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

“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,” said Schmidt at the Westminster Town Hall Forum.

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

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.