Last week, a large contingent of the conservative intelligentsia signed a letter, modestly titled “Scholars and Writers for America.” It urged voters to support Donald Trump for president. Some of the names had long approved of Trump’s campaign; others had exhibited an initial reluctance to do so. Predictably absent was one of the most prominent conservative writers in America, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat.
Douthat has been one of the most outspoken conservative voices against Trump’s demagogy; at the same time, he has also taken on the task, in his New York Times op-ed column, of trying to explain Trump’s appeal to so many voters. In a controversial column last month, for example, he wrote of Hillary Clinton’s “Samantha Bee Problem,” arguing that liberalism’s “cultural orthodoxy is sufficiently stifling to leave many Americans looking to the voting booth as a way to register dissent.” Douthat, who has long written of the GOP’s responsibility for Trump, was suggesting that “institutionalized political correctness” was also partially to blame.
I interviewed Douthat back in April, but with Trump struggling and Republicans starting to panic (again), it seemed like a good time to talk. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the importance of understanding Trump’s supporters, whether the GOP can clean house after Nov. 8, and whether a President Trump’s incompetence would be more or less scary than his authoritarianism.
Isaac Chotiner: What has surprised you most over the past several months about the Republican Party’s acceptance of Trump?
Ross Douthat: I don’t think that much has surprised me in the last couple of months. Once it became clear that figures like Paul Ryan and others were going to sort of live with Trump and assume that, like a bad dream, he would fade with daylight at some point, it really wasn’t plausible to imagine a huge crack-up in the party or intense interventions or anything like that.
Do you think the Ryans and McConnells of the world actually want Trump to win because they think it will help them get their agendas passed, or do you think they consider him a threat to the country and would prefer that he lose—but don’t want to blow up the party before November?
My general impression, from a distance, is that most of the people in the leadership of the Republican Party would prefer that Trump lose the election. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t open to a possible upside if he wins. That doesn’t mean that they feel the same way day-to-day. I think anyone who’s gone through this election can sympathize, in certain ways, with having your mind change from day to day. Generally, I think that at the elite D.C. leadership level, probably most people agree with the Bush family, but feel constrained from saying it. They obviously want to keep Congress as well. Supporting Trump is, again, a partial means to that end.
Are you angry with the people who decided to support him?
I haven’t been angry since the convention. The convention made me angry, watching these guys issue their mealy-mouthed, half-hearted, fingers-crossed-behind-their-back endorsements, and then go in on this ridiculous thing that the Republican Party has done. That made me angry, but you accept it. I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is reality and not some fever dream I’m having.
Have any Republicans surprised you?
Ted Cruz has surprised me twice. I was surprised that he did not endorse Trump and surprised, in a good way, by his showing at the convention. It made me look at him in a new light. Then I was surprised again that he decided, actually, no, he had to endorse Trump after all. At that point, I returned to looking at him in the older light.
Do you think his endorsement will eventually play to his benefit?
It’s been a classic case of poor Machiavellian overthinking. If there was any possibility that he was going to endorse Trump in the end, then he should have done it in the most pro forma way possible and avoided the subject going forward. Instead, he clearly thought that it made strategic sense not to endorse Trump, to be the last leader of the anti-Trump forces. All of it was overthinking, which I think Cruz does a great deal of. Somebody said, “Ted Cruz always has a plan. That doesn’t mean it’s a good plan.”
Do you think there will be a housecleaning of some of the people who supported Trump, should he lose big? Is that even possible?
In terms of his voters, his constituents, I don’t think there should be a housecleaning. I think conservatives and Republicans who have this idea that, after the election is over, we can finally repudiate the Trumpkins, don’t understand the basic nature of the Republican coalition, which this election should have brought home to them. The party is dependent on a lot of, especially, lower-middle-class white voters in the Rust Belt and South. I’m also in the camp that feels that the Trump phenomenon channeled many legitimate, serious concerns, as well as bigotry. To the extent that there is a legitimate side to what draws people to Trump, that should be addressed.
In terms of Trump-supporting politicians, again, you can’t have a purge because the whole leadership of the party endorsed him. There’s no one to lead it.
Have you never heard of the Cultural Revolution?
Let’s put it this way: The party would benefit from turning a page in its 2020 field. I think that the politicians who were beaten by Donald Trump and then endorsed him, that’s something that they will carry and should carry, for the duration of their career.
