At the April 5-7, 2019 West Coast Retreat at the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, a conservative media panel addressed Trump’s disruptive challenge to American conservative orthodoxy — and how the conservative movement can best fight the 2020 jihad against the president. Check out the video and transcript below:
BEN BOYCHUK: Thank you, Mike [Anton]. Thank you for inviting me, and I especially want to thank David Horowitz and Peter Collier. Being at this event this weekend is particularly special. 25 years ago this August, those guys hired me and took a chance on kind of a pimply faced punk out of UC San Diego and working for them was an extraordinary experience. Being edited by Peter Collier, I have the honor of being in the room with two of my editors. Charles Kesler, I worked for the Claremont Review of Books years ago, but Peter was my first real professional editor. And I’ll tell you, once you have an editor like Peter, you never want another. The first story I ever filed with him, I remember it was about 2 weeks on the job. He called me up. It had to have been like 4:55 on a Wednesday and he said, so, about that story you just sent. And I said, there was an awkward pause, and then I said it didn’t really quite meet your expectations? And he said it sucked. And, then he proceeded to explain in gory detail while it sucked, which is the difference between a mediocre editor and a good editor, because the good editor will tell you exactly where you went wrong and why. And, so, in kind of in keeping in the theme that David articulated last night, I’ve tried to be about 10 percent less sucky over the years, and I hope I’ve managed to do that.
When I came to this organization, long-time supporters of this organization will recall a publication called Heterodoxy. And if you were a college student in the later ’80s and early ’90s at any university really, Heterodoxy was must reading. It was like a lifeline. And it was one of these things that, I remember reading it and thinking, gosh, who are these guys, and I would love to be able to write like this, and tried to do that on my own college campus. And, so it was a thrill to be able to come to work for them, work at this place where Heterodoxy, which is an anecdote to Orthodoxy. And we live in a time where we could use a lot more Heterodoxy. I miss that publication, but, American Greatness, the publication that I now edit, is kind of run in the spirit of Heterodoxy. The 2016 election I think gave us a moment to bring a little more Heterodoxy into the conservative movement. Much needed. What conservatism needs really above all right now, and we’re seeing it–Victor Davis Hanson made a very good point about this during his talk in the last hour–we need some deviation from accepted standards and norms, because the conservative movement, at least as I think it had come to be, had gotten a bit ossified; had gotten a little bit complacent. When Trump came on the scene it was easy for Never Trump conservatives as they are called to say, well, he’s not a conservative. You know, he believes in imminent domain. He believes in tariffs. Tariffs are evil. We’re not supposed to, I mean, so, Trump was talking about things that were extremely deviant from conservative orthodoxy.
And for some of us, I think for this organization, for the Claremont Review of Books, I think for the magazine that I started and others, it was as if a light bulb went on, and we saw, wait a minute, there’s some opportunities here. There are some opportunities to ask some awkward questions. And maybe unsettle some settled assumptions, immigration being a great example of this. We went from: if you remember what it was like during the George W. Bush administration with the efforts at immigration reform, and these are jobs you have to bring people out of the shadows, because these are jobs that Americans won’t do. And that’s just who we are. Right? Well, I mean, okay, maybe not so much. Maybe we need to talk about how to assimilate millions of new comers. Maybe we need to think a little bit more clearly about the duties and obligations of citizenship. That was something that the conservative movement at best had given lip service to, but hadn’t really provided much in the way of substance. At the same time, public schools in this country had really given short shrift to civics, and had embraced a kind of multi-cultural ethos that has broken down ideas of duty and citizenship and nationhood. So, those were questions that needed to be asked. Above all, the Trump moment had really provided an opportunity for disruption.
Disruption is not conservative. Disruption is the very opposite of conservative. We’re not conserving anything when we’re disrupting, at least on one level. But on another level it may be the case that the kind of conservative ends that we seek, an understanding of citizenship, of being able to have a job and maintain a middle class lifestyle, I mean, simple things like that were taken for granted some time ago. Maybe that requires some disruption to get back to a conservative end. And that’s something that I’m hoping that Michael and Charles will maybe elaborate on a little bit. I’m going to try to give them some things to play off of here.
