For three decades, Steve Schmidt has played at the highest levels of Republican politics, as a top strategist in presidential campaigns and as an adviser to other GOP candidates. He has also been one of the most vociferous critics of President Trump. On Wednesday, he made that opposition even more emphatic, renouncing his party affiliation and urging Americans to vote for Democrats in the November elections.
“Trump’s election did not spell doom for the Republican Party,” Schmidt said by telephone Wednesday while traveling. “The reality is that our Founders always predicted that one day there would be a president like Trump, and that’s why they designed the system of government the way they designed it. What they never imagined is the utter abdication of a co-equal branch of government, which we’re seeing now. . . . The definition of conservatism now is the requirement of complete and utter obedience to the leader.”
Schmidt’s angry and vocal criticism of the president has made him a staple of commentary on MSNBC and a hero to many liberals. For many Republicans, his early morning tweet announcing his decision was not surprising — the predictable conclusion to an evolution on public view for some years. A New Jersey native and later a California resident, he comes from a wing of the GOP that is nearly extinct. Long before Trump arrived, he was uncomfortable with the direction of his party on cultural and social issues, including same-sex marriage.
Like many who have made their livings inside one party or the other, however, he remained personally aligned, recognizing that all party coalitions include tensions and uneasy alliances. He was at odds with the evangelical wing of the GOP but noted that Franklin D. Roosevelt presided over a Democratic coalition of Northern liberals and African Americans and Southern segregationists.
Trump’s presidency and what Schmidt regarded as the obeisance of traditional Republicans brought him near a breaking point. Events of the past 10 days — he cited Trump’s praise for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, attacks on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the horrific images of immigrant children separated from their parents on the U.S.-Mexico border — finally tipped him over the edge.
He said he came to see the Republican Party as living in fear of the president and, as such, “a threat to the American republic and to liberal democracy.” The party, he said, “is irredeemable,” at risk of going the way of the Whig Party or, as it now is in California, running third in registration behind Democrats and “decline to state.”
Schmidt will not enroll in the Democratic Party. He will change his registration from Republican to independent. But in a two-party system, he sees the Democrats as the lone hope to prevent an ultimate unraveling of democratic norms. “The Democratic Party is called to be the sentinel of American democracy and liberty,” he said. “It is beyond bone-chilling to consider what happens if that party fails in that task, in that duty.”
Schmidt’s anger and analysis will strike many Republicans as alarmist and misguided. Some will see it as a bid for more publicity and airtime. Some officials from previous Republican administrations who are no fans of the president nonetheless believe the institutions of democracy are working about the way the Founders envisioned — providing resistance to the president, as many Republicans did this week about the border policy, or as the courts have done on other contentious issues, as leaders of Western democracies have done, and possibly as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III could do with his investigation, though the outcome of that is far from knowable.
Schmidt sees it differently. He sees an abdication by the congressional wing of the Republican Party to remain independent of the president when necessary. “There’s a crisis of cowardice in the Republican Party that is profoundly un-American and, in my reading, unprecedented,” he said. “No one is prepared to lay down their political career to do what’s right to oppose the corruption, the assault on institutions, the nonstop lying, the assault on objective truth.”
That’s not entirely true. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for whom Schmidt worked in the 2008 campaign, has been scathing in his criticism of the president. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has been so vocal about his differences with Trump that his political standing at home plummeted and he is not seeking reelection. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), another who is leaving the Senate, has regularly stated his alarm at the direction of some of the president’s policies. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) lost his seat in a primary race last week because he dared criticize the president at times.
And it was partly the opposition from Republicans that forced Trump to back down on his child-separation policy, a policy that had brought an overnight, heartfelt tweet from Spencer Cox, the lieutenant governor of Utah. “Can’t sleep tonight,” he wrote, “I know I shouldn’t tweet. But I’m angry. And sad. I hate what we’ve become. My wife wants to go & hold babies & read to lonely/scared/sad kids. I want to punch someone. Political tribalism is stupid. It sucks & it’s dangerous. We are all part of the problem.”
But to Schmidt, those are outliers, exceptions to a broader portrait of a party that he believes is populated by servile politicians unwilling to buck Trump’s loyal following. He called the party “utterly corrupted,” a force for “incendiary politics and crackpottery and a real threat to small ‘L’ liberalism in the U.S.-led liberal global order.”
Some analysts of American politics attach to Schmidt and McCain some blame for the rise of Trump. In their reading of the past decade, McCain’s decision to tap Sarah Palin, then the governor of Alaska, as his vice-presidential running mate was the starting point for the rise of the kind of nationalistic, populistic politics Trump employed to win the election.
Schmidt was one of those who suggested McCain look to Palin as a possible choice, based on his and others’ belief that McCain needed a dramatic selection to shake up the race and avoid certain defeat to Barack Obama. He wishes now that the choice had been different.
“My role in Palin is something that there’s not a day that has gone by that I don’t have regret about,” he said. “She was manifestly unfit” — which he said became more and more obvious after she was selected — “and she injected all manner of toxin into the political system. But she is not the cause of any of this.”
He charts the roots of the rise of Trump to later, after Palin resigned as governor and became — despite the harsh reviews of her candidacy for vice president — a prominent voice in the shifting politics of anger and disaffection. Trump, he said, profited from those changes. He decries the decision to welcome Trump into the 2012 Republican campaign despite his having pushed the false narrative that Obama was not born in the United States as a means to endear himself to a most extreme wing of the GOP. “Trump was legitimized by birtherism, and he was abetted by a billion-dollar incitement industry,” he said.
Schmidt’s decision to abandon his party and call for Democratic victories in November might not sway many in the GOP. He was already seen as outside the party family. And as he freely admits, his views of the president are well known and oft-stated at a volume not easily missed. With all that, he offered perspective on what led him to Wednesday’s tweet.
“Politics always fascinated me,” he said. “In my 20s, I was involved in politics and, as I look in the mirror, not for the noblest of purposes. It was for sport. In my 30s, I believed my candidates were better, but there was a lot of ambition involved. Today, I look at it as a way to make fundamental choices for the country, and I’m extremely worried. There is poison coursing through it. . . . I’m going to continue to speak out as best as I’m able.”