You talked about the base, and who they are. Has this election made you think that perhaps they aren’t conservative in the way you might have once thought? And as a reform conservative who has opposed the rigid orthodoxies of small-government Republicanism, has it given you any cause for hope?
On the one hand, it’s made a strong case that there is more ideological space for reform conservative ideas than even I thought. I always believed, and I think most of us involved in the project always believed, that there was no reason it couldn’t appeal to a large swath of the Republican electorate. In fact, the number of so-called constitutional conservatives who would reject any reform of government out of hand was always quite small. The success of conservative figures as diverse as John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and so on, showed that there was plenty of room for various sorts of reformists and populist heretics in the Republican primary. What you needed, basically, were gatekeepers who’d allow politicians to be a little bit more creative. Now, of course, what then happens is Trump came along and smashed the gatekeepers and the gate. Which is not what I was anticipating, but that was always the theory. In that sense, yes, Trump is good news for the reform conservative project.
The bad news for it, though, is that his rise and success suggest some of the limits of a wonkish tinkering perspective on the working class’s problems, the middle classes’ struggles, all of these things. I described Trump as a reform conservative’s evil twin, meaning that he was picking up on a lot of the concerns and anxieties that people in my group of policy writers were trying to address, but he was addressing them, one, with a lot of policy ideas like huge tariffs and so on that I think are basically bad, terrible policy, but also he was addressing them through sheer demagogy about bringing back the jobs and restoring an economy that isn’t ready to be restored.* To the extent that that was the reason that he was able to smash the gatekeepers to death and so on, then it’s not exactly clear what the lesson is for conservatives or reformers. You don’t want politicians to make implausible promises, but there’s always the possibility that those implausible promises were crucial to why this set of ideological heresies came about, and that’s what hit me about the lessons of this year.
That raises the question of whether someone with his set of ideological heresies could have prospered without the racism.
I think the answer is yes. Now, I don’t know if that candidate would have had quite the passionate core. I do think he used the birther issue to cultivate a very loud, and now clearly successful, part of the right-wing fringe which you could shorthand as Breitbart. That fringe was attracted not just to the fact that he was popular, but that he was speaking the language of white anxiety and white identity politics and so on.
But I watched every Republican debate. I listened to many, many Donald Trump speeches, and those nonracialized or at best semi-racialized populist themes from the critique of the Iraq war to the stop on trade deals and so on all the way through his Democratic rhetoric around Medicare and Social Security. I think its appeal is limited to white people, because it is wound up with Trump’s bigoted appeals, but I think it suggests that there is a constituency for economic populism straightforwardly. The question is about the race stuff, but it’s also about to what extent you can do the populism with better policy to get the same kind of response that Trump got. That I’m not sure about.
To what degree do you think he is a sincere authoritarian and to what degree is he a ridiculous buffoon whose quasi-fascism would be less dangerous than his incompetence and cluelessness?
I started out, when I did not imagine that he could possibly win, seeing him in a positive light. I saw him as a fool in the medieval sense, the fool who speaks truths that other politicians are afraid to speak. That’s when I was anti- anti-Trump. But that was phase one. Phase two was, basically, anxiety about his authoritarian tendencies. That phase is still with me, I guess. I still think he has strong authoritarian tendencies. I wrote a column about whether he is a fascist. The answer was no, not really, but the term fascistic is useful, right? It’s closer to fascism than you’d normally get in the American context, and that, at least, is worth pointing out. Basically, I think authoritarian is a better word for his impulses, and those impulses are scary. He has authoritarian tendencies. They are stronger than normal candidates for office. He has the appeal that authoritarians tend to have with opportunists, too. The best way to predict whether a politician or figure is going to support Trump is not their ideology, it’s just whether they are opportunistic and have an eye for the main chance. That’s very typical for how authoritarians in the past have taken power.
All of that being said, over the last few months, my anxiety around his authoritarianism has diminished because my sense of his pure incompetence has increased. There was this assumption that once he hooked up with the Republican National Committee and once he was brought into the [general] election campaign, and especially once it became clear that he actually had some outside chance to win this thing, he’d discipline himself a little bit more than he has. The total inability, the total lack of self-control, makes me think, as I wrote over the weekend, that the danger is less that he is going to be another Hitler or even another Juan Perón or whoever, and is more that his administration would just be a complete and utter shambles from start to finish with cascading consequences that we can’t really foresee at home and around the world.
