News & Politics

Stuart Stevens Is the Biggest GOP Defector Yet—and Very Different From His Pals in the Lincoln Project

"It Was All a Lie" is a glum confessional unlike anything published in the Trump era.

Why do liberals so guiltlessly throng to the Never Trump movement? In poring over the latest tell-all memoir, or inhaling all those ads from The Lincoln Project, one could wager that Democrats have voluntarily consumed more Republican talking points in 2020 than their entire adult lives. The reason is simple, of course: It’s exceedingly fun to watch the other side get needled. And when it comes to needling, no one does it better than the anti-Trumpers, who are piping straight into the Republican auditory cortex like Hanoi Hannah on the Mekong Delta.

The bipartisan appeal of the Never-Trump message comes from its simple principle: Trump is a perversion of the Republican Party. “Mr. Trump and his enablers have abandoned conservatism and longstanding Republican principles,” wrote the leaders of The Lincoln Project in their founding declamation. Accordingly, this view has taken on a De Gaullian air, touting the return of the party in exile. The real Republican party is catalogued by its achievements—building highways, favoring immigrants, founding the EPA. On the other hand, Trumpers aren’t Republicans at all, but engaged in a sort of hostile occupation.

Yet by casting Trump this way—as a perversion of their ideals—the Never-Trumpers have cleaved the world neatly in half. In their tableau, there are Resisters, and there are Imposters: a war between adversarial tribes, which represent the only two kinds of Republicans left on earth.

In fact, there’s a third kind of Republican: His name is Stuart Stevens. Regarded as one of the party’s most talented political gurus—a body of work that includes steering Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012—Stevens may arguably be the Republican Party’s most prominent defector. Stevens despises Trump. He works for the Lincoln Project, too. But that is where Stevens parts company with the Never-Trump movement, and in exceptional ways.

While the Lincoln Project argues that Trump is perverting the Republican Party, Stevens doesn’t think Trump has perverted anything: Trump is the Republican Party, Stevens believes, and the Republican Party is Trump. He thinks that there is no reclaiming his former party—and thus no inspiring appeals for better angels left to bother with. Reflecting on a four-decade career in American politics, Stevens has become convinced that Trump was not an aberrant zigzag. He was fate. “I saw a lot of this stuff, but I just chose to believe that this kind of dark side was the recessive gene, not the dominant one,” he says. “I was wrong.”

Stevens has indexed this argument in a new memoir-cum-confession, out this month, with a title that accurately conveys its morose contents: It Was All a Lie.

As a memoir, It Was All a Lie is unlike anything published in the Trump era: a photo negative of the genre of self-justifying apparatchiks, which propelled writers like Cliff Sims, Anonymous and John Bolton onto the bestseller lists. Stevens isn’t out to convince readers of his heroism or the soundness of Republican principles. He’s written a history of the modern GOP from an insider’s perspective, as well as something deeply personal, often self-flagellating. It bears less resemblance with any Trump tome, and more with Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater”—a memoir launched by adulations of youth and conquest, before its descent into gothic horror and pitch-black nightmares force a reckoning on its exhausted author, who must take an accounting of a long, bleak life.

In this case, Stevens’ drug of choice was winning—something he was exceedingly good at—before he watched the party transform into something that repelled him. 

Stevens is disconsolate. “None of it meant anything…It was all a lie,” he writes—on page one. Page two: “It is a strange, melancholy feeling to turn sixty-five and realize that what you have spent a good portion of your life working for and toward was not only meritless but also destructive.” Then, on page three: “I refused to believe what Donald Trump proved about Republicans, about myself, could be true.” By page 4, you’re hoping someone will take Stevens’ shoelaces away.

When I called Stevens, I found him alone in the woods of Stowe, Vermont, and seemingly dying to speak to someone. He called the book a work of “sadness and self-reflection,” something he was compelled to write.

“I feel like I’m watching a friend drink themselves to death, and I don’t know what to do about it,” he said, as he described watching the candidates he’d gotten elected suddenly capitulate to Trump. His tone wasn’t the pedagogy of a teetotaler, but the profound guilt of the friend who supplied the bottle. “I was part of it! I was in the middle of it all,” he said, repeating a theme of his book. “I bear as much responsibility as anybody else.”

The book is structured as a survey of the conservative values he thinks were betrayed, from free trade to foreign policy. In that sense, it’s a typical summary of Reagan conservatism. But Stevens’ opening chapter gives pride of place to a topic rarely afforded much ink by conservative strategists: Race, which his chapter calls “the Original Republican Sin.”

Whatever denial and self-deceit that culminated with Trump begins here, Stevens argues. On his first campaign in 1978, he was taught how to divide and diminish the Black vote. His assessment of past Republican presidents is more or less unsparing, writing, “There is a direct line from the more genteel prejudice of Ronald Reagan to the white nationalism of Donald Trump.” He’s unsparing of himself, too, reflecting on how ads for Mitt Romney in 2012, which criticized the Obama administration’s welfare policy, should have triggered alarm bells. He calls the GOP “the de facto White Party of America.”

