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'The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear' Echoes Real-Life Republican Race


Stuart Stevens is one of the country's leading Republican operatives. He's worked for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. This election cycle, instead of advising a candidate, he wrote a novel. Our co-host Ari Shapiro talked with him about it.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Stuart Stevens' new novel is called "The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear." It is set at a contested Republican convention. It seemed a bit over the top until events in the real-life presidential race became nearly as jaw-dropping.

STUART STEVENS: When I wrote this book, I thought I was pushing things out to the edge to give us a sense of what could happen and also for comic effect. I finished it, you know, over a year ago. I think I probably underplayed reality.

SHAPIRO: I asked Stuart Stevens about his thought process as he sat on that finished manuscript and watched reality conform to the fiction he had created.

STEVENS: I find this race very dispiriting. And I seem to be the majority of Americans on that. I was of the opinion that Donald Trump would lose the primary. I thought that he was a very easy candidate to defeat in the primary. I wish he had been defeated. I think there were a lot of better people running. So I kept thinking, well, someone is going to step up and just point to the ridiculousness of Donald Trump and that will be that. But it never happened.

In the book, like we've seen in real life, there's a big debate moment, and it occurs in New Hampshire. And the narrator, J.D. Callahan, is - just been hired as campaign manager for the sitting vice president, who's just lost Iowa and is about to lose New Hampshire to this very charismatic governor of Colorado, who's strong and anti-immigration - sort of a xenophobe populist. J.D. Callahan advises the vice president to confront the governor and say to him, have you no shame? What is it that you are saying about America and saying about us as Americans? And that begins to turn the tide for him. It resonates. It's a moment I wish had occurred in the Republican primary.

SHAPIRO: In the real-world Republican primary.

STEVENS: In the real world.

SHAPIRO: If you were writing the book today having seen what's happened in reality, do you think you would have written it any differently?

STEVENS: That's a great question. In the book I had this after an economic crash to sort of use it as a triggering factor to accelerate this desire for a strong man. We haven't needed that, and Trump has emerged. I think that perhaps I might not have written it with the economic crash.

SHAPIRO: So what you're saying is you thought the country would need some real push, a kick, in order to lean towards a Trump-like figure...


SHAPIRO: ...In your fictional world. And in the real world, the country went for Donald Trump even when the economy is doing relatively well.

STEVENS: Yeah, I think this is a great paradox here. Traditionally those on the center-left have been better at talking about those left behind than those on the center-right. But I think for the last seven years, a lot of those voices have been muted. Part of it is a desire to support the president. Part of it is not to help Republicans. So I think that there has been more of sort of a conspiracy of silence about how many people are hurting.

I mean we don't have a John Steinbeck now. We have a Jon Stewart, who's a, you know, smart suburban social critic. But he's not John Steinbeck. You know, we don't have a Studs Terkel anymore. And I think that the lack of even having these discussions that we have is hurting our national consciousness. We need to talk about all these people out there, and it's a majority of Americans who still are very much hurting after the Recession.

SHAPIRO: As a vocal member of the Never Trump movement, how worried are you about the country right now?

STEVENS: Well, I think everybody's worried. I don't know anybody that looks around and says (laughs) well, this is going great. This is really working out well. I think it's very troubling. I mean, look; to be an American you sort of default to optimism. And, you know, it's a big, noisy, contentious country. So to have a big, noisy, contentious election I think is not a bad thing.

But I think it's important that we keep reminding ourselves - what about the best of America? Because ultimately, I think our leaders need to represent the best of America and lift us up. I mean, we all have a part of us inside that feels disappointed by this or cheated here - I didn't get a good chance here. And when we feel best about the country and best about a leader is when someone lifts up out of that.

I mean, I think certainly John Kennedy did this. I think Ronald Reagan did this. I think that there's moments if you look at what President Bush - after 9/11 when he stood in the National Cathedral - he certainly did it in those moments. And that's really what's different about being president than any other office. It's more the soul of the nation that it reflects.

SHAPIRO: Well, Stuart Stevens, thanks for coming into the studio.

STEVENS: Great to see you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Stuart Stevens is a political strategist and author of the new novel "The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.