Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega. This is The Takeaway and it's great to have you with us. Earlier this year, a group of top GOP strategists, media specialists, and lawyers surprised many when they formed a new political action committee called the Lincoln Project. In a New York Times op-ed, the group said their goals were to highlight the American values that President Trump has trampled on, and to persuade enough "disaffected conservatives, Republicans, and Republican-leaning independents", to vote President Trump out of office.
The group's political ads have been successful at grabbing the media and President Trump's attention so far. They've even subverted older Republican ads to convey their new message like this take on Ronald Reagan's famous "It's Morning in America" ad.
Male Speaker: There's mourning in Ohio. Today, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from a deadly virus Donald Trump ignored.
Tanzina: The Lincoln Project has also created ads targeting the President's race-baiting comments, his refusal to disavow white supremacy, and his attacks against Black Lives Matter. Trump Republicans made a concerted effort to repudiate the issues that the Lincoln Project have targeted, and have now taken to calling them RINOs or Republican In Name Only.
One of the most high-profile members of the Lincoln Project is Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican National Committee from 2009 to 2011 and the only Black person to have served in that position. He's now senior advisor at the Lincoln Project, and he just endorsed Democrat Joe Biden, for president. Michael Steele, thanks for joining us.
Michael Steele: Hey, Tanzina, it's great to be with you. Absolutely.
Tanzina: So much to talk about.
Michael: I know, right? Because I'd thought to bring a little news with me.
Tanzina: Just a little and we'll take all of it. You just announced that you're endorsing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for the White House. You cannot get any more anti-Trump than that, Michael?
Michael: Well, it's not anti-Trump. I just want to be very clear about this. I could give a rat's patootie about Trump. This is about the country for me. This was not an easy decision. I didn't wake up and go, "Oh, yes, that's what I'll do today." This was long in the making and it was made by Trump. This moment was created by Trump, his abject failure to deal with COVID-19, his irresponsibility when it comes to managing the economy, the lack of consideration of others, just showing empathy, being aware. The way he speaks about our veterans. All of these things, for me, matter.
I'll tell you, Tanzina, it's one of those things that I was struck on two fronts. The first was, I recall, when I ran for the US Senate, five Democrats in this county where I live, Prince George's County, Maryland, endorsed me for the United States Senate, against their party interest, against their political interest, and certainly against their policy interest for some, who were very strong supporters of choice and I happen to be pro-life and yet, what they said stood out to me, and I recalled. They were like, "Look, it's not about the policy or the politics. It's about the leadership we need right now."
I thought about that, and I said, "This is a moment for me to pay it forward." They trusted me, those five Democrats in their endorsement of me, a Republican, in a Democratic state, said a lot. Here we are today. I'm trying to say a lot to my country is like, we're better than what we've seen and experienced over the last three years. I hope it resonates for a lot of voters. It's not about Trump. This is really about the country, because when you add it all up, when you're looking at the election of a president, we're looking at someone who represents us, and that matters.
Tanzina: He also, Michael, represents the Republican Party, and at least in this election, and in the 2016 election. I want to ask you that because he is-- let's start here, what do you say are the core values of Republican conservatism today, and how have they changed under this president?
Michael: There are none. That's the point. The party turned its back on a platform. It couldn't even tell the country in this political cycle, what it stood for. It essentially said, "Well, we'll wait till Donald Trump tells us what we believe, and we'll regurgitate what we said four years ago and we'll just go with that." Well, that's fundamentally irresponsible. This moment today is vastly different from where the country was in 2016.
We are being ravaged by COVID-19 yet again, unabated. We are still reeling economically, 13, 14 million Americans still have not recovered their jobs. Another million last week posted for unemployment. You've got the civil unrest that the country is coming to grips with in the era of Black Lives Matter, the 180 on that alone, given everything else, would be enough to say how different this time is. Yet, we're stuck in a warp, where the President still tweeting about Hillary Clinton, and going after the ghost of Robert Mueller and Burisma.
The reality is the country is moving on, and our leader is stuck in another place in time, and my party cannot find it within itself, to even state what it is we believe and what it is we stand for. It does matter, in terms of understanding, for me, at least, as someone who led the party that talked about those underlying principles of freedom and opportunity, and tying it to various policies from healthcare to the environment, that we have a voice in this, but we've given that voice over to Trump.
Tanzina: How do you explain that, Michael, because the party could have disavowed more broadly, the president, for all of the reasons that you're saying, because in many ways, he's an aberration to what the party has said it's stood for. I want to talk a little bit about that, because a lot of the issues with the Republican Party didn't start with President Trump. How do you explain the fact that the Republican Party writ large, have really fallen in line behind this president and have abdicated in many ways, for some Americans, their moral responsibility?
