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Rick Wilson Interview: How Democrats Can Defeat the "Devil"

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Image attributed to Rick Wilson

Rick Wilson

Rick Wilson is a renowned Republican political strategist, infamous negative ad maker, writer, speaker and political commentator. He is the author of the 2018 #1 New York Times bestseller Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever.

Wilson’s award-winning column with The Daily Beast is a must read in the political community. He also writes for The Washington Post, Politico, Rolling Stone, the New York Daily News, The Hill, The Bulwark and The Spectator. Wilson regularly brings his unique insights to CNN, MSNBC and NPR. His second book, Running Against the Devil: A Plot to Save America from Trump—and Democrats from Themselves, comes out January 14, 2020.

“A big part of it is you cannot let Donald Trump play the game that he enjoys playing with people in debates. He’s got a big, fat physical presence. With Hillary, he sort of hovered over her from behind. He lurked around behind her.”

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Rick, was impeaching Donald Trump the smartest thing for the Democrats to do in light of the upcoming presidential election this year?

Rick Wilson: I was an impeachment skeptic right up until the Ukraine situation presented us with such a clear set of facts that you had to do it. You didn’t have an option, at that point, of sitting on your hands and saying, “Okay, we can just look away from criminality.” A lot of things before were harder to make the case given the material that was at hand. But this is a very bright line, and I believe it was a moral responsibility for Congress to investigate and to impeach the guy at this point because he is clearly engaged in behavior that is an outright abuse of power, an outright obstruction of justice, and you can’t look away from that. At a certain point, if you keep looking away from that, you lose the fact that you’re a Republican.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you think Donald Trump would actually get America into a war with Iran just to cause a distraction from the impeachment trial?

Rick Wilson: He’d get us into a war with Iran just to have some bonus tweeting materials (laughs). No, look, I think the more likely scenario is that Donald Trump will stumble us into war and do small stupid things in the short term that lead to conditions where the uncertainty and the danger that exists in the Middle East at any time lead us to a very dangerous position and possibly a shooting war. If a shooting war starts in the Middle East over Iran, we’ve never seen anything like it in our lifetime.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: The book title, Running Against the Devil, is very catchy!

Rick Wilson: (laughs) Thank you.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you decide to write this book as a sequel to Everything Trump Touches Dies?

Rick Wilson: No. It actually was very much not a sequel. It would have been easy to write a sequel. It would’ve been easy and honestly fun. But what we’ve got here is a situation in this country where I know people have sort of normalized how terrible Trump is in a lot of ways, but I think that’s an incredibly dangerous place to be as a country right now to say, “Okay. Everybody else gets it. He’s an idiot, and it’s going to be over soon.” It’s not. It’s a very good chance that any incumbent president, even one as egregious as Donald Trump, wins reelection if the opposing team doesn’t recognize the rules of the game.

You know, the Democrats do very well when they have a generational candidate, when they have a Barack Obama or Bill Clinton or somebody who has enormous political personal power, good political instincts, etc. I look at the field right now, and I know all the different partisans inside the Democratic Party will make an argument that their guy is the one, but can anybody look at this field and say, “Hey, there’s a Barack Obama here or a Bill Clinton here or a JFK here?” They can’t.

I thought it was important to once again lay out what the stakes are in this competition but also to remind people that there are a set of tools that my side has built up over generations in politics that disrupt and dismantle Democratic campaigns with a tremendous degree of effectiveness. I thought it was important to lay out how the Trump team is actually going to operate, how they’re going to run their campaign, how they’re going to demagogue and distort and change the message and hit the Democrats from all these different angles partly because this is a playbook that I helped write. I understand what they’re going to do.

While Donald Trump is an idiot himself, he is not surrounded by complete idiots on the campaign. Those people are very smart. A lot of them are my former colleagues, and they are locked in with Trump. They’re ride or die with Donald Trump, and they’re going to end up doing everything they can to ensure his re-election. They’ll play very, very dirty. The book was a way of describing to people who don’t necessarily live their lives locked into politics as I do what’s coming, what’s going to happen and how to push back.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Democrats are divided right now primarily between moderates and progressives. They’re arguing with each other on social media, and the bots are there to further divide them. How do they change that mindset of fighting each other to fighting united against Donald Trump?

