Jonah Goldberg II Transcript
Taped 30 November 2016
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Hi I’m Bill Kristol, welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to have joining me today my friend Jonah Goldberg, Senior – what is your title?
GOLDBERG: I’m Senior Editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KRISTOL: But not a Senior Fellow?
GOLDBERG: That’s blue sky.
KRISTOL: At the American Enterprise Institute. A very thoughtful observer of and participant in our national public life, in general.
GOLDBERG: Kind of you to say.
KRISTOL: And conservatism in particular, I would say. I think we had a conversation in the summer and it was about the meaning of candidate Trump – I guess nominee Trump, at that point. Now we’re speaking three weeks after Election Day, and we now have President-elect Trump. What’s your take on that? What does it mean?
GOLDBERG: Well it’s like, you should get a Mrs. Lincoln joke in there somewhere. I have to say, you know – as I’m sure you did – I talked to a lot of reporters doing sort of thumb-suck pieces about what the Trump campaign means and what it will mean once Hillary wins.
I was in this mindset of, “My gosh, if you know, Trump wins” – which I didn’t think was going to happen, I’m hardly alone in that judgement. I’ve always thought it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for him to win the popular vote, and I was right. I kind of assumed, given how out-there I was on all this, that I would be in a deep, horrible funk about it if he won. And it turns out, I’m not.
I woke up Wednesday after the election in a shockingly good mood. We get the Court. We’re going to do something, I don’t know quite yet what, about Obamacare and the executive orders; might get some good tax reform. So, there’s a good policy environment going on. We held the House, we held the Senate, or the Republicans did – I should stop referring to myself in the “we” when I’m talking about Republicans.
But, for me personally – I mean, you’ve been around the block longer than I have on this kind of stuff – this is the first time in my professional life where I have zero ownership of a Republican president, and it’s incredibly liberating. And so it dawned on me that, going forward, if Donald Trump does things that I think are good, I will say so. I mean, my whole mantra for 18 months has been: “My job is to tell the truth as I see it.” And I will continue to do that. So, if he does things that I think are good, that’s great. My side wins, my arguments win. ‘My team,’ such as it is, wins. And if he reverts back to the character that I thought was on ample display during much of the campaign, I get to say “I told you so.” So, it’s sort of win/win.
My guess is it’s going to be “C), all of the above.” He’s going to do some really good things. I think all of his appointments, with some exceptions, have been pretty top-notch, the sort of thing you could expect from most Republicans. And the thing I worry about is still – it’s not ideological, although I’ve always had my problems with him ideologically, it’s characterological.
It’s what happens – I think he was rightly, and honorably, and to his credit, sobered by the fact that he actually won. I don’t think he planned on winning. So this period that we’re in now, the best analogy I can think of is to the first 30 minutes of the first debate, where he took it really seriously and he held it together. I think the awesomeness of the job – you could see it on his face, how nervous he was when he met with Obama in the White House that first time. He’s taking it seriously. Good for him. A couple tweets notwithstanding.
What I worry about is, six months from now, when he takes it as a given: “Of course they play ‘Hail to the Chief’ when I enter the room,” and, “of course the Marines salute me,” and, “of course I’m the leader of the free world.” And he feels none of the sting of his own insecurity and conscience about how to handle himself as President of the United States, that worries me. But I’ve been wrong about other things, maybe I’ll be wrong about that, too.
KRISTOL: Let’s hope, for the country’s sake. Of course, it could be lesser and greater versions of that, obviously.
GOLDBERG: And you have to give him a chance, too. You only have one president at a time. I think the left are making fools out of themselves. You know, people ask about, “Will you support impeachment if he needs to be impeached?” You know, let’s wait for him to do something that’s worthy of that. Until then, you give the guy a chance. Give the system a chance. We have a system of checks and balances. This may be, as you’ve been arguing, sort of invigorating for some of the, up until now, fairly moribund and atrophied elements of our system of checks and balances, as people rise to this occasion on both the right and the left. So, we’ll see. I wish him the best.
KRISTOL: I want to talk about the left, actually, since you mentioned it. I think liberalism is having more of an internal debate and crisis, maybe, than people realize. Then, really pick your brain on the state of conservatism, talk about the culture more broadly.
But just on the feeling of liberation on Wednesday, after the election, I think your colleague Ramesh Ponnuru, I think this was his line (I, at least, gave him credit for it, and quoted him because he told it to me a couple months before the election) – which was, we were all depressed, Clinton versus Trump, and he said, “Look at the bright side. One of them will lose. And you’ll be happy about that.”
