Original article published in The New Yorker available here
Bill Weld, a former governor of Massachusetts, is a New England moderate—fiscally conservative and socially liberal. But he is not at all moderate in his views on the President.
Photograph by Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe / Getty
Running in a primary election against a sitting President is, generally speaking, a futile effort. To come up with a plausible primary challenge, you’ve got to think back pretty far, maybe to 1980, when Edward Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination—and even then Kennedy failed. But just about everything in the Presidency of Donald Trump has been unprecedented, so we shouldn’t be very surprised to see something unusual in the 2020 campaign. And it looks like Bill Weld is going to run against Donald Trump to become the Republican nominee.
There aren’t many Republicans like Bill Weld in national politics these days. Weld is a lawyer and a former Justice Department official, and he served as governor of Massachusetts for much of the nineteen-nineties. In 2016, he ran as Vice-President on the Libertarian Party ticket. He’s a New England moderate—that is, fiscally conservative and socially liberal. But Weld is not at all moderate in his views on Donald Trump.
Here, David Remnick interviews Weld about his party’s case of Stockholm syndrome, breaking with the G.O.P. on climate change, and the challenges inherent to contesting a sitting President.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Governor, I don’t mean to be flip, but what are you thinking? You’ve decided to run for President in the Republican Party against a sitting President, President Trump, and that presents all kinds of, let’s just say, challenges and body blows to you, inevitably. Why are you doing this?
Oh, I think it presents delightful possibilities. You know, I’ve been watching closely for some time. I was even on the ticket in the last election, so I’ve seen everything that’s unfolded since then. The truth is we know a lot more about Donald J. Trump and his style in public life than we did two years ago, and I just can’t sit quietly by anymore and witness what he’s doing, both internationally and domestically. I think it’s a train wreck.
Well, you say it’s a train wreck. What is the bill of particulars that you plan to present as a candidate in the Republican Party?
Well, I think that, on the international front, the President has totally upended the correct order of things. He’s insulting our allies and, you know, his favorite foreign leaders are the ones who are autocratic or despotic. I think his interactions with the Justice Department, starting with Jim Comey, even Jeff Sessions, don’t bespeak any notion of fidelity to law. The sign that’s on the Justice Department building at Tenth and Constitution in Washington: “a government of laws and not of men.” That’s pretty deep in our history, and the President seems to have no interest in that. There’s just a lot of issues out there in addition to the bedrock issue of comportment in office. There’s climate change, there’s treaties—I thought it was a blunder not to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example. The President of the United States has to take an oath to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. I don’t think the President is complying with that oath.
Within the Republican Party, Donald Trump has an approval rating in the high eighties. So what gives you hope running against a President who is, despite it all, extraordinarily popular with his base?
Well, you know, they say six months is an eternity in politics, and if six months is an eternity, I don’t know what two years is. I think many people are making the mistake now of assuming that nothing is going to change, that no developments in the Justice Department will have any impact whatsoever, that the economy will change exactly as it is; there will be no blow-ups internationally. Those are not good assumptions.
Part of running against Donald Trump for office, and part of being a member of the Fourth Estate, and part of being and doing almost anything in opposition to or critical of the President is to be on the receiving end of his attacks, his tweets. Are you prepared to receive a nickname and much worse from Donald Trump?
Yeah, yeah, I am.
How do you think he’ll go at you?
Probably ignoring as long as he can, and then ridiculing. But, look, I checked my privacy at the door a long time ago. Decades ago.
But this is different, isn’t it? I mean, running against, you know, being in political opposition to, say, John Kerry in Massachusetts is a very different thing than running head to head against Donald Trump. You’re not playing by the Marquess of Queensberry rules anymore.
I don’t know, I find it kind of appealing, running against the incumbent here. There’s so much that I want to do differently, and I find this particular race quite appealing in terms of how much there is to be done. We’re looking at the Augean stables there.
Now, are you, to mix the metaphor, Augean stables—is this a kind of suicide mission in the service of the country?
No. I mean, I do think it’s in service of the country, but the point is to win the election. And, you know, I feel more than prepared to discharge the duties of that office. If I had to start Monday, I think I could. I think I know how to surround myself with good people. I did it in the U.S. Attorney’s office, the Justice Department, and as governor. I believe in unleashing everybody’s energies. That’s not the President’s way. His way is to try to divide people, stir up the pot, set groups against each other. And that’s the opposite of the duties of a President of the United States.
Governor, part of running for President, as you well know, running for anything, is the ability to raise money. Considering what the numbers are now, how are you going to raise money sufficient to the task?
You know, everybody that we’ve spoken to about this race has said, Ooh, if you’re running as an R, I’m in. I’ll host a party. I’m all in.
