Rick Wilson has helped countless Republicans win elections over the years as one of the most sought-after GOP media consultants. His work, by his own admission, has contributed to the hyper-partisan, zero-sum political world that we live in today. But that was all B.T., or “Before Trump.” Wilson is now using his mastery of the dark arts of politics to defeat the leader of the very party he helped build, as laid out in his new book, “Running Against the Devil: A Plot to Save America from Trump — and Democrats from Themselves.”
This interview first appeared in Salon
Wilson’s previous book, “Everything Trump Touches Dies,” reached No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list in 2018. He recently visited Salon’s New York studio to shared his blunt, practical approach to beating Trump. His book is not about ideology, he emphasized, It’s about how to defeat the racist, sexist, grifter who threatens the future of our nation. It’s truly that simple.
Forget policy papers and wonky policy discussions, Wilson says. To beat Trump, make the entire election about his corruption, sexism, cruelty and bigotry. Wilson believes that if the 2020 election is framed as a choice between four more years of toxic Trump or another person — virtually any person — Americans will pick the non-Trump on the ballot. He advises Democrats to “forget national polls” and focus on winning the Electoral College, not the popular vote — meaning, essentially, that they must ignore the deep blue states on the coasts and put all available resources into winning key swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.
Whether Wilson’s “tough love” approach (as he puts it) encourages you or enrages you, watch our Salon Talks episode or read a transcript of our conversation below, edited as usual for clarity and length.
I have to say with all sincerity, “Running Against the Devil” is a must-read book for progressives, moderates, anyone who wants a roadmap to defeat Donald Trump. If that’s your focus, this is the book you have to read.
That’s my focus. And the book isn’t about ideology. It isn’t about policy. It is about a practical, political approach to beating Donald Trump, which I think people on the left, the center, and the few of us on the right who held onto a shred of our principles believe is vital.
Was the Republican Party just looking for the white supremacist savior like Trump? Were they primed for this? Or did he really change the party?
You know, it was like a bunch of black swans landed at one time. You have the confluence of reality TV, of Fox News, of Donald Trump with celebrity culture, of a field of Republicans who — none of them were superstars at the end of the day, no matter how much we wanted them to be. You had Hillary Clinton as the [Democratic] nominee, who had this 30-year pre-existing condition where the Republicans had turned her into Satan incarnate with their voters.
So this moment happened, and Donald Trump’s moral failings and his racism and everything else about this guy led a party that had been told for years, the only thing you’re missing is somebody who will blow up everything. You just want to destroy everything. I mean, it’s the Joker candidacy. And they got it.
Right now there are three categories of Republicans. A fairly small fraction of them, like a third maybe, really believe in this crap. Really believe that Trumpism is the new way. They treat him as a king. A third of the Republicans are terrified of the guy. They are so scared of a tweet that they hide under their covers every day. And a third of them are like opportunists. They want the judges, they want the regulations for their donors, that sort of crap.
The confluence of all those things that came together at one moment gave us this terrible, terrible thing. And look, all of us who worked in the party for a long time, we recognized there were different fractions and factions in the party. I’ve never been a social conservative, I’m not an evangelical. Everybody has given up in the Republican Party of today. All of those predicates. They don’t believe in anything. They believe in Trump, whether they believe in his terror over them or their love of him. It leads to a personality cult, not a political party.
As you worked as a political consultant doing the dark arts—and we talked about that with your first book— you, on some level, contributed to the hyper-partisan climate.
This monster that you built, in a way, found the living manifestation that could lead it.
Yeah, unfortunately, there was always a dynamic pressure inside the party. The fiscal people and the individual liberty people would keep the social conservatives from getting too out of control. The social conservatives would keep the fiscal people from getting too out of control. The foreign policy people, this tripartite internal, the three-legged stool they used to call it. Well with Trump, that all fell apart. It’s all gone. It’s all id. It’s everything that’s in their heads. They’re told, “You can have whatever you want, we’re going to burn it all down.” And that’s what they’re doing.
Are you still a Republican?
You’re out of the party?
Look, I haven’t changed my voter registration yet, mainly because I want to vote against the son of a bitch twice. But I’m not a Republican in any political sense anymore.
Is the party gone?
Yeah, the party’s dead. The party’s gone. I don’t see any pathway for it to come back. There is nobody in this party who feels a need for reconciliation. They don’t want to face their truth. Calling me a former Republican is accurate in every meaningful way, but nobody in the party wants to look at what’s been created.
