America’s Great Divide: Steve Schmidt Interview | FRONTLINE

Talking a little bit about the promise of Obama, what he represented, how he was selling his biography, basically, and his ability to bridge the divide that was necessary because of what was happening in Washington. … Politicians are in the business of selling hope, and Barack Obama was exceptional at it. Hope and change. It’s an optimistic country. The country had been through eight tumultuous years. Nine months into President Bush’s term, we saw the attacks on the World Trade Center. We saw a war fought over weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. We saw the United States mired in a civil war in Iraq. We saw an economic crisis. So people perhaps grasped—people grasped for change. And all presidential elections are a choice. And what Barack Obama was offering was widely appealing. He represented generational change; he was a historic candidate as the first African American to be president of the United States; and he appealed to an aspiration going back to his 2004 Democratic convention speech where he said, “We’re not red America; we’re not blue America; we’re the United States of America.” And that call to unity has always been appealing in this country, though the politics of division that we see right now represented change from that unifying message. So how difficult was it for the [John] McCain campaign? … You were the ones that were competing against this. How did you—how did you view it? … It was extraordinarily challenging. Timing is an underappreciated virtue in American politics. There’s only been three elections since 1900 where the incumbent president’s party received a third term, and the last time it happened, Ronald Reagan had a 61 percent approval rating leaving office; George Herbert Walker Bush was elected. George W. Bush had an approval rating that by the time we got to the election was in the high 20s. The economy had collapsed. All presidential elections in the end are a choice. They’re not a referendum on the incumbent, but we represented a continuum of policies that had become very, very unpopular with the American people. So Obama tied into something, clearly, in the United States, both black and white voters, that saw something historic. But Sarah Palin on your side, when you guys brought her on board, also tied into something very deep and powerful out there in America. What was that that the people that were so excited about her, and why? Well, she—she tapped into a simmering grievance in the country that’s real. There’s a rebellion that’s taken place in this country, and it’s not just in the United States; it’s globally against the elites. Recently there was a global warming conference that took place at a Sicilian resort hosted by the founders of Google, and that global warming summit drew 147 private jet aircraft and 17 superyachts. This is absurd and obscene to average people who look at the constant condescension, the constant lunacy that emanates from what they view as people who look down on them. And it’s simmering not just in this country but all over the world, the “forgotten people.” So what was she saying that seemed to tie into these forgotten folk? I think she didn’t have a deliberate strategy as much as she was an intuitive performer who loved the spotlight, who was able to sense the crowd, and she tapped into the grievance. She was of those people. Her husband had a union card. She was condescended to. When we picked Sarah Palin, one of the things that I thought was virtuous was that this was a person who had put herself through school; that she had gone to five different colleges paying her way through. She was mocked; she was disdained by the news media for that. And I think that when you see people like you being mocked, people translate it as “They’re laughing at me.” And no small number of people in this country identified with her and identify with Donald Trump, who they view as their champion. … Did Obama and his people understand what Sarah Palin specifically was tying into? Did he get that audience? Did they play it in a way that sort of— I think it’s a profound mistake to analyze this period of division in the country as being incepted with Sarah Palin. This has always been part of American life, part of American politics. We used to say in this country, excepting Vietnam, that the country had never lost a war. Well, if you live in the Southern states, that’s not true. Not only did you lose a war, or your ancestors lost a war, you were occupied; you were humiliated. And that grievance through George Wallace to Sarah Palin has always been part of American politics. And there were politicians, political leaders, who have preyed upon those grievances, stoking them, fanning the flames; she was one of them. And there’s been politicians who have appealed to the better angels of our nature. Franklin Roosevelt saved democracy by saving capitalism. He could just as easily, as happened all across the world in the middle of a global depression, been a force for illiberalism. He was not. But we shouldn’t pretend that all of this begins in 2008. Those embers in this country have always been there. There’s a regional divide in this country. There’s a class divide; there’s a race divide. And she tapped in 2008 at a time where the economy was cratering, where the effects of that collapse were disproportionately felt by working people who still haven’t fully recovered from it. That’s what she was tapping into. She was also a very different politician than John McCain was. When racial questions or worries about Obama being a Muslim came up in—in campaign visits, Sen. McCain, he pushed them off; he set it—he set the people right. But she seem to have played into that. I mean, why? Well, I think that she is the first of a generation of politicians who live in a post-truth environment. She was, and there’s no polite way to say it, but a serial liar. Over and over and over again, dozens of times a day, she would say things that are simply not true, or things that she had read at that time on her Blackberry, things that were picked up from the internet. And this obliteration of fact from fiction, of truth from lie, has become now endemic in American politics. But it started then. And so the fact of the matter is that overwhelming percentages to this day believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and there’s no convincing those people— and it’s an extraordinarily large number—that neither is the case. So Obama comes into office, and he, of course, has—the economy is—is still tottering, basically. He does the stimulus; he works with the banks. He decides he has to work with the banks; and he’s not going to spank them. And there’s an anger that comes out of that economically on sort of the stance of the Obama administration. Do they understand, you know, what was at stake here and how that would ignite the anger that eventually becomes the Tea Party? Also on the liberal side, there’s also a reaction to that. The economic collapse of 2008 and the economy that Barack Obama inherited, I think, is the defining event of this generation, even more so than 9/11, and it profoundly reshaped American politics. American politics had been defined as a contest between right and left, and if you think about it as a vertical line running down the middle of the field, the 50-yard line, both sides would fight and argue, sometimes very hyperbolically, between the 45-yard lines. If you listen to the rhetoric in the Bush versus [John] Kerry campaign, McCain versus Obama, you would think that the delta between a just and an unjust society is the difference between a 39.6% tax bracket and a 35% tax bracket. What the 2009 collapse did is it reoriented American politics as being defined by really a lateral line. Above that line, you have people that are in the top 1%, top 10%, but people that are living better, longer, more prosperously than any human beings have ever lived in the history of human civilization. And those people have a lot more in common with people in cities like Sydney and Melbourne and Geneva and Rome and Brussels than they do with their own countrymen here in the United States. You have a middle class that believes that their kids will be worse off, believes that it’s much more likely that they could slip down the economic ladder, and believes that they are one misfortune away from economic calamity. And then we have 42% of the country that doesn’t have $400 cash available for an emergency. We see declining life expectancies as was the case at the fall of the Soviet Union for white men between 40 and 50 years old. We see rising maternal labor death rates, rising infant mortality rates. We see an opioid epidemic in this country that’s going to wipe out hundreds of thousands of people over the next 10 years. And what those people at the bottom economically in the country see is one set of rules for people at the top and a different set of rules for everybody else. Millions of American families lost their homes, lost their jobs, and the Wall Street bankers kept their bonuses, and not one of them went to jail. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump essentially have the same message. What both of them are saying, though in different ways, is those people up there are screwing you people down here. And that message, above and under that lateral line, can expand the political geography as we have previously understood it, from left to right. So describe then what’s going on with the Tea Party summer, where that anger is coming from, what you’ve just defined. And also the existence of Bernie Sanders as being a politician on the left that is going to get traction. … I think the Tea Party movement is misunderstood if you look at it as a reaction solely to the Obama administration. The Tea Party was as much a reaction to the Bush administration as it was to the Obama administration. What Republican voters saw was a Republican president and a Republican Congress spend recklessly, and at the end, what they saw were $800 billion of bailouts for the banks. And there was a rebellion to it. Now, Barack Obama had the obligation to govern the country, to do so in a way that did not cause a global economic depression the likes of which we haven’t seen since the early 1930s, with all the attendant catastrophe that flowed from it. So the Tea Party, stoked by a culture where incitement on news radio, on cable stations, pays big bucks. A movement was stoked that was oppositional and fueled by the politics of incitement. … But the Tea Party Congress, the next elections that come through, talk a little bit about sort of the understanding of the GOP and what was going on, because the party was evolving, in a kind way. The “Young Guns” come along, and they decide that they’re going to sort of find these popular Tea Party folks. They support them; they talk a lot about the fact that we can use the economics to get what we want from the Obama administration. They’re getting in bed, or they’re riding the tiger, with a group that will become very powerful within the GOP and will eventually change the GOP. What’s going on there, and what are the consequences? Do they understand—do the leadership of the GOP understand what’s going on in 2010? Well, certainly not. I think that the Washington leadership of the Republican Party saw energy and enthusiasm amongst the grassroots. And the goal after you lose a presidential election and both houses of Congress is to do well in the first midterm election, to take something back, and so the leaders sought to capitalize on the energy of that movement. And that movement ultimately consumed the Republican Party and the conservative movement, utterly transforming the Republican Party from a vessel of conservatism to a vessel of racial grievance, a vessel of economic grievance, a populist political party. Let’s jump to 2012. So Obama is—is feeling that he can’t get the things accomplished that he wants to accomplish. The GOP is the “party of no.” But he feels that the 2012 election will be a turning point, that it will break the fever, basically. How wrong was he? … What were the realities behind what was really going on with the GOP and Obama at that point? Well, I think that it’s a function of an utterly broken political system where the middle, the compromising middle has been eradicated through gerrymandering and redistricting and … the technological advancements that allow politicians to pick their voters as opposed to voters picking the politicians. And so when you have primary elections that determine the—determine the nominee in a district that there’s almost no chance that the other party