Rick Wilson: They very much have to assemble a sort of “team ethos” that puts aside the idea that everybody’s going to get everything they want and the idea that politics are where this election will be won or lost because it won’t be. These guys that think we’re going to have a 600-page healthcare plan to win the election are mistaken.

It’s a referendum on Donald Trump full stop. So I’m hoping the Democrats will begin to focus in on the real necessity to fight the fight that’s in front of them including recognizing that for better or for worse, the election is over in 35 states. I know how California’s going to vote. I know how Mississippi’s going to vote. These are not matters that are in question right now, and I’m hoping they’ll understand that they’ll have to go in to the very limited number of swing states and really get to work and really focus on Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and a few others where this battle is really going to be won or lost. There are so many swing states that are much more moderate or even conservative than there are progressive states in the lineup for 2020. For example, Michigan is not a progressive state.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I know how Alabama is going to vote (laughs). By the way, I was going to tell you that I live right outside Dogbreath, Alabama, just to be funny and to play with some of your satirical Trumper responses you’ve created in the book.

Rick Wilson: (laughs) You know, the funny thing about it is that people are like, “Oh, you’re an elitist!” I’m like, “My people are from Marianna, Florida. I may be in politics, but I’m descended from like 10 generations of backwoods rednecks, farmers, ranchers, orange grove people, Florida crackers and moonshiners.” (laughs).

Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) Well, the Democrats will also be fighting Fox News as well as the Republican Party, and the majority of both will defend everything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth no matter how inaccurate it may be.

Rick Wilson: That’s right.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is there a way to turn the support of the evangelical Trumpers away from him?

Rick Wilson: Here’s how I look at it, and this is also why I’m involved in the Lincoln Project. You don’t need to move all the Republican base to win the election. Fight this out in the Electoral College. Play the game of the Electoral College map, and if you deprive Donald Trump of 10 to 15% of Republican women in Pennsylvania, the map for him to win becomes much, much harder. The evangelicals are probably too tough of a target. They’ve found its very little flexibility there from the polling. It doesn’t matter what he does or says with them. It seems like they’re going to support him because of judges.

But there are other groups inside the GOP who have had their fill of Trumpism, who have had their fill of the idea that Donald Trump is not a conservative. They look at the record debt. They look at the trade war. They look at the fact that his behavior doesn’t conform with the rule of law or with any of the traditional conservative values. If your idea of a conservative president is somebody who trolls people on Twitter, expands the size of government, spends a lot of money and insults a lot of people of different races and ethnicities, Donald Trump’s your man. But those people are not the people inside the party that can be gotten. The number is small, but it is an addressable number. If the Democrats and outside groups both understand it is a guttable population of people out there and it is small but coherent, they’ll be a lot better off than they are right now.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I thought perhaps we may have turned a corner with the evangelical support of Donald Trump after the editorial appeared in Christianity Today in December, entitled “Trump Should Be Removed from Office.”

Rick Wilson: I think it was important, but I don’t think it was decisive. I think it certainly portrayed a degree to which there are some folks who consider themselves evangelicals who have reached a sort of “no more” point. But that number of evangelicals who are absolutely rock solid for Trump are not going to move. I have a little piece in my book that basically says, “Republicans, you need to stop talking to the God Squad. They have their golden calf. His name is Donald Trump, and you’re very unlikely going to get any meaningful gains in terms of trying to convert those people away from him.”

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You mentioned the Lincoln Project. Are you guys actually going to be on the ground working against Donald Trump before the election?

Rick Wilson: We’re gong to work in key states, and we’re raising money from both small and major donors. We’re working in key states to ensure that Donald Trump does not have a free ride in the Electoral College on the one front and also to send a message to the people that enable Trump that there’s a price tag for their obedience to this man, that there’s a cost to be paid for being a person who’s willing to shred the Constitution to defend Donald Trump. So we’re willing to help Republicans that are eager to stand up and do the right thing and stand up in opposition to Trump being lawless and reckless but are also willing to work in campaigns. As you know, I helped the Super PAC work against Roy Moore in Alabama.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Absolutely. Oh, I heard Steve Bannon said he was worried about the Lincoln Project.

