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Sarah Longwell: I have been of the opinion that the only way to save the Republican party is that Trump is beaten so soundly that it is such a rejection, not just of Trump, but of Trumpism, of the populist national impulses that have not just taken root in the Republican party, but are now ascendant and dominant. I thought like, okay, if you burn it down and send that message, can you rebuild with something that does have an affirmative vision, that brings about a new generation of Republicans?
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
Today I’m talking to Sarah Longwell, publisher of the Bulwark and co-founder of Republicans for the Rule of Law, about being a staunchly “Never Trump” Republican and about the future of her party.
KH: Sarah Longwell, welcome to Burn the Boats. You're the publisher of the Bulwark, a past board chair of The Log Cabin Republicans and a graduate of Kenyon College, which sits right in the heart of Ohio's 7th congressional district. I think a few listeners are going to appreciate why that's important to me. You're also the co-founder of Republicans for the Rule of Law. Tell us about that effort, what motivated it and where it stands.
SL: First of all, thanks for having me. After the 2016 election, there were a lot more Never Trumpers as we're called than there are now, but at the time, I was really thinking about, how do you organize and build a home for all of the disaffected Republicans who felt the way that I do? Like some of my compatriots, Bill Kristol, Linda Chavez, Mona Charen, former Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman, former Congressman Bob Inglis, there's a whole group of us who in the Trump era feel politically homeless, and so I thought, “well, look, we should really build a home for those people”. That's why we set up Defending Democracy Together. It was really meant to be a place where traditional Republicans could push back against this particular Republican president who doesn't feel very Republican to a lot of us.
Our first and probably our most well known project is Republicans for the Rule of Law, which we started during the Mueller investigation to protect the investigation from political interference, because if you recall at the time, when it got started, President Trump was doing a lot of saber-rattling about potentially firing Bob Mueller. But since then, we've done a whole bunch of other things on election security, on impeachment and just generally trying to uphold some standard of constitutional norms from the Republican perspective in the face of a Republican president that we see as not always having much fidelity to the rule of law.
KH: Isn't it a bit of wishful thinking though to claim to own the Republican perspective in a political landscape where this Republican president has approval in the 90 plus percentile from rank-and-file Republicans when barely a handful of elected Republicans are aligned with you in speaking out?
SL: Yeah. But I wouldn't claim that we speak for the majority of the Republican party. In fact, I would readily admit that our ranks have dwindled, and with them some of my hopes for what we were doing. Like I said, it was always a home for disaffected Republicans, meaning those people who just couldn't get on the Trump train and saw so much of what he was doing as actually counter to a lot of the philosophies that traditional classical liberal, and I mean that not in terms of political liberals, but people who are committed to the Western world order. So I wouldn't say that we speak for the majority of Republicans. I'm sort of disappointed - I'm not sort of disappointed, I'm extremely disappointed. I am most fundamentally disappointed with how much the Republican party has decided to fall in line with Donald Trump. And so for us, it's less about claiming that we are the mainstream Republican voice today, but to instead be probably more like a narrow band of Republicans who are pushing back from within the party.
KH: At what point do you cut your losses and say, “You know what? It's no longer my party. It has a leader that is overwhelmingly supported. It has a leadership that has fallen in line. We may be the sane ones, but we're fringe at this point.”
SL: Yeah, that's a good question. I think if Donald Trump wins a second term, I don't think that there's that many of us, and I can't speak for everybody, but I don't know there's that many of us that then would say boy, we've been really influential in the Republican party and are making a huge difference. But I really saw a value certainly back in 2018 when there were maybe more of us and there was more of an institutional push back against some of the things Trump was doing, as playing a really valuable role. But yeah, I think the question is “where do you go?” I think for a lot of people who've been lifelong Republicans and who have been mainstream voices in the conservative movement to just sort of say, "Hey, we're all Democrats now” doesn't quite feel right, but I don't think that any of us would say that we feel much kinship with the modern Republican party of today.
KH: Can you build on that a little bit, this idea of where would you go? Because there is so much institutional inertia, and I'm talking to someone who has been a real part of that as a founder of a firm in DC and a VP of a giant in the conservative consulting establishment. There really is a ton of inertia behind the two-party system, and on the right, on the Republican side, there's not a whole lot of incentive to build a new home, even if it were the right thing for the country, even if most, as you call them, traditional Republicans, no longer have that home in today's Republican party.
