Trump supporters will make it difficult for the GOP to copy Glenn Youngkin

Never Trump commentator Jim Swift on why Trump and his fans won’t allow the Virginia gubernatorial candidate’s strategy to be copied
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks to a supporter. Photo: Youngkin campaign

Episode Summary

Every four years, the United States holds its presidential elections. But one year afterward, the states of New Jersey and Virginia hold their own gubernatorial elections.

And for decades, the overwhelming trend in both states has been that the vote for the governor is opposite from the current president’s party. So in other words, if the current president is a Democrat, then usually the Republicans win in both Virginia and New Jersey. 

Not all the votes are counted yet, but it looks like in Virginia, the historic trend has held and Republican Glenn Youngkin is on track to be the next governor. In New Jersey, however, the incumbent Democratic governor, Phil Murphy seems like he has broken the historic streak and will remain in office for another four years. 

So we’re going to be talking about those trends and how influential they were on the results this year, but another factor worth discussing is the role played by former president Trump in these races. Youngkin try to stay away from Trump as much as possible publicly while also privately trying to work with various far-right groups like the John Birch Society. So is the Youngkin strategy going to be a model for GOP candidates going forward? Or will Trump and his followers demand explicit public loyalty?

Another question to consider: How important of a role did far-right media outlets spreading disinformation play in Youngkin’s apparent victory?

In this episode, I’m joined by Jim Swift, a senior editor at The Bulwark. Swift also once worked at The Weekly Standard, the original “Never Trump” publication, a subject which also comes up in the discussion.

A video of our conversation is below. A transcript of the audio follows.


Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thank you for being here today, Jim. 

JIM SWIFT: Matthew, thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right. As I said in the intro, people like to say that politics, campaigning, and whatnot is all data-driven, but the reality is politics is fungible. And we don’t really know for sure. Historic trends can always be broken at any moment. But sometimes they’re very strong. Let’s talk about, how much of a role do you think this sort of off-year election jinx, if you will, for the president’s party is. 

SWIFT: I’m not one who believes in ghosts necessarily, but societally, there is this knee jerk reaction depending on whoever you elect, there’s always an amount of buyer’s remorse.

And I think what helped Biden very much was Donald Trump was so bad and there were a bunch of Republicans and, I used to work with the Republican Voters Against Trump group, a sister organization to The Bulwark, that was trying to help give people a sense of agency to break out of their historic tribalistic voting practices.

But, you look at this, and we can talk about the campaigns in a minute here, but Terry McAuliffe was literally like the only person in recent memory to break the off-year, one year post-presidential election cycle. And he was gifted with the fact that he was facing a spectacularly bad opponent.

SHEFFIELD: This was in 2013, just for people. 

SWIFT: Yeah. And maybe he thought he could ride lightning twice. And the Virginia Republicans, Virginia has gone from a red state to a purple state to now, it’s not really a technical term, a blueish state. And a large reason for that, I think, as someone who has lived here since 2007, is that Republicans have just historically put up bad candidates.

And Glenn Youngkin, I have a lot of criticisms of him, was able to walk that tight rope and get to the other side. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and a similar thing happened in New Jersey, not quite for the Republicans, but if you look at the history of New Jersey, you had a number of Republicans who had gotten elected as governor.

So you had Chris Christie who got elected twice. And then you had Christine, Todd Whitman and and even further back it goes, and so there is, it does, there does seem to be in the case of Virginia. As you said, Terry McAuliffe was the only one in recent memory.

I actually went and looked. It was, it goes back to the 1970s of somebody who was of the president’s party who won in Virginia. I guess you could argue to some degree that perhaps the reason that McAuliffe won was that Obama had won so big in 2008, that he still had some residual — and he won pretty well in 2012 —

SWIFT: Yeah, he did. 

SHEFFIELD: — that it’s an interesting thing to talk about him, but we’ll get into that a little bit more, but I guess yeah, as you said, he thought he could capture lightning in a bottle because no Virginia governor has ever been elected twice either, except for one guy who started off as a segregationist Democrat who then later became a Republican. So Virginia, just for everybody’s reference, doesn’t allow governors to run for reelection after they’ve served four years. Now they can come back after they’re out of office and try again, which Terry McAuliffe did.

So he was really up against kind of two major historic trends and thought he could do it, but ultimately as we saw, he didn’t. 

Now let’s maybe go back to the— you were talking about how you thought that in Virginia, the gubernatorial candidates that Republicans had fielded were not very strong.

Like who are you referencing? And what years? Let’s talk about that. 

SWIFT: Obviously, Ken Cuccinelli is like the model of a bad gubernatorial candidate. But the other thing is, and I don’t want to be mean to my former boss, Ed Gillespie, the former chair of the RNC, where I once worked.

Ed Gillespie is a guy who was born in New Jersey, who worked his way up in politics, like working literally as a Senate parking lot attendant. And and some of the other candidates that we’ve run either at the Senate level or the gubernatorial level, there’s this pandering to the base issue. That just really has isolated Northern Virginians. Like the Confederate statues was one that really sunk Ed Gillespie, I thought. I’m from Ohio, you’re not going to get any argument from me about getting rid of Confederate statues. Ed Gillespie’s from New Jersey. He shouldn’t care either. 

SHEFFIELD: And he was standing up for them. (laughs) 

SWIFT: Yeah. And it doesn’t seem genuine. And the issue that Youngkin ran into was the same thing that Gillespie and Cucinelli beforehand ran into, which is you have to pander to a far-right, very conservative, rural, Southern base, but you also still have to win suburban voters.

And what Youngkin was able to do, was similar to what Bob McDonnell was able to do. Bob McDonnell, when he won, what was it in? 

SHEFFIELD: It was 2009. 

