In a time marked by uncertainty and turbulence in America’s political order, the Republican Party itself is facing ideological upheaval that questions the existence of and devotion to its founding philosophy—American conservatism.
On Nov. 8, Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for The New York Times’, and Megan McArdle, a libertarian columnist at Bloomberg View and Egan Visiting Professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy, engaged in a conversation on “Conservatism in the Age of Trump” in an event hosted by Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, the Sanford School, and POLIS.
The youngest regular columnist for The New York Times, Douthat currently produces Op-Eds every Wednesday and Sunday for The New York Times on matters of politics, religion, moral values, and higher education. Prior to joining The New York Times in 2009, Douthat served as a senior editor at The Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com. In addition to having established himself as a prominent conservative voice in journalism, he has published Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012), Grand New Party (2008), and Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (2005).
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who comments primarily on economics, finance, and government policy from a libertarian perspective. McArdle has written previously for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, The Atlantic, and The Economist, in addition to founding the blog “Asymmetrical Information” and authoring the book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success (2015).
Before the event on Nov. 9, Douthat and McArdle sat down with DPR’s online contributing editor, Lizzie Bond.
DPR: You are talking to us later today about the current state of conservatism in the Republican Party. What does it mean to be a conservative in America?
Douthat: As it developed in the last 50 years, American conservatism is defending constitutionalism. We have one of the oldest written constitutions of any nation in the western world. Conservatism tends to defend capitalism and the free market, so defending America as a commercial republic. We are a society with a strong suspicion of central government, so conservatism tends to be libertarian and skeptical of government. And we’re a society with a strong religious and communitarian element, historically, relative to a lot of the nations of western Europe. If you go back to Alexis de Tocqueville and the things that he noticed about America when he came here—American churches and communities are much more engaged and powerful, and thus government is much weaker here than in Europe. Generally, that has produced a lot of good things in American life. There’s sort of a chest-thumping version of American exceptionalism—that we’re the best—and I think that conservatism, at its best, defends a sort of modest exceptionalism that says that these things have worked very well for us for a long time and should be defended on those grounds. It doesn’t mean that they’re the perfect system, but it’s a system that’s worked very well in many ways.
DPR: To what extent do you feel that the Republican Party has embraced this idea of American conservatism, and, more recently, how is the Republican Party either espousing traditionally American conservative ideals or perhaps straying from those ideals?
Douthat: To the extent that the Republican Party has had a philosophical perspective, which political parties do not always have, it has been along the lines I have just described—that that combination of ideals explains the coalition that the Republicans have put together, historically, between business interests, religious conservatives, and foreign policy hawks who believe in the American role on the foreign stage. It hasn’t always been perfect by any means, but it has been the broad philosophy animating the party.
The challenge is, first, that that philosophy doesn’t necessarily tell you what you should do on public policy. It gives you broad principles, but how you should design your welfare system or approach foreign policy alliances or what wars you should decide to fight or what taxes you decide to cut—all of that requires prudential wisdom. Over the last 10 or 15 years, the existing Republican agenda ran out of steam. There were a lot of things that the party did during the Reagan era and somewhat in the 1990s and 2000s that were successful in many ways, but they didn’t fit the anxieties and concerns of voters in our own era. The most obvious example is that when Reagan started cutting taxes, the top marginal tax rate was roughly around 75 percent. An agenda that cuts that tax is going to be more popular than an agenda that cuts the top tax rate when it’s down into the 30s. That’s an example of how, when you succeed in public policy as Reagan did, your party can’t just keep doing the same thing without running into diminishing returns. That’s one problem the Party has—it doesn’t know what agenda would actually defend American exceptionalism effectively.
Also, in certain ways and where Trump has succeeded, there’s a sense among a lot of conservatives that American exceptionalism isn’t really there to defend anymore—that it’s sort of slipped away or is in danger of slipping away. Our government has grown so large that we aren’t a limited government nation anymore—that the Supreme Court and the bureaucracy have made our constitution not as meaningful and binding as it should be, that institutional religion is in decline in the U.S., so there isn’t a sort of moral majority to defend anymore. In many ways, those concerns are justified. There are many ways in which American exceptionalism is diminished over the last 10 to 30 years.
