Jonah Goldberg Transcript
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to have with me today Jonah Goldberg, Senior Editor of National Review, author of two bestselling books, at least two. Very much worth reading, Liberal Fascism and The Tyranny of Clichés, which I recommend to everyone.
And I want to say I recommend particularly – all of your stuff is excellent, of course – but your newsletter – as I’ve had to, or not had to, but I’ve written a newsletter on my own the last year or two. Yours is so superior. Really the best of the genre. I think you’re the newsletter-ist of our time. People can, I guess, subscribe to it, but they can also read it on National Review’s website.
GOLDBERG: Yes, it’s called “The Goldberg File,” and I was actually arguably one of the very first political bloggers. Mickey Kaus got his idea for “The Kaus Files” from “The Goldberg File,” and then Andrew Sullivan got his idea for his blog from Mickey Kaus –
KRISTOL: When did you begin that?
GOLDBERG: ’98. In Internet years, I’m Methuselah, right? And so it originally started out as an ur-blog before the word blog actually came up. And then – I want to warn viewers, because you have very high-minded, serious viewership on the show, and they will think after watching you talk to Harvey Mansfield and all these éminence grise, and then you recommend my newsletter and they find that I’m writing a lot about my dog and about women’s prison movies. They might be a little – get a little whiplash. It’s an irreverent newsletter at times.
KRISTOL: It’s a mix of high and low, but only you’re excellent at pulling that off and teaching people something with a very light touch.
I don’t know if a light touch is what we need now. It’s July 12, it’s the Tuesday before the Republican Convention. You and I have been recently prominent critics of Donald Trump, but I think we’ve tried to analyze what’s happened. And so let’s begin with that and then we’ll go back to discuss liberalism and conservatism. But what happened?
GOLDBERG: Clearly, ours is the God of the Old Testament; he’s a vengeful God. No, you know it’s funny. It really depends on where you – it’s one of these things – well, first there was the flood, right? It’s one of these things you can go way back on.
I think that it’s a little pat to say it now because a lot of people have said this, but I think on the political side one of the things that’s been going on for a long time is that elites – and by elites I mean pro-Trump elites and anti-Trump elites. I mean people at Fox News. I mean Ted Cruz. I mean Rush Limbaugh. But I also mean Paul Ryan. Everybody. Everybody has overpromised and under-delivered, at least on the conservative side. But also on the liberal side if you look at Barack Obama who came riding in on his Pegasus and his Greek columns and he was going to heal all our wounds and all that.
Washington and politics in general has been overpromising what it can do. The disconnect between the progressive, pragmatic cult of expertise, “we know how to manage everything.” Or the Republican disconnect between being able to kill Obamacare and all that. Massive disillusionment particularly in the wake of a financial crisis.
There is actually an interesting article in the European Review of Political Science that has a dataset going back to the early 1800s of what happens to politics after a financial crisis. It is a pretty strong, robust showing. I never trust when – particularly Europeans ones – but when academics say they have a definition of right-wing because when you start peeling it back, going back to Theodor Adorno, you find out it’s not right. But they say politics gets more right-wing, it certainly gets more populist. You have this financial crisis that really wiped out the net worth of people at the bottom half of this country.
Then, you had a guy come in and promising to do all these things and couldn’t deliver. And the Republican Party, I think, somewhat cynically, because a lot of conservative people in the media said Obama can be stopped in every way, shape, and form. There is a massive sense of disillusionment, and we need some outsider. That’s the political part of it. But I also think –
KRISTOL: I do think Republican elites and candidates – I guess Romney in 2012 particularly as the one Republican presidential candidate between the financial crisis and now – just didn’t show that they’d come to grips with it. I always thought this.
George Bush, we might have fancy arguments on why it was caused by liberal policies and Barney Frank and the Fed. The Americans looked up, and there was George W. Bush, President of the United States, his Secretary of the Treasury appointed by him, seeming Republican at least. Republicans had held Congress for 12 years, basically until the year of ’06. Then the whole would financial system is falling apart, and if you’re the party that has presided over that, you need to have an explanation of what happened.
