“Trump is too honest”
Has Donald Trump completely taken over the Republican party? Is he a true conservative? And what are his chances in the fight against the unchained Democrats? Matt Schlapp, head of the oldest conservative lobby group in the US, tells Die Weltwoche why the political renegade is exactly what America needs. Looking at the two dozen Democrat candidates Schlapp says: “They are all left” but, “They are mimicking Trump.”
"Very painful.” Matt Schlapp, Republican White House veteran and husband of Trump White House communications survivor Mercedes Schlapp, winces at the memory of then-candidate Donald Trump thrashing his 2016 Republican primary competitors with the brute force of a pro-wrestler.
In Washington terms and Republican circles, Schlapp is a classic company man — a successful product of the traditional, political career ladder. Now, a literal white hair of the Republican Party, the 51-year old advised former President George W. Bush before taking over the American Conservative Union, the oldest conservative lobbying group in the country. Upon becoming its leader five years ago, the television debate pro with a quick wit and easy smile set to himself the task of seeking out unconventional and, often, controversial new champions to grow the conservative cause.
Enter Donald J. Trump and the 2016 presidential elections. The chattering class was dismissing the flamboyant reality TV host while conservative critics openly despised him. But Schlapp saw something different: a savvy showman who not only knew what his audience craved, but what conservatism was missing.
Schlapp took a Trump sized leap off of what, to many, looked like a towering political cliff. The Wichita, Kansas native admits there were moments of doubt, especially when the "Access Hollywood" tape hit. Schlapp and his wife Mercedes, parents to five daughters, retreated to their Virginia domicile for a crisis meeting. After intense discussion and a bottle of wine they came to a decision. Trump's language was disrespectful, they agreed. But the prospect of a “President Hillary Clinton” was unacceptable. The Schlapps went all in.
And their gamble paid off. Matt and Mercedes are, now, one of Washington’s top power couples. Mercedes, daughter of a Cuban dissident, is Trump’s Director of Strategic communications* while Matt helps to rally the Republican Establishment behind Trump.
Initially that was no easy task. Trump's ruthless election campaign had split the Republican Party. But successively the ranks behind the president are closing. "Trump's takeover of the Republican Party is almost complete," the New York Times recently headlined.
I meet in Schlapp’s surprisingly modest lair on the banks of the Potomac River twenty minutes south of the White House by car.
Matt Schlapp, for five years you have been chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU) which is the oldest conservative lobbying group in the country. How have you observed the Republican Party change over these years?
I don't think I've seen a big change in the Republican Party. What we've seen is a change in what some of the elected Republican leaders are saying because of the policies of Donald Trump.
What's interesting is Donald Trump's policies are more closely related to voters than Republican leaders' positions were for several years. When Republicans talked about immigration or trade deals, they talked about it in a way that was discordant with where their voters were.
Donald Trump saw the opportunity to actually reflect the positions of more Republican voters than the elected Republicans had previously done. For instance, Mitt Romney and John McCain would have talked very differently about immigration than Donald Trump, but the Republican voters agreed much more with the approach of Donald Trump than they did with the approach of John McCain.
We saw the Republican Party split during the presidential primary campaign in 2016. Donald Trump came to the party as an outsider. Since then, Trump has tightened his leadership. The New York Times recently ran the headline, “Trump Takeover of the Republican Party Is Almost Complete.” Has Donald Trump hijacked the party?
I think the Tea Party movement was a grassroots movement in America which was an outgrowth of Obama's Socialist policies. Also, it was a little bit of a cry for help that the Republican Party wasn't giving them all the answers too. Trump is like the next chapter in that revolt that happened, that grassroots revolt.
What you've seen is a continuation of the grassroots conservatives playing the largest role in the Republican Party, which makes sense because conservatives make up the overwhelming majority of people involved in the Republican Party, of all the delegates, all the people who vote in primaries.