But, that, in turn, encourages support for someone like Trump who is not really an American exceptionalist. In certain ways, he appeals to a kind of nostalgia for things that have disappeared in the U.S., but he has also been compared to the populists and nationalists who are common in European politics and other places for a reason. He’s trying to do a kind of politics that makes more sense in a country where communal and religious bonds have weakened, where people accept the idea that there will be a strong central government and strong president. They just want that president to do what they want—to punish their enemies and so on. He both fits with conservative nostalgia for an exceptionalism lost and a sort of post exceptionalism in that he is boasting a more nationalistic and authoritarian brand of politics, which, at least at the philosophical level, conservatives have embraced.
DPR: Why do you think that conservatives have been so willing and eager to embrace Trumpian ideology?
Douthat: They weren’t that eager, as I said endlessly during the primary campaign; and, of course, he ultimately won, so I was harshly wrong. Conservative voters did resist him in many ways. He had a core of support from about 20-30 percent of the party that enabled him to win early primary states against a divided field. But, lots of people who were sort of philosophically consistent conservatives, including religious conservatives at first, were very resistant to him and he only won because the rest of the party was broken in various ways, in part because of the absence of a coherent conservative agenda.
But, once having [a coherent agenda], there is an incredibly powerful tribalism in American politics that’s one of the defining features of life now that, as these other loyalties have weakened in American life—religion, family, localities, states, and so on—political loyalties have become more and more important. Once Trump became the standard bearer for the party, lots of people decided they supported him because it was their tribe and they had to defeat the other tribe, and because they were afraid of being governed by liberalism and Hillary Clinton.
Some of it was oppositional, and some of it was that Trump clearly channels a set of grievances of people who feel neglected, ignored, and disdained by the country’s establishment. That was part of his success during the primaries and part of his success in the general election. People living in the world of the opioid epidemic, for instance, felt like he gave voice to their concerns in a way that other Republican politicians hadn’t. He won voters who had voted for Obama over Romney, but who were willing to vote for him. There’s both a sort of tribal pull that led people who wouldn’t have normally supported him to support him once he became the nominee and there’s a sort of loyal cadre of voters who feel that he’s their tribune—their spokesman—against these disdainful liberal elites.
His willingness, also, to give white people a tribal identity was part of his appeal as well. The majority of white people haven’t thought of themselves as this tribal identity before, but as the country’s demographics have changed, white identity came to feel more embattled and, therefore, more salient. He’s saying to white people, in particular, “I’m on your side” and “the Democrats want to look out for minorities and not for you. I’m looking out for you.” That’s not the same as white supremacism in the classic sense. He’s not saying that we’re going to reinstitute laws that put white people in charge of the country. It’s more that he’s saying that if the other party is the champion of other identity based groups, then “I’m going to be the champion of white people,” which is toxic in its own way, but is different from the racist politics of the past.
DPR: Do you think that the Republican Party itself has struggled with an identity crisis, and have certain Republican stereotypes played into the party’s struggle in adopting a unified identity?
Douthat: The Republican Party had a policy identity crisis before Trump came along, where it didn’t know what it should stand for in the post-Reagan era. What Trump has done basically, as a candidate, was offer a specific policy alternative. He said that we should be populists and nationalists, and that we shouldn’t be simply a limited government party or be idealist in foreign policy—we should just look out for America first. He offered a sometimes absurd but somewhat coherent policy agenda that a lot of Republican voters—and not-Republican voters—liked.
As president, he hasn’t been able to operationalize that agenda at all, so the party has reverted back to the stale ideas that the party has previously had, which is what you see with the Republicans in Congress right now. They continue to cycle through saying that they’ll cut taxes and repeal Obamacare, which is the beginning of an agenda, but not really an agenda in full and is not that popular. The Republicans—Reagan and George W. Bush, in particular—did popular things and left the party without that many popular things to support. Now, the party is just returning again and again to different ways of cutting taxes on businesses and the rich, which is not a particularly popular agenda. Then, that, in turn, means that the glue holding the party together becomes this glue of identity. Trump then has this incentive to stoke identity-based controversies and to make his white voters feel embattled to pick fights over things like the NFL and Confederate monuments—issues where cultural liberals are eager to have a battle and Trump is eager to have a battle—that cements the loyalties of a certain segment of his voters, which is not enough to build a majority on. If Trump only won 46 percent of the vote and the version of Trump in the White House is only popular with one-third of the country, it’s enough to hold his base and maintain his hold on the party, which seems to be all he’s interested in and capable of doing.
