The national divisions that emerged in the runup to Donald Trump’s election were largely unseen in one group of Americans—namely, the overlapping and generally liberal ranks of college professors, writers, and intellectuals. Mark Bauerlein is an exception. An English professor at Emory University and a senior editor at the journal First Things, Bauerlein supported Trump’s candidacy, hailing it as a response to political correctness, which he views as immensely damaging to American society. He is also a hawk on immigration and a fierce patriot.
A religious Catholic, Bauerlein once wrote a short piece about how disturbed he was about swearing, which included the line, “When we hear obscenities in closed public places, we should recognize conscience as an ally against degradation.” One wonders how someone horrified by vulgarity could vote for Donald Trump. Yet, as he told the New Yorker before Trump came to office, “There are some things in politics that you say, ‘This runs against what I believe.’ You have to suck it up.”
Now that the Trump dream has become reality, I wanted to talk to Bauerlein about how the president has behaved since Nov. 8. Bauerlein had hailed Trump’s rise as a deliverance from the status quo. Did he feel that deliverance has been worth the cost? During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the different forms of disdain elites can show, Trump’s brand of identity politics, and the role of racism in American life.
Isaac Chotiner: How do you think Trump’s time as president-elect and president have gone?
Mark Bauerlein: I will take the inauguration speech. ... That was simply a firm and vigorous reiteration of everything he promised in the campaign. It sounded the hyperpopulist message that many found reminiscent of Huey Long and other demagogues. I actually found it closer to the populism of Walt Whitman and his paean to the working man, and the fact that the great spirit of America is not to be found in the legislatures or the executives but in the people, the ordinary common man. And he singles out the necessity of the president taking his hat off to the people at inauguration, instead of the people taking off their hats. I saw that as an old Andrew Jackson, 19th-century populist rendition that is absolutely necessary at the present time, because the political class has become precisely a class. That is, a distinct group with its own interests, and those interests are distinct from everyone who lives outside the state capitals and the Beltway.
The tone seemed a little different than Whitman, and he has Goldman Sachs executives standing behind him now while he signs executive orders. What exactly is he talking about in terms of the people vs. the elites?
I think that the jury is out on whether these figures are going to come through or not.
The Cabinet officials, the billionaires, the people from Wall Street who are coming into Trump’s [administration], whose profile looks altogether different from that of the working man that Trump claimed to represent. My take on this is that I have seen government in the past 20 or 30 years, leaders who do claim the mantle of social responsibility and responsiveness to the common people, and they do have a profile that is far from corporate America, and they have proven either incompetent or themselves venal. Part of the reason we have Donald Trump is that we have had a crisis of leadership for the past 17, 18 years. People feel that, increasingly, those in political power are disengaged. Bill Clinton never made anyone feel condescended to. He never talked down to people. And believe me, when you talk to people who live in the Midwest or small towns or rural areas, they feel quite keenly the contempt.
He has made a contract. He has made a deal. A year from now, if Exxon’s profits have shot up through the roof and the price of gasoline has gone up, he broke the deal and you will see the people reject him.
You talk about leaders having contempt: I went to an Islamic center here in California a week ago and talked to people, and they feel that Donald Trump has contempt for them. Does that sort of contempt bother you?
I wouldn’t call it contempt. I would call it hostility and suspicion.
He feels that there are serious religious issues that can lead to threats. Donald Trump is that old-fashioned patriot who feels that when you come to this country, you meld into the melting pot. You can keep your Italian American ethnicity, but you are American, and if you don’t express that patriotism then something has gone wrong.
Donald Trump has expressed hostility for plenty of people who have displayed their patriotism. If you are worried about elites being dismissive of average people, shouldn’t you be worried about him too?
He is brash, he is blunt, he is part of that rough-and-tumble world of New York real estate. He is in contract negotiations, and big money is at stake. I am not going to discount what people say, what they feel from him. I am not going to argue with them over that. I think we are at a stage where the full-on culture war is back. And Donald Trump has ignited it, and one reason so many people turned to him is that they felt the Republican Party had capitulated. Isaac, I was a liberal. I was a hard-core atheist, secular liberal for most of my adult life. I have been part of these academically elite zones, and believe me the contempt is very strong in those places. I became conservative, and I have been frustrated by the lack of leaders in this country to articulate a social and religious conservative position in an effective way.
My sense from reading and hearing you is that moral relativism and political correctness on college campuses and elsewhere have changed your politics. Things like, say, someone getting up on a college campus and saying America was no better than Putin’s Russia. I assume that would drive you around the bend if a liberal college professor did that. Am I wrong?
