Is the GOP Worth Saving? Rick Wilson's Not Sure, But He's Staying Anyway
"The Party of Lincoln is going to become the party of pissed off 55-plus white guys with GEDs," warns Republican strategist Rick Wilson, author of Everything Trump Touches Dies. Also: "There's a giant market opportunity for the Libertarian Party."
Wilson, who has worked campaigns for George H.W. bush, Rudy Giuliani, and Evan McMullin, says that the "question of our time" is whether there "is any party out there right now that speaks to a philosophy of limited government" and "fiscal restraint," and that "believes strongly in individual liberty." Point out that that sounds an awful lot like the Libertarian Party, Wilson will say, "I think there's a giant market opportunity for the Libertarian Party to get a little more smart about how they run their things."
So why the hell is this man still a Republican?
I had a chance to ask Wilson that question and many more last week when I guest-hosted SiriusXM Insight's Stand UP! with Pete Dominick program. The frequent cable-news commentator was characteristically blunt about retiring House Majority Leader Paul Ryan ("he seems broken by Donald Trump and absolutely petrified to cross him"), the leadership of the House Freedom Caucus ("I think they've dismissed themselves from being serious people, probably pretty much permanently"), and Democrats ("as always, the Democratic Party will do the dumbest possible thing"). Meanwhile, he had some interesting things to say about how Puerto Rico's Hurricane Maria is impacting politics in Wilson's home state of Florida.
The following is an edited and shortened transcript of our conversation.
Welch: Let's talk about that phrase. So, the obvious retort that I want you to engage with is, "Look, he touched the Republican primary, and he won. He touched this race, and he became president." What, specifically, are the things that he has touched that are already dead?
Rick Wilson: Well, one of the big things he's touched is the actual underpinnings of any kind of remaining conservative philosophy in the Republican Party. We are no longer a party that believes in fiscal discipline. We are increasingly a party that doesn't believe in the law. And we're less and less a party that thinks that conservatism is about principles and policies, and more about a man and a mob.
A lot of the damage he's done, the short-term damage that's pretty evident, is he's broken a generation of conservative leadership, who now have done backflips to pretend [they agree with him] and to normalize everything that he says. You've got guys like [Sens.] Ted Cruz and Marco [Rubio] and everyone else who, if Donald Trump's name wasn't "Donald Trump," they would be laughing hysterically at how ridiculous of an authoritarian he is.
Welch: You've been a Republican for a long time, and active. Has it been a large surprise to see so many people being revealed as either opportunistic or just kind of gormless?
Rick Wilson: Well, it has been a surprise to me. Because look, I'm a realist and I've been in the behind-the-curtain side of politics for 30 years, and so I understand that there's no West Wing playing out in the Republican Party, OK? I reckon there were a lot of people that were opportunists, were playing the game. But I also thought there were some people who believed in things, who I knew personally, who I thought believed in some of the actual things they said.
And it turns out that either they are too scared to actually express it publicly, or they're—and I outline this in the book—there are three basic broad categories: There are the opportunistic, like [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell. His contempt for Trump is not a giant secret in Washington, but he's playing the ballgame, he's getting things done he wants to accomplish.
Then there are the folks who are just cowards. And I put Paul Ryan in that category more and more, because he just seems terrified of the man; he seems broken by Donald Trump and absolutely petrified to cross him. And I think you and I both know Paul Ryan's not a dumb man; he's a very smart guy, he's got a lot of ideas he wanted to execute.
But it turns out none of his dreams will come true. Not one. Including a successful tax bill that [was supposed to] be a legacy item for him. That thing has got so much poison built into it, so much crony capitalism built into it, and so many trip wires. The tax bill, to sustain itself over time, requires roughly 5 percent economic growth every quarter, forever and ever.
Welch: That sounds reasonable.
Rick Wilson: Yeah, also I'm going to ride down a parade with a unicorn that farts rainbows. These are things that are just not legacy-builders in the end. It's going to look like a caucus that sold itself rather cheaply to Donald Trump, because they were scared of his Twitter followers, they're scared of Fox News.
Welch: Those are two categories—the opportunists, the cowards. What's the third?
Rick Wilson: Well, there's cowards, opportunists, and there are retirees. Guys who are, like, out the door. And then there's sort of the amorphous, small cadre of true [Trump] believers. There are a few—I would say in the House, there are between 40 and 50 guys who are actual Trumpers, who are actual Donald Trump cult fanatics, who really actually believe that this is the new wave of conservative government. This is the Republican Party of the future.