As far as the takeover, Donald Trump is an outsider. He had never been in elected office. He didn't know all these people. He didn't have all these relationships. So, he would seem foreign to them, like from outer space. They just couldn't believe it. They looked down on him. They thought his policies were too nationalistic, too nativistic. All the charges of racism, of fascism, it was easy to level at someone who you didn't understand.
Over time, now, we’ve gotten more than two years of watching him govern, and he's more mainstream on a lot of Republican positions than they could have ever imagined. He's certainly orthodox on most Republican positions, like being pro-life, et cetera, his choice of the judges.
When it comes to the topics that worry people, on immigration, for example, I don't think there's much disagreement that he's right about what's happening at the southern border; that he's right that we should have a merit-based immigration program. I think the controversies around immigration have now turned into a Republican versus Democrat controversy. It's really not a Republican versus Republican controversy.
On the tariff question, that is a real problem because Republicans are anti-tax, and a tariff is a tax. That's a more problematic area. If the President can do what he did with Mexico and show that a tariff is a tool, like Ronald Reagan did, that you can use for periods of time to try to have a more equal footing, then, I think, we'll be more receptive.
During the 2016 election period, Trump used harsh rhetoric against his competitors. There was a whole army of wounded Republicans. Prominent among them the family of the former Presidents Bush.
Trump called Jeb Bush “low energy.” Trump’s name calling was totally new. What happened to all the established Republicans that were “Never-Trumpers?” Are they still sulking somewhere?
Where are they?
John McCain's dead. Mitt Romney is trying to be the anti-Trump in Congress. I don't see anybody really following Mitt Romney. Over 90% of Republicans are very happy with what Trump is doing as president. They're happy with his policies. The Bush family's more painful. My wife and I both worked for him. We have a great deal of respect for him.
You were George W. Bush’s deputy assistant and political director. Are you still in contact with the family?
Yes, of course.
What do they say about Trump?
I've not talked to them about it. I know in the former president's (George W. Bush’s) case, he was very pleased with the selection of Brett Kavanaugh to be on the Supreme Court. Let's face it, George Herbert Walker Bush called Trump a blowhard and other things. Donald Trump said that George W. Bush should be impeached for the Iraq War. There were some harsh words on both sides.
My one plea to the Bush family would be to remember that the Republican Party and conservatives got behind them in three presidential campaigns, four really. They weren't perfect, but they still were for them. They need to understand how painful it is for grassroots conservatives to read that they left their ballot blank or that they voted for Hillary Clinton in the presidential campaign. You could understand why Donald Trump would take that very personally.
Donald Trump has basically implemented 80% of the policies that they stood for. There are disagreements. That's totally legitimate. But, in the end, there was nothing good about Hillary Clinton being elected president. Really, nothing.
I understand why sometimes there's not a personal affinity or friendship. This is a human condition. But you've got to rise above your personal feelings to do what's right for the country.
There were times when Donald Trump was leaning far into the Democratic side. During his career as a businessman, he’s been all over the political spectrum. Is President Trump a true conservative, now?
Some people who work here [at the American Conservative Union] would say he's not a true conservative. I've always said, "Well let's see what he does." Talk is cheap. You run for president. Let's see what kind of president you are. It's hard to look at the decisions Donald Trump has made as president and not say that he's a conservative. I think that's a tough argument to make.
You can say, "Does he really believe it in his heart? Is he doing it because he thinks it's convenient to do?" Well, that's for God to determine. I can't read his heart. I'm a practical person. I watch people operate if they operate in good faith. Donald Trump told me the decisions he would have to take as he was running for president. He's been more exemplary and aggressive in pursuing those conservative goals that he had talked about. I would say that he is a combination of a conservative and a populist.
You are in contact with the president regularly?