You’re passionately pro-life. Do you ever find yourself making a utilitarian calculation and saying, “Well, maybe he would appoint Supreme Court justices I’d like, maybe he would pass these parts of the Ryan agenda that I support, maybe it won’t be so bad”?
Oh, sure. I mean, what I was saying about Republican politicians shifting their views from day to day: Maybe it just applies to me, but I would assume it applies to many people. There’s always that element of Trumpism that has some appeal to me, and frankly I do think there is a perfectly reasonable chance that he would appoint a Supreme Court justice that I would like. It’s not a definite thing by any means, it’s probably less likely than it would be for Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, but appointing a Supreme Court justice is like picking a vice president. It’s the kind of thing Trump isn’t really going to care about that much, because his ego is so large, he just wants to stay on the stage, period.
We know what kind of justices Hillary Clinton is going to appoint. A vote for Hillary Clinton means that you are cooperating with a liberal regime that, from my perspective and the pro-life perspective, legalizes a form of infanticide. Also, Hillary Clinton’s bureaucratic moves and judicial picks will probably increase, slowly but steadily, pressure on religious institutions generally and my own church to choose secular liberal ideas, so I can see all kinds of incentives to imagine supporting Trump and to imagine ways in which he might turn out to be not such a bad president after all. That’s without even getting into how I feel in the moments when he’s offstage and I am just focusing on what liberals are doing and saying and what Hillary Clinton is doing and saying. Politics is partially about what you fear more than what you love, so there are plenty of things about liberalism all by itself that make me tempted to support Trump. So the answer to your question is yes.
Speaking of those things liberals do that you dislike, you seemed very annoyed, in your Samantha Bee column, by what you perceive as the liberal tilt of the culture.
I was just making the point that sweeping victories of the kind that social liberalism has clearly enjoyed in our culture in the last five or six years tend to lead to forms of political backlash, in part because people feel culturally isolated or marginalized and voting for the conservative party becomes a way to register cultural dissent. That’s always true, even on the left. It should not be surprising that this might happen in the late Obama years, and I was suggesting it might be one of the reasons why liberals and Democrats have struggled to win midterm elections and why they are struggling to win the nonpresidential races this year and why they haven’t been able to put Trump away like they assumed they’d be able to.
We’ve gone from same-sex marriage being a contested issue five or six years ago, to transgender rights being a piece of the culture that nobody can question without being called a howling bigot. That’s a huge shift in a short amount of time, and you can support that shift wholeheartedly and still recognize that you’re going to have people who are made uncomfortable by it, that don’t feel that their voice is being heard, that feel sort of squeezed out in arenas that they considered apolitical just a few years ago, and that they’re going to react against it.
It just feels like a very bad time to make this argument, or to get people like me to care about it, when you have 43 percent of the country supporting a candidate who is rightly considered a bigot.
Right, okay, and that is the core of the disagreement here. It’s not just about Samantha Bee, right? It’s about everything that’s going on in this election. I think that liberalism and the centrist governing elite of this country need to learn lessons from the Trump phenomenon. It is part of the way that the country is governed and the country is shaped that induces spasms of populism, including spasms of bigoted populism. It’s not enough to say, “This guy is racist, his supporters are terrible, and we must disavow, disown, and destroy them.” If you do that, all you’re doing is burying stuff that will come back in some form in the future.
I think that this is an excellent time for liberal and centrist self-examination about the choices that our leadership class has made and the direction our culture has been going in. It should be possible to do that at the same time, as you say, Donald Trump is genuinely deplorable and running a deplorable campaign. Obviously, I completely understand why, in the heat of an election, liberals don’t want to hear that message, and I completely understand why there’s this feeling that everybody has to rush to barricade together to stop Donald Trump, but I have written many, many, many, many, many columns bashing Donald Trump, and I have written many, many, many columns about the responsibility that the Republican Party bears, and maybe every three or four columns, I think it’s worth talking about other elements that have played a role in the rise of Trump.
I think that certainly my role as a conservative who writes for perhaps a more liberal audience is not just to confirm everyone in their hatred of Donald Trump. They don’t need to do that. I’m interested in what people who aren’t Republicans can do, what conservatives can do, making our politics less deranged and less destructive.
