At the heart of Stuart Stevens’ “It Was All A Lie” are, ironically, lies about Donald Trump. Though he relentlessly attacks the president’s character, the author actually exposes his own heart by way of offering a mea culpa for his long-time association with and advocacy for a political party that he now deems to have long been racist at its heart.
It Was All A Lie: How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump, by Stuart Stevens (237 pages, Knopf, 2020)
Let’s begin with a hypothetical. Might a veteran Democratic operative/consultant/strategist have written a book with a similar title, but with a slightly different subtitle? Perhaps such a book could have appeared in, say, 1942. It certainly seems plausible, given what happened to the Democratic party under Franklin Roosevelt.
After all, such a professional Democratic operative would likely have had a great deal of experience working for such presidential aspirants as James Cox (loser in 1920), John W. Davis (loser in 1924) and Al Smith (loser in 1932). Of course, all of that losing ended in 1932 with the arrival of a Democrat who proved to be very different sort of Democrat, especially after his victory in that 1932 election.
That’s because a President Roosevelt took the Democratic party in a very different direction. Such a tack was apparent to any number of people, including Al Smith, who had opposed FDR for their party’s nomination in 1932. In fact, Smith became more opposed to President Roosevelt after he saw the New Deal in action.
That opposition is to be explained by both the content of the New Deal and the gap between FDR’s campaign rhetoric and his presidential policies. In fact, Smith himself might have then written a book titled, oh something like, “it was all a lie.”
But then again such a book might have been premature, since FDR wasn’t quite finished with being less than candid with the American voters. Fast forward to 1937. Having been re-elected in his 1936 landslide, FDR then unveiled his court-packing scheme in 1937. No doubt he thought he could pull this off because of both his and his party’s victory over a steamrolled Alf Landon and his decimated Republican party. Roosevelt’s only problem was that he had somehow not gotten around to mentioning this scheme during his 1936 campaign. Once again, “it was all a lie” (once again of omission).
This brings us to 1940 and President Roosevelt’s unprecedented run for a third term. This time his opponent was the not-nearly-as-steamrollable Wendell Willkie. Like the current president, Willkie was a successful businessman, making his first serious run for high public office. And unlike Landon, Willkie was giving FDR a serious run for his money.
Despite his support for both the president’s destroyer-for-bases deal and the peacetime draft, Willkie began to inch closer to victory by accusing FDR of steering the U.S. into World War II. Feeling the political heat, Roosevelt took to the not-yet venerable Boston Garden to deliver a late campaign speech in which he declared that “no American boys will be sent into any foreign war.” Afterwards, memoirs tell us, FDR went into the bowels of the Garden and vomited, knowing full well that he had just made a promise that he would not be able to keep. Once again, a Democratic operative/strategist/consultant might have subsequently penned an account of this presidency titled, let’s see, “it was all a lie.”
This is not to argue that the United States should not have entered and won World War II. It is to argue that FDR was more concerned with winning a third term than with preparing the country for what he knew was ahead. Then again, maybe he simply didn’t want to frighten the American people.
Which brings us to an actual book of very recent vintage with this very title. But this time the operative/author, Stuart Stevens, is a Republican, whose target is also a Republican, albeit one of very recent vintage, and his recently adopted party. That would be Donald Trump, who has recently been accused of failing to level with the American people about an invader from the east.
The standard charge against Mr. Trump is also Mr. Stevens’ charge: Trump lies. Let’s concede that there are elements of truth in that charge. Mr. Trump exaggerates; he embellishes; he dissembles; he self-promotes. No doubt he has also fibbed and, yes, lied (even if no fib or lie quite matches President Obama’s “if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor” whopper).
But not since… oh, perhaps not since James K. Polk have we had a presidential candidate spell out what he intended to do in office, then win the office, and then carry out his campaign promises.
If there has been a significant failure on that front, it has been President Trump’s inability to complete construction of the southern border wall. But that failure has much more to do with his Democratic opposition than any bait-and-switch move on his part. It’s certainly not comparable to candidate FDR in 1932, 1936, or 1940. It’s also not comparable to candidate Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign on welfare reform v. President Bill Clinton’s 1993 lurch into launching an overhaul of health care instead.