One of the things I want to underscore, emphasize is that when we started American Greatness in July 2016, we believed above all that there was a space for us for what we had to say. We thought that the legacy conservative media, and I’m thinking in terms of National Review, which had just run earlier that year the against Trump issue that was highly scandalizing, The Weekly Standard commentary, all these legacy publications that were so certain that this guy, Trump: was just a disaster, that he was not conservative, that he opposed everything that we supposedly believe. We thought we may have had an opportunity there, and so we published a manifesto as sort of in the first week of our publication in which we said the soil of the conservative movement is exhausted. It needs fertilization, resowing, and diligent cultivation if it is to thrive again. And, while we will also owe a debt to the giants of the movement who have come before us, we cannot slavishly attempt to relive the politics of 40 years ago. I think that was true in July 2016, I still think that’s true right now. I think that we have not begun to hit the outer limits of what we need to be talking about. I think that we’re going to find ourselves in a position going into the 2020 election where we’re going to be fighting pitch battles with people who were allies just a few years ago.
I think that what is at stake here is really an understanding of not just what it is to be a conservative, but what it is to be an American. And, so, we really do need a big fat dose of Heterodoxy in this movement. And for all the people who are in this room who have taken the weekend, obviously you’re important supporters of this cause, and you’ve been supporters of this cause for a good long while, and you’ve been in this fight for years and years and years, and I’ve done this all of my adult life, but I have never felt more energized or felt like this fight has been more important than it is right now. Because we’re not going back, we’re not going back to what we had before 2016. We’re not.
There are going to be a lot of people who are going to try to say what conservatism is and what this movement is, and we are not going to let them, and we shouldn’t let them. For some folks, we are past the point of apologies and past the point of forgiveness. We have essentially a new movement to build, and it is my hope and my expectation that all the people in this room, this organization, the Claremont Institute, American Greatness, we’re going to be at the forefront of that, and, so, with that I’m going to turn it over to Michael Anton to elaborate on this. Michael is the author of the most important essay published during the 2016 election. Published by this man in the Claremont Review of Books, The Flight 93 Election. Michael is a former member of the National Security Council. He has been in the White House a couple of times, with Trump and with the George W. Bush administration, and he’s one of my dearest friends, and, so, Michael, over to you.
MICHAEL ANTON: I’m currently with the Hillsdale College. At the Kirby Center, the Allen P. Kirby Center in Washington, so the college is in Michigan. I don’t get there often, but we always have students in Washington and we’re probably going to get some more when we open a grad school in the coming days or months even. So, like Ben, I want to begin with a plug for Peter Collier and David Horowitz, whom I don’t really know. But, in 1987, at age 17, like a lamb to the slaughter, I went off to Berkeley, California and was pretty shocked. I still am. I’m 49, and I still don’t think I’ve ever gotten over it and I needed to figure out what this was all about. What is this place? Who are these people? How can they think like this and act like this? And, through a circuitous route, a friend of mine made another friend who claimed to know a Black Panther, and I went to brunch or coffee or something with them at the famous Café Med on Telegraph Avenue, right where Dustin Hoffman is sitting in The Graduate, if you recall this, when stalking Katherine Ross. And this Black Panther, I mean, this was a very nasty, mean, bad person and he just, I spent about 45 minutes listening to him talk about how evil I was, just because I was white and everything is evil and ‘these’ should be burned down and bragging about violence. And I thought, this can’t be and I just want to back up. My mother’s a criminal prosecutor, so it’s not like I had too sheltered a life. I mean, she’s doing murder trials. I had some exposure to the bad side of life, but I was shocked by this. So when I looked this group up in the library, I found two books, one of which I won’t go into at length. I’ve written about it before, what it meant to me. It was Radical Sheik by Tom Wolfe, which is a pretty long exposition of the Black Panthers.
The other one was Destructive Generation, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz. And, I said to David last night, I recall reading it in the summer of ’88, and I looked it up on my phone after that. That’s impossible because the book was not published until May of ’89, so I must have read it in the summer of ’89. Big long chapters and the Black Panthers, George Jackson, Huey Newton, Fay Stender. I remember all the stuff vividly, and it’s describing the physical place where I am now, Berkeley, but also places where I grew up and things like that. I’m, like, my mother knew Fay Stender; it’s a long complicated story. It was very formative for me. It really made me understand the differences between the old left and the new left. I didn’t understand that before, and that explained it. Second of all, what the new left was really about, and how the veneer of utopianism on the top was just a little bit of icing and the cake is destruction, not the creative kind, just destruction, destruction.
