Nation & World

For GOP, days of chaos

long read

New York Times’ Ross Douthat talks Trump and the future of the party

With three weeks until the presidential election, Donald Trump’s candidacy has engulfed the Republican Party in a historic level of existential turmoil that appears even more acrimonious than Barry Goldwater’s bitter 1964 campaign.

Party leaders have distanced themselves from Trump and dozens of rank-and-file Republicans have openly disavowed support for him following news of vulgar remarks he made about women in a 2005 recording. Tanking poll numbers show his campaign is also damaging other Republican candidates. In response, Trump has declared war on the party, creating chaos that raises questions about the future of the GOP.

Ross Douthat ’02 is a conservative op-ed columnist for The New York Times who writes frequently about politics and religion. On Monday, he will moderate a panel at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study with scholars discussing the importance of elite academic libraries such as the Schlesinger Library maintaining greater ideological diversity in their collections of political materials. Douthat spoke with the Gazette across a range of issues, including the conflict going on within the Republican Party, the likely effects of Trump’s candidacy, and the importance of intellectual diversity at elite institutions.

GAZETTE: What are the factions at work in the GOP now?

DOUTHAT: I’d say there are three circles here. Circle one is conservatives who either have been against Trump from the beginning or who have gotten off the bus at this point. So, for those people, this is just a nightmare. It’s been a nightmare for a long time for many of us. And they’re just watching the train wreck.

Circle two is Republican voters who don’t like Trump, didn’t support Trump in the primary, are very unhappy with the situation, but are normal partisans who really don’t want to vote for a Democrat and so are looking for reasons to swallow hard and vote for Trump, just as liberals during the impeachment crisis probably would have had a slightly different response to Monica Lewinsky and Juanita Broaddrick if Clinton hadn’t been under siege from Republicans. So you have Republicans now who are like, “Let’s think of reasons to excuse this,” basically. Or, “Let’s not even think of reasons to excuse this, but let’s just accept it on the grounds that Clinton is worse.” There’s been a lot of coverage of religious conservatives and evangelicals who are still backing Trump. A lot of those people — I think some of the leadership figures are pretty cynical, but in terms of the actual voters, you have a lot who are just sickened by Trump, wish they weren’t in this situation, but because they are deeply pro-life and they feel like that’s the most important issue, they feel like they’re still stuck voting for him.

Then you have the third circle, which is people who really like Donald Trump. And this is the same circle it’s always been. It’s about a third of the Republican Party, it’s heavily male, it’s more working class than your typical Republican and it overlaps with this sort of populist wing of the right-wing media, the Breitbart/Ann Coulter people who see in Trump the chance to move the Republican Party in a particular direction, a direction of more populist, more white identity politics and so on down the list. So you have three different reactions going on: You have Republicans who aren’t making any excuses for Trump; you have Republicans who don’t like Trump and are very reluctantly looking for reasons to vote for him; and then you have his core which likes him and doesn’t have that much of a problem with him being a bully and a misogynist.

GAZETTE: Are we seeing the Republican Party permanently splitting apart, and if so, who or what is to blame for the civil war going on in the GOP?

DOUTHAT: I don’t think we’re seeing it permanently split apart. I think the two-party system is very resilient. It’s hard for me to imagine a third party emerging out of this wreckage. I think we’re seeing just a civil war that’s likely to go on in different ways for a while.

Everybody’s to blame for it! It’s a very complicated phenomenon. My preferred narrative — which, like everybody, it’s a narrative that dovetails with my pre-existing convictions — but my preferred narrative is that the party has a problem because both its establishment wing and its ideological wing, so the Mitch McConnell wing on the one hand and the Ted Cruz wing on the other, got so invested in their battle that they ignored the fact that the party didn’t have much of an agenda that addressed the concerns of its white, working-class base. The party hadn’t updated or modernized its economic agenda; it had an agenda on immigration that didn’t fit with what its voters cared about or at least, the establishment wing of the party had an agenda on immigration that didn’t fit with what its voters cared about. And the party had never fully reckoned with what went wrong under George W. Bush, with the Iraq War especially. And what this meant was there was this opening that Trump took full advantage of. He took advantage of it in dark and bigoted ways, but he also took advantage of it in ways that were effective for a reason. He was willing to say the Iraq War was a mistake; he was willing to be more centrist on economic policy. He promised to protect entitlements and say that he wasn’t going to be bought and paid for by rich donors. So he was able to create a different center of gravity that turned out to be closer to where the party voters actually were. He’s a demagogue and demagogues succeed when normal politicians create opportunities by not addressing voters’ actual concerns in a more productive way.