But one party has become the multiethnic party, and society is becoming more multiethnic. In such a scenario, was a Trump-like backlash inevitable?
I would be the first to concede that the Republican Party since the Bush era has not played a constructive role in avoiding the racial polarization of the country. But it’s also the case that the Democratic Party has leaned into this new multicultural coalition in ways that were not inevitable, were chosen, and didn’t have to be chosen and things could have been a little bit different if those choices hadn’t been made. It’s really quite staggering how we’ve reached a point where the Democratic nominee is running on an immigration platform close to—it’s not open borders but it’s open borders if you get across the border, basically. I’m not sure that’s what Hillary Clinton really believes, but that’s the place that she was backed into.
I think it’s totally possible and plausible that racial balkanization is a recurring aspect of the nature of human politics. I just think liberals need to recognize that they’ve made choices that have pushed us in that direction too.
Look, I understand, four years ago Barack Obama was against gay marriage, and now, basically, if you’re against gay marriage you’re called a bigot. There is something that must seem absurd about that, even if people like me are fundamentally happy about it. What I’m wondering is, what is the alternative?
I think liberals right now have a choice about having won the battle over same-sex marriage, and having won some kind of battle that I’m not sure people were even aware we were having over transgender rights and whether it’s wise to give kids puberty blockers at a young age, and a lot of other issues that would have been somewhat controversial just a few years ago. Having won those battles, how far do you feel like your commitment to equal rights requires you to push?
I don’t think that there’s some sort of magic language that we can use to make religious conservatives feel like you respect our perspective on human sexual ethics when you don’t actually. Obviously I’d like you to listen to your religious conservative friends and neighbors with seriousness and respect, I guess that goes without saying. But I’m not asking you to pretend that you don’t think the New Testament is bigoted if you do. I think honesty is the best policy. I just think you need to be aware of how this looks to anyone who dissents a lot or even dissents marginally from parts of the new consensus, as we go forward and debate it.
It’s just hard when people on the left don’t consider it “pushing”; they consider it to be about justice and equality.
Right. And there is no fixed point outside these debates where people can stand. Religious liberty is a fluid concept, and the debate over what counts as a liberty and what counts as discrimination, all of that is fluid and it’s going to remain fluid. But it’s more on a practical level, whatever you think should happen in an ideal world, whatever you think Evangelical colleges or Christian student groups or Catholic schools or whatever should do in an ideal world, the question on the table is to what extent should the power of the state be brought to bear to use financial levers, at the very least, to force significant change? How does that work? What is necessary? What should be pushed for? You need to be aware of the potential consequences, whatever those may be.
In terms of the way the country is changing, how do you think the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal would play out if it happened today?
I think that there are ways in which, if it happened now, it would make the left more uncomfortable, definitely. At the same time, I don’t know how that would be balanced against the generally more libertarian/libertine turn in the culture, the lower expectations for politicians, on those fronts.
Also, I think one of the lessons of this year is the power of partisan loyalty to swamp normal moralistic concerns, right? You have evangelicals who want to condemn Bill Clinton finding it in their hearts to support Donald Trump. I think in a context where Clinton was all that stood between America and the forces of darkness as embodied by Newt Gingrich or whomever, many liberals and Democrats, whatever their heightened discomfort, would find reasons to support him and censure and move on.
In terms of being raised again in this campaign, once upon a time, a long time ago, I did think the Bill Clinton stuff could be an issue for Hillary, but I thought it would be an issue if there were more stories of him tomcatting around as a post-president, basically. For Trump to bring up stuff from 20 years ago is totally insane.
This idea that personal lives and moral or ethical conduct in private lives is off-limits, and a big part of the culture seems to embrace that idea. Do you have any mixed feelings about that anti-moralist turn in the culture?
I’m totally opposed to it, but we are where we are. The Republican nominee is Donald Trump. What is there to say, except that this is the world that Republican primary voters chose and it’s the world we live in? Like I said, I’ve been trying to leave anger behind in the summer. I’m just trying to make my peace and adapt.
*Correction, Oct. 6, 2016: This article originally omitted the word reform in Douthat’s statement “I described Trump as a reform conservative’s evil twin.” (Return.)