EPPC Senior Fellow Peter Wehner took part the following roundtable interview for Democracy journal with other Republicans regarding President Trump.
The anti-Trump conservatives—as opposed to the anti-Trump Republicans, of which there are perhaps two—have made for a fascinating story in this era. We thought this was a good time to check in with a few of them and sound them out on Donald Trump, Trumpism, conservatism, and the Republican Party.
The four with whom we chose to converse all represent slightly different slots on the spectrum: David Frum is anti-Trump and was a critic of the GOP long before Trump came along but still calls himself a conservative. Peter Wehner, like Frum a Bush Administration veteran, is an evangelical Christian, also firmly anti-Trump and extremely critical of the Republican Party. Liz Mair, a political consultant, is anti-Trump but still a conservative-libertarian Republican. And Jennifer Rubin seems to have come closest to giving up on the whole enterprise. Democracy board member E.J. Dionne Jr. and editor Michael Tomasky sat down with the four of them in late April to ask about Trump, of course, but also about whether they’ve reconsidered their views on matters like preemptive war.
E.J. Dionne Jr.: So let me start with this question: Is Trump an aberration within the conservative movement, or is he a logical conclusion to what’s happened to conservatism over the last 20 or 30 years? David?
David Frum: It is very possible that a Trump-like figure could have arisen on the American left because Trump-like figures have arisen in left-leaning parties in Europe. The Five Star Movement in Italy is genetically of the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s points of similarity with Donald Trump are strong. No one should assume that such a thing is impossible on the American left in the future. The Bernie Sanders movement showed the deep hunger for a messianic figure on the American left. You have to be pretty hungry for a messianic figure to believe Bernie is the messiah.
There were reasons why American conservatives were especially vulnerable to a figure like Trump at this particular time. But there needs to be a general mood of on-guardness in all ideological quadrants, because the democratic system itself is in trouble. That trouble can manifest itself in a lot of different ways and in a lot of different places.
Dionne: You said there were a number of reasons why the conservative movement was particularly vulnerable. What were they?
Frum: One of the reasons why the democratic system is in trouble across the Western world is the strains arising from mass immigration. And in the United States, the party that is more able to talk about immigration is the party of the right. The Democrats are disabled from talking about immigration for reasons of party organization. Trump was the only person on the Republican stage to acknowledge immigration as an issue, and that provided him his most powerful advantage over his 16 or so competitors.
Dionne: Liz? Aberration or logical conclusion?
Liz Mair: I think that it’s very dangerous for Democrats to get into a position of saying that it can’t happen in their party. It absolutely can. I think that to some extent David is right, although I would make a couple of points with regard to immigration.
I think when you analyze a lot of the commentary that Bernie Sanders was engaging in as he was going around the country, he was hitting immigration, but it’s just that he was hitting legal immigration, agreeing with the premise of people asking questions of him at town hall meetings who don’t like H-1B visas, think H-1B visa holders are stealing American jobs and stuff. Whereas I think the Republican concern about immigration, historically, has been more focused on that which is unlawful. I think that focus has shifted somewhat since Trump’s election. Now he is more focused on the topic of legal immigration and constraining that also. But I think it is interesting that what we consider to be mainstream Democratic Party rhetoric about immigration, and Democrats basically being pro-immigration, wasn’t necessarily what we heard from Bernie Sanders. So there is some ability for people on the left, I think, to play the immigration restrictionist game, too.
When he signaled his intention to run in 2015, I had always considered Donald Trump to be much more of an Old Labour-type figure than anything else. If I were going to pin him somewhere on the spectrum I think that would be accurate, which is one of the reasons that I had always had fairly strong objections to him. Being an advisory board member of GOProud, which is unfortunately the organization that first brought Trump to the Conservative Political Action Conference and probably put him on the radar of conservatives nationally, I looked into his record and his statements, and what I found was all of this stuff that, as someone who is British and American, really dissuaded me from becoming comfortable with the Labour Party as I became politically engaged as an adult.
Because he really is more of that tradition: very skeptical of trade—if he were in Europe, he’d be Euro-skeptic as Old Labour has been—very skeptical of immigration, generally very skeptical of foreigners and foreign engagements. But also, if you look at his statements on health care and where he’s been on that, this is a guy who, even into his presidential run, was advocating single-payer health care. And, actually, if you look at the effects of what he’s doing with Obamacare, we’re shifting in that direction, which I think is interesting.
Peter Wehner: I think he’s an aberration of conservatism for sure, but I think he’s also the logical consequence, in large part, of the American right and the currents that have been in the American right that are much stronger than I realized at the time. And I think some of the elements that were there were a devaluation of ideas within conservatism.
Just autobiographically, I’m a product of the Reagan Revolution. When I was growing up and being formed intellectually and politically during the Reagan years and the 1980s, the important books at that time were: Losing Ground by Charles Murray on welfare, The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein’s Crime and Human Nature. Justice Antonin Scalia was a huge figure in terms of his articulation of originalism. These were the ideas that kind of animated us, and there was a sort of pride in the conservative movement at that time, a feeling that our ideas were powerful. I think that’s been lost. There’s been a tremendous erosion in that. The politics of theatrics has replaced the politics of governance, so I think a lot of what matters now is not whether we govern well. They didn’t even look for someone who can govern well. There’s an element of performance in politics now that Trump fit into perfectly. And I would say there is also the politics of grievance and resentment, and Trump symbolized it.
Trump’s appeal is far beyond, and I think deeper than, normal politics.
I think that the reasons that people latch onto Trump are precisely the reasons that I’m so offended by him—his violation of norms, the style, the disposition, and the temperament. Trump is also by light-years more ignorant than anyone who’s ever run for the presidency, and that’s not a state secret. During the Republican primary debates, he couldn’t string together three coherent policy sentences, yet it didn’t matter, and in some ways it recommended him to some people on the right.
Second is Trump’s history. He’s been liberal on a whole series of issues. The fascinating thing is if you took any traditional conservative, any evangelical Christian, and asked “What are the criteria that would matter to you in nominating a President?”—whether it was personal morality, fidelity to different causes like the pro-life movement, allegiance to the party, governing record, consistency over time, any of those things—in that field of candidates in the 2016 primary, they would have chosen any of the other 16 in a blink of the eye. Trump wouldn’t have gotten any votes based on that standard. And yet he won. And he won relatively comfortably.
