Morbid Symptoms: An Interview with Ross Douthat

Morbid Symptoms: An Interview with Ross Douthat

Can there be Trumpism without Trump?

Sohrab Ahmari (left) and Ross Douthat (IHE/Youtube)

About a year ago we launched a new podcast, Know Your Enemy, dedicated to critically examining the American right from a left-wing point of view. Episodes range widely, from a deep dive into how the Koch brothers deploy their fortune to influence politics, to an explainer on the rise of the new illiberal right, to a close reading of Norman Podhoretz’s Making It. We’ve also featured a stellar roster of guests such as Rebecca Traister, who explored gender and conservative politics, and Sarah Jones, who talked about how the media covers Trump voters. But until we interviewed New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in January, we hadn’t had an actual conservative on the show. Over the course of our discussion, we first focused on how he views conservatism in the Trump era and then turned to his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. That means many topics on which we disagree with Douthat, from abortion to same-sex marriage, never get raised. We thought that rather than rehearsing well-worn arguments on issues where he is a fairly standard conservative, we’d zero in on where, as someone who is pro-populist but anti-Trump, he might have particularly interesting or unexpected insights. It was a conversation, not a debate—and a conversation held in January, when Bernie Sanders was topping the polls in Iowa and had a slight lead in national polling. What follows is a transcript of part of that conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. Those interested in the entire exchange can listen to it on Know Your Enemy. —Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell


Matthew Sitman: Why do you call yourself a conservative?

Ross Douthat: I call myself a conservative, first, because I have fundamental political commitments that broadly align with the political right in the United States. My primary commitments are what gets called “religious conservatism,” a sort of pro-life, pro-family, socially conservative worldview. I sometimes have more sympathies with the center-left and left on economics than some conservatives do, but those primary commitments of mine are generally unwelcome on the left. The secondary reason is that I have a more personal conservatism that manifests itself in aesthetic affinities: I like the past. And I don’t like liberalism as a worldview. People who for one reason or another aren’t liberals, unless they’re Marxists, get placed on the right. Do I have a ton in common with the worldview of, say, some of the people who write for Quillette? Not necessarily. But I think it’s okay to say they’re on the right and I’m on the right, because we’re all defined against an existing consensus.

Sitman: One of the more provocative and infamous conservative manifestos of the last couple of years was “Against the Dead Consensus,” published in First Things and signed by people like Patrick Deneen, Matthew Schmitz, Sohrab Ahmari, and Rod Dreher. (That consensus, you later wrote, was an “ideology that packaged limited government, free markets, a hawkish foreign policy and cultural conservatism together.”) How do you situate yourself in the midst of everything percolating on the right these days, whether you call it post-liberalism, illiberalism, or the new nationalism?

Douthat: I’ve been against the dead consensus since before it was dead. But I’m not actually sure it’s dead. Since I’ve been an adult, I’ve been in favor of a moderately socially conservative politics that tries to do more for the working class, which might get labeled “populism.” Where I differ from some of the people in this populist-nationalist orbit is that I’m more Trump-skeptical. The Trump era offers clear opportunities for the kind of politics that I believe in, but I don’t think they can be claimed simply by throwing in with Trump, especially for people who write about policy. Those of us who have the luxury of keeping our jobs even if we attack Trump a lot should attack Trump.

Sam Adler-Bell: In your writings Trump often seems to pose a problem for you in a way that he doesn’t for the partisans of these movements, who see Trump as an avatar of the populist project, if an imperfect one.

Douthat: Maybe it’s a problem that goes away if Trump is defeated, and then we’re arguing about who the next political standard bearer for conservatism should be or what the next ideological nerve center should be. But as long as Trump is president, he is the public leader of the American right. My moral objection to Trump and my strategic objection to Trump are the same; he’s a race-baiter, and if you’re going to build a populist center-right coalition that is culturally conservative, and is willing to lose some of the suburban moderates that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, you need black and brown Americans in that coalition. Trump has done less to destroy that possibility than some people think, in the sense that the Republican Party was already incompetent at doing minority outreach. His vote share with Hispanics and African Americans wasn’t any worse than Mitt Romney’s. But he does represent white identity politics in a way that prevents a would-be populist coalition from actually commanding more than 42 to 46 percent of the country.

