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Steve Schmidt on U.S. history, Trump, and the fragility of our institutions

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Steve Schmidt: "What should people think, when the bankers get a trillion-dollar bailout and no one goes to jail."

Steve Schmidt, the veteran Republican operative who spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum Tuesday, is an old-fashioned patriot, in ways good and bad, and perhaps the good and the bad were the same thing: a desire to glorify America, which included a great deal of leaving out certain less glorious chapters. More on that later.

Although his talk was titled “A Candid Look at Today’s Headlines,” Schmidt’s speech started with 1938 (“the world was on the edge of the storm,” referring to World War II,) then zoomed back to 1858 to pick up the admission of Minnesota into the Union just in time for the Civil War. Then he told stories about the valor of Minnesota troops at the battle of Gettysburg, where they pretty much saved the Union (in his telling).

Schmidt spent considerable time on the war heroism of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of President Teddy. Junior was a Medal of Honor winner in World War II. Rousing stuff, told in hyper-patriotic detail (and, by that, I mean he left out any details that were inconsistent with a hyper-patriotic version of U.S. history). The way Schmidt worked in those Minnesota heroes of Gettysburg was both brilliant for drawing in a Minnesota audience and thrilling.

Roosevelt Jr. is buried right next to his brother Quentin (who died fighting in World War I) among the U.S. war dead in Normandy.

Amazingly (to me at least) this set up the first reference, if you could call it that, to current events, when Schmidt said, of the two Roosevelt brothers, sharing eternity below ground in France:

I wonder what those two sons of a president would think about the son-in-law and son of a president of the United States meeting with representatives of a foreign intelligence service to undermine the democratic process of an election in the United States.

It was an interesting choice, by Schmidt, to spend the first half of his prepared remarks talking about historical, and mostly military, events. As I talked to other attendees on our way out yesterday, they were mostly bothered by the war glorification, and by the old-fashioned sanitized version of U.S. history that left out such chapters as the conquest and near genocide of the native populations and the importation and exploitation of slaves.

I get that. But once Schmidt, who worked for president George W. Bush and was a key player in the 2008 presidential campaign of (another war hero) John McCain, got into the current scene, things got very Trumpy and very strong. A few excerpts:

How did Donald Trump get elected president for me is pretty easy: 44 percent of Americans do not have $400 of available cash. There are more payday lenders than there are Starbucks. And there are almost more payday lenders than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined. There hasn’t been a real wage increase in this country for working people for [many years]. The defining fact for this generation was the economic collapse of 2008.

What should people think, when the bankers get a trillion-dollar bailout and no one goes to jail. Thirteen million American families are foreclosed on — no small number of them being told by a deputy sheriff  to get all their belongings out of the house in 45 minutes; 12 million Americans lose their jobs.

One set of rules for everybody up here [meaning the top of the socioeconomic ladder]. another set for everybody down here. So how is it that a Bernie Sanders voter in the primary votes for Donald Trump in the fall. … All the elites are scratching their heads and saying, “They’re voting for crazy.” No. The elites are out of touch. …

People in the middle third of the U.S. population know three things: that they are one missed paycheck away from disaster; that their kids will be worse off than they are; and, three, that there’s a much better chance of them falling into the bottom third than that they’ll climb up into the top third.

People in the bottom third see an opioid epidemic. They see declining life expectancies. They see rising maternal death rates. They see no positive indicators anywhere. So yes, when a demagogue comes along and says, “Make American great again,’ it means three things: We were a great country. We’re not anymore. Put me in power and we’ll be one again.”

Will things head in a better direction any time soon? Schmidt said that the history of America is that “almost providentially, we get the right leader at the right moment [then a pregnant pause].  So we’re waiting.” That got a laugh.

Schmidt talked about the dangerous growth of media outlets that, instead of reporting honestly, pander to what the audience wants to hear. He referred to the dangers of Orwell’s 1984, “where the truth is whatever the leader says it is.”