SWIFT: 2009. Yeah. Bob McDonnell did very well in the suburbs and two unique issues gave Glenn Youngkin this opportunity. One was Terry McAuliffe had a gaffe at one of their debates where he was talking about parents shouldn’t have involvement over what is taught in schools. It was very inartful, it was overly broad, and it was clunky. I understand what maybe he meant, which is that, when Youngkin ran a campaign ad with a woman from Northern Virginia who’s talking about that her son was forced to read and how triggered he was. Glenn Youngkin picked a family that was very Republican. They weren’t just like your typical family. Her son is now an attorney for the National Republican Congressional Committee. And the book was written by a Pulitzer Prize winner. And it was taught in an AP English class. 

What Terry McAuliffe should have said is parents don’t get a heckler’s veto, but parents should be informed over, what sorts of materials are used and taught in schools. But that’s not exactly what he said. He said that parents shouldn’t have a role.

Parents have a role. They get to vote for their state legislators and Republicans believe that education should be controlled by state and local governments, and not really the feds, with the exception of No Child Left Behind, but let’s not get into a hypocrisy wormhole here, but they also get to vote for their PTA. If they’ve live in a city, which Virginia doesn’t have many of them, most of them are counties, but they get to vote for PTA people. They get to vote for school board members. They get to vote for county supervisors and all these other things. But Terry botched this, and then there was this whole other issue of a— that ties into critical race theory.

And then there was this whole other issue about an alleged rape that happened in Loudon County and transgender bathrooms. I don’t think that was as impactful statewide, but it was locally. And Loudon County is a very big, growing county as it were and 

SHEFFIELD: And Loudon County, just for people not familiar, is an exurban county in Virginia, pretty far out from DC, but a lot of people live there.

SWIFT: It’s next to Dulles Airport. The growth there is tech because there’s a big tech truck line that goes there. It used to— 

SHEFFIELD: Amazon has a big server farm in that area. 

SWIFT: It used to be like a “NIMBY” horse country county that wanted to restrict its growth because they wanted to preserve the wealth.

But now, once you pass Dulles Airport, it doesn’t look any different than Springfield or Alexandria or anything else. It’s just soulless townhomes row after row that, you could place anywhere. 

SHEFFIELD: Well, And just to set the scene a little bit for people not familiar. So one thing that’s interesting about Virginia Republican politics, as opposed to any other state’s politics, is that pretty much every Republican operative lives in Virginia. Having been a Republican operative who lived in DC, it was always uncanny to me just how few people who worked in Republican politics lived in Maryland or in DC. And so any Republican politician who is in Virginia, has just this surfeit of Republican pundits and operatives and think tankers who want to get involved with their campaign. And that’s and that’s probably, I guess that’s probably you saw that as well in your own experience, right? 

SWIFT: Yes. And my native Ohio is home to astronauts, but Virginia is home to Republican pundits. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Pretty interesting. And that’s not something discussed in the national political media, so I wanted to just put that out there for everybody.

And it is an important factor with some of these past Republican candidates because Ken Cuccinelli, whom you mentioned, and Ed Gillespie, they were part of this Republican consultant tribe or mob, if you will, that really has a stranglehold on Republican politics.

And in the case of Cuccinelli, he was more of the far-right tribe of Republican consultants, but he was able to leverage that into getting the nomination, and Ed Gillespie was more of the, we’ll say Chamber of Commerce type Republican. And there are a lot of those in Republican politics as well.

SWIFT: Unlike Corey Stewart, who was like a true believer despite being from Minnesota, like he was Mr. Confederacy, he owns an old plantation. Ed Gillespie had to feign that. And if, if you want to change topics about Glenn Youngkin’s victory and how replicable elsewhere. I just don’t think it is. And I think that’s worth talking about.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah and that’s yeah. And that’s why I wanted to set the stage a little bit though. So yeah, but basically, so Corey Stewart, he pretty much ran on a Neo Confederate platform over the opposition of the more country club, Chamber of Commerce type Republicans. They didn’t want him, they opposed him . And it seems like in 2020, they took some, and 2021, they took some serious precautions to try to stop somebody like him. 

So they, the Republican consultant class wanted to stop a repeat of this Corey Stewart sort of uprising. And there was a very real chance of that through Amanda Chase who was running, she called herself Trump in heels. She’s so crazy that— she’s serves in the Virginia state legislature and she refuses to wear a mask. So they make her stand in plexiglass because he refuses to wear a mask. That’s how crazy this woman is. 

And the Republican Party of Virginia took some serious rule changes. Why don’t you talk about those? You’ve written about that, I saw that, over at The Bulwark. 

SWIFT: Yeah, no. I called this a bastard primary. For all of the election trutherism that we’ve seen from the Republican Party, you saw this was a huge thing in the Republican primary. And we had Amanda Chase. We had Glenn Youngkin and geez, I’m forgetting the third guy— 

SHEFFIELD: —Pete— 

SWIFT: Snyder, thank you. And they were all talking about election integrity, but Amanda Chase is like a firm believer in all this election trutherism. And look, Virginia has no history of corrupt elections in modern history. Virginia runs very good and fair elections. In fact, every election that Virginia conducts is audited automatically as a matter of state law.

And so all three of these candidates that were really the only ones that had a shot, had to pander to these election truthers. And some of whom literally believed that Virginia’s election was stolen and Donald Trump actually won Virginia. Which is bonkers. It’s just bonkers to me. But in an effort to prevent this repeat of having Corey Stewart almost hijack things and Ed Gillespie barely winning and then having to cater to those same people again, they came up with this scenario where they opted out completely of the state running the election and they ran a Virginia GOP run drive-through convention.

This was the same thing they did the screw over Denver Riggleman, a former congressman from Virginia’s fifth district who voted for impeachment, to hand the election to Jerry Falwell’s buddy, Reverend Bob Goode. And so they had these 34 drive-through sites where between the hours of nine and four, you had to literally sit there in line, and wait until you could get a ballot. And then you had to present this, but you also had to sign— and this was the most bizarre thing. Because you remember at the very beginning, Republicans were concerned that Trump wasn’t truly a Republican. And so they made everyone sign these sort of affidavits saying that if I lose the primary, I promise to support the Republican nominee.