could take the seat, there is no responsiveness to broad public opinion. So you sit and you watch over and over and over again, how is it that 80% of the American people say we should have a common-sense solution to immigration, yet 10 years on, there’s no solution? How is it that 90% of the American people say that we ought to have some common-sense solutions to the gun massacres we see every day all over the country, and there’s no responsiveness to the Congress? Because Congress, for a long time now, has not been responsive to broad public opinion. It’s been responsive to the most intense voters who are in factions, who are incited by a billion-dollar anger industry on radio and television. And that’s the audience; that’s the constituency. So how much of a rude awakening was it to the Obama folks after they— a black man is able to win a second election in America? What’s going through the political mind of the group of people around Obama and Obama himself? I don’t— What would you imagine as a political guy who understands that world pretty well? Being president is a difficult job. Great presidents have been able to forge compromise, have been able to get people in a room and to get business done. President Obama was not able to do that, and the reason may well be the implacability of the people sitting on the other side of the table from him. Sometimes you can’t get to yes with someone who won’t say anything other than no. And I also think when you look at the rise of the Tea Party movement, it was a real issue that the Obama administration faced, which is an age-old one, is you can’t fix crazy. And the fact of the matter is you had a fair number of crazy people who started getting elected to the Congress on the Tea Party wave who there was no dealing with. So you mentioned immigration. Let’s talk about immigration and how big a turning point that was, the 2013-2014 bill, the Gang of Eight bill that couldn’t get through to the House, and eventually it leads to the ousting of [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor. It seems like a very important point for the GOP. This was something that when the Senate was dealing with it, it was a very popular idea, that finally we’re going to deal with reform in immigration and finally, once and for all… What’s your overview of the 2013-2014 immigration reform fight? Well, both sides, both Democrats and Republicans, have used this issue as a political wedge, have used it as a campaign issue, and that’s taken precedence over solving the problem. And so both sides have plenty cause to look at whatever side’s in power at any time and say, “When they were in power, they didn’t move on this; they used it as a wedge issue to appeal to their base.” Now, the Republican Party, the party of George W. Bush that won a national election in 2004 with the majority of the vote, did so with 43 percent of the Hispanic vote in the country. The Hispanic voter in America has been completely alienated from the Republican Party by a hostile message. People obviously won’t vote for you if they believe you don’t like them very much. And it’s not just that the Republican rhetoric alienates them. It’s almost as if it’s purposeful, that there’s a deliberate strategy to antagonize the fastest-growing demographic group in the country. And the Republican Party will pay a very steep price for that over the next 10 to 15 to 20 years as that population continues to grow. How does an issue, which has always been there and been talked about and is always part of the top 10 I guess issues when pollsters talk to the public, how does it become this number one issue that, which we’ll talk about in a second, probably got Donald Trump elected? Well, again, this is an issue that’s an incitement issue. This issue sells on cable news; it sells on talk radio; it reaches the activists of both sides. And the average American, if you went out and we got 500 people off of the street and said, “You’re now the Congress,” they would solve this problem within three hours, because everybody basically agrees on what the solution is. The border should be secure; the people who are here [and] have acted lawfully but for entering should be regularized; and that they should pay a fine. There’s a deal to be made. But again, the issue and the power of its incitement, its capacity to incite, denies a solution. And the difficulty within the GOP to come to grasp with what you’ve just stated is what? Reality. We had a presidential election where the presidential winner said, “We’re going to build a wall paid for by Mexico.” It was a fantasy. So we see this blurring of lines between reality and fantasy. It’s driven by cable news; it’s driven by talk radio; it’s driven by social media, driven by the internet. And you see a reciprocal dishonesty from the left, for example. When the Democratic candidates are promising free stuff for everybody, hundreds of trillions of dollars of new spending, it’s as equal a fantasy as the Mexican-paid-for wall. But the obliteration between reality and fantasy, what’s achievable and unachievable, has occurred, and it’s occurred sometime ago to the great detriment of our politics and our country. One last question before we go to the Trump years. The midterm elections in 2014 where the GOP takes back the Senate is a point where Obama basically gives up on bipartisanship. He—his people around him and he decide that executive orders is the way to get something done. This is used as a—as a way to attack him as the man who wants to be king. How important a point was that? How does that define—and how ironic it is, to some extent, at this point, now that we see what Trump has been doing— how important a point was that? What were the consequences of that—that decision, and why did they come to that? Well, it’s—it’s an understandable choice to try to accomplish your agenda—he was legitimately elected twice— by asserting the prerogatives and the powers of the office as the Congress has become not just dysfunctional, but nonfunctional. The legislative branch of the American government simply doesn’t function, it’s so profoundly broken. And so when we understand how does the American republic work as a system of government in continuous operation since the 1780s, how does it function, it requires a functioning legislative branch. And so I think that Barack