When the moderator, Westminster Senior Pastor Timothy Hart-Andersen, referring to the media problem, asked, “How is a reporter supposed to cover this White House? Schmidt gave his shortest answer, one word:


Another question, submitted in writing by a member of the audience and relayed by Hart-Andersen: “How much at risk is our democracy?” Schmidt replied:

These institutions are fragile. You have the president of the United States and you have other morally responsible people appearing on Fox News talking about locking up political opponents. Locking up senior officials of the government, of the intelligence community. Lifelong public officials. That’s not America.

Now, a third of the country may choose to live in Trumpistan. Good for them. Sixty to 65 percent of us prefer to continue living in America. And there’s more of us than them.

But when you insult the institutions, you undermine the rule of law, you lie constantly, you challenge objective truth, yeah, that is an assault on foundational pillars of the American republic. And the people who are working in this White House are not there serving the public. They are complicit in an attack on institutions that are essential and have been built over two centuries and defended at great cost and sacrifice, sacrifice that beggars the imagination.

Not only should we be upset about it, not only should we be angry about it, we should be enraged by it, we should be activated by it, and every one of us should understand our essential responsibility as trustees of the greatest inheritance that could ever be bestowed on you. That is, being an American.

Americans aren’t only connected to each other in their communities. Americans are connected across the generations. … And at the end of the day, these institutions are strong enough, we all are strong enough, to stave off the assault by one former reality show host.

One last Schmidtian comment, about the danger of hyperpartisanship:

You can’t love your country if you hate half the people in it.

Perhaps I should mention that MinnPost is a sponsor of the Westminster speakers program.

And, if you’d like to listen to the whole event, MPR has a link to the full audio, here. 

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/02/2018 - 09:29 am.

    The biggest historical blindness is the fact that a responsive government actually representing the interests of the “little guy” in opposition to big power and big money is a historical anomaly that has existed only in a flawed condition for a short time..

    A few decades of efflorescence has been met by a concerted onslaught of those who conceal their agenda in terms of faux-populism.

    After all, haven’t the wealthy and powerful always looked after the little guy ?

    Just don’t pay attention to what is actually trickling down.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/02/2018 - 10:01 am.

    Again With the Economic Anxiety

    While Mr. Schmidt (based on the excerpts) made some interesting points, he falls too easily into the trap of thinking that Trump’s support came from an economically anxious working class. The problem with that idea is that it is not true.

    Almost two-thirds of Trump voters in the 2016 general election had incomes above the national median, and Trump supporters were no less likely to have college degrees than the rest of the population. If political subdivisions are our metric of choice, Clinton won 57% of the US counties were more than 25% of the population is below the poverty line.

    So what motivated Trump voters? We all hate to have to say it, but it was the cultural wedge issues that pundits like to claim Americans are over. Immigration, ethnicity, and the sullen disdain for “political correctness” motivated voters. The economic anxiety meme is just a cover for the baser impulses of the American voter. Trump despised the same people, and wasn’t polite enough to hold it in. In 2016, it was the hatred, stupid.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/02/2018 - 10:41 am.

      In 2016, it was the hatred, stupid.

      Go to the head of the class, take a bow, take the rest of the day off….

      Exactly right.

      The message of the left:

      “We’re all in this together and together we will find a new way forward…”

      The message of the Trumpian right:

      “You have been screwed by ________ (fill in the blank) and we’re gonna get even, BIG TIME”.

      A 2018 Blue Wave has a big obstacle to overcome….

    • Submitted by Tim Smith on 05/02/2018 - 02:35 pm.

      Your last paragraph

      I think it’s all those things plus the constant drum beat of identitiy politics, add in a bad opponent like Hillary and you get the outcome.

      Clinton’s issue, also somewhat a national issue for democrats, is that the major appeal is to voters in the nation’s urban centers. The farther she got from the core the less likely voters were to vote for her, that can be true in congressional elections as well. The economic anxiety flippping voters to Trump and other Republicans argument is very real.Dems need to own and fix it.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/02/2018 - 03:12 pm.

        What Does This Mean?