That Mr. Trump did not pull a Clinton or a Roosevelt—or, for that matter, a 1916 “he kept us out of war” Woodrow Wilson v. the 1917 “make the world safe for democracy” Wilson—does not satisfy Stuart Stevens.
Actually, Mr. Stevens is much more intent on indicting the GOP in general than Trump in particular. Hints of what’s to come begin in the first chapter, not so subtly titled “Race, the Original Republican Sin.” Of course, this original sin more accurately applies to the Democratic party from Andrew Jackson to Jim Crow, but Mr. Stevens prefers to dwell on the “modern GOP,” or the Republican party from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump. Somehow Goldwater’s constitutional objections to the 1964 Civil Rights Act are evidence of racism in the Arizona senator’s DNA.
By Mr. Stevens’ reckoning, the lesson that Republicans seem to have learned since 1964 is that “they will have little success appealing to black voters.” No doubt there is an element of truth in that statement. But does it really apply to President Trump?
Mr. Stevens surely thinks so. In fact, he declares Mr. Trump to be the “logical conclusion” of what the post-Goldwater GOP had become. As if that is not enough, Mr. Trump is also the “natural product of the seeds of race, self-deception and anger” that have become the “essence” of the Republican party under his leadership. This would be the same Donald Trump who, as of this early November writing, is poised to garner a greater percentage of the black vote than any GOP presidential candidate since Dwight Eisenhower.
But Mr. Stevens remains unimpressed, determined as he is to indict his former party—and his former self. At the heart of this book is the author’s effort to expose his own heart by way of offering a mea culpa for his long-time association with and advocacy for a political party that he now deems to have long been racist at its heart.
In truth, It Was All A Lie is based on a lie. At its heart, that lie is Stuart Stevens’ declaration that Donald Trump is the “most openly racist president” since Andrew Johnson or his hero Andrew Jackson (to the extent that a know-nothing narcissist is capable of having a hero). Snarky Mr. Stevens does not avoid being.
Openly racist? Surely Mr. Stevens would then provide solid evidence of Mr. Trump, the racist. But he doesn’t. Well then, certainly there at least should be evidence to match Mr. Stevens’ charge against the dog-whistling of the sainted Ronald Reagan, he of “welfare queen” reputation. But no such evidence is offered.
One might cringe a bit at President Trump’s claim to be the “least racist person in the room” in his second debate with Joe Biden. One might have hoped that he had simply said that black Americans want a chance to succeed, not handouts from the government. But in all likelihood such a line would have been dismissed as a dog whistle all its own.
Who knows what Stuart Stevens will offer readers in a future book? There is always hope that someday he might produce a mea culpa for this one. But it’s not likely, especially since he dedicated this book to the “deep state patriots who are defending America.”
One can presume that such “patriots” are the same “patriots” who attempted to derail the Trump campaign of 2016 before their attempt to derail the impending Trump presidency, which preceded their attempt to derail the actual Trump presidency, courtesy of the Russia hoax.
It’s quite apparent that Mr. Stevens is not about to take them to task, determined as he is to indict a president “who responds to Vladimir Putin like a stray dog.” As if there is any doubt, the president whom Stuart Stevens has in mind here is not Barack Obama, but Donald Trump.
In the end, Mr. Stevens’ blindness has left him unable to see that Donald Trump has been at work transforming the Republican party, rather than tagging along as its so-called “logical conclusion.”
Ironically, that transformation has been to turn the GOP into the party of the working/middle class. So where’s the irony? If Mr. Trump fully succeeds, that transformation will mean that the new Republican party will have much in common with the Democratic party of FDR, not to mention Harry Truman and John Kennedy.
Nonetheless, this large difference remains: Unlike FDR, Donald Trump initially won the presidency by telling voters precisely what he intended to do. And once in office, he has worked to carry out his campaign pledges.
More than that, he has not once chosen to copy one of Mr. Stevens’s past Republican clients. Never once has he asked his fellow Republicans to “read my lips.” And never once has he reversed or otherwise spurned a pledge that came from those lips.
Who knows if Donald Trump will ever bother to write an account of his presidency? But if he does, he will not be likely to title it anything close to “it was all a lie.”
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