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:
And Part Two here:



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

The Most Powerful Reject in the World

Is there anyone who wants to hang with Donald Trump?

He’s not wanted.

Not at funerals, though the Bush family, to show class and respect for tradition, held their noses and made an exception.

Not in England, where they turned him into a big, hideous blimp.

Not by moderate Republicans, or at least the shrinking club with a tenuous claim to that label, who pushed him away during the midterms as they fought for their survival and clung to their last shreds of self-respect.

And not by a 36-year-old Republican operative who is by most accounts the apotheosis of vanity and ambition — and who just turned down one of the most powerful roles in any administration, a job that welds you to the president’s side and gives you nearly unrivaled access to his thoughts.

Nick Ayers didn’t see enough upside to the welding. He could do without those thoughts. He said no to becoming Trump’s next chief of staff, and this wasn’t just the latest twist in “As The White House Turns.”

It was, really, the whole story — of a president who burns quickly through whatever good will he has, a president who represents infinitely more peril than promise, a president toward whom a shockingly small and diminishing number of people in Washington feel any real affection, a president more tolerated than respected, though even the tolerance wanes.

.. He’s forever fixated on how wanted he is (“My crowds!” “My ratings!”), but what’s more striking is how unwanted he is. And that’s not merely a function of the crests and dips that every president encounters. It’s not really about popularity at all.

.. It’s about how he behaves — and the predictable harvest of all that nastiness. While other presidents sought to hone the art of persuasion, he revels in his talent for repulsion: how many people he attacks (he styles this as boldness); how many people he offends (he pretties this up as authenticity); how many people he sends into exile.

.. Careerists who would normally pine for top jobs with a president assess his temper, behold his tweets, recall the mortifications of Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson, and run for the hills. Trump sits at the most coveted desk in the world, but almost no one wants to pull up a chair.

.. What happened with Ayers, who is finishing a stint as Mike Pence’s chief of staff, speaks pointedly to the president’s diminished state. Bear in mind that Trump had already started telling people that Ayers would succeed John Kelly as chief of staff, so Ayers’s decision was doubly humiliating. Bear in mind who Ayers is: not just any political climber but someone whose every breath is focused on his enhanced glory, a trait frequently mentioned by Republicans who have watched his rise (and who sense in him more than a bit of Trump).

They still groan and titter about the blast email that he sent out, unsolicited, after he signed on to manage Tim Pawlenty’s 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. It crowed about all the riches in the private sector that he was passing over. It hinted that his services had been sought by Pawlenty’s competitors: Sorry, guys. It assumed a broad, edge-of-seat audience for the minutiae of his mulling and maneuvering. In fact there were news stories that mockedthe self-aggrandizement of his announcement.

.. At most other times, under most other presidents, someone like Ayers would jump at chief of staff, no matter the job’s infamous rigors. It catapulted such political heavyweights as Dick Cheney, James Baker, Leon Panetta and Rahm Emanuel to greater recognition and relevance.

.. So Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump counted on Ayers’s interest and connived to shove Kelly out — he’ll leave by year’s end — so that they could shimmy Ayers in. They counted wrong. Ever clueless and oh so useless, they didn’t adequately factor in Trump’s toxicity, and the president now looks every bit as isolated as he is.

.. “Trump was left at the altar,”

.. Administration officials like Steven Mnuchin and Mick Mulvaney practically put out news releases to make clear that Trump shouldn’t ask them to be chief of staff. He has no Plan B, just B-list options like Matt Whitaker, the acting attorney general.

.. As leaders go, he has never been much of a magnet. He unequivocally romped in the Republican primaries, but since then? He got nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton did, a gap so remarkable that he had to claim a conspiracy of illegal voting to console himself. When he first filled his cabinet, he hardly had his pick of the litter.

Many top Republicans wanted no part of him. Some who did enter the administration agonized beforehand: Were they helping the country or indulging someone who didn’t deserve it?

When Barbara Bush died in April, it was clear to Trump that he shouldn’t travel to Texas to pay his respects. When John McCain died in August, Trump was told to skip the funeral.