Can you talk about who—
I’m not naming names, but—
Are there billionaires that, they have decided that you, you’re the guy?
There you go. There are billionaires who lean my way, and I’ve spoken to some of them and I’ll be speaking to more of them. I could never understand why some politicians—you know, Jack Kemp, George McGovern—they really don’t care at all for the fund-raising side of the business. I like it. I think it makes you sharpen your message. And if you can’t sell yourself, what can you sell?
What’s happened to your Party? Why has it moved so far to the right? And why has it been so obeisant to Donald Trump?
You know, I don’t really understand that. I do think that both parties have moved to the edges. It’s partly gerrymandering, it’s partly that they all want to be reëlected, and the way to get reëlected is to raise lots of money, and the way to raise lots of money is to scare people by saying you have to vote for the R Party or the D Party because, otherwise, the deep part of the R Party might win and then we would all be involved in irretrievable ruin. And if that sounds like a sick situation, it is. It’s a sick situation.
I think some Republicans have comforted themselves by thinking that Donald Trump is an aberration within the Party. But other people think that he’s the logical end result of decades of the Party élite, the G.O.P. élite whipping up the base, whether it was the Tea Party movement or other aspects of the Party. And you’ve got this very, very strong racist strain that’s come to the fore. How do you battle that? How do you kill it?
Well, I’m going to publicize it. I’m going to remind everybody that during the 2016 campaign the Trump campaign circulated images of George Lincoln Rockwell. George Lincoln Rockwell was the founder of the American Nazi Party, and the white supremacists who saw those knew exactly who George Lincoln Rockwell was, and they heard the dog whistle loud and clear. It was almost like a clandestine campaign, because so much of it was conducted with words that weren’t uttered publicly.
Just to be clear, you’re putting the President of the United States in the same basket as the late head of the American Nazi Party. Am I correct? That’s tough stuff.
I’m putting them in the same sentence, but, you know, I think the President, he makes no bones about the fact, he says “America First,” which was Charles Lindbergh’s fifth column before World War Two, and he says “I’m a nationalist.” Well, it is the Party that took over in Nazi Germany in the nineteen-thirties. So that’s the Nationalist Worker’s Party.
Governor, you’ve broken with the President and, really, the rest of the Party on climate change. What do you see as the best policy to reduce carbon emissions, considering the scale that they’re on and the sense of emergency that surrounds it?
Well, I think we should rejoin the Paris climate accords, for openers, and adopt percentages that are consonant with our responsibility. On the issue of climate, there is a divide between the developed nations and lesser-developed countries. I think what President Trump would like to do is say, “Well, we’ve gotten the benefits of the industrial revolution. Now you have to agree, you and your rainforests, not to emit any carbon dioxide, and we don’t care if you ever develop, because we’ve got ours.” Again, that’s an unattractive point of view.
And what do you make of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a Green New Deal?
You know, I’ve got to study that more than I have. It sounds pretty expensive, and I think some of what’s coming out of the left hand of the Democratic Party is probably more than I could sit still for. But I do think that, at bottom, Europe has its monuments and its cathedrals, and we’ve got our mountains and our valleys and our rivers and our streams, and we better damn well take care of them. When I was U.S. Attorney, I brought this suit to clean up Boston Harbor, and it was very expensive, and it took years and years and years. But the harbor is now swimmable and fishable, which it sure wasn’t when I started. That’s the sort of thing we’ve got to do now.
Now, do you think that he’ll debate you? Is there any chance in the world that he gets on a platform with you?
He might, you know, to show he could crush me like a bug. I think his advisers will say ignore, ignore this fellow as long as you can, assuming I get in.
And what’s the scenario for not being ignored? It’s winning New Hampshire, it’s showing in New Hampshire that you have some strength there. And then what?
Well, if you show strength in New Hampshire, then the Trump campaign operation has to take you seriously. And I’m confident of doing well there. I think that all the New England states could be in play, the mid-Atlantic states, certainly, California, Oregon, Washington, the states in the West, the intermountain west. Those are all possibly friendly, possibly in play. And last would be the Rust Belt, the states that elected the President in 2016, and in several of those there’s been a turnaround. And the other party won everything in the 2018 election. So the situation may not be the same on the ground as it was in 2016.
Finally, Governor, maybe the truest thing the President has ever said is that he could walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and get away with it. Why do you think he’s managed to hang on so well, relatively so well, for so long?
Well, he’s had a great run being Icarus and flying near the sun. That’s for sure. But, you know, the wax and Icarus’s wings melted, and he plunged into the sea. You just don’t know how long a charmed life is going to keep on going in politics.