The rise of Donald Trump has been frightening for many Americans, not least for the Republican intellectuals and journalists who have been given the label of “reform conservatives.” This group, which includes the New York Times’ Ross Douthat and Slate columnist Reihan Salam, has broken with party orthodoxy on issues like higher-income tax cuts and spoken out in favor of a more robust domestic policy agenda. Trump, too, has broken with various GOP shibboleths, but his contempt for truth and substance has been one of the reasons so many reform conservatives have come out against him.
Yuval Levin, editor of the journal National Affairs, has become both one of reform conservatism’s most prominent voices; he’s also an opponent of Trump. He is the author of a new book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. Blurbed by everyone from House Speaker Paul Ryan to George Packer, the book is almost eerily well-timed: His discussion of our failed institutions and crumbling social structures is depressingly relevant in the age of Trump.
I spoke with Levin over the phone. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we talked about whether the conservative movement is to blame for Trump, what modern conservatism has failed to offer, and the prospect of voting for Hillary Clinton.
Isaac Chotiner: What is it about our current moment that made you want to write this book?
Yuval Levin: The problem that I am trying to diagnose is the inability of our politics to speak to what people sense as the problems they confront. Nostalgia gets in the way of that, it seems to me, because we have a lot of baby-boomer politicians who take their favorite parts of the last half-century and more to be the American norm. You have a lot of people on the left who really miss the economic arrangements of America before the 1970s and see those as kind of normal. On the right, you see a lot of people who are nostalgic for what the Reagan Revolution offered in the 1980s. In both cases you can see why: Those were moments of success. It seems to me that the nostalgia for those moments on the left and the right are keeping both the left and right from addressing problems of these times.
A lot of my work, and the work of the people that I work together with who have been called reform conservatives, is really about trying to get conservatives to see that what we ought to be doing is applying our principles to contemporary circumstances instead of repeating mantras from the ’80s.
I know you are close to Paul Ryan. When I look at him, I see basically Reaganism on steroids. He was a follower of Jack Kemp, who was one of the intellectual godfathers of the Reagan tax cut . And Ryan wants tax cuts and social spending cuts. So how is he different from Republicans of the 1980s?
It’s a vital question to ask. I think Ryan is someone who is, in a sense, trying to bridge a party that at its core is still trying for a kind of recovery for Reaganism and a vision that’s much more about civil society. Nowadays, when you hear Ryan talk about welfare and poverty, I think he very much speaks in the language of trying to return some power and meaningful authority to the mediating institutions of society. For him, those kinds of changes are not ultimately about the size of government exactly but are about the kind of role that government plays.
At the same time, I do think that he, in some important respects, sees himself as a kind of extension of Kempism. Both those elements are there. If you look at somebody in Congress like [Utah Republican] Sen. Mike Lee, a modern communitarian conservative, I think you see something more like the future that I do think Ryan is aiming at. Lee, of course, is not as tied to the status quo of the party and can just articulate that kind of thing.
I think a lot of the skepticism about Ryan from people on the left is rooted in the fact that a more activist agenda is hard to square with a huge tax cut aimed at part at the wealthy.
Yeah, I do think there’s a tension there, and on taxes I’ve not been exactly where Paul Ryan has been. It seems to me that, ultimately, if you were to just listen to the Republican Party in the last decade and step back and say, “What do they want?” you could all too easily say that what they want is just today’s existing government at a smaller scale and lower cost. They want to spend a little less on what we’re already doing. I think there’s a terrible mistake. Conservatives have to offer a different vision of the kind of role the government can play in American life. It probably would be a smaller government. The kind of decentralization that I’m talking about I think would lead to less federal spending. That’s not the point of it: The point of it is to better enable 21st-century America to thrive by giving it a kind of government that’s much better adapted to its strengths.
What would be an example of that?
The consequence of fragmentation is that our society in general is less concentrated and more dispersed; and so that finding solutions to truly entrenched problems like intergenerational poverty is just more likely to happen from the bottom up than the top down. Welfare policies, for example, should try to empower experimentation with solutions at the local level rather than thinking that just a check from Washington is the answer.
If you want to address something like the growing cost of health care, there are different ways to think about that. You could say what’s needed to make things more efficient is more control. A more centralized control of what the insurance product is, and then a system that works around that product. That’s basically Obamacare. It’s not insane, I just think it’s not well suited to the kinds of challenges we have. What conservatives are offering instead is much more of a decentralized answer that says the way to arrive at more efficiency is to allow providers to give consumers many more options. To allow consumers to make meaningful choices among those options and let their choices shape the system. That’s also what school choice looks like. I think that’s one important distinction between left and right today.
Donald Trump’s rise, I think many people would argue, is also about the failure of institutions. How does Trump fit into your thinking?
I haven’t been shy about Trump. I’m an opponent. I don’t want to suggest that I saw him coming or predicted him. I don’t know if anybody did, but certainly I did not.
Don’t worry, nobody did.
I do think that somewhere near the core of what’s going on here around Trump is this sense of failure of institutions. It’s funny: One way to think about Trump is as a kind of populist force, but populists generally say that the powerful in America are stepping all over the people. I think Trump is saying something like the opposite of that. He’s saying that our institutions, our establishment, are much too weak, not much too strong. It’s just pathetic. It’s actually a very unusual kind of populist appeal: He offers himself as a kind of beacon of strength, which you would have to take implicitly at least as an argument that our problem is weakness. Our institutions are not living up to their obligations and not serving people’s needs.