They don’t want to look at the expansion of government, the expansion of debt, the expansion of executive power, the expansion of mainstream abuse of people. All those things are repugnant to a conservative. I’m not doing the “no true Scotsman.” I’m doing the actual heart of Burkean conservatism, which is individual liberty and respect and dignity should be part of what you believe in. This guy is the antithesis of all that. He’s breeding a generation of people who believe abuse is beneficial.
Cruelty is his currency and he enjoys it. To me, one of his greatest sins is misleading otherwise good Americans to believe in this.
Sure, I think that’s a good point.
And be vicious and mean and be sexist and racist. So look, is it naive for people who oppose Trump to go, “Well, there’s people like you peeling off and other Republicans, so there’s no future for this GOP.” Is it naive? Or are there enough younger people who will come in and embrace this white supremacy, racism, sexism, whatever you want to call it, to fuel this party to go forward to win?
I am hopeful that there’s a space in this country, eventually, for a party that is dedicated to individual liberty and constitutional adherence and limited government. But it’s like St. Augustine, “Lord, make me good, but not yet.”
We’re going to have to burn down this thing first. And the Trump version of the Republican Party has to go. I’m willing to make sacrifices as a guy who believes in individual liberty in the Constitution. I’m willing to make sacrifices in the short term and do things that maybe aren’t my ideological cup of tea in order to ensure that this country, as an experiment, survives. Because what’s the alternative? We’re going to slip into an authoritarian nationalism.
You know, the reason he’s able to activate some of this, Dean, is that there is a set of human cognitive behaviors that likes having someone say, “Your fear is OK. Your hate is OK. Your anxiety about brown people coming from Mexico is OK.” And it’s not OK, but it’s there and he’s a master of demagoguery. He’s a master at propaganda. And so a few of us with, like, the Liam Neeson special set of skills — there may not be many of us, but we’re pretty good in a scrap.
Let’s focus now on the thesis of your book, which is defeating Donald Trump. Let’s take everyone through a few of the themes. One is make this election a referendum on Donald Trump. Explain how you do that.
First off, every re-election is a referendum on the incumbent. You’re asking a simple question, “Do you want this guy, who does these things, for four more years?” When Barack Obama was the incumbent, we had a high hill to climb because most people were pretty content with Barack Obama. In 2004, most people felt pretty safe, relatively speaking, with George W. Bush. That’s why they made those election decisions. Bill Clinton, same story. My old boss, George Bush 41, you know what? He did great ending the Cold War. He did great getting Saddam out of Kuwait. On the economy, not so much. And people made a decision, we want a different thing. So all presidential re-elections are a referendum on the incumbent.
People have a great opportunity here. You can choose cruelty and corruption or you can choose something else. And something else, it almost doesn’t matter what the alternative is, as long as it’s not another flavor of evil. If the Democrats don’t make it a referendum on Trump, they will try to make it a referendum on policy. And policy in the hands of the Republicans …
I helped build this machine. I helped do this a long time. Lord, give me a Democratic policy briefing book because I will make a hundred ads out of it. They will be demagogic. They will be terrifying. They will be lies piled upon lies. But the fundamental thing is that they will scare the crap out of the voters I want to scare the crap out of. When you give a 600-page policy document, like Elizabeth Warren did, on her health care plan, whatever its merits, I will find one of my research nerds, who will go through that book line by line, because I’ll never read it. They’ll find three or four things so I can go out and say, “Union members, your health care will be taken away from you under Elizabeth Warren’s plan.” Policy is deadly. Policy is a fallacy.
Like the Green New Deal. I remember how that went through. Planes are gone, cows will be slaughtered.
Right, you can’t fly on airplanes. You can’t eat meat.
When we look back at 2016, so many people said, “Well, the campaign about Hillary was anti-Trump, anti-Trump, without an affirmative message.” And that’s unfair. But that’s a summary for certain people. In a re-election campaign though, that’s not a bad strategy, you’re saying?
Right, because it is a referendum. There is a four-year baseline now — you know how Trump behaves. And I will also argue that Hillary Clinton didn’t particularly run an effective countervailing campaign to Trump. She played defense constantly in that campaign. In part, because the Republicans had her pinned down in a quasi-impeachment scenario with Benghazi for the first half of her campaign. And then Bernie kind of bled her through the summer.
James Comey after that. You make a great point in your book about getting the Democratic base out. I’m not going to curse, but you write, “Democrats f**king hate Trump.”
I’m sure Republicans hated Hillary and Obama. You’re a Republican, so I don’t know if you’ll deny this, but hate is part of the currency the GOP used to animate their base.
