On December 17 of last year, an op ed by George T. Conway III, Steve Schmidt, John Weaver and Rick Wilson appeared in the New York Times: “We Are Republicans, and We Want Trump Defeated.” The four, all formerly prominent Republican operatives, have been outspoken critics of Trump for some time. Conway in particular has been a huge thorn in the side of Trump (and of his own wife Kellyanne), regularly publishing scathing critiques and calls for impeachment. In late 2018 he indeed joined with many other Republican attorneys and former prosecutors to form a group called Checks and Balances, dedicated to defending “the rule of law, the power of truth, the independence of the criminal justice system, the imperative of individual rights, and the necessity of civil discourse,” and thus also dedicated to challenging the Trump administration on a wide range of policies.
Indeed, a number of initiatives have been undertaken by Republicans — some Never-Trumpers since 2016, some more recent converts — to challenge Trumpist authoritarianism. Another is Bill Kristol’s “Defending Democracy Together.” Here is the organization’s mission statement:
today, the Republican Party finds itself entertaining some of the same unsettling nativist and authoritarian impulses that characterized Europe throughout the 20th century. These ideals are antithetical to what it means to be a Republican, and what it means to be American.
Defending Democracy Together is a 501c4 advocacy organization created by lifelong conservatives and Republicans — many of whom have served in Republican administrations and write for conservative publications. We are dedicated to defending America’s democratic norms, values, and institutions and fighting for consistent conservative principles like rule of law, free trade, and expanding legal immigration. Through research, education and grassroots activism, Defending Democracy Together is fighting abuses of power that threaten to undermine the integrity of U.S. elections, federal agencies, and the Republican Party as a whole. We aim to elevate voices across the conservative political spectrum who advocate for these principles. We hope Americans on the Left, Right, and Center will join us.
Yet while Kristol’s group is emphatically Republican, Conway and his op ed co-authors have taken a further step, and have dedicated themselves to opposing the Republican party itself:
“Our many policy differences with national Democrats remain, but our shared fidelity to the Constitution dictates a common effort. . . The 2020 general election, by every indication, will be about persuasion, with turnout expected to be at record highs. Our efforts are aimed at persuading enough disaffected conservatives, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in swing states and districts to help ensure a victory in the Electoral College, and congressional majorities that don’t enable or abet Mr. Trump’s violations of the Constitution, even if that means Democratic control of the Senate and an expanded Democratic majority in the House.”
Their op ed represented the official roll out of a new organization called The Lincoln Project: “Dedicated Americans Protecting Democracy: The Lincoln Project is holding accountable those who would violate their oaths to the Constitution and would put others before Americans.” The project is noteworthy for its commitment to defeat Trumpism — “Donald Trump and those who sign onto Trumpism are a clear and present danger to the Constitution and our Republic” — but also for its seriousness about promoting an inclusive conception of American citizenship. The appeal to Lincoln is deliberate, for Lincoln was both a liberator and statesman who famously sought to preserve the union and to heal the divisions of war, and he was also a Republican.
These efforts of Republican heretics to challenge Trumpism are important politically, because they represent real fissures in the Republican party, and because they articulate a serious defense of constitutional democracy. In my opinion all efforts to challenge Trumpism ought to be welcomed, and conservatives who oppose Trump ought to be regarded as co-belligerents in the defense of democracy, and sometimes even allies for the purpose of opposing Trump. And when Republican Dissenters commit to helping to elect a Democrat as President and to supporting Democratic Congressional candidates, this is especially to be welcomed.
The Lincoln Project’s new ad, “The MAGA Church,” is a clever effort to reach out to white evangelical voters by mocking Trump’s claims to piety and exposing his hypocrisy and cruelty. And ongoing commentary on electoral strategy by Project principals Steve Schmidt and Rick Wilson offer important perspectives on how the Democrats can best counter Republican smear tactics in the upcoming elections, by running more effective campaigns and by running more effective candidates.
At the same time, these efforts ought to be approached with care, and recognized for what they are: attempts by disillusioned Republicans not simply to “advise” and “assist” Democrats but to persuade Democrats to tack to the center rather than to the left, and to become the kind of party with which they can feel comfortable.
This is very clear in “Project Lincoln: Can patriotic Republicans save the country?” a report of a recent conversation with Steve Schmidt by Jennifer Rubin, herself a former-Republican who promotes such efforts in her regular blog at the Washington Post. Rubin both explains, and seconds, Schmidt:
“He stressed that the burden is on Democrats to . . . elect someone who can defeat Trump. . . . “We just saw an example with Jeremy Corbyn about what happens when the loony left is unfiltered.” Democrats, he warned, must “nominate someone with the broadest possible coalition.” . . . Giving Democrats some “tough love,” Schmidt warned, “In 2018, there were millions of Republicans who voted for Democrats to put a check on Trump.” If Democrats are not careful, “Millions will turn around and elect Trump to put a check on Democrats.” He argued that there has never been a more unpopular idea to run on than Medicare-for-all, an idea rejected by union members, teachers, middle management and others. “The cost isn’t in dollars; it is in Trump’s ability to demagogue it to victory,” Schmidt told me. He said he hoped that Democrats will select a candidate who speaks to our deepest values and shared concerns, who shows “toughness but not meanness” and who can communicate, “We are all in this together.”