Obama was dealing pragmatically, practically, trying to find solutions to an absolute obstruction of anything, not on the basis of genuine disagreement but on the basis of “If he proposed it, we’re against it,” which, of course, is terrible for the country. And how powerful was it to use against him? Well, the claims by the opposition when a president asserts his executive power always ring the same, which is that he is usurping congressional authority; he’s acting as a dictator. And so what we’ve seen over the last decades is an increase in the power of the presidency. And I think there’s a real debate to be had about a rebalancing between the power of the executive and the power of the legislative branch. But that is a civics question and a political science question. That’s like talking about Neptune exploration, because in the end, you require for there to be a rebalancing a functional legislative branch, which the country simply doesn’t have. So Donald Trump comes down that golden escalator. What do you see, and who are the “forgotten” that he is tying into? What does he know that the establishment, the northeastern press and the leaders of the GOP and the leaders of the Democratic Party don’t see? What’s going on? What did you see when you watched that, and what did you think? … Trump was completely untethered to establishment politics, to the foreign policy establishment, to the economic analyst establishment, to the Iraq War. He clearly is intuitive. He consumes news by looking at his phone, Twitter, cable news, and he found his way really through a poke and explore: What gets me a positive reaction? What gets me a positive outcome? What is my reward? And so Donald Trump went out, and he had been stoking racial grievance through the birther issue for some period of time. He came from that wing of the Republican Party, and he went all in on it. And it was at a moment in time at the end of eight years of Barack Obama, with a fatally flawed opponent who would ultimately be the Democratic nominee, it was a message, a grievance message, that worked. And what does he—here’s this guy; he’s a reality television star. He’s been stoking this, as you said, with the birther issue, but also, some of these issues he’s been talking about for years on Fox or other conservative radio interviews and Breitbart and such. He’s understanding what’s resonating. What’s—what are the talents that he’s bringing to bear here, and what didn’t most— what didn’t most people not understand about what he was doing? Because he was mostly laughed at, basically, by the media, to some extent, after that. … It’s not what the Democratic political establishment or the Republican political establishment, which he also blew up, got wrong about Donald Trump. It’s what they got wrong about the country they’re supposed to be governing, and the country that they’re governing sees an elite that is out of touch, that is out of control, that is enriching themselves at the public trough at the expense of the public interest. And the Democratic Party nominated for president the perfect archetype of politician that those people resent. … How is— you’ve said that in some ways that Palin was a harbinger for Trump in the way that he tied into the forgotten, who were blind to his or their unfitness. How—what was she? What do we—and I know you don’t like connecting the dots specifically, but how— what can we understand about from Palin to Trump, what happened there and how they differed in a way and how he was a lot more savvy and understood some of the needs and had talents that were to take him a lot further. She was profoundly incompetent. But it represents a cultural moment that I think is defined most clearly by Joe Wilson, the congressman from South Carolina, during a State of the Union who shouts “You lie!” to the president of the United States on national television. Not too many years before, he would have resigned in disgrace from the Congress, and he would have been called upon to do so by leaders of both parties. Instead, what happened? He raised a couple million dollars overnight. So if you’re some poor schlub congressman who’s schlepping over to the National Republican Congressional Committee to dial for dollars, 500 bucks at a pop, what’s the lesson there? Behaviors that are incentivized and rewarded, you get more of them. So there’s no longer a punishment for dishonesty, for craziness. It’s rewarded in our political system. The statesmen and -women, and we don’t have a lot of them, but as a general proposition, the one place you won’t see them is on a cable news channel. You see the inciters. The crazier you are—and there’s no place that’s more home to more crazy than Fox News. And so Fox became the driver of the Republican Party. The political party that used to be covered by TV networks instead became an appendage of the TV network. The politicians became seamlessly integrated between the contributor desk and the campaign trail. Politics became entertainment where anything could be true, any lie could be reality. And the serious business, the life-and-death issues that political leaders face in a dangerous world, were unceremoniously removed from discussion because they’re boring and they don’t drive ratings. And the danger of that is? It’s a threat to American democracy. What Lincoln understood is that what would threaten this country would come from within, not from an external threat. A democratic republic—and we’re the oldest in the world—depends on an informed citizen; it depends on truth. Without truth, there can’t be accountability, and without accountability, you don’t have a functioning, healthy democracy. And all over the world, not just in the United States, you see a regression of democracies fueled by a social-media world where truth has been obliterated. … Fox had been hesitant in the beginning to support Trump, but they turn at a certain point, and they go all in. … One moment— when he attacks Megyn Kelly during that debate and then the debate that happens immediately after between Trump’s people and Fox, do you see that? What’s the relevance of that? Well, what Republican voters believed to the core of their being was this: They believe that Barack Obama, with the help of a complicit Republican establishment that was profoundly corrupt, wrecked America. And so what they were looking