GOLDBERG: There was nothing. My esteem for Mitt Romney in the Trump moment, and for Stu Stevens, his campaign manager, or senior advisor or whatever his title was, has grown dramatically. But at the same time, I think Stu Stevens and Mitt Romney subscribed to a theory that it was simply a referendum on Obama, that they were going to be vanilla. Vanilla is the most popular ice cream in America even though it’s nobody’s favorite favor, but it’s everybody’s second favorite flavor. That’s the kind of campaign they ran. You were writing about this. Steve Hayes was writing about this.
They didn’t put forward big serious ideas, they didn’t make a serious argument, and I think that was part of the problem was that he seemed milquetoast against Obama. The Republican rhetoric of four years is how we’re losing our country, and then Mitt Romney kind of runs this Hallmark ad of a campaign, and there was a lot of bitterness. I think Ted Cruz comes out of that, and a lot of things come out of that.
But I also think it’s worth getting outside-of-the-beltway analysis for this. Probably the most important book in the last ten years is Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, at least in terms of the issues that it addresses. The unraveling of the social structure for people in what he calls Fishtowns, lower-end, non- college educated. He only concentrates on whites, which is the base of the Trump support. They aren’t church-going anymore, their family breakdown is as bad as it is for blacks when Moynihan did the Moynihan report.
If you look at the Pew surveys and the Gallup surveys going back 30 years, we have never had such lack of faith and confidence in major institutions in American life. Last time I looked at it virtually every institution in America – except for two, small business and the Army – were underwater. Cops are right on the bubble. Obviously, the media, no faith. Congress, no faith. But also, doctors, lawyers, educators, primary schools. Religious institutions. Every institution you can think of people have lost faith in. That is, I think, the feedstock for populism, both on the Left and on the Right. That’s what we had in the 1930s, that’s what you get when people feel deracinated and alienated.
We can talk more about that in a bit, but I think that was going on right in front of everybody’s eyes, and we were talking about it in a very AEI, analytical way, and Charles gave wonderful speeches on it. I think if Charles has been more a political analyst rather than a social scientist type, he might have just added a last chapter on there saying something terrible was coming. And we kind of missed it.
KRISTOL: It is amazing, 45 percent of the voters of this primary season, 2016, voted for Sanders or Trump. A socialist who hasn’t changed his mind about anything in 50 years.
GOLDBERG: Since his honeymoon in the Soviet Union.
KRISTOL: I would say his economic views, which were already somewhat discredited you might have thought when he adopted them, now seem ridiculous. And Trump, who is kind of an authoritarian populist with also a smorgasbord of views, many of which are not credible, really. It does say something about a degree of alienation from the establishment and the mainstream. It’s a little worrisome, though. 45 percent of the electorate.
What’s weird is it’s not the 30s. It’s one thing if you’re having a Great Depression and unemployment lines and the Dust Bowl. For all the trouble of ’08, things have recovered. Why is that though do you think? I’m very struck by that. One can take the attitude that people are just spoiled and expect too much and should toughen up. Your colleague, Kevin Williamson, has written in that vein, I think, quite powerfully. Or one can say no, you’ve got to be more sympathetic and somehow there is suffering sort of out there. I don’t –
GOLDBERG: Again, I’m sort of with you. I’m not an economic determinist on these sorts of things. But I’m also not someone who discounts the economics either. If you saw your entire net worth, which is basically invested in your house disappear in 2008, that is going to have a lasting impact on the way you see things.
KRISTOL: Especially after the experts told you it couldn’t happen anymore, we’ve got everything under control.
GOLDBERG: I think the Brexit stuff is illuminating on all of this as well. I’ve been writing about this for a long time and probably not stridently enough. But there is a real sense in which – Ross Douthat had a good column about this – which is the Davos-attending, New York/London top 2%, right? Or 5%. They just simply look down their nose at the idea of national culture, nationhood – this “make America great again” is clearly an appeal to white lower-middle class, white middle-class memory of nostalgic – bogus memory – but a memory of what they think the 1950s and early 1960s was like.
