s presidency. Gingrich’s wing saw conflict with the Democrats as essential to creating sharp differences between the parties; Bush saw cooperation with congressional Democrats in the name of effective governing as essential for the country and, he hoped, for winning reelection as president. On that, he proved mistaken.

.. As other Republicans lamented the fall of a president whom they much admired, those in the forefront of creating the new Republican Party were relieved that Bush had been defeated.
.. Tom DeLay, who would become House majority whip, later told me of his feelings on the night Bush lost in 1992. “Oh, man, yeah, it was fabulous,” DeLay said in a 1995 interview. DeLay admitted then that he had feared that, if Bush were reelected, it would mean “another four years of misery” for House GOP conservatives. He acknowledged mixed feelings about seeing the White House fall into Democratic hands but added, “If we had another four years of this [Bush], we’d never take over the Congress.”
.. Bush’s eldest son, George W. Bush, sought to restore something of his father’s sensibility to the GOP when he ran for president in 2000 and won the White House as a “compassionate conservative.” But he could neither remake nor retrofit the party. Though he was more conservative than his father, he nonetheless drew the ire of those on the right on issues such as immigration and spending.
.. The end of George W. Bush’s presidency further accelerated the changes within the Republican coalition, including the rise of a tea party movement that brought an even more unyielding form of anti-government conservatism. Today President Trump is redefining the party in his own image, moving it ever further from the GOP over which George H.W. Bush presided.

Bush-Clinton Dynasty, only blocked by Obama

I didn’t vote for Clinton because of this.

  • In 1980 Poppy Bush became Vice President.
  • In 1988 Poppy became President
  • In 1992 Bill Clinton became President.
  • In 2000 George W Bush (junior) became President.
  • In 2008 Hillary ran for President.

If if she had won, we would have consolidated power into just two families hands for effectively 36 years. Only this Obama kid popped up and wrecked that plan with the help of the Democratic Base.

  • In 2016, the new Duopoly fixed the race by running both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Both announced as “front runner” before they had officially announced.

This time the Republicans stepped in and elected an orange game show host to ruin the plan. He was so bad by Election Day that I actually voted for Clinton, even though I said I wouldn’t.

We don’t have Royals in America. This is what hurt Romney too, he’s a legacy candidate as well but not a part of the Bush/Clinton dynamic.

The Clintons and Bushes have the same Trade policies, same monetary policies, similar regulatory goals. Bill and Poppy were even closer on economic policy, military policy, science policy and legislative agendas. Dubya was a deviation but in all of the worst directions.

Bill and Poppy were competent Presidents. Hillary would be profoundly competent and I suspect Jeb would too.

Heck Obama was fairly close to Poppy’s policy structures. Most competent Presidents will be.

This isn’t about policy, it’s about legacy and aristocracy.

Hillary is a brilliant policy wonk. A type A over achiever who is smart, responsive and hyper qualified. She’s also as slippery as her husband, inherently occluded in speech, perpetually on defense and 25 years of that coupled with operating at the height of political power has made her unapproachable . She’s a bad campaigner, who fails to connect at deeply emotional levels.

..

I am not being ageist. I’m being realistic. Bernie won’t run because he’s too old. Biden won’t run because he’s too old. McCain could’ve run but he knew he was too old. 75 is pushing the human bodies limits for taking on an office that visibly drains its occupants like there is a vampire in the Resolute Desk. Any 3 of these guys could’ve won but they had a legacy candidate in the way.

The Democrats need some new, out front faces. Pelosi, Feinstein, Shumer, Boxer and the Clinton’s have had their time in the sun.

.. The working class doesn’t like these entrenched politicians. Witness Trump. They pulled Obama ahead of Hillary in 08 because they want new and different.

.. Trump is a mess but he’s not such a mess that the working class is going to go back to the old aristocracy. Hillary looks better by comparison but that’s not the same as better.

If the Dems want a legacy, draft one of the Kennedy grandkids. It’s been satisfactorily long enough for them to run without the taint of legacy. The Republicans can maybe draft a Hoover. They’ve had enough lately.

Killer Politicians

What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.

Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.

.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.

.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.

.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.

Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.

.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.

When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.

A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.

.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.