Two Books on the Republican Party
We Should Have Seen It Coming
By Gerald F. Seib
Random House, 2020, 304 pp.
It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump
By Stuart Stevens
Knopf, 2020, 256 pp.
The future of the Republican Party depends on how its members come to terms with its transformation under U.S. President Donald Trump. Judging from two early attempts to explain what has happened, the prospects for consensus appear remote. Seib began his career as an editor and columnist at The Wall Street Journal around the time of Ronald Reagan’s election as president. Perhaps as a result, the narrative revolves around Reagan as he merged the traditional conservative movement and the Republican Party, creating “the most powerful force in American politics” for the ensuing 40 years. Nothing important happens, in this telling, before Reagan. Ultimately, as Seib sees it, Reagan’s creation was the victim of its own success. The party gathered too many followers with widely different views (including both those who wanted to keep government out of the bedroom and those who wanted to ban abortion and gay marriage) and ignored the economic and demographic changes happening around it. Signs of trouble included the populist campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot in the 1990s; the anti-intellectual and antiestablishment politics of the 2008 GOP vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin; the Tea Party revolt; and the more recent heated rhetoric over immigration.
Stevens’s searing mea culpa tells an entirely different story, in which race— or, more precisely, racism—is the centerpiece. His analysis begins with Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” The strategy’s seminal document, a memo written by Nixon’s advisers Buchanan and Kevin Phillips in 1971, argued that since there was little Nixon could do to win Black support for his reelection, it made the most sense to use the fact of Black support for the Democrats to alienate white voters and lure them to the Republicans. “This was the Nixon strategy in 1972,” Stevens writes. “It was the Trump strategy in 2016.” Stevens traces a “direct line” connecting Nixon’s strategy to Reagan’s “more genteel prejudice” and Trump’s “white nationalism.” Reagan’s imaginary welfare queen “weaponized race and deceit in exactly the same ways” that Trump has in recent years, Stevens argues. Stevens was a consultant for Republican candidates for decades, and he formulated the very strategies and campaign ads about which he writes.His analysis goes beyond race. One chapter argues that despite its reputation for sound economic management, the Republican Party is actually “addicted to debt.” Not a single Republican voted for President Bill Clinton’s 1993 package of spending cuts and tax increases that balanced the budget. The reason is simple: reducing deficits isn’t popular with voters. “In my thirty-plus years of . . . Republican campaigns, I can’t think of a single instance where the message of cutting spending really moved numbers toward a Republican.” Many will fiercely contest Stevens’s views, but Republicans will have to grapple with this scathing message.