SL: In fact, all the incentives run the other way. It's one of the reasons you've seen so many people who were Never Trump to start with, conservatives who have subsequently fallen in line and endorsed the president. So, there's not many incentives to be a Republican voice and there's tremendous incentives to pick a side and be on a team, especially in Washington where it's sort of a team town. So I think, for us, we're all operating in an environment where the only incentive is to say what we truly believe, to do what we truly think is right and to fight for those values in whatever way we can with whatever platforms we have access to, which is why we've had to build our own. The Bulwark was meant to be, to some degree, the intellectual infrastructure or the journalism infrastructure for people who felt the way we did, the same way that Defending Democracy Together is meant to be sort of the advocacy structure for what we're doing. But you're absolutely right that there's just not many incentives for people who would believe things from a mainstream policy perspective that might have previously comported with Republicans and find ourselves not really on board with a lot of the policies that might be advocated by Democrats. But the thing is, is that it's not about policy as much right now, at least for me. I think you can transcend the tribalism and the policy debates in this moment and say, is what Donald Trump is doing, with all of the corruption and with the complete absence of character, with the sort of cozying up to dictators, all you can do is sort of fight for the things that you believe in and push back against the things that you think are wrong.
KH: For the uninitiated, can you describe the risks that one has to take professionally to break ranks? When you have a communications firm in DC, it either plays for the red team or the blue team, and charting another course or a middle course leaves you with no clients.
SL: Yeah. Look, I had to leave my old firm, which as you said, was very much sort of on the Republican side and I had to try to chart a new path. I think where the opportunity is, and I don't really mean it financially as much as I mean it in terms of doing work that you're proud of and that you want to do, is that as the Democratic party has moved further left and the Republican party has moved further right, there's a lot of not well-worn road in a place around consensus politics. There's actually a lot more that Americans agree on than one might think in our current state of polarization. I think that there's, for those people who sort of believe in finding actual solutions to some of these problems that feel intractable like immigration or like guns or some issues on the environment, there is actually a lot of room to push for some issues.
KH: There's a lot of room morally, but does the marketplace allow that? Is there a market for that kind of a practical moderate approach to problem solving? It just seems to me like the traction is all on the extremes. That's who pays to have advocates and messengers out there, certainly how the big firms operate, isn't it?
SL: Yeah. There's no doubt that you're right in large part. Look, there's a lot of people who are frustrated with Washington's inability to do anything. There are certain issues, and immigration is one of them, where Americans are actually in much greater agreement than you might think, where the vast majority of Americans believe that immigration is a net good and what they'd like to see is just some meaningful policy that isn't, “hey, we have no borders and everybody gets to come in”, versus, “hey, we need a wall from sea to shining sea”. Most Americans are not on either sides of those debates, and you're right that there's a lot of incentives to push both those things and to use them as wedge issues to sort of virtue signal to your base. But there is a whole other group of people who are like, "Actually, we'd really like to see this problem solved." I think that there is room for people who want to try to push into that space of problem solving, but I think you're right to be skeptical of how much optimism there is. I think there's certainly work to be done because it's a real problem, but look, is there an entire business model built on that? I guess I will see.
KH: I was going to ask, have you experienced enough of a coalescing around those moderate viewpoints to actually create a market and build a client base that isn't into the virtue signaling and the raw politics of it, and that is instead about finding solutions?
SL: Actually, it's one of the things that keeps me optimistic, is that what I have seen over the last couple of years is a number of people who would consider themselves center left, center right, or even just centrist who are very interested in doing that. You're right that there's bigger forces on both sides, but there's not that many people trying to be in this space of, “hey, can we actually solve some of these intractable problems as opposed to just using them as a cudgel to hit the other side with?”. And so I have actually found a lot of people who have an appetite for it and who want to get into that space and there has been a lot more cross-partisan alliance building around some of these norms, values and institutions, the fundamental things that we can all agree on as opposed to some of the narrow policy fights. Because I actually think there's quite a bit of consensus on the idea that things like the rule of law should still matter. I don't think that all hope is lost, but that's me. You just can't beat the optimism entirely out of me.
