The Trump presidency has been a boon for publishing if nothing else. In the past four years, there have been around 200 books about the man and his administration: meticulously reported accounts of what went down in the White House, punchy jeremiads about the death of democracy and/or truth, earnest anthropological road trips through Trump country, juicy tell-alls from former staffers who figured they might as well get a sweet book deal out of their spell in the belly of the beast. I lack either the pay cheque or the masochistic instinct necessary to have read them all but none I’ve encountered is as bracing as Stuart Stevens’ It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, a pre-election US bestseller that has just come out in the UK.
Stevens is a former Republican political consultant who began his career on the 1978 campaign of Mississippi Senate candidate Thad Cochran. His clients include Bob Dole, George W Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney and dozens of down-ballot Republicans over four decades. In the summer of 2015, he declared that Trump shouldn’t, and wouldn’t, win the Republican nomination. “For Donald Trump to win, everything we know about politics has to be wrong,” he told New York magazine. “And I don’t think it is.” It was. The annihilation of that assumption set off a chain reaction that ended with Stevens utterly alienated from the party to which he had given so much. “It is a strange, melancholy feeling to turn sixty-five and realize that what you have spent a good portion of your life working for and toward was not only meritless but destructive,” he writes in his book.
For Stevens, the easier path would have been to claim that the Republican Party was an honourable institution hijacked by a boorish narcissist and that he got out the moment he realised that it was betraying its professed ideals. In his analysis of Trumpology, What Were We Thinking, the critic Carlos Lozada calls such books “meh culpas”: “Had Trump come close but failed to win the 2016 Republication nomination, the conscience and corrosion of conservatism, the mind of the Right, would remain undisturbed and unexamined.”
Unlike those writers, Stevens punishes himself for his own complicity in the long-term decay from which he averted his eyes in order to keep drawing a handsome salary and remain in good standing with his tribe. “So yes, blame me,” he writes. “Blame me when you look around and see a dysfunctional political system and a Republican Party that has gone insane.”
Stevens argues that Republicans could only have abandoned the principles they allegedly believed in — the importance of character, free trade, balanced budgets, a muscular foreign policy — if they had never really believed in them at all. Such a swift moral collapse could not have occurred unless the foundations were already rotten. Even as he derides the current voices of conservatism as “paranoids, kooks, know nothings, and bigots,” he describes the late William F Buckley, the dapper avatar of a more gentlemanly and intellectually robust phase of conservatism, as “a well-educated racist”. The current disaster is a culmination, not a twist. “Hold Donald Trump up to the mirror and that bulging, grotesque orange face is today’s Republican Party.”
Stevens’ argument is well-made but it’s the sense of painful personal catharsis that makes It Was All a Lie so compelling. The book belongs to a powerful genre that you might call the heretic’s confession, or the renunciation narrative, which draws its energy from the act of denouncing one’s own sins and throwing off the baggage of years of self-deception. This form of writing traditionally comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum, as Stevens noted in a recent interview with Mother Jones. “The only analogy I can find is the collapse of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union,” he said, “when the difference between reality and what is believed became so disjointed.”
He chose the right party but the period he described was 40 years too late. In 1949, the Labour MP Richard Crossman edited The God That Failed, a collection of six essays by former communists — Arthur Koestler, Louis Fischer, Stephen Spender, André Gide, Richard Wright and Ignazio Silone — who had dramatically rejected the party. “You hate our Cassandra cries and resent us as allies,” Koestler told Crossman, “but, when all is said, we ex-Communists are the only people on your side who know what it’s all about.” The book is remembered now as a cornerstone of early Cold War propaganda, but it is out of print and rarely read. When you do read it, the emotional impact is startling, the urge to confess being far more potent than the desire to persuade.
Such books and essays are written at great personal cost. An ideology is not just a belief but an identity, which defines your place in the world and moulds your social circle. Reject that and you risk losing everything.