The sort of contempt for notions of sovereignty both legally and culturally. Supreme Court Justices saying they consult laws and polls in foreign countries. We can go down the list. I remember saying about Barak Obama’s speech in Berlin that it was better in the original Esperanto. I think that if you’re struggling to make ends meet and you get this real sense that the elites, cultural elites, people who hold commanding heights, see themselves as better than you and better than America.
Whether it’s a fair or out-of-context thing for everyone to beat up on, Obama saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism the way that British do,” it reinforces something that people suspect, that there was a lot of people who don’t like America. I remember when Obama first came in I was writing about this a lot because part of this tied into my book – there’s a history of progressivism in the United States that has always thought there is nothing wrong with America that being more like Europe wouldn’t fix.
I think we’ve seen that time and again, and it comes in waves and when you have the “juice-box mafia,” wonky Washington expert types, really looking with disdain down on people. You say, “I don’t want to be Europe; I want to be America. I like America. And I like the way America used to be more than the way it is now.” There is a cultural ferment that comes from all of that. It strips people away from an ideological attachment to a more nativist, nationalist attachment.
KRISTOL: The normal conservative candidates somehow didn’t speak to that enough? Maybe because they were – the accident that Bush and Rubio especially were liberal on immigration. Trump benefited a lot I think from having Jeb Bush as his kind of alter-ego. Third Bush, the establishment personified.
GOLDBERG: And also the prospect of watching a Bush-Clinton race was so disgusting, particularly for conservatives. We don’t do that here. I do think that Mike Huckabee has figured this out a long time ago; he just has too much baggage and too many other problems with him as a candidate. I think Ted Cruz figured it out. The problem with Ted Cruz, and I’ve become much more of a fan of Ted Cruz –
KRISTOL: And Rick Santorum semi-figured it out.
GOLDBERG: First of all, there was a problem of breaking out of the – this idiotic thing – one of the reasons why I think the primaries went so badly is everyone bought into this theory about lanes, and Trump at least had one message for everybody. I think a lot of these guys – Ted Cruz is kind of a global elite kind of guy, but he’s figured out this formula about cultural Texan stuff, and it just doesn’t translate well. The media wouldn’t give him the kind of play he needed to do it. Meanwhile, Trump could because he had this celebrity status.
It is a bizarre thing, you said before about Sanders and Trump getting 45 percent of the electorate. I’ve read a lot about populism over the last 100 years, and the notion that the two populist firebrand candidates, one would be a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn and sounds like a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn. He sounds like he wants to send back soup at a deli. Then, Donald Trump, a billionaire from Fifth Avenue. These are the guys people are normally pointing the pitchforks at not having them on their own side. I think it speaks to something that has changed in the media landscape as well.
KRISTOL: Don’t you think the populist rebellions are sometimes led by these wealthy people who are sort of semi-faux populist? Sometimes, it really is the person with a pitchfork from modest origins, but often it’s a kind of someone who exploits –
GOLDBERG: I think that is right. There is a certain – There is a French intellectual who says, “The people have decided, and I must go with them for I am their leader.” I also liken it to Ferris Bueller; he sees a parade going down the avenue in Chicago, and he runs out in front and pretends he’s leading it. Trump saw this thing and got in front of it.
KRISTOL: That’s what he’s good at. He’s a marketer, he sees trends. The reality TV thing helped him.
GOLDBERG: He’s been a New York City populist, he’s a New York Post populist. He cares more about the New York Post and what the cops and construction workers and doormen and Howard Stern, what those guys care about and never liked the sort of Park Avenue real estate elite. He’s got a huge Queens chip on his shoulder. As two guys from Manhattan, I think we can recognize it a little bit better than some people can.
