Podcast | The twist in a former GOP strategist’s plot to unseat Trump

Rick Wilson wrote a manual for Democrats to defeat the president. Then the world turned upside down.

President Donald Trump at a podium

President Donald Trump speaks about protecting seniors, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

When Rick Wilson published Running Against the Devil: A Plot to Save America From Trump and Democrats From Themselves, the world was a simpler place. It was January and the center of gravity for the political world was in the chambers of the U.S. Senate, where the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump was set to begin. Wilson, a former strategist for the Republican Party and New York Times bestselling author, was busy fielding interviews about his latest, which provided a kind of road map for Democrats to bring an end to the Trump presidency. Then, about a third of the way through his book tour, everything changed. The novel coronavirus had spread to the United States and, in addition to changing everything else about daily life, changed the political landscape, too. For the first episode of the second season of the Crosscut Talks podcast, host Mark Baumgarten talks to Wilson about what has changed, what hasn’t and whether the Democrats are following his advice. Also, Crosscut news and politics editor Donna Blankinship talks about the latest Crosscut/Elway Poll and why she enjoys interviewing random strangers.


This transcript may contain errors. Be advised that the audio of this podcast serves as the official record.

Anonymous Speaker: [00:00:00] This episode of Crosscut Talks is supported by Alaska Airlines.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:00:10] Hello and welcome to Crosscut Talks. I'm Mark Baumgarten, the managing editor at Crosscut.

You know, under normal circumstances, we'd be preparing for the Crosscut Festival right now, but these are not normal circumstances. We had to cancel the festival and that was really, really hard. Then the rest of the world got canceled and now we're all just trying to figure out where we go from here.

Last season, this podcast delivered live conversations, some from the festival and others from events Crosscut produced throughout the year, but live events aren't happening now, so we're going to try something different. We're actually turning this into a real podcast.

We're starting out with some of the guests we had lined up for the festival, the ones we're really excited about. And when we're through with them, we're going to keep going. We're going to talk to people who have something to say about what is happening right now, and we're also going to talk to the journalists in the Crosscut newsroom who are reporting the stories that are happening here in the Pacific Northwest.

We're starting out with Rick Wilson, a former strategist for the Republican party who turned away from the party after Donald Trump took over. He's written what is essentially a manual for defeating the president in the upcoming election. Of course, he published that book before the world turned upside down.

We'll talk to him about that, about how the novel coronavirus is changing things. And what it hasn't changed when it comes to the race for the White House.

But first we're going to do a quick check in with Donna Blankinship. She's the news and politics editor at Crosscut, and she just reported on the latest Crosscut Elway Poll, which asks likely voters what they think about the government's coronavirus response.

Okay. On with the show.

So we have Donna Blankinship, who's the news and politics editor at Crosscut with us right now. Hey, Donna.

Daisy: [00:02:06] Woof! Woof!

Donna Blankinship: [00:02:09] That's my dog. I told you she'd be in this.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:02:12] I miss you.

Donna Blankinship: [00:02:13] I miss you too. Working from home is not all it's cracked up to be.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:02:17] It is not. Um, so I wanted to bring you on to talk about this Crosscut Elway Poll that we conducted last week. We were in the field from the 18th to the 20th, and we wanted to know what people thought about the government restrictions and, uh, social distancing and stay at home orders.

And we got some results that were interesting. There are a lot of polls right now that are asking the same question and getting the same results, but what can you tell us about what the poll found.

Donna Blankinship: [00:02:52] So the poll basically found that registered voters in Washington think the restrictions have helped keep coronavirus in check, maybe, um, help decrease it.

And that they're more worried about, um, the impact of reopening the economy and what impact it would have on public health than they are about the impact on keeping the restrictions on too long and hurting our economy. the majority of Washingtonians feel this way. We know this because polls like this one are based on, um, our population of Washington, all the divisions as far as politics and geography and age and gender.

