'A deep sickness': Former Republican strategist sounds off on 'Trumpism,' compares it to segregation

Stuart Stevens appeared on ABC's "Powerhouse Politics" podcast.

October 14, 2020, 4:03 PM

One of the leading members of The Lincoln Project, a political action committee comprised of anti-Trump former Republican political strategists, took aim Wednesday at the president's support on Capitol Hill, describing some senators' enablement of Donald Trump as "a deep sickness," while defending his organization's work to defeat them in down-ballot races.

"How do you not try to purge a party of people who say nothing when the president of the United States says he didn't rape a journalist because she wasn't 'my type'? What do you do about people that really are quiet when the president of the United States is refusing -- and the vice president -- refusing to accept the results of an election?" said Stuart Stevens, a senior strategist for Sen. Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential run and a veteran of countless GOP campaigns, on ABC News' "Powerhouse Politics" podcast.

"That's a deep sickness," he continued.

An adviser to The Lincoln Project, whose viral ads have attracted Trump's ire, as well as tens of millions of dollars in support, Stevens pushed back when ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl and Political Director Rick Klein noted criticism in Republican circles that the group's targeting of vulnerable senators -- like Maine's Susan Collins, Iowa's Joni Ernst and Colorado's Cory Gardner -- has pushed the group beyond its "Never Trump" roots and endangered long-term ideological goals.

"To me, this is just very clear-cut. Trump is like segregation," said Stevens, noting he grew up in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era. "I knew a lot of people, very nice people, they wouldn't have said a useless word to describe an African American in a million years. They were kind people, but they were segregationists."

"I see Trump that same way. Trump is a moral test, and you can't negotiate with evil," he added. "We have a man who is, for all reasons, all functional purposes, is attempting destroy the pillars of American democracy. And the Republican Party's negotiating with him trying to see what they can get out of it, and I think that's shameful."

President Donald Trump delivers a campaign speech for candidate Ted Cruz who was cat-and-dog in Texas, Houston, Oct. 22, 2018.
Daisuke Tomita/AP, FILE

Working alongside fellow former Republican operatives Steve Schmidt, John Weaver and Rick Wilson, among others, aides for some of the top GOP campaigns of the past three decades, Stevens described The Lincoln Project's work as acts of campaign interference.

"Disruption in any campaign increases dysfunction," he said. "And [the Trump campaign] has never been a particularly highly functioning campaign to begin with. So I think our efforts to disrupt, kind of, command and control, were important and successful."

Among those efforts are advertisements condemning Trump's pandemic response and divisive rhetoric that are frequently placed on Fox News in an attempt to reach the president directly. One spot, mimicking Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" ad, has been viewed over 3.5 million times on YouTube alone. Another last week, a parody of "Evita's" "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," featuring the president's maskless appearance on the White House balcony after his release from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, has nearly reached that total in just eight days.

"The one thing every campaign has the exact same amount of is time," Stevens said. "And when the president of the United States takes any time to attack The Lincoln Project, it's a good day for the Biden campaign."

Stevens went on to outline four different "categories" of advertisements the group produces: "those that are intended to get inside the president's head," "ads that are targeted at the Senate races," "anthem ads that are sort of big ads that speak to the larger issues in the campaign" and "ads that we do just to go viral, with the hope they'll go viral."

The Lincoln Project was successful on the first front in May, when Trump took notice of the Reagan imitation and let loose on Twitter, blasting several of the organization's leaders as "losers."

"A group of [Republicans in name only] who failed badly 12 years ago, then again 8 years ago, and then got BADLY beaten by me, a political first timer, 4 years ago, have copied (no imagination) the concept of an ad from Ronald Reagan, 'Morning in America,'" Trump tweeted, adding, "Their so-called Lincoln Project is a disgrace to Honest Abe."

The amplification from Trump served as a fundraising boon for The Lincoln Project -- which recently brought in nearly $40 million in donations in the year's third quarter -- but also exposed its members to widespread criticism, including from Democrats and Joe Biden supporters who argue the group's leaders are enriching themselves through their former rivals and that the money should be funneled directly to Democratic candidates.

Looking beyond the presidential race, Stevens was pessimistic about the direction of the Republican Party as a whole, noting his dismay at Judge Amy Coney Barrett's unwillingness Tuesday during her confirmation hearing to weigh in on concerns about a "peaceful transfer of power" should Trump lose this fall. He also registered his disappointment in Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., once viewed as up-and-coming party leaders, for not doing more to remain unentangled with Trump.

Stuart Stevens, senior adviser to Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, talks with press aboard the Romney campaign plane, Sept. 28, 2012, in Philadelphia.
Evan Vucci/AP, FILE

"These are two guys that have great futures behind them," he said. "They're completely compromised. They're not serious people. They've proven to be, you know, smaller than the moment. They're just little men who have big jobs and failed. They were confronted with a big moment and they failed."

As for his outlook on Trump's reelection chances, Stevens argued that as bad as he believed the country and its economy has fared during the pandemic, the same characteristics that have turned so many Republicans away from the president are those that have endeared him to others and kept his campaign afloat.

"A lot of times we get sort of focused on the lunacy of Donald Trump, but if Donald Trump was just some boring Republican, he'd be in terrible trouble," he said.

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