'Never Trumper' Stuart Stevens, longtime GOP operative, says he would even vote for Bernie Sanders to beat Trump

Suzanne Smalley
·Reporter
·6 min read

Stuart Stevens has been a top strategist for Republican presidential candidates George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. His knack for advertising and media has helped conservatives like Haley Barbour, Thad Cochran, and Roy Blunt get elected. Stevens has been many things — a TV writer for Emmy-winning television programs, travel writer and media strategist — but he has always been an unapologetic Republican.

Donald Trump changed that.

“It’s just been a complete collapse,” Stevens told the Yahoo News Skullduggery podcast in reference to the Republican Party since Trump’s election. “The only thing I can compare it to is the collapse of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.”

Stevens said he is registering as a Democrat in this election, abandoning the party he has worked for throughout his professional life. He said he hopes to expand upon his work designing ads for the Republican “Never Trumpers” at the Lincoln Project by working for the Democrats in the future because he believes “the big questions that affect us as a country are going to be decided in the Democratic Party.”

In short, Stevens said, the Republican Party as he knew it is dead. He said he would even vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-designated “democratic socialist,” over Trump because “the necessity of defeating Donald Trump is so urgent.”

Stevens has just published a book, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, in which he traces the destruction of the modern Republican Party to the civil rights movement, when the party first lost a huge chunk of the nonwhite vote and never looked back. He said his book concludes that racism has been embedded in the modern Republican Party since that time.

“A pattern becomes pretty obvious that there were always these two elements within the party,” Stevens said. “So in the ’50s it was an Eisenhower element and a Joe McCarthy element, and the Joe McCarthy element was imbued with a lot of racism.”

He lays some of the blame on William F. Buckley Jr., the intellectual dean of the modern Republican Party and, in his early days, “a stone-cold racist,” in Stevens’s description, who supported continued segregation in the South. Citing the memo by Pat Buchanan to President Richard Nixon that became the backbone of the so-called Southern Strategy — a tactic for attracting white voters by appealing to their racist instincts — Stevens said Trump’s Republican Party is cynically exploiting racism just as much or more than its predecessors.

Stuart Stevens, senior adviser to Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, talks with press aboard the Romney campaign plane, Friday, Sept. 28, 2012 in Philadelphia.  (Evan Vucci/AP Photo)
Stuart Stevens when he was senior adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney aboard the campaign plane in Philadelphia in September 2012. (Evan Vucci/AP)

“Last night there were two people from St. Louis who were at the convention because they had waved guns at black people,” Stevens said, referring to Mark and Patty McCloskey, who were videotaped pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters who were marching past their home. “That is their sole reason to be at that convention.”

Stevens said he felt hopeful when George W. Bush became president, espousing a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” which Stevens said manifested in Bush’s commitment to public education and enacting of the landmark education reform legislation No Child Left Behind. But the 2001 terror attacks catapulted Bush into the role of a wartime president, Stevens said, and the “compassionate conservatism” agenda was subordinated to the Iraq War.

In some ways, Stevens said, the brand of mainstream conservatism he embraced is dead, a victim of its own success.

“You had this kind of crime, welfare, taxes, communism set of issues that really had decreased in their urgency, so what would a new conservatism be?” Stevens asked. “And I think this is what Governor Bush asked himself, and out of that evolved an ethos of compassionate conservatism. The core of that for Bush was education. It’s what he really cared about. ... But all of that died on 9/11.” Stevens said he now finds himself surrounded by other Bush loyalists who can’t bring themselves to fall in line with Trump — Nicolle Wallace, Mark McKinnon, Matthew Dowd and Michael Gerson among them — because “we see Trump as so antithetical to what we aspire to be.”

Stevens said that he and other conservatives in his camp had long hoped that the party would broaden the tent, but to his surprise most Republicans really didn’t want to.

“Look at it as DNA: I thought our side was the dominant gene and that that other [racist] side was the recessive gene,” Stevens said. “I think I have to conclude I was wrong.”

Stevens pointed out that the Republican Party began to lose the African-American vote after Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and never won it back. But he said Republicans never wanted to actually broaden the tent and reach minority voters — a dirty little secret he is only now waking up to. He said that after losing to Barack Obama, the Republican Party commissioned an “autopsy” to better understand what went wrong. That postmortem made clear that the only way the Republican Party could survive would be by appealing to a broader and more diverse coalition of voters.

“It was presented not only as a political necessity, which was kind of obvious — sort of like ‘We lost the Super Bowl [and] what should you do is score more points,’” Stevens said. “It was [also] presented as a model mandate that if you’re going to earn the right to govern this big, confusing, loud, contradictory country, you need to represent it more.”

But Stevens said when Trump came along, the Republican Party largely embraced him with relief.

“There was almost an audible sigh of relief: ‘We can just throw that out the window,’” Stevens said of the Republican reaction. “It’s like, ‘Thank God, we don’t have to pretend we care about this [race] stuff anymore. We can just win with white people.’”

That’s when Stevens realized that for many in the party, compassionate conservatism and the like “were marketing slogans; they weren’t beliefs.”

Stevens said he believes that Biden is running a “historically good campaign,” but he hasn’t written Trump off yet. The power of any incumbent to win is too strong to make Stevens confident that America is rid of Trump.

“It’s very hard to beat an incumbent president,” Stevens said. “Particularly a ruthless president like Donald Trump.”

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