“He’s Learning on the Job”

A lonely Trump defender in the academy attempts to continue defending Trump.

Donald Trump, Mark Bauerlein.
Donald Trump and Mark Bauerlein.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters and courtesy of Mark Bauerlein.

At the beginning of the Trump presidency, I had a long conversation with Mark Bauerlein, one of the president’s few supporters in the world of academia. Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and a senior editor at First Things, was disturbed by what he considered to be the rise of political correctness; he saw Trump as an antidote to a crumbling sense of American identity and patriotism, which he felt had given way to an unhealthy focus on racial and gender identity.

This week, Trump will hit his 100-day mark in office. To discuss the president’s tenure at this admittedly arbitrary milestone, I spoke again by phone with Bauerlein. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the evolving meaning of Trumpism, conservative fears about Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and the identity politics behind inviting Ted Nugent to the White House.

Isaac Chotiner: The last time we chatted I called you on a Georgia number, and now it’s a New York number. I fear you might be losing touch with real America.

Mark Bauerlein: I’m in my First Things office, which is in New York City. So I am here on the island of Manhattan. I don’t wear my Make America Great Again cap out on Broadway.

We are all grateful for that. What have you made of the first 100 days?

What stands out for me is not so much all of the logistics and the different actions of the White House. We have the big issues, such as the attempted reform of health care and the tensions that arose in Congress. We have the immigration issues and the judges’ orders putting those to a halt for now. But I think, Isaac, that the significant phenomenon here is really the condition, the civic condition of the United States with the advent of the Trump presidency.

We had massive demonstrations taking place right after the inauguration and subsequent marches and demonstrations. We see different protests and sometimes violence breaking out on college campuses and at times on the streets.

What does all this suggest to you?

That’s the question. What is going on? The immediate reading is that we have a man in the White House who impresses people as racist, sexist, phobic of various kinds, nationalistic, with all his wall talk and the national security talk. We have here, by this reading, someone in the White House who is an abomination, and his supporters are abominable, a throwback to the days of Jim Crow and white male sexism. And people can’t absorb this. My liberal friends say, “Not my president,” and I wonder what this means for the civic condition of America. We had an election, and many people, simply deep in their hearts, don’t accept it. And they have to fight. You hear a lot of fighting words. The left is mobilized and unified more than I have seen in a long time.

When you started I thought you were going to say that people being mobilized was actually a sign of the civic health that you thought Trump could bring.

I like political activity. I like political debate. I like political passions if they are informed and productive. Now, I think that we have in many cases productive thought going on on the left, but it is being eclipsed too much by images of the monstrosity of Donald Trump, erecting him into, again, an abomination, someone who is so far beyond the pale that all kinds of obscenities are in order. We can have students chanting, “Fuck Trump! Fuck Trump!”

I was not expecting that from someone who wrote a whole essay about how disturbed he was by swearing.

I’m quoting them. What are people doing to themselves here? You are sacrificing any dignity here. Martin Luther King Jr. did not talk this way. When you listen to Malcolm X talk, you see the ferocity inside him, but it is measured, it is far-seeing, and it is not out for symbolic gestures.

Do you think that the left’s response to Trump is different than the way the right reacted to Obama, with the Tea Party and birtherism?

You are going to get that kind of thing in every populist response to things. I did not see any Tea Party people surrounding a building and preventing others from walking inside to hear an Obama speaker. At the inauguration did you see people lighting cars on fire and smashing windows? I think we have here a whole new level of outrage and indignation. I believe there are deep human motives that are often very dark. I wrote a book about mob violence in Atlanta in 1906—race-based and sex-based riots and killings. And I believe the collective human will can go in bad directions that often the individuals in that collective would not take on their own. I also believe in original sin. [Laughs]. I think these things are related. What is being tapped into here is something quite dark and sinister, and it is getting worse. What we need here is a very strong state response to these activities.

Such as?

Such as, when people break the law, you immobilize them, you handcuff them, and you take them away.

Aside from these larger currents in society, what do you make of Trump as a chief executive?

I think he’s learning on the job.

Nicely put, nicely put.

You are coming into a new situation here. None of these people are Washington, D.C., people. Steve Bannon has never been part of an administration. Donald Trump is not a professional politician, and they came in with no network. They didn’t have a machine. So you are going to have missteps, but the question is whether they are learning on the job.