KH: One of the interesting approaches I've seen here in Ohio is the subtle rejection of Trumpism. You saw it in Mike DeWine's decision to move aggressively and early to contain COVID-19 without openly challenging President Trump, but every action he took was a repudiation of what Trump was arguing from behind his bully pulpit, minimizing the dangers of COVID-19, lying to the American public, while Mike DeWine took centerstage in Ohio and did just the opposite without launching that frontal assault against Trumpism. Is that a viable path that can be replicated or did we just get lucky here?
SL: Well, I think Ohio is lucky you've got somebody like Mike DeWine who's been willing to act in a way that he thinks is the most beneficial for the people of Ohio and has stood up against Trump a little bit. So I don't want to minimize anything that he's done because he's done more than most people. I think in a better world you'd see far more, especially where we are right now. The reason he's doing that is because we're in the middle of a deadly pandemic and he's just not willing to put politics over people's lives. I wish he were a little less lonely in that. There's a couple of other Republican governors who've been really good, Governor Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. But the problem is, is that everybody has to approach it with these kid gloves, right? They just don't want to be on the receiving end of a mean tweet. I think until Republicans act a little stronger, there needs to be an active - and Governor Hogan has probably done this better than anybody - a real active pushing back against this administration. The thing that I find so stunning is that there's not more Republican voices, not just subtly pushing back, but saying outright: this is a president who is pushing misinformation in the middle of a pandemic, who is giving people the wrong information. One of the things, this just sticks out as an example, but the president's obsession with, I'm not going to pronounce it right, hydroxychloroquine. I have a good friend who has lupus and that is a drug that people with lupus need in order to survive and they now can't get it. They can't get it. This is just an example of how I think obsequious and just unwilling Republicans have been to really boldly - I mean, this is a moment that requires just real leadership from these people and we're not getting it.
KH: I'm a little surprised that three years into this administration, you still find that stunning. I'm wondering if you have a theory yet as to why this party has not found its spine, why the leadership of this party continues to - well, I won't proffer a theory for you, but surely you've given it some thought. There must be something deeply psychic at work.
SL: Yeah. I think there's a couple things. One is the voters. A lot of these elected officials, Ted Cruz, Ben Sasse, pick them. Most of them -
KH: All of them.
SL: All of them were originally very forceful in their condemnation. Lindsey Graham. The fact is they just couldn't maintain their political careers without Donald Trump, which is why you saw everybody just start to run to him. Actually, to your point about DeWine, so right now all of these officials have to get things for their states in order to save people's lives, PPE, ventilators, and they know that Trump will be vindictive and nasty and will actively withhold some of these things from their state unless they appropriately kowtow to him. And so I think that a lot of people made these calculations that in some ways were pragmatic like, “how am I going to get things done for my state if I'm at odds with the White House, I can't be.” Some of them were political, “I need his voters. I need his supporters to vote for me.” That's certainly, I think, Lindsey Graham. Some of it is just fear. I think the mean tweet, the psychology of that ,has gotten to be overwhelming on the Republican side. But I guess the reason that I still remain shocked is that what has happened over the three years, of course, I have seen them capitulate time and time again to things that I never thought they would and remain silent in the face of things that are horrifically racist or what-have-you. But I guess the thing that I can’t figure out right now is to have people dying at this rate and to have us be in the middle of a pandemic and to still have Republicans not be able to find their voices, yes, I am constantly like shocked that there's no trigger, that there's no thing that just goes too far.
KH: I used to ask people, “what line would have to be crossed for you to find the courage to speak out against this president” and I think the experience of this pandemic suggests that there is no line, that it is such an utter capitulation. I mean the Republican party of today bears zero resemblance to the Republican party that helped impeach President Nixon, that had representative after representative standing up and saying, “my conscience dictates my actions here, even if it may go against the interests of my party.” The Republican party that held Nixon and accountable is no more and we shouldn't be surprised anymore at the total capitulation that Trump has engineered.
