The Conservative Movement: Agony, Revolution, and Triumph

By Shawn SteelMarch 1, 2018

The Conservative Movement: Agony, Revolution, and Triumph

Whiplash! by Arnold L. Steinberg

NATIONAL POLL TAKEN SHORTLY after Donald Trump’s victory found that 85 percent of Americans believe that the country is more divided than in recent years — this, before the Women’s March on Washington, DC, the appointment of a special prosecutor, Charlottesville, Alabama’s US Senate special election, and the landmark Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The narrative is inescapable — whether you come from the right, left, or center.

Something about the current division seems greater — more irreconcilable — than any recent past disruption in American unity. Blame the other side. Attribute it to media echo chambers and social media silos. But none of that gets us any closer to closing the gap between “I’m with her” and “lock her up.”

“It’s a sign of the times, but one of the things I’m struck by,” FiveThirtyEight contributor Dan Hopkins, an associate professor of government at the University of Pennsylvania, observed of Alabama voters, is “the disconnect between the unfailing kindness people showed to me personally while they were filling out the survey and the harsh, sometimes unprintable words they had for the other party and its candidate.”


Arnie Steinberg’s name doesn’t stand out as a conservative icon. But, among those big-name, recognizable political players, Arnie’s is the name to drop.

Over his lifetime, he has been counted as a close, personal friend of legendary members of every facet of the vast right-wing conspiracy: from theorists Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley Jr. to firebrand conservative politicians Barry Goldwater Jr. and Dana Rohrabacher. He helped advise some of the last true statesmen, US Senator James Buckley and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, and tried — unsuccessfully — to steer actors like Clint Eastwood from making the plunge into politics.

In Whiplash! From JFK to Donald Trump, a Political Odyssey, Steinberg shares the story of his life — a Jewish kid from Fairfax who became a giant in the political intellectual community. He takes readers through the agony, revolution, and triumph of a political movement.

Steinberg and I met as teenage Republican activists. He was mobilizing kids at Fairfax High School while I was doing the same at Van Nuys High. Most of his life, Steinberg’s business card has read “strategist,” which doesn’t fully convey the extent of his influence shaping nearly every component of the modern political campaign. He’s conducted more than 1,600 focus groups and surveys, authored two graduate-level textbooks, and testified as an expert witness in high-profile trials, including the trial of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King.

“Steinberg’s life experiences growing up in the Los Angeles area produced an understanding that led to a developed conservative philosophy that is spelled out in his book,” writes author Wayne Thorburn. “It is a tour de force for those who wish to better understand how the conservative movement developed and where it is at the present time.”

Arnie’s resume alone is sufficient to make his lengthy memoir compelling. Joe Mathews, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and now California editor at Zócalo Public Square, complained that he couldn’t review Arnie’s book because he “didn’t write one book. He wrote 10 books, and stuffed it into one.” The book is to be appreciated even for those who, in Mathews’s words, find “the Trumpian sympathies he expresses revolting.”

Conservative readers will immediately appreciate the inside baseball of how Steinberg skillfully guided GOP campaigns in what are now considered hopelessly blue coastal states. Angelenos get a meticulous account of the city’s dramatic political and demographic evolution over the last half-century. Far-left Democrats will relish at Steinberg’s internal struggle over helping some politicians: “After electing Bob, I would ask myself: did I create a Frankenstein?”

He offers lessons in loyalty. When Dana Rohrabacher jumped in as a late entrant to a race for Congress, Arnie had already been retained by one of Dana’s opponent. Without being asked, Arnie returned the $50,000 retainer paid in 1988 dollars. Dana believes that action was the single biggest factor that led to his first win.

If all that Steinberg’s book achieved was an honest telling of the inside story of 50 years of political campaigns, it would be worth the read. Arnie’s side stories and special attention to the relationships he developed over the years are fascinating mini-stories in themselves. However, the true value of Arnie’s brutally frank and candid tone is that it offers deep insight into the principled conservative worldview and a chance for a constructive way past our political stasis.

“I started political action circa 1960 with John Kennedy; and now we are in the twenty-first century with Donald Trump,” Steinberg writes. “Given the parallels between then and now, and a generation fighting the same battles, I feel as if I’ve been whiplashed by a time warp.”

Are there two more incongruous political figures than elegant Democrat John F. Kennedy and unpolished Republican Donald Trump? That the same person can draw lines over a lifetime between these two polar-opposite political figures makes Arnie Steinberg’s memoir truly thought provoking. On those issues of greatest division — Black Lives Matter, immigration, and social justice reform — Steinberg’s philosophy should stop and make progressives think.


When millionaire San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem, he did so in the name of protesting systemic abuse of power by law enforcement and prosecutors within the US justice system. He may have grandstanded, but he put a spotlight on the deep wounds in our criminal justice system.

“In our judicial system, it’s not whether you are guilty, but how the legal process is pursued.” That’s the Jewish Republican political strategist’s words, not the African-American football player’s.

“Our criminal justice system is anything but conservative; it is completely broken,” Steinberg adds. “Government fails to effectively perform its classic and basic functions of protection and justice; we have too many laws, and selective enforcement breeds disrespect for the law.”

In Whiplash!, Steinberg artfully describes why every American should be concerned by prosecutorial misconduct. When prosecutors weaponize their power, no one is safe. Steinberg’s libertarian distrust of government has been accentuated by the prosecution of his friends and clients, in particular Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler and Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan, as well as his own near-bankruptcy-inducing fight with the California Coastal Commission.

