Mercedes Schlapp is a prominent political strategist and communicator who worked on President George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. A Latina mother of five girls, Mercedes was also a Fox News contributor and has written extensively for U.S News and World Report and as a columnist for The Washington Post. Mercedes is currently serving in President Trump’s administration as the White House Director of Strategic Communications. Bold caught up with Mercedes to discuss political strategy, work-life balance and speaking out, even when you’re afraid.
BOLD: What surprises you the most about this role?
MERCEDES SCHLAPP: What surprises me most about being the strategic comms advisor is that it takes a lot of moving parts. It takes a very big team to be able to focus on what the President’s vision is and how we can amplify his message, not only on a national level, but we have a big focus, for example, on digital and local media in terms of really being able to talk to everyday Americans. It’s very important to the President, very important for our team.
I really find it to just be a joy to be able to work with the different departments, not just communications. You work with the political shop, you work with the legislative shop, you work with the chief-off-staff’s office, and it really is almost like an orchestra were it has to come together to ensure that we are able to serve the president wisely and give him advice and at the same time take direction from him and be able to deliver his message, which is we always say President Trump’s, he’s his own messenger a lot of times. He’s his own communication director, and with it, being part of that, has actually been fascinating to be part of.
BOLD: In terms of messaging, so we’re seeing the polling, there is rising support, according to the polling, for the President among African-American and Latinos. You’re Cuban-American, what about that message is resonating with Latinos, and what advice would you give him further?
MERCEDES SCHLAPP: Well you know, I think we have to put things in perspective. This is the second president I worked for, and seeing a lot of what I have seen move away from just basic, you know, objective journalism to what is very skewed, very opinionated and anti-Trump journalism, I think has been a very big change that I’ve seen just working in two administrations. And you know, we can make the argument, or not make the argument–when you look at the fact, that 95 percent of the mainstream media coverage on Trump is negative, you almost feel like there definitely is an imbalance. And so where the President has been so incredibly effective is breaking through that all and and being a fighter, fighting back and say “You know I’m going to share my message of success.”
I mean, you look at our list of accomplishments alone, and it is about a historic booming economy, it is about putting money in the pockets of our minority communities, of our African-American communities, our Hispanic communities, women, veterans. You go down this list and it’s historic, I mean it’s been the lowest unemployment that we have seen since 1969.
That’s real progress, and that’s because this is a president whose very commonsense, whose very results-oriented, who said “We’ve got to work with Congress to get this tax cut, tax reform legislation passed,” which was very monumental in the first two years of a president being office. In addition to the fact that he’s unleashed and been able to build out a deregulatory agenda that impacts businesses, and what have you seen? You’ve seen corporations say, “We’re going to invest back into America. America is open for business and guess what? We’re going to make sure we invest in our workers,” which is another big component that the President’s committed to, that Ivanka Trump is leading, which is they had announced the National Council on American Workforce. Because we have all these wonderful job openings, but then you’ve got to make sure that your workforce is skilled, has the right skills to be able to do these jobs.
And so, the economy message is a winning message, and I think that that resonates when you look at the moms and dads and families that are saying “I want to be able to have more money in my pocket so I can take a vacation, or I can get my kid through college.” And you know, the opportunity that you’ve seen blue-collar workers for example, having higher wages now than ever before. It is historic and that is the untold story, and that’s a story that we’re going to keep telling.
BOLD: And what about Millennials? Because there are a lot of Millennials who say they are interested in socialism, those messages appeal to them, but a lot of them want to start their own businesses. So in some ways it’s almost this dueling nature, and you look at the polling, the President is not very strong among Millennials. What’s your message to Millennials, and how do you think about that strategy?
MERCEDES SCHLAPP: Look, I have great hope for the Millennials. I sometimes think they get a bad rap, and I wish they wouldn’t, based on what you see in terms of polling. I do feel that it’s important for millennials to be educated on the topic of socialism. You know, my father was in Cuba, very successful businessman in Cuba, literally built his career, built his business. He was in the middle of also trying to get a master’s at the University of Havana, and here comes the socialist, communist experiment of the Fidel Castro regime. And what they did literally, it was a government takeover of industries, of businesses. He lost everything, lost his businesses, he had to hand over the key to the communist government. And so this idea that government is the solution to all your problems is not American, it’s anti-American. The mere fact that the word “socialism” has creeped into America to me is just devastating, because I don’t think these Millennials who believe in socialism understand the horrific consequences of socialism. The horrific consequences of having a bureaucratic government that’s basically going to decide your healthcare, take away your choices, that’s going to decide how you’re going to live your life.