Um, so this poll really represents our state, and also there's been so much news coverage of the protest. It starts to make you question, well, is that how most people are feeling? And apparently it's not.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:03:49] One of the things that I really love that we do with these polls, since we're the ones that are commissioning them, working with, with Stuart Elway, is that we get the call backs, right? So we actually get to talk to the, to the people who took the survey. And you got to do that this time. So you get to essentially reach out to the state of Washington and just talk to a bunch of random people. You've told me that you love doing this. Tell me about why you love doing this, uh, this kind of reporting and then tell me about some of the people that you met.

Donna Blankinship: [00:04:22] Well, journalists generally spend a lot of time talking to officials, talking to experts, um, and not as much time talking to the general public. Um, except when you go out on the street and just like stop people and say, "Hey, can I talk to you? I'm a journalist."

A lot of journalists hate doing that. I actually liked doing it because, um, one of the things that I like about being a journalist is learning people's stories. The stories of the governor are not as interesting to me as the stories of Joe on the street. Calling these people is a cool opportunity to just call some random person because our polls are random.

Now, of course, before I call someone, I know a lot about them because I know what their responses were to the poll. If they're call themselves a Republican or Democrat, which city they live in, um, what they answered in the poll. So I do, I do pick and choose who I'm calling because I want to get viewpoints on the points that I know I'm going to make in the story.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:05:20] Yeah. The story that you wrote, you don't expect to read a poll story and just like have so much personality come through.

Donna Blankinship: [00:05:29] So I called this lady older, middle aged woman who lives in the Tacoma area. She was, um, reminded me of, um, a few people I know in my own life. She talked a lot about what she's giving up right now because of social distancing and the governor's stay at home order.

She talked about how she was missing happy hour with her friends down at the bar down the street, and kind of painted a real picture for me of who she is. She, um, sounded a little like one of my grandmothers. I just found her charming and she also was charming in what she said about the poll and about the protesters, not just that she didn't agree with the, protesters, but she illustrated that she disagreed with parts of the order as well, because she's a golfer. And I, strangely enough, I talked to several golfers. I had no idea there were so many. Um, and she said she doesn't understand why we can't golf when she thinks it's safer than being in the grocery store. So based on my own experience in the grocery store lately, I, I think I have to agree with her.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:06:40] People who hold these kinds of seemingly opposing views, not opposing views, but that people are not as cut and dried and strictly partisan as, as, as we may think, we all feel conflicted about the virus and the economy. And as we move into this new phase of easing restriction, people have nuanced views of this.

And of course they do. There is both things that we feel are positive about the social distancing and then you know, the real impacts that we see and that we in the newsroom definitely see in every story that we report. We see how this is changing people's lives and creating situations that are more difficult.

Donna Blankinship: [00:07:25] Right. But just like when you talk to your friends about it, everyone's breaking the rules in some ways, or at least what they interpret as the rules. I tried to talk to my husband the other day and two, going over to our favorite hiking spot and parking outside the parking lot and walking in and going for a hike and ...

Mark Baumgarten: [00:07:44] Oh man. You are a risk.

Donna Blankinship: [00:07:46] I know I'm a rule breaker, but you know, everyone's doing some things. We all have to do our best. I think I agree with the governor on that one. You were talking about nuance and I thought the guy I talked to in Vancouver, who called himself a conservative, really represented the nuance of this debate.

He said that he thought the governor was doing a bad job and that the president was doing an okay job at dealing with coronavirus. And then when I asked him to explain why he thought the governor was doing a bad job, it kinda came down to golfing and fishing. You know, it wasn't that he wanted to get coronavirus -- his was an older gentleman, and he recognized the danger of this illness and wanted for he and his friends to stay safe. But he also didn't want to have to give up the opportunity to go fishing. And he said he and his friends had been driving down to Oregon to, to golf. And to me that was such a example of probably breaking the rules in a way that like breaks in like three different ways.

don't think he actually realized that it wasn't the golfing that's dangerous. It's the driving in a car with his friends and crossing state lines and going to a state that has had very few deaths from coronavirus from a state that has had very many. It's like people wearing masks and not wearing masks in the grocery store. We're supposed to wear maks not because it protects us from coronavirus, but because it might help protect other people from whatever we have.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:09:30] All right. Well, Donna, thanks so much for chatting with me for a little bit. Uh, really appreciate, uh, all the work that you've done on the poll and all the work that you do every day. And, uh, yeah, thanks for coming on. Crosscut Talks.