KRISTOL: Even sympathize with it in a certain way. Huckabee, I do agree, really saw this with the economic populism in ’07 and ’08. My first column of my somewhat ill-fated, weeklong column stint with The New York Times was a semi-defense of Huckabee and taking him seriously as a candidate. And I think correctly predicting he’d do better than people thought because of the economic populist message. One forgets how much disdain that was met with from conservative elites. They were right to be disdainful from the merits, but also politically just a total lack of understanding that he was hitting something there.
Then, Santorum, the same. People thought their appeal was social conservative, which it was to some degree. But the big development this year strikes me – from an intra-conservative movement dynamics point of view – Trump, weirdly, brilliantly figured out that populist conservatism would work better when it was detached from religious conservatism and social conservatism. Before they’ve gone together. Did anyone predict that?
GOLDBERG: I didn’t see it coming. But it’s also – It’s important to remember that there is an aspect of cult of personality here, right? And so we like ideas, we tend to be like the guy who looks for his car keys where the light is good. We want to see these things as – even his separation from ideas we think is an interesting idea, right?
And it’s important to remember that a lot of people – One of my favorite lines is from Willian Jennings Bryan where he says, “The people of Nebraska are for free silver. Therefore, I am for free silver.” There is – one of my first big “Goldberg File” newsletter things attacking Trump, I was pointing out that Trump is corrupting conservatism to a large extent.
They did a poll last summer where they asked Republicans whether or not they were in favor of single-payer healthcare. You and I can probably recall that conservatives and Republicans spent a good deal of time talking about this. Forget Reagan’s Medicare speech and all that stuff, just the fight over Obamacare divided American politics for a long time. You would think, even though we didn’t persuade enough Americans, even though a majority still don’t like Obamacare, that we pretty much persuaded our own side about this. Fourteen percent said they were in favor of single-payer. That’s too high, but that’s manageable. Then, they were then told that Donald Trump was in favor of it, and the number went up to 44 percent.
I think what Trump is doing is in the classic sort of populist tradition of just simply being a vehicle for resentment and rage. If he changes his mind, who cares? If he becomes pro-life, or he says he’s pro-life or pro-choice. We spent 10 years talking about how terrible eminent domain abuse was, and all Trump had to do was say, “Oh, I think it’s wonderful.” And all of the sudden my Twitter feed is lighting up with people saying, “You’re an idiot, you don’t get how great eminent domain is.”
What is dismaying for people like us and for a lot of people, we actually are principled conservatives, and we actually do wear this stuff fairly close to our hearts, and to discover a lot of our comrades in arms don’t – or at least they’re willing to jettison it when you get this reality show celebrity to come along – it’s a very depressing thing. It tells you how quickly countries can go in a bad direction given the right set of circumstances.
KRISTOL: Let’s talk about those. You’ve written very eloquently and powerfully on that. I think intelligent conservatives, and I’d put us, maybe, in that category – let’s say perceptive conservatives. There’s populism and there’s conservatism, and obviously, one of the tasks of politics is if you’re a conservative leader – this would-be true on the Left, too, of course – is to harness, educate, refine populism, but also respect it in a way and make it part of a broader movement. Obviously, Reagan did that, Gingrich in the 90s and others.
I don’t really – it’s sort of silly to blame the populists. Trump is a celebrity; people are interested in celebrities. There is the intermediate layer, which I would say is the elected officials, prominent conservative leaders are supposed to both educate the populist sentiment and also check it at times and also at times say no, that’s unacceptable. I think you and I have both been struck at how few people have done that. That is depressing, don’t you think?
GOLDBERG: It’s terrifying. What I find particularly amazing is the number of people – because my position has always been “I don’t like either of them. I’m just going to tell the truth; let the chips fall where they may.” My only job is to tell the truth as I see it. Doesn’t mean I have to say everything I believe, and it doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind. My only real definition of journalistic ethics is don’t write or say things you don’t believe to be true. It is amazing how many people who are longtime fans are disappointed in me because I won’t live down to their expectations.
