Rick Wilson has worked to elect Republicans for 30 years, but he will “no longer use those skills to serve the party I once loved. That party is gone.”
He has not become a Democrat, but Wilson is adamantly anti-Trump. His book, “Running Against the Devil: A Plot to Save America From Trump — and Democrats from Themselves,” is a rant against President Donald Trump as the worst president in history. The explosion of Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the United States this past month — and the surging popularity of Wilson’s Lincoln Project PAC — indicates that he is not alone in frustration with the country’s direction.
Wilson’s message is serious, but his delivery is hilarious, with over-the-top snarky comments and profanity. It’s a fun book to read, but the bottom line is that the Democrats must stop Trump from winning a second term. Wilson sees Congress as unable to respond other than sending Trump “a strongly worded letter.”
Wilson’s example of Trump’s corruption is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocking bipartisan efforts to stop Russian election interference in the 2020 election. It occurred right after a Russian oligarch announced that he would build a new aluminum plant in Kentucky, where McConnell is unpopular and faces a close reelection.
According to Wilson, Democrats must not focus on the national vote. Instead they must remember to run 15 disciplined state campaigns; it is absolutely necessary to win in the targeted swing states. Their messaging and strategies cannot rely on miracles. Nor should they waste energy releasing anger, “even though [Trump] deserves it.”
He advises that Democrats must stop insisting on picking candidates based on what policies they love, versus what wins, and to him, that means “Do not scare the [crap] out of the Republican squish voters, as in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona.” They cannot afford to choose a candidate “who strokes their ideological happy place.”
Wilson drapes his strategy with a string of poll findings. A January 2019 Pew survey asked Democrats if they wanted their party to become more moderate or more liberal. While 40% wanted a more liberal approach, 53% said they wanted a more moderate approach. Data shows socialism may not frighten the populace like communism did in the 1950s, but in the swing Electoral College states for 2020, it could stop the Democrats from attracting the key voters that flipped the House from Republican to Democrat control. For instance, according to a February 2019 Public Opinion Strategies poll, 54% of the voters in 11 of those swing states oppose socialism, as did 57% of suburban women and 56% of independents.
From his prior experience leading Republican campaigns, Wilson believes Trump’s advisers want to “make this election about a core package of issues, NOT a referendum on Trump’s personality, leadership and accomplishments.” Consequently, if Democrats run on detailed policies, they will be appealing to the brain and will lose; instead, Wilson argues, they need to appeal to the heart by focusing on Trump’s faults.
In brief, Wilson is saying Trump is a flawed president, but a clever one who has brilliantly exploited the “grievance culture” of “everyone is coming to get you.” They are the immigrants, Black Lives Matter, antifa, Muslims, women.
“Running Against the Devil,” with dry, cutting humor on every page, will probably not persuade many Republicans to vote against Trump. And Wilson’s advice to the Democrats runs directly counter to the progressive drift of the party, which often pushes a progressive agenda to the front lines, no matter what surveys say about its effectiveness in getting votes.
Wilson may convince Democrats that Biden’s victory is not about a popular vote. Hillary Clinton got that and still lost. Trump made the election about her, not her policies. Wilson knows how that was done, and he is doing it now to Trump. He has co-founded the Lincoln Project with other well-known Republicans to produce and run attack ads against the president. By provoking anxiety and fear about Trump, they hope to persuade enough disaffected conservatives, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in swing states to abandon him — and perhaps even vote for Biden.
Whether Wilson’s predictions and advice hold water remains to be seen. But as November approaches, “Running Against the Devil” is a fitting primer for the true start of the race.
“Running Against the Devil” by Rick Wilson, Crown Forum, 352 pp., $28