Anonymous Speaker: [00:09:50] And now for a message from our sponsor, Alaska Airlines. Alaska flies to over 115 destinations worldwide with an average of 1200 daily flights across the United States, Mexico, Canada, and Costa Rica. Every Alaska flight has high-speed wifi, free chat, free movies, a rotating seasonal menu, and the highest rated customer experience of any North American airlines.

Alaska also tops the charts in environmental sustainability. Having been ranked the most fuel efficient us airline for seven years running. It's the highest rated U.S. Airline on the Dow Jones sustainability index and it helps passengers offset the carbon impact of every trip they take. Learn more and book your next trip at alaskaair.com.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:10:43] Welcome back to Crosscut Talks. We've got Rick Wilson here with us. So Rick is a former Republican political strategist and ad maker and a media consultant based in Florida. He's also currently the editor at large for the Daily Beast, cofounder of the Lincoln Project, and host of the new podcast, The New Abnormal.

He's also the New York Times bestselling author of Everything Trump Touches Dies: a Republican Strategists Gets Real About the Worst President Ever, and his latest, Running Against the Devil, is about the 2020 election and the effort to unseat the president. It came out in January, uh, before everything changed.

So, uh, Rick, welcome to crosscut Talks.

Rick Wilson: [00:11:21] Hey Mark, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:11:24] I wanted to read a portion of your book here, just to give the listeners a sense of where you're coming from if they don't, don't know about you. So, um, are you okay if I read your words to you?

Rick Wilson: [00:11:34] You can read my words to me.

Most people read them to me with a scream. So anyone that's not, it's all good.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:11:42] All right. So, uh, so this is from your latest. You say, "No policy victory is worth the damage Trump has wrought. No slate of judges can offset the destruction he has done to our institutions and our values. There is no moral accommodation with Trump, no safe path away from his authoritarian statism. As with nuclear weapons only deterrence works. Only strong institutions and strong leaders can offset the chaos and dissension that follows Trump."

And then, just for good measure, later on you right, "I would prefer that a conservative hold the presidency, not a Trumpian new era, conservative of his currently hot flavor of nationalist authoritarian, dickishness, but one of the old vanished era when we govern like adults, behaved like civilized people and held onto both our principles and our humanity. I also want my own fighter aircraft and a volcano layer, but that's not happening, at least not this election cycle."

 So I think that sums up kind of where you're coming from, right?

Rick Wilson: [00:12:40] I think, I think it pretty much does. I mean, look, I'm a 56 year old guy who's been in politics for my entire adult life, and frankly, even before my adult life, but I have been around this for a long time, and I came into it believing in certain things. And one of the things that I believed in was individual Liberty and the constitution. And I understood from the beginning that that would mean that my side of any equation of any argument wasn't going to win every time. I recognized there was a push and a pull that our founders built into this country.

And I, and I was enough of an election historian and political historian to know that, you know, the left has never held so much power for too long in this country. And the right has never held so much power for too long in this country. But what happened in 2016 was that the two-party system, uh, met with its demise.

And the two party system became so fundamentally broken that it allowed a Donald Trump to emerge and this horrifying moment where a guy who had the dubious benefit of being a reality TV star and a beautifully pathological liar and also had the support of the biggest cable television network in the country, and also was able to absorb every bit of media daylight he could and had a helpful boost from the Russians.

And so a lot of my Republican friends were at the time thinking, Okay, well, you know, we'll make the best of this. We'll figure out how we do this. Well, we'll get through the, you know, he can be a --- as long as we get our judges and our tax cuts and we do what we want to do.

But I have to say that as a small C, old fashioned conservative, I kept wondering, you know, is the regime of just pure tax cuts for the business sector, is that actually capitalism or is that just crony capitalism? Is judicial activism bad when it's liberals, but good when it's conservatives? Is Trump a symptom of something worse and something deeper that's wrong with my former party? And I came to the conclusion that all of those things were happening and so I put myself out in 2016 as one of the first, you know, Republicans with, you know, a set of credentials that could not be argued with on, you know, on the level of, Oh, you've never done any work in campaigns or you, you've never been part of the movement. You know, I clearly was part of the movement and, and as I opposed him, you know, I understood something was happening to the minds of the people who whispered to me, Oh, I hate him. He's an ass. I don't want to work for him. But they kept making compromises and they kept making compromises and they kept making compromises. And one day, if you keep compromising all the time, you're not who you were anymore. You're not the person that you, you set out your life being.

