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The Rise of the Reasonable Conservative

Meet the pundits and Washington insiders responsible for the uptick in “Republican-on-Republican violence” in the media

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

On Wednesday morning, Stuart Stevens went about the labors of a 21st-century political consultant. He spotted a tweet reporting that Donald Trump’s dismal poll numbers were ticking up. He snarked, “Hospital sends out press release that mortality rate has dropped from 94% to 92%. Patients welcome.” Stevens saw a four-year-old Trump tweet making fun of Joe Biden’s gaffes that now looks ludicrous after Trump’s own brushes with Khizr Khan and the “Second Amendment people.” Stevens retweeted it.

The same morning, The New York Times had a big, front-page story about Trump’s ability to repel Republican women. Stevens had provided its reporters with a damning quote: “What Trump is doing has never been done before: He is losing college-educated white women.”

There are Democrats who would kill to skewer Trump in such a high-profile forum. Stevens, in fact, is a Republican. He was chief strategist of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. He’s part of a new political class that Trump himself has given birth to. These are normally red-blooded conservatives who are seen (by liberals, anyway) as people who have set aside partisan loyalty to help the country avert a disaster. Call them the Reasonable Conservatives. They’re the darlings of the 2016 campaign.

Stevens, who has written books on wide-ranging subjects, was always well-liked across the aisle. Still, it’s hard to imagine MSNBC’s Chris Hayes calling him a “really interesting guy, very thoughtful guy, very mordant observer of politics” if Stevens were tweeting about why Marco Rubio was going to beat Hillary Clinton. Apostasy has its privileges.

“Republican-on-Republican violence and Democrat-on-Democrat violence has always been very appealing,” Stevens told The Ringer. “It’s a good story. With Trump, I feel compelled to engage.”

A new Washington Post poll reported that just 83 percent of Republicans are supporting Trump. Some days, it feels like the other 17 percent are all writing op-eds about their reluctant decision to split with the party of Reagan. If you want a Reasonable Conservative columnist, you read Ross Douthat, George Will, or The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens. If you want a Reasonable Conservative who worked in politics, you have Rubio adviser Max Boot or Reagan political director Frank Lavin. (“Trump is a bigot, a bully, and devoid of grace or magnanimity.”)

This week, Stevens was on the podcast Radio Free GOP with Mike Murphy, another Trump-loathing Republican consultant who has worked with John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger. As they took potshots at the “Orange Menace,” you could almost imagine two GOP admen sitting around a bar one night considering a brainteaser: How could we cut ads against our own party’s nominee?

On the subject of Trump’s anti-Hispanic racism, Murphy said, “He’s the king of every pissed-off shoe salesman in America who doesn’t like that Martinez kid who gets in early and goes home late.”

Stevens countered, “Trump is like a neutron bomb that has gone off in the Republican Party, destroying anybody near him while leaving the structure intact.”

In an alternate universe, Murphy and Stevens would be feeding those lines to a grateful media. In 2016, Murphy and Stevens not only are on the opposite side of enemy lines, they have no need for a go-between. This year, the Reasonable Conservatives are the media.

Stuart Stevens came about his heresy honestly. He was revolted by Trump’s racism. “Trump is peddling bigotry under the guise of being against political correctness,” he said.

When you hear Stevens talk about Trump’s run through the primaries, though, you hear a consultant suggesting that he could have handled Trump better. “They should have taken Trump on from the very beginning,” Stevens said. “It’s like a prison movie. Which guy is the bull of the yard? Walk into the yard and knock the guy on his ass. Instead, we got all this stuff about ‘lanes.’ I’ve done five presidential primaries. I have no idea what they’re talking about with lanes.”

Of Trump’s own brain trust — first the journalist-accosting Corey Lewandowski; now Russophile Paul Manafort — Stevens said, “He hires all these weak people who understand they could not have a like position on the open market. So they are very loyal to him. This is the same way Tony Soprano constructs a gang.”

There was a certain relish in his voice. Are you enjoying this? I asked Stevens.

“No,” he said. “I find it incredibly disturbing and troubling. Trump is incredibly dangerous.”

OK, I said. Let’s stipulate that Trump is a unique threat to democracy. Are you enjoying the politicking, crafting the lines of attack?