In some respects, Stevens is the opposite of a country club Republican. He grew up near Jackson, Mississippi, raised by racially liberal parents who were active in the Civil Rights movement. While he was busy climbing the ranks of Republican politics, in his private life Stevens cut a reputation as a thrill-seeking bon vivant—traveling the globe to race competitively in ski marathons and bicycle races, sampling all the Michelin restaurants of Europe, and writing several travel books and TV scripts. One profile in 2012, during his management of the Romney campaign, concluded that Stevens “doesn’t even regard matters of life and death as life-or-death,” much less campaigns—which he instead regards “as an exhilarating form of sport.”

How the dauntless sportsman turned into a crestfallen mope is the subtext of Stevens’ memoir. It largely begins with Romney’s defeat. That loss infamously prompted Republicans to write the so-called autopsy report: a dire warning that the GOP needed fundamental changes if it wished to remain competitive, which would require attracting a multi-racial and multi-generational coalition of voters. Beginning in 2015, however, Donald Trump began doing pretty much the exact opposite—prompting commentators to suggest that Trump had proved the worthlessness of the autopsy. Perhaps he had showed his shrewdness for victory, too, however cold-blooded, thus casting Romney as a feckless loser.

But Stevens thinks the autopsy report has been misunderstood: It wasn’t strictly a strategic document at all, he argues, but an ethical one. “It was written not only as a political necessity, but a moral imperative,” he said. “It said, if you’re going to be entitled to govern the greatest country on earth—this big, cacophonous, loud, noisy country—you need to be more like that, and represent it.”

But Trump did win, and once he did, “it was almost like this audible sigh of relief” for Republicans, says Stevens, who now “could take the autopsy and throw it out the window.” The new strategy doubled-down on the party’s predominantly white base, just as Trump did—scratching out a victory in 2016 with 46.1 percent of the vote (although getting a smaller percentage of the popular vote than Romney did in his loss, as Stevens likes to point out).

On the phone, Stevens’ commentary was shot through with confessional diatribes, turning a political gab fest into something that felt more like a therapy session. “I was drawn to politics because of campaigns—not because I thought there was some higher, greater good to be served by government,” he sighed, as he described his guilt for the fifth or sixth time. “I thought that was normal. I never wrestled with the totality of the consequence of it. And in retrospective, I should have.” He paused for some time. “That was a mistake.”

But a good therapist challenges their patient’s persistent negative thoughts. Was it really all a lie? Did truly none of it matter?

Stevens was adamant. “The Republican Party is against everything I thought it was for,” he said, ticking through a list: The importance of character, personal responsibility, free trade, strength against Russia, pro-legal immigration. In his view, the party had reversed on all of them. “Now we’re the anti-character-counts party. I mean, actively—that’s the official position,” he said. “We have a president… who from the White House defends a woman at the center of an international child rape ring, and wishes here well. ‘So what?’” He laughed bitterly. “With Ronald Reagan, we said words could help bring down the Berlin Wall. Now we’re like, ‘It’s just words.’”

He compared the GOP to OPEC.  “The Republican party, what does it stand for? I have no idea,” he said. “It’s a cartel. Nobody asks OPEC, ‘What’s the moral purpose of OPEC?’ It’s to sell oil. What’s the moral purpose of the Republican Party? It’s to elect Republicans.” He called it “a syndicate, not an association of political beliefs.”

In at least one respect, Stevens has been vindicated. This summer, for the first time in history, the Republican Party chose not to adopt an official party platform—the complex, meticulous language that traditionally forms the two parties’ governing ideologies. Perhaps they thought a rancorous policy squabble would be a costly indulgence during a pandemic. But many see an indication that conservative politics have gone the way of Louis IX: The leader is the platform.

At the bottom of Stevens’ argument, however, isn’t how wayward his party has gone—or how lost he feels from it—but whether the Romney wing can ever surge back. He sees some hope in a small brood of East Coast governors whom Stevens helped get elected: Phil Scott in Vermont, Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, and Larry Hogan, the outspoken governor of Maryland. But he doesn’t see them sailing far against the headwinds of Trump. “If that was the case, we’d see it—we’d see great clamor for a Larry Hogan to run [for president], or a Charlie Baker,” he said. “We don’t see that.”

Whereas The Lincoln Project tells of a bright future around the corner, Stevens is despondent. The party will continue to win races, of course. For a longer foreshadow of the party’s prospects, however, and especially for the presidency, Stevens looks to California—where the GOP routinely doesn’t finish second, but often third. “I think that’s the future,” he said.

“There is a market for a center-right party,” he continued, adding that “eventually, some coherent Phoenix will rise.” But not before the party can completely dispense with Trumpism, he says. And Stevens thinks that’s a long way off.

Stevens’ pessimism isn’t the only thing distinguishing him from his Never-Trump counterparts: The once-top strategist in Republican politics now says he’s a Democrat. He means this more as a spiritual designation, rather than a change of registration, and much less ratifying a progressive worldview. Still, the implications are not lost on him. “I think you have to be involved in the system in a way, which means you have to be a Republican or a Democrat. So, my decision is, I’ll support Democratic candidates,” he explained. “Until I don’t.” 

Odd as it sounded, it was better than the alternative. “It seems like I’ve spent enough of my life living in a fantasy world of politics,” he told me. “I don’t mean to continue that.”

Benjamin Wofford
Staff Writer

Benjamin Wofford is a contributing editor at Washingtonian.