“A Soviet-style LA County prosecutor in 1986 went after my client, Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler, for a nonexistent crime, the case was thrown out of court, but Bobbi’s political career ended, and Democrat Alan Cranston reelected,” Steinberg shares.

What many limited-government conservatives have forgotten is that the innocent are often destroyed by fighting the charges. It can take everything you have to defend yourself from the limitless purse of a government prosecutor.

“I was close to many top law enforcement officials and believed many cops had a tough job,” he writes. “But some in law enforcement failed to understand that ordered liberty required a minimum, not a maximum, of order.”

When Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan was prosecuted in the mid-1990s, the US Attorney was able to pressure a staff member to testify against Nolan. He was presented with the option of 24 months in jail or taking a chance at trial, which could mean “you will not see your three children graduate from high school.”

The playbook for headhunting prosecutors has remained unchanged because it has gone unchallenged. Apply the pressure to family members or underlings with little power and minimal resources. Go for the big headlines and convict in the press. Search for any leverage even if on unrelated charges. Offer the deal.

We’ve traded truth and justice with a game of “let’s make a deal.” General Michael Flynn recently agreed to accept a felony plea to the charge of lying to the FBI, despite sworn testimony from the former FBI director that he believed the general didn’t lie to the FBI. Did Flynn cut a deal simply to avoid an expensive legal battle? More importantly, if this judicial deal-making can happen to a former general turned national security advisor, it can happen to anyone who runs afoul of law enforcement, especially those at the margins who may lack money, power, or influence.

While Republicans will draw parallels to Robert Mueller’s pending investigation, Steinberg connects his experiences with the clear racial inequities associated with the justice system. “I gained new sympathy for the underclass in America, and the way in which many poor defendants are railroaded into plea bargains,” Steinberg confesses. “The United States has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly one-quarter of its prisoners. The prison population is disproportionately African-American and Latino.”

He admonishes law-and-order Republicans that “[c]onservatives must continue to pursue futurist issues, such as the movement to reform and overhaul the broken criminal justice system,” stating that, “[p]eople who smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, use marijuana, or even partake of hard drugs should not be criminals. If someone drinks and drives, that’s another matter. But to criminalize vices is contrary to conservatism.”

Progressives can hardly claim moral superiority on criminal justice reform, a point that’s not lost on Steinberg. “As government — largely as a result of the progressives — criminalizes more and more of what we do and how we act and even what we say, what do all the laws and regulations and court decisions produce?”


I have often wondered why Steinberg didn’t join a giant DC public relations firm to make a lot of money, as many of his contemporaries did. He was always far more interested in big ideas than making money or manipulating power.

“In politics, many conservatives are caught up in who wins or loses a particular election,” Steinberg writes. “First, they simply are too involved in the political process, when the real battle relates to philosophy, values, ethos, culture, ideas, and policy, and young people and education.”

This is no doubt the indelible mark left by Steinberg’s first big campaign: James Buckley’s improbable victory as a third-party candidate for US Senate in New York. He learned from his Buckley days that the biggest donors and the most influential lobbyists always serve the interests of the crony class, which demands preferences, set asides, loopholes, and access.

“We believed in ideas and the candidate, we were not looking for power or patronage,” Steinberg recalls in the book.

Arnie’s big campaign innovation was to connect a candidate’s schedule to the nightly news. As one of Buckley’s campaign advisors, he coupled the daily schedule with the news cycle. If there was a controversy in the Bronx, Buckley showed up. As a third-party candidate, Buckley received substantially more earned media that his two opponents. This seems obvious today — only because Arnie made it obvious.

Another once-obvious observation: The seemingly incongruous truth that principled ideological differences often breed political civility. Arnie was struck that Buckley was one of the most affable people he’d ever met, all while staying disciplined to his core principles and values.

“Many conservative candidates could have learned from Jim’s affable style: he would not seek a confrontation, and he could take a hard-line stance with cordiality. He smiled easily, spoke softly, and did not seem angry … because he was not angry.”

Marcus Aurelius long ago reminded us, “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”


“Americans are more divided than ever, gridlocked over social issues, race, gender and the economy,” the Associated Press proclaims in its “Divided America” multimedia series. “Bathrooms have become battlefields, borders are battle lines. Sex and race, faith and ethnicity […] the melting pot seems to be boiling over.”

All of this feels true, yet none of it is true — not by a long shot.

In my lifetime, each of these metaphors has been acted out in a real way. Bathrooms, bus seats, and lunch counters were battlefields a half-century ago, and sitting at the wrong one could get you beat up, attacked by dogs, or assaulted with a fire hose. Real battlefields. Twenty-five years ago, the Los Angeles melting pot boiled over — with violent riots that destroyed the life savings of largely Korean-American small business owners. Real fires. Have we forgotten that armed bands of Minuteman militias drew battle lines along the border just a decade ago? Real trenches.

“In any dispute,” Sayre’s law posits, “the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

If the United States seems more deeply divided than ever before, it might just be because we aren’t.


Shawn Steel, a practicing attorney and former California Republican Party chair, represents California on the Republican National Committee.

LARB Contributor

Shawn Steel is a practicing attorney and the Republican National Committeeman from California. He recently was elected by colleagues to the RNC Executive Committee. He is a former chairman of the California Republican Party and the founding director of the California chapter of the influential pro-taxpayer group, the Club for Growth.


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