I think there’s some truth to that. Again, a fragmenting society, a fracturing society also just has a lot less confidence in its institutions. One thing that’s really striking when you contrast today’s America with that of the mid-20th century is the level of confidence in large institutions in post–World War II America. It’s stunning.
Whereas now it is basically just the military, right?
Yeah, pretty much. It’s not just the loss of faith in the federal government, though that’s stunning too, but a loss of faith in all large institutions. Churches no less than universities, no less than banks, no less than journalism.
Are Republicans at least partly to blame for allowing Trump to happen?
I would offer a caveat before answering that question which is, I think, that I’m still in the place, and it seems like most people are, where the lessons I tend to draw from what’s happened so far tend to sound like what I thought before Trump was on the scene and if only people had listened this wouldn’t have happened.
Yes, everyone has fallen into that trap.
Yeah, and I do too. Surely that is inadequate. That said, I do think that some of what allowed this to happen is what the kind of younger reform types on the right have been warning about for 10 years or so. This disconnection of this party from its own electorate, the sense that conservatives have had in American politics that we own the Republican Party and so we approach it possessively rather than persuasively.
What that’s meant in practice is that we’re not actually offering Republican voters very much. When the answer to Trump is Ted Cruz going around saying, “Well, Trump’s not a conservative,” a lot of Republican voters just listen to that and say yeah, so what else?
You also said that about Trump though, right?
Certainly if you look at the National Review issue against Trump last year, last fall, in part of course that was directed to conservatives, it was easy to fall into that. Certainly a lot of the arguments made there, I think mine included, were basically warning Republicans that this person shouldn’t fool them into thinking that he represents conservative ideas.
At the end of the day, Trump didn’t actually try to fool people into thinking that. That was not what he said. I think part of the lesson that Republicans should draw is that they can’t just say conservatism and expect to win the allegiance of the Republican Party. They have to approach the party in terms of solutions. They have to show that they understand the problems people confront and that they have something to offer.
I do think that there will be lessons here for conservatives to learn that run much deeper than that. I can’t say that I’ve fully internalized those, or that I can articulate them related to nationalism, and patriotism, and the relationship of race to all of that and identity politics.
Conservative isn’t a good word for Trump, but it does seem to me that the way in which he fits in best with contemporary American conservatism is the strain of anti-intellectualism you see on talk radio and Fox News, where people who are completely unwilling to admit that, say, global warming is occurring. In terms of bluster and bullshit, there seems to be some overlap.
Well yeah, I think that’s right. I think in part that has happened because of this kind of disconnect between conservatives and contemporary problems. I think on the left and on the right, and really in any political movement in a free society, there’s a kind food chain of ideas. At the beginning of that there has to be some contention with reality, with contemporary circumstances.
I think a lot of people have been shocked by the amount of bigotry from Trump supporters on social media and elsewhere. I have certainly been taken aback by it and I was wondering if you have, too.
Well I think part of what we’re seeing this year in general, and in very different ways on the left and the right, is a kind of cratering of identity politics. I do think that the appeal of a certain kind of white identity politics and Trumpism has been greater than I would’ve imagined. When I write about Trump, what I get back is just loads of anti-Semitism. I don’t know how much of that is actually there. That is, I don’t know if there are a lot of people with views like this or if there just happened to be enough to have time to send me an email.
I would say that there is a certain kind of complacency about this subject on the left that’s probably a little dangerous, too. I think the cratering of identity politics is happening on the left, too. Just in a different way. There’s a kind of descent into a really crude identity politics among some younger voices on the left that I think should worry people.
Have you lost any friends or argued with friends about Trump?
Oh I’ve certainly argued with friends about it. I don’t think I’ve lost any friends, so maybe they’re just too nice to come out and say so plainly. Definitely I’ve argued with some. The culture I’m in is not representative of conservatives in general, but it’s certainly not exclusively anti-Trump either.
What do you think appeals to them about him? Or is it just that they don’t like Hillary Clinton?
At this point it’s become hard to say who would’ve been pro-Trump at the beginning of this process, because right now the only argument that anybody makes for Trump, I think including Trump really, is that he’s not Hillary Clinton. That’s an argument that a lot of people on the right find persuasive, and the counter-argument I make is that, ultimately, the problem with Trump is that he’s unfit to be president and the problem with Hillary Clinton is that she would be a terrible president and use the power of the office to do terrible things. Those are each independently reasons not to vote for these people.
I think a lot of conservative or Republican voters just think that ultimately they have to decide which is the least of these evils, and Trump tells them he’ll appoint these judges or be friendly to this idea that they like and they cling to that as enough. I don’t think that’s crazy. I don’t think that’s totally unreasonable, but it does seem to me ultimately to be the wrong choice.
That means you’re voting for Hillary?
No. That means I’m not voting for either one of them. I’m a protester this year.
Who do you think Paul Ryan’s going to vote for when he gets in the voting booth?
I don’t know. Those are private moments. If he tells us he’ll vote for Trump I think we have to take him at his word.