I’ve got to say – and I’m not a Hillary-obsessive or hater – but the sense of liberation one had that she will not be in the White House, the Clintons will not be in the White House. The Clinton world, we don’t have to think about it for the next four or eight years. That was a big part, for conservatives, at least – actually for a lot of liberals, too, I think – a sense of, like a big weight going off our back here.
GOLDBERG: I agree with that entirely. This is pristine territory. It’s an exciting, brave new world. It doesn’t feel like a flashback. Whatever new problems lie ahead, they’re new, interesting problems rather than the same plodding problems you have with the Clintons. But I do think that that touches on an important point that has been lost on a lot of the discussion, particularly on the right.
Yes, Donald Trump did something really impressive, and you’ve got to give him credit for his victory. But the real story of that election is that Hillary Clinton lost more than Donald Trump won. It’s a binary thing, so if one loses, the other one wins. But Hillary Clinton, it’s becoming abundantly clear – as I said for two years beforehand, was a terrible candidate for the Democrats – but ran a really bad campaign. Spent more money in the second district of Nebraska than they did in Wisconsin. They lost as much as Donald Trump won.
The beautiful thing is the Democrats are not learning from that lesson. I shouldn’t say beautiful thing. The amazing thing. Barack Obama said this week that the main reason they lost is because every bar and restaurant in the country is playing FOX News, and they couldn’t get their message out.
KRISTOL: What bars and restaurants does he go to? Not to take his comment too literally, but, seriously, it’s literally false. Bars and restaurants, I’d say male-oriented ones, play sports. Right? I mean, ESPN is on all day. I don’t know what a more female-oriented restaurant would be, but they would play “The View” or something. “The Voice.” It would be kind of mainstream culture and entertainment, I would say. Airports play CNN. I actually bet very few people – playing FOX is a little bit…you put off, some of your patrons wouldn’t like it. It just shows what a ridiculous bubble he’s living in.
GOLDBERG: The bubble thing is fascinating – because, first of all, he goes to very few restaurants. And the one thing I guarantee every manager at every restaurant does when Barack Obama shows up is, “Let’s turn off Sean Hannity.”
KRISTOL: I don’t think the DC and Martha’s Vineyard, these Hampton places he goes to, A) they don’t have TVs on, and B) they’re not showing FOX News.
GOLDBERG: Also, they’re doubling. Looks like they’re going to make Keith Ellison head of the Democratic Party. They’re in a deep, deep state of denial. There was some leftwing magazine that came out with the headline saying that, “If Jon Stewart were still hosting The Daily Show that Hillary would have won.”
KRISTOL: I think the left, liberals, think there’s one true fact that they can hang onto which is the Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections. Demography. Still Trump could turn this around, but it’s kind of going in their direction you might say. Their group is growing a little and the Trump group is shrinking a little. So this used to be their core fact.
The core conservative, Republican fact, which I think might turn out to be equally misleading, is that Republicans control everything and they haven’t been this strong since 1928. So let’s talk about maybe each of those. It is interesting that the one thing this election does not seem to be prompting, which I think it should be, is rethinking. Well maybe it is on the right, that’s a question I suppose.
So, liberalism. What’s your – you’re a student of liberalism, you wrote a whole book on liberalism. Where does it go? Analytically, what would you expect over the next two or four years in terms of the party and liberal intellectuals. Is it the end of an era?
GOLDBERG: Again, we’re sort of in this transition period, right? Where we don’t know what lessons people are going to take from these things. It does seem to me that in our political liberalism, rather than liberal culture, there’s this tendency going back to the early 20th century of utter and complete disdain for “flyover America,” even before we could fly over it. Right?
Christopher Lasch writes about this beautifully in, I think, The True and Only Heaven where he has this wonderful, long discussion just going through all the muckrakers and intellectuals of the Progressive Era and their visceral contempt. The Nation magazine wrote, “In These United States” where they just went from sort of one middle-American state to another mocking and ridiculing these rubes and hicks. I think that tradition has lived on for a very long time, and it comes back. It’s very much a city mouse versus country mouse kind of mindset. There’s this horrible line from Bill Maher who says “the job of the Democratic Party is to drag the slack-jawed yokels and make a path for this country into the future.”
I think that, I think our friend Ross Douthat wrote about this well, that “the cultural left has a Samantha Bee problem,” where they think that because they watch a handful of sneering, smug, condescending shows on Showtime and HBO and Comedy Central.
KRISTOL: I myself have never seen Samantha Bee, so I take it she is –
GOLDBERG: But John Oliver.
KRISTOL: She is such a condensing comic?