And I found that I couldn't make that compromise and I couldn't do that. And so I wrote Everything Trump Touches Dies. And I turned a lot of the skillset that I've built up over a 30 year career, um, of, of bringing the same heat that I used to bring to my political opponents, onto a president that most of my friends voted for. And most of my friends wanted to help, uh, and try to guide and try to shape him so he wouldn't be so extreme and so kooky and so bad. And they discovered what I figured out right away: there's no bottom with this guy. There is no there there. There is no, there is no president inside of Donald Trump's meat suit.

There's just Donald Trump.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:16:37] You know, with the events that have occurred in the, over the last couple months with the Corona virus outbreak and the government response or lack of response, has anything new been revealed to you in this? Is there something that you understand about the administration now that you didn't understand before this happened?

Rick Wilson: [00:16:57] Well, I think, Mark, there's always this sense where hope was springing eternal in the minds of a lot of my friends. This was always a question of like, well, you know, this will be the thing that makes him grow up. This will be the moment he learns a lesson. This'll be the thing that causes him to focus and, and I'm just surprised by the depth they'll sink.

Now, I'm not so surprised about him, but I'm surprised about people I knew for 30-plus years who turned out not to have any kind of boundary. There's no low low enough, there's no statement egregious enough. There's no excess they can't forgive. And it's funny because the things they forgive are things they would never ever dismiss with a Democrat or any other fellow Republican before Donald Trump.

I mean, if I went to donors and political activists and said, Hey, I'm going to bring you a candidate who screws porn stars, owns casinos, has been bankrupt six times, um, is an inveterate adulterer, a scumbag who breaks business contracts willy nilly and is in debt all over the world and has been involved with the American and Russian mob, what do you think? Those folks would have run screaming for the hills. They would've thought I was pulling an April Fools prank, but now every single one of those aspects of Trump, they find a way to excuse it. They find a way to make it charming or funny or transgressive or, or something that owns the libs.

And those are insufficient excuses. The thing that has shocked me most is people who I thought of who, not only their publicly facing character, but who I thought that I knew who will excuse everything. I was on the phone with a senior elected Republican official over the weekend and I, and I asked this person, I said, listen, you get a free pass on the bleach thing. You get to go out there and say, "He's fricking crazy." You could go, you should go out to your people and say. In your, in your state and say, "Don't drink bleach. Don't shoot Lysol into your veins. Don't shove a UVS up your butt. Don't do any of these crazy things." And this person said to me, "You're right, what he said, that was the worst. It was terrible, but I can't do anything about it." And it's always the same thing. "Oh, if I do something, Fox will go after me. Oh, I don't want to have the mean tweets. The mean tweets are terrible. I can't piss off his base. I need them in the next election."

And all these excuses are just that. And my dad used to have a thing where if I didn't do a task or a chore, he would say, if you didn't do it for a reason, that's one thing, but if it's an excuse, that's another. And in this case, it's always an excuse for them, for all of these Republican elected officials. It's always an excuse. It's not a reason. It's an excuse.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:20:11] Having read your work, you reflecting on your work as a strategist and an ad man for the Republican party, you do sort of admit to kind of trading in a bit of this yourself, before you found your soul, I think is the way that you put it. You were in to win and you did what you needed to do to win. What is the bridge too far between what you were doing and what they're doing?

Rick Wilson: [00:20:36] There was always an ideological predicate underneath the campaigns I worked on. And whether you agree with that, either the logical predicate or not, Trump is about Trump. Trump is about Donald Trump and his personal power and authority and adulation. Now, I've worked in dozens and dozens of big campaigns, and I've done ads for, God knows how many. Okay. Um, for Super PACS and associations and, and, you know, state legislators.

