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Interview: Former Clinton Administration Official on Why He Became a Republican

“Rising tides lift all boats, whether they’re white, black, brown, yellow, immigrant, or any other American.”

On January 9th, 2018, Merion West‘s Henri Mattila interviewed Oliver McGee on his decision to change his political affiliation from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

Mr. McGee, currently a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Texas Tech University, is a former United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Technology Policy during the administration of President Bill Clinton.

Thank you for joining us today, Mr. McGee. To begin with, you changed your political party in 2008, from Democrat to Republican. Why was this?

It was 2007, and I was watching the beginnings of the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. I thought to myself: “Wow, this was very different than what he said when he was a Senator.” And second of all, I said: “Who are you? Where did you come from? I haven’t seen this version of you.” I actually a have a tweet on the top of my Twitter page where Barack Obama is talking about immigration. It was very moderate, a 40 second video, that shows him speaking on C-SPAN about immigration. And he sounded just like Trump today. Exactly.

But when I saw him running in 2007, I said, “When did you change your tune?” Because it became very, very far-left. In fact, he was trying to position himself so far left that he was going to fall off the bench, because he was trying to get away from Hillary. So who was sounding more like Trump in that election? Hillary. She was right in the center. She was trying to go after every vote possible in the center, because she knew she was going to run against a Republican and she wanted to win the center. And she was forcing the party to stay there; she was trying to be like her husband.

I said to myself: “Left turn, right turn—people are lost to the point of no return in the Washington roundabout.” I had to support Hillary because I had served in the Clinton administration; but I didn’t know which way was right. I didn’t know what the politicians were saying; they weren’t believable to me. Well, then they finally decided to run and go against each other, which they obviously did, and they reached the battle to the nomination: it was a hard-fought battle. If you remember, they went all the way up to June, right up to the very last step, because Hillary was not going to give up to potentially the first black President.

When they couldn’t come together to join tickets between the first black President and the first woman Vice President, or looking at race and gender together, I said: “I’m out. I’m out.” Because it lacked authenticity. It lacked authenticity. I was looking for authenticity in 2007, and I couldn’t find it. And when they elected Obama, and I didn’t know who he was anymore, I picked up the pen and filled out the form to jump the aisle. And that’s how I became a Republican in the age of Obama.

I started writing my book, Jumping The Aisle: How I Became A Black Republican in the Age of Obama, and it took me four years to finish it. It came out in 2012. It was my first book — ever. I wrote it as a series of essays, and they were simply what I was thinking about as I was watching this President, this President whom I didn’t know where he came from.

And I started listening to the rise of the Tea Party, and I started listening to what they wanted, and I started looking closely at Republican principles, such as a strong military (that I agreed with), low taxes (which I definitely agreed with), liberty, and efficient markets. On markets, I like to say Wharton and Chicago made me right. I was often the sole Democrat in a room full of Republicans, all of whom were in high finance. As I began to see the economics of business, the power of capitalism, and the power of corporate business—I combined that with my knowledge of technology as a staffer on the Clinton science offices. When you combine an understanding of high finance capitalism, with the understanding of very large-scale technologies, you get supply-side economics.

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Interesting point on your perspective on your shift to supply-side economics. Do you think if more progressives had an education in economics like you did, they would start viewing conservative economic policies more favorably?

Absolutely. I just happened to be the contrarian. We have record-low unemployment in the black community right now—record low in history. When people start to have jobs, and they have higher wages, and they’re able to buy the G.I. Joe with Kung-fu grip for their children at Christmas time, or be able to balance the budget book at the kitchen table each month and not live paycheck to paycheck, that’s a major cause for conversion in politics.

And I think we’re going to move from 8% black vote for Trump in the 2016 election, and he will start moving toward Nixon’s numbers, between 11% and 12% when we go into 2020. It’s time for the black community to not be monolithic anymore and be in just one party. I think what the black community is realizing right now, is when they see the age of Obama in perspective, because it wasn’t authentic, they will come to the realization that they were harmed under Obama. There was record-high unemployment, and black colleges and universities were really, really underserved. Some went into bankruptcy: Howard University today has three buildings condemned because of the crisis it is facing on its campus, as well as the financial liabilities the school will be facing down the road.