Michael: I have grappled with that question. I've gotten into very deep and heated arguments with colleagues and friends inside the party, who give me their justification and on the surface of it, it's, "Oh, well, he promised tax cuts, and he delivered. He promised the Supreme Court and he delivered." I'm like, "Well, is that really it?"
All the things about the institutions that we have grounded ourselves in, in terms of upholding this republic, and shoring up this democracy that he spits on every day, you're okay with that? You're okay with having an attorney general who is of a mind to agree with the president that we should just lock up his political enemies. When did you turn that corner? When did you embrace Vladimir Putin and the Russians?
Tanzina: What do they say, Michael? Is it all about because tax cuts and the Supreme Court? Is there some justification for this? Because there are other elements to this Trump presidency, that some would argue have also encouraged members of the GOP to sign on for.
Michael: No. That's it. My point is I have not gotten an answer that speaks to the core of what we used to articulate as Republicanism or conservatism. It is, you got to stand with the president. I'm like, "No, I don't." I told one friend and said, "You were the same fool out there screaming at President Bush over the Iraq War. You broke from President Bush over the Iraq War. You broke away from President Bush on the deficit spending that occurred at that time to support the war, and yet you've said nothing about a trillion-dollar deficit on the books for this year alone, and another $6 trillion in debt. You've said absolutely nothing about that."
It's helped me understand what it is, and part of it is this fear of getting tweeted at or having the base turn on them. I'm like, "Dude, the base is getting smaller and smaller. We've not expanded our reach into this country." Tell me the conversation we're having with the lesbian gay community. Tell me the conversation we're having with Black folks beyond saying, "Oh, Black unemployment is the lowest it's ever been, and--"
Tanzina: Well, let's talk about that conversation, Michael, because that conversation is happening, it's happening. You mentioned this earlier, we are at a reckoning, one of many that we've had in this country over the course of many decades, but this summer, in particular, was an uprising for racial justice. We have seen Black Americans killed at the hands of police officers in this country and yet, these racial tensions, to say very lightly here, are something that the president has stoked, and has, in many ways failed to denounce white supremacy, although he might go back and forth on that. That conversation is one that's really driving, I think, a lot of the concern here. What are your thoughts on that?
Michael: Well, you have to be polite because you're NPR, and I appreciate that. I will put it bluntly. It's not stoking it, it is deliberately exacerbating it. It is deliberately inflaming those passions, and then to plead ignorance, you don't know who Proud Boys are. Of course, you do, because the White House is briefed on them. They know exactly what's going on. This is the same man who told us he had no idea who David Duke was. Seriously, you're a 70-something-year-old white man and you don't know who David Duke is?
The reality of it is, we've got to be honest about what's in front of us. The president took a very important moment, five years ago, with Colin Kaepernick, when he made a public statement, turned it into something ugly, politically. Now, the country's come 180 degrees around that, recognizing what that moment, that Black Lives moment was all about. Similarly, the same thing, we've seen it play out time and time again, in other areas of our culture, our life, and our politics with this president.
I think the more we are honest about what we're seeing and hearing from him, the closer we are to understanding why, as I've stated, this country matters more to me than Donald Trump. It is worth it to me to support someone who I think, even though I will disagree with him on policy all day long, and will fight tooth and nail over those policies, that I believe is a decent, good man, who at the end of the day is willing to step into that breach, and try to find healing around race, try to find healing around COVID-19, try to find healing around our economy.
Look, I'm not saying that Joe Biden is the be-all and the end-all. He's a flawed person like everyone else, but at least I know he's willing to take a moment, look me in the eye, and say, "Look, hey, let's do this walk together." Donald Trump is looking to blame someone for the walk that we're taking right now.
Tanzina: Michael, the founders of the Lincoln Project, which you're a part of, are trying to reclaim this GOP narrative away from President Trump, and to bring the party back to its core principles, but a lot of the issues in the GOP, Michael, did not start with President Trump. Some political analysts argue that this really goes back decades, the political infighting, the inability for folks on either side of the aisle to work together. How do you explain that right now?
Michael: I think that's very true analysis. I saw it emerge during my time at the RNC with the growth of the Tea Party, which was a very different group of activism and activists at that time, between that 2009, 2012, versus what it morphed into, after 2012, it became the Freedom Caucus. Then subsequently, what we see now is Trumpism. That analysis is correct. It does go back. It actually goes back to the 1980s when Newt Gingrich came to Congress, and brought an insurgent view of how to operate inside the House, and tactically went after Democrats after 40 years of one-party control of the House by Democrats from 1954 to 1994, so that insurgent spirit was there.