I wouldn't want to comment on that. I do talk to him either on the phone or in person. I find the experiences to be incredible because they are little vignettes of history. You get an insight as to what is happening. He's very candid. This whole idea that he's dishonest is crazy. He's too honest. Sometimes I wish he’d have a governor on him because he talks about things that if he didn't talk about, he'd cause less turbulence for himself. It's the fact that he wants everyone to know what's happening.
When is the last time you thought, “Gosh, he shouldn’t have said or tweeted that”?
His Twitter? I would probably edit his Twitter.
He has a Twitter sergeant, though, Dan Scavino Jr.
Yes, he does. He's a great guy. I would have told him not to tweet so much, and I would have been wrong. I would have told him to play by the book more often, and I would've been wrong. There was a manual for American politics and presidential politics that everyone follows, and he won't follow it. That's what makes him authentic to people.
One of the things that's interesting about him as a person is that he's constantly trying out new ways of explaining things. Is this popular? Is that popular? I think Twitter helps him figure that out. Now, we've got a whole group of Democratic presidential candidates who are mimicking Trump. They're tweeting like Trump. They're talking like Trump. They're going after each other.
How has President Trump changed the Democratic Party by the way he is?
Demographically, the Democratic Party is shifting to a Socialist party over my lifetime. I'm 51. Fifty one years ago, Socialism would've been a dirty word. Today, it's a word that 50% of them [Democrats] are identifying with.
How come? In Europe, we always used to look across the Atlantic and were sure Socialism in America would never ever happen.
Obama didn't run as a Socialist. He ran much more as a Third Way candidate. He knew that if he ran as a Socialist, he wouldn't win. But he governed as a Socialist. He did it in a very dishonest way, in my opinion. Matter of fact, I told people when he won in '08, "Don't worry. The only Democrats who are successful as president are Democrats like Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter — the ones that find a way to look like they're more moderate." Obama ran that way but then governed very left.
I wouldn't say that Socialism's gotten a hold of America. But it's dangerous to think that one of our parties could be a Socialist Party. Remember, young men and women went to war to stop Socialism and Fascism and the “-isms.” We always viewed ourselves as separate and apart from those radical ideologies. The American experiment is not an “-ism.” The American experiment is the idea that you have educated a religious populace who come together to have the government do certain things, but not everything. That is very much under assault.
We’re looking at a field of more than 20 Democratic candidates and we see a majority being on the left, extreme left.
No, no. Everyone. Who isn't? They all have the same positions. As a matter of fact, Joe Biden recently had to change his position on not funding abortions because they badgered him so much. It just shows you that the people that are in charge of that nominating process are very radicalized. They are Socialists. All those candidates will have basically the same positions on all the big issues.
At their summer meeting in Chicago, the Democratic Party, last year, decided to get rid of most of their super-delegates. This move was strongly promoted by the left grassroots base of the party. I saw Donna Brazile up on her heels getting really angry. What does that mean for that party and the election of their next presidential candidate?
That's right. I talked to Donna about it. The way those people would describe it is “the crazies are, for the very first time, in charge of the nominating process in the Democratic Party.” That means you will have a Socialist candidate. There's no question.
Either Joe Biden fixes up all of the position of the Socialists and there's no difference between him and Bernie Sander’s positions, or they nominate a Bernie Sanders who's now a Socialist. Those are the two choices they have. Joe Biden's always been a very liberal Democrat, definitely Democrat non-Socialist. But he'll have the same policies as Bernie Sanders if he's to be nominated.
In other words, they leave the center for the Republican.
That's right. Trump has this ability to be seen as practical in solving problems. All of Trump’s ideology, in the end, is about solving the problem.
Why is he being so extravagant about the southern border? It turns out he's not being extravagant. We have a crisis he's trying to solve it. Why was he so aggressive on passing deregulations? He wants to see economic growth. Now, you have more Americans expressing optimism about their future than we seen in a decade. That’s a big deal.
You're completely right. Voters in the center are not ideological. The key way to get them is if they feel like they have more money in their pocket. They feel like their house, their investment in their home, is secured. They feel like their investment in their retirement is secure. That's the best way in America to get the voters. They feel like HE IS doing a good job.