Virginia took that to a methamphetamine level where they not only made people like promise that they would be voting for the Republican nominee if their candidate lost, but that they would not vote in any democratic primaries for five years. And if they did, they wouldn’t be able to vote in future Republican primaries because apparently this is their new model going forward.

And keep in mind, this is the same Republican Party that didn’t have a Republican primary in Virginia when there were challengers to Donald Trump in 2020. And so I voted in the Democratic primary for Joe Biden. Because there wasn’t a Republican one, and I probably still would have voted for Biden because he needed all the help he could get at the time.

But there were legitimate Republican challengers, Joe Walsh, the guy from South Carolina, Mark Sanford was in it briefly. But the party that canceled its own Republican primary to help Donald Trump, is demanding this total fealty and making you sign a probably unenforceable contract.

And they did this solely for the explicit reason of screwing over Amanda Chase. And I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, because people who are nuts enough to support Amanda Chase are probably going to take paid time off to do it. But I, I think that the never Trump political gravity did come home, and I might be on the more extreme end, but I was just like you’re offering me three bad choices that I don’t want to be governor.

And you’re asking me to drive and then spend like an hour and a half waiting in my car like it’s a COVID test. Whereas you could have just had an normally run government election and I could have done it. No, I’m not going to do that. But people did. And I think a lot of Youngkin’s success can be attributed to, yes, people want to get past Trump, but political gravity also does pull people back to earth. 

There are a lot of Biden-Youngkin voters. Some of them just hate staying home with their children, but a lot of them feel dirty for voting for Biden. And want to feel like they’re members of the tribe again. But spoiler alert, they aren’t. 

SHEFFIELD: So ultimately though, Youngkin manage to come out ahead in that. And became the nominee and in the general election, he found some difficulty with the fact that in order to try to stop some people from going over to Amanda Chase and whatnot, he got very big into election, trutherism talked about, oh, we’re going to have election integrity, all that nonsense.

And the thing is they never can specify any examples of fraud. But it doesn’t matter to people. And you know, a lot of that comes to this long standing Republican myth, before Trump, that the Republicans, when they lose it’s because of Democratic voter fraud. Like this is a long standing Republican conspiracy theory, right? I’m sure you saw that, right? 

SWIFT: Yeah, it is. And they’re talking about dead people voting. And this might be an unpopular position, but if you die at the day before the election and you cast an early vote, why shouldn’t your vote count? Like, you didn’t die a year ago. 

And everyone’s like, oh, look at all these dead people who voted. And Brad Raffensperger, secretary of state in Georgia has a book out about it. And Trump totally believed all of these conspiracy theories that it was like thousands and thousands of people and granted, thousands of people needlessly died because of his horrific response to coronavirus, he was saying thousands of thousands and it was actually a very small number, but my thought is if you’re an eligible, registered voter and you’re casting your vote and you die because of a global pandemic, like we’re expecting government to go so deep to make sure your vote doesn’t count? Like that’s the difference between Republicans and Democrats, is that Republicans come up with ways to try and make sure that voting is tightly restricted and coming up with creative, legal ways to make sure your vote doesn’t count.

Democrats do the opposite, but I think most people are in the middle, and it’s just if my grandma, when I went to the firehouse the day before she died and voted for George W. Bush, I would have. I would think that her vote should have counted. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. But ultimately though, but it’s not just that it’s also— there’s this very strange sort of demarcation that I’ve found between a lot of Republican activists or commentators. Like they don’t know how the political consultants are doing things. So in other words, Republican political consultants know that the public doesn’t support cutting the Department of Education or eliminating Social Security, like they know all that stuff. And they act accordingly. 

Whereas the Republican activist base has no idea that their policy ideas are pretty unpopular with most Americans. Would you agree with that? That they don’t know that? 

SWIFT: Yeah. My degree was in marketing, but the great advertising genius David Ogilvy said something that is always stuck with me and it’s that you can’t save souls in an empty church. And I think that these political consultants know this. And it’s just gotten progressively worse and worse over time in that they know they’re losing people in church, but if your messaging is getting rid of the Department of Education and, taking its budget to $0, raizing the building and selling it to someone to drill oil in Washington, DC, won’t sell. They’re like: ‘Actually, we can find a middle ground.’ And I think that’s the thing about consultants is they always try and find the middle ground and they try and find a way to soften it. 

And I think the way that Glenn Youngkin did in a way that he was able to do that and Ed Gillespie wasn’t able to do was because of that bastard primary. He didn’t have to go through the same— Republican nutjobs like they call them, they called them “Hidin’ Joe Biden, right? And that worked out actually quite well for Joe Biden that he didn’t have to go out and be on rope lines and being asked questions. 

The same is also true of Glenn Youngkin. He did not have to deal with a traditional campaign because Republican gurus at the Virginia GOP finally had the smarts to say: ‘We need to outsmart the rubes’ and that’s what they did. But then Youngkin had walked that tight rope for the entire range of things. And I think back to 2008, when John McCain was confronted by a woman at a town hall, it was a birther and John McCain shut her down: ’ No, he’s not a Muslim. He was born in America. He’s a good man,’ and all this other sort of stuff. He literally took the extreme of his party and he basically said, no GFY [go fuck yourself] you are wrong. It was like the “Let’s Go Brandon” of the John McCain movement. And I respect the heck out of that.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Although, but then he went and nominated Sarah Palin who is a total Christian nationalist, believes in Satan demon possession and exorcisms, and participated in those at her church. And people don’t know that about her, actually. 