for was strength. And in that moment, here’s what voters saw. They saw a generation of Republican politicians who kowtowed to Fox News, who genuflected. Then they saw somebody take on Fox News, and Trump won. He broke Fox News. In the steel cage death match of Republican politics in that instant, Donald Trump became king. Right. During the campaign, Trump also goes after McCain. What was he doing? What was your reaction to it and how he survived that, which would have five years, two years, anytime before that would have been considered to be ridiculous? Again, his survival is not a referendum on Trump; it’s a referendum on the citizenry of the United States. When you look at a country, any country, but particularly the United States, the values that it needs to survive, like a plant needs sun, water, air, a nation needs valor; it needs integrity; it needs truth. … And all of these necessary nutrients for a democracy, Trump has assaulted; he has degraded. But he’s gotten away with it because there’s an audience for it. And all of the virtues that John McCain represented, for them to be mocked of course is a terrible indictment of Donald Trump as a person, as a leader, but what’s really scary about it is that there was no punishment inflicted on him for it by the voters. Everybody said then that there was going to be a pivot, that that was all campaigning. But when he gets to the convention, he doesn’t pivot. He’s attacking [Hillary] Clinton; he’s attacking [Gold Star parent Khizr] Khan in very divisive terms. What does that mean for the GOP? Again, it’s one of these points where a lot of people say it’s an early turning point for the GOP who is now stuck with supporting this man, who many in the GOP completely disagree with. Well, it was a moment where illiberalism was unleashed within the Republican Party. When you see in the United States of America a crowd of political activists chanting, with no due process, “Lock her up, lock her up,” our system, the idea that we don’t lock up our political opponents, we debate them, the idea that the criminal justice system is blind to party affiliation, that somebody is innocent until proven guilty, these are bedrock principles that are at the heart of the American experiment. And to see this cascading illiberalism across the country from within the party of Lincoln is staggering. But we should all understand the consequences for it, the weakening of our systems, the weakening and erosion of our democracy that result from it. And the election. When you saw election night as you’re watching, what did you think it said about the country? I think that one thing that is not talked about enough is the profound institutional failure of the Democratic Party, the party and the nominee, that Trump beat. And there’s just a reality that’s important to recognize when understanding Donald Trump. And everybody likes to talk about the connection from Sarah Palin to Donald Trump, but the place to look for connection is between Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Because now, when we sit back as we approach 2020 and we think about what Bill Clinton’s legacy was, it was only one thing. And I don’t say this out of any spite, out of any venom towards Bill Clinton, but the country should reflect seriously, Democrats should reflect seriously, on this. No matter what—what depravity, what act of corruption, half this country says, “But Bill Clinton did it.” In the erasure of all and any standards, the politics of self-dealing, think about the extraordinary achievement that Donald Trump was viewed as more honest than Hillary Clinton. You can blame the voters for that; you can credit Donald Trump and his communication skills. But might there be something deeper to it? And I would suggest that there is. You’ve described the divisions that exist that have just become worse and worse, and you defined how the media has been involved in sort of pulling it apart and making it worse. It also happened during the election that the Russians used these divisions to attempt to interfere in our elections. What’s your sort of overview of that? What’s at stake here? I think that Vladimir Putin certainly has our number as a country. He understood how easily Americans could be turned against each other with Facebook ads. And I think it’s important to understand that as bad as Fox News has been, as bad and as pernicious as talk radio has been with regard to incitement, neither was a threat to democracy. But Facebook is. And it may be the greatest threat democracy has ever faced, even greater than fascism and communism, because fascism and communism were ideologies predicated on lies. And when the truth confronts the lie, the truth can win, and will win. What Facebook does is obliterate the ability to tell the lie from truth. And now as we enter into the social-media age where truth has been obliterated, we’re at the dawn of the era of deepfake, where what is real, what is fake, is not discernible and not knowable. And the consequences of that for a democratic republic are frightening at best to think about. … So Mueller is appointed, and Trump sort of defines his strategy as to attack the institutions. Talk a little bit about what’s at stake here and the fact that he attacked the FBI, he attacked the intelligence services, he’s attacked the press as being “fake news.” What’s at stake, and why is he doing it, and what—the way the GOP reacts to it and the consequences of that? These institutions are important; they matter. And to see them degraded, to see the men and women who work, who fight for the country, who serve the country, to be attacked, is disgraceful, but it’s dangerous, because in the end, what Trump is saying when he goes out and says, “This is the biggest crowd size ever,” what he’s saying, in essence, is what’s true is what the leader says is true. We don’t want to live in a country where truth is defined by what the political leader says it is. It’s straight out of 1984, when, at the end of the book, Winston, after being interrogated, looks at the party official, and the party official holds up three fingers and says, “How many fingers am I holding up?,” Winston says, “I see only three.” The party official says, “But it could be four, or it could be two.” The obliteration of the line between truth and the lie is fundamental to grasp because