I was raised in the Episcopalian church, the American variation of the Church of England, or Anglicanism. It used to be illegal to hold office in England if you believed in transubstantiation. Personally, I prefer to keep religion out of politics, and that goes double for theology, but I’ll note that one of the main appeals of settling in the New World was to get away from governments that dictated what you could and could not believe. That process wasn’t really complete in America until we had to pull all the colonies together into one cohesive unit. It was only then that we banned religious tests, and we originally only banned religious tests for federal offices.
Today, you can believe that the communion sacrament literally turns the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and this belief cannot bar you from working in or for state or federal governments. So, from a legal and political point of view, it’s completely irrelevant what I think about it. I certainly don’t think it’s a terribly important subject for understanding what has gone wrong with the Republican Party, but Ross Douthat differs.
In reviewing Stuart Stevens’ new book “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump,” Douthat places special significance on a passage where Stevens, who served as Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, suggests that no one really believes in the doctrine of transubstantiation.
There is another way of reading this history, though, that’s suggested by a passage where Stevens is emphasizing the fundamental emptiness of G.O.P. rhetoric on deficits and taxes. “But still the Republican Party continues to push tax cuts the same way the Roman Catholic Church uses incense for High Mass,” he writes, “as a comforting symbolism for believers that reminds them of their identity.” And then, pushing the analogy further: “Being against ‘out-of-control federal spending,’ a phrase I must have used in a hundred ads, is a catechism of the Republican faith. But no one really believes in it any more than communicants believe they are actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ.”
Douthat believes that this is both naive and disrespectful, which it certainly is. But he also thinks it’s emblematic of something much more significant.
It suggests, instead, that at some level Stevens and his fellow Republican strategists regarded their own voters in exactly the way certain populist conservatives always claimed the Republican establishment regarded its supporters — as useful foot soldiers, provincials to be mobilized with culture-war appeals, religious weirdos who required certain rhetorical nods so that the grown-ups could get on with the more important work of governing.
In which case the original sin of the strategist class wasn’t moral compromise or racial blindness but simple condescension: a belief that they didn’t need to take their own constituents seriously, that they could campaign on social issues and protecting the homeland and govern on foreign wars and Social Security reform and that it would all hang together. Which it did — until a demagogue came along who was ready to exploit the gap between promises and policy, and to point out that the Republican adults supposedly in charge of governing weren’t actually governing very well.
Stevens obviously touched a raw nerve with Douthat, and he really could have been more generous in understanding the intended point, which is that most Republicans still mouth doctrines that they no longer believe. Yet, that doesn’t mean Douthat is off-base in sensing a chasm between the GOP’s base and its consultant class. His main critique of Stevens and the rest of the Lincoln Project crew is spot-on.
Stevens does not really offer a story of intellectual conversion or gradual ideological disillusionment. He doesn’t tell us that he used to believe in supply-side economics but now rejects it, or that he used to be against abortion or same-sex marriage but came to a different view, or that he used to favor welfare reform and tough sentencing laws and now repents…
…But mostly Stevens presses a critique of Republican voters, activists and operatives — and white religious conservatives above all — that makes its author seem less like a convert with a tale to tell and more like the world’s most clueless mercenary, a political veteran who noticed only after several decades that he was fighting for what was, by his own account, transparently the wicked side.
We can certainly say the same thing with equal accuracy about Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, George Conway, and the other ex-Republican strategists who dominate the Never Trump movement. Even when they ostensibly cop to having some responsibility for creating the monster that devoured the country, they do very little explaining about how they were so blinded for so long. They’re all like King Oedipus, clawing their eyes out when they realize that they’re the cause of the plague. But Oedipus could not have known he was killing his father or bedding his mother, while these political mercenaries were well aware that they were exploiting and stoking the religious conservatism and racial bigotry of a segment of Americans for the political benefit of rich people.
The thing about mercenaries is that you only hire them when you need them. They’re inherently unreliable because they’re always for sale. Right now, they’re acting as volunteer soldiers against Trump, and perhaps there’s a genuine desire for atonement involved here. Still, even if they’re not expecting the Democratic Party or its candidates to pay them, they’re still trying to sell books and make a buck.
Douthat is actually fairly successful in exposing their game, despite his idiosyncratic take on the subject. I won’t reject their help as long as it’s free, but I don’t recommend handing them your money.