I would also commend to your attention if you haven’t, Mark Bauerlein in a CRB–Claremont Review of Books issue–maybe one or two issues back. It wasn’t that long ago, he wrote a very long review of a collection of David Horowitz’s essays, and a very well done review. It makes you want to read all the essays. I’ve read a lot of Horowitz over the years, because I, like Ben, I got Heterodoxy when I was in college, and I subscribed to it until it went, or at least I was reading it until it went away. One little anecdote, I don’t think I’d ever met Peter Collier, but I talked to him on the phone once. I wonder if he remembers this. He probably doesn’t. So, I had this idea once I started to figure out what Berkeley is, that I was going to write a novel about it. And, like Tom Wolfe, my hero, then as now, since I was terrible with deadlines, just ask Charles, I would serialize it somewhere, right? That’s how he did the Bonfire of the Vanities. He said if I just have to finish a manuscript I’ll never finish it, but, if I have a deadline, so he serialized it in Rolling Stone. I thought, oh, where would I want to serialize it? I would want to serialize it in Heterodoxy; it’s the perfect place to do it. Somehow I got, maybe Ben hooked me up, I don’t remember, but somehow I got to him, and he took my call one day, and I explained the whole thing. This is what it’s going to do; this is what the plot is. I’m being helped by various faculty members and I’m doing this research. I think it’ll be great for everybody, what do you think? And he, there was sort of a long pause, he heard me out, and he said, yeah, no, that doesn’t really work for us. But, good luck with it.
He was encouraging in other ways. I never did write that book. So, instead, what I did is I went to grad school, like I was joking earlier, the three of us together, you know we’re partying like it’s 1996. This is Claremont 1996. I got there in 1994. Charles got there in ’86. Ben got there in ’96. We were all together for about 2 years, and then I left, and then Ben left, and Charles is still there. So, I went to grad school. I went into the think tank world a little bit. I went into politics. I went into corporate life. I went back and forth from politics and the corporate life, and then while in the corporate life, in 2016, I became, for all the reasons Ben laid out, frustrated with conservatism in the Republican Party. I became a fairly early convert to Trump, that is to say, by about, I would say the fall of 2015 I was taking him seriously. By December of ’15, January of ’16, I was convinced I was going to vote for him, win the primary or not, he was my candidate. And, I began writing about it with a little group of sort of piratical pseudonymous writers, a blog called the Journal of American Greatness, which only lived for 4 months, from February 2012 to June 2016. But, if I live to be a hundred, and The Flight 93 Election was not published on the Journal of American Greatness, just to be clear, but if live to be a hundred, that’ll still be the greatest thing I ever did. It was a lot of fun, and we were upsetting people, all the right people were getting quite angry at us, because we were just pointing out the ways conservatism has ossified.
So, let me give you….Ben mentioned imminent domain and tariffs. Let me just remind you of one thing. One of the big attacks, the rightwing conservative attacks on Trump in December, January, was ethanol, right, because he went to, he did what most Republican politicians do, you want to win the Iowa Caucus, you go to Iowa and you pander to the corn farmers about ethanol. And this was considered a completely unforgivable sin. And I’m looking at it, and I’m going, all right, yeah, I’m sure this distorts the gasoline market in some way, and the AG market in some way, and it’s horrible, but, when we’ve got a crisis at the border, which I believe we had then and we certainly have more so now, when we’ve got catastrophic trade policies, we can’t win a war or end a war, or even figure out what the victory conditions are supposed to be. Do we not have bigger problems than ethanol? And why are the conservatives digging into this as their number one bunker? And I went and had an email exchange with a friend of all of ours. I won’t say who it was, just because it was a private exchange and I don’t have his permission, but I remember his words. I am quoting them from memory, but I think these are correct. He said I profoundly don’t care about ethanol. Right. In other words, it may be the worst, the most economically distorting policy every, it just doesn’t matter in this circumstance. So, why don’t the conservatives get that? Well, you know, the question of what is conservatism conserving is a fundamental question. And, I bring it up a lot. So if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you probably think, oh, this guy, he just says the same thing over and over again. Well, one of the things I learned in politics is you’ve got to say the same things over and over again for it to have any kind of impact in the public sphere.