DPR: Do you think anyone predicted that Donald Trump would be the result of the shortcomings of the Republican Party? Was a populist uprising of sorts or Donald Trump himself an inevitability for the party?
Douthat: I don’t think it was inevitable. If a few things had accidentally gone differently in the primary season, Trump wouldn’t have been the nominee, so you can’t say it was inevitable. But the party was extremely vulnerable to Trump. There was this increasing mismatch between what party elites were for and what the party’s base were for, and this was true on issues of immigration, economic issues, and issues of foreign policy. There was a sense that the party had failed in the George W. Bush era, that it had presided over a botched war in Iraq and a financial crisis, and also that the party elites just hadn’t reckoned with that enough.
Trump was able to slide into that space and to say overtly what the party had not said overtly on this style of political incorrectness and race-baiting and so on. His lack of shame, his instinct for effective identity-based appeals, and his realization—and I don’t know how conscious this was—that the party’s agenda was not popular. He could go in there and say that “the Iraq War was a huge mistake” and “let’s not cut Medicare.” Party elites were horrified, but voters didn’t care. On all those fronts, what he exploited was a clear opening. He also exploited something that is a more fundamental change in American life—the rise of celebrity culture and T.V. culture and everything else. He came out of that world and it’s a world that people in Washington, D.C. like to think is very separate from politics, but it turned out not to be separate from politics at all.
DPR: Back to the idea of conservatism, one can view conservatism in being averse to the idea of radical change. Do you think that Trump’s flavor of conservatism in the modern-day Republican Party is counter to that understanding of conservatism?
Douthat: Yes, although it’s complicated. On the one hand, yes. Many people who voted for Trump explicitly said that it was a vote to blow things up and that there was a sense that the system was so corrupt that you might as well gamble on a reality television star and businessman. Indeed, even one of the core intellectual cases for conservatism was this “Flight 93” election argument that held that we’re in a plane that’s going to crash anyways, so you might as well put Donald Trump in the pilot’s chair. But, the practical effect of voting for Trump actually has been kind of…well, we’ll see how it plays out in the long run. If you put an incompetent president in an ideologically bankrupt party in charge of the country, then you’re guaranteed to get relatively little change.
McArdle: We’ve had, I think, more stasis than we would have had under a normal Republican president. In fact, it was weirdly like the vote for radical change was the vote for no change—
Douthat: —in the short run. My expectation is that there are cascading effects from this that accelerate certain breakdowns that lead to radical change. But, certainly in the year 2017, nothing’s happening.
McArdle: You also have to divide the election between foreign policy and domestic policy. Foreign policy is much less stable than domestic policy, partly because places abroad are less stable than America is. In domestic policy, what we’re getting is largely stasis, although on the regulatory front, there is more than could been done under a republican president—a normal republican president—because Trump doesn’t get what’s going on. A normal republican president would have instinct who would say that “Oh, this is going to blow up in two years,” but Trump doesn’t know. So, people can do more stuff without the president saying, “Woah, wait,” than they would under a normal administration.
On the other hand, that’s only true in limited places because you need to know how to work the bureaucracy. They’ve staffed so many federal agencies with people [who] don’t know how to work the bureaucracy and who are moving far and fast and doing actually some fairly impressive stuff on the regulatory front. Other than that, very little’s happening and it doesn’t seem like anything’s going to happen. This has been a test for how much presidential leadership actually matters even though legislation technically originates in Congress.