So then, analytically, the question is: Why would people set aside all of those beliefs, all of those things that animated them, and choose Trump? And I think the reason is they felt like he was in disposition, temperament, and conduct what they wanted. They saw him as a fighter. You could have gone in any conceivable direction depending on what strain of conservatism you identify with. Yet they chose Trump. And so I think he has to be seen as a culmination of what I think were dark forces on the American right.
Dionne: Could I just ask a quick follow-up? You are an evangelical Christian; you wrote a book with Mike Gerson inspired by that commitment. What happened to evangelicals, specifically white evangelicals? Why are they where they are now?
Wehner: I think that it’s a complicated answer, and it’s a troubling answer. I think that much of the evangelical movement has been seized by fear, and it’s become a movement of resentments and grievances, and fear in politics often transmutes into anger and aggression. There was a sense among many white evangelicals of lost power, of lost privilege, fear that the country that they knew was being lost, and they felt like Donald Trump was the vehicle to express that anger. They saw him as a wrecking ball against the political establishment and the media. People said, in one way or another, “We’re sick of the gentility of the Bushes and Mitt Romney.”
And just one other point. There’s this idea, this apocalyptic view among many white evangelicals: They speak almost as if they were Christians living during the time of Nero, which is to me just unbelievable. I’m not saying this is the land of milk and honey, but ask a white evangelical Christian, “In the entire arc of Christian history, can you name me another time and another country where you would rather live than America in 2018?” It would be hard for them to pick another country. And yet what you hear from a lot of evangelicals is a sense of lost culture and “We’re on the edge of the precipice, and we need to do something dramatic.”
Jennifer Rubin: I think to your question of “Is Trump an aberration or the natural consequence?” The answer is yes. There is certainly a strain of conservatism that has always been there. Call them paleo-conservatives, call them whatever you like, but there has always been, on the right, a group—and they were just as angry with Ronald Reagan as they were with Barack Obama—who has looked upon urban elites, institutions that are primarily generating intellectual and cultural output, as somehow foreign, somehow not American in the true sense of the word. There has been a strain of isolationism if you go back to Robert Taft. There has been a strain of extreme hostility toward government, beyond mere libertarianism, but really hostility to any intrusion into public life.
I think people on the right were particularly vulnerable in a way that, at least right now, the left was not. It’s funny we should be having this conversation in the week Barbara Bush died. In some ways the Bushes were, perhaps, a dying breed within the right. They were heirs to Reagan, and the heirs to Bill Buckley, and I think the heirs to a strain of gentility in conservatism.
What people like Pete and I missed was, for a long time, they were the exception and not the rule. And that set of ideas, a whole sense of public service, a whole sense of making government better, a very open attitude toward civil rights, was no longer the dominant strain on the right, by the time you got to about 2000. That had really eroded. And I think a lot of this had to do with the rise of conservative media, which built a cult-like bubble of resentments and conspiracy, and a narrative of betrayal. It’s a sense that someone has taken you for a ride and taken something from you.
And in the days when, of course, Mitch McConnell was doing everything he could to steer a conservative agenda with a Democratic President, they were convinced he was selling them down the river. They were convinced this was the grand betrayal. So I think the conservative media had a lot to do with it. And I think any belief system that is atrophied and becomes excessive in its insulation is open to demagoguery. Were there complaints about liberal bias in the media? Of course. But that didn’t mean that the current incarnation in the person of Sean Hannity is the answer. Are there problems in academia? Absolutely, but the solution isn’t know-nothingism. So I think a failure to grow and a failure to keep up with the times made them particularly susceptible to someone who was selling them a bill of goods: resentment, betrayal, know-nothingism, anti-government. It was all there for them.
Frum: Organized conservatism, in the historically bounded form that we all grew up with it in the 1970s and ‘80s, was exhausted. Conservatism is an anthology of answers to the problems of the 1970s and ‘80s. Inflation: Do you use monetary methods or price controls? Crime: Do you use police methods or do you address the root causes of socioeconomic disparity? How do you cope with the social upheavals of the 1960s? How does America restore its standing in the world after Vietnam? Conservatism as a policy project was a set of answers to those questions.
By and large, those conservative policy answers succeeded. We lowered inflation, reduced crime, deterred riots, and prevailed in the Cold War. But one of the ironic effects of political success is that you can put yourself out of a job. Politics is a never-ending exam. When your answers cease being controversial, they therefore stop being the stuff of politics.
In the 2000s, however, and especially since the economic crisis of 2008, it has become unmistakable that the country faces all kinds of new problems, from drug addiction to the mortality crisis to the discovery that great depressions can recur.
Jen is right to describe the conservative reaction to these new problems as “decadent”: Conservatives found themselves with nothing to say to the most urgent challenges of our time.
Paul Ryan’s answer was to repeat the policies of the 1970s and ‘80s, this time even bigger. Unsurprisingly, many people—including those Trump-voting Republicans—felt “that doesn’t seem very responsive to the conditions of my life.”
Rubin: I would also say, in addition to this series of policy solutions, there was, at least in the beginning, a temperamental aspect to conservatism—and we talked about the bright lights. If you were a teenager, or young adult, and you had conservative leanings, you took pride in Bill Buckley, who was the wittiest and the funniest and the most erudite public intellectual of his time. You also had an approach to politics that was based on the very conservative notion that people are flawed. We’re not infinitely malleable. We should address politics with some humility, with gradualism. We believe that civil society has a lot to do with the things that make the country run. And that sensibility was not instilled and taught and updated, and so it died. And what replaced it was this loud, coarse, aggressive echo chamber.
Michael Tomasky: I want to return us to something David said very early on. I don’t think there’s the remotest chance that there could have been, or could be, a Donald Trump of the left. I don’t think you can fairly compare Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump. I’m not Bernie Sanders’s biggest fan, but he has been a politician for most of his adult life. He has learned the trade, he has worked on legislation, he has worked in politics. He’s not the wonkiest senator there is by far but he knows things about policy, he reads some policy papers.