Sitman: There’s a way of looking at the postwar American right and the rise of the conservative movement that puts race at the center. The right, especially in its preoccupations with welfare dependency and crime, has been powered by a white majority that’s slowly shrinking, and as that majority has dwindled, it’s become more virulent. In this telling, Trump is in continuity with what came before—he’s a part of the same racial backlash. How do you view that story?

Douthat: There are always both continuities and discontinuities. Any political coalition in a country of now some 300 million people is going to contain a lot of different tendencies that rise to the fore for sometimes contingent reasons. We can imagine a world in which things broke slightly differently and Trump wasn’t the Republican nominee. People would have said, “He was just the last gasp of something that never commanded more than 25 percent support.” That is what I kept saying about him, but it didn’t turn out to be true.

One thing that Trump represents is a kind of secular, non-Southern form of conservatism that was pretty important from the 1970s to the early 1990s and seemed to have gone away, because the issue matrix around it had gone away. There’s a reason that Trump is from New York, and there’s a reason that Rudy Giuliani is his number one guy. This outer-borough, right-of-center politics was something that was really important when crime and urban policy were huge subjects of debate. It stopped being so important when the crime rate went down and welfare was reformed and the cities seemed to recover. When you look at the Republican Party of the early 1990s, you can totally see where Trump comes from.

The way that you escape racially polarized politics and race-baiting politicians is to figure out the substantive policy issue that’s connected to racial animosity and racial anxiety and try to solve it. That is hard, but it’s easier than imagining that just the right rhetoric can deal with racial animosity.

Adler-Bell: Trump’s certainly very comfortable in the space of the Giuliani-esque, outer-borough conservative. He’s in his stride when he’s talking about Elijah Cummings’s district or Nancy Pelosi’s district and the liberal cities overrun by poor people and homeless people and crime.

Douthat: He’s a man of the 1980s. It’s his instinct to be racially polarizing around issues of crime and urban decay. But the locus of racially inflected anxiety has shifted from crime to immigration. And that’s why to my mind the equivalent of welfare reform and better policing for our era would be figuring out a more stable settlement on immigration. I think he is the politician who in certain ways would be best positioned to do that, but for other reasons can’t.

Sitman: What do you make of the people who have warmed up to Trump? I’ve been disappointed by those on the right who have really leaned into the nationalism and mostly keep quiet about the worst aspects of it.

Meanwhile, Trump campaigned on an economically populist conservative platform, but it’s not clear how much it will stick in the Republican Party. Even with people like Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio, who are taking up the banner of a more pro-worker economic vision, I’m not really sure what it amounts to.

Douthat: My biggest concern with Trump was that essentially chaos would be unleashed, meaning that my colleague Paul Krugman would be right that after a Trump election the stock market would crash, Putin would send troops into Eastern Ukraine in large numbers, there would be this escalating series of global crises joined to economic disarray. But the world has turned out to be more self-stabilizing than I expected, in spite of Trump’s frequent incompetence.

As for those trying to make something out of Trumpism, whether they are the national conservatism intellectuals or Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio: I think you can tell a story about conservatism in the modern era where the Republican Party often moves back toward the center after a period of libertarian purity. The Reagan administration was not just an exercise in implementing all of Milton Friedman’s policy priorities. Henry Olsen wrote a whole book about Reagan as a working-class conservative, which I think is overstated, but it’s an actual part of the history. The “Contract with America” is not a document of libertarian purity. Compassionate conservatism is obviously a very conscious attempt to claim a sort of centrist economic vision.

What I want is not just a conservatism that tacks toward the center, but a conservatism that has a specific, affirmative economic policy vision of how you’re going to rebuild the working and middle classes in the United States. And that’s harder to get to. People on the left would say, “Well, you can’t get there because you need unions as a base of support for that,” and conservatives don’t like unions, and that’s partially plausible. This is the big question with all the nationalist and populist forays: Where does the institutional support come from? Where does the money come from? Where do the donors come from?