SWIFT: Right. Because she is a Pentecostal. I’m not saying the guy is perfect, but when he was campaigning, he had the gumption and the balls to do things that Glenn Youngkin didn’t and literally a woman went to up to Glenn Youngkin and said that the election was stolen in Virginia. And Glenn Youngkin basically just let it shoot past his shoulder. And that’s unfortunately, the status quo in Republican politics right now. And that’s what the Virginia GOP learned from that lesson is you cannot be mean to the base. And if you’re mean to the base, you’re going to lose.

They also nominated people who only placated the base. And the reason why Glenn Youngkin cannot happen anywhere else is because these state Republican parties, I don’t think are going to be able to pull off what Virginia did during the middle of a pandemic, the sham bastard primary. You’re not going to be able to do this in any other state, because the Trumpkins are going to insist that, the one true Scotsman— 

SHEFFIELD: That you genuflect. Yeah. And Trump himself he. After the election was over— so today is Thursday, November 4th— on the Wednesday, yesterday, after it became evident that Youngkin was going to win, Trump came out with a press release and said ‘I really won Virginia in 2020. And Glenn Youngkin is not more popular than me.’ And he’s not going to stand for people keeping him at arms length. He’s just not going to. 

SWIFT: But he did in that instance. He’s not doing that in Arizona. He’s not doing that in Georgia. And Glenn Youngkin isn’t going to say shit. Like Glenn Youngkin it’s not going to be like: ‘Actually, I am more popular and go fly a kite.’ He’s literally just going to keep his head down. He’s just gonna put his head in the sand. And that’s the model. And if you think you could replicate that in every state across the country, that is purple-ish or bluish, good luck. I don’t think you can. 

I just think that a series of gaffes by Terry McAullife, a series of campaign mistakes, and the Republican Party of Virginia for once making a good decision in their favor, it all worked out, but you cannot remanufacture this.

I lost a bet to a Youngkin strategist about Youngkin’s chances, and I’m going to buy him a steak and a bottle of bourbon, but I would still make that bet in a lot of other states. Because the demographics are changing in Georgia. They’re changing in Texas, they’re changing in Arizona.

And if you think you can have smoke-filled room meddling that changes the primary, that people are used to, when the pandemic is over good luck. I don’t think you’re going to sell people on that. Because the base wants Trump, that’s all they want.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah I think Trump, isn’t going to let people try to do that. But ultimately though, this is the natural progression I would say of where conservative politicking began. If you go back and, as I said, the public opinion polls have showed that Republicans, all the popular positions that Republicans had, they achieved what they wanted. So in terms of let’s say gun rights, or some additional restrictions on abortion, things like that, or more military spending, like those were all things that Republicans achieved pretty much.

And then they were left with all their unpopular positions, eliminate the Department of Education or drastically cut Social Security, privatize it. These are the positions that Republicans were left with and Trump actually campaigned against them in 2016. And that was why a lot of Republican commentators hated Trump originally. 

But then once in office, of course, he didn’t do any of the things that he said. But if you look and go back, Trump was saying: ‘Oh, we’re going to raise taxes on billionaires. We’re going to close the carried interest tax loophole. We’re going to bring home all the troops immediately. We’re going to have a higher minimum wage, more regulations. You’re going to have a healthcare system that takes care of everything.’ 

That’s what the Trump 2016 promise was. And of course, he didn’t do any of that. And so now, Republicans are left with these policy positions and they won’t modify them. And instead they decided they, they’re going to bring in the crazies and empower them. That’s pretty much what the Trump administration was. Was it not? 

SWIFT: It was it was a bowling ball for a formerly serious party. You look at their 2020 platform and they just determined: ‘We’re not going to have one. We’re just going to do whatever Donald Trump wants to do.” 

Glenn Youngkin was successful on his education binge there at the end. And I think a large part of that could be tied to the fact that people didn’t like having to be stay-at-home parents for a year and a half.

Not that everyone loves going to an office, but after the success of Glenn Youngkin’s election, you saw Kevin McCarthy pushing: ‘We’re going to have federal legislation.’ This is the Republican Party that used to be state and local governments should be in charge of education, not the feds, but with the asterisks of No Child Left Behind, because they can never be hypocrites.

Now he’s like: ‘We’re going to push for federal parental notification law.’ And I said something, it should be called the Kindergarten Awareness Responsibility Education Notification Act or the “KAREN Act.” Literally, the GOP and Glenn Youngkin were pandering to Karens who wanted to be that one person who takes one book out of the classroom.

McAuliffe bungled that and Youngkin actually did a good job, unfortunately. Because I don’t agree that nutjob parents should have a heckler’s veto over controversial works. If you don’t like that, homeschool your kids, or send them to Catholic schools, or private schools, or parochial schools. 

SHEFFIELD: You’re still in touch with some conservative pundits, right? Is that correct?

SWIFT: Yeah, I mean the ones who will still talk to me.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah, likewise, a lot of people have decided they want to block me on Twitter rather than debate me. Which is funny considering they always call other people’s snowflakes. But of the ones that I know, a lot of them, they just don’t seem to be aware of how the school board meetings are being disrupted and what people are doing in them.

Like they just have no idea of the death threats that school officials are facing. And I see that with regular Republican voters who I know that they have no idea how insane these people are in the school board meetings. Have you seen that or is this willful ignorance or what is this in your opinion?

SWIFT: I think I— that’s a very good point, Matthew. I think it’s a combination of both. I think on one hand, there’s willful ignorance, but I think on the other hand, it’s just absolute straight ignorance. A lot of people who work in right-wing punditry are under the age of 30. They’ve never worked for the government.

They’ve never worked at a campaign of any sort, they’re basically like Meghan McCain. Maybe they lucked into their job or maybe they earned it. But if you work for an elected official, you know what death threats are. When the Capitol police starts emailing you handouts of this person threatened to kill your boss, here’s their picture, here are their details. This is the person’s name, and all this other stuff, you start taking that seriously. Because when I was working for Senator Kyl from Arizona, Gabby Giffords got shot up at a town hall meeting. 