They just sort of assumed implicitly, or explicitly, that I was in fact a Republican hack. And that if ultimately, it was in the interest of the Republican Party for something to go one way that I would, of course, rejoin the fold and start writing things that I don’t believe to be true, and we don’t need to name names here, but it has been dismaying and shocking and revealing how many people are perfectly prepared to do exactly that.
Bill Rusher used to be the publisher of National Review, he would always tell the young staffers – he’d give them the same piece of advice – he would say, “Look, politicians will always disappoint you.” It wasn’t to say that politicians were bad people. It was just to say their incentive structure, versus yours and my incentive structure, is different. And they’re going to go, their first priority is to win elections and that requires compromising on principles in a way that huddled-away writers don’t have to do. I respect that and I understand that, but there’s a difference between bending your principles and defenestrating your principles.
KRISTOL: That’s what strikes me. Reagan wasn’t a pure free trader and everyone, Bush had bigger government programs than he probably would have liked. That’s all a matter of accommodating to political reality while staying basically on a path that is reasonable and defensible from our point of view.
I think for us, I guess, Trump just seems utterly unacceptable, more almost because of his personal character and judgment. Also because he’s not a conservative in 18 different ways, but that’s actually less important for me and I think for you than just the basic unfitness for office. And the willingness for people who in the past have written eloquently about fitness of office and disdain for Clinton and disdain –
GOLDBERG: Or the need for conservative purity. All of these supposedly high priests of conservatism who’ve been yelling at reform conservatives like Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru, always saying “You’re just a me-too Republican,” and suddenly they just completely change courses is shocking to me.
It’s funny, though. I know you’ve always had a sympathy for populism and shaking things up and not being constrained by a silly Overton window on this issue or that issue. I call it the Trump non sequitur. I am really sympathetic to most of the arguments for Trump until you get to the “and therefore Trump” part. So if it’s we need to shake up the Beltway elite, yes, absolutely; we need to talk more about national sovereignty, sure, absolutely. We need to do this; we need to do that. We need to break out of the nostalgic window of 1981 Reaganite tax reform and apply Reaganite principles to new problems, absolutely. Then they say, “And therefore, we have to vote for Donald Trump.” I’m like, are you high? What are you talking about?
I think it’s been a kind of an amazing thing to see the extent to which the power of Donald Trump – and this is something I write about a lot in Tyranny of Clichés – we all talk about that phrase “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s not what Lord Acton meant when he actually coined the phrase. He was writing to a friend of his who was writing a biography of the popes, or a history of the popes, and Acton was cautioning him to say you can’t forgive really powerful people of sins that you wouldn’t forgive in other people.
What he’s talking about is not that the power corrupts the powerful, it’s that it corrupts the people chronicling him around him. You start to bend your principles to power. You can see that all over the place these days. Because he got the nomination or because he gets good ratings on TV all sorts of people are willing to throw aside things that they believed in for a long time.
The way I always try to describe it to sympathetic audiences because it’s harder and harder to find them is that all my life – I was a huge disciple of your dad’s and my first job in Washington was at AEI – all my life conservatism has – strip away the context and the day-to-day arguments or the yearly arguments – conservatism only stood for two things. The idea that ideas matter. That through a contest of rational debate and the application of evidence applied to theory that you can come to optimal solutions to problems.
And the idea that character matters. You can define character as sexual mores, or you can define character as business practices, or you can define character as public integrity or private integrity or honesty. I have yet to come up – it’s sort of a challenge. I keep asking people and with the exception of his allegedly wonderful children, who may in fact be wonderful, no one has come up with anything close to a definition of character that Donald Trump doesn’t fall far short from.
I plan on being in this business for a while longer. I think you plan on being in this business for a while longer. I would like to be able to say that character matters and that ideas matter five years from now when Trump has faded away. If you don’t want to say that those things matter and it’s just a hammer-and-tong battle for power, make that argument, but don’t pretend that Trump is this vessel of great ideas or of great character, or with him in power, the wheat harvest will be wonderful and all this kind of stuff.