Rick Wilson: He did say that, and he should be because Steve is evil but he’s not stupid. He recognizes if we can poll even 3 or 4% in key areas, it alters the battlefield rather significantly and makes it much more difficult for Donald Trump to win some of these states. It’s what I outlined in my book and also what I’m talking about with the Lincoln Project with my other companions there. So I think there’s a general mindset that the dangers Trump poses to this country require solutions that break out of the old political spectrum and out of the old political molds including where me, Schmidt, Weaver and everybody else found ourselves for years and years.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Even if Donald Trump does debate the Democratic nominee, I can hear him yelling words like “Communism” and “Socialism,” among other incorrect terms, to him or her.

Rick Wilson: Sure.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What should be the Democratic candidate for president’s strategy during those debates with Donald Trump?

Rick Wilson: A big part of it is you cannot let Donald Trump play the game that he enjoys playing with people in debates. He’s got a big, fat physical presence. With Hillary, he sort of hovered over her from behind. He lurked around behind her. I think these candidates need to show they’re willing to be there on stage against this guy not allowing him to verbally or physically engage in intimidation during the course of the debates. It’s a big deal about how they come across as they stand on the stage to not let him rattle them in terms of his physical presence behind them.

Now, in terms of the messaging, that’s a much broader question. But it comes down to one basic thing: Remind people that Donald Trump was elected on a lie, that he has not delivered on the promises that he said he was going to deliver and that, in fact, Washington is actually a more corrupt place than it has ever been basically in modern history. Also that we’ve ended up in a situation where we know this is a man who is unstable, that he’s a man who’s not mentally well, and we need to go after Trump on the core psychology of what bothers him all the time. He does not want to be seen as stupid or poor or weak or impulsive or cuckoo. Once you know your enemy’s weaknesses, revisit them a lot. I think that will be a strong and beneficial response in terms of a debate presence.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is Donald Trump setting up a political dynasty for his children?

Rick Wilson: There’s a chapter in the book called “Imperial Trumps.” It’s very obvious to everyone that Donald Trump is setting up his children to take over a political dynasty after he’s gone. I find it ironic that so many Republicans have tried to be Trump’s friend. They tried to be the next Trump. There’s Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz. All these guys are there eagerly saying, “Hey world, I’m going to be post-Trump. I’m going to be populist not crude. I’m going to smooth off the rough edges.” BS. Ivanka or Donald, Jr. will get the nomination because the base of the GOP now is not Republican. It’s not conservative. They are Trump cultists. That is all they care about. That is all that moves them these days.

What’s going to happen if Donald Trump fails this time? He can either run again, which is a terrifying prospect, or you end up with Trump putting the blessing on one of his children, and Donald, Jr. could be your president. What do you think the Republican base will do? They stick with Trump. It has been proven time and again that they’re only about Donald Trump.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you hearing from the pro-Trump Republicans that you are a traitor to the party with the Lincoln Project and for telling Democrats how to win in the upcoming presidential election?

Rick Wilson: Oh, sure. Absolutely. There’s a spectrum of anger about it ranging from, on the low end, “Why are you doing this? How dare you!” to, on the high end, “Don’t let me see you in a dark alley.” It is going to be a difficult reality check for anybody who’s in the GOP today because they’ll all eventually have to make a decision. They’re going to have to decide if they value the rule of law and tradition of governance and personal integrity in our politics or if Donald Trump is what they believe. If Donald Trump is what they believe, they have a product. They have a god. They can have him. But if it’s not, they’re going to have to face some rough moral choices going forward.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you have a personal choice from the field of Democratic candidates?

Rick Wilson: I do not have a candidate, and that’s something I’ve been very careful about in this book. I’m not trying to select the Democratic nominee or tell them to pursue any kind of immediate selection process that will pick anybody. I’ve got a couple of Democrats in mind that would be the easiest for Republicans to beat (laughs). But the things I tell you in the book apply across the board.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Any last thoughts about Running Against the Devil, Rick?

Rick Wilson: I’m eager for the public to see it. I think it’s a fun book, and I think it’s an interesting read. A lot of times, Democrats get very angry when Republicans beat them in elections. They build all these excuses in their minds for why it happened. I’m here to tell you, here’s how we did it. I explain the tools, the machine and all the things underneath it that are the causes of many Democratic losses and why it’s so important in 2020 they don’t make those mistakes.

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