So, I’m going to say this again. What is conservatism conserving? I said then and I’ve said now, in fact in a review that I just turned in to Charles late, but in time to make the magazine I think, I said, I raised this point again. Conservatism as a thing, as a movement, as a network of institutions and magazines and so on, if you wanted to be high-minded about it, if you would have decided to conserve a certain policy script that maybe gelled in the early ’80s, around the Reagan era; if you want to be cynical about it–which I sometimes am–it just exists to conserve itself. Right. But what, if you were to define conservatism in any kind of larger philosophic sense, what should it be trying to conserve, and it seems to me the very obvious answers are : the country, the people, the communities, the industries, the country’s interests, and so on. In other words, all things higher than conservativism as an institution, higher than as a movement or an ideology, and certainly higher than its policy recipe book. And it stopped trying to do that. And in some cases, it was arguing for things that were corrosive. I think our trade policy stopped being beneficial to any notionally conservative interests except higher aggregate GDP, 20 years ago, maybe longer than that. But the conservatives are still pedal to the metal for the same kind of free trade policy that was creating jobs for industrial America in 1955 and 1965, in 2005 and 2015, and they say we need more of it, when it’s really obvious it hasn’t been doing that in a long time.
The conservatives on immigration: The most you could get, I mean, I saw Mark Corian here, so there are honorable exceptions out there. But, by and large, the conservatives on immigration, if they had anything to say, a word of warning, it was just to make the usual distinction between legal and illegal, but otherwise say, immigration is good for the economy, we need workers, jobs Americans won’t do, and all of these sort of silly slogans. So, conservative policy was not conserving the things that it was supposed to conserve. It was working in antithetical ways, and my friends–and that would include Ben and a lot of others–grew to criticize the conservatives for that. I still do it constantly. I’ve lost a few friends for that. You know, maybe they weren’t so worth having in hindsight after all. But I’ve also made some great new friends. Some of whom I think, you know, you would say, by a conventional standard to judge from the way the three of us saw the world in 1996, with those, some of my new friends we would have said back then, oh, those are the guys who are liberals. Right. Well, they’re for tariffs, or they’re for a way more retrenched foreign policy, or they’re for economic policy that actually reduces rather than increases the Gini Coefficient. I mean, when was the last time a conservative talked about the Gini Coefficient? We should at least be thinking about it. Because here’s one thing I do like to point out to conservative audiences, I spent some time in financing in New York, and around big time financial institutions and people with lots and lots and lots and lots of money who pay, whose income is derived from carried interest in the 2 and 20 if any of you know what that means, and who pay a tax rate that’s about half of what all the rest of us pay in ordinary income.
I just want this to be completely clear to you. They’re not on your side in any way at all. They’re not your friends. They don’t vote for your party, they don’t donate to the institutions that you care about. They are either indifferent to the issues that you are about, or they’re actively hostile to them. And, again, there may be some honorable exceptions, but we’re talking about 2 to 5 percent at most. So, the conservatives completely missed the fact that capital and wealth and productivity had totally realigned with the left with the Democratic Party and with the movement that’s against them. And this is one of many, many things they missed. In other words, they didn’t even miss it just on the policy level, they missed it on sort of the bare political level, whose side are you on? Are you my friend or are you my enemy? Right? Are you my opponent in this particular struggle, or are you my ally? They didn’t even get that. And, it just became overtime exasperating.
So, I will say, very quickly, the article I just turned in for Charles is about Tucker Carlson, about his show and about his book. And he’s probably the most polarizing figure on the right, if you want to put that in quotes today. Now, why is that? So, the left absolutely hates him. I mean, they hate him. Despite the fact that on a lot of the metrix that I just talked about, he’s fairly left wing. When he talks about opioids, the decline of the family, alcoholism and things like that, the typical conservative response is to lambast him for saying that one conservative writer used the phrase victimhood populism. In other words to say, well, the true conservative position is to say that when anybody makes a bad decision, it’s their own fault and you should sort of let then die in the gutter. And to have the state or anything larger be concerned is nanny statism and it takes away moral agency and so on and that’s not what conservatism is about.