GOLDBERG: It’s all a sort of – “I don’t know anybody who knows people who drives a pickup truck, so let’s make fun of everybody who owns a pickup truck.”
KRISTOL: Or owns a gun.
GOLDBERG: Or owns a gun, or goes to church regularly or any of that kind of stuff. I think because the donor class of the Democratic Party comes from that, their kids watch that. They think it’s hip, they think it’s ‘now.’ They confuse their kids with youth culture generally, that they have a deep and abiding bubble with this coastal elite attitude and it’s translated itself into Democratic politics.
I think one of the things that a lot of us didn’t take into account, particularly a lot of liberals didn’t take into account, was the degree to which Barack Obama was a charismatic personality as a politician. He actually represented a side of a cultural argument that a lot of people really don’t like. But he could pull it off.
But it’s sort of like in the primaries, there were a lot of Trump mini-me’s who tried to run as Donald Trumps. That guy that ran against – that idiot who ran against Paul Ryan. There were a few others. And they all failed fairly abysmally, because it turns out that if you’re not Donald Trump, acting like Donald Trump is asinine.
And acting like Barack Obama without being Barack Obama comes across as smug, effete, and elitist. I don’t think that is a pose that can work for the Democratic Party when you generalize it. Which is why this guy Ryan is running against Nancy Pelosi, who is sort of the matriarch of San Francisco liberalism.
KRISTOL: Even Obama, who is a very talented politician, at the end of the day, it’s 52 percent and 51 percent in general elections. The first after Bush with horrible approval ratings. The second against Romney, not a perfect candidate, with a bit of an economic recovery – just enough to take him over the edge.
But, of course, the Democrats had terrible loses. You might have thought, looking back, they would have realized that 2010 and 2014 were harbingers of a problem they had in middle America. They rationalized it as a different electorate and so forth. It turned out the 2016 electorate was a little more like 2014 in the sense that, just the kind of people who turned out. Trump was able to turn out what people had considered a mid-year electorate, in some respects.
GOLDBERG: In certain states.
KRISTOL: In certain states. But I think it’s very interesting about liberalism and Obama’s effect. I’ve been worried – worried as a conservative and friendly to Republicans – about Republican donors: I think they distort Republican elected officials’ view of the world to some degree. But, I guess now that you mention it, the Democratic donors are more cloistered. You really are talking L.A., San Francisco, New York, Boston, a tiny bit of Chicago. So, they don’t have any connection with non-blue state, non-culturally hip, progressive America.
GOLDBERG: The Tom Steyer types, right? Who think that you can build a major, mass, populist movement over something like climate change, with the voters that we actually have in this electorate. They’re delusional. “So we got a huge turnout on campus at Oberlin.” Well, that’s not a bellwether. And I think there is that cocooning, that cultural cocooning among liberals, and they don’t understand.
What I do think is sort of fascinating, though, is the degree to which, and we talk about them not learning the right lessons, right? A week before the election, every liberal analyst, pundit was talking about the Democratic ‘blue wall’, you know, their firewall, and how they had this inherent advantage in the Electoral College. They then lose. Thanks mostly to the voters who were, for 100 years, the core of the FDR Democratic coalition, these working-class whites. And, immediately, the response is, “They’re all racists,” and, “The Electoral College, itself, is an institution of white supremacy.”
So, a week before the election they were bragging about how this ‘institution of white supremacy’ was their inherent advantage in any election. Then, it turns out, when it blew up in their faces, that sort of impulse to automatically go to these buzzwords of “white privilege” and “white supremacy” and all the rest – don’t get me wrong, I think Donald Trump helps them in that regard, and so does Steve Bannon and all that. They make it easier for those arguments to be made. But, nonetheless, when you’re actually trying to appeal to actual voters, telling them they’re all white supremacists and racists for voting for this guy who says he’s going to bring jobs back from Mexico, reinforces the message that the Democrats are out of touch, I think.
KRISTOL: One moment I thought, and I said a few times, that I thought Trump could win, was when people just went on and on about the ‘blue wall’. Which is an intelligent enough – I mean, Ron Brownstein did a lot of work on this. It was a true fact. I mean the Democrats had won these states since ’84 or ’88. But I came to Washington in ’85 and then, of course, Dukakis, having been ahead, lost in ’88. There was a huge amount written in ’89, ’90, and ’91 about the Republican electoral –
GOLDBERG: Bill Schneider had an Atlantic cover about the ‘Republican lock’.