GAZETTE: Given his threats to House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican defectors and an embrace of the alt-right, what happens to the party if Trump loses and if he wins?

DOUTHAT: I think if he wins, I think it’s unfathomably hard to imagine. My expectation is that his presidency would be a disaster pretty much from the get-go. But you would also have a party split over whether to oppose him or not. Probably most people in Congress would try and work with him because that would be the natural impulse and the question would be at what point in his administration would he get so unpopular that his own party would start turning on him. I think that would happen fairly quickly. But we’ve never had, certainly not in the modern era, a president like Trump, so I feel like making predictions about his presidency is sort of a fool’s game.

In terms of if he loses, I think the big question is can he transfer his appeal to other candidates? He’s clearly going to still be there raging against the party, but a lot of party leaders have the idea that you can go back to normal, that he is a distinctive figure and he will have some kind of influence on the primaries in 2020, but he’s not going to be able, for instance, to recruit a lot of candidates to run in House races in 2018. So far, the candidates who’ve tried to act like Trump at the House race level haven’t done that well. So it isn’t clear that Trump’s brand can be transferred to other people and if it can’t be, then the party has more of a chance of going back to business as usual. And to be clear, I don’t think that would be a good thing. I think the party needs to adjust and adapt to what Trump has revealed. But that’s what they’re going to try and do. The unanswered questions are, one, how much influence can Trump have in 2018? And two, what does he do in 2020? Does he say he’ll run again, does he try to get candidates to compete for his endorsement? A lot depends on what he does and what his direct influence is. I don’t think there’s any leader right now in the party who has a plan for how to change the party and fix things after November. I think there are a lot of people who want to go back to business as usual and a lot of people who just don’t know what to do.

GAZETTE: What is conservatism today? Has this election revealed that conservatives are no longer bound together by a common set of beliefs about economics, taxes, national defense, or the role of government, but merely united by a common enemy?

DOUTHAT: Both political coalitions have been bound together by fear more than by a shared purpose for a while. I think what it’s revealed, though, is that most Republican voters aren’t conservatives in the sense that the conservative movement has understood the term. They aren’t as ideologically consistent as people thought; they’re more nationalistic and populist than people thought; and they’re more open to ideas that don’t fit into the boxes that conservative think tanks and conservative magazines have been using since Goldwater and Reagan. That’s a bad thing insofar as some of the ideas that they’re interested in include borderline racist, white identity politics stuff, but it’s also suggestive that — I mean, the Republican Party has lost five of the last six presidential elections, so there was a lot of evidence that the party needed to change its messaging before this campaign. And what this campaign has demonstrated is that lots of people inside the party want a new message, too. The question is, can you come up with a message and an agenda that shifts Trumpism and keeps some things and loses the demagoguery and darkness? And again, I don’t know the answer.

GAZETTE: While many Mormons rejected Trump fairly early on, many evangelical Christians and other religious conservatives remain in his camp. How do these groups square their beliefs with Trump’s actions and beliefs? And is their power within the GOP on a permanent decline?

DOUTHAT: Oh, absolutely. It’s been on the decline since 2004 and it’s on the decline for a lot of reasons, but mostly because the country as a whole is getting less religious. Religious institutions are weaker than they were 10 years ago. You have a certain amount of secularization, but then you also have something Trump has effectively exploited, which is this drift away from institutions. You have people who still identify as evangelicals, as Christians, but they don’t go to church, they’re not attached to a church, it’s just sort of part of their identity to self-define that way. So when Trump talks about the war on Christmas, he’s making an appeal to that sort of cultural Christianity. This is what you saw in the primaries. Trump did worse among churchgoers, but better among especially self-identified evangelicals who don’t go to church as much. So that’s one thing that’s happening. The reason you have a lot of actual churchgoers sticking by him now is simply a cultural fear driven by the decline that I was just talking about. The sense among religious conservatives that they’ve mostly lost culture wars and this doesn’t just mean that they lost the battle over same-sex marriage or anything else, but that their institutions are going to be targeted by liberalism for pressure, penalties, their tax-exempt status could be taken away — all these things that are up for debate right now.

