In the latest charming story to come out of the larger narrative of Modern American Conservatism, the conservative syndicated columnist Mona Charen was booed by activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference for stating, in the course of a panel about feminism, that “I am disappointed in people on our side for being hypocrites about sexual harassers and abusers of women, who are in our party, who are sitting in the White House, who brag about their extramarital affairs, who brag about mistreating women—and because he happens to have an ‘R’ next to his name we look the other way.” Charen, who had to be escorted out by security (though she says she never felt threatened), also criticized the event’s organizers for inviting Marion Le Pen, niece of the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen.
I spoke by phone with Charen, who is also a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a prominent anti-Trump conservative, the day after she appeared at CPAC. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed her CPAC experience and whether #NeverTrump Republicans have faced up to the pre-Trump history of their party.
Isaac Chotiner: Why did you feel like it was so important to say what you said, and specifically to that audience?
Mona Charen: OK, let me unpack that: Why is it important to say that in general? It’s important to say it because we traditional conservatives who have watched the Trump phenomenon for two years often feel like we are in the Twilight Zone—this bizarre world where people pretend that everything that we know is not true, and that even people that we once respected seem to be falling prey to the cult of personality. And so it’s necessary for those of us who have not been cajoled or otherwise swayed by the joys of “winning,” and who recognize Trump for what he is, to just say it out loud. To just say it.
I know how much it encourages me—and gives me faith and spirit—when I see somebody say something that is just transparently obvious and true. And you can’t take for granted that those things will be said in this atmosphere.
That is what I wanted to do also—to give other people a little bit of hope. I believe there are many, many conservatives who are not happy about Trump. And they need a voice.
Did you know you were going to say something when you decided to attend the conference?
Yes. I was surprised by the invitation because CPAC has become very Trumpified and I have been very open about my skepticism, to put it mildly, about Trump. I was surprised they invited me and decided this would be an opportunity to say exactly what I think.
It was also so highly relevant to the topic that was under discussion: Namely, where do conservative women fit in with the #MeToo movement. And they wanted us to talk about the hypocrisy of the left on the subject of sexual harassment. By the way, I am very happy to talk about that subject. I have written about it extensively.
I can talk about feminist hypocrisy, but I wanted to get to the topic of our own hypocrisy because it is very easy to call out the other side, and much harder to call out your own side. And you cannot talk about sexual harassment or issues of sexual ethics when you are providing cover for one of the most flagrant, proud adulterers and also sexual abusers.
I was talking to my editor about possible questions to ask you, as I always do. And she said I should ask you about what’s going on with “that wing” of the Republican Party, referring to the CPAC wing. But then I thought to myself, Donald Trump is at 80–90 percent approval or higher among Republicans. He is getting patted on the back by basically every wing of the congressional GOP. To what degree does talking about CPAC as a “wing” even make sense anymore and how do you, as an anti-Trump conservative, think about that?
Look, Trump is having a good moment now. They passed the tax reform and he has been laying off the personal attacks to some degree on Twitter. The economy is roaring, and the party is coalescing. Parties usually do coalesce around their presidents, and once again I have to say that I remember when Bill Clinton was credibly accused of some really serious stuff, I was dismayed by the degree to which the Democrats just rallied around him. You may say it’s not the same, but in any event, parties do do that. Let’s take that as the premise. They do. Nevertheless, the underlying unpopularity of Donald Trump is there, and furthermore, the more that the party and the leaders within it just fold and cease standing up for basic decency, for integrity, for honor—you know one of the things that Trump did at this CPAC conference was to encourage the audience to boo John McCain, who is a war hero who is fighting for his life—
He was also captured.
I prefer people who have bone spurs myself.
OK, but does this make you think differently about American conservatism, or perhaps that this is a version of what it always was?
Look, you’d be crazy not to have to reconsider some things and look back and challenge some certain assumptions. And I have been doing that over the past two years. But I think that it is way, way too simplistic—which is the attitude you see very often on the liberal websites like ThinkProgress and Vox and so forth where they say, “Aha! You see now we know for sure. The conservatives were always racist and now it’s just out there in the open and that’s what this is all about.” I just think that is way oversimplified, and I am sure you have seen this but lots and lots of people voted for Obama twice and voted for Trump. He was the change guy. Hillary was truly hated to a degree a lot of liberals have not processed. Justly or unjustly is not the point; she was.
But having said all that, I am still sort of thinking this all through. And I will say that the whole phenomenon of Trump and what has become of the Republican Party, a lot of the ugliness that has reared its head on my side, which I had not seen before, has made me question certain things, and made me much more skeptical of everybody. But it has not had the effect of making me say, “Yep, every accusation that was ever made against Republicans by Democrats—aha, we know it’s true.” Because I really don’t believe that. I know too many fantastic public-spirited conservatives who were not racist and genuinely wanted school reform, and put their money where their mouth was to give scholarships to inner-city kids and all that, you know?
I do think that very often just legitimate and genuine policy differences and policy approaches were smeared as racism because that was politically effective by Democrats. And by the way, one of the things Democrats have to cope with too is that by being so promiscuous throwing around the label “racism,” they have made it lose its sting, and a lot of people on the right just reacted by saying, “They are never going to believe us.” It’s the Boy Who Cried Wolf problem—they aren’t going to believe any accusation of racism. Arguably now we really are dealing with racism.
Voting for a racist is a strange way to respond to that.
No, the fact is that there are people out there, people of good will.
I am not denying that it’s objectively possible—that Boy Who Cried Wolf problem. It’s still a strange way to respond.
I understand what you are saying, but I will just tell you that there are people I know of good will who are not racist who say, “Oh, I don’t believe Trump is a racist,” only because they have become so rigid about constantly rejecting any accusation of racism. Do you see what I mean?
You said something earlier about how Trump doesn’t mean every past Republican policy was racist. I agree, but don’t you think it’s worth looking, as a Republican like yourself, at ways that the party, pre-Trump, paved the way for some of this? For example, the way establishment Republicans went along with and supported state laws about voter IDs and the voter rolls that had racial intent. They did play into the themes Trump picked up. I think that’s worth examining.
Yeah, well, maybe. I would have to look into it case-by-case. I know having looked into some of the voter ID issues, I reject [what you’re saying] with regard to those. I think that’s just insulting to say that certain people are unable to get voter IDs because they are black. I think that’s just nuts. But, anyway.
I mean, the intent of those laws …
Um, look, I would say I’m not sure. Look, I love finding common ground. I really do. Both parties attempt to increase their own votes, suppress the other guy’s vote. They both engage in gerrymandering. That’s not necessarily racism. You have to be super careful, obviously, because of our horrible history, and so that is something you have to be super sensitive about. I get that. I agree with that. But again, I would have to look at it. I am open to it, but I would have to look at it on a case-by-case basis.
But there are other things. I will tell you this: The way the immigration debate has been going—that went off the rails at least a decade ago. Before that, it was this kind of, “Well, we are just not assimilating people as well as we once did,” which was a reasonable argument, OK? And so we need to rededicate ourselves to good assimilation policies and maybe take a little bit of a slowdown on the huge influx of immigrants and so on. And then it started to get truly racist, with this stuff about “These are all criminals pouring across our borders trying to rape our nice white women.” On that one, I will wholeheartedly agree that that predated Trump, and he of course took disgusting advantage of it and moved it way beyond where it had been before.
But it was already starting.