KRISTOL: ‘Lock’. Could they pick the lock? Very hard to pick the lock, the electoral lock. Democrats, of course, beginning in ’92, won most of elections and won the popular vote in almost all of them. And all of these places that Republican had had for a long time, California and others, just totally went south. Ohio.
So as soon as everyone agreed on ‘blue wall’, I figured something would go wrong with it. But it is funny that as you say – not funny but interesting – the historical Democratic voters in those states were the ones who broke it open.
Often, I’d say parties and movements, they start off with one lesson from an election, they think that everyone should take a certain lesson, and then everyone goes the opposite direction. I’ve been struck by how many times that happens. People are very bad at it – I mean, we are, too. This is not a criticism of people, it’s just a fact. Predicting the future, or the initial response is often – this is true in life, too – it’s often not the second or third response, or the response three months in. It’s like the Republicans, they were going to have – God, the only way you can win in 2016 is the “autopsy,” right? Run a Marco Rubio-type. They run the guy that is most opposite of what every enlightened, really most intelligent, you might say, Republicans thought, more or less, in 2013. And the guy wins for the first time. Wins the biggest electoral vote number for Republicans since ’88.
GOLDBERG: There’s a great line I quote often from an essay by [George] Orwell, called “Second Thoughts on James Burnham,” where he points out that intellectuals, throughout the war, whenever there was a setback in the war or whenever there was a victory in the war, immediately made straight-line predictions: defeat or victory. It was like, “Oh, we lost to Brook, that means the war is over.” Or, “Oh, we got back to Brook, that means we’re going to win.” Orwell makes the point that if you ask the average Brit on the streets throughout the war, “Of course we’re going to win. We’re British, we’ll win.” Turns out they were right. And the problem is that intellectuals tend – he says, it’s a form of power worship, that you make straight-line projections because you want to get on board. And I think there is – you saw that a lot this year with a lot of our friends, I think. But we don’t need to get too deep into that.
KRISTOL: They always want to be on the – and also, to be early in seeing the wave that is coming. There’s a huge – I’ve seen this in politics many times, and I’ve been guilty of it a few times – a huge over-interpretation of any one event. “This is decisive, now it’s going to go downhill directly.” Of course, things change and reverse, and the surge was the most dramatic, finally, in my time in Washington, in terms of an actual, real world thing.
Politically it’s also true. You know, there is a bad day for Trump, “He’s finished; it’s over.” James Comey comes out, “Clinton has no chance,” and then she still wins the popular vote by two million. People just over-interpret events, in general. The public is much less event-driven. They have a general view. One thing does not freak them out the way all of us who have to comment on it every day does.
GOLDBERG: Although, conservatives are, I think, more hypocritical about this tendency. I think it’s a natural human tendency. Liberals are the ones who to believe in “five-year plans,” right? That you can rationally plan the future. Conservatives, we’re supposed to believe along with Burke that society is infinitely complex, you can’t predict the future. And yet, conservative pundits do it all the time.
KRISTOL: That’s a good reminder. I should remind myself of that more. Final point on liberalism – I want to talk about conservatism – but liberalism: I’m sort of struck, it doesn’t seem much of a Bill Clinton or Bill Galston-type rethinking is going on. I mean, Bill Clinton himself has now been quoted, and I gather this is true from people I’ve talked to, as him saying he had been warning for the past month of the campaign that, “Hey, we do need some white votes here, some white, working-class votes. They get to vote, too, you know.” We can’t just do this kind of picking very careful coalition of some college educated, upscale whites, and some minorities.
GOLDBERG: Over-performing with Hmong in Minnesota.
KRISTOL: Bill Galston and some of the old Clinton-Democrats have weighed in. One doesn’t feel, either, from reading liberal columnists and journals, or from watching the Democratic Party, that that is the reaction. And I think it could be, don’t you know it could go, the other way? Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren seem to be the way the energy of the party is.
GOLDBERG: I think that’s right, and I think part of psychologically what’s going on is there are a lot of Democrats who suspect that, first of all, Hillary did steal the nomination from Bernie Sanders. The WikiLeaks stuff kind of suggests there’s merit there. And two, that Bernie Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump. I don’t know that that’s true. I actually, kind of think it’s not, but who knows?
But so, they feel like, you know, if only we had doubled-down on our Obama-ness, right? That’s always been the gripe about Obama, is he didn’t own his left wing-ness enough. So, I think that there is this sort of notion that if were just you know – it’s sort of Howard Dean-ism – if we were just a purer form of our true selves, we’ll win over everybody. And conservatives have been prone to that kind of thinking quite a bit over the last 20 years, and it doesn’t go very far.
