It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (5 page)

All of this should have bothered me, but I honestly didn’t think about it much. I never worked directly for Jesse Helms or any candidate that I didn’t like. I helped elect pro-choice and pro-gay-rights governors like Bill Weld of Massachusetts and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. I made ads for Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, who was named Head Start Man of the Year in 1991. Later, when I saw
Angels in America,
the Roy Cohn character resonated as the perfect encapsulation of the strange denial of the gay extreme right. Here is how he described himself:

I don’t want you to be impressed. I want you to understand. This is not sophistry. And this is not hypocrisy. This is reality. I have sex with men. But unlike nearly every other man of whom this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to the White House and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand. Because
I am is defined entirely by
I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys.

The “heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys” pretty much sums up the contradiction of the Christian right as a force in Republican politics. They claim to represent evangelicals when they actually mean they represent white evangelicals. Like referring to “working-class voters” when describing white working-class voters, they aim to disenfranchise black voters from the political discussion. When leaders of today’s Christian right declare that Donald Trump’s election is a sign from God, they are following in a tradition that dates from the Crusades and is embraced by the Ku Klux Klan: “It is God’s will.” In
God and Donald Trump,
the author Stephen Strang explains how Trump’s election was a fulfillment of prophecy:

I have also spoken with several religious leaders identified as modern-day prophets. Many of these individuals prophesied well before the election that God was raising up Donald Trump like the ancient Persian king Cyrus the Great, a pagan chosen by God for a purpose only he could accomplish. The prophets told me they had certain knowledge that Trump would win. And, lo and behold, he did.

It is a strange phenomenon of Republican politics that candidates are quick to announce that God would like them to win. Ted Cruz’s father gave a detailed description of how God intervened:

My son Ted and his family spent six months in prayer seeking God’s will for this decision. But the day the final green light came on, the whole family was together. It was a Sunday. We were all at his church, First Baptist Church in Houston, including his senior staff. After the church service, we all gathered at the pastor’s office. We were on our knees for two hours seeking God’s will. At the end of that time, a word came through his wife, Heidi. And the word came, just saying, “Seek God’s face, not God’s hand.” And I’ll tell you, it was as if there was a cloud of the Holy Spirit filling that place. Some of us were weeping, and Ted just looked up and said, “Lord, here am I, use me. I surrender to you, whatever you want.” And he felt that was a green light to move forward.

Rick Perry told a fund-raising crowd before he announced, “At 27 years old, I knew that I had been called to the ministry. I’ve just always been really stunned by how big a pulpit I was gonna have. I still am. I truly believe with all my heart that God has put me in this place at this time to do his will.”

In case you’re thinking you didn’t know that Rick Perry was a minister, he isn’t. The “ministry” he was called to was the Texas House of Representatives, which has seldom been confused with a church. As Texas governor, Perry announced a three-day prayer to end a long drought. The proclamation read,

WHEREAS, throughout our history, both as a state and as individuals, Texans have been strengthened, assured and lifted up through prayer; it seems right and fitting that the people of Texas should join together in prayer to humbly seek an end to this devastating drought and these dangerous wildfires;

Now, therefore, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.

Perry didn’t win the presidential election, and it was 168 days after the Days of Prayer before it rained in Texas. In a Bush campaign meeting in 2000, when we had lousy polling numbers, a young staffer said that she knew God wouldn’t let us lose. To which Matthew Dowd, who was coordinating the polling, gently said, “I’m not sure God is following the tracking.” Now whenever I hear the loonies on the right asserting that God wanted Trump to win, I always wonder why it didn’t occur to them that if God really was involved, he probably could have won the popular vote for Trump. And done it without the Russians’ helping.

Eighty-one percent of evangelicals supported Trump in 2016, a number slightly higher than those of George W. Bush, who was a born-again Christian, and Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon whose values and life choices could not be more different from Donald Trump’s.
I worked for both Bush and Romney, have spent a great deal of time with both, seen them in moments of intense pressure, crushing disappointment, in victory and defeat. I’ve been with them when they were exhausted and frayed, forced to deal with the inevitable mishaps and mistakes of a presidential campaign. I’ve been with them on buses that broke down, planes that were grounded, when microphones didn’t work and angry supporters wanted to lecture them on everything they were doing wrong. I’ve seen them with their families and how they light up around kids. These are men whose politics you might abhor, but it was difficult not to recognize they were decent men who tried to live their lives by a set of values that represented the best of our society. Both were born into great privilege and remained humble. Neither of these men could win a primary for president in the current Republican Party. Decency, kindness, humility, compassion—all touchstones of a Christian faith—have no value in today’s Republican Party. All his life, Donald Trump has believed these to be weaknesses, and now that is the view of the party he leads. Peter Wehner was a Bush speechwriter and evangelical Christian who now writes for
The New York Times
. He was an early and eloquent voice against Donald Trump, declaring early on he would never support him. A year into the Trump presidency, after Trump had led the GOP to endorse Roy Moore in Alabama, Wehner wrote, in a piece for
The New York Times
titled “Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican,”

