Steve Schmidt has been a Republican to the core. During his almost 30 years in the party of Abraham Lincoln, he’d filled many roles, helped many a conservative get elected. As one of its top strategists and thinkers, he’s been a fixture on cable news shows, sharing his thoughts on the state of right-wing politics in the country.
But this week he resigned his membership, outlining his reasons in a series of scorching tweets that savaged U.S. President Donald Trump and the Republican Party leadership. He suggested their ranks were filled with “feckless cowards who disgrace and dishonour the legacies of the party’s greatest leaders.” He said the Republican Party was “corrupt, indecent and immoral” and a “danger to our democracy and values.”
Mr. Trump will likely not even bat an eye over Mr. Schmidt’s departure. Party officials loyal to the President will no doubt label him a deserter who couldn’t hack the going when the going got tough. But that will all be damage-control spin. His leave-taking is consequential, and his impressions of where the United States is right now should be noted by those of us north of the 49th who are worried about the state of America.
Like many, Mr. Schmidt was incensed by the President’s child-separation policy – since revoked – which he compared to some of the worst abuses of humanity in the country’s history. “It is connected by the same evil that separated families during slavery and dislocated tribes and broke up Native American families,” he wrote on Twitter. For him, it was the tipping point.
Mr. Schmidt was senior campaign strategist to Senator John McCain’s presidential bid in 2008 and is “credited” with the disastrous decision to bring then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin aboard as his running mate. His role in the campaign was immortalized in the book and movie Game Change, in which he was portrayed, quite sympathetically, by the actor Woody Harrelson. (In real life, Mr. Schmidt had a reputation as a daunting and ceaseless partisan attack dog.) Despite the Palin mistake, Mr. Schmidt’s reputation and status in the Republican Party and in media circles continued to grow after the 2008 campaign.
When I caught up with Mr. Schmidt this week, he was holidaying in Europe. One of the places he visited was the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, which holds the graves of hundreds of soldiers killed at Normandy. Visiting the cemetery, and thinking of the sacrifices Canadian soldiers made as part of the Allied invasion on D-Day, as well as other joint war missions with the U.S., made him incensed over Mr. Trump’s recent criticisms of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“It made me understand even more the danger of having a President who is unravelling the Western alliance as a cowardly and silently complicit Congress watches on,” Mr. Schmidt told me. “We have the U.S. President attack the Prime Minister of Canada, insult our allies, while praising [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong-un and fetishizing every other murderous tyrant, dictator and autocrat in the world.”
The picture Mr. Schmidt paints of the U.S. at the moment is an unnerving one – a President who uses mass rallies, and the repetition of lies, to incite dangerous fervour among his base; a President who dispenses propaganda through news outlets like Fox and the Sinclair Broadcast Group that he says have effectively become arms of the state; a President who believes he is the law and whatever he says is true; a President who addresses the most complex problems by affixing blame to the most vulnerable people he can affix blame to, often minorities.
“The Republican Party is a great threat to freedom and liberty and the U.S.-led global order that is quickly unravelling,” Mr. Schmidt told me. “The Democratic Party is now called to be the sentinels of liberty and freedom. It’s essential that Trumpism be repudiated, and repudiated as fast as possible.”
Mr. Schmidt says the difference between a one-term and a two-term Trump presidency is huge. Four years, the country can survive. Eight years? He’s not predicting what might happen. He says the upcoming midterm elections have seldom been so important. If Republicans maintain control of Congress, it will only embolden the President. The Trump doctrine will have been validated. If they lose, and the Democrats take control, there will at least be the kind of check on the President’s actions that has been missing since he took office.
“There is a lot riding on these elections,” he said. “Really, the future of our country is at stake in many ways.”