The president can really screw up an economy. If they see Donald Trump is actually not harming the economy, allowing entrepreneurs to invest and Americans to make decisions, he'll be rewarded for that. That's very centralist.
We witness that the youth is heading to the left, especially the urban and suburban youth. Where can Republicans gain more voters in the future? The Latinos, being devout Christians, they naturally tend to be conservative. How should the Republican Party address them so they can become future voters?
The reason why Ronald Reagan did so well as an old man with young voters is because young voters in their homes heard their parents complaining about Jimmy Carter's incompetence. It's like everything was negative. Everything was, "Don't turn on your lights. There's not enough energy in the country." It was like America was sliding downhill fast.
When people like me heard that in our houses, that made us be very open to Ronald Reagan. I didn't know at that age if I was a Republican, or what. But I realized that bad policies were coming out of Jimmy Carter.
A similar thing happened under Barack Obama. People were very proud to elect the first African American president, especially in a nation that used to condone slavery and say that black citizens were less than. To fix that, to ensure that with his election and history, it was important to people. But his policies stunk underneath it. Economic growth was stagnant. Obamacare was a disaster for people. These left-wing policies, they don't really work. The biggest chance we have with young voters is we're seeing that lower taxes, less regulation actually work better for their life.
The other thing to remember with young voters is they're more pro-life than their grandparents. Young voters realized that they understand science. They understand the sonogram. They understand that people lied to women for generations by saying, "There's really nothing inside of you but a kind of a globule of cells." They used to literally say, “It's kind of like blowing your nose. It's an extraction.” All of these euphemisms. I think, over time, young people were, "That's a lie. This is what it is."
Donald Trump’s immigration policies, his tough language against Central and South America, aren’t they hurting his image with Latinos who, potentially, could be Republican voters?
I'm married to a Hispanic, to a Latina. I can just tell you anecdotally, when I go out and travel the country and travel around America, it is amazing how it's immigrants, Hispanics and African Americans, who tend to approach me to tell how much they like Donald Trump.
The main reason they like him is because they're in the economy, and they see more opportunity. The second reason they like him is because of immigration. They follow the rules. They came here the right way. They came here the legal way. They think it's ridiculous that there are more people coming illegally than legally. It makes them angry, because, by the way, they have all their relatives on the list to come in one day, and they can't get in if there's a backlash against legal immigration because of all of the illegal immigration.
I know polls will tell you that Donald Trump has some weaknesses in these areas. In the Republican Party, for 25 years, we've been talking about the impending doom of a less-white America, the impending doom if women vote for us less than men, the impending doom if minorities don't support our party.
This was happening no matter who was the president. If the Republican Party just relies on white male voters, its future is bleak. I know that if we do the right thing and we explain it well, and it actually makes people's lives better, we have a great chance with those other communities, as well.
A key group of conservative supporters is represented by the National Rifle Association. While tens of thousands of gun lovers roamed through the exhibition halls at their last convention in Indianapolis, the leadership was having a shootout in their backroom O.K. Corral.
Isn't the infighting in the leadership hurting the NRA and consequently the Republican Party?
You have the NRA, and then you have people that support the Second Amendment and gun rights. It's not completely the same thing. The NRA can have its troubles. That doesn't mean that there's some kind of lessening of the support for gun rights around the country.
It is a legitimate question to ask whether or not a weakened NRA now harms Donald Trump's reelection. I don't want him to be weak. I want him to be strong. But, sometimes, you get stronger by dealing with your problems. Just like in your own life, in my own life. Sometimes you have to deal with the problems.
What are the problems there?
Well, in my case, I should go to McDonald's less, and I should eat fewer French fries. I should have fewer beers. Everyone's got their problems.
The NRA's problems, what are they?