“These are big stakes,” he said. “I was talking to a friend of mine and trying to reassure him Trump wouldn’t win. I said he had a 20 percent chance. My friend said, ‘Great, would you get on a plane if you had a 20 percent chance of perishing?’ I said, ‘No.’ It’s a great point. I’d probably drive.”

It sounded like he enjoyed that line, too.

Stevens tweets a lot but said he rarely checks his mentions. As he wrote in a follow-up email, “I find it interesting that I get about 1/100th the grief on Twitter of a lot of others. Why? I’m a white male WASP. It’s the female critics of Trump and the Jewish critics of Trump and, god forbid, the Hispanic or African American critics of Trump that get the wrath of the white power types that are drawn to Trump.”

If you read enough Reasonable Conservatives, you notice certain similarities. They have withering terms for Trump fans: not just white-power types but “quislings” and “Trumpkins.” Trump himself is “Cheeto Jesus” or “Orange Menace.” Reasonable Conservatives don’t just wish to defeat Trump, but to humiliate him. “I hope that Trump loses in a landslide,” Max Boot tweeted.

A Reasonable Conservative may not be reasonable (again, to liberals) in any way except in his opposition to Trump. Douthat and Will are hardly friends of the left. But as CNN’s S.E. Cupp has noted, Trump’s indiscriminate war against “establishments” (and his fans’ even more indiscriminate war against “cuckservatives”) has nullified “previously pristine records of right-wing fanaticism.”

The Reasonable Conservative is now a liberal favorite. “Democrats who kowtowed to George Wallace and his racist ilk were, justly, stained for the rest of their lives,” Paul Begala, who worked in the Clinton White House, wrote in an email. “Republicans who cowered from Joe McCarthy as well. The few, brave souls in the GOP who are standing up to Trump, however, will be honored by history for their courage.”

Trump isn’t the first Republican to birth Reasonable Conservatives. In 2007, Matthew Dowd, who had helped run George W. Bush’s reelection campaign, fell out with the Dubya. Rebranded as an independent, Dowd is now an analyst at ABC News. Nicolle Wallace had no beef with the Bush administration — she was its communications chief — but attained Reasonable Conservative status during the 2008 campaign, when she was so terrified by Sarah Palin’s ignorance that she refused to vote. She can now be seen ruing the state of her party on MSNBC.

Cutting the bonds of flackery can be freeing. Who knew that Rick Wilson — until this year a reasonably obscure political consultant — could be a great conservative editorialist? In tweets and columns, Wilson has tweaked “Vichy Republicans” and Trump’s spiel of “‘build duh wall take duh oil’ boob-bait.” Last Sunday, Wilson wrote his summa not for the conservative New York Post but for the liberal Daily News:

For some, having no talking points to hew to is like driving without a seat belt. Earlier this month, when Trump toyed with shirking America’s NATO commitments, Erick Erickson, who founded The Resurgent, blasted Trump fans. “You people reflect the evil character of your god. … Donald Trump can go to hell and perhaps you will do the rest of us a favor and follow him there.” A day later, Erickson apologized, explaining that Trump “brings out the worst in everybody.”

What do Reasonable Conservatives offer us? First, they express penance for the GOP nominating Trump. Trump doesn’t do apologies; Reasonable Conservatives do. As the columnist Charles Krauthammer noted, “The joke was on those who believed that he was not a serious man and therefore would not be taken seriously. They — myself emphatically included — were wrong.”

Since Trump and his fans respond to virtually any slight, the Reasonable Conservative is a fat target. Bret Stephens, the Wall Street Journal columnist, found that out last week. On August 4, Stephens took to Twitter and called Sean Hannity — an unabashed Trump fan — Fox’s “dumbest anchor.” Hannity countered that Stephens was one of the “arrogant, elitist enablers” who helped the GOP lurch so far from real America that it “created the opening for Trump!!” If Clinton wins, Hannity warned, “I will hold assholes like you accountable.”

On Monday, Stephens wrote a column blistering Hannity for propounding a stab-in-the-back theory of the 2016 campaign. At noon the next day, the column was the most popular story on the Journal’s site.

The Reasonable Conservative’s battle with Trump voters offers a preview of an intraparty war that will stretch long past the election, no matter the outcome. John Batchelor, a conservative radio host, told me: “They’re all putting in their markers for the fight that begins on November 9” — the day after Election Day. Batchelor added, “There’s no more fun than fighting other Republicans. Because why do we do it? Not for personal reasons. Not for advancing myself or my friends. It’s for principle — right?”