Is it not? I mean, is conservatism not about conserving the health of communities? If a community is, let’s say has a population of 10,000 in 1970, and the marriage rate is 70 percent and the out‑of-wedlock birth is 5 percent, and, you know, life expectancy is 75, and opioid addiction is essentially nonexistent. Fast forward 40 years and the divorce rate is 50 percent, out‑of-wedlock births are 40 percent, life expectancy has plummeted by 10 or 15 years, yeah, you can blame all that on the people who are making these bad decisions. And to some extent, we should. But we also, we have a thing called politics, and we have political leaders. And what are they there for if it is not to create conditions in which virtue and the good life can thrive. And if this is happening around you, and you’re nominally in charge or nominally a leader, and you don’t do anything about it, either because you don’t know how or you don’t care, then you’re a bad leader. Right. If, as to use a Greek analogy that I’m fond of using, you know you read Plato and Aristotle, they like to talk about sheep and shepherds all the time, Socrates says this a lot. Right, well, if you’re a shepherd and your sheep are mangy, or rabid, or dying, or getting eaten by wolves, you’re a bad shepherd. Right. And you can say, well, it’s not my fault. I mean, that dumb sheep walked off the edge of the cliff, or why did he go over there when the wolf was supposed to be there. Your job, though, is to ensure the help of the flock and make it better. It’s not to take away every decision necessarily from every individual sheep, but if stuff is getting bad and you’re nominally in charge, by definition, you’re not, or to borrow a term that Ben used at the beginning, you suck. Right.
And that’s kind of where our leadership found itself. And I think Carlson, among many other things, is fundamentally right about this. Conservative statesmanship needs to be about, first of all conserving communities, but even before we can conserve at this point, we have to dig out of the hole we’ve gotten ourselves into. So, we need a lot of restoration. And that’s going to require leadership of a kind that’s maybe a bit more intrusive and a bit more nudging, and a bit more pushy than ’80’s conservatism was used to, or comfortable with, but that’s the situation we’re in. And, it doesn’t seem to me that that is any less conservative in a more fundamental sense, it’s only less conservative if we’re going to forever judge everything according to the 1980 Republican platform, and Heritage’s Mandate for Leadership book from the same year. So, if those are to be the eternal scripts, then, yes, I am no longer a conservative. Though, if there’s something higher than that, than I would like to claim the title for myself and say people still reading the Catechism and thinking that’s going to solve the problems of 2019 are the ones who aren’t conservative.
BEN BOYCHUK: All right, so, with that let’s turn it over to Charles Kesler. Charles Kesler is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He’s a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He’s editor of the Claremont Review of Books, which is one of the most important journals in the country today. And he is author of one of the best books on the Obama era; it’s called We Are The Change. Is it still in print?
CHARLES KESLER: Yes it is.
BEN BOYCHUK: And they can get it? Good. It’s called We Are The Change.
CHARLES KESLER: I Am The Change. I Am The Change. (Laughter)
BEN BOYCHUK: Oh, I Am The Change. Got you. Sorry. Pardon me. (Laughter) Charles Kesler. Over to you.
CHARLES KESLER: Thank you, Ben. It’s a pleasure to be on this panel with two old friends and colleagues who I admire, and I wanted, especially, to thank David as well for putting this organization together and sponsoring this meeting and for this invitation.
But ladies and gentlemen, I want to say a few things about the actual topic of the panel, which is 20-20 and the future of conservatism, but, of course, that means really the future of Donald Trump, so let me say something mostly about Donald Trump. His slogan “Make America Great Again” – Some of you may have the hat. I can’t quite see out there – is fundamentally anti- progressive I would say because it implies that American Greatness is behind us, that it was achieved, we were great once and no longer are great.
Progressives believe that greatness always lies ahead of us and, inevitably, ahead of us. That’s why they believe in progress. The future will be better than the present, even as the present is better than the past. That’s the assumption of an inevitable progress. Trump’s slogan, his candidacy, his presidency challenges that because it suggests that the sources of American Greatness and certainly the illustrations of American Greatness may be more in our past than in the present or even than in the future if we don’t take some radical corrective action. And in opposing progressivism, I mean to say he opposes not only the stern and radical leftist version of progressivism but even a certain kind of lazy Republican version of progressivism.
In a certain sense, the conservative movement peaked with the Reagan presidency. I don’t really think you’d get much of a debate about that among Republicans or conservatives in the country, and after the Reagan era came what I sort of call, more or less comprehensively, the Bush era from George H. W. Bush to Jeb exclamation point Bush, which would include such figures as John McCain and Romney on the Republican side and, in their own way, would include Clinton and Obama, I think, on the left.