In his 1938 book Assignment in Utopia (an important influence of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), the former US communist and Moscow correspondent Eugene Lyons described in self-flagellating detail the part he had played in Stalin’s propaganda machine, most shamefully the destruction of Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist who exposed Stalin’s man-made famine in Ukraine and was rewarded with denials and character assassinations from his fellow reporters. On his return to New York, Lyons agonised over whether to spill the beans, knowing that he would be shunned and smeared by his old comrades. That is exactly what happened. “I was guilty of the most heinous offense: puncturing noble delusions.”
This willingness to be lonely is one essential quality of renunciation narratives. Stevens, a wealthy man with a second career as a travel writer, is no shivering outcast but he hasn’t crossed the floor to join the Democrats, most of whom regard Never Trump conservatives with suspicion. While the Right is inclined to welcome fugitives from the Left and brandish them like trophies, recovering Republicans occupy a very small, inhospitable niche in US politics. “While such a loss can be melancholy it can also be liberating,” writes Tim Miller, another consultant turned GOP refugee, in a recent blogpost called Goodbye to All That. “Getting rid of the shackles of toxic identities give you new perspectives and the freedom to be honest. You don’t have to make excuses for stuff you know is wrong.”
Such political solitude is hard to maintain, which is why many anti-communists rode the pendulum to the opposite extreme. Eugene Lyons dabbled in Trotskyism as a kind of ideological methadone but wound up as a full-throated member of the red-baiting Right. In a little over a decade, James Burnham went from being America’s most prominent Trotskyist to a McCarthyite and pioneer of neoconservatism who quit his consultancy role with the CIA because he deemed it insufficiently anti-communist. In The God That Failed, Louis Fischer criticised this personality type for gravitating to “a new pole of infallibility, absolutism and doctrinal certainty. “When he finds a new totalitarianism, he fights Communism with Communist-like violence and intolerance. He is an anti-Communist ‘Communist.’” To remain in political limbo, absent a replacement clique, requires an unusually strong personality.
The second crucial feature is timing: you have to leave the ship before it becomes clear that it is sinking. Many western communists abandoned the party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 but they deserved no bravery medals for that, just as Republicans who are waiting until Trump is out of the door before they speak out will have missed their shot at integrity. As Stevens observes, “the ranks of ‘Good Republicans’ who maintain they really didn’t know the extent of what Trump did will make Washington feel a lot like 1946 Berlin.”
The third and most important quality is brutal self-examination. In order to remain a valuable member of the party, Koestler wrote, a communist had to “confirm and deny, denounce and recant, eat your words and lick your vomit.” Real liberation is not possible without admitting guilt. The prose trembles with the nervous exhilaration of throwing off a lie and giving full vent to all the doubts that have been suppressed for too long.
Louis Fischer minted the idea of the “Kronstadt moment”: the epiphanic realisation, named after Lenin and Trotsky’s crushing of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion, that Soviet communism was a murderous lie and there was no way back. “Until its advent,” Fischer explained, “one may waver emotionally or doubt intellectually or even reject the cause altogether in one’s mind and yet refuse to attack it.” Stevens’ Kronstadt moment was the de facto nomination of Donald Trump in May 2016, which convinced him that the Republican Party not only could not be saved but did not deserve to be saved. It confirmed what he had doggedly ignored for many lucrative years. “I was there and, yes, I contributed,” he writes. “This is not an ‘I am better than them’ plea. I’m not.”
Renunciation narratives are valuable because they are rare, particularly on the Right. People generally do not want to admit when they have been colossally wrong, preferring either to double down or blame others. Nor do they enjoy being hated by those they used to call their friends. To confess, in private and in public, that you have wasted years of your life on a fraud, to burn bridges before you’ve built new ones, to see what is in front of your nose rather than what you need to believe is true, takes a certain courage that is, let’s say, not a defining feature of political life.
As Koestler said, you may not like or trust these people but they are the only ones who know what it’s all about. Stevens closes It Was All a Lie by raising the possibility that the Republican Party could still redeem itself and become more than a cynical mechanism for acquiring and maintaining minoritarian power. “But that would be a lie, and there have been too many lies for too long.”