Ross Douthat, the New York Times op-ed columnist, probably didn’t imagine that he would spend much of the past six months writing about Donald Trump. For a brief moment in 2012 and early 2013, it seemed possible that Republicans, chastened by Barack Obama’s re-election, would regroup and recalibrate, and perhaps pursue what Douthat and Reihan Salam (a Slate contributor and fellow “reform conservative”) had called for in their 2008 book, Grand New Party: an economic agenda focused on the middle class and policies friendly to an increasingly diverse America. Alas, the one 2016 candidate who has really bucked Republican orthodoxy, at least rhetorically, has been Trump, who Douthat views as a dangerous demagogue.
Nevertheless, Douthat has been one of the most thoughtful commentators—conservative or otherwise—on the Trump phenomenon and what it means for (and says about) the Republican Party. When we spoke by phone late last week, we discussed the rot that has infected some of the rightwing media, the future of the religious right in a changing America, and who a conservative should vote for in a hypothetical Clinton versus Trump matchup. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Isaac Chotiner: How has the Republican campaign affected your views about the future of the GOP, as you laid it out in Grand New Party?
Ross Douthat: It’s an odd mix of vindication and depression. The Trump phenomenon has proved one part of our thesis in a remarkably vivid and totally unexpected way, while also possibly suggesting the inefficiency of wonkish policy ideas to address underlying problems. I don’t think there is any question that Trump has revealed or exposed a deep alienation of a very large—larger even than I expected—swath of Republican-leaning voters from the basic orthodoxies of the party. That is the problem Reihan and I were trying to point out and have been talking about ever since. I didn’t expect it to be exposed in quite this manner, but it has, and it is woven together with awful celebrity politics and xenophobia and violence—I would say the dark side of Trump, but it’s mostly all dark side at this point. As someone who is trying to imagine a future conservatism, it leaves you wondering whether you are too late—the alienation is too strong to be addressed in meliorist ways—and whether it’s a little silly to imagine that a bunch of pundits and journalists could come up with five great policy ideas that would fix this problem.
There’s this sense, especially in the media, that with Sanders and Trump everyone is angry now. It’s an interesting narrative given that the president’s approval ratings are at or above 50 percent.
Yeah, although that is, I think, almost certainly driven by the Trump phenomenon in part. I don’t see any other causal mechanism that could be pushing Obama up that quickly in the last few months, but anyway, go on.
It’s just interesting that this is the moment when people have become so angry that they are turning to Trump.
I think you are right. I don’t think that people writ large are incredibly angry. I think Trump and Sanders are tapping into two discrete sources of anger that are confined to particular groups and demographics. I think Sanders is tapping into the disappointment of a particular slice of the left with the compromises of the Obama years and some of the disappointments of liberalism. And Trump is tapping into a larger group than the white working class, but particularly the white working class, which is not a majority of the country anymore. So it’s possible to have this politics of anger that is rooted in about 35 percent of the Democratic electorate and 35 percent of the Republican electorate but isn’t necessarily shared by the entire country.
Do you have an explanation for Trump, or is there one that appeals to you more, whether it’s trade or revulsion at having a black president?
I think it’s all of them. I thought that your colleague Jamelle Bouie’s piece about the racialization of white working class anxiety—I didn’t agree with all of it—but I thought it was a reasonable frame for understanding part of what is going on. You have this era where America is becoming a majority-minority country in some sense, and you have the first black president and you have all this talk in the media about this new coalition of ascendant voters leaving the Republican Party as just this rump party and so on. I don’t think it is surprising at all that this would lead to a kind of white identity politics. I think you have seen that on the right before Trump. You have seen the anxieties of the Obama era in the Glenn Beck moment and a lot of what Rush Limbaugh and figures like that have played into.
What I think liberals are disinclined to acknowledge is that all this isn’t just some sort of purely irrational, racially biased, or racist perspective. Seen from the outside, or seen from people who used to be a core Democratic constituency and now aren’t, there is a sense in which modern liberalism looks a little like an ethnic patronage machine in which you have everything from the politics of affirmative action to the politics of immigration reform, which all seem to be designed in certain ways to pursue, woo, and reward minority constituencies, and I don’t think it is necessarily unreasonable for a lot of hard-pressed white working class voters to see that as a trend in which they really are losing out.
You may have a situation where a lot of white working class people feel this way, but you also have a situation where a lot of minorities, particularly black Americans, feel like the Democratic Party establishment doesn’t care about law enforcement injustices against them or isn’t taking large enough steps to provide economic security or reform drug laws and the criminal justice system.