It’s an open question how far liberalism wants to push to enforce its vision, enforce the sexual revolution in the form it’s taken. It’s not clear whether that’s going to be a flashpoint in the next five years. But clearly, how quickly the culture has shifted on those issues, there’s a totally understandable fear among religious conservatives that their institutions are going to be under siege for a while. So given that mentality, they’re looking to Trump for protection and the fact that he seems a little bit like a mobster [laughs], that’s sometimes who you look to for protection. It’s both things going on and they’re connected. The decline of religious practice creates more potential Trump voters, but it also creates a fear that makes people reluctantly support him as well.

GAZETTE: In a recent interview, you criticized “liberals” and the “centrist governing elite,” saying they need to learn lessons from the Trump phenomenon about “the choices they made and the direction our culture has gone in.” What did you mean and how has Trump’s opposition contributed to his rise?

DOUTHAT: Just to take one example, the issue of immigration. Basically, the United States, if you poll people on immigration, you have about a third of the country thinks the immigration rate is too high; a third of the country thinks the current immigration rate should be maintained, and about a quarter of the country thinks the immigration rate should be increased. And probably you get similar numbers in Europe. Both in Europe and in the Untied States, you have an effectively bipartisan consensus that higher immigration rates, including higher low-skilled immigration rates, are always good things and that any kind of immigration reform should substantially increase the immigration rate. This is a position that’s only held by about a quarter to a third of Americans, but when people in Washington sit down to hammer out any kind of comprehensive immigration reform or when Angela Merkel decides how many refugees to admit from Syria to Germany, that elite consensus sets the terms of the debate. It’s OK for elites to believe more immigration is a good thing, but they have to recognize that when you pursue demographically and culturally transformative policies, you’re going to reap some kind of backlash and you have to be prepared for that and have a plan for that beyond just saying, “Oh, those people are bigots and nativists and rubes and we don’t need to listen to them.” Because even if they are bigots and nativists and rubes, we’re all sharing the same political environment and political context and if you leave people with the sense that their views have no representation at the elite level, then they’re more likely to turn to more demagogic politicians. This has happened all over Europe.

You also have the sense that we’re living in an economy that’s not very good for low-skilled men, especially, and the weight of immigration has been in areas where low-skilled men do a lot of work. That doesn’t mean that it’s the primary driver of lower wages. The evidence suggests that it’s a modest driver of lower wages, but it’s a very visible driver. When jobs go overseas — and, of course, Trump talks about jobs going overseas, too, and trade is another one of these issues where there’s been an elite consensus that hasn’t allowed for any real challenge — but when jobs go overseas, they just disappear. But when construction jobs are being held by immigrants from Mexico and Central America, that’s a more visible thing. But yes, of course, it’s also a proxy for generational anxieties, fears of change, and so on. … It’s a whole tangle in which the economic factor is just one factor and racism is part of it, too. But they’re not wrong that this transformation has been better for the upper class and better for recent immigrants than it’s been for them.

GAZETTE: On Monday, you’ll be talking at Radcliffe about the need for academic libraries to include more politically conservative materials in their collections. Why do you think there’s such an imbalance in this area?

DOUTHAT: There is a sort of normal tendency, given the nature of our political coalitions, for liberals to be more likely to end up in the academy. If you had a world where there was absolutely no hostility to conservatives in academia, you would still have generally a liberal tilt, especially in the humanities. At the same time, I think it’s completely undeniable to anyone who knows people who work in academia, who attended an elite university as I did, who has any sort of exposure to this world, especially in the last five years given the drift of political debates on campus, it’s just undeniable that it’s very uncomfortable to be any kind of political conservative on campus.

In certain ways, this is connected to some of the failures of Republican governance under George W. Bush and the party’s collapse into Trumpian populism. It has made being associated with Republicans even more of a stigma within the intelligentsia. But it’s also the case that academia has a very narrow-minded vision of politics, of religion especially, and this is a problem for conservatives who want tenure, but it’s also a problem for academic research itself. People like Jonathan Haidt and others have done a lot of good, reasonable work on this subject, pointing out that when you don’t have a lot of ideological diversity it isn’t just that conservatives can’t get jobs, it’s that important questions don’t get asked and important premises don’t get interrogated. You end up with replication crises because people don’t realize that certain studies are too good to be true. I don’t have any kind of large-scale solutions for this, but I think it would be a healthy thing for elite campuses to take ideological diversity a little more seriously in hiring and staffing decisions and in how they run their libraries and archives.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.