Lucid Interview: Tara Setmayer
On leaving the GOP, fighting for democracy, and finding joy in everyday pleasures
I am pleased to bring you this interview with Tara Setmayer, who is a former CNN political commentator and a former GOP Communications Director on Capitol Hill. She has appeared on ABC's Good Morning America and other shows and narrated the documentary Dismantling Democracy. Setmayer was a Harvard Institute of Politics Spring 2020 Resident Fellow and a 2020-2021 University of Virginia Center for Politics Resident Scholar. She is senior advisor to The Lincoln Project and co-hosts "The Breakdown" on LPTV. She is also a board director for Stand up Republic.
(RBG) Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Tara, we now have a bipartisan system in which one of the two parties has turned away from democracy. How is this sustainable?
(TS) Tara Setmayer: After spending almost 30 years of my adult life in the Republican party and fighting for what I thought were the fundamental principles of conservatism, it has been beyond dismaying to watch those principles be cast aside in favor of an ideology based around a cult of personality and authoritarianism. It's very difficult to reconcile.
RBG: You signed the recent Call for American Renewal, along with other prominent former Republicans. I was struck that the founding principles in that call are basic democratic principles that the GOP no longer recognizes, like the rule of law. Do you see this initiative as the start of a third party, or just a call to conscience to get Republicans to listen?
TS: I think it's a combination of both. A lot of us have been in this politically homeless space for the last few years, as Republicans who could no longer stomach being part of a Republican party system that was off the rails. It just no longer valued truth or science or democracy, frankly. And many of us have lamented: what do we do about this? There are so many barriers to starting a new party. Yet we also know that the current path the Republican party is on is not only unsustainable, it's literally an existential threat to our democracy.
The renewing principles concept came out of a need to give people something tangible, to reassert what those principles are and what we believe in. What that grows into remains to be seen. But I do know that there are many of us — not just those of us inside the Beltway, but average Americans— who are saying, I don't recognize my party anymore. I think that emphasizing the basics and reminding people of why democratic principles are important is a great start.
RBG: That's very compelling. As former Republicans you can reach people who may just write liberals off without hearing them out.
TS: I think we're creating a space for people, giving them permission to break away from the party that they have felt a part of for so long. And it's not an easy thing to do. I didn't realize how emotionally invested people are in their political affiliation until it became time for me to make the decision to finally walk away from it. It had been such a dominating force of my professional life. I started in Republican politics when I was 17 years old in high school. I chose to go to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. to be at the epicenter of politics. I wanted to be a part of the solution. I believed that Republican and conservative principles were the best way to effectuate good public policy that was beneficial to the American people.
When you go through 27 years, and then start to question whether that was all a lie, it's eye-opening. It was not a difficult decision for me when I made it, because when you know you're done, you're done. It's kind of like when you break up in a relationship, That's how I felt on November 5th when I made the announcement. When [Trump] disgraced and defaced the East Wing of the White House the night of the election, saying there was fraud and that he would refuse to concede, Republicans had an opportunity to say enough is enough. But they didn't, they did not have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to Trump, even when our constitutional Republic was on the line.
RBG: Speaking of loss, many people feel they cannot speak to their Trump-supporting friends and relatives anymore. As a former Republican, are you able to have a dialogue with Trump-supporting associates and others you know?
TS: This is another sad byproduct of the Trump era. Fortunately, no one in my immediate family was radicalized, but some of my closest friends, including one of my closest girlfriends, a journalist, has completely engulfed herself in the pro-Trump propaganda parade and has made a lot of money in her career over the last five years by becoming a part of that. Watching that happen has been heartbreaking for me because I miss my friend. We cannot talk. It feels like we're in the Civil War and I'm a General in the Union and she's a General in the Confederacy.
I've also lost political friends who were part of my Republican circles who made the decision to sell out for political power and career gain. Then there are the enablers like the Congressman I worked for many years. I had a very fulfilling and rewarding career on Capitol Hill with him. I have watched him go completely to the dark side, to the conspiracy kook side of things.
On the flip side of it, I also made a lot of new friends and relationships and teamed up with folks who I never thought we'd be on the same side with, because we were political competitors. Now I've locked arms with them because those policy differences didn't mean anything anymore. We have a shared sense of responsibility to protect our democracy from the existential threat of Trumpism.
Millions of people have also become more engaged because they didn't want their kids growing up with someone like Trump at the helm of the United States. So that that's the silver lining of all of this too. We are at a crossroads in the history of America. I consider it a privilege to be a part of that fight.
RBG: What do you do to keep serene and energized?
TS: It's important to have balance in your life and find joy and solace in the simple things. I find those things in my loving relationship with my husband. We were big travelers, but during the pandemic we took day trips to places we hadn't even thought about going to before. You learn to appreciate what's around you. We also decided to start a vinyl collection. We bought an old record player. We have very eclectic tastes because I grew up in a musical household. My mom was on Broadway and had me at 21. She was a single parent and gave up her career in show business to raise me, but always placed an emphasis on the arts, theater and music.
We're in this really intense and heavy fight every day, but you also need to be able to go home and hug your family and your kids or your dog, whatever it is that brings you joy. Don't ever lose sight of that.