I think the fact that the white working class has reasonable grievances about the drift of liberalism doesn’t mean that black Americans can’t have reasonable grievances about the status quo. They can and do. I don’t agree wholeheartedly with what I take to be the Black Lives Matter vision but they are addressing real abuses and injustices that people on the right as well as the left have been acknowledging over the past 10 or 15 years.
What did you make of Kevin Williamson’s piece in the National Review, which essentially lashed out at white working class communities that are supporting Trump, and expressed contempt for them? Is this going to be a more and more common line from conservative writers in the age of Trump?
I don’t think so. Kevin is a very distinctive writer with a very distinctive take on these issues. Conservative politics at least tried to move in the opposite direction in the past few years. There had been at least some learning from the 47 percent debacle and what I think is the dead end of talking about makers versus takers, and talking about how people in the working class aren’t taxed enough, which was this bizarre theme of conservative commentary for a few years in the first Obama term. The drift on the right has been one I have favored, and says we need to have real respect for the struggles of the working class and talk about them, and not just cast everyone who gets government assistance as a moocher, and so on. And you see this in everything from the campaign Marco Rubio imagined he was going to run [laughs], to Paul Ryan saying he was wrong to use the makers and takers language.
You mentioned Rubio, who was often talked about as the reform-conservative candidate. What did you make of his presidential run?
Um, I guess I’d say this.
I am interpreting your pause as something less than enthusiasm.
[Laughs.] Well obviously his presidential run ended in failure, and it ended in failure despite having certain obvious strengths that made me and a lot of other people think that he was likely to be the nominee.
I am still not sure what I think about his reform conservative forays and how to integrate them into the story of his defeat. I think he was certainly the Republican politician who made the most moves in that direction, especially before he started running for president. A certain section of his policy agenda was as close to reform conservatism as any Republican candidate had come. At the same time, he was clearly trying to inject those ideas into the existing orthodoxy rather than shaping the orthodoxy. That’s how you ended up with his tax plan’s absurd fiscal math, where it was, “all right, the reform conservatives get their family friendly plan, and the Wall Street Journal gets its huge capital gains tax cuts.” And then he goes on to talk about how we have a debt crisis and so on.
None of that ever fully made sense, but I don’t think either the reform conservative stuff or the Wall Street Journal–friendly stuff really mattered all that much to how his campaign ended up playing out. I don’t think that with more talk about a family-friendly tax cut he would have beaten Donald Trump. I think part of the lesson of Trump is the power of narrative and personality to “trump” gamed-out policy agendas. The policy issue that hurt him was clearly immigration, and that’s an area where the broad reform conservative tendency tends to be a little bit divided. I am in the camp that tends to be skeptical of comprehensive immigration reform. It’s in my interest to say that if only he had been against it, he would be the nominee. I do think that’s true, but I don’t want to put too much weight on the argument.
I still sometimes think that if he hadn’t screwed up so badly in the debate with Christie he might be the nominee.
Well that too! All of this stuff is so contingent, and after the fact we sit back and say, “Here are the five forces that went into his defeat.” That can be true. There are things he could have done where he would have been in better shape. But if you take that moment away, he finishes ahead of Kasich in New Hampshire, he comes closer to beating Trump in South Carolina, and when he finally turns on Trump, it is not this flailing, desperate, insult-heavy thing. And he probably is in the position Cruz is in now.
We should be prepared for being mocked for being two pundits who still don’t understand that Trump is inevitable.
But Trump isn’t inevitable. [Laughs.] I still think it’s more likely than not that Trump isn’t the nominee. Once he is the nominee people can go back and mock this interview.
I was wondering where you see social conservatism now, in 2016. The conventional wisdom is that the left has, to some extent, won the culture war.
I think the conventional wisdom is mostly right with, of course, abortion being the sort of singular exception. Obviously, we’re talking a day after Donald Trump had an abortion-related public relations disaster. It’s a place where the playing field is still pretty level, sort of tilting back and forth, with incremental gains for the pro-life movement that I don’t think are going to be reversed in the near term, even with a more liberal Supreme Court.
On other issues, I would say that the past 10 years have been a sort of surprisingly rapid rout for socially conservative ideas. I think if you go back to the 1990s and the early 2000s, and you see sort of where the country was and where the elite level debate was, I think there was more support for a kind of moralistic impulse in public policy around sex, marriage, and family issues and that has diminished in various ways, and it’s diminished in tandem with the decline of religious commitment among young people. It’s diminished in tandem with the same-sex marriage debate. It diminished with the crack-up of the Bush administration, which tried to operationalize some of its ideas with the Marriage Promotion Initiative and the faith-based initiatives and so on.
Have your own views changed?
