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A new viral video says a lot about Roger Stone — and the GOP’s steep decline

It may be comforting to think that the MAGA movement suddenly took over the party and brought with it anti-democratic ideas, but Stone's 50-year career proves otherwise.
Roger Stone
Roger Stone attends a campaign event for Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., in Buford, Ga., on Nov. 2, 2020.Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via AP file

In December, Roger Stone, the longtime political operative, GOP dirty trickster and Donald Trump confidante and fixer, was called to testify to the House committee investigating the violent events at the Capitol that occurred on Jan. 6, 2021. Stone refused and invoked his Fifth Amendment right.

When the committee convenes next, Stone will not be asked to testify, but it is expected the public will still hear from him. This time it will be in the form of clips from a documentary called “A Storm Foretold,” in which Stone encourages violence. The Washington Post first reported on the film in March. The filmmakers recently handed over to the House committee footage that they took leading up to the 2020 presidential election and in its aftermath. Some of those clips were obtained by CNN and released on Tuesday. According to a publicly released clip recorded a day before the election, Stone can be heard saying: “F—  the voting, let’s get right to the violence … see an antifa shoot to kill.”

With his flamboyant attire, colorful personal history and tattoo of Richard Nixon’s face on his back, Stone is a unique character of the American right.

This has, naturally, driven Stone into predictable paroxysms of anger. On the messaging app Telegram, where many right-wing groups have gathered, he called the circulating video a “deep fake” and attacked the media outlets that have reported on the likelihood of the footage being shown at the hearing.

With his flamboyant attire, colorful personal history and tattoo of Richard Nixon’s face on his back, Stone is a unique character of the American right. It can be tempting to see him as an odd sideshow to the broader investigation into the events of Jan. 6, but he is much more than that.

While it may be comforting to believe that the MAGA movement took over the GOP and brought with it anti-democratic ideas that led to the big lie and an attack on the Capitol, Stone is a reminder that the MAGA movement has very deep roots in the mainstream of the Republican Party.

Stone has been on the political scene for half a century, and his personal journey from whiz kid Republican campaign aide and influential party consultant to election outcome denier is a road similar to the one down which much of the Republican Party — at the levels of voters, activists and elected officials — have traveled.

To be clear, Stone has always been conservative, unscrupulous and willing to play dirty. That’s one reason his claims of the footage being a “deep fake” should be taken with a grain of salt. But for most of his career, he was also a smart and effective political professional who was grounded in reality. That changed as Stone became deeply embroiled in the angry fantasies about election fraud, witch hunts and victimization of Trump that define the MAGA cult.

As a younger man in the 1970s, Stone was at the center of modern conservatism, playing dirty tricks on the Democrats on behalf of Nixon. During that time, Stone sought to influence the outcome of Democratic primaries by, for example, sending somebody to spy on Democratic front-runner Hubert Humphrey in 1972 and engaged in low-level harassment of Democratic opponents by doing things like faking a contribution from a socialist group to a Nixon challenger. It was nasty but hardly a threat to democracy.

During the 1980s, he continued to consult for Republican candidates but also lobbied for various foreign nefarious clients on the side. Stone’s lobbying partners included fellow Republican consultants Paul Manafort and Lee Atwater. Their clients were people like Ferdinand Marcos, who was then the authoritarian leader of the Philippines, and Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). That lobbying firm was groundbreaking because it was the first to make representing foreign despots a major part of its practice. More significantly, it helped build relationships between Republican campaign staff and authoritarians in various parts of the world. By 2016, Manafort himself, who had worked for Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych, who was pro-Russia, became a key bridge between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

From the 1980s through the mid-2010s, Stone became very close with Trump while remaining involved with Republican Party politics. In that era, he was viewed as a smart Republican strategist with good ideas and deep institutional memory. In October 2000, Stone and I appeared on a local political talk show in New York discussing the presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Back then, when I met him, he presented as an unremarkable, if well-spoken, Republican strategist. About two months later, as part of Bush’s team, Stone would help secure his win by organizing the “Brooks Brothers Riot.” It was the first move in the Bush campaign’s strategy aimed at stopping the Florida recount and ensuring Bush would become president.

Throughout the decades, it’s become clear that Stone is more than a Zelig-like character who has a connection to every Republican president from Nixon to Trump. He is one of the primary architects of the Republicans’ growing contempt for democratic processes.  

A party with a long and unblemished record of supporting democracy would never have closed ranks around insurrectionists. But that’s not the GOP. On the contrary, it has spent years building on a history of engaging in dirty tricks against opponents, building relationships with dictators and trying to stop the counting of the votes in a presidential election. Roger Stone is a strange, frustrating and sometimes even clownish figure on the American political scene, but his personal political evolution cannot be separated from that of the Republican Party.