I mean that’s so not what our Founding Fathers wanted. Our Founding Fathers wanted us free from any tyranny and wanted us to make sure that we could be the frontiersmen and women and be the ones to make a lives for ourselves. And you know, it’s because so many people want to come to America, that because you know that you can come from nothing and build an incredible life for you and your children. And so I always feel very strongly that I have to share that message, because unless you’ve lived or had experience of a loved one who has lived in a communist country, socialist country and can tell the horrific tales of what that does to our society were it literally pulls you down as a person, pulls you down in the fact that you have less opportunities than ever before and understanding that it is not what America is based on, I think is a message that I know I’m going to talk about now, and for years to come.
BOLD: We work at Bold a lot with Heterodox Academy, which is looking for ideological diversity on college campuses and one thing they’ve identified is the lack of diverse thought on college campuses. Do you think that’s affecting how young people view socialism?
MERCEDES SCHLAPP: Look I think that, and I’m the mother of five children, and you know my husband [American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp] and I are both very politically active. I think educating your children starts at the house, and I think that you can get caught up in being on your electronic devices and not really paying attention as to what your children are learning. But it really starts with your family and with your parents, so my children and I have told this story many, many times about what their grandfather, my father, ended up becoming a political prisoner. He fought against Castro, and guess what happened? He was thrown into jail, they executed his friends, and he was tortured. I mean that because this man did not agree with the government’s standing on communism, because the fact that this man was fighting for freedom and democracy. And we have to remember that America is so special because of the fact that we are this great democratic experiment that has worked.
BOLD: What I have heard from a lot of Millennials on this question of socialism, they say “Well that’s not a fair comparison.” They say, “We’re talking about democratic socialism, which is socialism that is chosen at the ballot box. What you’re talking about is authoritarian socialism.”
MERCEDES SCHLAPP: No, it’s one step closer to authoritarian socialism. It just is. It is a natural progression of authoritarianism. We had our Council of Economic Advisors just come out with a paper on the cost of socialism, and what it even costs in these Nordic countries. The fact that they’re not able to advance at the pace and at the rate that the United States has. You look at the fact, whether it be your economic growth our choices that we can make, that is so much more limited under socialism. If they really think that a “Medicare For All” mentality, where you have a monopoly, where the government is the single payer, and that’s where you’re going to get the best health care, you’re going to be waiting in line for months. And that might not affect you when you’re a Millennial and you’re super young and healthy and bright, but when you get older and you have aging parents, you’re going to have to wait and see if your grandmother or your mother can can get a hip replacement in less than a month. And if we’re going to move in that direction, you look at the comparisons with the “democratic socialism,” it is always a step further into authoritarianism, there is no question in my mind.
BOLD: In terms of the cultural divide, you tweeted out after Michelle Wolf and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I personally was very critical of her on CNN that evening as well, what in terms of solutions, how can we bridge the cultural divide that she, really, in my opinion, was articulating that night?
MERCEDES SCHLAPP: Well you know, you want comedians to be funny. I don’t think Michelle Wolf was funny at all. She was insulting my friend, my colleague Sarah Sanders. She talked about abortion like it was a joke. It was personally insulting, and so, you know, that’s the right that we have, we have the right to stand up and walk away and not listen to it.
What we want to have is healthy debates and conversations, and what you don’t want is you don’t want to shut the other person down. I really find that the liberals are very quick at hitting conservatives, constantly trying to shut us down, and the one thing that we’ve learned, and I’ve especially learned this from the President, is you fight back, you don’t stay quiet. And I tell this to the young folks, as well, I tell this to my daughters, you lean in, you speak up and you don’t be silent. The day that you’re silent and your voice is not heard, we lose a big part of what our democracy is about and what our freedoms are about.
We should be able to have a policy discussion without the liberal going to that straight, easy line of saying, “You know what? You’re a racist and a bigot.” And conservatives, and Republicans in general, we saw this during the Kavanaugh fight, we don’t have to put up with it. So we gotta stop the name calling, when it comes to, what you see in terms of the liberal line which is always “You’re a racist and a bigot,” and let’s talk about the policy, and let’s have the discussions. From there, I think having the debate is incredibly healthy for our democracy.
BOLD: And what would you say in response to people who say “Yes, let’s have a civil debate and then look at the language from President Trump, it’s aggressive, sometimes his tweets put nicknames or names.” What do you say in response to that, to say that he should be modeling something?