So from dog catcher to president, I've been in this fight and not one time, not one other political figure I ever worked for, didn't believe in anything except himself. Trump is the only candidate I've ever seen in all this time. There is nothing in him. Ideologically, or philosophically or morally, there's nothing that guides him except him.

Plenty of politicians I've known have been shallow or self-absorbed or egotistical, but they all believed in something. And I worked for quite liberal Republicans and I worked for quite conservative Republicans, and there was a big through line in the party. It was economic freedom and individual liberty.

And yes, you can debate and like fiddle around the edges of what policies meant what. But there is no further philosophical principle inside the Republican party today except owning the libs and hating the media. And worshiping Donald Trump. And those prior two things I just listed are only because they are Donald Trump's key to keeping the Republican base in line.

They've been conditioned to respond to those things for many, many years now. And the party means nothing and is nothing. You can't say that you're a conservative philosophical, you know, party when you're spending record amounts of money, even before COVID. When you're using the power of government to manipulate markets, the trade bills and the fights with various companies on how he wants them to make things. And on the declarations of presidential power and the sweeping manipulation by his justice department, in order to preserve his individual power. Those things aren't conservative. They are statism.

In the prior races I did, yeah, you know what, we went right to the line a lot of the time. We fought very, very hard. That's politics. Both sides do it. FOr every Willie Horton ad there's an ad declaring that Paul Ryan wants to throw grandma off the cliff. For everything that's, you know, tough on one side, there's a tough ad on the other and tough strategies on the other. Look, Barack Obama was an affable figure, but a ferocious, absolutely dedicated campaigner. I admire that. I don't, I don't hate that. I admire that.

But again, I can understand a person who believes in something, seeks office, seeks to lead and wants to, wants to implement the policies that they are able to get elected on. But there is no there there with Trump. He believes in nothing.

If a poll tomorrow told Donald Trump, Hey, we want to see you go out and eat a live goat and drink its blood and declare that'd be the cure for COVID, he would go out and drink a live goat's blood in public. There's nothing he won't do to preserve his power. And the reason he wants that power is not because he has an ideological agenda.

It's because he wants the cameras on him. He wants to be the star of the show. The center of attention.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:24:15] I want to take advantage of having your brain here as a Republican strategist. I want to know when you see these anti-government protests cropping up in capitol cities across the nation -- here in Washington, in Olympia, we had 2,500 protestors come out.

When you see that, what does your strategist brain tell you needs to be done with those events to sort of feed the campaign of Donald Trump and to push him to victory in November? Do you know how they're looking at it and how they're planning on utilizing that?

Rick Wilson: [00:25:03] Yeah. They're looking for a reaction that feeds into the sense of agrievement and oppression. And, the libs are conspiring to put you in a prison camp, which is what Fox has told them for 20 years. They're looking for Whitmer to call out the national guard. They're looking for an overreaction by the media.

They're looking for Gavin Newsome to start arresting people for going to the beach. Because I will tell you about these protests, Mark, they are completely fake. They are put together by very wealthy people who hire consultants and who use those consultants to do ads and to do Facebook messaging and to do direct mail and to do phone calls and to do emails and to do television ads to push those people to go out and protest.

I can tell you why I know this because I've done this. The tea party was an organic movement for about four or five months. and it was taken over by people like me, and that's why we could get 10,000 people to go March and protest Obamacare. Not because they all believed that, but because we knew who they were.

We could identify them, we could send them messages that we knew from studying their psychology, and the polling would get them out and would piss them off. And we had a pet TV network as Trump does now in the form of Fox that would repeat whatever the message of the day was and pound it home.

And you know, love Fox or hate them, they are the most powerful normative force in Republican politics today. Nothing else is even close. They shape the beliefs of millions of Americans, I think, largely to our detriment. Especially right now, but they are enormously powerful and that network can be pushed to get those people and tell them that if you believe in freedom and you want to keep your guns and you want to keep your taxes low, and you want to keep your church, you know, you'd better stand up against these socialists who were coming to put you in a death camp.

That's what's happening. So they're looking for an overreaction. And the way to contrast it is to be very simple about it, and it's to tell people they need to pick a side. You can pick the side of the people that are screaming, protesting on the courthouse steps with Confederate flags. Or you can pick the side of the docs and the nurses and the first responders and the public health folks who are trying to prevent you from dying.

And you know, that countervailing message so far is working. Even Republicans, a majority still of Republicans in Michigan still think the lockdown should continue, right? This is a very narrow group. And listen, I could get a thousand people out at one of these in some big city. For a rally about a bill that was completely fake.

I can send a Facebook message to them saying, dear Joe Smith, you know, if you don't come out to protest tomorrow, Nancy Pelosi will pass the Wilson-Baumgarten Bill and the Wilson-Baumgarten Bill will make your kids study gay Sharia marriage. And sure enough, they'll come out because they are philosophical zombies, as they say. They are not fully autonomous because they are so submerged in the Fox media bubble and the Facebook Trump bubble and they're getting their news from either fox or from, you know, Patriotic Patriots Hub 9,000 on Facebook, some group. And they stopped believing objective fact and external information.

And so they'll come out and protest, they'll come out and scream. But, you know, and it's important to remember just how fake it is.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:29:11] but does it matter if it's fake? It just feels like we're heading into uncharted territory here. I mean, the economic contraction that we're going to see in the near future and possibly extended is, is going to be sobering to put it lightly. 

I just wonder, does it matter if it's fake if you have people out there who are feeling anxiety about the economy who are maybe otherwise disengaged voters who see a cause to rally too. And you know, with the understanding that these protests are getting so much coverage, number one, because the media just loves a protest like this and also because there's nothing else going on right now.

Rick Wilson: [00:30:03] Right. I mean, it is certainly the beginning of the beginning of the economic pain. Look, I am absolutely in favor of us not having a Great Depression Part Two. I would love for the economy to open back up. I'd love for a cure tomorrow to appear for coven. But that doesn't argue for what we've heard from a lot of Trump allies, which is open the economy up no matter what. We can afford a few million dead. And that is really the argument that some of them are making, which is, we've got to open the economy because the cure can't be worse than the disease.

Well, worse than the disease is something I don't think they fully contemplated. And since, since by Tuesday of this week we will pass the, what they call the Vietnam number in terms of deaths in the space of two months in this country, 58,000 people. There are scenarios where where the disease can be much worse than what they're planning.

So I think that the economic pain we're about to experience after the disease passes is unspeakable, there's nothing  like it in any living memory. And I didn't include the Great Depression in that. We've done three things at once. We've, even before coven, we had jacked up our national debt to a point where as a conservative, I remember when national debt was bad.

We've done deficit spending that is essentially completely just wish fulfillment, and we've accumulated so much, so many costs because of COVID that the government as we've known it, is not going to function the same way. There's going to be a lot of terrible consequences down the stream here and not very far down the stream.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:31:52] This is, this is good. I want to get a little bit deeper into this because I think that it really presents some challenges to the way that you viewed the general  election within Running Against the Devil where you, you really are overt that the Democrats can not run on policy prescriptions, that that is just giving ammo to Republicans to spin it into something, uh, scary, right? And yet we are in a moment where, as the economic pain increases over the next few months, isn't that going to have to be a part of the recipe for the general election to put forth ideas on how to get through this period?

I don't know if a sustained campaign punching back and forth between Trump and Biden is really going to make anybody, I don't know. ...

Rick Wilson: [00:32:52] I know, your point is very well taken, Mark, and part of this, you know, obviously I'm writing, We're pushing the paperback out early and I'm adding a couple of chapters basically about how this has reset the landscape.

But there are a couple of things it hasn't reset the landscape on. The first is that this is an election fought only in the electoral college, not the popular vote, and there are a bunch of swing States that are places like Arizona and Michigan and Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, et cetera.

Those places. We've got to see how the disease plays out in those places, but the places that have been hardest hit like New York, there was never a question how New York was going to vote. Okay. That was never, it was never in the ball game. Electoral college wise, right? So we have to see how it plays out in those states.