        What are “identity politics?” Do you mean “attention paid to the concerns of groups other than straight, white males?” If we’re talking about “identity politics,” does that include claiming to represent the interests of rural voters as opposed to urban voters? Gun owners? Conservative evangelicals? Why are their voices not a part of a “constant drumbeat of identity politics?”

        “Clinton’s issue, also somewhat a national issue for democrats, is that the major appeal is to voters in the nation’s urban centers.” Except that’s where most Americans live. I hate to beat this particular drum again, but more Americans voted for Clinton than voted for Trump. The anti-democratic anachronism that is the Electoral College handed Trump his victory.

        If we’re going to resort to broad generalizations, let’s remind ourselves of the demographics of rural or rural-tending areas: largely white, non-Latino, and aging. We could also remember who is covered by the coded term “urban,” but after all, race has nothing to do with it.

        That’s why so many non-white people voted for Trump.

        • Submitted by Tim Smith on 05/02/2018 - 03:57 pm.

          it means

          pitting people against each other based on their identity and pandering to your set, see dem party circa 2008-2016.

          Total vote count is pretty useless when we have the electoral college, which forces a national candidate to relate to as many types of people and different geographical areas as you can.

          Urban is not a race term , it is a fact,.

          No anger here, just thought you would like some perspective, but guess not.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/02/2018 - 04:18 pm.

            What it Means

            Identity politics means “pitting people against each other based on their identity and pandering to your set.” Sure. Now tell me why the Republican Party is not doing that. Are gun owners, rural Americans, evangelical conservatives not identities? Has the Republican Party not been pandering to them for decades?

            “Total vote count is pretty useless when we have the electoral college, which forces a national candidate to relate to as many types of people and different geographical areas as you can.” It may be useless in electoral terms, but if you’re talking about who represented the interests of “real Americans,” it becomes relevant.

            “Urban is not a race term , it is a fact,.” Okay. I’m sure the term does not conjure up any images in anyone’s mind. Nope, none whatever (“Be quiet, Fido. No one is whistling!”).

            “No anger here, just thought you would like some perspective, but guess not.” The Trump presidency is anger in the White House. Why does he still spew his juvenile insults at his opponents? Why does he talk about prosecuting them (a stunt worthy of the authoritarians he admires)? Why the continuing railing against The Others?

            Your “different perspective” has not convinced me otherwise. You are lashing out against the Democrats in general and Hillary Clinton in particular. It’s not a positive message at all. That perspective defines itself by what it is against, not by what it is for.

            As the more uncouth elements of our society are saying these days, “Sad!”

            • Submitted by Tim Smith on 05/03/2018 - 08:46 am.

              Positive messaging

              It is generally accepted that Trump won due to two phenomenon, 1) Middle Class working folks who typically vote D voted R for this one cycle (Ohio,MI,PA mainly). 2) Some voters who voted for Obama didn’t come out for Clinton and key swing states needed for the Electoral college swung to Trump as a result. So, you take that information and twist it on it’s side with irrlevant stats so you can brand me and 60+ millions of your fellow Americans racists and haters? thats real positive, thanks.

              Definition of Urban, I dont see any racial elements.
              in, relating to, or characteristic of a city or town.
              “the urban population”
              synonyms: town, city, municipal, civic, metropolitan, built-up, inner-city, downtown, suburban; More
              antonyms: rural

              Minneapolis is 64% white, we can’t call it Urban then?

              • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/03/2018 - 11:27 am.

                “It is generally accepted . . .”

                It is generally accepted by those who are uncomfortable with acknowledging the racism that underpins so much of American society.

                “So, you take that information and twist it on it’s side with irrlevant stats . . .” Irrelevant statistics? Yes, I suppose if one has preconceived ideas to protect (a safe space, as it were), one might deem actual statistics about who voted for Trump to be irrelevant.

                “. . . so you can brand me and 60+ millions of your fellow Americans racists and haters?” How about enablers of racism? Is that better? How about “willing to overlook racism?” Why is it not racist to vote for a candidate whose campaign “coincidentally” used racist and anti-Semitic symbolism? Perhaps you could explain how being tired of “the constant drumbeat of identity politics” is not another way of saying “not wanting to hear any more talk about race.”