But, let’s talk about the right. What characterized the Bush era on the right? There was a certain impatience and even condescension towards Ronald Reagan and towards Reagan conservatism. This became apparent from the very beginning of the era when H. W. Bush gave his acceptance speech at the Republican convention and pronounced his famous wish to usher in a kinder and gentler America. The apocryphal story or at least, as far as I know it’s apocryphal, has Nancy Reagan turning to Ronny as they’re watching the television and saying, “Kinder and gentler than who,” and, in fact, what characterized the standard right, the mainstream right after Reagan was a certain kind of assumed moral superiority to Reagan and to the tough conservative cadres that had assembled around Reagan and had fought many of the battles for Ronald Reagan.
This condescension towards their achievements and towards the sterner virtues were needed in order to win the Cold War and to revive the American economy and to revive American patriotism, which I take to be the troika of major accomplishments of Reagan conservatism, their acceptance of that as though it had been inevitable and that it was no great feat to have accomplished these things. They were in the cards, history was going to bring them eventually – issued in, in intellectual terms in the so-called end of history school of thinking. Frank Cukiama at Stanford is the central intellectual figure but the end-of history school really had avid readers and believers, not just on the left but on the right as well, and it went with a certain acceptance of status quo, politics on the right and on the left. And the establishment part of the Republican party has never really gotten beyond that state of mind, that presumed superiority to Reagan, presumed victories which they never actually won themselves and the belief that no more virtue than that was going to be required for future Republican greatness or American Greatness.
That’s why it seems to me highly likely that there will be a primary challenger from the Republican establishment to Donald Trump in the 2020 election. The object of the sacrificial lamb who would be this challenger would be not to defeat Trump, but to damage him, and that’s the important thing to realize. No one thinks they can take Trump out in a Republican primary. They’ll get creamed. But they hope to make arguments, they hope to appear on the same stage with him, they hope to damage him so that he will lose in the general election to the Democrats. That’s how much they despise him and resist him. Now the report by the Special Prosecutor, Mueller’s report, exonerating the President probably makes it less likely that a big name would want to run against him in the primary, and so Romney, who would be the central castings version of who a likely opponent would be, probably will decline the honor. Jeb Bush, as you may have seen recently actually said we need to have a Republican to challenge Trump in the primaries, but he declined to do it himself. If there’s a definition of low energy, that would be it. But it could still be someone like Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland who’s made noises about doing it. John Kasich who’s always making noises about doing it. Bill Well, a completely inconsequential figure, now on the Republican Party. Someone, I think, will feel they have to do it in order to save the Republican Party’s honor and they think America’s honor from Donald Trump.
Now what is it about Trump’s own conservatism that they resent so much? From a certain point of view, Trump’s conservatism is very understandable, very American. He’s pugnacious, he’s a nationalist, he’s in favor of a kind of return, reinvigorated American patriotism and American Greatness based upon that American patriotism. He is a believer in American Greatness, not world greatness, not transnational greatness, but the greatness of our people one nation state which of course will have allies and friends in the world, but we are in charge only of our own fate and our own destiny. He doesn’t call himself a populist. Trump doesn’t really use that term, but there has always been a popular strain in the conservative movement going way back to Bill Buckley when he first formulated fusionist conservatism in the 1950s. He had a famous line back then which I’m sure most of you have heard that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book and by the faculty of Harvard University. That’s pretty Trumpian, actually, when you think about it. It’s not that he would expect the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book to know about physiology and meteorology and all the other ologies that one finds at Harvard University and its faculty, but in terms of commonsense self-government, he trusts them more than the does the so-called experts at Harvard. But to the left today and to an amazing extent to people who are Never Trumpers on the right, many of them, old friends of mine who I am absolutely astonished at the way they’ve been acting in the last couple of years, but increasingly on the left America itself, the American project, the American nation is nothing more than a litany of sins and grievous moral failures. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia. Um, the list goes on and on.
And so, in our politics today, increasingly the issue which Trump drew in 2016 and is going to draw again in 2020, I think, could be put in the following way: America versus anti-Americanism or America versus multi-culturalism or identarian politics or political correctness. All of these things are overlapping concepts really. The question that is so basic that Trump poses it even in the slogan on his hat is whether American ever was great and how we can recapture that greatness. And increasingly the left and many people even as I say on the never Trump front, answer it by saying well really America was never great. Our greatness if there is to be any, lies in the distant future when a succession of democratic presidents has worked his or her or its will on the American nation.