Donald Trump doesn’t know any of those things. I spent a lot of time after 2016 thinking about, and asking friends on the left, who would be the Donald Trump of our side? And the best answer that I could come up with, after a lot of thought, was Sean Penn. But if you examine that, I think that’s deeply unfair to Sean Penn. I’ve read interviews with Sean Penn where he’s reasonably knowledgeable about policy. So I don’t think there could possibly have been a Trump of the left, for some of the reasons that Peter said. People on the left don’t have the same kind of resentment that people on the right have. People on the left have grievances, they have hatreds, they have problems, but it isn’t of the same quality. There could not have been a Donald Trump of the left.
Mair: I think to some degree that’s a fair thing to say. Trump is such a sort of oddity that it’s hard to imagine replicating him anywhere else. One of the points I wanted to make earlier was about whether this was a natural thing that was going to happen to conservatism, that we were going to end up with Donald Trump. One of the things that I do think people overlook a lot, and I know this from having run a so-called super PAC opposing him, is Donald Trump entered the presidential race with 99.2 percent name recognition.
The only people who could come close to that were Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. And when you think about what was going on in 2016, it’s natural that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush weren’t going to sell, because we don’t do dynasties in this country, whereas Donald Trump was going to have some sort of different appeal. Also I think the whole image that he created of himself on “The Apprentice,” people had already bought into that, people already thought he was a boss. They already thought he could run things, and so it already made sense.
And so, to your point that this couldn’t happen on the left; I still think that it could, but where I think you are correct is that I can’t think of anyone who is on the left who has seized on having a primetime NBC show with those kinds of ratings to create the kind of image and character that people are going to naturally bond with and think “That guy’s my avatar.” And that’s a key point in thinking about how evangelicals think about Trump.
Rubin: I think Michael was noting something a bit different, which is that the left doesn’t have certain strains of populism that Trump emphasizes very much. The left is not a bastion of antidemocratic liberalism, liberalism with a small “l.” It is not a party that views America as a racial and national enterprise, rather than a result of the immigrant experience. There are many aspects of the left, and I certainly have my disagreements, that are really antithetical to the strain of populism that Trump was selling. And I think what the right has missed is that Trump isn’t about a series of policy prescriptions, he’s not even about immigration—he’s about rejecting the essence of a multicultural democracy. And that’s not where the left is. I can criticize the left for being too racially specific, and too obsessed with categorizing individuals. I can criticize the left for wanting a larger central government than I want. But they’re not anti-liberal democracy.
Frum: May I enter a disagreement here? Because in addition to this being the same week that Barbara Bush died, this is also the week that the leader of the British Labour Party walked out of the House of Commons rather than participate in the debate on anti-Semitism, this is just . . .
Dionne: This is the British Labour Party.
Frum: I understand that. I wasn’t equating Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump. I was saying that the Sanders movement showed a hunger for a messiah. Messiahs are the problem. What we see with the Corbyn movement in the UK is anti-Semitism emerging from a state of paranoia about the modern world. Why anti-Semitism? Because that’s how a doctrinaire socialist explains the endurance of global capitalism after the Marxist faith has collapsed.
Mair: But if you look on social media, and you look at people who are looking favorably on Corbyn, it is not confined to the UK.
Frum: True! Radical alienation, sympathy for Putin, conspiratorial thinking about Jews; these are ideas with powerful appeal to political extremists generally, both left and right. Ideological categories do not continue their contents consistently across time.
If you were able to talk to a person who considered themselves a person of the left or of the right from, say, 1935, you’d be astonished how many of their ideas—which of course all seemed perfectly internally consistent to them—would seem inconsistent to you. Strong supporters of organized labor might be very hostile to women’s participation in the workforce. Protestant Republicans would be more supportive of universal public schooling than Catholic Democrats. And just as your grandparents’ politics might look jumbled to you, so your politics will look jumbled to your grandchildren. Without labels: Is the anti-democratic impulse stronger in the world of the twenty-first century than it was in the late twentieth century? Yes. Is there a market for conspiratorial explanations of why markets aren’t delivering for people the way they did in 1970? Yes. Do people still obsess insanely about Jews? Yes. God, we’re too fascinating for our own good.
Dionne: Jen, you got interrupted.
Rubin: I think it does have to do with how you define Donald Trump. If you define Donald Trump as the guy who has easy answers to everything and everyone who has been in government as just an idiot, then of course there’s an element of Bernie Sanders there. Bernie wouldn’t say everyone’s an idiot, but he would say everyone’s corrupt. So the impulse to favor quick answers absolutely exists on the left. But I think the reason Donald Trump has so distorted and upset American politics, and what makes him really different, are those aspects that are not necessarily transferable to the left. And the great challenge now for both Democrats and refugees from the Trump GOP is what comes next. Is there a way of defusing someone who is on the one hand sui generis and, on the other hand, just another guy in the long tradition of crackpot populists who got really lucky and hit the jackpot, under a variety of weird non-reproducible circumstances, to be President?
Wehner: I guess my answer would be that it’s speculative. All I know is that the American right has Trump and the American left doesn’t. Could the American left have produced him? I don’t know. Trump could just as easily have run as a Democrat than as a Republican, but he may not have won, either. So I don’t know.
I have my problems with the American left for sure, and I’m worried about some of the movements you see in the American academy in terms of trying to shut down free speech and diversity of opinion and thought. I would just say that, personally, my focus is much more on the American right because that’s the movement that I have been a part of for my entire life, so there’s some particular pain and disappointment in what happened; but it’s also because, right now, the American right is in control of virtually every branch of government.
I want to make two other points. One is: I find myself thinking more and more of the Founders and of Lincoln, including the Young Men’s Lyceum speech, one of his lesser known speeches, when he was young—it was in 1838, I think—talking about the passions of the people. That was one of the things that really occupied their minds. Of course, that was part of the reason the Founders structured the government in the way they did. The reason I mention this is that there has been, throughout most of conservative history, a belief in the fragility of the social order—that the membrane between civilization and de-civilization is thinner than we think. The American right was much more vulnerable to certain ugly impulses than I thought.
And one last point, which I think is extremely important in understanding what’s happening with Trump and conservatism. It’s very high on my list of things that trouble me, and that is that Donald Trump is engaged not just in an assault on truth; he’s engaged in an effort to annihilate truth. We’ve never seen anything like it in American politics. It’s relentless; it’s done morning, noon, and night. And it’s not just lies. It’s the nature of the lies. It’s an assault on provable truths, demonstrable truths.