                ” . . .thats real positive, thanks.” Forgive me if I don’t get all choked up about not being politically correct.

                “Definition of Urban, I dont see any racial elements.” Way back in 10th grade, I learned the difference between “denotation” and “connotation.”

              • Submitted by Bill Willy on 05/03/2018 - 11:43 am.

                One, maybe two more phenomena

                Not to bring up a controversial issue, but when you say, “It is generally accepted that Trump won due to two phenomenon,” and I read them, I couldn’t help but think you may have forgotten one generally — not universally, of course, but generally — accepted third phenomena a lot of people have been calling “Russian interference.”

                And when you mentioned those “key swing states needed for the Electoral college” it reminded me of an extra interesting article I read a while back that you might find interesting, “The Blow-it-All-Up-Billionaires.”


                I’m not saying there could have been a fourth phenomena involved (and even if there was it wouldn’t fit into the “generally accepted” category) but if you read the article you’ll find part of it tells the story of Steve Bannon’s connection to “the Mercers” (the suddenly infamous father/daughter team who think the Koch brothers are soft whimps) and, coincidentally enough, how:

                “Cambridge Analytica was founded by conservatives Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer. A minimum of 15 million dollars has been invested into the company by Mercer, according to The New York Times. Bannon’s stake in the company was estimated at 1 to 5 million dollars, but he divested his holdings in April 2017 as required by his role as White House Chief Strategist.”


                Probably nothing to it, but the Blow-It-All-Up article talks about the role Cambridge Analytica (and, as I recall, some guy Stever Bannon thought was some kind of strategic genius) played in the micro-targeting (and the extra heavy concentration of allegedly “fake news” that came from SOMEwhere) in those key swing states you mentioned.

                Anyway, I don’t disagree with the two generally accepted phenomena you point out, but it seems there was that generally accepted third phenomena of (alleged) Russian interference and just wanted to make sure that didn’t get left off the list.

                • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/03/2018 - 08:50 pm.

                  Not so much the Russians

                  While their efforts are undeniable, there’s no clear or compelling evidence that the Russian interference actually produced significant results on Trumps behalf. The Cambridge Analytica pitch was mostly a scam that delivered “data” but no results. They ended up targeting those who were likely to vote for Trump anyways for the most part. And had Clinton been any kind of effective candidate it wouldn’t have been close enough to sway with such little influence in the first place.

          • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/02/2018 - 04:35 pm.

            And a fact for you….Re

            And a fact for you….

            Re “urban”/urban

            …Suburbs gained Hispanics and other new minorities at a significant pace in the 2000s,
            and now are home to a majority of metropolitan blacks….


          • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/02/2018 - 07:25 pm.

            2008-2016 Identity Politics

            Of course you base this on the fact that the D’s nominated a non-white candidate to represent them as their candidate for President in 2008 and 2012.

            If Obama expressed 1% of the hostility Trump has directed towards Latinos, Muslims, Blacks, against white folks you would have the basis for a claim. Instead all you have is outrage that this non-white guy was twice elected President and you attribute it to “identity politics”.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/02/2018 - 12:16 pm.

    Pondering Schmidt’s last statement quoted here, about how you can’t love America if you hate half the people in it, I’m prompted to say that (agreeing with the post above) it’s not the left that hates.

    The vitriol spewed by Fox TV and other right-wingers makes me gasp in shock. Awful stuff.

    And the haters on the right do not form a full half of our population. They are, at most, a third of us. They are the so-called “aggrieved,” who lament their loss of status in our society–status based on race as much as on money–and look for enemies who might be responsible for that. Many of them pretty well off, thanks very much.

    We must keep in mind: It is the Democratic Party that has a platform where the goals are to help people, especially people at the bottom of the economic scale or who are sick or elderly or otherwise at severe disadvantage. The Republicans couldn’t care less about them.

    It’s Trump. But it’s not just Trump. It’s also the party that has capitulated to him.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/02/2018 - 09:02 pm.