KRISTOL: How much of a crisis is this for conservatives? What do you think is going to happen? We can stipulate we don’t know, and we’ve been wrong. What’s the safest bet, I suppose, is Trump loses in November. What happens? It happened; it was weird. It was a very unusual election, 17 candidates, etc. Republican elites out of touch. We’re back to where we were or how much of a moment of crisis and inflection point is this?
GOLDBERG: I think there is a significant silver lining to Trump in the sense that there is going to be – sometimes you have to burn the village to save it kind of thing, right? If Trump is the nominee and he loses, the idea that first of all some of our friends on talk radio, or some of my colleagues on Fox News can go back to arguing for a doctrinaire definition of conservatism, I find unpersuasive, right? As a friend of mine, a colleague of mine at AEI, likes to say, what we’re seeing is a bubble. When you have a bubble in the private sector, the smart money goes to quality. It doesn’t try to chase the bubble, it says we’re going to double-down on the Warren Buffet school of fundamentals, right?
So if and when the bubble bursts, I think people are going to be looking around to the people who first of all didn’t lose their heads, and second of all, have serious public policy proposals that they can bring to bear. I think there is robust debate on what those proposals are. I’m very sympathetic to the reform conservative guys. And the guys who write National Affairs. Too many magazines with the first name “National” out there.
I think that you know one of the things that has been crippling for conservatives is that we keep trying to replay this 1981 tax reform model as a solution to all of our problems. I will name two names – they’re friends of mine, at least I hope they’re still friends of mine – but Steve Moore and Larry Kudlow, who I do not think have covered themselves with honor in all of this, they’ve been at the forefront of arguing pure, Reaganite cut marginal income tax rates and all that kind of stuff. And they’ve thrown in pretty emotionally for Donald Trump.
It will be very difficult when even Donald Trump hasn’t really come out for that, or at least not plausibly come out for that, to say that argument, we have to revert back to that sort of argument. The Wall Street Journal, which I have immense respect for, has also been sort of hard to peg on a lot of this. I think that’s good. I think that’s good. I think it may just be rubble but at least when everything is reduced to rubble, you have clear lines to fight from.
I think the people who stuck to principles and stuck to the importance of arguments and character will be better equipped. It’s just a hunch, but I don’t think Donald Trump will comport himself well in defeat. If he wins, well, then I think it’s time to restart the Liberty League and go back to the notion of being in exile. I’ve been rereading Mencken and Albert J. Nock, and what they both – more Nock, I’ve always loved Nock, I wrote a long piece about him in National Review a few years ago.
They were simply outside of the political consensus of both parties. Statism was running amok everywhere, and they simply said we’re not going to be a part of that. It could be traditional fusionist conservatives become a lot like the Libertarian Party has been for the last 40 years where they’re involved in the argument, but they’re more at the periphery than certainly we’re used to. That’s okay. I can live with that. In terms of my career, I’ll enjoy the arguments, but I do worry what it means for the country to have two competing brands of statism between the two parties. I think that’s a really bad prospect for the country.
KRISTOL: For me, what’s so shocking is if the Tea Party was about anything, it was about constitutionalism, sometimes maybe a little simple-minded, but an attempt to rediscover the Constitution and limited government. If you think about the conservative intellectual movement for 20, 30, 40 years, different aspects of it in different ways were about this. Certainly, on the legal side with Scalia and Bork and, you know, originalism, the Constitution, limited government. Libertarian side of that or a traditional side of that. The Hayekian side, the limits of central planning.
If someone asked me, What is modern American conservatism about? There would have been other things as well, the anti-Communism and hawkishness, but that would have been a big part of it, you know. Trump has no interest in any of that. It’s a little shocking that no one seems to care. Not no one, but so many people don’t care.