That was the importance of that opening lie of his presidency when he was talking about the size of the inaugural crowd. Of course, in some respects it was a trivial matter. But in other respects it wasn’t, for a couple of reasons. First, he sent his press secretary out on a Saturday rather than on Monday to speak out, so he sent him out earlier than he normally would have to perpetrate this lie.
The second thing is that this was a demonstrable lie. It was the old line of “Are you going to believe me or your lyin’ eyes?” There was proof, there was visual proof, there were Park Service numbers. This wasn’t unusual for Trump. He spent his whole campaign doing this, but this was his first lie as President.
Now, when that happens, that is a unique threat to the American political order and to self-governance. But as it relates to American conservatism, it was conservatives who, for as long as I was a part of that movement, argued for objective truth. Going back to Allan Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind—that book had resonance. The reason it had resonance on the American right was that it was an effort to stand against moral relativism and say that there was such a thing as objective truth. What you’ve got now for many people is a sort of Nietzschean perspectivism—it just matters what your perspective is. A lot of that movement began in the American academy with postmodernism and deconstructionism, but it wasn’t confined there. What’s happened—and the vehicle for this is now Trump and the people who produced Trump—is it’s spread to politics, and that is just a different category of threat.
Rubin: But do you think, Pete, that in a way is the result of a trend on the right that goes from denying global warming to segregating themselves in a Fox News world where we’re being flooded by immigrants and are in the middle of a crime spree (neither of which is true)? The right’s proclivity to believe whatever they like, to be so convinced of the evils of the academy and the media that they’re willing to suspend disbelief, isn’t new. They’ve developed a sense of identity based on believing things that aren’t true. Don’t you think that this actually preceded Trump by a little bit?
Wehner: I’m sure to some degree it did because we’re saying Trump didn’t appear de novo, didn’t appear out of nothing, so those conditions had to be there. But what is different in the Trump era is that there is an almost prideful assault on objective truth. You go back to the issue of global warming, which I’ve written about: Pre-Trump, there was an indication that there was a rejection of empirical data. But I think that what has happened under Trump is something of a different order: the velocity of the lies, the number of the lies, the nature of the lies. And I think, as is so often the case when it comes to Trump, he was both a product of certain trends, but also a dangerous accelerant of them. And pre-Trump I just don’t remember this sense of an attack on objective truth, at least the scope and nature that we’re seeing now. But I wouldn’t deny that some of this attitude existed and he was able to tap into it.
Dionne: A lot of us on the center-left and left who appreciate the people on the center-right and right who are speaking out against Trump and in defense of liberal democracy sometimes get impatient with a reluctance to look back at some of the sources of this. If you think back to the Bush years there was a “real America,” which implied there was a “phony America.” There was the Southern strategy, there was the Willie Horton campaign, there was birtherism, which many on the right sort of let sit there and didn’t speak up about, there were attacks on intellectual elites. There were attacks on the moral value of liberalism. All this planted seeds. What’s wrong with that analysis?
Rubin: I think that’s a partial analysis. There were antecedents of Trump and we underestimated how strong they were, so I don’t disagree with that at all. But just as you can’t disregard that, you can’t disregard that those were in large part exceptions to a lot of rules. That if you examine the outlook of a Ronald Reagan or a George W. Bush, which was open, optimistic, pro-free trade, pro-immigration—that was an entirely different kind of conservatism. That is what had heretofore dominated, at least at the presidential level, the GOP. What Trump did was he took what we viewed as a rump group and brought it up to scale and won the presidency.
So you’re right that you can find bits and pieces, and, frankly, Pete and I have been some of the people who have been arguing against some of these strains for a while now. But it wasn’t the dominant belief system, and I don’t think you could have supported a President George W. Bush—Pete was a member of the Administration—and have thought that the party was about exclusionism, was about isolationism. That was not the party at that time.
Frum: Let me try another answer to that, while saluting and agreeing with parts of what was just said. Let’s look at the conservative movement, let’s look at the Republican Party, and let’s look vertically down the line of time, and horizontally along the line of space. Where does the Alternative for Germany party come from? Where does the National Front in France come from? Where does Corbyn come from? Where did Brexit come from? Where did the Five Star Movement in Italy come from? Where does Viktor Orbán come from? Orbán did not come from Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. The PiS [Law & Justice Party] in Poland, they did not come from George W. Bush complaining about elites in faraway cities. So I think we need to be nonuniquely American about what looks like a global phenomenon.
Now, in every one of these countries, there are local conditions and roots, and it’s certainly true that Donald Trump speaks to things that come from the American past, as well as what is going on in the global present. I think democratic societies have been grappling with the fact that a lot of our institutions were built to wage the Cold War. The Cold War ended, and our domestic politics became more savage because the most important discipline under domestic politics was removed.
Then, for a lot of reasons around the world, economic growth—which had been very broadly shared from the end of the war to, you know, pick your date, the 1990s is as good a date as any—became incredibly concentrated. Then you had mass immigration, which is a profoundly destabilizing thing. Beginning in 1990, the United States has taken 20 million newcomers per decade, the majority of them illegal. That was true between 1990 and 2000, that was true between 2000 and 2010, and that’s on the way to being true between 2010 and 2020. And Germany and France and Britain are all versions of the same story.
So what happened before is that these tendencies were there; tendencies that elite conservatives and elite Republicans managed within the context of a political coalition in which other political forces were also very powerful. But then those tendencies could no longer be managed. In fact, those tendencies, and the elites who tried to manage them, were defeated by this powerful personality who both exploited them and is also a product of them. There’s another great question, by the way: To what extent is Donald Trump even in control of the social forces that brought him to power?
Dionne: Just to press you on that, I don’t disagree; obviously there are greater forces here and many things that are happening here are happening in Europe. However, twice now you moved to Europe in order to move away from the specifics of what’s happening here, and so I would just want to press you for an answer. That list I gave above, about tendencies within conservatism before Trump; these are a lot of the themes of Trumpism. Weren’t these seeds planted earlier?
Frum: Look, racial tension has been one of the most persistent themes of American politics from the beginning. And that’s especially been true in the post-Civil War South, and now it’s also true across the country. And politicians in one way or another have both adapted to that fact and have exploited it. And that’s true of conservative politicians and that’s true of nonconservative politicians. But ethnicity has become a more and more important theme in American politics in recent years.
The people around Donald Trump compared his speech at the convention in 2016 to Richard Nixon’s speech at the Republican convention in 1968. And I invite people to go back and read the Nixon speech of 1968 because what is so striking is what Nixon is trying to balance; every sentence that is Trumpist is balanced by an equal and opposite sentence that is anti-Trumpist. Nixon said in that speech: “Just as there can be no progress without order, so there can be no order without justice.” Politicians aren’t in command. Politicians are riding social forces and the backlash against the civil rights movement is real, but Nixon’s politics were not about “Let’s reverse the civil rights movement.” Nixon’s politics were about “Let’s accept it; let’s domesticate it; let’s internalize it; but let me also use some of the distress and the opposition to it to get myself the power to manage the consolidation of the civil rights movement, rather than giving it to the guy across the street.”
Tomasky: He was speaking to a convention where Jack Javits was in that hall, and Charles Mathias and Charles Percy, and a whole bunch of other liberal Republicans like that who are no longer remotely in Republican convention halls today.
Frum: Nixon wasn’t trying to say “I’m trying to stop this.” He wasn’t George Wallace. Richard Nixon was as determined to consolidate the civil rights movement as Hubert Humphrey was. He just wanted to pick up some votes from the people who were more uncomfortable with it. But electoral opportunism aside, his political project was mainstream—and indeed it was the Nixon Administration that invented what we now call “affirmative action.”
Mair: I would say, from my vantage point, having worked on the 2008 election and having seen a ton of focus group data at the end of 2007, I do think that what happened with the economic crisis and the financial crisis is important. I certainly don’t want to be one of these people who says: Well, the reason we have Trump or the reason why we got Orbán or frankly, if you want to go to an even more extreme example, the reason why you got Hitler was all just because of the economy. Clearly there are issues that people have with those who are different from them, whether we’re talking about religion, whether we’re talking about race, whether we’re talking about ethnicity, whether we’re talking about class.
But I do think when we have something of the magnitude of what happened in 2008 occur, with all of the long-running, long-tail effects of that, which we’re still seeing now, that things people were maybe mildly bothered by but willing to take a pass on like, “Eh, seems like there are a lot of Salvadoran pupuserias in town. What’s that all about?” Things that used to just be are now actually bothersome for some people, and I suspect they would be less so if we had fewer challenges to building individual wealth and prosperity which clearly the housing crisis and other economic damage that followed it made hard.
We’ve had the opioid crisis, which I think has stemmed from that loss to a large degree. The opioid crisis is partly a result of people having really serious psychological pain and trying to numb themselves to the discomfort of the world. I don’t think it is just as simple as “I got a prescription from my doctor, I got addicted, now I’m a heroin addict.” There’s a whole lot more to it than that.
So I think now, when you’re in this position where a lot of America is really grappling with a lot of deep, economically driven pain and suffering that doesn’t seem resolvable, it’s a lot more likely that people are going to get pissed off at Mexicans.
Frum: Let’s make that more concrete. In the past decade, life expectancy for white, non college-educated Americans has declined. That did not happen during the Great Depression.
Wehner: I want to deal directly with E.J.’s point about the seeds and how does the American right compare to the American left. I think what I would say to people on the left is they have to be as alert to the offenses on the left as they are to the offenses of the right. So let me just, off the top of my head, mention some of the things that you could put in the category of offenses of the left that are similar to the right: During the 2000 campaign, the NAACP ran a very offensive ad with James Byrd being dragged behind a truck and saying that represented George W. Bush’s view on race. If you go back and check the polling data on Democrats who thought 9/11 was an inside job after 9/11, those numbers were astonishingly high. If you go back and read Anthony Lewis and read what the American left said about Ronald Reagan after his speech on the “evil empire” to the National Association of Evangelicals, it’s nasty stuff. He portrayed Reagan as primitive, sectarian, and a mirror image of crude Soviet rhetoric.
And that was not that unusual. If you go back to the 2012 campaign, there were pro-Obama PACs that ran ads saying that Mitt Romney was responsible for the cancer death of a steel worker’s wife. That was simply untrue, but it ran. If you go back and read the critics of the Tea Party—and I was a critic of the Tea Party—the language that was used against it was extraordinary, comparing them to jihadists.
Mair: Or saying, one classic example, I remember getting into an argument with somebody who is on the left on Twitter about this. They said that collectively, everybody in the Tea Party, if they could have slavery back tomorrow they would. Which maybe some people in the Tea Party would, but that’s a pretty broad brush.
Wehner: These ugly elements are always within parties. The question is, what does the rest of the party, what does the leadership within a party or movement do to check them? Now, having said that, Donald Trump is the Republican nominee and the President, and he’s the product of the American right. They have to answer for that. And as we’ve said, and I’ll repeat, he didn’t appear out of thin air. I do think, as a general matter within politics, all of us have to be careful about a Manichean mindset. It’s very easy to begin to think that we were part of a party or the movement of the children of light rather than the children of darkness. And the reality is that all parties have things to answer for. That doesn’t mean that they’re equal—morally equal, or intellectually equal.
I will say that of the list of tendencies E.J. mentioned—and some of them deserve to be more qualified than others—the issue of birtherism was a huge moment. I remember I wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal in 2011 arguing that the Republican Party had to stand against it, but I had no idea that that would have the resonance that it did.
Rubin: I want to say something else about responsibility for Trump. Republican economic and social policy has been out to lunch for about 30 years. The notion that income inequality didn’t matter was a categorical error. The notion that you could make the rich richer and everyone would benefit? Another categorical error. It may have been true at one time, but it was not true in the information society of the twenty-first century.
And a whole series of prescriptions—many of them that conveniently benefited donors and the political class, but also that were borne of an innate hostility to government—absolutely contributed to and worsened the social and economic conditions that Trump arose from. And there was a brief moment—Pete and I were part of it, and then it disappeared—that was a Reformicon movement, that said we should start worrying about how people live and how their lives are affected by government. Maybe there are conservative answers to some of these problems—the left hasn’t done a great job in many instances—and we should get out of this rut from 30 or 40 years ago and start dealing with the country’s problems. That, I’m sad to say, did not catch fire. In fact it flopped pretty badly.
And instead, it’s absolutely ironic that, what is the first thing Paul Ryan goes back to, what does he say is the only accomplishment he now has? This tax bill that aggravates the exact same issues of the rich getting richer, with a lack of concern about income inequality. So I think the obliviousness borne of ideological roots and borne of certain arrogance has to be held accountable. And that’s where I think there has not been a reckoning on the right. And in fact, that obliviousness is still going strong; that greatly disturbs me, and is one of the reasons among many that the party has ceased to be that problem-solving party that we talked about, that was relatively successful in periods.
Tomasky: Pete, to follow up, Republicans knew Barack Obama was born in the United States. So why didn’t they say that?
Wehner: It’s a very fair question, and it’s an indictment that they didn’t. I’m speculating here, but it may be that they thought it was absurd and didn’t require a response. That was wrong. It may be that they wanted the Trump supporters, and to speak out against the theory would repel some part of the American right, and they didn’t want to create fractures within the coalition. Whatever the answer is, it’s an indictment, and it showed the power of a racial appeal on the American right. And that did predate Trump’s political campaign; it was 2011 when that happened.
Mair: It actually went back even further than that. We started seeing birtherism arrive in 2008. And I know this is going to sound like a trope, but it’s true, it was coming from Hillary Clinton supporters in the Democratic primary. When you go back and look at all the original birthers, all these guys were Hillary Clinton donors, and then it sort of morphed. I would also say about this: I think a lot of Republicans did condemn birtherism, but I’m not sure that it necessarily mattered. Birtherism didn’t take off so much because everyone who said in polling that he wasn’t a natural-born American citizen really believed that, but because it was a general and cathartic way to express viciousness and anger.
America is a very good home for a lot of conspiracy theories: People don’t trust institutions, they don’t trust what they’re being told, and they don’t like the person in power. So whether you believe the guy is actually a Kenyan Muslim or not, if a pollster calls you and asks, there’s a large portion of the population that’ll say “Yeah, he’s a Muslim, whatever.” One of the things that’s really interesting to me about Trump is that a lot of that existed on the left, as Pete said. Look at the number of people who thought 9/11 was an inside job.
Frum: Or the anti-vaccination movement, or the anti-GMO movement. These come from the same places in the brain.
Mair: Right, but Trump found a way to tap into that and say to those voters, “You might not be voting in the Republican primary as it stands; come over here.” And that worked.
Rubin: I will say this about birtherism. There was a widespread feeling on the right not that Obama was necessarily a Muslim, but there was something alien about him to the American experience. And even if they didn’t believe that he was a Muslim, they may have believed he was a communist or a socialist.
Frum: To quote a classic statement, not quite verbatim but very close: “I don’t think in this crisis the American people will put their trust in someone who’s less than fully American.” And the author of that sentence was Mark Penn in a campaign memo for Hillary Clinton in the spring of 2008. [Editor’s Note: The actual Penn quote, which is indeed very close, reads: “I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values.”] And the readers of your journal probably don’t now have a lot of time for Mark Penn, but he was the campaign manager of the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Birtherism was demented, but it was an expression of something paranoid. There’s a lot of paranoia floating around. Right now, Trump is a Republican problem, so if you want to flog us for it, you can. But if people on the left are trying to say they’re not going to get this disease, that their house is plague-proof, the question is, are you so sure that the component parts of the left, when there’s a crisis, are immune to going on the Internet, finding congenial sources of information, and believing them to be true?
Take, for example, the process by which a lot of people on the right convince themselves that having a gun in the house makes them safe, in the face of all the evidence that it doesn’t: They’re doing the exact same exercise as people who believe they know better than their doctor about autism, or that Big Pharma is lying to you about how you can cure cancer.
Mair: Right, just eat more eggplant. And those people vote Democratic. This was an issue in a campaign we ran for a client. These people exist. I don’t want to draw an absolute equivalency, because Donald Trump had 99.2 percent name recognition because he was the host on “The Apprentice,” and we don’t see a Democratic equivalent of that. But people in this country love a good conspiracy theory.
Dionne: A pivot. The Iraq War. Was it a mistake?
Tomasky: And not just the Iraq War—is preventive war of that sort a mistake? Is trying to remake a society in that way a bad idea?
Rubin: Well, the Iraq War wasn’t about that, it was about the conviction there were weapons of mass destruction. And so obviously it was a mistake: The entire premise of the war was a mistake. A separate question is the hyperaggressive assumption that you can remake societies that do not have a historical or cultural origin in democracy. That assumption is often wrong, and I think we’ve learned that in the Arab Spring and forward.
Wehner: Was the Iraq War a mistake? Yeah, it was. It turned out badly, partly because of what Jen said. The central premise of the war was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But it actually didn’t. An important qualifier is that I believe the surge was one of the most impressive and courageous decisions President Bush made, and by the end of his term, Iraq was in a significantly better place than before the surge, and even Barack Obama and Joe Biden said as much.
Having said that, we were much, much too late in being alert to the problems of the Phase IV (post-major combat) strategy. We went in with a theory of the “light footprint.” It wasn’t an insane theory, but it was the wrong one, and we were much too slow in recognizing that and changing it. But, sure, it was a mistake, in part because Iraq is not where it should be and in part because of the opportunity costs.
As far as rebuilding a society, I’d say that it depends on facts and circumstances. One of the arguments that was made prior to the Iraq War was that we should try to help Arab societies become more liberal, because the argument was that illiberalism in those societies created the conditions for radicalism. So that was an effort to deal with a root cause.
Supporters of the Iraq War invoked a number of countries that didn’t have a history of democracy, like Japan, the Philippines, and many others, where there was a democratic transformation that occurred. I don’t think you can make broad and sweeping statements that either we should transform every society into a liberal democratic one, or that you can never do it under any circumstances. Like most of life, it’s complicated—it depends on the society you’re dealing with and the moment you’re dealing with. Tony Blair once made the point that if you set aside Al Qaeda in Iraq—and that’s a huge thing to set aside, because it did exist—it would have had a better chance. But there was a huge cost.