      Well, The Dems Kinda Try to Help

      Much of the Democratic platform has been free trade, Wall Street deregulation, lowering capital gains taxes, and Bill Clinton’s welfare de-form. And don’t forget bailing out Wall Street while letting home owners get tossed out on the street, and merely saying “tsk tsk” as the last remnants of the Labor movement are swirling the drain while the GOP slits it’s throat. “Let’s move right” has resulted in the right moving further right.

      But we can hope for a more progressive Democratic party.

    • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 05/03/2018 - 11:25 am.

      “it’s not the left that hates”

      Holy Hannah. Where have you been? The disdain that the left has for people that don’t agree with them is gigantic.

      • Submitted by James Sandberg on 05/03/2018 - 06:25 pm.


        When I watched a sitting R congresswoman stand in front of a bunch of her supporters and call Michelle Obama a “Monkey” to cheers, It confirmed to me that the Hate factor really resides with the r’s. HANDS DOWN!

      • Submitted by Roy Everson on 05/04/2018 - 02:33 am.

        We are all The Other

        Sure, there looks to be a bit of that, but mostly it is dismay that so many of our fellow citizens can fall prey to a con-artist candidate who made and makes unprecedented appeals to the worst instincts of religious bigotry and racism. Dismay that lessons learned over generations of painful neglect that were moving us forward are of little or no importance to a major political party. Dismay over the outsized influence of people who believe Stormy Daniels’ lover is God’s chosen tool to save the unborn from their selfish mothers and to protect normal Americans from The Other. But fortunately elections can be an antidote for dismay.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/03/2018 - 09:25 pm.

    Trump didn’t win as much as Democrats lost

    Trump entered office as the most disliked and distrusted president in US history. The problem is, had Clinton won, SHE would have been the most disliked and distrusted President to enter the White House. If you give voters a crap shoot like that and all bets are off.

    Identity politics is about producing candidates that voters will identify with, rather than candidates that offer agendas or programs that people support. Identity politics assumes that the right candidate can win regardless of agenda or proposals. Identity politics has been a dominant theme for neoliberal Democrats since they lost to Reagan because the assumed that Reagan’s “identity” is what got him elected. When Democrats won against crappy Republican candidates they attributed their victories to the genius of their identity politics… whatever. It’s always been rather bizarre that practitioners of identity politics would put the most unpopular candidate in their history on the ticket and expect to win, oh well.

    Obama actually didn’t run on identity politics, he ran as a liberal with big ideas.

    Could Trump be the end of our democracy, we’ll see, but it won’t be Trump alone who does us in. We’ve been driving towards this abyss for a long time, and without the dysfunctional and sociopathic Party that stands behind him, Trump would be little more than orange caricature that managed to win an election. Trump is a temp, but the damage his Party has been doing will last long after he’s gone unless Democrats produce a comprehensive,popular, and progressive antidote.

    So yes, it’s important to remember that Trumpster’s are a minority, we have the numbers to rid ourselves of these scoundrels, but voters want candidates that will represent voters instead of elites.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/04/2018 - 09:14 am.


    Actually my struggle has been to understand, the typical answer has been, don’t go there, don’t want to talk about it, you want to take my guns away, what about Benghazi, or change the subject. Point is, yes some of us folks are wide open to discussion, actually invite the discussion, however, difficult to have rationale discussions with irrational people. A few posts up, the exchange pretty clearly portrays that, conclusions based on faith twisted, logic or propaganda. Seems that folks who go and try to really understand the truth and facts behind various issues, instead of taking the local propaganda hook line and sinker are elites, even though we spend time cleaning up dog poo just like everyone else!

  6. Submitted by Howard Miller on 05/05/2018 - 04:32 pm.

    still making amends

    Have felt that Steve Schmidt, having played a central role in McCain choosing Sarah Palin for his VP candidate, has been making amends since then. He’s been an honest, some times brutally so commentator on the American political scene of late. I look forward to his perspectives, noting that he still has his shades on truth (noted by Mr. Black). When he describes events, he sticks to facts.

    When will Mr. Ryan and Mr. McConnell decide that truth, honesty might better serve the national interest? How about Mr. Trump?

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