But the big picture is that all reelection campaigns from dog catcher to president are a referendum on the incumbent. It is a decision. Want this guy or the other guy, do you want more of this or something else? All of them throughout history. Trump's handling of the COVID crisis has been so abysmal that in a lot of ways, Joe Biden needs to basically just let the thing play out.

It's a referendum on Trump and in so far as Joe wants to talk about policy, he needs to talk about policy that's relevant right now to Americans. So does he get to talk about healthcare to some degree? Yeah. But he's not going to talk about or shouldn't talk about going out and talking about some radical, you know, reset of, you know, the progressive wishlist.

He needs to talk about how we get people covered for dealing with COVID. How are we going to deal with the family medical bills that this has caused. You know, the small ball of policy is often much more appealing than the 600-page plan. Cause you give me a 600-page healthcare plan and I'm going to put four or five nerds on it cause I'm not going to read it, right? I'm going to put four or five research nerds on it and they're going to go through it and they're going to find five things that scare the shit out of people.

So the Green New Deal could be perfectly meritorious. What do Americans think about the Green New Deal? They hear it and most Americans are like, Oh, that's that the thing where I can't fly on airplanes anymore and we don't get to have meat.

And that's because some research nerds went through it and found out these things and they were able to weaponize it very quickly. It doesn't matter if it's true or not, it matters that it was there and it was gettable. It was credible enough. And there are a lot of things on the policy front that, especially now in the era of COVID, are really honestly, very, very second tier in the minds of voters.

And, and you know, in some ways that's great for the Democrats. It's always, that's really good for the Democrats because you know what? A lot of the things they like nationally speaking are not as popular in some of these swing States. I mean, it is still hard to make the argument about climate change in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin because those Democratic male voters that voted for Trump, and frankly, that also voted for George W. Bush and for Mitt Romney in a lot of cases. Those guys believe climate change kills their jobs. True or not? It doesn't matter.

Okay. So if you're, if you're talking about something that's relevant immediately, like how am I going to respond to the COVID crisis differently than Donald Trump? That I think is a huge political winner If you're gonna talk about a policy. But if you're just going to go back to the old playbook and run the same, you know, traps that, that, that everybody else has run before while there is a giant pandemic that's about to cause a Great Depression 2.0 I think that's probably a loss, a loss ahead.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:36:54] So are you seeing anything from the Biden campaign that makes you think that they are going to approach it differently? That they're going to do what you're, what you're saying they should do?

Rick Wilson: [00:37:02] I think there are some good signs that they're not taking every bit of Trump's bait. Joe Biden has basically kept his public statements fairly narrowly focused to talk about how they handled things like ebola when he was with Obama and focused pretty cleanly on trying to say, look, we're going to come together as a country, and I'll say this also, there's something that Joe Biden has as a weapon in this campaign, and Donald Trump has a great weapon called money, okay? His weapons are Fox, money and shamelessness. Joe Biden has a great weapon in this campaign, and that's empathy, because no matter what you think about Joe Biden, politically, and I've seen this in focus groups over many, many, many, many years, joe Biden has empathy and people who know Joe Biden and who see him in action, they recognize, you know, maybe he's a little goofy sometimes. Maybe he's got some quirkiness to him, but they also think of him as a good person. They also think of him as a kind person.

They'll think of him as an empathetic person who gives a damn. And right now, you know, Donald Trump is out there every day on these press briefings, patting himself on the back, praising himself, saying he's done a great job. Why don't you all love me more? Instead of showing empathy for the losses, not only for the lives of so many Americans, but for the financial hardship they're going through and for the way our communities are being torn apart.

So I think Biden has some advantages there. And I do think there, I do think they've learned a lot of lessons from the past, and I think they've learned a big lesson, which is never stopped working. Hillary Clinton took her foot off the gas in the fall of 2016. And a lot of states, I mean, remember they took their ads off the air in Wisconsin. Right? Cause they wanted to save the money. For what? And yet, you know. So I think the Biden folks have learned that lesson. And I think there are a lot of outside groups, um, including the Lincoln Project that I'm working with and some others that are pushing very hard to make sure that countervailing forces and messages against Trump will not be lacking in the fall.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:39:15] So to end this conversation, I want to ask you ... I mean, you identify as a conservative, you don't necessarily identify as a Republican right now. But what do you think the future of the Republican party is if Trump loses? I have a good sense of what you think it is. If he wins.