The heads of countries that share America’s purported values (pre-Trump, at least) reproach and recoil from him. Prominent corporate leaders rebuke him, despite his administration’s business-friendly policies.

.. By one analysis of the midterms, the overall vote count for Democratic candidates for the House was 8.6 percentage points higher than for Republican candidates.

His wife takes public shots at him. Old friends tattle to prosecutors; new friends don’t exist. Talk about a twist: He sought the presidency, as so many others surely did, because it’s the ultimate validation. But it has given him his bitterest taste yet of rejection.

‘Riling Up the Crazies’

As long as I’ve covered politics, Republicans have been trying to scare me.

Sometimes, it has been about gays and transgender people and uppity women looming, but usually it has been about people with darker skin looming.

They’re coming, always coming, to take things and change things and hurt people.

A Democratic president coined the expression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But it was Republicans who flipped the sentiment and turned it into a powerful and remorseless campaign ethos: Make voters fear fear itself.

The president has, after all, put a tremendous effort into the sulfurous stew of lies, racially charged rhetoric and scaremongering that he has been serving up as an election closer. He has been inspired to new depths of delusion, tweeting that “Republicans will totally protect people with Pre-Existing Conditions, Democrats will not! Vote Republican.

He has been twinning the words “caravan” and “Kavanaugh” in a mellifluous poem to white male hegemony. Whites should be afraid of the migrant caravan traveling from Central America, especially since “unknown Middle Easterners” were hidden in its midst, an alternative fact that he cheerfully acknowledged was based on nothing.

The word “Kavanaugh” is meant to evoke the fear that aggrieved women will hurtle out of the past to tear down men from their rightful perches of privilege.

Naomi Wolf told Bill Clinton, and later Al Gore, they should present themselves as the Good Father, strong enough to protect the home (America) from invaders.

The Different Ends of NeverTrump

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.

Straining to Keep Faith With America

Among the events of John McCain’s five-and-a-half years of imprisonment and torture in North Vietnam, probably the most heroic, and surely the most celebrated, was his refusal to accept an early release from his captors.

“I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break, those who had arrived before me and those who would come after me, would be taunted with the story of how an admiral’s son had gone home early, a lucky beneficiary of America’s class-conscious society,” McCain recalled in “Faith of My Fathers,” his 1999 memoir. “I knew that my release would add to the suffering of men who were already straining to keep faith with their country.”

.. They strain to keep faith with America when the attorney general weaponizes the terror of children and the desperation of parents in order to pursue his vision of immigration policy.

.. They strain to keep faith when the president rains scorn on our closest allies at summits in Canada and Belgium, and follows each performance with epic displays of obsequiousness toward a North Korean mass murderer and a Russian assassin.

.. They strain to keep faith when the vice president publicly walks out of a football stadium because players bend a knee in silent protest of racial injustice just two months after the president loudly defended white nationalists at Charlottesville as “some very fine people.”

..  An American president who, in matters of both character and conviction, was low and vapid and mean-spirited and bottomlessly dishonorable — McCain’s opposite in every respect.



Donald Trump’s Response to John McCain’s Death Reminds Us Just How Petty He Is

the enmity between the two men was long-standing and bitter. After the Helsinki summit, earlier this year, McCain called Trump’s joint press conference with Vladimir Putin “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American President in memory.” If, after all this acrimony, Trump had said something positive about McCain, it would have rung hollow.

But messing with the flag that flies above the White House was different. The flag represents the United States and the office of the Presidency, not Trump personally. After the death of a prominent U.S. politician, such as a former President or prominent senator, it is standard practice for the sitting President to issue a proclamation ordering the flag to be lowered to half-staff until the burial, which, in this case, will be next Sunday.

Whatever one thinks of McCain’s political views, his record—five and a half years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, thirty-one years in the Senate, and two Presidential bids—surely merited such an honor. As Mark Knoller, of CBS News, noted on Monday morning, Trump failed to order the proclamation. Evidently, there is no limit to his smallness.

The outcry was immediate and broad-based, and, in this instance, Trump backed down.