The problem with it was there was no management of it. There was no, "What's the goal here?" Now that you have the House, and we saw this immediately crumble under Newt, by 1996 he was out. The leadership structure had begun to fall around him. The reality of it is those frustrations grew. A lot of the base had checked out. They thought that the party was not honest and had become corrupt around principle.
You see this now playing out. Trump comes in and picked at that old scab in many ways, and has drawn a lot of voters back to the party that had stepped aside for whatever reason, but now around him. Not around an idea, not around a goal, or a policy, or a principle, but around this cult of personality. I've watched people and listen to them when they are asked, so what do you like the Donald Trump has done for you? They can't really put their finger on something. Then there was this woman, she said, "Well, he just makes me feel good."
If that's where we are in our politics, then it speaks a lot about the moment we're in on both parties, who've let down the American people in many ways that have led to this frustration. Tanzina, just to be honest, it's not just on the Republican side, the same battles are occurring on the left as well. That is what--
Tanzina: We're definitely seeing these policy and directional battles, with both parties, playing out. I 100% agree. I think there's been lots of criticism of the left and of Democrats in particular, for their inability or the fact that they may take Black and brown voters for granted, for example.
Michael: Absolutely. You're seeing that reflected in the fall off to some degree. If you look at '16, compared to now, with Joe Biden, among African American men, especially, not so much with women at this point, but certainly with men. There are a lot of different dynamics that plays here. A lot of this goes to the core of how Americans look at themselves, and view the country right now.
When you don't see yourself as part of that narrative anymore, hot populism becomes popular, at least it's something to gravitate to, a wave you can ride. At the end of the day, you still have a country to run. You still have services to provide. The needs of the people still have to be met, and it's going to require leadership to do that.
Tanzina: Michael, let me just interrupt you there, because you're not the only high profile Republican that has spoken out against the president. I want to ask you, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, recently told his constituents that he's never been on the Trump train, and he's worried that if President Trump loses, he could take the Senate down with him. Two questions for you, Michael, as we close this out. First of all, are you prepared or is there going to be a Republican bloodbath, number one? Number two, is this party worth fighting for or has President Trump forever damaged the GOP?
Michael: They're both very good questions. The bloodbath had started. It was interrupted. It will realign itself and reemerge, regardless of whether Trump wins or doesn't, because then the battle if he wins, becomes over who carries the mantle of Trumpism? Then there are those of us inside the party who will be like, "Hell, no, we're not staying on this road." If he loses, that battle will obviously engage because then it's the set up for 2024, in either case, a set up for 2024.
Again, it's not just about Trumpism, but it's about the core of what Republicanism and conservatism are, which are, one entity sits within the other. The Republican Party is the broader philosophical approach to all things, if you will, and conservatism is an aspect of that. To your second point--
Tanzina: Is there the potential Michael, there, for an emergent different thought process, different party, different alignment, if this GOP, as it stands, does not reflect the rest of the values?
Michael: Yes, exactly. I think that's going to be the ongoing battle, as this thing plays itself out, is how do we reshape the party and hold on to those values that we were founded on. I call them Lincoln values. That's why I call myself a Lincoln Republican. That will be the fight, over what it means to be a Lincoln Republican versus being a Trump Republican.
Tanzina: There have been some reports that show that the president has spoken down about his support from the evangelical community, that he actually mocks them behind their back. How important is this community to the GOP overall, and what kind of damage could the president be doing or not doing with the evangelical vote?
Michael: It's very important. It's been a part of the GOP base since 1980. For the first time in 1980, the party had reached out to the then-emerging evangelical community as a political force so we knew them then as the Moral Majority. The party took the steps to put a pro-life plank in its political platform for the first time, taking a stance on those social issues. There's been a long history between the evangelical community and the GOP.
Trump, who has very little regard for any of that, because he's not a religious man, he's not someone who sees the value from that standpoint, sees it more as a transactional relationship, and has been recorded and reported in those moments, he speaks how he really feels. It has created a strain within the community as a whole.
For a lot of us looking at it, I'm not an evangelical, I'm a Catholic Christian, and I scratch my head at the community, largely speaking because of the positions it's taken in public and how it has used those views and those positions to chastise and reprimand Americans for their behavior, et cetera. Yet, when it came to Trump, they just went, "Well, that's okay. We get a Supreme Court justice out of this who will overturn Roe vs. Wade."