The opportunists are by far the most effective class. The cowards are the largest. And you see these guys who are retiring, and they're totally liberated.
Welch: Yeah, they're like a former Mexican president who's suddenly against the drug war.
Rick Wilson: Exactly. Exactly. It's easy now.
Welch: That vision you're sketching out of a political party; does it deserve to exist? Does the Republican Party as we know it, or as you have known it, given that it has been revealed to be this now, is it worth staying a Republican?
Rick Wilson: That's kind of the question of our time, is: Is there any party out there right now that speaks to a philosophy of limited government? Is there any party out there that speaks to a philosophy of fiscal restraint? Is there any party out there that believes strongly in individual liberty?
Welch: The Libertarian Party, three for three, just right there.
Rick Wilson: Yeah. Unfortunately, it's less and less obvious that that's the Republican Party. And I think there's a giant market opportunity for the Libertarian Party to get a little more smart about how they run their things. Which, getting Libertarians to organize around a single principle has always been sort of an uphill climb.
And the Democratic Party, they have a market opportunity here. Which, as always, the Democratic Party will do the dumbest possible thing. And so instead of saying, "Oh, my God, there's a huge opportunity for us to be in the middle and say that we're going to be the ones who are fiscally responsible, we're going to be the ones who are going to reform these entitlement programs," instead, they're going to go [Democratic Socialist] and that sort of thing, and say that's their future.
Welch: Well, the counter argument to that that they would say is, "Hey look, the Democratic Socialists actually didn't win a lot of primaries this time around." When there was an establishment candidate and someone else, they didn't win all that much.
But it's funny, when I mentioned that I was going be talking to you on the Twitter machine earlier, the number one response from people was, "Ask him why he's still a Republican." So why are you, if you are indeed, still a Republican? Why aren't you a Libertarian, or independent, or Democratic, or anything else? Why are you who you are, Rick Wilson?
Rick Wilson: In part, because I'm a stubborn bastard. In part, because it irritates them even more that I stayed in the party. They would love to say, "Oh, he just ran away. He's a liberal Democratic cuck shit, blah, blah, blah," or whatever. [Instead] I'm a human middle finger right now to the Trump GOP.
There was a little brouhaha last week—I had given an interview, and they were like, "Well, do you want Democrats to win the House?" I'm like, "I want people to go on a case-by-case basis." Because increasingly there are a number of Democrats this year in the field who are more conservative than their Republican counterparts when it comes to economics, which blows my mind to say.
Welch: Can you name a race that come to mind?
Rick Wilson: Dan McCready in North Carolina in 9th [district]. The guy's a fiscal conservative and his opponent has gone full Trump trade war.
I'm an American first, I'm a conservative second, Republican third. So what the party is today is a dead man walking, demographically. Trump has bought them a future where the Party of Lincoln is going to become the party of pissed off 55-plus white guys with GEDs. This is not a party with a future right now outside of Trumpism, and that is a very bounded and narrow demographic appeal.
Welch: Talk about what's happening politically in Florida; it seems kind of fascinating. One representative, Carlos Curbelo, is a pretty interesting guy, a Republican there in a Hilary district. And last time I looked, he seems to be doing pretty well in his re-election.
Rick Wilson: Well, I'll tell you why: He has publicly opposed Donald Trump. He has publicly in his district said, "This is not my guy. This is not what I believe in. Here's what I believe in." He has a work ethic and he's been vocal about being opposed to Donald Trump, especially on matters of immigration and how Donald Trump treats other human beings.
Welch: How has the hurricane diaspora and immigration politics affected Florida's political calculus, it being the mother of all swing states there?
Rick Wilson: If you look at the last five presidents, the difference in voting totals is about 20,000 votes on average. The Puerto Rican diaspora that came to Florida after the hurricane—and frankly there was a lot coming in before that also—as much as Donald Trump doesn't believe it, they are American citizens, and they can vote the day they get here. It has altered politics in Florida quite a bit.
One of the reasons that Rick Scott is actually competitive against Bill Nelson is that the day the hurricane hit, Rick Scott started turning state resources to help the Puerto Rican community here, and to the ones that were coming here, and he went down to Puerto Rico, I think five or seven times, something like that. He worked the problem and the policy, and so he's got a little bit of a shield on that.