And I’m on my local HOA board. I’ve not thankfully gotten any death threats, anyone who’s ever worked in electoral politics, whether as a staffer, or an elected official themselves, or a director knows that this is not something you do to make friends. And people get really pissed off.

You’ve got to go to court. You got to put liens on people’s houses. It’s stuff that gets people emotive and frustrated and—

SHEFFIELD: And then you add on having to enforce mask safety precautions and things like that. It just makes some people insane. And I’m actually going to play a clip of some of these people just for any stray Republican consultant who may be watching right now.

MAN #1: You want to wear snot on your face all day? Fine. You do you boo, but don’t force that non-science, Satanic BS on our kids.

MAN #2: The wind that is blowing through the black people, through the white people, through the Chinese people, they are blowing through your veins!

WOMAN #1: These are demonic entities in all the schoolboards of all the United States of America. Go back to fucking medical school!

MAN #3: By putting masks on these kids faces, you can’t identify any of them! Voting on this tells me: ‘You guys support sex trafficking!

WOMAN #2: The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers, and also the Bible. And these guarantee my freedom and yours and our children’s to breathe oxygen.

MAN #1: You’ve dealt with sheep. Now prepare yourself to deal with the lions!

MAN #4: What you’ve done, you’ve poked the cubs!

WOMAN #3: And no one is going to mess with our cubs.

WOMAN #4: And let me tell you something! Go home tonight and take one of these spoons and put it on your vaccination spot. Guess what? It’s going to stick to you!

WOMAN #5: Are you going to the state and asking where they got their science? If you’re going to tell me to CDC, come on guys.

REP. MADISON CAWTHORN: Forcing our children to wear a mask is nothing short of psychological child abuse on the altar of wokeness.

MAN #5: Do you have any idea what’s in a vaccine? E. coli, pig blood, detergent.

WOMAN #6: This is not a joke. There are Covid camps.

WOMAN #7: Concentration camps, or something that the Nazis did.

MAN #2: Your children and your children’s children will be subjugated! They will be asked: “Have you been a good little Nazi? Hail Fauci!”

WOMAN #4: God bless! (rings bell). See ya!

SWIFT: Yeah.

When we reopened our HOA pool, when I moved in my community, we closed our pool for the first year of coronavirus. And when we reopened it, there were still an outdoor mask mandate in Virginia. If you weren’t in the pool. And someone got very angry about this. And I said, I’m sorry, When you’re on the board of an HOA, you have fiduciary duty, you’re exempted by business judgment. If you make a mistake, if you’re thinking you’re acting in the best interest of the community, but if there’s an executive order out there that says that if you’re not in the pool, you have to wear a mask unless you’re six foot away from someone. And this was months before we even reopened the pool.

I said, we’re going to follow that. And the person goes, those things don’t have the full force of law. And I was just like, I regret to inform you. That’s totally false. And that’s as extreme as I dealt with in my role, it’s not a public official, like being someone who is elected to a role , but I see all of those sorts of things. And it just gave me horrible flashbacks to when I worked in the Senate and the House of Representatives. And I don’t care if someone votes against me or thinks I’m bad, I’m just going to do what’s right. But I’ve seen, like I’ve taken phone calls that sound as insane as those clips that you played on a daily basis.

And I think that’s where right-wing pundits don’t really understand the base, or maybe secretly some of them do. And they think they want to placate or pander to them, but unless you’ve had a death threat coming into your workplace, you might view some of those crazy people a little bit differently.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And these people who in the clip, I just played, that’s who is now empowered in the Republican Party. These people were always out there with these strange, Satanic conspiracy violent attitudes. They were always out there, but Republicans kept them down and refused— now they still wanted their votes and they would still privately pander to them. But they never let them have their way publicly. And now, the Pandora’s box is completely opened. I mean, do you think Republicans can ever close that box? What’s the future of the Republican Party looking like in your opinion?

SWIFT: No, I don’t think they can close that box because what used to be a periodic dogwhistle is now basically like they found a way to mechanize it where the whistle is constantly blowing. And that’s why I was not a fan of Glenn Youngkin, it’s because he didn’t have that courage. He didn’t have that fortitude that John McCain did. Now, as you previously brought up, yeah, John McCain screwed up by nominating Sarah Palin, but John McCain at least had the courage to confront people in public on camera and say: ‘No, what you’re saying is nonsense,’ and Republicans don’t do that anymore. Not at all. And really I think the only way we solve it is making sure that they all lose. 

It needs to be rebuilt, like an old stadium, you love the stadium, but you know that the internal supports and the structures are crumbling and you can’t do anything about it.

Save what you can, and there’s not much to save in the Republican Party. But some people call it the ‘burn it all down.’ That’s personally where I am. Anyone who is party to Trump, Trumpism, election denial or QAnon, or any of these other sorts of conspiracies. And if they were given an opportunity to say, no, you’re wrong. And just look the other way. I can’t support you. 

Unfortunately the coalition of people like me is not huge. And we saw that with the election of Glenn Youngkin. If you look at the voters that helped deliver, Biden was going to win Virginia, no matter what, let’s be clear here. But if you look at the coalition of lifelong Republicans and conservatives who voted for Biden, and then you looked at the people who went back, gravity always wins. People always want to go back to their tribe. And that’s my most concerning. 

Because not only did Glenn Youngkin win, Winsome Sears, the Lieutenant governor candidate, who I think is horrific, won, too. And she could be put in a place where if there’s a tie in the Virginia Senate, she’s casting the thing. Basically, and depending on the issue, giving Virginia Republicans control of all three: House of Delegates and Senate, and having Glenn Youngkin sign something in the law. I think this woman’s crazy. Jason Mijares, I don’t think is as crazy as Winsome Sears, who’s the new incoming attorney general, but he had the advantage, as you pointed out earlier, Virginia governors can’t run for re-election, but lieutenant governors and attorneys general can, and Herring has been around for a long time. And both of them benefited from the coattails of Youngkin. 

I don’t think it can be solved until these people start losing. 

SHEFFIELD: And I think one thing that Youngkin had as an advantage that past Republican candidates, Virginia gubernatorial candidates, hadn’t had is that there’s just there’s been a massive build out of right-wing media in Virginia and nationally. Literally since Ed Gillespie ran. And you’ve got a profusion of talk shows in there. You’ve got this guy who is the guy behind Steve Bannon’s podcast is actually a Virginia talk show host. And he started up multiple websites in Virginia.

And then you’ve had several large far-right websites have been created just since then that are pushing conspiracy theories and false reporting. And like you mentioned, supposed case of a transgender sexual assault that happened in Loudon County in Virginia.

And that story was brought to national prominence by the Daily Wire, which is this insane Republican website, and they lied. They ran a report with the father of a female high school student that he was claiming that she had been raped by a transgender person and it took place after they had an inclusive bathroom policy.

And basically nothing that he said was true in terms of that it wasn’t a transgender person. The assault happened before the policy happened. And then he was, the student, was able to continue attending schools, but that was a policy that the Trump administration forced on students.

So in other words, Betsy DeVos, the former secretary of education, she said it was, her strong preference that students accused of sexual crimes would not lose access to continue going to school. So that was the policy basically that Trump wanted. So everything that was in that Daily Wire story, all the important parts of it, was a lie. 

But it wasn’t until right before the election, that the truth came out. And by that time, and even now, today, if you talk to your average Virginia Republican, they still will believe all the lies that they were fed in the beginning. And it made it a lot easier for Glenn Youngkin, because he didn’t have to talk about critical race theory and transgender bathrooms nonstop because he had a propaganda organizations that were doing it for him every single day.

SWIFT: Yeah. No, and it’s—. A lie will get halfway around the world before the time truth has an opportunity to catch up. And if you actually did pay attention to this story, and you did care about this story, you would have found that, yes, it is true that the the girl who was claiming sexual assault, and I am personally a firm believer and believe all women, if she says she didn’t consent, I’m inclined to believe this person. But it is hard to know these sorts of things. When it becomes a, he said, she said, or, we’re getting in the case of trans, whatever preferred pronoun said situation. But what we later found out were two things that the Daily Wire didn’t report, as you point out. One, the trans bathroom policy was not in effect when this alleged assault occurred.

And two this person was not snuck up upon behind in the bathroom by some person pretending to be trans, to be a rapist. They, in fact, had multiple consensual sexual encounters previously in that bathroom and that day, it did not go in a way, which is to say, let’s just take a step back. Consent is consent. And if it wasn’t given, that’s rape. But the way it was represented, as we later found out, according to court documents and reality, when it comes to the county’s bathroom policies, those things weren’t in accordance.

But. People, once they believe a lie or they believe aspects in this case, I’m not saying it’s a lie that this girl was sexually assaulted. I believe her. But when other things are compacted and added into that, they will believe those. And then that becomes their narrative because there’s no incentive to go back and check. Nobody wants to go check their priors. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. So now you’re at The Bulwark. Tell us for those who are not familiar with The Bulwark, you guys, I feel like you started off trying to save the Republican Party perhaps. But things have changed a little bit for you guys. Is that right? 

SWIFT: Yeah. For those who aren’t familiar with us I would say that the way The Bulwark started was that most of us all worked at The Weekly Standard. And we were very Trump critical, and we all lost our jobs because we were Trump critical. That might be oversimplifying things. We had The Weekly Standard. We definitely— 

SHEFFIELD: You were canceled, what?

SWIFT: And so now, we fought with our, we fought with our parent company over how we wanted the website to be run. It was a combination of issues, but being a Never Trump conservative political publication is not a great business proposition in the sense that none of these publications really make money. It’s a matter of how much you’re willing to write off as a loss, as a rich person. And after we got shut down, like five of us started The Bulwark, and it used to be a sleepy Never Trump aggregator, and we started doing original content.

And then a year later, a bunch of our former compatriots started The Dispatch, which is in a very close lane to us. It’s an interesting place to be in, but what we try to do is to be not tribal, because we don’t have a tribe anymore.

And we want to tell people what we really think. And, there are times where you run into an issue where when you tell people where they really think, if they haven’t known you long enough, they’re like, oh my gosh, they get really mad. Like the Joe Biden screw up Afghanistan and the withdrawal? Yeah. Did the Democrats screw up the selection? Yeah, they did. And, we’re going to tell you why we think that is based on our experience. 

It doesn’t always appeal to everyone. We’re a publication that is largely free, but if you like what we do, we offer more content, if you want to pay us 10 bucks a month or a hundred dollars a year. 

SHEFFIELD: And how much, can I ask, so how is it different from when you were at the Weekly Standard, when that existed, in terms of the self censorship of stories or ideas that Republicans, was that something that existed before? Oh, we can’t say this because the Republicans won’t like it. 

SWIFT: No, I don’t think we, I don’t think we had a lot of self-centered, censorship, at least in my personal experience back in the Standard days, because I really got to write what I wanted in my newsletter.

And I got myself in trouble for it, a handful of times. But, I think the interesting thing is when it comes to tribalism, there are all of these people that if they write for you for years, they keep writing for you and they propose things. And when we built The Bulwark, it wasn’t like a quinceanera, everybody knew we were Never Trumpers, and we were, and we paid our own personal price for it.

But it was interesting to see a lot of people who used to write for us, just fade off into the sunset. Because we weren’t backed by a billionaire anymore and they weren’t gonna get their payday and, they knew that we were a hungry startup.

The irony is, the beauty of when we built The Bulwark is we wanted to do a bunch of things. One we wanted to not have intrusive ads. Like our parent company used to have pop-ups, interstitials, and all this other stuff. And we wanted to pay writers good money because our previous company put arsenic in our soup and wouldn’t let us do that.

So I think that there is a market for us. It may not be the biggest market in the world. But we’ve been successful beyond our wildest dreams. And I’m really proud of what we put together. And we’ve been able to work with some sort of folks that since, we are out in our own kind of wilderness, as Never Trump conservatives that previously might not have wanted to associate themselves with a neoconservative publication.

SHEFFIELD: So how much have your guys’ views changed? Let’s say yours, in particular, or some others, some of your colleagues have any of your views changed in retrospect?

SWIFT: I think it depends largely on the person. Most of my views, personally, haven’t changed. I’ll give you an example.

I worked for Senator John Kyl from Arizona, and I worked for Congressman Jeff Davis from Kentucky. They were both members of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee. And for my five years in Congress, I spent so much of my life working on tax reform, taking meetings about tax reform, listening to what my boss, whoever it was at the time, thought about tax reform.

And then Republicans just rushed through a very bad tax reform bill under Trump, just to get a victory which is unlike the Democrats right now. Who are literally arguing about the paint on the walls and in the house that they want to build and it’s just it is befuddling to me. Look, I believe that you should legislate correctly. You should legislate deliberatively and thoughtfully. 

And Republicans did do that for a bunch of years. And then they’re like we just have to rush the rule, but we can get passed while we have the window to do it. 

And now, Democrats, we’re all seeing their deliberative period is basically less than a year, right. 

SHEFFIELD: They have at least have some, unlike if you look at the Republican Obamacare, they didn’t have one for a long time. And then they came out with one in about a month, trying to shove it through.

SWIFT: I think that’s a good comparison, because you look at BBB (Build Back Better) and BIF and they’re basically arguing a year for basically the New Deal. And I don’t know. It’s just— governing is hard. And now Democrats are finding out what Republicans like John Boehner and Paul Ryan had to deal with the Tea Party.

But it looks like the progressives / the Squad are eventually going to go along with something. Because, on the far left, they have that. And then on the far right of the Democratic caucus, they have Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and you have to please both of those sides and fighting a multifront war is hard. It’s quite difficult. 

SHEFFIELD: Well, one thing that I have thought that is interesting about what you guys are doing is that there are a lot of people who, I know now, who started off as Republicans and eventually decided: ‘Wow, this party’s totally insane. I had no idea how crazy they were, and what I was contributing to.’ So they walked away from it and became independents or Democrats. And there is something to be said for people who are going to try to stay in place and fight against the crazies. 

Have people privately said to you guys: ’ I can’t publicly support what you’re doing, but I’m glad you’re there.’ Have any Republican said that to you guys? 

SWIFT: Some have in a way. And I’m not trying to shine your shoes, you were ahead of the curve compared to us in terms of seeing the sorts of problems of the Republican Party. For most of us, it took Trump for us to get to that point. 

During the four years of Trumpism, these Politico playbook items about oh my gosh, he’s insane. And you’re seeing it in all of these ex post facto, postmortems from people who’ve worked in the Trump administration like about how crazy it is. Look at Stephanie Grisham’s new book, hey, now I’ll take your questions. Hah-hah-ha. That’s funny. It’s—I don’t consider myself a Republican anymore. I consider myself conservative. And the reason why is because I took the January 6th attacks so personally, because I worked in the Congress of the United States for five years. I consider it a second home. And I worked there as a staffer. I worked there as a journalist and, seeing what happened and then Republicans basically saying, no, we don’t want to look into any of this. That just left a very sour taste in my mouth that I, as long as those people are still writing the Republican Party, I can consider myself one of them.

But I’m still a conservative. 

SHEFFIELD: It’s interesting though, there’s an emerging space of Somewhat Trumpers though, now. So you’ve got people like Mike Pence, or Alyssa Farrah, or even Liz Cheney to some degree, that are like: ‘Yeah, I’ll go along with Trump, unless he does some things I don’t like. And, I don’t think that is a workable position in the long run, because it means that at some point you’re going to have to sublimate yourself and submit to him, because that’s who he is. He will not tolerate partial loyalty. 

SWIFT: No, he absolutely won’t. And we’ve already seen it. Granted the Democrats redistricted (Rep. Adam) Kinzinger’s seat in Illinois and he’s out; who knows what Liz Cheney’s future holds? My former high school classmate, Anthony Gonzales, congressmen from Northeastern Ohio-16 is out. You look at the like 10 or so people who’ve had the courage to stand up to Trump the second time and not all of them did, in fact, what none of them in the House and had that courage the first time. And they should have. 

Like you said, it is a zero tolerance for dissent sort of movement. And they are going to be forcibly thrown into the wilderness with us. What they do next is up to them. Adam Kinzinger wants to run for governor as an independent, and good for him. I’d support him. He’s a good guy. 

But they did go along with it for almost all of it until the very end. And this — literally the second you cross him, who was that Senator from Nevada? Was it wasn’t Ensign? Was it Ensign? 

SHEFFIELD: I think so, yeah. 

SWIFT: Yeah, he was early to cross Trump and like you just saw, this is how Trump’s going to deal with Congress. And it was just like, if you say something’s bad, Trump literally transformed the Republican Party, which was historically the Chamber of Commerce free trade party into trade wars are good and easy to win. And they all went along with it. I mean with the exception of a couple people, but like it’s it’s the, that’s the future of the Republican Party is the people who are remotely once like me as a staffer, or the bosses I worked for, will all get pushed off the conveyor belt.

And then it’s going to be this new party. And, you’ve seen a rise of neoliberalism and the Democratic Party, but I don’t think that they’re going to— Sherrod Brown (Ohio Democratic Sen.) is not going to become a free trader to own the cons, neither is (Ohio Democratic Rep.) Tim Ryan.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, And I think a lot of that though goes back to the motivation for a huge percentage of people who are in Republican politics. It isn’t the ideas, it isn’t the policy, it’s actually Christian supremacism. And it’s an uncomfortable idea sometimes to consider. But like when you look at— I’ll give you an example, there’s a guy that I know who I worked with that he told me he was going to support Ted Cruz in 2016 because ‘that’s what the Christians are doing.’

Like that was his idea. And when you look at Republican voters, there’s this very strong idea of a Christian domination that’s under attack, and we have to do anything to preserve our Christian society. So like Emerald Robinson, who was a White House correspondent for Newsmax, she tweeted just a couple of weeks ago: ‘I don’t want to live in a multicultural society. I want to live in a Christian society.’ 

And that ultimately, I think, is a huge motivator for a lot of Republicans. And it’s something that I think, people in your own case may not have noticed it or, to some degree, I don’t know what your, what’s your reaction to that? 

SWIFT: So I think, if I’m thinking about my political journey and where I started— for people who are watching, who have no idea who I am, and I don’t expect that they would. My first job in politics was in 1999 as an intern for a state rep in Cleveland, Ohio, and his chief of staff was a guy named Josh Mandel. And Josh was really formative in getting me involved in politics.

I would come to DC every summer. I would go to (a right-wing youth indoctrination organization) Young America’s Foundation conferences. I would do all this. I was involved in high school Republicans, I was involved in college Republicans. I was an officer in the college Republicans. I dropped out of college to be a staffer for the RNC. And then I came out here and I worked in Congress and what really started opening my eyes, and this might’ve been because I worked for a Senator from Arizona and Arizona has a disproportionate amount of older people— and older people tend to be more conspiratorial— is among my legislative portfolio was responding to people who would write in about conspiracy theories. And so I started learning all the kinds of stuff that Glenn Beck was peddling. I would hear from people who really believed in chem trails. ‘Yes. The CIA ran a secret airbase out of Arizona.’ 

SHEFFIELD: Well, and one of them is the chair of the Republican Party in Arizona. 

SWIFT: Yeah! Chemtrail Kelli Ward. And, going back to John McCain. John McCain, when he ran against JD Hayworth. He literally went nuclear on JD Hayworth in the primary to destroy him for being a conspiracy theorist, which he was then and is now. And that was good. 

But, you want to talk about: ‘Ooh, Glenn Youngkin won, are Republicans going to be able to pull this off everywhere?’ The answer is no, because they’re not going to be able to pull off this primary, and they’re not going to have any candidates. They’re going to have more Kelli Wards than they are going to have Glenn Youngkins. It’s just all kinds of nuts, but my trajectory was when I started having to deal with elderly retired Arizona voters. One of them was like: ‘Glenn Beck said if we gave every older person a million dollars to retire, our economy would be saved if we made sure that they paid off their house, bought a car that was made in America,’ and all this other stuff.

And I did some math. How many trillions of dollars do you want to add to the U.S. debt? Last I checked, Republicans were against big national debts and deficit spending. And this was around the time of the housing crisis. But like I said earlier, I think you were a little ahead of the curve than us in realizing how crazy things were, but, 2007, 2008 is when I started getting hip to this. And I’m still in progress, I guess.

SHEFFIELD: In my own case, it started for me when I started writing a book, so I left Mormonism in 2005, but I remained in Republican politics and I’m trying to build space for non-Christians in the Republican Party and be more inclusive of women and lesbian and gay people. That was my thing. And eventually I came to the conclusion that the people who I was working with, or, who were giving money to people that funded me, they hated non-Christians. They hated Muslims. They hated gay people. They hated lesbians, transgender people. And that was really what was motivating them.

And that, for me, I had written 80,000 words of a book and it was very depressing to come to that realization that ‘Wow, this could be the best written book in human history. And it wouldn’t persuade a single one of these people because they see themselves as God’s personal servants.’ 

SWIFT: Yeah. And, you know, I mean, when it comes to religious theocracy, there is that rise. You grew up Mormon, I grew up Catholic. And you see this, we call them the “rad trads” on Twitter. The Sorab Amaris, the Adrian Vermeules, and whatnot. They hate the Pope, but by God, they want a theocracy. But I do agree with you that I would say that there are two tangental rises.

One is people who do want a theocratic state, like these rad trads do. There are also people who like Emerald Robinson who profess to be Christians, but also think that getting the (Covid-19) shot is gonna make you bioluminescent, tracked by the government. You have to have brain worms to think that, but on the other hand, I— the other thing I realized about the Republican Party the deeper I got into it was, and it’s, I’m not going to say both sides here.

The deeper you get into partisanship, the more you realize that it’s motivated by hatred of the other side. And sometimes there’s good reason for that, but most of the time there’s not. And Republicans are very good at being spiteful, angry and hateful of the other side. And you see this now.

I live in Woodbridge, Virginia, near the Quantico military base. With the whole, “Let’s Go Brandon” thing, Brandon Brown, the NASCAR driver grew up down the street from where I live. He went to high school, literally a mile away from where I live. And the sort of coarsening of things like they revel in it.

And Trump gave them that sort of agency. Whereas, the John McCains and Mitt Romneys of the world, and the George W. Bushes didn’t necessarily give them that agency. But Donald Trump was just like pouring kerosene on the fire. ‘Cool. Do you want to be a jerk to everyone about politics all the time? I’m your guy.’ And they’re like: ‘That’s awesome.’ 

And that’s a large segment of the Republican Party today. Unfortunately. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Being an asshole is a political identity, unfortunately. 

SWIFT: Exactly. Exactly. 

SHEFFIELD: It’s been a good conversation. Appreciate you being here today, Jim. I’m gonna put up on the screen so people can find you. So you’re at “JimSwiftDC” on Twitter, and The Bulwark address is?

SWIFT: Thebulwark.com. 

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. Great. So thanks for being here today. And I will see everybody next time. 
 

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.