Ep. 70 Rick Wilson

NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another edition of The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. When we were in Austin in late September, we had the chance to catch up with the face of the Never Trump movement and the king of the one-liner, Rick Wilson. His new book "Everything Trump Touches Dies," is selling faster than the instant pot slow cooker and you've probably seen him sharing his dark humor and turncoat anger on CNN. We interviewed Wilson the day of the Ford Kavanaugh hearings and none of us, not even Wilson were feeling very funny. Wilson joined us after a phone call out on a balcony during which a dear friend had just shared with him her story of sexual assault. And it wasn't the first such call he had gotten. Everything felt so broken that day and we just wanted to talk through with Wilson how we might piece our politics back together.

RICK WILSON: Mitch McConnell is a power player in the Senate. Greater than Lyndon Johnson. And that's a big compliment from power players. He is a guy who has a set of fundamental beliefs. He is a general mainline conservative. But he recognizes that the courts are an important element. Both sides have fetishized the court. Both sides have said we can't accomplish these things we want legislatively or on the executive side so we'll use the court as our toolbox. And you know when Democrats wanted to stack the court with liberals Republicans screamed and tore their hair out. And now the shoe is on the other foot. So you know this idea that the court uber alles, that the court is the only important thing is something he's clearly internalized and he recognizes his legacy is not going to be a tax bill that's going to be a disaster in the end honestly and he knows it and we know it because look the tax bill requires 4 percent economic growth forever and ever and ever. It's not gonna work we're not going to get there. And so McConnell recognizes that the McConnell presidency requires two Supreme Court justices to be a success.

NICIE: So we're just two moms but we have learned over the course of the last year that democracies with partisan systems require toleration and mutual forbearance. And I think that's what you're basically saying is that we're losing those things. How what is the mechanism by which we can put that toothpaste back into the tube? Is is there a positive vision you can give us for how this happens?

WILSON: Both parties have to experience a kind of hard reset on the electoral space to understand that just running out to the far right or just running out of the far left isn't scalable in the country. You know Steve King can win in 10 seats in the country. Ocasio-Cortez can win in 15 seats in the country maybe. But a Conor Lamb can win in 50 seats in the country. Or a Carlos Curbelo can win in 30 seats in this country. These folks that are that are more in the center. And not just ideologically but temperamentally they have a future as long as gerrymandering works on the left and the right you're gonna end up with states that are stacked with red seats or blue seats and you're not going to have a big space in the middle for folks who are more solution-oriented more centrist more directed toward you know getting to the goal line and sometimes the country goes through a trauma and it's like for instance right after 9/11 some of George Bush's biggest supporters in the days after 9/11 were Democratic members of the Senate who came to him and said what do we need to do? Let's bring it together. Let's do this as one. We forget that you know the moments when we when we are tested and tested hard partisan stuff falls away. You've got to get stuff done. You've got to be serious about dealing with things that affect Americans right that minute. So this hyper partisanship is kind of a luxury good in the political space and I don't think we can maintain it when there's another economic crisis or another national security crisis or another foreign policy crisis that bites us especially right now we're so divided that Republicans won't even talk to Democrats and Democrats won't even talk to Republicans. We better hope that Al-Qaida doesn't get their game on again. We better hope that we don't have an earthquake in California. We better hope we don't have a hurricane that really hits at a five. These are the things that a partisan division in this country you know will be tested and fail if it comes at us and we're not ready to be able to talk to one another across the aisle again.

NICIE: You said that you're actually pretty worried about the economy and a you know severe downturn could be a catalyst for that kind of thing. What gives you that concern?