All this stuff takes political savvy to manage, and part of the reason Trump came into office is that he said, “I don’t have political savvy. I don’t have the insider crony system that has kept Washington working.”

He just has family members.

[Laughs] Well I will tell you there is a lot of doubt about the family members from many conservatives who are concerned about Jared Kushner and Ivanka because they feel they are too liberal on the social issues. Trump himself says he is not an ideological conservative.

So you don’t see an incompetent administration and a president who has no clue what he’s doing?

I don’t, no. I don’t see that. But I know that the federal government is so big and complicated, and these negotiations get so fuzzy. And often they aren’t about ideology. The National Endowment for the Arts was zeroed out in the budget, and the Heritage Foundation, in its blueprint, always zeroes out the cultural agencies, saying the government should not be involved in culture.

In fact, when you get something like that to Congress, the senators and congressmen don’t look at these issues in terms of “Am I on principle for the National Endowment for the Arts?” No, they look at the them and say, “Do these agencies do good things in my state or district? Are they good for my constituents?” That’s what those issues are about. Ideology goes out the window, and it is more about insider or local politics, and I mean that in a noncynical way. I mean that as the way democracy works. That is what Trump may be running up against when he works with Congress: not appreciating the local situation for each member.

You have sought to place Trump the man into a larger ideological paradigm, which some people have called Trumpism. Do you have a better sense of what Trumpism is now?

The big ideas for me were the economic nationalism—which goes against the globalization and internationalization of American interests, especially business interests—and I generally support that argument. And I see that as consistent with much of Bernie Sanders on economic matters. The other, the cultural side of Trumpism is against identity politics, and I actually saw in Donald Trump’s campaign the assertion, beneath all of our differences, of a common identity as Americans. And this is where we have a tremendous amount of civic conflict going on right now. Donald Trump will not give deference to racial, sexual, religious, ethnic identity over universal American identity. And people get very exercised over that.

I don’t want to argue about whether Trump is a racist again, but last week Trump invited to the White House Ted Nugent, a man who had called Obama a “mongrel.” What message do you think Trump is sending about “common identity” with that?

I think in that case you have Ted Nugent, a rocker who I listened to when I was in high school. [Laughs]. He’s a wild man. I don’t know enough about Ted Nugent. He may call all kinds of people “mongrels.” That may be his term to apply to anyone whom he despises.

Mark, come on, we are both smart people here. Let’s have a serious conversation.

Look, I don’t believe that Donald Trump is racist. I think Donald Trump takes everyone as individuals. When Barack Obama hosted rappers at the White House whose album has a picture of a white judge lying down with his eyes X’d out, here we go, this is playing cultural racial politics as well. I think when Donald Trump faces people, he sees them as individuals. That’s what I sense. I wrote a book about racial violence. I wrote a book about white supremacy. I have co-authored books about the civil rights movement. I have no patience for anyone who plays racial games. But then again I also allow people a measure of racial identity too: “I am black. I am part of my race.” “I am white. I am part of my race too.” You have to give people space to identify with racial identity and have racial pride. You cross the line when you say that racial pride disallows you from acknowledging that there is something deeper than our race, and that is our humanity. We are all brothers and sisters under the skin. We are all common brothers and sisters in the eyes of God.

This is what my colleagues in academia have taught for the last 40 years. Racial identity trumps so many other characteristics. It’s such an impoverished way of looking at human beings. This talk about white privilege, it just flattens the complexity of human experience. Believe me, I don’t feel white privilege at all.

I don’t doubt it.

I had a very unprivileged childhood. I won’t even go into the things that happened to me. But I also ate dirt for many years as a college student and after, living in squalor. I can’t listen to tenured professors at distinguished institutions who have had charmed lives who are white or black talk about white privilege.

The vast majority of nonwhite people in this country see Trump as someone who looks at them as less than full citizens. That seems like a serious impediment to realizing this American identity you keep talking about.

We are further and further away from it, although he got more of the Hispanic vote than Mitt Romney did.

What has happened is a lot of white people who have seen identity pressed very hard in education and the cultural world have absorbed it themselves. Certainly the white nationalists, although they are off the chart. But I think a lot of white people get pushed into understanding themselves explicitly and adversarially in racial identity terms. This is a very bad development. For me the civil rights movement was about lowering the racial identity as a dispositive feature of the human being. It’s a poison in our civic sphere, the loss of a common identity. It’s very demoralizing, the bean-counting that goes on by demographic.