MERCEDES SCHLAPP: Look, he is the President of the United States, and let me tell you, the names stick, and they last forever. And it is the one thing what he has taught us which is, you fight back. And you fight back when — and it is always a lot of times — and he says this, “If you’re going to attack me, I’m going to go after you.” And for a long time, Republicans laid low, and they weren’t willing to fight, and they weren’t willing to push back. This president pushes back, and he’s not going to put up with it. I mean, he’s just not going to.
But there is no question that when you look at his record and what he’s done in order to promote economic prosperity in the United States for all Americans, in protecting American workers, in changing how we negotiate trade deals — which haven’t been negotiated for over 20 years — because it was the “status quo” were people were nervous that we were going to be at war with North Korea all of sudden he has a summit with the North Korean President. He has been able to fundamentally change how politics is thought of in America. And he’s not willing to stand down and you know what, I think that’s the right place to be.
BOLD: So you mentioned your five children, what is that like for you on a personal level juggling, running such a complex organization while also being a wife and mother.
MERCEDES SCHLAPP: Well we have great support here. And I always say that between–I think it’s–Kellyanne has four kids, Sarah has three, and then I have the five, so I think it’s twelve kids, you know, all together. We really are a family. We help each other out. And there are days that are really tough, and there are days were you’re very tired. Because then you get home and then you have to do homework two or three hours. But you know when we made this decision, and it was definitely a family decision, I mean, the girls really understood that I was here to serve the country. And I think that it’s a good example for them.
I reminded them, I said, “Look, you always have to remember, there’s a mommy or daddy out there serving in Afghanistan, serving in Europe, serving in, you know, South Korea that they don’t get to see their kids for 12-18 months at a time. Those are the people we have to pray for. It’s like if mommy gets to come home every night, do your homework, get you to bed. And you always have to remind them there’s just sacrifices that you make, but the sacrifices are for the next generation. So the mere fact that we’ve been able to get two Supreme Court Justices confirmed, that we’ve been able to get these confirmations even on the judges in the circuit courts of appeals, that’s so significant, that that’s so lasting for the next generation and being able to be part of that, being able to help advise and and give your experience is, I think, it’s something that is very valuable and it’s something that they understand.
BOLD: So you work in a male dominated field, so what has been that journey been like for you — as a woman –and what advice do you have for the women coming behind you?
MERCEDES SCHLAPP: Well I always say, “I love mentoring young women.” Especially being the mother of five girls, you know, seeing other women just being able to do things in such a strong position. As I always — and I take it from Sheryl Sandberg is I just believe that –two things. One is the you’ve got to “lean in.” And you you’ve got to speak up. You know, I felt like I see women a lot of times, kind of like “lean back,” and they’re kind of just staying quiet and they let the boys make the decisions. And when you speak up they call you bossy.
So for example, my 15-year-old, she had to work on a team, and the boys were like, “She’s so bossy.” And she came up to me and she was kind of hurt about it, and I like, “No no no — that’s a compliment! Take it, because you’re bossy, because you’re a leader.”
And let them call you bossy. Let them go after you and you just stand up and say, “No no I’m a leader, because I know where to take this and I know where the vision is.” I think we have such a great group, and such a great group of powerful, strong women, in this White House, that we all lean on each other a lot to just get us through tough times. But, we’re also able–we’re problem solvers is what we are — in a lot of ways. And so I think it’s important, don’t be silent. If you have an opinion, just say it. And I think that’s what I’ve learned in my time here and the advice I would give to young women.
BOLD: Last question. We ask this of all our guests. What is bold to you?
MERCEDES SCHLAPP: Bold to me is — I always say it in three words — bold is faith, family and country. Bold is loving yourself, knowing that you’re valued and that you have a place in this world to do something wonderful with your life. Bold is you never give up. And I find that you always have to push forward, even when you think you’re in the darkest of times, and even when you think it can’t get better, just know that you got to be bold. And that you got to move forward. Because it’s always, your life, is constantly evolving. It changes, you go through different phases in your life, nothing lasts forever. And so you know, for me bold is always going to be, if I have God in the middle and faith in my life and I’m grounded I can be strong for my family and I can be strong for my country.
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others. A founding POLITICO reporter, Carrie contributed on political economy at Forbes and wrote editorials for The Washington Times. After earning a master’s in public policy from Harvard University, she managed credit risk at Goldman Sachs and researched for American Enterprise Institute scholar Edward Conard. She earned a B.A. in communications at Brigham Young University and completed a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin.