Donald Trump
Credit: White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

As Elizabeth Kolbert documented a few years ago, human beings don’t change their minds about much of anything very often. That goes a long way towards explaining the durability of some of Trump’s support. It is also why I have been pretty fascinated with many of the Never Trumpers. Some of them have managed the incredibly difficult task of examining their loyalty to the Republican Party and changing their minds.

No one has done that more courageously than Stuart Stevens, who spent most of his adult life not only supporting the Republican Party, but being one of their major political consultants. David Corn recently interviewed Stevens, who takes the whole idea of personal responsibility very seriously.

He once believed in GOP ideals and ideas. Now he saw it all as a huge con. His new book is a confession and cri de coeur. The first line is blunt: “I have no one to blame but myself.” In these pages, Stevens self-flagellates, calling himself a “fool” for his decades of believing—and lying to himself—that the Republican Party was based on “a core set of values.” Acknowledging his role, Stevens writes, “So yes, blame me. Blame me when you look around and see a dysfunctional political system and a Republican Party that has gone insane.”

That is what gives Stevens’ analysis of how the GOP went insane some credibility.

“The Republican Party has been a cartel,” Stevens said excitedly. “And no one asks a cartel, ‘What’s your ideological purpose?’ You don’t ask OPEC, ‘What’s your ideology?’ You don’t ask a drug gang, ‘What’s your program?’ The Republicans exist for the pursuit of power for no purpose.”

He huffed that the Republican Party had not merely drifted away from its core positions, as sometimes occurs with political parties: “Fair trade, balanced budgets, character, family values, standing up to foreign adversaries like Russia—we’re all against that now. You have to ask, ‘Does someone abandon deeply held beliefs in three or four years?’ No. It means you didn’t ever hold them.”…

He rejected the common view that Trump had hijacked the GOP. No, he explained, the triumph of know-nothing Trumpism marked the culmination of an internal conflict that had existed for decades between the party’s “dark side” and its professed ideals. Even William F. Buckley Jr., often hailed as a grand public intellectual and the founding father of the modern conservative movement, was “a stone-cold racist” in the 1950s, Stevens pointed out…

“And it’s all about race. The Republican Party is a white party and there still are more white people than non-white people.” So that is whom the party aims at—even if this will eventually be a losing proposition as the nation’s demographics continue to shift.

Robert P. Jones, chief executive and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), said something similar when he was interviewed by Jennifer Rubin.

It’s important to note that the Republican Party has a decades-long history of deploying, in various degrees, what has been dubbed “the Southern Strategy,” a racist dog-whistle politics that fuels white grievances and exploits racial divisions to win elections. In 2005, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman formally apologized to the NAACP for these tactics. But that was 2005…

The one enduring, animating issue that fueled white flight from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party has been civil rights for African Americans. This was the issue that originally pulled Jerry Falwell Sr. out from behind the pulpit and into organizing the Christian right political movement. This white-supremacist undercurrent, tied to White Christian identity, is the key to understanding our current political polarization and the transformation of our two political parties over the last few decades.

It is, however, important to recall why Republicans adopted the so-called “Southern Strategy.” It was in order to avoid the development of a coalition of working class whites and people of color that would threaten their hold on power. As Tim Wise eloquently explained, that tactic of divide and conquer has a long and sordid history in this country. So it should come as no surprise that during the 60s and 70s, when liberals were threatening the status quo, Nixon was able to win by dividing. When something works, why change course?

It is also important to understand that the Republican Party needed a cover for their actual agenda. David Roberts nailed that one when he dubbed them the “post-truth” party.

Republicans thus talk about “taxes” and “spending” and “regulation” in the abstract, since Americans oppose them in the abstract even as they support their specific manifestations. They talk about cutting the deficit even as they slash taxes on the rich and launch unfunded wars. They talk about free markets even as they subsidize fossil fuels. They talk about American exceptionalism even as they protect fossil-fuel incumbents and fight research and infrastructure investments.

In short, Republicans have mastered post-truth politics. They’ve realized that their rhetoric doesn’t have to bear any connection to their policy agenda.

Being the party of the uber-wealthy wasn’t going to win any elections for the Republicans. But Reagan was able to not only send out enough dog whistles to mobilize working Americans, he actually convinced millions of them that tax cuts for the wealthy and de-regulation of corporations was going to trickle money down to them. The more that didn’t work, the more blatant became the message about how government programs were the problem because they were designed to help “welfare queens.”

By the time Barack Obama was elected in 2008, all of that was beginning to fall apart. Being post-truth wasn’t enough to cover for the Great Recession, two unending wars in the Middle East, and the disastrous response to Katrina. That’s when Republicans became the “post-policy” party and simply decided to obstruct anything Democrats attempted to do. With the first African American president, the dog whistles became fog horns and racism was pretty much all the GOP had left.

Stevens also noted the post-policy positioning of the party by sharing “his fear that young political operatives working for the party have drawn the lesson that a candidate must emulate Trump to win—that what most matters is not policy ideas but the ability to attack and exploit fears, divisions, tribalism, and resentments.” Right on queue Jeremy Peters documents how Trump’s enablers in right wing media don’t defend the president, but simply strive to “own the libs.”

Ms. [Molly] Hemingway is part of a group of conservative commentators — who have large social media followings, successful podcasts and daily Fox News appearances — that has helped insulate the president and preserve his popularity with his base, even as many Americans say they are likely to vote against him in November.

What these writers and pundits don’t tend to do is make the doggedly pro-Trump defenses that appear on Breitbart and erupt from the mouth of Sean Hannity. Often, they don’t bother at all with the awkward business of trying to explain away Mr. Trump’s latest folly.

Instead, they offer an outlet for outrage against those the president has declared his enemies, often by reducing them to a culture war caricature of liberalism.

All of that is why, when Sean Hannity asked Trump to lay out his agenda for a second term, the president rambled about his inauguration and attacked John Bolton. It is also why the folks at MeidasTouch were able to catch Trump in a major lie during his interview with Chris Wallace two weeks ago.

As an aside, it’s not a coincidence that they used the song “I Wish I Was in Dixie” as the background music for that ad. They were sending a not-so-hidden message about Trump’s real agenda.

Having given up on both truth and policy, all the Republicans have left is their desire for power, with racism as their only tool. So what does Stevens recommend as a solution?  “Burn [the GOP] to the ground and start over.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.