it’s so elemental to a functioning democracy. And the degradation of those institutions is a weakening of our system. First the politicians are distrusted, and next the institutions. And what’s after that is the very system of democracy itself. And not surprisingly, we see a real rise in polling of disbelief in democracy as a system that is better than its alternatives, which is an amazing thing to see playing out in the United States. Let’s talk specifically about the press here. So in as early as February, Trump was not happy with the way that the press was dealing with him. He was—he was attacked nightly on the comedy shows, the late-night comedy shows. He was—the whole story of the size of the audience that was at his inauguration went on for weeks with people talking about it and him, and the way he reacted to it. So he basically decides to take on the press himself, that he’s the one that’s going to be the spokesperson for his administration. The dangers of that, and the consequences? Well, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, freedom of religion, these are the bedrock principles of the country. And so when you see an American president attacking the media, attacking the press, it’s important to understand the role that the press plays in safeguarding the institutions of a democratic republic. That being said—and the press is not a monolithic group of people; it’s a large and diverse series of interconnected news aggregators, content makers, television studios. Do millions and millions and millions of people in this country think that the press is dishonest, that it’s biased, that it’s against them, that it looks down on them? They do. Is that providential? Did that just happen? Is that genetic? I would suggest it’s not. And so trust when lost is difficult to regain, and the media has lost trust because of bad behavior, like many other institutions in America over a long period of time. And they have become perfect prey for a dishonest, demagogic, illiberal opportunist like Trump to take advantage of in driving his message. The first initiative that was on the Hill that Congress went after was to try to bring down the ACA [Affordable Care Act] and bring down Obamacare, finally to live up to the promises they had been making for quite a long time, and, you know, dozens of attempts to do so. Trump goes along with it. But when it turns out that the leadership within the GOP have really no plan and it basically goes down the drain, there’s a turning, I guess, and what do we see as far as Trump’s—how important is it to Trump’s attitude that if Congress can’t do it, well, then I’m going to have to do it myself? And he took on more power because he wanted to, number one. And number two, the GOP basically allowed him to. Again, I think there’s a really important debate to be had in the country about the power of the president, the power of the executive. And each presidency in recent years, moving forward in the post-Watergate era after Jimmy Carter, has asserted more and more executive prerogatives. And so there’s a reckoning, I think, that the country has to have about the limits of executive power. But again, we’re talking about Ph.D.-level physics when it comes to the civics of this in an era where every elected institution at the federal level is failing, is nonfunctioning. And so it’s difficult to see that debate being had and, for now, we’ll have to rely on the Supreme Court, the third branch of government, to rule on whether the president is within or outside the lines on the assertions of his executive prerogatives. But was that a turning point between the power dynamics between the GOP— No, I don’t think it’s a turning point. I think it’s part of a continuum. McCain’s vote: Why? Your reaction to that, and your reaction to Trump’s reaction to it? Obamacare, despite all of its flaws, at that point had been the law of the land for many years. There was nothing to replace it with, and it would have thrown the American health care system into complete and utter turmoil. So he voted against it, which was the responsible thing to do. And the reaction of Trump and sort of how he viewed this as power, a game of power? Well, in the Trump era and in our dysfunctional or nonfunctional politics of this— of this era, there’s no room for disagreement. It’s zero sum all the time. Trump expects obedience, and the highest virtue that can be bestowed to any person to seek Trump’s favor is by being utterly obedient. And obviously, the archetype of that is his very servile vice president, Mike Pence. But the era where the senators, the members of Congress, asserted their prerogatives, their power, would stand up to a president, seems largely to be over in the United States today. And how do you view the consolidation of power? So he attacks Sen. McCain; he attacks Sen. [Jeff] Flake. A lot of the people that used to stand up to the president are gone. … What’s going on here? We have a guts-and-courage crisis in American politics. We have politicians who go to great effort to get elected to go to Washington, not to fight for great principles or causes, but to see who can be the best bootlicker. And so when you see Donald Trump and you see the servility of the coequal branch of government, the absolute unwillingness to confront him, to confront his excesses, his dishonesty, his degradations of the office, his attacks on the institutions, is an utter, complete, total abdication of a responsibility and duty that’s historic. … The “zero tolerance” policy, the family separation issue, you’ve written a little bit about this, I think. What’s at stake here? I think you sort of pointed to the fact that this was an important point to understand, that Trump basically owned the GOP at this point. Explain—explain what you’re thinking. This is a question of national honor. The United States of America should not separate mothers and children and lock the children into cages, into detention facilities. Should not. And it recalls the worst excesses in American history: the separation of African American mothers and children during slavery; the separation of mothers and children who were Native Americans. We have had great injustice in the country, but the greatness of the country is the ability to make great progress combating it. It’s wrong. When you see a government official