When I wrote the book…..I said that it looked likely to me that the future of liberalism–because the book was really about Obama and the rise of modern American liberalism and a little bit about its future, that it looked like liberalism–would have to radicalize in one of two directions: either into a much more open socialist force because in order to pay the bills of the increasingly layered welfare state, it was going to require a lot more taxes and a lot more of a socialist economy. So one directly was socialist. The other was, I thought, increasingly postmodern or you could say radical identarian. Insisting upon that we have no souls. We have only selves, and ourselves are creatures of our skin color, our ethnicity, our culture that we have chosen, our values that we have chosen and so forth. In other words, the two directions. Really one was more Marxist. One was more Nicaean. In reality, the left has taken both options and, if you look over the past 10 years, you now have a blatantly socialist Democratic Party or a faction, a large faction, in the Democratic Party that is embracing a form of socialism. You have increasingly almost every candidate in the Democratic Party must bow and kiss the ring of multi-culturalism and identity politics and anti-racism, anti-sexism and so forth.
We recently saw Joe Bide decrying white male culture and separating himself from his white maleness which wasn’t too difficult apparently. But the issue that 2020 now presents itself is whether America really is a, a Democratic Republic based upon individual human equality. That all men, that is all human beings, are created equal. Well whether this is a country based upon equal identity groups, each one of which feels itself oppressed by white males and whether going forward we have to become a much more radicalized, much more Marxist, much more Nicaean, much more socialist country in order to satisfy all of the demands of the incredible diversity of identity groups which have appeared and will appear in our politics.
Now let me draw this to a conclusion by saying Trump in 2020, in a way of course the Democrats are beautifully setting up his campaign in 2020. His will be a campaign of restoration, of restoring American Greatness, of restoring individual rights, actual individual rights, of treating Americans as equal, patriotic citizens not primarily as members of a racial or ethnic or gender group. It is in many ways despite its apparent novelty, it is a deeply rooted, very traditional kind of appeal to Americanism. It is also going to actually have elements of the old Republican Party platform, the things which Trump has emphasized contrary to a lot of the policy ideas of the post-Cold War American conservatism. His revised status on immigration, on protection, his approach towards judges and so forth have their roots in the old Republican Party pre-Cold War–the party of Calvin Coolidge, the party of William McKinley, the party of Abraham Lincoln. Far from being a radical innovator in this respect, I think one could make the argument that Trump, whether he knows it or not, is in fact reverting to the norm of Republican politics, reverting to the mean of Republic Party politics in the country.
The last thing I’ll say is there are interesting signs that an even bigger issue that he has not really touched in 2016 or much since then may come to the fore in the 2020 elections. And, by that, I mean higher education. It’s clear that the breeding ground of multiculturalism and identity politics is the academy. It’s higher education. It’s Berkeley, Harvard and all of the elite and non-elite universities across the country and their radical faculties. Just as David Horowitz has explained to us now for 20 or 30 years. He was right about this. He was right about it long before a lot of other people even realized that there was a problem. And now I think Trump is becoming interested in the political side of higher education. And this could be something to watch.
His education secretary has issued regulations. He has issued an executive order tying the granting of federal research money to the protection of students’ free speech and due process rights at universities. But I wonder whether there isn’t more that could be done or that could be called for being done. In particular, why are there so few Republicans and conservatives teaching at the major universities? Why is it that it’s conservative students overwhelmingly, not liberal students who feel infringements of their rights of free speech and due process? Don’t we need to somehow persuade or induce or force universities to take seriously American history, American principals to revive the grounds of patriotic civic education in American politics. Shouldn’t Donald Trump be bashing not just fake news, but fake education? And with that, I’ll subside.
BEN BOYCHUK: So I hope we have time for at least a couple of questions?
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Thanks. That was great. In talking about the future conservatism, the future of the country, we tend to leave out the most important element which are the voters, the people. What does the panel, anybody on the panel, what are your thoughts about the nature of the American people? Their character? Their virtues? Their practical wisdom? How do they fit into these prognostications?
MICHAEL ANTON Well I do want to sort of semi respond to something Charles said, or just add to it. First of all, one of the ironies of the conservative opposition to Trump is again that Trump is – what was the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush? What was his father’s kinder gentler supposed to mean? Charles is right. That was meant to be a repudiation, a rather subtle, but an unmistakable repudiation of Reaganism that the average middle voter, an independent voter, suburban voter who thought Reagan was too harsh, they would look at the Bush’ and say these aren’t that kind of Republican. These are better, nicer people. Well Trump definitely doesn’t have kinder gentler rhetoric, but his policies certainly are closer to compassionate conservatism than the caricature of hard-edged Reaganism. Trump is literally saying let’s use the power of the state to make people’s lives better.