SL: Yeah. I came of age during the Clinton impeachment, sort of of political age. I think that my estimation of the Republican party, in large part, or my conception of it was learned in those moments. I remember feeling a tremendous sense of frustration at the double standards of the feminist movement at the time. The Republicans talked about morality and character mattering. They've always talked about the importance of fiscal responsibility, managing, not allowing the debt to go out of control. You'd say the party of Nixon, I wasn't alive for the party of Nixon, but I would say that the conception that I had formed with the Republican party, to then have it tested in the era of Trump and to see that character actually didn't matter, to see that the debt and the deficit and fiscal responsibility didn't - I mean, you may recall, there was an entire movement, The Tea Party movement, during the Obama years that was very much built around the Republican party is saying, "The debt is unsustainable. We can't live like this." And to just see that none of it mattered has actually been really disorienting, because it makes you feel like nihilistic, like “does anything matter? Is there a thing that the Republican party now is affirmatively for?” Because all of the things that I thought it was affirmatively for that I was affirmatively for is just gone.
KH: Do you have an answer? What's your theory as to what holds the Republican party together, frankly, in a way that it hasn't been held together in a long time? The degree of consensus among Republicans is pretty darn strong, excepting you and Mike Gerson and Bill Kristol and a handful of others.
SL: Yeah, I think that the answer is that people are defined much more these days about what they're against than what they're for. People are against Democrats, they want to own the libs. I think there's been this thing where they've talked themselves into this idea that the Democrats are so existentially bad that literally anybody on their side - Trump is like a weapon, a blunt instrument to hit the left with. And that to me is not a good enough basis for a political party to just be against something and not to be affirmatively for anything, especially if you sacrifice everything you're affirmatively for.
KH: Well, it's certainly not sustainable over the long-term. It probably cannot be conveyed from generation to generation. I don't think it's going to make the generational leap now, much less carry through the next election cycle, which begs the question, what is the future of the Republican party post-Trump? What happens if Trump is soundly defeated? Will there be a ritualistic atonement and will the Republican party rediscover its soul?
SL: I think you'll certainly see if a Democrat's in charge, it rediscover its commitment to fiscal responsibility. I think the question is, “when you've gambled all of your moral authority, do people still listen to you on those things?” When you vote for a national emergency and even the constitutional conservatives among them vote for things like a national emergency so Trump can get his wall. What are they going to say when the Democrats decide to declare a national emergency so that they can appropriate funds to fight climate change? Can they credibly say anything? But let's break that down because it's actually a really good question I think about a lot. I have been of the opinion that the only way to save the Republican party is that Trump is beaten so soundly that it is such a rejection, not just of Trump, but of Trumpism, of the populist national impulses that have not just taken root in the Republican party, but are now ascendant and dominant. I thought like, “okay, if you burn it down and send that message, can you rebuild with something that does have an affirmative vision, that brings about a new generation of Republicans?” I would say my concern or the reason that I'm less optimistic about that as I might have once been is that just because Trump loses doesn't mean Trump goes away. He will still have 77 million Twitter followers that he will use to bludgeon the Republican party into doing what he wants. He's got kids who now are tremendously politically connected. People from his administration are now fanning out into other political roles. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is going to be the governor of Arkansas at some point. Corey Lewandowski wants to run for Senate in New Hampshire. To the extent that you can really beat out Trumpism, the only way you can do it is if it is so thoroughly rejected by voters and that they see no viable political path forward with this. But I'm worried about all the lessons that have been learned over this time. And certainly if Trump wins a second term, I think there's no chance of that.
KH: If you are counting on the loss of moral authority of today's Republican party resulting in a broad rejection by the American voter, you're also counting on the media to convey that. I'm wondering if that faith isn't misplaced. The majority of Republicans don't believe that we have a trillion dollar deficit. When you have information so stove-piped that Trump's narrative wins the day among the vast majority of Republican voters, even though it's diametrically at odds with the truth, how do you break through?