A lot of other Republicans, though, have underestimated the fact that in the last 10 years, there are about 700,000 new Hispanic voters who have come here from either Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, or Haiti. These voters come from voting pools that are traditionally Democratic, and that Republicans have either ignored, belittled, or walked away from, except for Rick Scott. And he's reaping some benefits from that; he's actually right-side up with Puerto Rican voters in his approval ratings.
A lot of [Republicans] are underestimating the impact this is going to have on future redistricting in the state of Florida. And when those counts get done in 2020, you're going to see in the state Senate and the state House and the congressional delegation, the Democrats are probably going to pick up seats.
And so the embracing of Trumpism, which Hispanics roundly hate across the board, it's a downstream risk for Florida Republicans, and one they're not really grappling with at this point. It's political malpractice, but a lot of them are much more concerned about, "Did the president tweet something nasty about me? Does Fox News say that I'm an open-borders shill?" And then the crazies come out of the woodwork if they propose something that treats people, say, from Puerto Rico, as if they are fellow Americans, which they are.
Welch: Let's talk about stuff Trump touches that dies, or that might die. When you referenced the tax bill earlier—you've certainly heard it, I've certainly heard it, when people who are not Democrats talk about, "Well, at least we got some stuff under Trump," they mention three things, four maybe. Policy-wise, they mention three things, which is: tax cuts, the judicial appointments and nominees that have come through, and deregulation, or the slowdown of the regulatory state, which has exceeded [expectations].
One of the worries that I hear from people who are, let's say, libertarian-leaning, or who like a couple of those things, is that association of those policy aims or achievements with this person will make those things toxic. Do you think that's true?
Rick Wilson: Well, I think there are two things. The first is, I agree with that basic premise. The second part of it is, the policy changes he's making are not legislative, they are ephemeral, because they are based on executive orders. They're based on internal tweaks with a pen and a phone, like we used to mock Barack Obama for. And because they're ephemeral, if you don't think President, let's just say Michael Avenatti or Kamala Harris would on day one have a portfolio of every regulation that the Trump team created by executive order, to redo them by executive order, you're smoking something.
As a constitutional conservative, I dislike executive orders. I mean, I think the executive has that power, however I think a better outcome is something that is achieved by legislative victory. Those things are permanent. Those things are statutory. Those things have—pending court review—those things have a life to them that isn't based on the political whim of the day.
It's like the crappy kid on the kickball team who somehow has the ball for two seconds and thinks he's won the whole game. Everybody else is about to pile on him down the line. Don't declare a victory in the regulatory war when you've done something that can be flipped off with a stroke of a pen from the next Democratic president.
Welch: You mentioned the phrase constitutional conservative to describe yourself. There's a pack of those self-described people in the House associated with the Freedom Caucus, including at least one or two that I'm fond of; Justin Amash comes to mind. But the head of the Freedom Caucus these days, Mark Meadows, is a guy who formed the Freedom Caucus in 2015 by saying, "We really need to take our constitutional duties seriously as a coequal branch, interrogating the executive branch." What's it like for you to watch your fellow constitutional conservatives run the Laura Ingraham gamut on a daily basis, talking about impeaching various members of the Justice Department and echoing Trump's language about witch hunts and all this?
Rick Wilson: Well look, I think they've clowned themselves. And I think what they've demonstrated is that their adherence to the Constitution is about a mile wide and inch deep.
The behavior of the Mark Meadowses of the world, I mean, it's guys who would have been screaming bloody murder if Barack Obama was engaged in the same kind of Trump-style behavior and trying to tear down institutions that were investigating him, are now completely given over to the Trump cult. I think they've dismissed themselves from being serious people, probably pretty much permanently. It just came at the price of their integrity, because they wanted to make sure that they were on the side of Fox News, the fourth branch of government, and Donald Trump's Twitter machine. And because of that, there's no depth they won't stoop to.
Welch: So the fourth category of reasons that I hear people say that they've either made their peace with Trump or kind of like him, who you might otherwise think, "Hey, maybe he goes against your principles," is a non-policy aspect: It's that it's a great way to own the libs—I love the taste of liberal tears in the morning! The fact that he drives the media nuts is just pleasing to some people on such a basic level. Is that, in the final analysis, kind of the main glue that's holding together what remains of the Republican coalition? This kind of animus toward perceived cultural elites sneering down at their perceived inferiors?