Well, I’ve been at meetings when people have talked in the past, like when George W. Bush was elected, about a theocon conspiracy at work. I would say, “Are you delusional?”
OK, but what do you make of the president saying we were no better than Putin’s Russia?
You know, I was traveling.
He has said this several times. Bill O’Reilly called Putin a killer, and Trump said we were no better. You are someone who talks about American greatness.
You know, Isaac, I didn’t see this. I’d love to have seen it.
Did you see his comments at the National Prayer Breakfast, where he made a joke about Arnold Schwarzenegger?
I didn’t see that either. [Laughs.]
You saw what he said about McCain and POWs in the campaign. It just seems like he does the kind of things that would drive you crazy and contradict your theory about American greatness and why Trump is important.
I think it’s part of the unscripted nature of things. When you are under pressure, you are going to say things, and get frustrated. And that’s because you don’t have handlers, you don’t have everything laid out for you. It is not all stage-managed. This is part of the rough-and-tumble. For my sake, I can forgive people a lot of things that they say if I see a base there, a rock bottom, that I support.
One of the problems, Isaac, is that we are living in a society today that is so damn unforgiving. People say dumb things, they make dumb jokes, and we film them and humiliate them and shame them. On college campuses, everyone is frightened to death. My liberal colleagues are scared of saying the wrong things all the time. This to me is a perversion of liberalism. One of the greatnesses of liberalism, the John Stuart Mill liberalism, is that we give people space to say the wrong things sometimes, to think the wrong things, and we allow for human frailty. I am a believer in original sin.
There are people going to bed tonight because they are afraid not of protests on campus against them but because they are afraid of getting deported, or afraid their president hates them, or they are caught in Yemen when their kid is already here. That just bothers me more.
I have faith that the Trump administration, that if it comes in with a blunt hammer and is too sweeping, you will get people stepping in and providing more nuance, more flexibility, and more humanity on the ground. I don’t know the details. I am willing to accept criticism of the immigration issues. The policy maybe needed to be phased in. But I have faith in the administration.
Do you think Trump believes that everyone is the same under the skin, which you have written about as a fundamental value of yours?
I do. This is the Martin Luther King Jr. vision. He is relaxed around all different kinds of people.
If they are celebrities.
No, if you go down to Lower Manhattan and talk to the construction workers down there, they will say they like Trump. He gets us.
I thought you meant people of different races. All of his black friends are celebrities.
So I do think there is a taking everyone on individual merits in personal interactions. And Isaac, if I could tell you how many people I have known who mutter all the right platitudes about diversity and tolerance, and I have seen them treat other human beings in nasty ways.
You talk about why identity politics are bad. Do you now think Trump and Steve Bannon are very consciously practicing identity politics?
I think what has happened here is that identity politics have forced everyone to start thinking in these terms. And I think on the left, you have an alarm: What if white men start playing the game of identity politics the way we have for the past 40 years? That is going to go very badly for everyone.
Was there some point where I fell asleep and white men were no longer, broadly speaking, running the country?
And that is the objection. White men have been playing it all along. Well, let me go through some things. Right now the undergraduate population is close to 60 percent female. Women get more Ph.D.s than men do. Medical school is now half female and half male. Law school now has more women entering.
Joseph Epstein, the conservative essayist, had a piece where he called Obama the first president who didn’t get there on his own merits, as if the first 43 guys, including sons of former presidents, did it all on their own. This idea of besieged white men doesn’t seem like reality to me.
I’ll grant you that point. But let’s come back to identity politics. The Civil Rights Act was an attempt to cancel identity politics. What happened in the implementation and affirmative action was the identity politics. That’s an example of a great liberal reform being put to political uses. If you walk into any admissions office at a selective college, you will see hives of mendacity going on in order to play the identity politics game. Let me ask you, Isaac: Why has identity become such a fixation?
I would tend to blame racism.
OK, why at a time when we have turned racism into the great behavioral sin in our time …
You know who just got elected, right?
But my question is: Why is racism held above greed, wrath, and all the other sins of human beings?
I don’t know the answer. What’s yours?
I am not quite sure about that. I think there are historical issues about the plight of the black community in this country, which is terrible. I think there is a lot of white guilt, liberal guilt, that people try to exorcise in the wrong ways. But to me it’s strange.
We should reconvene in a year and see where things are. I hope they are better than you think. I’m worried and afraid.
I have no idea where we are going to be in a year. I see no lessons from the past that I can apply to the next five years. It’s a whole new historical moment we are in.