.. Who persuaded Trump to change course? Was there a rebellion in the West Wing? The initial reports about the reversal didn’t say. But it was clear that the last thing the White House needs right now is another public-relations disaster. Although McCain’s death knocked the saga of Michael Cohen’s guilty plea off the front pages, at least temporarily, the past week was a disaster for the White House, and a reminder that Trump’s pettiness is only exceeded by his deceitfulness. Is there anybody in the entire country who now believes anything he says about the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal that Cohen helped orchestrate?

.. For habitual liars, telling untruths is “partly practice and partly habit,” William Hazlitt once wrote. “It requires an effort in them to speak truth.” Trump seldom makes the exertion.

.. Some of Trump’s defenders are complaining that the Feds, having failed to nail the President on the charge of conspiring with Russia to influence the 2016 election, are now “trying to Al Capone the President”—that is, get him on a technicality. Others in the Trump camp are falling back on the legal argument that a sitting President can’t be indicted, or that Hillary Clinton’s campaign also violated campaign laws. But, apart from Trump himself, virtually nobody seems to be claiming that he didn’t direct the payoffs.

.. Here’s a quick reminder of the rap sheet. Turning a blind eye to money laundering at his New Jersey casinos. Operating a bogus university that bilked middle-income seniors out of their retirement savings. Stiffing his suppliers as a matter of course. Selling condos to Russians and other rich foreigners who may well have been looking to launder hot money. Entering franchising deals with Eastern European oligarchs and other shady characters. For decades, Trump has run roughshod over laws and regulations.

To protect himself from whistle-blowers, financial cops, and plaintiffs, Trump relied on nondisclosure agreements, lax enforcement, and his reputation for uncompromising litigiousness.

This is the new GOP: Angry and afraid

One of the unpleasant surprises of your 50s (among many) is seeing the heroes and mentors of your 20s pass away. I worked for Chuck Colson, of Watergate fame, who became, through his work with prisoners, one of the most important social reformers of the 20th century. I worked for Jack Kemp, who inspired generations of conservatives with his passion for inclusion. I worked against John McCain in the 2000 Republican primaries but came to admire his truculent commitment to principle.

Perhaps it is natural to attribute heroism to past generations and to find a sad smallness in your own. But we are seeing the largest test of political character in my lifetime. And where are the Republican leaders large enough to show the way?

President Trump’s recent remarks to evangelical Christians at the White House capture where Republican politics is heading. “This November 6 election,” Trump said, “is very much a referendum on not only me, it’s a referendum on your religion.” A direct, unadorned appeal to tribal hostilities. Fighting for Trump, the president argued, is the only way to defend the Christian faith. None of these men and women of God, apparently, gagged on their hors d’oeuvres.

.. “It’s not a question of like or dislike, it’s a question that [Democrats] will overturn everything that we’ve done, and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence.” Here Trump is preparing his audience for the possibility of bloodshed by predicting it from the other side. Christians, evidently, need to start taking “Onward, Christian Soldiers” more literally.

.. This is now what passes for GOP discourse — the cultivation of anger, fear, grievances, prejudices and hatreds.

.. “the true populist loses patience with the rules of the democratic game.” He comes to view himself as the embodied voice of the people, and opponents as (in Trump’s words) “un-American” and “treasonous.”

.. As Robert S. Mueller III continues his inexorable investigation of Trump’s sleazy business and political world — and if Democrats gain the House and begin aggressive oversight — a cornered president may test the limits of executive power in the attempt to avoid justice. If the GOP narrowly retains control of the House, Trump and others will take it as the vindication of his whole approach to politics. The president will doubtlessly go further in targeting his enemies for investigation and other harm. He will doubtlessly attack the independence of the FBI and attempt to make it an instrument of his will. He will doubtlessly continue his vendetta against responsible journalism and increase his pressure on media companies that don’t please him. On a broad front, Trump’s lunacy will become operational.

.. But at length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff.”

Republican leaders may dread it, but they will eventually be forced to identify that final area where they keep themselves — or find there is no one there.