A response to Roger Stone at The Cambridge Union

Juliette Bretan 5 February 2018

 “I’m the only man you’ll meet with a dick on the back and a dick on the front” Roger Stone tells a bemused Cambridge Union audience . He refers to the man he cites as his first political teacher: Richard Nixon- and the corresponding tattoo on his back.   Stone wears a sharp suit  cutting the shape of a powerful political figure highly regarded by his establishment.  However, if Nixon eerily grimaces under Stone’s shirt- as classily inked as a mistake tattoo on a night out in Ayia Napa- then so too does something sinister and tacky lie just beneath the surface of the strategist’s conventional, conservative appearance.  This Friday it was unsettling to sit through a session where the union audience struggled to interrogate all of Stone’s different layers.

 Journalist Jeoffrey Toobin characterizes Stone as “the sinister Forrest Gump of American politics”.  His nickname: “ratfucker” marks him as one of the inventors of the modern political attack ad. Stone is often described as having had a hand in just about every criminal deed carried out by the forces of the American conservative movement in the past sixty years: from Watergate to the election of Donald Trump.

 Yet Stone’s personal presentation is elegant. In its best moments his speech at the union is erudite and factual. Stone even takes great pains to remind the crowd that he  believes in ‘same-sex marriage’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, for a political strategist charged with being single handedly responsible for Trump’s rise to power, he is educated, literary, and witty.   In a final tactic to woo the university auditorium , Stone positions himself as a proponent of free speech. This statement falls awkwardly with the audience: as union members we subscribe to this value, but it is also a concept that ceases to be neutral the more parties adopt it as a buzz phrase. Particularly when Trump has been known for censoring anyone who spoke out negatively at his rallies. Stone appears unaware that Trump supporters in Cambridge, whilst unfortunately present in their minority , are no more common than a U in A Level Politics amongst students.

 Every so often his traditional flourishes of educated skill and questionable moral value are punctuated by an incongruously vacuous Trumpism such as : ‘phony’ or ‘loser’. It is clear when he drops into scripts from the Republican party because the clarity, logic and naturalism with which he otherwise communicates fly out the chamber windows. It is as though Stone is the rope in a tug of war between the languages of traditional American politics – the foundation of his career-  and a new novelty in which he delights.

This new novelty is a Trumpian language that is impulsive, obfuscating , and apparently the most exciting political weapon he’s happened upon since Nixon. Whether or not Trump uses his mode of communication unwittingly- it is with total understanding of its limits and potentials Stone deploys his ammunition. ‘Trump never uses a script’ Stone concedes to the crowd . His delivery mixes admiration with an awareness that Trump’s theatrical approach would never have flown in the sixties. Stone’s observation is scripted.

In this same debate chamber, one year and four months before, we waited for the American election results. As news of the world-changing result came in  expectancy turned – in some cases – to fatalistic dismay as the energy and audience gradually filtered home.

 This mood was forgotten in the Stone talk. Watching Roger Stone speak I felt surrounded by an audience who were disturbed, and laughed- but questioned themselves when they did. I don’t blame others for it- I was part of this stunned bafflement too. It was , somehow, the nature of the room. There was a feeling that there was a much bigger cultural force operating through Stone: that as Brits we cannot fully be exposed to or understand. We are looking in from a distant window: aware that with the potential of future trade deals it could stand to affect us in more ways than we could imagine. 

Some questions at the event began to interrogate, but generally offered a policy point in line with the Democrats. Therefore, Stone had rebuttals ready and was let off by a passive British- or institutionally perpetuated- politeness. Our words never did more than give vague traces of the ideologies he has been involved in conquering.  I raised my hand with a question that never got selected.  It would have gone something like this:

“You speak eruditely and seem incredibly educated. Yet the Trumpian ideology you currently support endorses, in its communication and education policies, a break down in the importance of universally enjoyed education, facts and logic.

If meaningless dialogue is allowed to rule then in twenty years we might be looking at an America where a logical thinker such as yourself wouldn’t have a useful place in government . How do you feel about that?”

None of us can put words into Stone’s mouth on this point,  However, it is possible that there is some greater plan in place. Such a plan might be one that uses the shock impact of a disorganized Trump presidency to more coherently give far right ideologies an organized platform at the centre of the Western world. Conversely, the chaos described in Michael Woolff’s recent Fire and Fury may be an encapsulation of a dominant culture in the Republican party that currently has no space to forge a long term plan.

However,  it is unthinkable that speakers such as Roger Stone should be left un-challenged. Especially in circumstances where those who are capable of challenging them have all the tools in place- but politeness or anxiety hampers the critical expression of the speaker. This week, Jonathan Freedland argued in The Guardian that John Humphrys gave Stone an easy ride on the BBC’s Today programme. If this was an easy ride, at the union we gave him a cigar, a cocktail and a swimming pool to bask in. Next time we give a platform to a speaker such as Stone it is our role, as young people in a privileged position, to protect  democracy from erosion by speaking up with an informed confidence.