SL: Yeah. You're not asking me easy questions. The question about the siloed media environment is both, I think, crucial to why we have the political polarization we have. It is the reason that we have so much disinformation and misinformation and how you solve that in a major way, I don't quite know the answer to because the fact is - I do these focus groups all the time with both Trump voters, reluctant Trump voters, mostly people who rate him not very highly. And while they don't like Trump much, they hate the media and they really dislike the Democrats and they don't trust any institutions. How we operate politically in a widespread environment that transcends party lines where people have no trust in things is an extremely big problem that I'm not sure how we solve. I mean the reason that we built the Bulwark was to collect center right voices who were going to argue from a non-tribal standpoint about the political issues of the day. I've been shocked at how successful we've been, which I shouldn't admit that, I guess, to say that I'm shocked by our success, but there is a sort of latent hunger, I think, for voices that don't seem to be mastered by either political party and that aren't incentivized strictly on clicks. When you ask about the incentives, especially with the media - the media writ large, whether you're the New York Times or whether you're a local paper, like the entire model of how the business model got so upended over the last couple of decades that now people feel like they have to have a side in order to fight for eyeballs and they have to be more incendiary and salacious. That's a huge problem because now nobody trusts those voices. Yeah, we've had a lot of success, I think just from being voices that people think are not owned by anybody and are not just playing for a team. I think at some point we've got to figure out how to shift the incentives so that they're not so perverse that everybody is trying to be on one side or another.
KH: Do you feel like the Bulwark is actually in persuading people or is it just a gathering place, a place for the refugees of the Republican party to make themselves feel better? The very name suggests that you're not a vanguard, you're not breaking new ground. You're just holding the line as best you can with a dwindling rear guard.
SL: Yeah. One of the things that has surprised me is what the makeup of our audience is, because I think it is a lot of disaffected Republicans, center right refugees, people who had traditionally read the Weekly Standard, which was a mainstay of conservative journalism for a couple of decades. But I think - we get emails all the time that are like, “I'm a Democrat who's just always been interested in what smart conservatives are saying,” or there's people who write to us to say how much they appreciate the fact that we do seem non-tribal, that we're trying to engage in good faith. Part of what we're trying to do is less cater to a specific ideology and maybe just do something that's different from what a lot of places are doing. For example, we will publish something from one of us that argues a certain thing and then we will publish something from somebody else that argues the opposite. Because part of what we're trying to do is restore something that we think has been lost, which is an opportunity to have real discussions and real debates that don't devolve into partisan food fights and that you can have in good faith and argue these things out. So I feel like the audience is multifaceted.
KH: I'd love to see that as well, an outlet that is able to present two sides without finger pointing and yelling, but when is the last time you got an email from a Trump voter who says, “you know what? You're right. I never thought about it that way. This guy is not the leader I thought I was voting for,” or “you changed my mind about the deficit” or something like that. Does that happen or is the stove-piping that we're both worried about - is The Bulwark a victim of that too?
SL: I would love to think that anybody is receiving lots of emails from people being like, “boy, I read your article and now I'm really rethinking my view on this.” I don't know how many people are getting anything like that.
KH: Well, not any more, but you recall in the old days, back to the Nixon era, when news anchors swayed public opinion in the course of a single night.
SL: Yeah. Here's where I think it has been influential and useful to have an outlet like The Bulwark. While Never Trumpers, it's kind of a Washington term and it's kind of a Washington group. I don't think there's lots of people out in the world, maybe there are some, but I'm not sure that that's dominantly how they characterize themselves as Never Trumpers. Also, I don't know that that's how we characterize themselves, it's just one of these terms of art that have popped up that now everybody uses as shorthand. But what I think you are seeing is college-educated voters in the suburbs, which always were a mainstay for Republicans, are leaving the party in droves. They don't necessarily consider themselves Democrats in the traditional sense, but they are absolutely not here for Trump's Republican party. These are people who might've voted for John McCain or Mitt Romney, some people will remember the term “Security Moms”. Those voters, they're just draining out of the Republican party. I would say to the extent that we have a constituency for our writing, it is a lot of those people. You saw this in the primaries where there was this massive increase in turnout in a lot of these suburban districts that helped propel Joe Biden far ahead of Bernie Sanders when it looked for a moment like Bernie Sanders could potentially be the nominee. And so I think there are a lot of these voters who would consider themselves like center right, maybe even center or center left or independents, right-leaning independents, who had voted Republican relatively reliably, but they're not huge partisans. Those are the people that Trump is - that's the reason he really wanted to run against Bernie Sanders because it was the only way to potentially get those people back. But with Joe Biden, I think there's a lot of those people who don't vote for Trump and who are looking for a bit of a return to normalcy.
