Steve Schmidt Discusses Violent Extremism, the GOP and John McCain

Political strategist Steve Schmidt has made headlines recently over new revelations about his professional—and personal—relationship with the late Senator John McCain, as well as with the McCain family.

Schmidt, to hear him tell it, has nothing to sell or promote with this discussion of a campaign that took place a decade and a half ago. He's merely setting the record straight, and drawing a throughline from our nation's infancy to Sarah Palin to the present.

Schmidt joined Declassified With Naveed Jamali to discuss his frustration with McCain's choice of running mate in 2008 and the trajectory of the party he very publicly left in 2018.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of parts of Schmidt's appearance on Declassified.

This past weekend, there was a horrible massacre, a terrorist attack, in Buffalo. It brings so many questions. One of them is this idea of how you cover something like that, without making it feel like this is the first case of racism.

A lot of the things that we've seen, in your opinion, started before now. When I think about the Republican Party, I think about Reagan, and calling Russia and the Soviets "godless communists." And we've seen over the last several years this complete shift of almost embracing the Russians. How did we get here?

I think that the overwhelming majority of Americans...recognize that Russia is a geopolitical adversary, and a great threat to the stability of the world and world peace. And that the fetishizing of Putin and Russia that takes place with Tucker Carlson, with Laura Ingraham, with CPAC, who is doing their convention in Budapest...really speaks to a reawakening of a political tradition in the country that's always been there—has manifested itself over time and a lot of different ways.

This has always been there. It's been reawakened. I want to talk about time in the sweep of history, and just to set something as a waypoint before we go deeper in the conversation, which is this remarkable fact: the 10th president of the United States, John Tyler, who went on to betray the country and serve in the Confederate House of Representatives? He was born in 1790. He has a living grandson. Think about that, right? That guy is in his 90s. But his grandfather was born in 1790.

And so by the time you get to 1945, 90 years after [the concept of an Aryan race] is invented, 90 years after it's been mainstreamed as the dominant thought across all of European society—Margaret Sanger, Teddy Roosevelt, the eugenics movement, all of it, it's killed 100 million people.

And so if the 16 million American men and women who wore the uniform of the United States in the Second World War were still with us, they would recognize what plays out on Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham every single night, because it's what they fought. And so when we see Elise Stefanik, when we see these people talking about "replacement theory," this was all core to Hitlerism: the idea that there is a group of people that are more than and above. And democracy is poisonous, because democracy allows the people who are less than, the brown, the Black, the Jews, an equal say, an equal vote. And so when we look at this event that played in Buffalo, there is direct causality between the rhetoric.

steve schmidt john mccain gop
Political strategist Steve Schmidt discusses the late Senator John McCain, violent extremism and the state of the GOP with Newsweek's Naveed Jamali. Newsweek

I remember very vividly this moment during John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, where this older woman comes up, and she says she doesn't like Obama because he's Muslim. And McCain corrects her, says, "No ma'am, he's not Muslim." Which, by the way, even if he was, it shouldn't be a big deal. He says Obama is a good man.

And when I think today about how many people are still viscerally angry about Obama, a Black man, being our president...for all the faults that John McCain has, and I know you've been very vocal about them, was that a genuine moment?

Of course. Let me tell you this story. A couple of things had happened around that period of time; one of them was that a hero of John McCain's, John Lewis, had condemned the campaign. He had looked into these crowds and saw something and said it reminded him of the Deep South. And at the time, McCain was broken by this, he was shattered by it. Deeply, deeply upset by it. It was the moment that kind of killed [his candidacy]. I think at a core level as a candidate, he knew he was losing. He knew the politics of going out and saying the fundamentals of the economy were strong when it was blowing up. And after the Lehman Brothers and all of that, [Representative Lewis' comment] is what broke his back.

And I have a different perspective on all of this now. But we were all in that moment like, "Oh, my God, this is awful." As you got closer to the finish line, the anger grew, because there was an inevitability that Barack Obama was going to be elected president. And you started to hear the N-word in the crowd when McCain said his name. It was absolutely jarring to hear it in October of 2008. I had never heard the word shouted out loud at any type of political rally ever.

In a political campaign, you have to be able to say your opponent's name out loud. The campaign makes no sense if you can't, right? I think Barack Obama would be the first person to tell people that he wants to live in a country where people can vote against Barack Obama. And so we went to McCain, right around this time, and we had this conversation. "Look, John, you're not gonna win this election. We have no chance. Barack Obama is going to be the president. If you say his name out loud, what will happen is people are going to scream the N-word more, which is what we're hearing. The press is hearing it, and they're picking up on it. And you're the guy on the stage."

McCain understood this completely, that we couldn't say Obama's name out loud [and] we've got to start preparing for a dignified, peaceful transition of power. The important role that we play in the legitimacy of the election was all front of mind.

And so we said to McCain, "You just can't do it. If you say his name out loud, we get what we get." And McCain understood the consequence of that, and not too long after you had the woman who [made the "Muslim" comment]. And that was a very authentic moment.

Listen, John McCain lived a big life. He was a complicated guy. He was a flawed guy. He was a magnificent guy. And he was a full-on American hero of the first and highest caliber. The real John McCain was enough. And John McCain understood that, you know? He'd have been the first to be appalled at being deified, and so in that moment, he understood what his obligation is.