I hoped the Trump era would be seen as an aberration and made less ugly by those who might have influence over the president. That hasn’t happened. Rather than Republicans and people of faith checking his most unappealing sides, the president is dragging down virtually everyone within his orbit.

My friend Rick Wilson, another early Trump critic and a longtime Republican consultant, wrote a book called
Everything Trump Touches Dies
Rick understood that Trump will always put himself before anyone and any value and that a lifetime of scams, frauds, scandals, and lies has proven that whoever associates with Trump is discredited. So it is with evangelicals. They cannot pretend, as they might have been able to in 2016, that Donald Trump would change and “grow into” the office, in an oft-used phrase that never made any sense. They know the man they are supporting for reelection wrote hush-money checks while in the Oval Office to the porn star he had sex with ten days after his youngest son was born. Michael Gerson, another Bush speechwriter and evangelical, sums up what the marriage of Trump and evangelicals has wrought:

It is remarkable to hear religious leaders defend profanity, ridicule, and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity and dismiss decency as a dead language. Whatever Trump’s policy legacy ends up being, his presidency has been a disaster in the realm of norms. It has coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise. Falwell, Graham, and others are providing religious cover for moral squalor—winking at trashy behavior and encouraging the unraveling of social restraints. Instead of defending their convictions, they are providing preemptive absolution for their political favorites. And this, even by purely political standards, undermines the causes they embrace.

There is usefulness in the sad squalor of watching so-called Christian leaders lead their flocks into supporting the least religious president in American history. When these same leaders were supporting Republicans like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, it made it easier for them to assert they were fighting for a greater good for civil society. But anger and racism and fear of the future have always lurked beneath the surface of the Christian right, like a menacing shark disturbing a calm ocean. Now they are in the open, and we need no longer pretend that those who support bad men like Roy Moore and Donald Trump are remotely motivated by love of neighbor or charity or compassion. The fear of a changing world is now validated and given legitimacy at the highest levels. They are free now to be openly what they felt obligated to mask. They can now admit it was all a lie.


The Republican Congress now represents a party with very few significant defining principles other than the promotion of the president’s impulses at that moment.

—Republican former senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire

The day I sat down to write this chapter,
The New York Times
broke the story that Donald Trump for over a decade had managed to lose more money than any other American and, in some years, twice as much as any other American. This is the man Republicans chose because of his business smarts and success:

And so, year after year, Mr. Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual taxpayer, according to the I.R.S. information on high earners—a publicly available database with taxpayers’ identifying details removed. Indeed, in 1990 and 1991, his core businesses lost more than $250 million each year—more than double those of the nearest taxpayers in the sampling for those years.

The story was the perfect corollary to the larger narrative of the Republican Party. Trump was running a scam on investors, and the Republican Party has been running a similar scam on voters. Trump claims to be a great businessman who was wildly successful, while in fact he was one of the greatest failures in modern American business history. The Republican Party claims to be a party that understands the need to run government efficiently, managing debt and balancing a budget. In truth the modern Republican Party is the equivalent of Donald Trump: addicted to debt and selling a false image of success. The 2016 National Republican Party Platform attacked the Obama administration for a “huge increase in the national debt”:

Reducing the Federal Debt

Our national debt is a burden on our economy and families. The huge increase in the national debt demanded by and incurred during the current Administration has placed a significant burden on future generations. We must impose firm caps on future debt, accelerate the repayment of the trillions we now owe in order to reaffirm our principles of responsible and limited government, and remove the burdens we are placing on future generations.

A strong economy is one key to debt reduction, but spending restraint is a necessary component that must be vigorously pursued.

The 2012 National Republican Party Platform was unequivocal in its depiction of the destructive forces of national debt:

Unless we take dramatic action now, young Americans and their children will inherit an unprecedented legacy of enormous and unsustainable debt, with the interest alone consuming an ever-increasing portion of the country’s wealth. The specter of national bankruptcy that now hangs over much of Europe is a warning to us as well. Over the last three and a half years, while cutting the defense budget, the current Administration has added an additional $5.3 trillion to the national debt—now approximately $16 trillion, the largest amount in U.S. history.

So what happened when the Republican Party, in a shocking upset, won control of all three chambers of government for the first time since 2007? The federal debt skyrocketed. In less than two and a half years, the debt increased at record levels, from $20 trillion to $22 trillion.
All but six months of that period was under the Republican-controlled White House, House of Representatives, and Senate.

When he ran for president, Donald Trump promised to balance the budget in eight years. In an interview with
The Washington Post
’s Bob Woodward, Trump relied upon his usual jumbled view of trade to explain how he would get it done:

We’re not a rich country. We’re a debtor nation. We’ve got to get rid of—I talked about bubble. We’ve got to get rid of the $19 trillion in debt.

BW: How long would that take?

DT: I think I could do it fairly quickly, because of the fact the numbers—

BW: What’s fairly quickly?

DT: Well, I would say over a period of eight years. And I’ll tell you why.

BW: Would you ever be open to tax increases as part of that, to solve the problem?

DT: I don’t think I’ll need to. The power is trade. Our deals are so bad.

BW: That would be $2 trillion a year.

DT: No, but I’m renegotiating all of our deals, Bob. The big trade deals that we’re doing so badly on. With China, $505 billion this year in trade. We’re losing with everybody.

In a typical dog’s breakfast of facts, Trump takes a number close to the total trade deficit of the United States in 2016 and blames it on China. Instead of decreasing national debt the $2 trillion a year promised, he increased it $2 trillion in a little over two years. Now, not surprisingly, the national debt has disappeared from Trump’s standard speeches and was not mentioned in his 2018 or 2019 State of the Union speeches. To get a sense of just how far this is from the beating heart of a central tenet of conservatism and what it means to be a Republican, here’s Paul Ryan on national debt in his acceptance speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention:

In this generation, a defining responsibility of government is to steer our nation clear of a debt crisis while there is still time. Back in 2008, candidate Obama called a $10 trillion national debt “unpatriotic”—serious talk from what looked to be a serious reformer.

Yet by his own decisions, President Obama has added more debt than any other president before him, and more than all the troubled governments of Europe combined. One president, one term, $5 trillion in new debt.

So here we are, $16 trillion in debt and still he does nothing. In Europe, massive debts have put entire governments at risk of collapse, and still he does nothing. And all we have heard from this president and his team are attacks on anyone who dares to point out the obvious.

They have no answer to this simple reality: We need to stop spending money we don’t have.

During Paul Ryan’s speakership, there was no 9/11 or Great Recession to place upward pressure on the deficit. Republicans had promised for decades to control spending, and when given a chance, they decided it was easier to just spend more. But blaming Speaker Ryan for this deficit disaster is too easy. Had there been any remote desire or will in either party to do what it takes to cut the deficit, Ryan would have happily pushed that agenda. What happened under Ryan isn’t so much about him as about exposing the fundamental falsehood that Republicans ever cared about the deficit. The history of the national debt is like all history: it varies greatly by authorship. But a few basic facts are indisputable: in the post–World War II era, Republican presidents have contributed far more to the deficit than Democrats. As Steve Clemons wrote in
The Atlantic,
when it comes to reducing the debt, “the big winner is Harry Truman, followed by Bill Clinton. Eisenhower is next, followed by Johnson and Nixon, Kennedy, and finally Jimmy Carter. All of these presidents reduced debt as a percent of GDP.”
The great modern-era success story is Bill Clinton. In his January 1998 State of the Union address, Clinton was accurately able to claim,

When I took office, the deficit for 1998 was projected to be $357 billion and heading higher. This year, our deficit is projected to be $10 billion and heading lower. For three decades, six Presidents have come before you to warn of the damage deficits pose to our nation. Tonight I come before you to announce that the federal deficit, once so incomprehensibly large that it had 11 zeros, will be, simply, zero. I will submit to Congress for 1999 the first balanced budget in 30 years.

What is most remarkable—and telling—about the Clinton success on the deficit is the furious degree that he was opposed by Republicans. Not one Republican voted for his 1993 budget package that combined tax increases and spending cuts. In 1994, I and just about every other Republican political consultant made ads attacking the Clinton tax increases and predicting economic disaster unless repealed. The Republican predictions of economic calamity following the Clinton administration were dire. Speaker Newt Gingrich:

We have all too many people in the Democratic administration who are talking about bigger Government, bigger bureaucracy, more programs, and higher taxes. I believe that that will in fact kill the current recovery and put us back in a recession. It might take 1½ or 2 years, but it will happen.