KH: I have heard you say that you believe in the goodness of the American people and that if you can just make the case to them, we tend to do the right thing. How hopeful are you, between now and November 3rd, that that case will be made in a compelling way and the message that you want to see sent about Trumpism will be received and will resound on Election Day?
SL: I'm pretty hopeful. Look, I think that it's hard to suss this stuff out because you end up forcing people, when it comes to elections, into binary choices, right? So people either have to vote for Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Also, how you think about this election is very much in flux because how people get elected has a lot to do with turnout and who votes and how many people and in what areas. Right now, we're in a situation where it's unclear what the November election looks like in terms of people being able to go to the polls and vote in the way that they normally did. Are we still in the midst of a pandemic? Do people still have lots of fears about turning out? There's a fight right now going on, one that I'm involved in, around expanding absentee voting and vote-by-mail. Because we really, almost likely, will still be in a scenario where there's not a vaccine. Hopefully, there will be much more widespread testing, but where you may have people somewhat fearful about going to the polls in the traditional way. It's a little bit hard to just game out how it works, but I do think, all things being equal, you do see in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania, maybe not Ohio, but Arizona, potentially even Florida, where there's a surge of Democratic voters and then the sort of right-leaning independents that I was talking about who did turn out and vote for Democrats, moderate Democrats in the 2018 election, giving Joe Biden a pretty resounding victory, at which point the Republican party will have to do some soul searching because you cannot build a winning political coalition over the long-term on white working class voters alone.
KH: Well, Sarah, it's been wonderful having you on the show. We end every episode with the same question. What is the bravest decision that you have ever been a part of?
SL: Oh, it's kind of a self-congratulatory question, huh?
KH: Yeah. It's your chance.
SL: I hope there's better answers than the one I'll give, but I guess the one that comes to mind is the most recent, which is I spent 15 years at a firm that I was going to take over and run on the Republican side. I have - my entire universe of professional contacts was in the Republican world. At some point in 2017, I had to decide what I cared about most. Was it having a comfortable team to be on or was it saying the things that I thought were right and being willing to stay in the party and be a voice internal that was going to take a lot of heat to say that what I thought was happening was wrong? So I walked away from my firm and I resigned as the board chair of Log Cabin Republicans and started to talk to anybody who would listen about what I thought was wrong. It doesn't always feel comfortable. People are pretty mad at you on the Republican side and they call you a lot of names, and I get a lot of hate mail, but I also get a lot of emails from young people saying how glad they are to see somebody out there saying this. So maybe, I guess, that.
KH: I'm glad you mentioned your decision to resign from the chairmanship of Log Cabin Republicans because that blew up in a big way and I would imagine you took heat from people that had been friends and colleagues for a very long time, walking away from that.
SL: Yeah. I'm on the other side of this issue from a lot of people that I've been friendly with for a very long time, and I bear them no ill will. I understand people have their rationalizations and their reasons for why they stay, but I got to look at myself every day. And in my sense of right and wrong, I can just very clearly look at this and say, “this is wrong, what's happening right now in the Republican party.” You can't just sit back and not say anything about a party that is dealing in untruths every day, support a guy whose political candidacy was launched on the back of a racist smear against a president, a president I didn't support personally, but I know a racist smear when I see one. So I'm just going to have to agree to disagree with those folks, but I was being a pain in the butt before I resigned. I wouldn't let us endorse him in '16. Look, they were pretty eager to endorse him for 2020 and it was just better if I stepped away.
KH: Well, Sarah, thank you so much for coming on. We'd love to have you back.
SL: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.
KH: Thanks again to Sarah for joining me. You can find her communications firm online at LongwellPartners.com and find her on Twitter at @SarahLongwell25.
Next time on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Max Rose and Ali Soufan, US representative and counterterrorism expert respectively, and co-authors of a New York Times Op-Ed titled: We Once Fought Jihadists. Now We Battle White Supremacists.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.