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An Evening with former Republican Rick Wilson

When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Rick Wilson, as he put it, “grew a soul” and left the GOP. His most recent campaign work was in 2018 when he worked on the ad campaign to defeat Roy Moore. It was the first time he had worked with the Democratic Party and he was happy to help defeat Moore. Wilson wants Democrats to think of him as a soviet spy who has come in out of the cold. Rather than dismissing him as the enemy, Democrats should bring him in and ask for the intelligence he has on the other side.

So it wasn’t a typical Thursday crowd at Powell’s Bookstore in Beaverton, Oregon. Sure, all 180 of us were there for a book signing. But this group, made up of mostly liberals with a smattering of anti-Trump conservatives, was looking for more. We were waiting to hear the opinions of a respected ex-Republican author on what true conservatives will do now that Trumpism has taken over the Republican Party.

If you look at Rick Wilson’s twitter profile, it says that since he left the GOP in 2016, he is an “Apostate GOP Media Guy”. For the 30 years previous to 2016 Rick Wilson was a Republican campaign consultant and GOP operative. He began his career in the George H.W. Bush Administration in the Department of Defense run by Dick Cheney.  As Rick says, he “grew up hard” in that position. Afterwards he and a friend formed a consulting company and he worked on the campaigns of various politicians and for the GOP National Committee.

Wilson has written two books, “Everything Trump Touches Dies” and, just out, “Running Against the Devil: A Plot to Save America from Trump–and Democrats from Themselves”. His first book, “Everything Trump Touches Dies” was a NYT #1 bestseller and spawned the popular hashtag #ETTD.

Wilson’s new book is divided into two parts. The first part describes how the US would look after another term of Trump. It’s a world that Americans have never experienced.

Following is a summary of Wilson’s  comments on the second half of the book about what he calls the real presidential race, the one that happens in the Electoral College.

  • The real race is a referendum on the incumbent. It is a referendum on an incumbent who is corrupt, crazy, and puts kids in cages. It is not about policy. And we will never see a plan from the Democratic Party. Because it’s well known that plans create targets for your opponent to shoot at. A candidate who presents a long, well thought out plan will immediately have the other side looking for pieces to take out of context to  scare people with. Don’t agree? How many people now think that the Green New Deal will ban jets and steak?
  • Wilson says we need to fight where the fight is. The race is already a done deal in 35 states. Wilson said “I love y’all here in Oregon, but I already know which way you’re going to vote”. So candidates aren’t likely to spend any time or money in states that are already won or lost. The only reason anyone from the DNC should be coming to Oregon or California or New York is to get a big bag of money. Oregon isn’t where the fight is.
  • Human capital is the one thing you can’t buy. Wilson says that human contact is an important part of campaigns that can make a real difference. Calling and knocking on doors has been shown to increase voter turnout.
  • Democrats like to win the argument, Wilson says, and while you’re arguing, Republicans will burn down the building around you and salt the earth. Instead, campaigns  should be thought of as startups with one day to make the sale. We need to go in with data and cold-eyed efficiency to get that final sale.  
  • When Trump is aggressive, his opponent needs to be doubly aggressive. For example, in the debate Trump will probably do the same thing he did before and come up behind the other person, stalking them like a monster. Trump’s opponent needs to invade Trump’s space, touch their face, ask if they are okay, and say “You look a little off”.

After his talk, Wilson also took questions from the audience. Following are some of the questions and Wilson’s answers, paraphrased.

Question: Democrats bring a fork to a knife fight. What can they do to sharpen up?

Answer: In political ads, don’t try to shame Republicans. It won’t work because they have no shame. Be specific and use personal stories. Make it hurt. Voters are emotional and vote from the lizard part of the brain. They respond to love, hate, hope, and fear. Use these copiously in your ads.

Question: Why did you abandon your party?

Answer: I am still a conservative and believe in the rule of law and the Constitution. I believe individual liberty is paramount and the state should infringe on it as little as possible. I believe the power of the state over the individual needs to be constrained. I believe markets do best on their own, with nudges to the right direction, but not central control. I believe in a foreign policy from a position of strength. On individual liberty, I was asked years ago, in an interview, about gay marriage. And I said I didn’t care, that it is up the individuals. For saying that, I was excoriated for 40 minutes on Limbaugh’s show.

Question: What’s the best way to assure a fair election?

Answer: Require paper ballots and ID to verify the person is on the voter rolls.  Escrow the ballots, count them twice before putting out the results, and then put them into a vault until the sun cools.

Question: Does Lindsey Graham really believe the things he says?

Answer: Of course not. He is like a pilot fish. He has never been able to influence the national agenda and that is frustrating to him. So, like a pilot fish, he finds a bigger fish to follow. Then he tries to nudge that larger fish in the direction he wants to go.

Question: What is the future of conservatism?

Answer: People like Representative Justin Amash are the future. The GOP has lost a total of 650 seats around the US and  are no longer competitive in the suburbs. The party will die. The most probable outcome is the rise of a center right party like the German CDU. A party that combines conservative values with science and ecology.

Question: Where should we give money to be the most effective?

Answer: Give money to local party infrastructure, especially in swing states.

Question: What is an effective ad Democrats could run?

Answer: Run ads on pre-existing conditions. When Republicans were trying to stop the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Wilson ran 32 focus groups in 16 cities to find an issue they could use. In all the focus groups, no matter what the politics of the people in the group, they all loved healthcare allowing pre-existing conditions. This is the sword Democrats can use to cut off Republican heads. Trump’s administration has been to four different courts trying to get rid of ACA and pre-existing conditions. 

Question: Will Trump debate the Democratic nominee?

Answer: Yes, he can’t help himself.

Question: We live in a blue state that will vote Democratic. What can we do to make a difference in the upcoming presidential election?

Answer: 72 hours before the election the parties will run door knocking campaigns. If you can, go to one of the swing states and participate. Make calls to voters in swing states. It’s been shown that human contact is the most effective way of getting people to vote. Contact people in swing states through your social media. It’s assured that you know someone who knows someone in one of the swing states. Use that network.


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