The former Reagan White House staffer and future chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission Christopher Cox was lurid in his pronouncement of imminent doom: “This is really the Dr. Kevorkian plan for our economy. It will kill jobs, kill businesses, and yes, kill even the higher tax revenues that these suicidal tax increasers hope to gain.”

The Republican ads and message worked beautifully, and Republicans gained fifty-four seats in the House and eight Senate seats, giving Republicans control of Congress for the first time since 1952. This was the “Contract with America” election billed as the “Republican Revolution.” As a Republican consultant, it was one of those cycles in which you wanted to do a ton of races because everyone was likely to win. My firm won every campaign we did that year, fourteen statewide races. I was never burdened by the notion that I was working for a political party that was fundamentally hypocritical on the deficit and economy and one that would proceed to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about sex under the leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was having an affair with a former House intern himself. The point of politics, as far as I could see, was to win, and when you were winning, what could possibly be wrong?

Instead of killing the economy as Republicans predicted, the Clinton economic plan helped launch one of the longest periods of economic growth in U.S. history and helped create twenty-three million new jobs. Incomes rose; poverty fell. The only period of greater growth was the post–economic crash under the Obama years.
(Yeah, that sort of drives Republicans crazy too.) But talk to most Republicans who were part of the Clinton era, and they will insist it was the Republican Congress that guided the economy to one of the greatest economic success stories in U.S. history. Of course had the economy tanked, they would have blamed Clinton and claimed their predictions were accurate. In retrospect, the Clinton presidency adhered to the values espoused for decades by Republicans far more than the Trump years. Clinton had the first budget surpluses since 1969. When he took office, the ratio of the national debt to gross national product was 47.7 percent. It fell to 33.6 percent. This skyrocketed to over 100 percent during the Obama administration, in part because of stimulus spending to dig the country out of the Great Recession. In the Republican years of Trump, it has only grown worse. Clinton also signed NAFTA back when Republicans insisted they were for free trade. But supporting free trade was just another quaint marketing slogan that was useful until it was more convenient to fall in love with the Trump tariffs.

Everybody loves to spend more money, particularly when it’s seen as someone else’s money. It’s not a uniquely Republican addiction, but the blame falls to Republicans for being a breathtaking combination of hypocritical and unaware. Ask most white Republicans in “red” states about government’s spending too much, and they will rail against welfare and probably throw in a little California hating because, well, it’s California and all kinds of satanic evils are being perpetuated in that state Donald Trump calls a “disaster.”
For all their bluster about the federal government and states’ rights, the most conservative states in the country are far and away the most dependent on federal aid.

Like my native Mississippi. For every dollar Mississippians pay in federal income tax, the state receives just over $3 back from the federal government. More than 40 percent of Mississippi’s entire budget comes from Washington. Who pays for that? Those evil states like California and New York, where the good citizens pay a dollar in taxes and get less back from the government. Every time a New Yorker or Californian goes to work, he or she is helping build roads, hospitals, and schools in Mississippi. Trump won West Virginia by more than forty points. For every dollar a West Virginian pays in taxes, the state gets more than $2 back.
Does anybody really think the elected officials from those states are going to get serious about cutting the federal budget? It’s true of Democrats and Republicans, but in contemporary America those poor states are overwhelmingly Republican.

In 2014, the Mississippi Republican senator Thad Cochran was up for reelection. He was seventy-six and had first been elected in 1978, the year I made my first political ads for his former chief of staff Jon Hinson. Cochran was challenged in the primary by a forty-three-year-old state senator named Chris McDaniel. The McDaniel campaign was a product of the post–
Citizens United
Supreme Court campaign financing ruling world. As an obscure state senator who had never run statewide before, he had little base of support in Mississippi and no established fund-raising network. Before
Citizens United
cleared the way for outside groups to spend unlimited money supporting a candidate, a small-time state senator would not have had a chance against a well-funded, powerful U.S. senator who was well liked in the state. But a few powerful conservative groups in Washington targeted Cochran, long a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, as a perfect example of pork barrel spending, a senator who had used his influence and seniority to increase spending and steer as much as possible to Mississippi. These groups encouraged McDaniel to run and poured more than $7 million into defeating Cochran, attacking him for wasteful spending. In his own campaign, McDaniel raised a fraction of that amount, leading the former Mississippi governor (and longtime client of mine) Haley Barbour to call our McDaniel campaign a front for “a bunch of out-of-state political gunslingers who have crowned themselves as the leaders of Tea Party Republicanism.”

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