WILSON: Well three things. First off for the last 10 years we've been on this giant bubble of Federal Reserve zero interest lending. And the Fed has had to start tightening and they've started to tighten over the last two years and it's tightening a lot more right now and they've said now we won't be back in zero interest at any time for the near future. They're desperately afraid that we're having economic growth but we're not having wage growth, we're having economic growth that is ending up with some inflationary characteristics underneath it that's why you raise rates to control inflation. And they don't have a lot of tricks left in the toolbox. They can't go out and lend a trillion dollars again to the banks on Wall Street if the crash happens, they can't go out again and do ZERP zero interest rate program. They can't do for three or four or five years again. I mean the Obama economy Republicans criticize it all the time because it's floating on this bubble of zero interest money free money free money from the Fed. Well right now that free money the air is being left of that balloon. The other thing I'm worried about is the trade war is starting to hit and hit hard. It's hitting manufacturers it's hitting farmers it's hitting folks across the country right now. And when that hits you know right now the president has cost the Midwest about 15 billion dollars. And so now they're writing subsidy checks to farmers. How does this work? How does this end? You know you end up with this recursive problem and that leads to inflationary pressures. And at that point you're without a set of tools in the toolbox. You started a trade war where the world has turned against us. Our farmers aren't exporting goods. Our manufacturers aren't exporting goods. Other countries are selling their products to Mexico and Canada. And you end up in a situation where there's an economic perfect storm. And if Donald Trump thinks that his economic theory of a trade war is good ask economists in the world because there are three economists in the country who believe that this is real and thousands think it's absolutely disastrous. The three that believe it work in the White House.

NICIE: So that this partisanship thing you should know that Heather and I live in the sixth district in Massachusetts and we were part of a bit of a reset where we live supporting Seth Moulton in his unheard of and shocking primary challenge to a sitting incumbent. What are the hard truths that we lefties need to take onboard if we're going to reunite this country?

WILSON: There's a big sense of cultural inferiority on the right and it's misplaced in large degree. But a lot of a lot of folks on the right believe that people on the left are contemptuous of their religious and faith practices and beliefs and they have a lot of trouble with that. That a lot of folks on the right come at the issue of abortion with a genuine reverence for human life. It is not in their mind we want to send women back to the kitchen. It is about the preservation of unborn life and they care about it deeply. They believe in it deeply. And that comes from a place of compassion and love. And I know it's a fraught issue on the left but acknowledging the moral complexities and dimensions of abortion when you're talking to folks on the right would be an enormous bridge because a lot of people on the left treat abortion as a universal constant social good without any moral dimension. And folks on the right who are sincere about their pro-life views very much want to have a conversation. They approach it from a whole spectrum of things and not just a raw ban on on Roe v. Wade or on overturning Roe v. Wade. So that's one thing. Another thing that folks on the left and I say this a lot the reason guys like me beat the hell out of Democrats all over the country all the time is guns. No matter what you think the position of people on guns is in the world, Americans love guns. They love them. And I tell the Democrats this all the time. You know in Florida we did a study so you've got 17 million voters in Florida roughly. We pulled up the voter file of concealed carry weapons holders one point four million thirty-five point eight percent of that one point four million were Democrats. You all don't even understand your own base. Democrats love guns. I know school shootings are a horrifying tragedy and we all look at these things and we are just we're just rocked to the core by the horror of it. But if you go out into red America and by Red America I mean pretty much 90 percent of it outside the coasts what they hear when you say sensible gun control and you know we just want to ban semiautomatics and ban this and that they hear you're taking my guns and they immediately shut down.

WILSON: There will be no further discussion. That's it. And guys like me will easily go out and run ads that say John Smith says he supports our Second Amendment rights but just like Nancy Pelosi John Smith wants to take your AR 15. You know how many AR 15s are in the state of Texas right now? About 600,000. Beto O'Rourke says he wants to ban them. That was dumb politics. It's Texas for God's sake. There are ways to talk about gun safety and making the world a safer place. Democrats consistently lose the ball game because they underestimate the power of this issue on the right. They absolutely don't get it. Democrats should also be advocating for a government that is smaller smarter and better. Democrats advocate for a government that is bigger and more expensive. Yet if they were to say like Bill Clinton did the era of big government is over we're going to reform government from the top down make it smaller smarter tighter better. This is not my girlfriend sorry. I do my Bill Clinton riff and I have to go I have to be I have to live my Bill Clinton riff. Anyway. But you know a lot of the time people their transactions with government are often unsatisfactory and their view of government is that it is costly and corrupt and inefficient and ineffective. And so if once in a while Democrats would say we're not just trying to spend more money we're trying to do a better job. I mean Bill Clinton did welfare reform it was one of the highlights of his administration in terms of the perception of independent voters. They loved welfare reform. They thought it was great because they bust their asses and most of them don't perceive that they're on welfare. Those are a few that fear the hallmarks of the highlights.

NICIE: OK so we've been traveling around America for a year trying to get our arms around what's going to happen in the U.S. House of Representatives. How are you thinking about the map for the House right now?