They’ve fluctuated, but haven’t changed dramatically. On same-sex marriage, for instance, I sort of assumed that it was inevitable starting at a relatively early point in that debate. Then I’ve sort of gone back and forth on how concerned social conservatives ought to be about that inevitability. I think once it actually happened, I ended up more concerned because of the ripple effects and implications for religious liberty debates or other debates related to sexuality and so on.
My sense is that conservative objections to same-sex marriage have gone from being more about the institution of marriage to now being about religious liberty.
Yeah, I think that social conservatives recognize that they didn’t just lose the debate about same-sex marriage. They lost the debate about the institution of marriage, and those two things were sort of connected to each other. The way people thought about marriage changed.
It also quickly became apparent that the new front would be: to what extent are religious groups objections to same-sex marriage going to be accommodated, to what extent is there going to be soft or hard social and legal pressure on religious institutions to change their views of sexuality. And that’s sort of where social conservatives are right now: They see themselves as fighting a defensive and possibly losing battle to prevent their institutions from becoming Bob Jones University. [The school was denied tax-exempt status due to policies like the one that prohibited interracial dating.]
Are you surprised by Trump’s high level of support from self-identified evangelicals? You wrote a book called Bad Religion.
I did write a book, sort of about what I call American heresies and how American religion and American Christianity is shot through these tendencies that I was pretty critical of. I think Trump’s appeal is connected in part to some of those tendencies. I think you can see a clear link between certain kinds of prosperity gospel preaching in support for a figure like Trump. I think you can see a clear link between certain kinds of Christian nationalism and support for Trump. Then, I also think that Trump is benefiting from the weakening of religious participation. He’s winning evangelicals who aren’t in church.
What do you make of the way some of the conservative media, including people like Limbaugh and Hannity, has dealt with Trump?
I belong to a group of conservative writers who have spent the past five or 10 years occasionally being attacked by figures like Rush Limbaugh and others with them saying that “these guys want us to get beyond the Reagan coalition, but there’s nothing wrong with the Reagan coalition, Reagan is great, and these guys are just closet liberals, or whatever.” Something along those lines. Yet, when push has come to shove, and a candidate has come along who doesn’t just want to sort of reform Reaganism, but literally intends to just dynamite it and replace it with a ridiculous cult of personality, those guardians of conservative orthodoxy either played along for a long time before they turned on him, like Mark Levin did, or have simply, like Hannity, ended up as sort of a ridiculous apologist.
Again, I didn’t have an incredibly high opinion of every sector of the conservative entertainment complex before this election, but I definitely think it’s been revealing about some people’s actual motivations and some people’s actual tendencies. I think it’s exposed a split that conservatives always sort of have known was there, but haven’t had a good enough reason to acknowledge, maybe to ourselves. Fox News is really two news networks. It’s a center right news network that has good, solid, interesting coverage if you’re watching Chris Wallace or the panel on Special Report or anything like that. Then, it has what Hannity and others like him do, which is just a sort of tribal identity politics for older white people.
Do you think there’s anything to the argument that a party which basically denies global warming is going to be especially vulnerable to a huckster?
Yes and no. I think there is something to that argument. I think the radio host in Wisconsin who interviewed Trump, and actually held his feet to the fire, said something like, “Look, we have to recognize that having spent so much time emphasizing how biased the mainstream media is, we’ve torn down the ability of media institutions to be gatekeepers.” He didn’t phrase it like that, but that was sort of the gist of it. I do think liberal media bias exists, and is very powerful, but, when your narrative is “you can’t trust what the media is saying,” what sort of allegedly straight down the middle shows are saying, and then someone comes along who just sort of lies constantly and ridiculously, like he lies the way he breathes air, then it’s harder, and when you have a certain set of conservative media personalities carrying water for him, it becomes very hard to just sort of identify and brand him as a liar.
The other thing I’d say, though, is that again, Trump’s audience is not just a Fox News audience, and that is part of his remarkable success. He is getting both people who trust Sean Hannity and people who are totally alienated from the movement of conservatism and don’t think there’s much in it for them, and are voting for him to sort of put the thumb in the eye of the Republican Party as it’s existed.
I know Times columnists are not supposed to endorse, and I know you have written that if Hillary and Trump are the nominees, the argument that not voting is the same as voting for Trump is silly. But do you think that Trump has reached a point of dangerousness where one really must vote against him?
It’s a secret ballot, Isaac, and I can’t possibly reveal to you who I would ever contemplate voting for.
I’m not sure of my own answer. In general, I think that not voting is a perfectly honorable and civic-minded course in an election with two options that you consider unacceptable. I think casting a protest vote is a totally acceptable course. I have done both in my life. If it came to it, where it was Hillary at 49.2 and Trump 49.1 in the polls, and Connecticut, where I am right now, was a crucial swing state, that would be an argument I’d want to consider at length, let’s put it that way.