Clearly, there's questions about how they manage their resources. My advice to them, which is not that complicated, is to have a lot of transparency on the finances and to make sure every dollar possible goes into the field to help win these important races.
They need a new leadership?
No, I don't think they need new leadership. I'm totally supportive of what Wayne Lapierre has done. That being said, they do need to have succession planning. He's been there a long time. He's not going to be there forever. They need to have the plan for the next group of leaders that take over just like any business does. To me, the lesson that's the most important in this time and age is to be transparent with the money, to show people what you're doing with it.
Are you confident that the current leadership…
That they can do reform themselves?
No, I don't think that's the question. I think a board has the legitimate right to ask questions about how the place is managed, and what's going on with the finances. This will make the NRA stronger if they get through it in the right way. Just because you have challenges doesn't mean that it's over.
The question is can they do it in time before the next election?
That's right. That's a good question. They need to.
A question about the trade war between the US and China. Shouldn’t the president be more transparent with his own people? “Make America great again” has a price tag. At the end of the day, Americans are going to pay higher prices for their retail goods.
Yes, that's right. We're going to pay more for our retail goods. Our farmers are going to sell less materials over there. That being said, we make ethanol here in this country. China basically closed down the ethanol market to the American ethanol exports into China, and that stuff has to stop.
What should the president tell the farmers who voted for him and who face hard times because of the trade war?
The key is to get to the deal with China as the president did with Canada and Mexico. He has a good track record of saying, "We want to get to the point where we renegotiate these deals. And, by the way, these deals should probably be renegotiated more often, and we should have more bilateral deals for these big global deals." I'm a free-market person. I'd like to see no tariffs except for maybe goods that directly affect the national security.
When it comes to China, I'm uneasy about it. Most conservatives are uneasy about it. We don't want trade wars. The president said they're easy to win. I don't think they are easy to win. If that other country knows that our president is dead serious, it helps make it briefer, and I think it helps folks get to the table quicker.
What I don't know is if Mr. Xi wants a deal with President Trump. I'm not a China expert. He doesn't call me for advice. It would seem to me that if he wants a deal, there's one to be had, and he should come to the table. We should get the deal done, and we can stop talking about these tariffs.
Why haven’t the Chinese agreed to the deal yet?
I think it's because Xi and the Communist Party are making a bet that, in a little over a year, there won't be a President Trump anymore. They'll have President Joe Biden who said China is not a problem at all, and they'll come up with terms that are better for their Communists in China.
What will happen if President Trump wins again? Is it good for the American voters to know that President Trump is actually not the one the Chinese want to see win again?
It seems to me that's a pretty good argument to make why you should get reelected. If their belief is Joe Biden, or Beto O’Rourke, or Bernie Sanders is better for them, that's a real message to the American people, that the Communists want anybody but Trump to be reelected.
That being said, if Donald Trump’s policy results in our economy nosediving, American consumers getting skittish, American farmers given the pay, and that brings down economic growth, that would be very harmful to his reelection.
What is the key message you tell the president on how to run things so he wins the reelection?
He has to keep the economy moving along. I would encourage the president to pull in all of his cabinet on a regular basis; figure out what is the hold up for more deregulatory policies. Every one of these agencies, I guarantee you, there are between six and twelve deregulatory items that are stopped in the swamp with bureaucrats who don't want to make the change wholly.
The president can make an announcement of deregulations. But it has to get implemented. It has to echo all the way down to the agencies. In many cases, that's not happening as aggressively and as perfectly as it should. You have to really stay on that with the agencies because that will have the biggest impact.
Trump’s image in the press is terrible. Only a few persons know him personally. When you talk to the president, is there an aspect of Trump that the public doesn’t get to see and understand?
That's a great question. Number one, my wife is an attractive woman and everybody assumes that the president has a coarse behavior, that he says things that are horribly inappropriate, and that he treats women horribly. Those are all lies. Although he does say things sometimes that are funny, and he's always interesting to talk to and unconventional, for sure, he treats my wife with dignity. She loves working for him. She thinks it's so much fun to work for a politician that gets up in the morning, every day, to get things done.