WILSON: I think the Democrats are going to win somewhere between 35 and 40 seats. Now that is not a 1974 wipeout or a 1994 wipeout but a lot of it is very contingent on the chemistry in the last two weeks of the campaign which is to say does Donald Trump or do they have him stoked out on Xanax every day so he doesn't tweet? If they do Democrats might only get 35 seats, if they don't they might get 60 seats. This electorate has become very volatile. Women voters are highly motivated to vote against Republicans to vote against Donald Trump. And minority voters are highly motivated especially since it's an off year and they normally don't get motivated in an off year elections especially in Florida and Georgia where you have African-American candidates at the top of the ticket. Which could really change the ballgame. And in Florida you know we've got a Democratic candidate right now who's consistently polling between 6 and 8 points ahead of his Republican opponent and it shouldn't happen. Now his Republican opponent made jokes about black people and said let's not monkey it up. So that was that was probably not his best opening line in the campaign. But you know you've got you've got a possibility we're going to see very significant African-American turnout in Georgia and Florida which is going to alter the states there a lot. You're going to see close races in places they shouldn't be close. You're going to see the seats the Republicans thought they would pick up West Virginia, North Dakota are slipping away. Arizona we thought we'd hold Arizona and it looks like Kyrsten Sinema's opening up some real real estate on Martha McSally and down the ballot. You know the RNC is cutting off or the NRCC is cutting off Republicans. They cut off Mike Coffman and Mike Bishop. Colorado and Michigan said good luck.

NICIE: To serve serving all candidates supported by [...] PAC.

WILSON: Exactly. So I think it's going to be pretty apocalyptic. Now the Senate is a really tough call. The Senate is a really tough call. There are too many races that are inside the margin of error. But remember this was supposed to be the easy year for the Republicans. There were only eight Republican competitive seats up this year. This was supposed to be the off year the easy year the fun year. And they're all running for their lives right here in Texas Ted Cruz running for his damn life.

NICIE: We have to ask about the leadership dynamics on the Hill on the House. You know Paul Ryan's retiring and on the Democratic side there's a lot of discussion about whether Nancy Pelosi should continue. What are your thoughts there? I mean we definitely hear a hunger for a new generation of leadership. But at the same time I think we're in a very very delicate and difficult time and there is some value to experience. So what do you think?

WILSON: I think Nancy Pelosi is going to remain Speaker. I don't think there's a meaningful challenge from the left or the center against her because she raises a there's a technical term we use in politics it's a shit ton of money. She raises a shit ton of money every time. Nancy Pelosi is a very very very very very effective fundraiser. And that's her claim to fame that's her call. And so she's going to have a lot of loyalty she can command because of that. Now is Nancy Pelosi a polarizing figure? Absolutely. Do independents and Republicans in focus groups say oh dear god I can't stand that woman? Absolutely. I don't think just raising the money is a sufficient reason to keep her as speaker forever and ever. But the Democrats at some point are going to have to reboot because the leadership of the Democratic Party in the house right now the median age is like 70. The median age is 70. I mean it's cuckoo. So I think they really need to think about you know these are old warhorses who've done great work for their party. But Jim Clyburn is a million years old. And Nancy Pelosi is a million years old and Steny Hoyer is a million years old. These folks are not spring chickens. None of them are great on television. And that's the world we live in. It's mediated by television. Be good on TV. That's the number one rule now. And none of them are particularly amazing as television figures in the modern era or social media figures in the modern era.

NICIE: What about the Republican caucus? Do you think McCarthy gets it in the end?

WILSON: I think Scalise actually may have a nose on McCarthy right now. McCarthy is considered a little too much of a rhino too much of the old school too much of a Paul Ryan guy. So I think Scalise now the way that McCarthy could get it is if Meadows and Scalise can't cut a deal and they and they frag each other or Johnson and Scalise can't cut a deal and they frag each other and divide the conservative and the freedom caucus guys and you end up with you know the default of McCarthy's squeaks over the line. But being minority leader is not going to be as much fun.

NICIE: What about impeachment? What do you think about that?