I’m seeing hate among Democrats for Trump — and not even Democrats, women who are not active in politics. Even centrist Republicans in Massachusetts who liked Romney, hate Trump.
They will crawl over broken glass to vote against this guy. This is why ideological perfection is the enemy of victory in this. You might not get every single thing you want, but my gosh, if you’ve got a group of Democrats, right, who say, “We won’t turn our people out unless you’re going to do X or Y for us.” Or, “We won’t turn our people out unless you name our person as the nominee.” They’re not really your people.
Democrats have proven to us in ’18 and in the off-year elections, they will come out and vote against this guy and his enablers in droves. They will come out with passion. That’s the easy part. This election has a built in turnout mechanism that’s Donald Trump.
As we’re talking, there’s a debate about to happen in Iowa, the last before the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3. If you were advising Democrats as a group, what would you tell them their message should be tonight in trying to not just win the primary, but defeat Donald Trump?
That’s the key message. You’ve got to tell Democratic voters, as the nominee, “I am the best person to defeat Trump. I can go toe-to-toe with Trump. I can be on the debate stage, I can look him in the eye, I can punch him in the mouth. I will take this motherf**ker down.” That’s what Democratic voters are looking for. They want to see some fight in the dog, as they say down South. They want to see somebody who is going to be a scrapper, a fighter, somebody who is passionate and who can articulate the case against Donald Trump and his corruption and his cruelty and his insanity and his unsuitability for this office and the way he demeans this country around the world and at home.
They want to see somebody who can do that. Somebody who is absolutely going to be the fighter against Trump. They’re not sitting there going, “Well, I looked at page 611 of the health care plan for Biden. And then Elizabeth Warren’s on 435.” They’re not scoring on policy. They’re looking for the fighter. Performance matters and debates matter.
Hillary Clinton was a very smart, considered, professional sort of politician. She got on stage with Trump and he did this whole monkey act, walked around behind her, mugged, made faces and leaned over her. She didn’t understand how to handle that. So you want to see somebody with the physical presence too, who feels like they’re going to have an ability to post up against this guy on that debate stage. Because that’s going to be the big show. That’s the reality TV final contest.
So should the Democrats, instead of fighting over the nuances of Medicare for All, be slamming Trump on, say, his lie where he said “I’m the one that saved coverage for preexisting health conditions.” In unison going, “Democrats gave you that. We’re the ones saving it and you want to get rid of it with legislation. John McCain saved it. Now you’re in the courts trying to get rid of it.”
There is no bigger gaslighting on the domestic side that I think I’ve seen from Trump. I mean, you can make the case that the economy has been juiced along by tax cuts and by wild deficit spending and that the economy is strong. You can make that case. And you could pick it apart a little bit too, but you cannot make a case that Trump did not enthusiastically embrace the bill that came out of the House in 2017. And they led with the dumbest political move of all time, which is to eliminate pre-existing conditions. Because I have polled this matter extensively, since 2009. I’ve done dozens of focus groups about this. Voters, Republican, Democrat, black, white, liberal, conservative, Catholic, Jewish, every single voter group in this country hates the fact that pre-existing condition coverage could be taken away. They are terrified of it.
Leading with Donald Trump, being somebody who says he’s going to stand for you and then screws you over, that iterates across the trade war with farmers in Iowa and Wisconsin and Michigan. That iterates across steelworkers in Ohio and Pennsylvania, coal miners who he promised all these new jobs to. This guy is a lying liar who lies, and they need to call it out.
Remember he promised, “Oh we’re going to have a great new health care plan. It’s going to cover everybody. It’s going to be free. And there’ll be all the pre-existing coverage.” There’s never been any such thing proposed. So the fact that he lies like a cheap rug iterates across all these different areas and it iterates across the corruption that voters believe he represents. So, it’s a good opportunity. And that’s a way to say it: “I’m going to go up on the debate stage against Donald Trump and I’m going to tear his hide off on the following big lies.” And pre-existing should be one of them.
It obviously troubles Trump because Bloomberg’s ads are focused on that. That’s the thing that inspired the tweet yesterday, “I saved pre-existing conditions.” Not only didn’t they save them, but after their vote, they put all the Republicans in a bus and took them to the Rose Garden to have a party to celebrate the end of pre-existing medical conditions.
And they’ve also been litigating it. The Department of Justice, with all the power of the Department of Justice, is litigating to eliminate pre-existing conditions.
In the book you also talk about another key issue, the economy. Democrats are almost silent. Now, you’ve got Bernie Sanders and Liz Warren talking about how it can be better. I thought one of the big rules in politics is that you go after your opponent’s strength and that’s his strength is the economy. Should they be prosecuting that more? We just had the jobs report last week. It’s the lowest job growth in eight years, we’re sliding.