Rick Wilson: [00:39:35] I actually thinking he's killed it either way, honestly. I mean, I think a Trump victory has the ideological consequences for the party. So the only thing that matters is your support of Trump and, and the Trump family. So you've got generations of Trump's being elected to office. We've essentially, at that point, and I don't want to make this too lurid, but essentially Trump would love to basically establish a kind of Trump family monarchy or, or regency of some kind. He, he's obsessed about it psychologically and I, and I think that there's a non-zero chance that happens if Donald Trump wins, that Don Jr. Is the 2024 nominee ...

Mark Baumgarten: [00:40:22] Because you're quite certain about that 

Rick Wilson: [00:40:25] Yeah. The base is conditioned to want a transgressive a-hole. Now, not a leader, not a thinker, not an accomplished figure in government or politics or the military. They want a jerk. They want somebody to be the avatar of their mean small lives and yell at people.

A loss means that in the next five election cycles, Republicans will be held accountable whenever there's a blowback election. 1974 blow-back election against Watergate, Nixon, 49 Republicans lost their seats. Okay. 1994 you had a blow out election where 60 Democrats, 62, or whatever it was lost their seats over the House post office and bank scandal. 2006 you had a Republican blowout because they were tied to Jack Abramoff. And the Iraq War. Um, and 2010 the healthcare bill was at the time, extraordinarily unpopular. You saw the Democrats lose their majority, get blown out. These giant reflex elections knock on for a few cycles. And Trump has been such a reset for our politics that when he gets blown out, the people that were his enablers and his supporters, they don't get to just disappear.

This isn't the old days. The memory is, the internet is forever and remembers everything. So when you've got a Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Josh Hawley or Tom Cotton, or any of these other guys who suddenly go, wait a minute, I was never part of that Trump thing. Trump, who? I, I don't recall any, Oh, I, what, was he president once? I think I remember him. No, they don't get to play that ball game. They're going to be held to account because if people reject Trump, the people that have been dragging along behind Trump for whatever reasons, whether they're afraid of him or whether they're opportunistic or whether they're just, you know, ambitious, they will end up paying a price.

Cause Trumpism doesn't scale. I wrote about this in my first book. Anybody that came to you running for office and talked and behaved like Donald Trump, you wouldn't vote for them. You'd put them in a mental institution. And so, these people that have defended him to the hilt, they're going to pay a price and they don't get the Trump excuse.

They don't get to say, Oh, it was only the libs. It was just cause I was, you know, I wanted to make sure we told the media who's boss, they don't get to play that game. They're going to end up having a very difficult time. And I think he's poisoned the party so badly that you may end up with a schism that produces a center-right economic and individual liberty party and a nationalist populist Trump-ish party. And if that's the case, you know what? I can live with that. But in the meantime, you know, in 2020, I'm going to vote for Joe Biden. There is no viable or sensible alternative right now. And yes, I worked for Evan McMullin's independent campaign in 2016, because we were looking for a way to snap the Trump, uh, spell, but now there's not even a viable independent in the race. And so I am not gonna do anything except work every day to defeat this man.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:43:49] All right, so we know where you stand, rick. Thank you so much for taking some time talking to us. Yeah. When is the paper back of your book coming out?

Rick Wilson: [00:43:57] I think we're going to end up releasing sometime in early September, but I'm going to, I'll publish the date shortly.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:44:03] Well, thank you so much, Rick Wilson. We really appreciate it. Thanks again.

Thanks for listening to Crosscut talks. This week's episode was engineered by Resti Bagcal and produced by Jake Newman. You can subscribe to Crosscut Talks on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. For more on the Crosscut Talks podcast, go to crosscut.com/talks and if you like the show, please review us on Apple Podcasts. It really helps other people find us

For the latest political, environmental and culture news from the Pacific Northwest, visit crosscut.com.

Crosscut Talks is a product of Cascade Public Media. I'm Mark Baumgarten, we'll be back soon with another episode.


About the Hosts