WILSON: It's the highest hill in politics and people who think that they're going to get an easy track to impeachment or out of their damn minds. It's going to be really hard in the House even if the Democrats take the house. But you've got to get two thirds in the Senate. And even if you had you know photographic evidence of Donald Trump taking a sack of money from Vladimir Putin. Even then the partisan reflex in this country is going to be so strong and getting the two thirds is damn near impossible. So...

NICIE: So your base case is we kind of keep it together. Trump serves out his term and then we you know...

WILSON: He's defeated either in a primary or in the or in the general in 2020. The path of eliminating him from office by impeachment and I've said this from the absolute moment he was sworn in it is just a technical hill that's too high to climb.

NICIE: So if we think about 2020 and we try never to talk about 2020 on The MidPod because we just want everybody to get out there and vote in November 2018. But who do you see as individuals who could unite our country and help bring us back together?

WILSON: It's such a great question. It really is a great question. It's one I'm pondering a lot and the problem I'm having right now is is we have a huge deficit of people who put country above party and part of what's going to take is people who are less interested in the political ambition and more outwardly directed towards saving the country. I believe we as a nation are in a crisis that is that is existential in some ways. I believe that as a country you know the values of leadership that are displayed on the battlefield in this country every day by 19 year-old privates. OK. From Charlotte, North Carolina and from Honolulu and from Jersey City is more meritorious much of the time than guys wearing a thousand-dollar suit sitting up behind a podium.

NICIE: Wearing that pen wearing that lapel pin.

WILSON: Wearing that flag pin. And because you know we know Americans under pressure come together and do the right thing. It's the old Churchill thing we'll do the we'll do the right thing last as a rule. I think though there's a generation of leaders who have been shaped and they are Republicans and Democrats who've been shaped on the battlefield in Afghanistan and Iraq and the war on terror. I think there's a generation of these guys who are a new great greatest generation. And while they're in a partisan frame in a lot of cases you see you see a lot of them have have already started to say I'm frustrated with the way you're doing this guys. You know we don't we're not going to get to the ex in our mission in this country by just having this partisan Cold War all the time. You know these guys are kicking down doors. They're relying on their buddy standing behind them and that guys rely on the buddy in the stack behind him and so on. These guys who've who've seen combat in the modern era and have faced our enemies overseas I think they're shaping up to be a very impressive generation. And what's frightening a lot of Republicans is there are some very strong Democratic candidates who are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. And you look at it in its Conor Lamb and it's Seth Moulton it's Dan McCready on North Carolina and it's three or four people here in Texas this year.

NICIE: Joseph Kopser.

WILSON: You see them running around and looking are they all going...

NICIE: Gina Ortiz Jones, MJ Hegar.

WILSON: MJ Hegar. Yeah yeah and you see them you see a lot of them are not going to win this time. They're not all going to win. Just that alone isn't enough. But they're building a new set of skills just like they had skills they built in the military for leadership and command they're building the same skills in politics. They're going to be formidable going forward. And it's going to be something that that I think will benefit the country in the long haul in the short term a lot of these guys in Congress on the Republican side getting up there in years. The Republican caucus has gotten pretty old itself.

NICIE: So what about your party. Where is the leadership going to be coming from in your party the limited government conservative?

WILSON: Damn if I know. I mean look I've been a part of the Never Trump movement because I am a conservative. I believe in individual liberty. I believe in the Constitution. I believe in personal freedom. I believe in freedom of expression. I believe in that the power and scope of the executive branch of the government should be controlled by a Congress and a court that hold it in the balance our framers intended. I do not believe that if you're in Congress you should act like a junior manager to Trump golf course and act like Mr. Trump is your boss. I do not believe that the president has any claim on the loyalty or actions of Supreme Court justices even if he nominates them and as a conservative I think these are ideas that have merit and value and constancy and that they should be revered. I don't know whether there are enough of enough guys like me in the era of Trump to hold it together but God knows we're going to try.

NICIE: Speaking for ourselves, we hope you guys figure it out because Duverger's law says we need to healthy parties to make this thing work. Anything else. What'd we miss?

WILSON: Thank you so much for having me I really appreciate it was a fun time.

NICIE: That was Rick Wilson, author of "Everything Trump Touches Dies." And since we didn't say anything funny at all during that interview, here's one funny line from Rick. Donald Trump is like a monster from the laboratory of a jackass mad scientist built to represent the perfect antithesis of George Washington's example. Thanks for listening and see you soon.

Eunice Panetta