KRISTOL: I was thinking as you said it, conservatives, I think we are prone to this. Fifty years ago, more, Nixon loses to John Kennedy in 1960, not entirely dissimilar. Nixon, not a very charismatic or attractive candidate, but a very experienced guy. Eisenhower has two terms, like Obama, loses a very close race to Kennedy, and the reaction among conservatives was – I mean, they disagreed with Eisenhower and Nixon, so they had an ideological issue, just like Sanders and Warren do – but they also talked themselves into as an electoral matter and an analytical matter that, “There is a huge hidden conservative vote out there, and if only we finally nominate the Barry Goldwater part of the political party, and gee, let’s just nominate Barry Goldwater, we’ll win in ’64.” Now, maybe, he would of course have had a better chance if there hadn’t been an assassination and such, it’s hard to know. But, it is interesting, the reaction to Nixon losing to Kennedy was Goldwater, not, I don’t know, a Rockefeller, or Bill Scranton, or a new generation of moderates or something like that.
GOLDBERG: Well, that was also Ted Cruz’s theory. The problem is that he was seems to me, I mean I haven’t crunched these numbers or anything, but it seems to me he was half right. But what Trump did was he activated these people not based upon conservative ideology but in terms of an anti-establishment populism thing, which I don’t think Ted Cruz was a good messenger for.
KRISTOL: Well because trade was such an important part of it, I think. There, Cruz just had standard – I think correct, but standard – free-trade views. So, liberalism – so they really could go left. Trump could be an extremely lucky man.
I was thinking about this. I mean, I think he’s a very skillful demagogue. I underrated him and I plead guilty, certainly in terms of analytically missing, in the primaries, especially, that he would win. I always thought he had a chance in the general. What if he does have a Democratic Party that goes so far left that whatever mistakes Trump makes, off-putting things he does, and even policies that may not work out so well, the alternative is – I don’t know what it would be exactly, or who it would be. I guess that’s hard to tell, right?
GOLDBERG: It’s sort of a McGovern problem, right? It’s ’72.
KRISTOL: Trump is Nixon in ’68.
GOLDBERG: He’s very Nixonian. He’s law and order.
KRISTOL: You get an administration that is kind of a mess, conflicting views, does one or two things pretty well, though. Gets us out of Vietnam in a decent way, I would say, in ’72 and sort of restores a kind of civil peace. Goes horribly anti-conservative on a whole bunch of things.
GOLDBERG: Nixon hated the Buckley-ites. He hated the conservatives. That’s the thing that’s really amazing about it.
KRISTOL: But then he won, and I think National Review didn’t officially support Nixon in ’72, is that right?
GOLDBERG: I know we didn’t in ’60.
KRISTOL: ’60, that’s right. In ’72 they supported Ashcroft in the primaries –
KRISTOL: Ashbrook in the primaries, kind of a token challenger. I guess they must have supported Nixon against McGovern. But then there was a massive reelection victory. If you get enough, if the other party goes enough to the other side –
GOLDBERG: This is something that has confused people, I think for generations is, and I think the right – this is a human nature problem, this is not unique to the left – that if you hate somebody, you assume they’re ideologically your opposite. When, in reality, Nixon was the last New Deal president, really. He created the EPA, he was the founder of Affirmative Action, he bragged about how they spent more on social services than they did on defense. Wages and price controls. You go down this long list of things. But the left hated him and could never forgive him ever since the – Helen Douglas, anti-communist stuff. They thought he was, you know, a petty tyrant and all the rest. And so, they assumed that ideologically he was a crazy right-winger, but he wasn’t. We went through something like that in the ’90s where we couldn’t stand Bill Clinton, in part because he was stealing Republican, conservative issues, and so people treated him as if he was this crazy communist.
I think that Trump has got this very advantageous position where his voters, first of all, – when 60 percent of the electorate thinks you’re not qualified to be president, you actually have remarkable room for improvement in people’s minds, right? If you look at what people wanted him to do, among Republicans at least, it’s a pretty conventional, Republican thing, and most Republicans don’t, in fact, want him to be the crazy demagogue stuff that people fear he’s going to be.
So, he’s got a remarkable amount of maneuvering room. And if the left keeps taking the bait and burning flags every time he says you shouldn’t burn flags, it gives him the Nixonian opportunity to hold the center. Conservatives will hold their nose and people like National Review might gripe. But if they go with Elizabeth Warren-style liberalism, or McGovern style liberalism, it gives him the space to be a modestly, center-right president, who if he just doesn’t round people up, people will think, “Wow, that’s a pleasant surprise.”
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