I think now some of that's coming back up on them in a very powerful way. There is a clear split in the evangelical community between white evangelicals, for example, and Black evangelicals, who are less inclined towards Trumpism, a lot less inclined towards Trumpism. Those tensions are now playing itself out. What it means for the base, particularly with Mike Pence being on the ticket, is he is hoped to be the glue to hold those white evangelicals in place, despite the reported utterances of the president that is spoken very crudely about evangelicals.
Tanzina: Michael, you mentioned being a Christian and a Catholic, and you mentioned the Supreme Court. I'd have to ask about what your thoughts are on the Republican Supreme Court strategy, which is one of the hallmarks of the Trump administration, something that he has made good on for his supporters in many ways. This would be, in fact, the third justice under the Trump administration should Amy Coney Barrett be seated on the court. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on the tactics that the party has taken to confirm her in this moment, which is two weeks before the presidential election,
Michael: I like the justice. I've read and followed some of her jurisprudence. I don't have a lot of problems with that. I think, just as a quick sidebar on that, I don't think she's going to turn out to be this very scary conservative on the court. I think, in fact, given her tutelage under Justice Scalia and other jurisprudence, I think she's going to align herself a lot more with Justice Roberts than people may come to realize, but we'll see how that plays out.
Where I have the problem, Tanzina, is with the process, and the sheer in your face, do as I say, not as I do, attitude that the Republicans have brought to this process. We know where it all began. It's all goes back to the Bork nomination, when then Senator Ted Kennedy really twisted Republicans nose out of joint over the Bork nomination, and that battle has been playing itself out for over 30 years.
It's unfortunate in this moment, that we will use the judiciary process and the Supreme Court nomination process to slapdash a nomination and put in jeopardy the credibility of a good judge. It's unfortunate. It's the politics. Everyone decries the politics, but they're very quick to play it, particularly in this space, which is unfortunate. Now, the concern is out there about the Democrats coming on the back end and court-packing.
Of course, to do that, they'd have to remove the filibuster provisions, rules in the Senate, both of which I think are dangerous moves, and ill-advised on so many levels, because once you get rid of the filibuster, the Senate then becomes no better than the House, and to be in the minority in the Senate would be no different than being in the minority in the House. You have no power, you have no say, and that's not how our founders designed our system.
There's a reason for checks and balances. There's a reason for having the Senate be the deliberative body, if you will. It's important that that be retained, but the politics of the moment are dictating outcomes, and that can be a very dangerous thing.
Tanzina: Last question for you, Michael, one of the things that we've seen under this administration has been, as you said, very early on the not just the fanning of the flames, but almost a complicit nature of the president winking at white supremacist groups. We are seeing, the FBI and the CIA have both said, that this domestic terror is one of the most dangerous things that this country is facing right now, particularly among young white males who are armed.
The Republican Party has historically had strong support for the Second Amendment, but these groups tend to take that to another level. Michael, what do you see, whether President Trump is elected or not elected, this seems to have opened Pandora's box in terms of dangerous racial tensions in this country. I don't know if we're going to be able to go back after this.
Michael: I completely agree with you on that and your analysis of it. We are in a very important and dangerous time. Let's start with the truth of what we must do us as a nation, and what our Department of Justice, and FBI, and other services in the criminal justice space must do, and that is call the thing what it is. Let's define these groups for what they are.
They're domestic terrorist organizations. They engage in behavior that undermine the rule of law of this country, since some of my side like to throw around that term. Well, let's throw it around and plastered all over these groups, and these organizations that are hiding behind the American flag, that wrap themselves in a false ideology about this country and call the thing what it is.
Once you do that, then you can prosecute it. You can then go about the business of checking its influence, and checking its reach, particularly to younger members of our community. We have to safeguard against that as a nation. We cannot give it license, and we certainly can't allow nor should we allow the leader of our country to feign, ignorance at best, and complicitness at its worst.
I'm all about putting a bright klieg light on it and using all the powers of both the government as well as civic activism, to root out this level of hate, because that, more than anything else, will undermine the true words of our founding documents when it comes to the freedom and equality of every people, and every person.
Tanzina: Just before we let you go Latino voters in the GOP, are you excited about which way those folks could vote this year?
Michael: Yes. You look, every vote is a vote you need. The party, across the board in both sides have to fight for that vote, and I think Joe Biden can make the case. I hope he does, and I'll help him do it.
Tanzina: We'll see what happens there. Michael Steele, former head of the RNC, and a senior advisor at the Lincoln Project. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.
Michael: Thank you.
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