In the New York Times on Thursday, after President Trump’s reaction to the killing in Charlottesville, Virginia, Julius Krein, the founder and editor of American Affairs, declared the Trump administration a disgrace. This might not seem notable except for one thing: The Times itself had only recently declared American Affairs to be a journal “dedicated to giving intellectual heft and coherence” to “Trumpism.”
In his op-ed, titled, “I Voted for Trump. And I Sorely Regret It.,” Krein stated that, “Far from making America great again, Mr. Trump has betrayed the foundations of our common citizenship … his increasingly appalling conduct will continue to repel anyone who might once have been inclined to work with him.” He also admitted of himself and his intellectual allies, “It is now clear that we were deluding ourselves.”
I spoke with Krein on the phone the day after the op-ed came out. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether American nationalism will invariably lead to bigotry, why the Republican Party is a poor vehicle for fighting inequality, and what exactly led Krein to come out against Trump this week.
Isaac Chotiner: What was it about Charlottesville, and Trump’s response to it, that was different than many other things Trump has done over the past two years?
Julius Krein: Yeah, I mean, the simple and obvious fact that somebody died, and it was obvious that there was some neo-Nazi psychopath who killed that person. To not state the obvious, to fail to “tell it like it is,” I thought was pathetic. And secondly, another difference is that in the past, when he had done these things that I thought were gaffes, when the media called him out on it, or some others called him out on it, he would say he misspoke or apologized or so on. And in this case, he is only going further.
When you say “gaffes”—in your piece you call them “Biden-esque gaffes”—he kept making “gaffes” about Muslims being banned, Judge Gonzalo Curiel, etc. Why would he keep making gaffes that happened to all line up with bigotry?
I am not defending it and didn’t defend it at the time, but to give you a sense of my thought process: He said all these dumb things, but at the same time he had worked with people of all different backgrounds, and there was no evidence of any problems in his professional life on that—
Well, taking out a racist ad about the Central Park Five.
Well, yeah, but he said to take the Confederate flag down after the Dylann Roof thing when Bill Kristol said they should keep it up. That’s one. He was also, like, Caitlyn Jenner can use the bathroom in Trump Tower, and all of that.
I suppose it is just hard for anyone to believe that people have genuine sympathy for this sort of thing. You just say, “Oh, this must be a stupid thing.” About banning all the Muslims, a lot of people said, “Oh, don’t take that seriously. What he means is that we need a better vetting policy,” which one can agree or disagree with, but a lot of people had that view.
OK, but, c’mon, you are a smart guy, you know his appeal isn’t just gaffes, and you know when he does things like tell stories about dipping bullets in pig’s blood what he is trying to do, right?
Yeah, you know, it’s clear now he definitely wants to pander to them. The other piece of it is that our media discourse has just become so coarse and vulgar anyway, and he didn’t create that, but he exploited it. I admit that I over-rationalized it, but to me it seemed at the time like he was going after cheap publicity, and it’s easy, the media runs after it, that’s what it’s about.
It’s totally fair to say that all the signs were there. I’ve admitted that. I also think Charlottesville is a bigger deal. It’s not just me. All the business leaders, the head of the AFL-CIO, they were able to put aside all these other things too. What surprises me is that so many people want to interview me and not them, but whatever.
Everyone who goes along with a political candidate movement or party makes trade-offs and says they will accept A,B,C, and D to get E,F,G, and H.
That’s a calculation that can be rational or irrational, wrong or right. But that’s different than saying you were deluded, as you do in the piece. The former would be saying to yourself, “Deep down I know there is something wrong with him and his opinions about race or whatever, but on the whole I think he can bring out a movement that I think is best for the country.” That’s different than saying you misjudged him. Do you have a sense of which of these two things it was?
Yeah, to me, I didn’t think the racist stuff was real. I thought it was media provocation. And that the economic or other stuff—that’s what he really cared about, and we are not electing a Pope, we are electing a president. If he gets even a couple things done, it’s good for the country, and by the way good for everybody. A better trade policy and so forth would be the best things you could do for more groups. But it seems like what he really cared about was stoking racial tension.
You are someone who is white and considers himself a nationalist, but not a white nationalist—
What is the project of nationalism in America today and how does it avoid white nationalism? Is there an inherent problem—
Yeah, I think nationalism has become a totally tarnished word, but there is still a need for whatever you want to call it, civic engagement, communitarianism. I think Mark Lilla’s book actually, The Once and Future Liberal—that probably best explains it from a more left perspective about the need to have some sense of community, and actually unite all Americans of different backgrounds. The point of diversity is a bunch of people working together, not further dividing each other. So you need some sort of common project, and common commonalities. To use his example, I will never know what it is like to be a black motorist, but one thing we share is that we are both Americans citizens who care about the country. So that to me is really the core of it. And the main focus should be about the economic issues.
To go back to nationalism, the biggest problem is the Republican mindset, the Reaganite mindset that we are all just individuals and let everyone loose to acquire wealth. That hasn’t worked. Not only do we have rising inequality, but the people who defend rising inequality say it will lead to more productivity and the pie is going to be bigger blah blah. That hasn’t happened, and no one has been willing to look at the deeper problems behind that.
Is there an inherent contradiction between those wishes and the modern-day Republican Party?
One thing with Trump is that he has these economic nationalist instincts that he has had for a long time. But then you have a situation where people in the Cabinet and writing laws don’t give a shit about this stuff. Is there an inherent problem with the Republican Party being a vehicle for it?
Definitely the current Republican Party and congressional party and leadership of today—that’s one of the reasons I liked Trump. I didn’t think he was one of them. But yeah this project goes way back really to disillusionment with the Romney campaign and talk amongst friends, and then it emerged in the blog, but it was always about policy stuff. We always acknowledged that Trump was an imperfect vehicle but the only one, and maybe an adequate one. That project goes on. There are people from the right, left, and center who I think are very interested in these ideas, and I think there is a discussion or compromises around, and I think we are probably going to be able to do that even better now that it’s clear that the journal was about these policies and not any one figure.
Well sadly Trump is president for the next 3½ years.
We’ll see. I have no insight, but if he keeps going the way he is going, it may not be that long.
I just want to go back to this for a minute: When you have nationalism, and there is a majority group in the country, whether it’s Hindus in India, or white Christians in America, how worried are you that there is something inherent in nationalism that will lead you astray in directions of racial or ethnic demagoguery?
I think it’s a very serious and difficult problem, but all the important problems are serious and difficult. It’s important to recognize that, but that doesn’t mean you can just ignore all the problems with getting rid of nationalism or communitarianism or whatever you want to call it, either. The country doesn’t really know what unites it anymore.
Not even anti-Nazism apparently.
That used to be it, really, and that’s threatened now. So it’s made it even worse. But it needs to be more than that—it certainly needs to be that—and it should be something positive too. It’s less of a dogmatic, “This is what American nationalism is.” If there was an answer to that question, we wouldn’t be talking about it. It’s more, “What is the place of the nation-state today?” You can say it’s terrible, but guess what: All of our democratic institutions are national.
It’s more asking the question: What is the role of the nation-state, and if it has one, what is the underlying sense of civic nationalism that is going to keep us together and also keep us noble and away from the Nazi stuff.