Reviewed 2/16/2020

Running Against the Devil, by Rick Wilson

A Plot To Save America from Trump — and Democrats from Themselves
Rick Wilson
New York: Crown Forum, January 2020




ISBN-13 978-0-593-13758-1
ISBN-10 0-593-13758-2 326pp. HC $27.00

In the three years that Trump has held the Oval Office, he has demonstrated beyond any disputing what so many understood before he took it: he is unfit to be president. Republican consultant Rick Wilson wrote his first book to drive the point home. Now he resolves to teach the Democratic Party how to deny Trump a second term — a victory which objective observers conclude Trump has a reasonable chance of attaining. Why would a man with a successful 30-year career of wiping out Democrats' chances of election volunteer to help them win back the presidency? Wilson summarizes his decision thus:

"Donald Trump is a terrible, horrible, no-good president. He'll go down in history with asterisks next to his name for endemic corruption, outrageous stupidity, egregious cruelty, and inhumanity, for diminishing the presidency and the nation, and for being a lout with a terrible wig. But he's trapped, desperate, and will do anything—and I mean anything—to win.

"So yeah, I'm going to treat Democrats like a client, with love, real talk, and a commitment to a shared victory. You won't always like it, but for the good of the republic, and for your own good, I hope you'll listen. I won't like a lot of the outcomes, but Donald Trump is a bigger threat to America and its future than a Democratic president."

– Pages 13-14

Faith in Wilson's competence to accomplish this task relies on his track record, which is impressive. But there is more to be considered. How good is his understanding of the Democratic mindset? Based on my review of his previous book Everything Trump Touches Dies, his understanding falls short in important ways.1

But setting that aside for the moment, I can assess the message of this book for the credibility of his advice in it. My assessment is that his advice is credible when it comes to the nuts and bolts of campaigning: such things as the use of media, the importance of field teams, the futility of spending resources in blue states (which the DNC did in 2016). A corollary to this is his warning that the GOP now has the edge in the digital realm so important to Democratic victories in 2008 and 2012, and will be spending massively on the targeted messaging it facilitates. Above all, Wilson warns against the Democrats' proclivity to campaign as if the whole nation, "flyover country" included, shares their values. The fact that he mischaracterizes those values as "third-trimester abortion on demand" and "total gun confiscation" is relevant, but it does not discredit his advice; rather, it means that this advice should be carefully examined.

The other main component of his advice can be boiled down to two closely related strategies: attack Trump not with high-minded arguments over policy, but by pointing out his many mistakes and personal shortcomings; and make those attacks relentless. I think these ideas have merit, since Trump is basically a street fighter. However, going mano a mano with Trump cannot be the Democrats' only strategy; they also need to show the voters, including Trump's base, how they will get a better deal from a Democratic president. Wilson understands this, and points it out in the book. But he focuses on the economic aspects, and specifically Trump's ruinous trade war, his poor showing on jobs, and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. He neglects other important issues: climate change, gun control, health care, immigration, justice reform, Medicare for All, reparations. He has, of course, no obligation to contribute on those issues. But to say they shouldn't be a part of the Democratic campaign, as he does on page 91, is a mistake in my opinion.

"What about healthcare? Gun control? The Electoral College? Climate change? Medicare for All? The Green New Deal? Reparations? Nope. Sorry. It's all noise at best. Every media consultant working for Trump will merrily take those policies and twist, turn, and recast them as fodder for attack ads. You'll never understand that once those messages are on the air, post hoc arguments are worse than useless."

– Page 91

To be fair, this is not really his position. He seems to be arguing again that abstruse policy discussions are counterproductive in the campaign. But there is no reason that mentions of these topics have to be abstruse. For example, the statements that carbon dioxide emissions are putting us at risk by heating the planet, and that boosting renewable energy to lower those emissions will create more good domestic jobs that fossil fuels, are easy to understand — and to defend. He acknowledges this himself on page 307:

"Suddenly, you see that your candidate's refusal to be bound to policy proposals and white papers, and her very measured words on climate change, reparations for slavery, Electoral College reform, guns, the Green New Deal, and healthcare policy, were assets."

– Page 307

The book is divided into an Introduction plus six parts, and is bookended by two election scenarios. The first, in the Introduction, has the Democrats running a campaign similar to 2016's: high-minded and somewhat high-falutin', stiff, and complacent. The second, found in an Epilogue, is run Wilson's way. Unlike the first, it leads them to victory.

My assessment is that the book is worth reading in its entirety. But I think Part 1, "The Case Against Trump, or Four More Years in Hell," can be skipped since it goes over Don the Con's misdeeds once more. (The same goes for the inter-chapter asides which, as in Wilson's first book, are often over the top.2) The most important parts for me are Part 2 — The Myths of 2020, Part 3 — Army of Darkness: Trump's War Machine, and Part 5 — How To Win. Specifically, for their discussion of issues, I recommend the following chapters: America Is So Woke, The Death of Truth, and Speaking American.

The book does have defects. I mentioned Wilson's apparently having missed the fact that Katie Porter won the Republican stronghold of Orange County with a strong stand for gun control. Also, he generally dismisses progressive issues like climate change, and he disses renewable energy (neither term is indexed.) There are a few grammatical errors. Nevertheless, this is a book by a man who is well-read and has deep insight into the electoral process. I recommend it with top marks (though not as a keeper.)

I can think of no better way to end this review than to reproduce Rick Wilson's dedication from the book.

"To the men and women inside government who have confronted enormous risk and danger to their careers, reputations, and personal safety to tell the truth about this White House and this president. In the face of the hatred and abuse that hits (sic) anyone Trump designates as an enemy, they have demonstrated something truly rare in today's Washington: honor. Every authoritarian regime in history depends on silence, either coerced or purchased, and every whistle-blower and truth-teller who raises their hand, swears to speak the truth, and takes fire is deserving of our appreciation."

1 For example, on page 97 Wilson says, "Katie Porter famously captured California's 45th district in the heart of Republican Orange County." That she did, but her platform included gun control. "I'll stand up to Donald Trump and stand up to the NRA. I've spent nearly twenty years fighting powerful special interests... and winning. I will never take a dime from the gun lobby and will work to pass common-sense laws to keep our schools and communities safe." – Katie Porter. See Meet Katie. How could a "gun-grabber" do this in a solid-red county?
2 However, I did get a chuckle from "Former First Lady Melania Trump was seen boarding an Air Canada flight to Ottawa and declined comment."
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