We’re sliding. It’s weakening. There is a recession coming and there’s a bill going to come due. And look, I’m a free market guy, but I thought the tax bill was an egregious crony capitalist giveaway. I know the lobbyist who wrote the tax bill. I know who they work for. They work for a bunch of guys down on Wall Street for hedge funds and big banks. And they were specifically engineering this thing to juice Wall Street.
A lot of these people out there in the country, the only thing they sort of understand is job or no job. And they hear on the news the market’s up, market’s down, and that’s the big signifier. They’re hearing market up. Well the market’s up because the Fed is still juicing money into the system. The market’s up because this tax bill was an enormous benefit, a $2 trillion benefit to Wall Street and the hedge fund guys. So, as a free market guy, I’m like, “How is this the market at work?” This is the president juicing the system.
It’s just like the trade stuff. We’re having enormous economic damage on the trade war, which is actually where I think the Democrats have their strongest economic message. Because remember, we’ve got a few swing states to fight this battle with. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, those are states that have been screwed in the trade war. And it hasn’t been fixed. There is no deal with China yet. USMCA is not all that and a bag of chips. This thing is a broken set of economic promises and they have an opportunity to fight on that. I wouldn’t try to fight on “the stock market’s not up as much this or that percentage.” Voters don’t really do bank shots. They do A to B, not A to Z.
If you were advising on the economy to these Democrats, what would you recommend?
First off, I would talk about the stories of real people in the swing states. “I’m farmer X, I am a soybean farmer in Iowa. Donald Trump said that this trade war was going to help me. My farm is in foreclosure now.” And we do have record farm foreclosures in Wisconsin and Iowa right now. “I’m a steelworker in Pennsylvania. Donald Trump promised his trade war was going to help me. Instead, our plant is closed.”
There have been no new steel plants built. He promised this. This is the reality. Tell real stories of real people. You talk about people who are still living in a world where household debt is at record levels. Home values are kind of flat right now. People are starting to feel that 2007, 2008 feeling in the wind, that we still haven’t solved the problem of college loan debt. In fact, this administration is making it much more difficult.
There is no Bernie magic wand. You’re not going to wash away $2 trillion of debt tomorrow. But there are ways to adjust this so that the country has a system that’s more market-driven and less punitive. And that affects middle-class families less. There are a lot of ways to get to this. Real stories from real people.
So you’re saying those are better than statistics and numbers, which Democrats love to talk about.
Yeah, this is from a long time ago. There’s a classic editorial cartoon from 1984 where Walter Mondale has this blackboard full of statistics and formulas and charts and Ronald Reagan has a smiley face on his blackboard. That’s what voters get. That’s what they understand.
You’re not a fan of Bernie Sanders in your book. You like Liz Warren more. What does it matter if it’s Bernie or Joe Biden or Buttigieg?
Well, I think Warren or Biden or Buttigieg are all viable candidates. Bernie Sanders is Donald Trump election insurance. I honestly believe it.
He’s 300 years old. He just had a heart attack. He is every cliché ever, in the history of the free shit movement. Republicans will turn Bernie into the worst caricature you’ve ever seen. He is the scary old socialist figure of their nightmares. But in this case, it’s not fake. He’s actually that guy. He’s got an unbelievably thick oppo file. They’re salivating over this guy. I still talk to guys in the mafia, in the Republican mafia. They’re working their hardest to make sure Bernie’s the nominee. They want Bernie to be the nominee. Bernie will lose every single state south of the Mason Dixon Line. No questions asked, including Florida, which you can’t lose Florida.
What do you say about the people who were torn between Bernie and Trump in the 2016 primaries. Then when Bernie didn’t get nomination, they went to Trump. At first, I didn’t understand it, then I talked to them. Trump was talking about jobs, that NAFTA wasn’t good, that the rich are getting richer, the system is rigged and he was addressing that very issue.
There’s a horseshoe of populism. And the left and right tines become very close together a lot of the time. The problem with the Bernie analysis is that when you go out — and I go through this in the book, this is a secret that the Republicans have kept pretty quiet for a long time. Most Democrats out in the country, outside of the coasts, are not hard, hard progressives. They’re not socialists. They’re not burn-it-all-down guys.
Most Democrats out in the country are pretty moderate. We’ve studied this for years and years and years. We’ve drilled into this thing over and over again. We’ve identified male and female Democratic voters in the suburbs who are mostly moderate. They’re not hard progressives. They’re JFK-style Democrats. They’re Bill Clinton-style Democrats. They’re Barack Obama Democrats. As much as Republicans tried to make Barack Obama into this wild-eyed, leftist, socialist, communist sleeper agent.
