Given Republicans’ slavish loyalty to Trump throughout the impeachment process, they are justified in concluding that the party is now as much of a problem as its leader. “Congressional Republicans have embraced and copied Mr. Trump’s cruelty and defended and even adopted his corruption,” they write. “Mr. Trump and his enablers have abandoned conservatism and longstanding Republican principles and replaced it with Trumpism, an empty faith led by a bogus prophet.”
I caught up by phone with Schmidt, who has run a slew of Republican presidential, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns. I asked him about the mentality among a select group of Republicans who simultaneously think Trump should be impeached but are waiting to see who the Democrats nominate before they decide whether to vote against Trump in 2020. Schmidt said, “Here’s the reality. Donald Trump will be impeached. He’ll be acquitted. He’ll claim vindication.” He warned that we should not “underestimate his ability to gaslight the American people” in convincing them that the Democrats are the threat to America. The overly cautious stance I described, he said, “is understandable, but it speaks to the tribalism in American politics. It is an illogical statement made by a logical person.”
He stressed that the burden is on Democrats to understand this mind-set and elect someone who can defeat Trump. He referred to the British election: “American and British politics have always orbited each other,” he said, pointing to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and other parallel leaders. “We just saw an example with Jeremy Corbyn about what happens when the loony left is unfiltered.” Democrats, he warned, must “nominate someone with the broadest possible coalition.”
I asked him why there is not more of a united Democratic campaign to pressure individual Republican senators on impeachment. He replied, “The Democrats have a structural disadvantage in that they are in a nominating process with a record number of candidates.” That all-encompassing struggle results in a “lack of focus on the existential threat” posed by Trump’s impeachable conduct. In other words, they generally cannot use the debates or resources to focus solely on Trump so long as they are jousting with one another.
When faced with the great danger posed by Trump, Schmidt said, “What is most consequential is the Republicans’ flirtation with authoritarianism.” Instead of any principle or policy, Republicans have made defense of Trump their sole imperative. “Truth itself is a casualty,” he observed. “And without truth there is no accountability.” In impeachment and in their ongoing defense of whatever Trump does or says, he said, "You see wholesale abdication and subordination of a whole branch of government.” (It is noteworthy that, as we spoke, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected Democrats’ appeal to have new witnesses appear — a kind of “abdication worthy of Edward VIII," Schmidt joked, in reference to the British monarch who gave up the throne.)
I asked him specifically about Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), and whether he would defend at the very least a fair trial with witnesses. “I have hope and confidence in Romney,” Schmidt responded. “If you are worth millions, are 73 years old and have any sense of self-awareness, you have to ask, ‘What it is it you are doing there?'” He continued, “This is an hour in which you are called to do your duty. There is nothing to suggest Mitt Romney won’t rise to the occasion.” As for the rest, Schmidt pointed out that they all have to take an oath. “Does the oath mean something, or doesn’t it?”
Giving Democrats some “tough love,” Schmidt warned, “In 2018, there were millions of Republicans who voted for Democrats to put a check on Trump.” If Democrats are not careful, “Millions will turn around and elect Trump to put a check on Democrats.” He argued that there has never been a more unpopular idea to run on than Medicare-for-all, an idea rejected by union members, teachers, middle management and others. “The cost isn’t in dollars; it is in Trump’s ability to demagogue it to victory,” Schmidt told me. He said he hoped that Democrats will select a candidate who speaks to our deepest values and shared concerns, who shows “toughness but not meanness” and who can communicate, “We are all in this together.”
Schmidt argued, “This experiment in democracy has been defended by courage that beggars the imagination.” We cannot allow ourselves to throw away the achievements of those who have “sacrificed everything” through wars, civil rights battles and other travails, Schmidt said. That, he continued, “would mean the death of the idea that ‘all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.'” We need a better generation of leaders now, Schmidt said derisively, who are not “afraid of a mean tweet.”
Whether Schmidt and his band of patriotic Republicans can help end the Trump presidency and Trumpism depends on Americans’ willingness to perceive the grave danger to our democracy and Democrats’ ability to rise to choose a nominee wisely. At least the Lincoln Project founders can say to their children and grandchildren that they gave their all to defend the deeply held principles on which this country was founded. That is far more than many will be able to do.