Sarah Longwell is one of the most powerful anti-Trump Republican strategists in the country. As a lifelong conservative, she’s seen firsthand how the GOP has transformed over the last 20 years.

Longwell is the publisher of The Bulwark, an anti-Trump conservative news and opinion website. She was also the first female national board chair of the Log Cabin Republicans, a GOP group representing LGBTQ conservatives. And she helped launch America’s foremost coalition of anti-Trump Republicans, called Defending Democracy Together. That’s the group behind initiatives like Republican Voters Against Trump and Republicans for the Rule of Law.

Last week, we heard from journalist Tim Alberta about why white evangelical Christians have so thoroughly embraced Trumpism. And my conversation this week with Longwell is the second of two episodes we’re releasing this month about the forces shaping the modern GOP.

I spoke with Longwell shortly before the Iowa Caucuses, which Trump won with a decisive margin. Ron DeSantis came in second and Nikki Haley finished third, blunting her momentum going into the New Hampshire primary. That means Trump now seems likely to crush the rest of his Republican primary opponents and face President Biden again in the general election – which leaves many Americans wondering: why do so many voters still support the former President, even after the January 6 insurrection and his growing list of criminal charges?

Sarah Longwell can really break down what’s going on here; she’s hosted countless focus groups with Trump voters and other hardcore conservatives to get a sense of why her fellow Republicans remain so loyal to Trump. And as the 2024 election season gets underway, Longwell is the perfect person to help us understand the attitudes of the typical Republican voter— and how she’s trying to change them.

Tune in every Thursday, and join us as we continue to explore the minds that shape our world. You can listen to the full episode in the player above, but here are a handful of excerpts from our conversation, which have been condensed and edited for clarity.

On what two-time Trump voters tell her about Nikki Haley:

They say, like, ‘I don’t hate her,’ but, generally to them, she looks like a pre-Trump politician, an establishment Republican, which is the death knell for a candidate these days. The thing to understand about Trump and the Republican Party is he got elected by the fact that there was something that people like me didn’t see going on in the Republican Party, sort of a populist, uprising and anti-establishment fervor.

But he accelerated that trend to the point where, now, lots of kind of just middle-of-the road Republicans who aren’t paying super close attention also have just a general anti-establishment sentiment. And so one of the things they say is: we want America first policies and we are not going back. And people say that. They believe that Trump represented a break, a shift in a direction that they liked, and that [Haley] represents the old Republican party that they didn’t like. Sometimes people have this sense of like, oh, there’s consolidation, all these other people will go to Nikki. No, they won’t. DeSantis, Ramaswamy, those voters all go to Trump, and they just make Trump stronger….

With Nikki Haley in the race, I’ve listened to a lot of voters talk about why they think a woman shouldn’t be president, including a lot of women. There was a New Hampshire group: five of the seven said they were more comfortable with a man than a woman for president…they don’t think she’s strong enough. People talk a lot in terms of strength and weakness: Biden’s weak, Haley’s weak, and Trump is strong.

On how Trump’s many scandals actually make him more popular with his base:

The thing that I find crazy is that when Trump came on the scene and Access Hollywood came out, and we all thought ‘he’s done,’ right? Watching people get inured to Donald Trump’s behavior, watch people start to warm up to it, watch people decide that it wasn’t wrong, watch people rationalize it, right?

And the thing about rationalizations is that they feed off of each other. So once you’ve rationalized Access Hollywood, and then once you’ve rationalized Trump standing on stage with Vladimir Putin and siding against America’s intelligence community. And once you’ve rationalized the both sides-ing of Charlottesville and the march there.

When you say: ‘Well, why is Trump still dominating the party?’ Most of these people have voted for him at least twice, if not three times. They have already lost friends and family and relationships over this. They have argued about this over countless dinners. They have formed communities around the fact that they’re willing to support Trump and other people hate him. And so, their relationship with him now runs extremely deep.

On how to change Republican minds:

One of the things that I’ve learned just doing communications work is how tribal people are. And one of the reasons why so many people who don’t like Trump voted for Trump, and why so many people who still now are uncomfortable with his behavior, how they rationalize it to themselves: because their whole tribe is doing it. And our tribal instincts, they run really deep in us, right? The tribe protects us. And so we don’t like getting kicked out of the tribe. Getting kicked out of the tribe is very, very scary. And so one of the things that I think about for communications is: how do you build micro tribes?

And so we started testing different methods of communicating. And the thing that worked the most was finding real Republicans to say: Look, I’ve been a Republican my whole life, but I’m not voting for Donald Trump. And I’m going to vote for Joe Biden for X, Y, Z reasons.

We worked really hard to get our first hundred testimonials, and once we released that campaign, they just came pouring in from other people. We got more than a thousand, and we turned those into ads, and they had the most persuasive content because people were able to be like, ‘that’s how I feel. I don’t want to give up my Republican identity. I want to be on this tribe of people who say: no, I’m a Republican, but I’m against this guy. And even if it means voting for a Democrat this time, I’m going to do it.’

And this time, we plan on doing Trump Voters Against Trump. And there’s a real number of people who are out after January 6. That was the thing that they said: I’ve been holding my nose voting for this guy, but I will not do it again. I think you have to build permission structures in your communications material and give people a place to go and say: look, I’m going to be part of this tribe that doesn’t make me say I’m a Democrat, but refuses to participate in where the Republican Party is headed.

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