GOLDBERG: I sometimes wonder – and I was very pro-Tea Party, it was the first populist movement in American history that I was in favor of. I thought they were going to fulfill the ancient libertarian prophesy of the libertarians taking over the government and then leaving everybody alone.
Normally, populism is about imposing will, using the state as a mechanism of power, or a lever of power for one specific constituency that defines itself as the people. Historically, all populism means is people-ism. Hitler was a populist and nationalist. Hitler liked to say he was a nationalist, but not a patriot. I think John Lukacs has written a lot of wonderful things about populism. I had high hopes for the Tea Parties as well, and I wonder if the sense that they failed, the sense that they failed to get Mitt Romney elected, the sense they were betrayed by the Republican establishment caused a lot of them to say, “You guys told us that if we doubled down on our principles, we would solve everything. We delivered, and you guys failed us. Screw it, now I just want to win.”
That’s what Trump’s message is. Strength, will, where have we heard those themes in politics before? Winning. He says winning solves everything. And I think that that’s really dismaying. I’ve been planning on writing this piece in National Review for a while on sort of revisiting Liberal Fascism almost 10 years later and what I’ve learned. Because the book was largely written to hold off Hillary Clinton. I had never heard of Barack Obama when I started writing that book. Here comes Donald Trump, and he’s proved me wrong about some things. It’s dismaying, but I should be honest about that.
KRISTOL: I want to hear about that in just a second, but the only other thing – my footnote to what you were saying, which I very much agree with. I do think religious conservatives – the Tea Party conservatives in a way got frustrated – some of them, not all of them because some of the leaders of Never Trump are Tea Party types. To their credit, I think. This is not why they got involved as grassroots citizens fighting against Obamacare.
GOLDBERG: That’s a very important point, there are many rooms in the mansion of Tea Party-ness.
KRISTOL: But some did, of course, go in a Trumpian direction. I always used to say that – you and I were very similar on this in ’09, 2009, 2010, when the Left was just deriding the Tea Party as incipient fascism – to the contrary, this is a healthy populism. What does it believe in? It believes in dealing with the national debt and restoring the Constitution. You should be happy we have this kind of populism, not European populism. It turned out, unfortunately, five years later we have a European style –
GOLDBERG: Because the Tea Party failed. Or didn’t succeed. Whether it was their fault or somebody else’s fault. Historically, populist movements do not want to be constrained by the constitutional bulwarks of democratic liberalism. This was one of the first movements that said, no, constrain us! That is why I thought it was healthy.
KRISTOL: Then, the religious conservatives, which is a cousin you might say of the Tea Party, but it goes back much further as part of the Republican and conservative base. For all the complaints – and I was occasionally sympathetic of some of them; I was mostly a defender of the Religious Right and social conservatism and part of it really – the complaints about the dogmatism, the moralism, the religious focus, and imposing religion on society, it turns out the only thing worse than religious populism is nonreligious populism.
My friend Gary Bauer has an interesting perspective on this, and he’s much more sympathetic to Trump than I am. When explaining why so many of his people, his supporters, and people who, you know, subscribe, get his end-of-the day fax and – email, I guess now; originally, it was a fax. Why they are for Trump? I said, he’s not socially conservative, he’s not religious, his personal behavior is the opposite of what people uphold. Gary’s line was “Look, they told us to vote Republican, vote Republican. At least we’ll be in alliance, we’ll save traditional marriage, we’ll begin to roll back Roe v. Wade.” It turns out that none of that worked.
So religious conservatives decided apparently they’ll try to take care of their communities as best they can, protect them from the forces on the outside. Meanwhile, they’re just going to vote their economic interest or grievances, so liberated from the constraints of a kind of religious view of politics, they become just populist conservatives.
GOLDBERG: Which gets back to my point earlier that everyone overpromised and under-delivered. Everyone’s says, “We’re going to get rid of Roe v. Wade.” Everyone says, “We’re going to save marriage.” Then you don’t do it, and you get –
KRISTOL: Republican Chief Justices, Obamacare or Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy –
GOLDBERG: That’s one of things that I think – there are a lot of people who think – I’m sure you get this, too – who think we’re snobs because we don’t like Trump or that we hate Trump supporters.