Rick Wilson: Absolutely. And it's Tom Nichols' The Death of Expertise, and the idea that owning the libs and causing people to engage in moral panics and being the party of the stompy-foot rage is a substitute for conservatism. I think it portrays an incredible sort of inferiority complex that I've seen in the party for a long time. It's the country party versus the city party. And it's the evangelicals and the social conservatives versus the economic conservatives.
This whole moment when [Sarah] Palin became a national figure and became a Fox News star, you saw this merger between politics and entertainment that was a real preview. They didn't care that she wasn't a serious person. They didn't care that her command of the English language was indifferent on the best of days. And they love this idea that you can have this crude buffoon of a president now, who owns the libs and causes these rages, and causes all this anxiety among educated elites. It's an incredible, like, "Hey, I remember my first beer!" moment for a lot of these people. They think it's a substitute for real politics at the end of the day. But it's not a governing philosophy, it's not a governing strategy. It's not something that sells you outside of an increasingly small base….It's juvenile. It's petty. And it doesn't seem serious.
Welch: Is it possible that it was always like this, and Trump was just the belated wake-up call for the likes of you to realize that it wasn't all about beautiful Burkean ideas and intellectual consistency?
Rick Wilson: Yeah, I've had a lot of moments here in the last two years where I realize that I drank the Burkean Kool-Aid a little bit, and believed that other people were serious about it and that we were trying to actually reform government in a way that would make it smaller, smarter, and better, and more adherent to the operating system of the Constitution. But I was quite obviously mistaken in that regard.
Welch: A lot of the people who are #NeverTrump heroes or #Resistance Republicans of some sort—Bill Kristol!—they willingly played to the Republican base for years, for decades, kind of winking and nudging whenever they had a challenging election coming up. [John] McCain would build the dang fence in 2010 when he was running against J.D. Hayworth, and then go back to comprehensive reform when he was safely back in the Senate. Isn't there some blood on the hands of the establishment here?
Rick Wilson: I fully admit that there were a lot of times in the last 15 years that guys like me would build ads that we knew exactly who we were talking to in the party to get them fired up. And we would build messages and communication tools that would encourage them. I write about it, almost a whole chapter, on the fact that we let this monster out of the box. And we trained it and we built it and those folks were out there.
And unfortunately, what we realized way too late was, the first side of this equation, the Democrats and the Republicans, we basically built nuclear weapons. We had this sort of deterrent effect with those weapons for a long time—we always promised we may poke our base, but we would never unleash them fully. Likewise on the other side. And unfortunately, we let Donald Trump get the keys to the missiles.
And so now he's appealing only to the furthest, edgiest core of the base. And there are some people there that I've had to come to the grudging realization that they love the racial politics. They love the ethnic politics. They're delighted by it. They think this is a winning theory of the case for the future. And I regret the role I played in some of that.
There's this philosophy we all embraced: Just win baby, say what you gotta say, get over the finish line, all that stuff. Well, eventually, there's a sort of moral reckoning on it. And in a lot of ways, my book is my moral reckoning for myself, and not just for where the party went wrong.
Welch: Thanks you Rick Wilson for joining us and confessing your sins to a national radio audience or broadcast.
Rick Wilson: I shall say five Hail Donalds.
Welch: What's in the immediate future, as far as you are concerned? I recall seeing you on the campaign trail in 2016 for Evan McMullin; I don't think that we're going to see a big McMullin challenge in 2020. What are you going to be focusing on in terms of a Trump challenge two years from now?
Rick Wilson: Well, it's a little soon for that for me, because I've honestly been rather wrapped up in the writing of the book for a little bit, and I'm going to be out doing the book tour for the next few months.
But obviously 2020 is going to be a moment where conservatives have to make a decision. They have to say: Do we want to be the party of Donald Trump forever, with all of its downsides? Or are we going to take it seriously and put somebody forward who represents our values, win or lose?
There's a value sometimes to taking a stand. There's a value sometimes to standing up and saying, "Listen, I'm not going to just lay down here and accept the status quo that an authoritarian, anti-conservative movement is acceptable in this country." Unfortunately, that challenge is a longshot no matter who it is, whether it's a Republican or independent.