These schools are hurting, and it will adversely impact the social fabric of what will happen to the next generation of leaders in the black community. Well, what did we leave behind? What did we do in developing the next generation of leadership after my time? When I got my PhD in engineering in 1988, I was one of nine African-Americans who received a PhD in engineering in that year. And there were none given in 1989 or 1990, according to the National Science Board. So when we start looking at the pipeline of how many Olivers were created (and I’m looking behind my shoulder)—not all of us went into academia, but I’m just about the only one. So what am I doing today to make a difference in that succession planning, to develop that pipeline considering the changing demographics?

Well, we can’t do that without immigration reform. We have to do that by building up a meritocracy, and we can’t open the floodgates, which is opposite of what Barack Obama said. We really need to change how we look at immigration reform. If you have to build a wall at the same time, then you can do that too. But when President Trump builds that wall — because he is going to do that because it’s a campaign promise and a part of the liberty and efficiency he is trying to put in place — why doesn’t he put up American history across that great wall? He can make it like the Great Wall over in China. That’s what he is going to do. He is going to build a wall on that southern border, and he’ll build a mural that will be something people can drive across like Mount Rushmore, and see the great history of this country. That is a dual-purpose for a wall. Make it beautiful, but make it efficient.

So you’re proposing the proposed wall on the southern border also become a tourist attraction?

When you have tens of thousands of people shouting in the campaign, “Build that wall,” they were saying: “We want liberty. We want efficiency. We want democracy. We want markets. We want communications. We want technology. We want community. But we also want equality for all who come to work hard in a meritocratic system.” But along the way, when you build that beautiful wall, I am suggesting we make it part of a learning experience at the same time. Let people come and see what Donald Trump has built, but at the same time, it tells the history of this great nation, and that truly is making America great again.

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That’s a very unique idea, I must say I have never heard it suggested before. Switching gears: you mentioned that African-American unemployment rate is at an all-time low. President Trump recently took credit for this via his Twitter account. How much credit do you think he deserves for this change?

Absolutely. Rising tides lift all boats. When you take the economy, and move the stock market from 18,000 to well over 25,000 in one year, you shift the bond markets, and you shift all the international markets as well. And when you change those markets and you bring in a tax policy that allows you to repatriate over a trillion dollars of cash, that’s $10 trillion of new wealth — cash moves very fast. Rising tides lift all boats, whether they’re white, black, brown, yellow, immigrant, or any other American. Because everybody benefits from that.

The most remarkable thing that the brand of Trump has done is change what economists are looking at. We are changing how we are looking at our models right now, because it’s all about monetary policy working in coordination with fiscal policy. But the problem is, when we have in-authentic politicians shifting what they say, who are not they’re not being what they do, nor doing what they say. And they’re not working on the possibilities of a $10 trillion economy, and they’re not clear on what’s possible, then how can they ever reach low black unemployment? Or lower unemployment for all Americans, for that matter.

What’s happened is that when politicians get in there, they start talking about what happened. Just like Hillary’s book What Happened, and sometimes stories can be good and help you learn. But ultimately, it’s a story. People in America are tired of Washington officials coming to us to tell us what happened; we already know that. We lost a home, we can’t balance the monthly budget at the kitchen table, we’re not making more—we know what happened. But Donald Trump came in and said: “I’m going to tell you what’s possible. We’re going to make America great again. And here’s how: I’m going to bring in my experience from working with banks, and working with corporate America, and I’m not going to do what you politicians did with the art of the half-deal and the side-deal. I’m going to give you the Art of the Deal for the American people.”

But more important than the power of persuasion, he brings the power of the brand. Obama brought a brand, but it was a false brand. But Trump brings a real brand that the people saw: he built the Trump Tower. That’s a brand I saw when I walked down to see the May 2016 primary in Indiana, and he had just put his name on his hotel in Washington. I thought to myself: if he can build this castle right here, he can build this nation. I said to myself, how can the country reject that? How can he put a hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue and not be in the White House? He put his brand on Washington. And that brand moved corporations — which are all about brands themselves — and ordinary Americans alike towards his brand, which is all about wealth, low taxes, and low unemployment.

Over one million people have received bonuses since the tax bill — that’s amazing. You got a bonus or maybe you got a job. Also, the President removed the heavy weight of the individual mandate under Obamacare from small businesses. Trump said: “Give those savings back to the people, and they will come to you.”

Thank you for your range of opinions and insights you’ve provided today. It was very nice speaking with you, Mr. McGee.

Thank you, it was nice talking with you.

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