Sometimes, the staff around him is worried to bring things up because he'll do it! Most presidents, you bring it up and bring it up and bring it up, and they're resistant to do it because it's risky.
His risk profile is different from almost every other politician I've ever met. He's willing to do it. That's pretty exciting for conservatives because they haven't seen that in real time and maybe forever. Usually, conservatives are the not-doers. Conservatives, by their very definition, are people who kind of stay steady. They don't make a lot of changes. He's the opposite. He's pushing conservative politics in a liberal society. In order to get the goal, you have to do things to make it happen. It's almost like, the conservative is the liberal. You have to be an activist to make society change. That would be the thing people don't realize.
I would say when you talk to the president, he's incredibly candid. He's incredibly funny. He's very honest. He's unfiltered, and it gets him in trouble.
Is he different in private than he is in public?
No. Same guy. It gets him in trouble, but he's the same guy. The thing that's most amazing to me is I've had instances where I leave a message, and he calls me back! To me, that tells me he's still the same guy he always was. In other words, he doesn't think he's too important, now, to call back someone who's not powerful. He'll call people back, and he'll take time with people.
I've had staffers tell me that he's incredibly hospitable even in the Oval Office with staff. He'll ask them if they want a drink. “Do you want coffee? Do you want a coke?” Presidents don't tend to do that. That's not normal. [laughs]. He owns hotels. He's used to hospitality. I wish people could actually see that he's a very decent guy.
He's not a normal guy. He's very, very unusual. He's off the charts with so many talents. He is a much better guy than they probably understand because the coverage is so obnoxiously negative. All presidents are human beings. They have virtues and they have vices. For most, their vice is they have huge egos. When you become president, it will get bigger. It would have to get bigger. How could it not get bigger? That's a big part of it.
Their virtues vary. For most presidents, what is seen as a virtue is the fact that they're a strong leader, and that they're honest. You really don't see the virtues of a president in person. That's when you really see it. I'm lucky. I've gotten to know Donald Trump. I get to see the virtues, and they're pretty spectacular. I worked for President George W. Bush. I got to see his virtues. They were pretty spectacular. Each of them has pretty spectacular vices.
What is the biggest difference between the two presidents — George W. Bush and Donald Trump?
George W. Bush was conventional in his approach to politics. He basically did what you would expect Republican presidents to do.
What was the most wonderful thing about George W. Bush is that he was a great decision-maker. He made it crystal clear because he didn't have a lot of elevated language. He made it crystal clear as to what he expected you to do. Finally, he was a very decent human being. He was nice to his staff. He wasn't always polite. He could be really rough. But, as a human being, he showed respect, and he was willing to do that, which was great.
I don't work for Donald Trump. So, I can't tell you about all of these questions. I hear what my wife says. I think a similarity would be that he is a great decision maker, too. He decides. This whole idea that you have to figure out someone around Trump who will make the decision is completely wrong. He makes the decision.
Probably his biggest virtue, which gets Donald Trump in the most trouble, the biggest difference with George W. Bush is his disdain for the old rules and politics. He doesn't want to hear about it. He wants to chart a new course. That’s very upsetting to people who don't like change. And very endearing to people who realize Washington needed the change.
* Before the editorial deadline the White House announced that Mercedes Schlapp was leaving her job to join the Trump election campaign team in 2020.
Matt Schlapp, 51, born in Kansas, was political director under George W. Bush. He has been chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU) since 2014. The ACU was created after Barry Goldwater lost in 1964, in an effort to bring together all different voices from the right in the conservative movement. Each spring Schlapp and the ACU host CPAC, an annual political conference attended by conservative activists and elected officials from across the US. Matt and Mercedes Schlapp co-founded Cove Strategies, a communications and political consulting firm based in Alexandria, Virginia.