Mair: In hindsight, should we do it again? No, absolutely not. At the time that we launched the Iraq War, I was in my 20s and had a lot less information than I do now. But I’ve always been extremely skeptical of our ability to take countries that have existed under authoritarian systems and turn them into flourishing liberal democracies. I would urge anyone interested to go back and read Fareed Zakaria’s 1997 Foreign Affairs article, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” At the time, many people panned that as Anglo-Saxon supremacy, but it holds pretty true. If you take countries that do not have some sort of foundation of recognizing things like personal property rights and other core civil liberties, and you try to get them to start voting for people who aren’t totally insane, they don’t do it very well. There isn’t a great history. The Bush Administration was insufficiently cognizant of that critique of the effort to reorder things and bring the world around to democracy, and Iraq predictably failed because of that.
Frum: In 1981, Israel struck and destroyed Iraq’s nuclear weapons capability. When UN inspectors arrived in Iraq in 1991, they discovered that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted a nuclear program even more ambitious than the program destroyed in 1981. I supported the Iraq War because I believed the evidence and the assurances that Saddam had done it again between 1991 and 2002. People I trusted confirmed the evidence: wrongly so, as it turns out, but in good faith, as I still believe. Since the premise for my support for the war was wrong, then yes, I agree the war was a mistake.
But I want to say something more. There’s also an assumption that floats about unexamined that, but for the Iraq War, Iraq would be fine, the Middle East would be fine. No. The region is in Malthusian crisis, its population is doubling, it’s exhausting its material resources, and it’s not making the transition to the next stage of economic development. The crisis that has consumed Assad’s Syria would not have spared Saddam’s Iraq, which was, like Syria, a regime brutally and incompetently governed by a dictatorship based upon a religious minority group. Saddam’s regime was going to collapse in blood, and when it did, constituent populations were likely going to turn on one another.
I’m not sure there was a better path for Iraq. Iraq’s best hope may have been that that war would succeed. It was obviously tremendously costly for the United States and for America’s partners. It was part of the chain of failures that shook public trust and radicalized American elites—and that chain of failures surely enabled Donald Trump. But had the Iraq War never been fought, we still would have had a housing market boom and bust, and we still would have had the financial crisis of 2008–09, and we still would have had the miserably slow recovery.
Tomasky: If you ask liberals what really sticks in their craw over the last ten years, number one I think would be what happened to Judge Merrick Garland. In what way was that defensible?
Rubin: I think it was a terrible mistake: Mitch McConnell has made a bunch of them, Harry Reid made a bunch of them. They’re destroying the United States Senate, from my perspective. Get back the filibuster, for goodness’ sake. It was a short-term gamble on one Supreme Court seat, a decisive vote, but if you blow it this time, what happens when the second, third, fourth, and fifth seats open up, when you may be on the losing side of things? If the Senate flips in November and one or more of the liberal justices leave the court, are Democrats going to let Donald Trump appoint a nominee? Not on your life, because they’ve had this experience with Mitch McConnell. It was a mistake that has continued to degrade the Senate.
Frum: But it doesn’t begin there. America’s unwritten constitution of norms and habits is a product of World War II and the Cold War. Since the end of the Cold War, the game of partisan politics has been played more and more ruthlessly. In the more recent rounds of the game, the Republicans have been more ruthless players, but Democrats have rejected old rules too. In the Bush Administration, Democrats filibustered appellate judges for the first time in history. President Obama spent his first four years in office explaining that he did not have the unilateral authority to authorize immigrants to stay in the office illegally . . . and then he just does it. He says over and over he doesn’t have the legal power to do it, and then he does it. That’s also a violation of procedural norms.
We have a loss of elite cohesion; we have a sense that the stakes are higher and more apocalyptic and that the other side will not respect your core equities, and so the game is played more roughly. I do not doubt that if the Democrats gain power in 2018, they too will use power in ways they have never used it before.
Wehner: I would simply say for the benefit of your readers that what sticks in the craw of many conservatives is the Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination. They view that as an inflection point.
Dionne: But he got a vote and a hearing.
Tomasky: And six Republicans voted against him.
Wehner: Yes, I think one just has to try to understand the transgressions on the other side. If you go back and read Senator Ted Kennedy’s floor statement, which was the signal event, that was a reckless and malicious statement, and he knew it at the time. Bork was defeated, and it wasn’t done illegally, and he did get a vote. But the manner in which it was done was troubling. Democrats believed they needed to bring him down. We can go back and forth, but I do think if you look at the last 35 years of the court, both sides have been hypocrites.
Mair: If we’re talking about erosion of norms, whether it’s DACA, where what Obama did was ridiculous and totally hypocritical—and I’m for amnesty outside of hardened criminals—whether we’re talking about that, or war powers, we’ve had a consistent trend where no matter what people have campaigned on or said about supposed abuses, when they get into office they just keep ratcheting it up. That’s one of the things I would urge Democrats to be really cognizant of heading into 2020. God knows Trump has caused a further erosion of norms that many people find troubling, certainly everyone in this room. But my question is—when I’m talking to a lot of base Democratic voters, they’re cool with the exact same things being done as long as it’s a liberal doing it. What happens if the answer to Trump is just the lefty version of Trump? We’ve been falling down this flight of stairs a long time, and the issue is how we stop.
Jack Meserve: We’ve talked about Trump as a figure within the Republican Party, but let me ask about Trumpism as a vein in the Republican Party. I’m not on the right, but I imagine it’s dispiriting to see nearly every politician bend the knee to some extent or another, from Mitt Romney saying he wouldn’t accept his endorsement and then accepting his endorsement, and then many Republicans pushing against him resigning. Even more minor affectations like Mike Pence using all caps in tweets, or the Republican National Committee setting up the “Lyin’ Comey” site. Do you see a way out of Trumpism as a set of effective political behaviors?
Rubin: You may have noticed, for the past two years, that’s what all four of us have been writing about! It’s a little hard to condense that, but of course it bothers us. Of course there’s this debate about whether the Republican Party is salvageable. It’s why we rant about Paul Ryan. What more could we do?
Wehner: The quickest way out is for Republicans to lose political power because of Donald Trump. Appeals to moral conscience have not worked; it’s going to have to be naked self-interest. That is the significance of the Pennsylvania congressional race, the Virginia governor’s race, the Alabama Senate race, the Supreme Court race in Wisconsin. The only thing that will motivate Republican lawmakers to disengage from Trump or even take him on is if they feel that staying attached to him has an immediate and real political cost. If Trump’s grip is going to be weakened, Republicans are going to have to suffer political defeat.