with an American flag on their shoulder committing that act, it’s disgraceful, it’s dishonorable, it’s cruel, and it’s inhumane. But we have become desensitized in this era of Trump to cruelty, to inhumanity, to indecency, to dishonesty, to all of our great detriment. Why did you leave the party? Because the Republican Party—well, I’ll say this. I think the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are both broken institutions, the Republican Party more so. But while broken, they also are two of the most important institutions in world history for the advancement of human dignity and freedom despite all of their flaws. For me, I could no longer be a member of a political party that was so corrupted by Donald Trump that he consumed lock, stock and barrel, and the leadership of the political party fundamentally capitulated to him. The Republican Party’s not a conservative party anymore. It’s a party that’s populist, that’s nonsensical at times, that’s illiberal a lot of the time. And all of the things that I’ve believed in and have steadily believed in, I still believe in, but that institution is no longer the vessel for them. … The 2018 midterm elections. So Trump uses the [Brett] Kavanaugh story and immigration as a way to excite the voters. The media, Fox, stokes it, supports it totally. There are a lot of lies that are told about exactly what’s going on. What’s—what’s the result? As a man who believes in the system and in politics and the way it needs to—how campaigns are run, what was your view of what was taking place? Well, there was only one issue in the 2018 election. It wasn’t immigration; it wasn’t Brett Kavanaugh. It was Donald Trump. And the question before the nation in 2018 was, are we going to put a check on Donald Trump and the party of Trump? And the answer to that question was a decisive yes. And part of that decisive yes were millions and millions of Republican voters who voted Democratic for the first time in their lives. Right. This election was also fascinating in the Democratic Party because there was a split within the Democratic Party as well. And you’ve got progressives like AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and others who are— who rise up and are elected and become very important voices and define the divide within the Democratic Party. What’s going on within the Democratic Party, and in the end, how does it—how does it play out from your perspective? Well, you’re seeing a rising extreme in the Democratic Party that is the mirror opposite And I think Democrats make a big mistake if they answer Trumpism with dishonest progressivism. If you go out and say that we’re going to give everybody free health care, free education; give everybody reparations; … we can go and spend hundreds and hundreds of trillions of dollars—this is all fantasy. And in a political contest dominated by dishonesty and fantasy— and I would suggest that competing against Donald Trump is the equivalent of running a foot race against Usain Bolt. Not going to win a dishonesty contest with Donald Trump. And so in this moment, what Democrats, in my view, should be focused on is the assemblage of a grand coalition that is fidelitous to small “L” liberalism, to our democratic values, that Americans of all different types of political persuasion can come into and feel at home in. The progressive agenda represented by AOC, a, won’t pass; b, doesn’t have a national constituency; and c, could well be the reason that we see a second term for President Donald Trump. You think that’s a real possibility? Sure do. Trump’s rhetoric has been blamed for rising tensions, white supremacists sort of being more blatant in their demands and their marches and such, and it is tied directly to the El Paso massacre. What is your overview on the power of rhetoric and the repetition of that rhetoric, especially if it’s based on falsities? Well, Trump has debased his office; he’s debased the culture; he’s debased our political conversation, and he’s done it thousands and thousands and thousands of times over the last three years. He’s a racist; he’s a race baiter; he has worsened racial divisions in this country. He has energized the white supremacist movement in the country, and we know that’s true because the white supremacists thank him openly for doing so. Now, we see a president who divides, who stokes, who incites, who appeals in almost every instance not to the better angels but to the worst impulses, the worst instincts and the basest, darkest aspects of American history and American life. And what does this mean long term for your GOP, your party that you used to belong to? Well, the Republican Party will be completely transformed, probably fatally, by its contact with Donald Trump. And that may play out over five years, over 10 years. But when you look at the demographics in the country, there will always be a market for a conservative message. But Trumpism is cancerous, and everything it touches will ultimately be consumed by it. But far more important than the effect of the Republican Party is the effect on the country. It weakens American democracy. And I think it’s also important to understand that the Democratic Party will not remain untouched by Trumpism also. How so? Well, if crudity, if meanness, if vulgarity, if inhumanity become mainstreamed, if the lesson of this generation of progressive politicians is to be like Trump but with different policies, then the Democratic Party will be consumed by it as the Republican Party has. The—both sides coming up to the upcoming elections warn about apocalypse. The consequences if the other side wins are just unfathomable. Is this the new norm? Each election has always been the most important election in American history, and the men and women running for president have always made it clear that their candidacy represents the decisive moment and the last chance to avoid the apocalypse. It may be true in this election. This country will be changed in ways that will be difficult to unmake if Donald Trump gets a second term. … Donald Trump is cruel, vile; he’s debased his office; he’s incompetent. But it’s a mistake to dismiss him as inconsequential. We are at the end of the long life spans of the people who stormed the beaches in Normandy, who survived the death camps. And what Franklin Roosevelt’s goal when he envisioned the world that we live in today, when he architected the post-World War II U.S.-led liberal global order that was maintained from President Truman through President Obama, his aspiration wasn’t that it would endure forever. What he said is he wanted it to endure so long as every person who was living in the country during the war was alive on the earth. We’re at the end of that era. And we see Donald Trump unraveling that U.S.-led liberal global order. We see a regression of democracy all over the world. We have an illiberal president who assaults our institutions, our values, our democracy, who debases our culture. Another term for Donald Trump will validate his election; it will validate his behavior. He will be unchecked, and the damage will be much, much harder to undo if it can ever be undone. So we’ve talked about two presidents that were change candidates, that the public turned to because they were so angry with the status quo in Washington and in the country. What did we learn from that, and where do we go from here? Another change candidate but in another direction? I mean, as [David] Axelrod says, you always go to the opposite on the next election because the people are tired of what the last guy did. What’s your take on American politics and where we go from here? The Democratic Party’s obligation in this election is to produce a political leader who can defeat Donald Trump and to defeat Trumpism, not to defeat Trump by being a mirror of Trump, but to assemble a coalition that can inspire the nation to move past this depraved era and to face the challenges that the country has to face full-on, head-on. And so when we look at the Democratic Party right now, it’s no accident that Trump is labeling Democrats, and some of those Democratic politicians are making it easy for them when he calls them socialists, because Trump understands this: In America, the socialist loses to a sociopath in every election, every day of the week, and twice on Sunday. I just have one question about Trump’s use of social media. Some have said he’s the first politician to ever do that, but it seems that Sarah Palin was really pretty instrumental in using Facebook as a way to reach her audience. Can you just connect those two ideas? Well, I don’t—look, I don’t think they’re analogous. IPhones were invented in 2007, so the ubiquity of social media, the portability of social media, the instant nature of social media is something that didn’t exist in 2008 but certainly does now, and he uses it to great effect. … One other small thing is the use of divisive issues that he—that he falls back on, like the NFL. How powerful is that, and why does he do it? Well, Trump understands—Trump understands the power of symbols, and he understands the emotional resonance of those symbols to millions and millions of Americans. And so he is a—he is a very talented demagogue. He is a very skilled liar. He is an excellent communicator, and he speaks in a language that people can relate to and that people can understand. That’s an important thing for his political opponents to understand also. And this immigration issue, which is so central to—I mean, does it remain central in the upcoming elections? I mean, why? Does the potency wear off at some point? Well, what you’re seeing now is a reciprocal extremism from a lot of the Democrats. Now you watch the Democratic debates, it’s fair to ask, well, do you believe there should be a border at all? And so most Americans, overwhelmingly, Republicans and Democrats, believe yes, there ought to be a sovereign border. We should know who’s in the country. And so there’s no constituency for the most extreme positions that you’re seeing on the Democratic side. Trump understands that. And so we have an immigration debate that’s not just venal; it’s completely detached from reality. When the debate is we’re talking about Mexican-built walls, we are sending military to the border in publicity-stunt exercises as if there was a Panzer division about to break through the southern border en route to Washington. It’s a theater of the absurd playing out as opposed to an issue that needs to be reckoned with and dealt with in a humane, responsible and commonsensical way.

6 thoughts on “America’s Great Divide: Steve Schmidt Interview | FRONTLINE

  • This interview was conducted with FRONTLINE during the making of our two-part documentary series “America's Great Divide.”

    Watch Part One here: and Part Two here:

  • I miss Obama. He was smart, studied, understood world history & ever changing events. No mean mouth lies everyday, no viciously attacking someone or multiples EVERYDAY! I am so tired of trump stirring crap everyday, embarrassing us in front of allies, pulling out of every agreement Obama achieved, including climate & peace. Why hate NATO? WHY hate ALLIES? Maybe because they are smarter? I feel Trump is not able to keep up or understand what World Leaders discuss. Being ignorant of facts are Trump's fault, lying constantly to cover this dumbness does not change facts. The world either cheers or weeps at our demise. Our downfall is because of trump only thinks of himself, boasting in lies, tweeting & tv instead of studying briefs, his money making endeavors and his appearance. He just wants glory without the true Presidential WORK. RALLIES lol, still needing praise, are not as important as World understanding & World relationships

  • Sarah Palin was the Republican answer to the identity politics of the left. Now leadership is primarily based on appeals to common tribal identity / social status / educational level / sensibility regardless of competence or integrity.

  • I really appreciate Schmidt standing up for what he believes in, and never losing a true love of our Constitutional Democratic Republic.

  • It's interesting, the contrast between a broadly educated behind the scenes strategist like Steve Schmidt and an on-camera personality like Megyn Kelly. Naturally the latter gets far, far more views than the former even though she has nothing interesting or insightful to say. Perhaps folks, men mostly, just enjoy looking at her. Yep, that's the level of political understanding in our great country 😂 🤣 This interview is outstanding. Schmidt delivers analysis and penetrating observations like a jackhammer.

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