This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

The Crocodile Tears Of Steve Schmidt

William Hogarth, "An Election Entertainment" (1755)The first step to a season of renewal in our land is the absolute and utter repudiation of Trump and his vile enablers in the 2018 election by electing Democratic majorities.

~ Steve Schmidt, John McCain 2008 Presidential Campaign Strategist, on renouncing the Republican Party

There is nothing on face of Steve Schmidt’s tweets explaining his departure from the Republican Party that I disagree with. BUT. The renewal that Schmidt is talking about won’t begin until people like him acknowledge their own complicity in bringing about the scourge of Trumpism.  No repudiation of Trump would be complete without that.

Trumpism is a complicated phenomenon with multiple causes, not all of them domestic. Still, I date the beginning of Trumpism as a movement in American politics with McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 Presidential election.  And Sarah Palin was Steve Schmidt’s baby.

Elevating the half-term Governor of Alaska, a woman no one from the Lower 48 had ever heard of, and a former half-term mayor of a suburb of Anchorage no one outside of Alaska had ever heard of either, was a deeply cynical move.  And look, I know this is politics: cynical moves are par for the course. Still, unlike was the case with most political strategies up to that point, the Sarah Palin gambit was not merely cynical, but nakedly so. It was obvious, undisguised pandering: the campaign picked a woman to score feminism points, but, since having a woman who was a serious politician with education and knowledge of what she’s doing would doubtless alienate the valuable misogynist demographic of the Republican Party’s base, the genius Steve Schmidt settled on a sloganeering bimbo. Palin was perfect for the campaign’s purposes.  She was MILF-y, to appeal to the “conservative values” people.  She had a passel of kids with stupid grunt-like names, to appeal to the hillbillies.  She was gleefully, proudly ignorant, to appeal to the know-nothings.  So, she covered basically all sections of the base.  She was also gamine, to counterbalance McCain’s advanced age.  And John McCain, he of the rock-hard scruples, went right along with it. This, in addition to signaling to Republican voters that one no longer needed even a pretense of good faith, thrust onto the national stage extreme beliefs and boorish manners that had up till then resided mostly on the fringes of American politics. 

The one strategic mistake Schmidt and McCain made was mistaking Palin’s ignorance and meat-headed stupidity for provincial innocence. They thought they would mold her and teach her how to walk and talk and waive, and in the end, she would validate them on all those points listed above.  In completely predictable reality, the opposite happened: a respectable candidate and an otherwise sane presidential campaign ended up validating Sarah Palin.

After McCain’s loss, Schmidt went on a tear trashing Palin in interviews.  He derided her for her stupidity, incuriosity, stubbornness, narcissism and unwillingness to take instruction from competent people, whom she treated with the kind of contempt that a rube always harbors towards a knowledgeable person — in other words, qualities that were obvious in Palin from Day One.  This exercise shored up Schmidt’s reputation as an honest truth-teller, as someone who expressed “regret” for his elevation of Palin. Except the regret was limited to the aforementioned strategic miscalculation.  Neither he, nor McCain ever acknowledged the damage they did to the American Democracy by propping up that lunatic. 

The attempted shifting of the blame to Palin in the wake of McCain’s defeat does not erase the fact that the campaign, and indeed, all of the Republican Party and its supporters, twisted themselves into pretzels before the election coming to Sarah Palin’s rescue every time she wandered off the reservation (which was, basically, every day).  

When she made outrageous comments, McCain praised her as a “maverick” — a hamfisted nod to a deeply stupid movie, albeit one popular with the “America fuck yeah” demographic. The fact that McCain — a veteran, a pilot, and a former POW — called her that, was supposed to lend gravitas to the craziest shit that fell out of her maw.  The fact that McCain — a veteran, a pilot and a former POW — could actually bring himself to utter that word, especially in reference to someone like Palin, shows only McCain’s own lack of character.  Her falsehoods and extreme comments were attributed to her small-town girl honesty and “telling it like it is”.

When she prated during interviews, when she degenerated into incoherence, when she went full Madness of King George in front of TV cameras, the public were told that well, this is just How Real Americans Talk.

The woman always had the intelligence of a gerbil and the manners of a banshee raised in a barn.  That Schmidt was eager to throw her under the bus afterwards reflects only his efforts to save his own image.  But as long as her vulgarity and extremism could be used for his own ends, he used them. 

Not all consequences of out-of-the-box political strategizing can be foreseen.  Still, the fact remains that Sarah Palin was, essentially, a proto-Trump (and is now, not surprisingly, pro-Trump), and it was with Schmidt’s help that this garbage was dragged into the mainstream of American politics.

In case you needed any further disabusing of the hope that Schmidt has undergone some sort of an epiphany, note he segued from leaving the Republican Party directly to trashing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an American Socialist who just won the Democratic primary for the New York district that consists of the Bronx and Queens (Ocasio-Cortez herself is from the Bronx), by deeming her a left-wing equivalent of Trump.  Fucking really?  You may not agree with Ocasio-Cortez’s platform, you may think there is no way to pay for all the welfare state stuff she wants, you may think she can’t possibly be sincere about delivering.  You may be principally opposed to all these freebies she promises her constituents (though in light of how many freebies the rich get as a matter of undisputed right, I don’t think her platform as extreme). But as far as we know, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign didn’t focus on demonizing already marginalized groups, pandering to racism, or doing favors for a hostile, dictatorial regime in exchange for help in winning an election. She has not attacked people the way Trump did, she has not cultivated an army of vicious trolls to go after her opponents, and she didn’t subject the public to a torrent of abusive, outrageous lies.  She has not referred to whole ethnic groups as criminals, rapists or animals, and she has not proposed to separate children from parents and incarcerate them in baby jails.  To compare her calls for free daycare for working parents with Trump’s demands for a wall to keep out “bad hombres hambres” is palpably absurd.  In other words, Schmidt has now “rebranded” himself as one of those reactionary centrists, who fail (or refuse) to grasp the asymmetrical nature of our society’s polarization, and see an instance of Both Sides Do It in everything.  He is still practicing the same intellectual dishonesty that inspired him to suggest Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate.

Not that I don’t appreciate his jump off the Trump crazy train, but it’s a bit too little, too late, and it’s certainly no miracle.

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2 thoughts on “The Crocodile Tears Of Steve Schmidt

  1. As an ertstwhile Republican, I agree with your points and have also linked Palin’s nomination to the acceleration of the Republican train wreck. I place the blame for the conditions leading to the enablement of Palin to Newt Gingrich and the party of the 80s though. In my mind that’s when the movement toward win-at-any-cost, anti-science, anti-fact, party-over-country drive was fine tuned. That is also when they began a concerted and well planned effort to gain control of state governments as well.

    I do not absolve the Democrats of similar deceits. They are just not as good at it and they still have principles. Because they actually believe in government, they focus on governing rather than plotting long term revolution and I don’t think they saw what was coming down the track.

    I wonder how the Democrats will recover their lost momentum and the disadvantage of being out of power in so many state-houses.

  2. Ron Hart, a Goldman Sachs broker who reinvented himself as a folksy Southern conservative (he’s Tennessee born) showed a similar flexibility. Gushed over Palin and argued coming from a small town proved how awesome she was — she didn’t go off to the big city like all those greedy feminists, she stayed true to her roots (a column i wrote in response pointed out the obvious hypocrisy of Tennessee-to-Big-Apple Hart making this argument). She was presidential material, and totally convinced him to vote McCain@ After the election, you wouldn’t have known he’d ever supported her from his columns about what an unqualified candidate she was.

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