It isn’t often that The New York Times and The Washington Post do lengthy features on the same politician in the same week. So when Elise Stefanik was given several thousand words in two major papers, my curiosity was duly piqued.
The two pieces (here and here) are similar profiles of Stefanik, age 38, and her remarkable transformation from Harvard-educated “moderate” Republican, to ultra-MAGA ideologue. The subhead of the Times article states the theme of both:
To rise through the Trump-era G.O.P., a young congresswoman gave up her friends, her mentors and her ideals.
So how does a double feature like this happen, especially when there’s no immediate news driving it? Stefanik was not in the spotlight, though it was clear she would soon be taking a leading role in the new GOP House majority. So it could just be the coincidence of two reporters intuitively seizing on the same story. It happens.
But it could also be that Stefanik herself, working with a clever publicist, set out to woo those reporters, trying to raise her public visibility on the eve of her fourth term in Congress.
If so, it was a risky move. She was gambling that the glossy publicity would be enough to offset the drubbing she would likely take at the hands of the “liberal” media.
She got off easy. Both articles do indeed chronicle her descent from “the future of the moderate Republican party” — whatever that is — into the deep cesspool of Trumpdom. But there’s no drubbing in evidence. Both pieces spend much time on her human side, on the personal cost of life in that cesspool.
Her one-time headmistress, who once admired her, sums up that cost: “She basically abandoned her own core values for a man who had no core values.” Her longtime friends have taken notice, and most have dumped her. Cue the violins.
But while neither article is a hatchet job, it’s easy to read between the lines of both reporters: Stefanik was once recognizable as human, but she made a conscious, measured decision to turn herself into a monster. They say it nicer than I do.
But whether she’s behind the two stories or not, the takeaways are the same: She’s smart. She’s fiercely ambitious. She welcomes the spotlight. And she wants to be president.
She bought the URL ‘StefanikForPresident.com’ eight years ago.
That said, she has at least twenty years to plot a course to that goal. Why would she throw in with Trump now? Why sacrifice so much credibility, not to mention respectability? Is she calculating that Trump has a future? Does she think there’s a Trump mantle she can somehow seize?
She’s not a natural liar. She came to politics with talent, institutional savvy, and what might be called a generic set of middle-class ideals, all of which made her welcome even in the liberal bastions of the Ivy Leagues.
You can still find those ideals on her website, under "Congresswoman Stefanik's Priorities.” If you ignore the few clunkers — “second amendment rights,” “communist China,” etc. — you could easily mistake her for an Obama Democrat. If she senses any disconnect between those priorities and how she works to undermine them, you wouldn’t know it.
Just below her priorities, you can scan the list of “Congresswoman Stefanik's Results,” where she takes full credit for all the federal funding she brought to her district, somehow neglecting to mention that she voted against all of it.
When Trump first announced his run in 2015, she was utterly repulsed by him. When he was nominated, then elected, she held her nose and supported him, but only tepidly.
Then in 2019, she drank the Kool-Aid. We all remember her strident defense of Trump at his first impeachment. It was a thankless job, but she gave it her all — deftly lying, deflecting, and gaslighting with the verbal dexterity of a con man twice her age.
If you watch her interviews these days — which only happen in the right-wing media bubble — there’s a certain breathlessness to her delivery, an impatient spew of all her rehearsed MAGA talking points, almost as if she can’t believe she has to say this shit.
This suspension of disbelief is a required skill in MAGA world, and she’s a quick study. Every day, she grows more proficient at discussing pedophilia a la QAnon, “White Replacement Theory” a la Tucker Carlson, and whatever the fake border crisis du jour might be.
When Trump announced his supposed candidacy for 2024, she was one of the few high-profile Republicans to publicly endorse him. Which still seems strange for someone who could easily have laid low and tested the waters first.
Trump is, after all, fast becoming poison in the party, if not in the minds of his dwindling base. Plus, he’s up to his eyeballs in criminal exposure. Why would she jump on a bandwagon that’s rolling off a cliff?
Whatever her reasons, she is now at the point where she can allow no truth to pass her lips. Her job is to lie, all the time, possibly for the rest of her career. Which sounds exhausting.
And the strangest part is that she knew what she was getting into. She had plenty of time to see what happens to people who get sucked into Trump’s orbit. How could she fail to notice that Trump-stink never wears off? She bought in anyway.
And for what? Trump is already on record as not trusting her. Nobody believes she’s a true believer.
But still, she puts herself out there. And she stands out, especially among the knuckle-draggers in the GOP conference. If Kevin McCarthy’s food fight for the speakership had turned out differently, she was a logical third or fourth choice to replace him.
Others have speculated that she’s angling to become Trump’s running mate in 2024, but I’m skeptical. Not that she wouldn’t want the job. It’s just that she has to suspect, as do we all, that Trump’s candidacy is nothing more than an embarrassing scam. She’s better off working the GOP donors.
And those donors have surely taken notice. Like her, they are no doubt looking past Trump, to the future of Trumpism without him. In their eyes, she’s young, well-connected, and ideologically sound. She has a lot of what they like about Trump, but she won’t pee on the rug.
She will most likely outlive Trump by several decades, so she can afford to wait for the party to come to her. She’s too smart to be making bonehead political moves, yet that’s just what she appears to be doing.
Are the appearances deceiving? Does she know something we don’t? Is there opportunity only she can see?
Stefanik is all questions and very few answers. But the biggest question is one we could be asking for the next twenty years:
How do we stop her from becoming president?