Now how is that fundamentally different from what W was talking about with the passionate conservative? I think it’s fundamentally different in one way. I’ll just have to blurt it out. I can’t think of a polite way to say it. Right? Everybody kind of knew that when George W. Bush talked about compassionate conservativism what he meant was this is aimed at traditional Democratic constituencies. This is not for the red voters who are already going to vote for me and who cling to their guns and religion. I’ve got them in the bag, right? This is for the urban poor and for minority communities who don’t vote Republican. Whereas, everybody also knew that when Trump said we’re going to make America great again, and I’m going to revive communities and I’m going to rebuild manufacturing and get control of the opioid crisis and stop trade giveaways, he was talking directly about red Republican constituencies. That’s what was so anathema about the Trump message that caused people I think in an unexamined way to freak out. And that’s what viscerally makes them angry right now.
A critique that did not originate with me, but that I think is true, is that one of the reasons the Democratic Party has for 20 or 30 years been stronger than the Republican Party is because the Democratic Party knows how to do things for its constituency. The Republican Party doesn’t. It just takes for granted that it’ll get certain votes and then it says, okay, and then we’re going to make sure that we get million or two illegal immigrants a year to keep your wages down. We’re going to keep closing factories everywhere and do more trade deals with China and overseas firms and we’re going to increase your tax burden and lower the tax burden of hedge fund financiers. And you’re going to vote for us because of the Bible and guns. So we don’t really need to give you anything. Trump was the first one to come along and say that’s kind of stupid, and maybe what the Party ought to do is try to do things for its core constituency, and they’re really mad at him for upsetting and exposing the rotten deal that they had been pulling on people for a long time.
BEN BOYCHUK: I’d like to venture an answer to that question. The question had to do with the character of the people, and I think the character of the people is by and large – I mean look, we’re – the character of the people is by and large okay. I don’t mean this as an insult to anybody in this room and I certainly don’t mean this as an insult to my fellow panelists, but we’re weirdos. Most normal people don’t pay attention to politics the way we pay attention to politics. I do this for a living. He does it for a living. He does it for a living. You folks are activists in a lot of ways. Most people aren’t like this. And so we see things, we are able to look at the kind of the condition of the country and things that are happening, and we kind of despair because why aren’t more people paying attention? Well that’s a good question. And part of our job is to get people, more people to pay attention. But it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that most people want to live sort of normal lives. And they want to work, and they want to raise their families and they don’t want to have to obsess over this sort of thing. So we have our jobs cut out for us in making people more aware of what’s going on and why essentially they’re being lied to by the media and by the schools. But I think by and large I think the people are okay.
CHARLES KESLER: I think that’s good. I mean I found it very encouraging the other day to see polls showing that 45 or 50 percent of Hispanics as polled were supporting Trump or were inclined to support Trump. That is, among other things, a confirmation of the patriotic thesis, I think, and also a confirmation of the jobs boom that is going on and a confirmation of the normality of Hispanic voters who appreciate things like jobs and higher income and greater prosperity and freedom.
BEN HOYCHUK: We have time for one more.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: I wanted to ask Charles why you think – I realize that Trump recently has attacked higher education, but why stop at higher education? I don’t know why – is it unconstitutional to say that classes have to be taught in English in the United States? I think all of education needs to be attacked, and I think Trump would be successful doing that.
CHARLES KESLER: No, I think you’re right. Obviously, when I get to freshmen now, they already know the entire litany of intersectionality and the whole lingo of identity politics. We didn’t teach them that. They arrived knowing it. So they had to pick it up in high school or even before that. And to that extent, you do need a top down reform, or maybe a bottom up reform in American politics. But of course ultimately you have to educate the educators, which means you start at the top, you eventually will get down to the people who are teaching high school and K through 12 education. But you’re right. It is not the Constitution that says that courses must be taught in English. It’s only a few eccentric judges…..There are no nationwide……
MICHAEL ANTON: California passed this as a valid initiative in 1990, either 6 or 8. I don’t remember. Proposition 227. And it worked wonderfully until the state demographic tipped so far left that the people, the creative destruction people without the creativity as I said came in and said, oh, this is really working out well. Let’s make sure we destroy it.
BEN BOYCHUK: Thank you. (Audience applause)