Very similar themes are sounded by Rick Wilson in a recent Guardian piece by Martin Pengelly: “How to dump Trump: Rick Wilson on Running Against the Devil.” Like Schmidt, Wilson argues that the way to beat Trump is to make beating Trump the only issue: As Pengelly summarizes: “He thinks Democrats are making a huge mistake in the campaign so far — by telling voters who they really are. The main candidates are veering too far left, he thinks, away from the disaffected Trump voters they will have to turn.” Wilson is not as disparaging of “the loony left” as is Schmidt. But he too thinks progressive policy ideas can only alienate strategically important voting blocs. This is partly because key voters simply are not progressive: “You’ve got to run where the game is played and fight where the fight is, which is these 15 electoral college swing states, and those states are not as woke and liberal as other parts of the country.” But it is also because of the vulnerability of these voters to the machinations of the cynical Republican operatives that he knows so well:
“Guys like me who still work on the Trump side of the fence can always turn it into something that is a millstone around their neck. It’s not even that hard. Elizabeth Warren produces a 600-page healthcare plan and my research geeks can’t find, I don’t know, 30 things in there that I can’t demagogue the hell out of? Because I can. Or the guys that are me now can.”
Wilson, who is both more cynical and more politically agnostic than Schmidt, actually has kind things to say about Warren’s campaign. But in the end he predictably contends that Biden is “the one candidate who has shown the most ability to contrast with Trump in terms of a broader, bigger picture that isn’t just locked into what’s the hot flavor of Democratic messaging this year.”
Schmidt and Wilson may be right about this. They also may be very wrong. For there is a real debate currently being waged within the Democratic party about precisely this question: should the party tack to the center in order to attract mainly white working class and Obama-to-Trump suburban voters, or should it tack to the left, both to appeal to the economic interests of many of the above voters, and to mobilize vast numbers of normally non-voters, who tend to be young, minority and women, and ideologically to the left. Both Biden and Buttigieg, with much support from the party’s Big Donor base, are with Schmidt and Wilson, and are betting on the former view. Warren and Sanders are betting on the latter approach; there are strong arguments to support them (see here, here, and here). But no theoretical argument can be dispositive. What is necessary is for the primary contest to play out; for party elites, including the winner of the Democratic presidential primary, to learn from the results; and for the “winning” primary strategy to be tested out in practice, in the general election, where it counts.
Efforts such as the Lincoln Project can play an important role, in continuing to challenge Trumpism and in supporting those Democratic candidates who most appeal to them. That is the right of the organization, and its leaders and members, as participants in democratic politics.
But as they do so, they should be treated as the political actors that they are: disillusioned Republicans who have been cast out by the party they helped to create, and who are now seeking a new political home.
Because they did help to create the organization that currently dominates and despoils us, it behooves us to take (some of) their ideas about campaign tactics seriously. But it also behooves them to speak and act with much more humility than they display. We don’t need their mea culpas. But it would perhaps be appropriate for them to take responsibility for their former errors in judgment, and to draw from this the obvious conclusion: the Democratic party does not exist for them, and it is indeed the party that until yesterday they were happy to disparage (in the Guardian piece, for example, Wilson admits to being, in the author’s words, “the guy who attacked Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor, or shamelessly but successfully linked Max Cleland, a popular senator who lost three limbs in Vietnam, to Osama bin Laden.”). It is one thing for them to shift their allegiances. It is another for them to bring with them their old arrogance and cynicism, in a new form; to act as if they know “the devil” best because they once were “the devil”; and to imagine that the Democratic party ought thus to be remade according to their advice and in their image.
The limit of their approach, and the reason why left liberals ought to be wary of it, is perhaps symbolized by their very effort to claim Lincoln for themselves.
Lincoln is legitimately a national hero and perhaps the national hero. But his election, in 1860, was no restoration of a “vital center.” And while Lincoln was wracked by much anguish about the looming conflict, and was surely no abolitionist, his greatness ultimately resided in his ability to move the nation forward, to liberate the oppressed, and to promise greater democracy. His famous Gettysburg address, which the Lincoln Project references, is a call to a kind of healing and reconciliation, honoring all of “the brave men” who died there, irrespective of the “side” for which they fought. But it leads with “the proposition that all men are created equal,” and it closes with a rededication to “the unfinished work” of the nation: that it should have “a new birth of freedom — and that government of, by, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
The defeat of the tyrant is inextricably bound up with the struggle for justice. Trump’s presidency, by manifesting the very worst possibilities of our society, makes this vividly clear.
And in the post-New Deal period the Democratic party has taken up this struggle, imperfectly to be sure, by incorporating those constituencies not yet fully included: workers, women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, and nature itself. It would be a disaster for the current Democratic primary contest to generate acrimony between these constituencies, and it is important to steer the contest toward a message capable of unifying the party and appealing to a broader electorate. But it would equally be a disaster for the primary contest to be dampened, and for its most exciting voices — those of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — to be drowned out by self-appointed guardians of moderation.
This is why it is so important now that the Democratic party has leading presidential candidates, and leaders, who appeal to Lincoln but also to Frederick Douglass, Eugene V. Debs, Frances Perkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dolores Huerta, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Bringing these “voices” together in a campaign that can defeat Trump is a huge challenge. But it cannot be met by silencing or marginalizing those voices in the name of a bland and centrist “Lincoln.” Republican anti-Trumpists ought to be applauded for their integrity; their public interventions ought to be welcomed; and their support for Democratic candidates ought to be welcomed too. But the agenda of the Democratic party, in 2020 and beyond, ought to be shaped by Democratic leaders, and activists, who have a compelling vision for the future that promises greater political equality and social justice.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.