On the foreign policy front is where I think you have potential at any point for explosive radical change. That is why the foreign policy establishment and people who are foreign policy-oriented are much more worried about Trump than people who domestically-focused. If your primary focus is foreign policy and you feel like he might do anything, that is vastly more terrifying than the sense that he might do something within the fairly substantial limits that the system imposes on the resident to take big domestic policy change without going through Congress.
Douthat: Though it has been interesting—and we have had some of this with North Korea—I expected actors opposed to America abroad to test us a little more, but instead, some of the destabilization has come from American allies who feel empowered by Trump. Saudi Arabia has become, effectively, a potentially destabilizing actor in the Middle East, which was already true, to some extent, under Obama, as we had to give them permission to kill people in Yemen because they were mad at us about the Iran deal. Iran has continued doing the destabilizing things it had already been doing, but what has upped the ante in the Middle East is the Saudis being like, “Alright, Trump loves us so we can take the gloves off.” I expected Russia and China to be a little more bellicose than they’ve been.
McArdle: I am a more of a domestic policy person, but there’s a kind of interesting thing that, if you had a model of how foreign policy was working a year ago, normal Americans’ senses would be that Obama was too soft on these trouble spots like Iran and North Korea, whereas he was really good with our allies.
What we’ve learned from this is and what we knew is that no one could do anything about those trouble spots. Obama did not contain Iran, nor did Bush, and unless you want to invade, there are actually no good ways to contain Iran. Ditto North Korea. We weren’t doing very much at all to contain our enemies because their policy hasn’t changed, but we were doing a lot to contain our allies.
What this is revealing is that our foreign policy is much less effective against rival powers than people thought and much more effective on our allies than people may have thought, and that what Trump has ended up destabilizing, I would say, differs from what Ross thought, in that I don’t think that it’s Saudi Arabia saying, “Trump loves us.” It’s Saudi Arabia saying, “Trump won’t even get it.” And that’s true—Trump doesn’t get how this stuff dominoes, and doesn’t have enough people to fill positions in government, nor does he want to. I love that quote that [Trump] had a couple of weeks ago about how he just wasn’t going to bother filling a lot of positions in the government because “What were they doing anyways?”—“totally useless.”
Douthat: A lot of political science theories and international relations theories are being put to the test.
McArdle: We are going to get a lot of data from the Trump era.
Douthat: We are going to get a lot of dissertations.
DPR: Senator Jeff Flake has come out in recent days with a strong repudiation of Trumpism, while also announcing his intention to not re-run for his Senate seat in 2018. We have witnessed similar instances with Senators Bob Corker and John McCain. Who, then, do you see as tomorrow’s leaders of the Republican Party? Are they Republicans like Flake, Corker, and McCain, or do you believe that the party is headed in a different direction in which more leaders like President Trump will arise in the party?
McArdle: Well, they’re the people who are leaving. They might be the leaders of the new underground resistance in Idaho or something, but people feel free to criticize as they’re on their way out of the door. I have a sense that more people are leaving than normal, but I haven’t counted.
Douthat: Some of the House retirements are just what you get, but Flake and Corker are unusual, and it’s much more likely to be a bad year for Republicans. But, those retirements are unusual. Yet, they’re not the leaders of the party; Trump is the leader of the party. As long as he had 80% of approval ratings among Republicans, that will be the case.
The future of the party is likely to be defined by normal Republicans who have tried to integrate some of Trumpism into their own world views. People talk about someone like Tom Cotton as a future leader of the party for that reason. I think that it’s reasonable to make that assumption that the people who are opposing Trump are, in some cases, courageous, in some cases, opportunistic and just doing it on the way out of the door; but, either way, the only way the party gets beyond Trump in a healthy way is through people who are up and coming and who have endorsed him and can figure out how to knit the party back together after he’s done with it.
I think the point at which opposition to him could have been, should have been, successful was in 2016. You could imagine a series of catastrophic events, like in foreign policy, that could create that opening [for someone to successfully challenge Trump in 2020]. But for right now, somebody running against him is just doing it to make a statement. Right now, it’s Nikki Haley, Tom Cotton, Ivanka Trump—
McArdle: —Ben Sasse—
Douthat: He’s a great guy, but that might be the problem.