Mair: I have a couple different thoughts about this. Ironically, given that I ran an anti-Trump super PAC in the Republican primary, I’m probably the most pro-Trump person sitting around this table. I would dispute your characterization a little. Certainly the Republican Party and elected officials have had to figure out some way to deal with this guy in order to get the things that they want. Personally, I think Republicans should have the balls to agree with him where it’s justified and disagree with him where that’s justified. I’ve seen too little of people doing both of those things. There are some people who have become so reflexively anti-Trump that if he comes down on the right side of something policy-wise, they can’t admit it. There have been some people who have thrown in the towel too quickly, like Jeff Flake. We don’t know what the political math will look like in that primary on the day.
There are also people who have been willing to go on bended knee to him. If people are really concerned about defeating Trumpism within the party, the answer is probably less walking away and more reengaging and doubling down. You don’t win political arguments by backing down. The last point I’d make is that Trump’s approval numbers are better than the congressional GOP’s. It’d be awesome if we could switch those two numbers to get the Republican Party back to what we’d prefer it be. I’m on Paul Ryan’s side of these things, but the fact is, Trump’s version sells better than Paul Ryan’s. That’s a problem.
Wehner: What will be remembered 50 years from now? The overwhelming question is where the Republican Party stood on Trump. In my estimation, Trump is a malignant and malicious force in American politics. The acid test here is “Where did you stand on Donald Trump as a person and Trumpism as a movement? Did you stand against him in real time, or did you facilitate his efforts?” I know where I stand on that question and where the Republican Party does. There is such a thing as a history-book bottom line here, and the Republican Party will suffer and should suffer for being sword and shield for Donald Trump.
Frum: I concur with everything Pete just said, but I would add this: The question of what the Republican Party will look like in a decade probably depends more on how Democrats act than on what Republicans do. The Democrats are set to pick up an increment of power in 2018, a big one, and they will see the prospect of picking up another increment of power in 2020, so it will become a lively and important question—what kind of party they want to be.
The energy of the party is on the left, its own version of populism. If that is the path Democrats ultimately walk, the Republican Party will, in response, probably slowly recover. There are only two parties. The Democratic Party could also become an Eisenhower party of the broad center, and then Republicans would act in a different way. One of the reasons I look at the future with a lot of concern is that it is going to be very hard for Democrats to execute the right answer, even if they know it.
Can Democrats bring themselves to be a relatively conservative, unifying force in American life? Will they understand that if they do all the things their energized left wants to do, they will provoke extremist reactions?
Dionne: Last question. Who do you really want to win the 2018 elections?
Rubin: The Democrats, overwhelmingly, absolutely. Republicans’ adherence to supply-side as a tax policy and as a mindset was terribly unpopular. The bigger problem is, they do not have an attractive, reasonable alternative vision of what conservatism should be. I’d like it to be the Reformicon one, but something tells me it’s a little too wonkish for a party, too many dependent clauses. The real challenge is what takes the place of a center-right, reform-minded party. Maybe it ceases to exist, and we go through a period of Democratic dominance. Maybe the reformers capture the Republican Party, or, because we’ve broken every other rule in American politics, there is a rise of a replacement party.
Wehner: I do hope Democrats win the House. I say that not because I’m a liberal or pro-Democrat, but because it’s important for the Republican Party and for the country. For the sake of conservatism and the party, it’s essential that Donald Trump’s grip on them be loosened and Trumpism be repudiated. The best way to do that is for Republicans to lose because they’ve been associated with Trump.
Second, because of the nature of our government right now, what I consider the worst elements of the American left’s agenda are not going to be implemented, because Trump is President and because of the makeup of the Senate. So it’s not as if I’m endorsing a liberal or progressive agenda. But we’ve seen enough to know that Republicans in Congress are not going to exert a check on the worst impulses of Donald Trump, and Democrats will. It’ll make things contentious and ugly, but that’s just the way it’s going to be during the Trump era. It’s going to be better for the country if Republicans don’t have control of every branch of the federal government.
Mair: What I want I’m never going to get, but here’s what I want: divine intervention to produce 535 people in Congress who fall somewhere on the spectrum of Rand Paul, Jeff Flake, Mike Lee, people like that, and for them to reorder everything. But that’s not going to happen.
It’s very hard for me to get to a place where I can say, hand on heart, that I want Democrats to win. What I would like to see happen, probably, is Western conservatives, with whom I tend to share more ideologically, conservatives like Jeff Flake, Mike Lee, Ken Buck, maybe Cory Gardner to some degree—I want to see those types of people prevail. That doesn’t get me to the point of the Senate or the House changing hands, but there are specific types of people that I’d prefer to see arise, if that’s humanly possible.
Frum: My hope for 2018: that Adam Schiff replaces Devin Nunes as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and that we have an honest investigation of the intrusion of foreign powers into American politics, and that we root out the penetration of the American government, but not just the American government, by foreign powers.
My own advice to everyone is to be mentally prepared for the worst even as you hope for the best. Think like a pessimist but act like an optimist. It is going to be a hard struggle, and whatever fate awaits Donald Trump, I don’t think his removal automatically fixes everything. Donald Trump emerged from the society, not just the political system. And societal ills are not corrected by parties or political fixes; they’re corrected by social changes.
Wehner: I completely agree with David. But, as long as Donald Trump is in power and has strength and authority, those necessary changes can’t happen. Loosening his grip and diminishing his role is a necessary but not sufficient condition for renewal of American political life.
DAVID FRUM senior editor at The Atlantic, is the author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.
LIZ MAIR is the former Republican National Committee Online Communications Director, and has consulted for candidates including Carly Fiorina, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Rand Paul and Roy Blunt. She was the lead strategist for Make America Awesome, the most effective anti-Trump super- PAC in the 2016 GOP primary.
JENNIFER RUBIN writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a center-right perspective. She covers a range of domestic and foreign policy issues and is also an MSNBC contributor.
PETER WEHNER is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. Mr. Wehner served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations prior to becoming deputy director of speechwriting for President George W. Bush. He is currently writing a book for HarperCollins on the importance of politics.