I was the guy who placed the phone call to Senator Obama at that moment that he became President-elect Obama. And the reality is, the first person in the country who mattered that addressed Senator Obama on that historic night as "Mr. President-elect"? It wasn't anyone on his team or anyone on his staff, or anyone in the media. It was John McCain. And John McCain went out and delivered one of the most graceful and beautiful concession speeches that [spoke] to the magnificence of this country and a tradition that George Washington set in motion. That's one of the greatest American inventions, if not the greatest American invention, that's been exported all around the world. We played a small role in that. And he was very conscious of what his obligation was in a moment where things were starting to get out of control, in part because of the irresponsibility of his running mate.

There's a juxtaposition of this really remarkable John McCain, who didn't want to be associated with the nastiness that was coming after Obama—but then he also chose Sarah Palin. How do you reconcile those two things?

I was with McCain, as her car rolled down to the compound. I had worked in the White House. It was very, very clear in the White House I worked in, [between the] president and vice president, who was in the advice-giving business and who was in the decision-making business. And John McCain was the decision maker.

I have no idea what [he and Palin talked about] in their first meeting. When I had my first conversation with her, a substantive discussion speaking to how the world functions, that was on the bus getting ready to leave St. Paul. And after about three minutes, I realized, "Yeah, she doesn't have a clue we fought the Germans in the Second World War."

It was absolutely the most pissed off I've ever been in my life. I was enraged over it. I mean, I couldn't f****** believe it. You had this media scrutiny of her that piled on and there were all of these facts that were just missing from the vet. And I would say to her: "I'm not trying to understand any other detail other than the facts. Was your husband a member of a secessionist Alaska Independence Party or not? Maybe he liked the barbecue, I don't know. But I have the membership card, and I'm showing it to you, and you keep lying about it."

At the time, this was unprecedented. This was new. I had never met anybody who just couldn't stop lying. On big things, small things, medium things, you could not get a straight answer out of this person. That was my concern coming out of the convention.

By pushing her forward, do you think that [McCain] pushed what we see today—a sort of Tea Party metamorphosis to whatever we're gonna call the Matt Gaetzes and Marjorie Taylor Greenes, that cast of characters? Is there connective tissue between the two?

I have a hard time in this space, because yes, of course, there's connective tissue. But there's connective tissue back to Jim Crow and George Wallace and a whole cast that preceded this in the early years. Herman Cain. Michelle Bachmann. The whole rise of total nuttiness, right?

I reject the politics of exculpation, because it immunizes and infantizes broader responsibilities by saying this one thing caused everything else. That's a fairy tale.

What happens on January 20th of 2009 is the first Black president takes the oath of office. And you have Democratic majorities, Republicans are out of power.

As has been pointed out many times, nature abhors a vacuum. So the power vacuum was filled, but not by elected officials, and not by party officials, but by media personalities. And so you have a movement that comes to life with the conservative media, conservative magazines, conservative blogs. There's essentially a Palin truther movement, which [contends] that, in fact, she is not ignorant, she is not a clown; she was betrayed. She was betrayed by who? She's betrayed by the establishment. Who's the establishment? In this instance, it was me: the evil political adviser who betrayed this American eagle, who, if she just could have flown unencumbered and free, would have lighted the world with all of the good and noble things.

The Republican Party in an instant goes from the personal responsibility party to the great American political grievance and victim party. And Sarah Palin's victimization is rewarded with a million-dollar contract on Fox News, where she goes and sits down with the Chris Wallaces of the world on Sunday. Not one time ever does anybody ever ask Sarah Palin a serious question aimed at determining her fitness, her qualifications, so on and so forth.

Trump...took this whole thing to the next level, because he's smarter. Where she does have some cunning, he has a real, legitimate malice; a real, legitimate chip on his shoulder; a real understanding and mastery of American media, all of its hypocrisy, and how to ride the cesspool wave. And Donald Trump becomes the avatar of this movement, and ultimately, Donald Trump finds a way to an ideology. That ideology quickly metastasizes from some type of stupid populism to a real lethal type of populism, where "replacement theory," which is foundational, as we said at the beginning, to things like Hitlerism. It's espoused on Fox News unrelentingly, on the eight o'clock and the nine o'clock and the Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham hours in a way that will trigger mentally ill, disaffected loners.

And here's the thing: How do we cover this guy [who committed the mass shooting in Buffalo] if he's an 18-year-old jihadi named Muhammad as opposed to an 18-year-old Nazi named whatever. What I would put forward is we cover them differently in this country, and we ought not to. Yes, jihadis are a threat. But on our list of threats, they're very low.

We have a real threat in this country. And the threat is a rising tide of political extremism and fascism with violence attached to it. This was a political act. This was an act of war in Buffalo. This had intent, it had purpose, it had an ideology.

The national media doesn't pick up and doesn't pay attention to the meaning of the word "regime" that Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham use every night. The "regime" as they use it is the people's government. And that's how it's understood in the new Right.

J.D. Vance has been open and on the record talking about a desire for the rise of an American Caesar, who can stop the great threat to freedom...which is democracy. In democracy, you and I will stand equally, we will each have a vote. [Most Americans stand] ready to accept the foundational premise of the country as a moral proposition: that freedom means freedom for everybody. And that when we say all men, we mean all men and women. And everybody is created equally, regardless of color, creed, religion, gender, right? That they're entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, without intrusion from the government. That's where we stand. This is what the line is. That's the fighting line.

For the full conversation, listen to the latest episode of Declassified With Naveed Jamali wherever you get your podcasts.