Barack Obama basically ran as a liberal suburban Republican. He was not scary to people and we knew it. That’s when we tried to turn him into this figure. We could never get there. But if you want to go and put Bernie at the top of the ticket … I’m getting like five billion tweets already about Bernie, so, why not make my life more of a living hell? But Bernie is going to be absolutely the perfect foil for Donald Trump: “I’m bad, but this guy is Castro from Vermont.”
Even if Joe Biden gets the nomination, Trump’s going to call him a socialist. We know that.
But it’s not true.
Right, so are you saying there’s more potential traction and resonance with Bernie as a candidate than it would be for Biden because people know Biden?
First off, Bernie is not a Democrat. He’s got a party that he wants to use as a host vector into the nomination. Who loves Bernie? Young voters love Bernie.
Yes, they do.
Young voters adore Bernie. You know what young voters don’t do? They don’t vote. Old people vote. You know who really, really votes? Very old people. You know who really votes in Florida, the No. 1 key swing state? Really goddamn old people, like people on respirators vote in Florida. They’re old, old, old. And they vote like a champ. And that is not their demo. They tend to like Warren or Biden a little more. But, look, nobody’s perfect. To quote, Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to war with the army you have, not the one you want.” None of these guys are perfect. And there’s no generational superstar in this field. There’s no Barack Obama or Bill Clinton or JFK in this field.
There’s such a debate in my head, I can hear it from my fellow progressives who will be saying, “Well, Bernie’s going to get people out.” Your argument to win is that you don’t need a Bernie. You don’t need the machine to get people out. They’re going to come out because of Trump on the other side.
Right, Trump’s going to get them out for you.
So, if it’s Joe Biden, a more centrist, you think it’s not a problem for turnout for Democrats?
I don’t think it’s a problem for turnout. And here’s the thing: Again, if somebody tells you, “I won’t turn out versus Donald Trump, because I didn’t get who I wanted,” fuck them. They’re not on your team. They’re in this for their own narrow interest. This is a country over party thing. And a country over ideological preference thing, or at least it should be in my opinion.
If you’re in any community that Donald Trump has demonized or enacted policies that discriminated against, this is very personal. This isn’t political. It is a referendum on this guy who’s a monster. Last thing, you make a great point to focus on the Electoral College and key swing states.
Not national polls. Why is it the key?
Stay away from national polls. They are always an illusion. They will always trick you into stupid political behavior. Focus on the key states. As much as progressives hate the Electoral College — and we can argue its flaws all day long — in 2020, the Electoral College is the only game in town. There’s not going to be some miracle where it’s not the rule book.
The winner of the Electoral College is president. Doesn’t matter how many popular votes you get. We’re talking about maybe 15 states. Realistically, six or seven of those states are going to be competitive, but you want to play a little chess. You can roll up a victory here or there if you offset somewhere else. Those states are the only thing that matters. You’ve got to be following the polls in those states. And you’ve got to be rigorous in your approach to polling on this. I mean, look, the polls in ’16 were not wrong.
On a national level they weren’t.
They were not wrong, OK, but in the swing states, the Clinton people took their foot off the gas because they were watching the national polls. Donald Trump is an idiot and a moron and just a kook of the first order, but he is surrounded by a bunch of guys like me, who are ride-or-die for him. They don’t love him ideologically, but they’re stuck. And they’re very smart. And they’re very determined and they will do anything to win. And they will fight this in the swing states. They’re not going to spend a dollar in Mississippi. They know how Mississippi is going to go.
In your book, you outline two scenarios for election night in November. The upbeat one and the horrific downtrodden one where many of us are looking at Canada, Mexico, whatever countries to live in. If you’re giving one piece of advice to people, regardless of left, right, or center who want Nov. 3 to be a happy night and the defeat of Donald Trump, what’s that one piece of advice?
Bust your ass in the swing states. That’s it. You got to go in the swing states. You’ve got to spend every dime there. You got to put the boots on the ground there. I don’t care if you have one volunteer in California. We know how California is going to vote. Everybody in California wants to support the nominee. Go to Michigan, go to Wisconsin, go to Pennsylvania, go to Ohio, go to Florida, go to North Carolina, go to Arizona. Get to work on the ground. Voter contact still matters more than almost any other thing. A knock on the door, a phone call, a personal outreach on social media. That matters more than almost anything else you can do. And fighting this battle in those swing states is vital.
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