Yeah, there are jackasses in the mix as there are in every movement. The typical person sympathetic to Trump or frustrated with the GOP – I think some of their arguments are wrong, but I have nothing but sympathy for them and their frustrations. I think they’re coming from a right place.
Again, I just think it’s the Trump non sequitur. If the argument didn’t end with “and therefore” this corrupt, flimflam man, who takes advantage of ignorant or desperate people as his business model and who has more ex-wives than the previous 43 presidents combined, makes things up, and lies. If it had been somebody of serious character, but of real populist sentiment or someone of serious ideas but of populist sentiment, I wouldn’t be making these arguments or I wouldn’t be standing athwart the GOP, but sometimes you just have to.
KRISTOL: The person matters. The truth is you can go too far in the kind of “I like the sentiments, but not Trump.” If the sentiments become allied to and embodied in someone who now is likely to be the nominee of one of the two major parties for President of the United States, you don’t get to separate.
Ultimately, you can separate them next year or something like that. But for months they don’t get separated. I think that’s a real problem. I think people are underestimating the negative effect actually on conservativism and on the Republican Party – I’m curious what you think of this – of Trump as the nominee. It’s one thing for him to be the presumptive nominee, win some primaries.
Speech at a convention. Assuming he beats back the delegate revolt, which I hope he doesn’t, but let’s just say he does. Speech at a convention watched by 15 million people, debates watched by, God knows, how many people. The Clinton-Trump debate would get a big audience. I don’t know. How do you tell 25 year-olds he happens to be the nominee of the Republican Party and every Republican you’ve ever heard of, with very few exceptions, is supporting him, but he’s not really what the Republican Party is about? What does that mean at some point?
GOLDBERG: It means that he’s the chief spokesman of the party, and everyone is wearing loyalty to their standard-bearer. I think that’s exactly right. Again, one of the sort of silver linings to all of this is we may go back to the days of reinforcing this important distinction that I think got way too lost in the Bush years that there’s a difference between being a Republican and being a conservative.
Again, if it weren’t Donald Trump, I’ve been arguing for years that I think we’d be better off if we had more of a transactional relationship with the Republican president. We say these five things are nonnegotiable. You can’t betray us on Court appointments – you can come up with the list. And then everything else you can go and talk to Democrats, or you can talk to Republicans and we can have an argument. You don’t have to be a movement guy. We don’t have to – because part of the problem with Bush – there was a certain populist element to Bush where because of the born-again Christian stuff, because of being sort of a Texan populist figure who speaks American and all that, he got away with a lot of things that as a conservative, I didn’t like.
The compassionate conservatism thing I never liked – I wrote about it a lot, I got a lot of grief over it at the time. It may have been politically necessary, but as a conservative, I didn’t feel like I had to agree with it just because it was tactically or strategically something he needed to do to get elected. If he wanted to use people like me, not that I matter that much, but my view is – Bill Buckley understood this – that sometimes criticizing Republicans from the right helps Republicans.
That’s what Bill Clinton understood implicitly. That being attacked from the left helped him win over people in the middle. If Trump were more politically sophisticated, he would understand this and actually have something of a Faustian bargain with places like The Weekly Standard and National Review and say, “Look, I’m not that rightwing; those guys are attacking me.” I never thought I was betraying the Republican Party by criticizing the Republican Party; in some ways, I thought it was kind of helping. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether I’m helping or hurting the Republican Party, my job is not to do that.
KRISTOL: We criticized Harriet Miers’ nomination by George Bush, and I remember, by God, the White House was furious. We ended up with Justice Alito. I always cite that as an example of “Oh, you shouldn’t go against – you’re on the team, you got to be on the team.” The country is much better off with Sam Alito as the Justice.
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