Adler-Bell: I want to propose that there’s a problem with your hope for a Trumpism without Trump, which is that possibly what works about Trumpism is both parts. That is, in order to have a constituency of white Americans—especially older white Americans and white American men—who support a more redistributive set of policies, you also need to narrow what the national community consists of. It’s the vilification of the other, of marginal groups and immigrants, that gives them license to say, “We’re all Americans. We can support each other.”

Douthat: I think that’s possible. It would be foolish for anyone who has lived through the rise of Trump to say it’s easy to separate populism from nativism. If it were easy, the two would not be so tightly conjoined. And we have a larger history that I don’t think is repeating itself. The story of early twentieth-century politics is a story of cultural conservatives figuring that they could make successful alliances with nationalists against the menace of communism, or liberalism, and ending up with the nationalists in charge and often very bad things happening.

I also think that in politics, you’re never not going to have an enemy. The trick is to make it be the right enemy. The question is not whether conservatism has an other or has an enemy. The question is whether it can get away from a place where the descendants of slaves and immigrants are seen as the other, and get to a point where instead it’s just Upper West Side liberals again, as it should be.

Sitman: The left, or at least parts of it, have a certain story about what’s driving the populist insurgencies of the last few years—whether it’s Trump or Brexit or Hungary. It’s neoliberalism, it’s austerity, especially in the United States where we don’t have a European-style welfare state.

Adler-Bell: In other words, Bernie would have won.

Sitman: What are the limits of an economic view of why we’re facing the political situation we do now?

Douthat: Trump won the election for reasons that are contingent on our two-party system and the Electoral College and so on, but it’s not clear that populism is that much more potent in the United States than it is in some very socially democratic parts of Europe. If the Trump administration proposed some of the Danish policies around assimilation, they would be viewed as horrifyingly right wing and racist. That alone suggests that while there is clearly an economic component to this story, there’s something more going on. You can tell a story where left-wing welfare policies are fine for dealing with the worst forms of poverty but struggle to figure out what you do with a working class that feels itself to be economically obsolete. There’s clearly people who feel they are in economic trouble but don’t respond well to a Democratic Party that says, “Don’t worry, we’ll just take care of you with stronger welfare spending.” They want jobs and self-sufficiency.

Sitman: Your book is called The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. It reminded me of Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, in that you both argue that liberalism’s failure is actually the result of its successes. Is this a particular conservative way of doing analysis? What is it about the conservative mind that looks for those kinds of ironies?

Douthat: It’s undoubtedly the case that the conservative mind is always on the lookout for how what seem like development and transformation will ultimately lead to disaster. I think what distinguishes my argument from some other conservative arguments is that it lays a heavier emphasis on stagnation, drift, and repetition than it does on looming catastrophe. My thinking is premised on the assumption that we’re actually not about to descend into the Marxist gulag or the fascist nightmare. The defining feature of our age is a kind of stasis and repetition where it’s very hard for institutions and movements and individuals to achieve what feels like forward momentum and progress.

We have these deadlocks that in the United States are at least in part a feature of our constitutional system, but that also show up in different ways in different systems. Brexit may have been a breakthrough, but for several years it’s been a perfect example of gridlock and chaos. What I try to do in the book is link that view of our politics to a bunch of other areas—to demography and declining birth rates and the aging of our society. I link it to the argument that you get from everyone from Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen to David Graeber: we’ve had much less technological progress in the developed world over the last couple of generations than people think. That argument is more contentious, but at the very least we’ve had outsized progress in technologies of simulation and communication relative to progress everywhere else.

In the arts, something similar is happening, which is unprovable but I think somewhat persuasive. The trajectory of the Star Wars saga is a perfect example of what decadence, in my definition, means. The prequels are not actually decadent. They are bad movies. But they’re movies in which George Lucas is trying and failing to do something new. Out of that failure comes the latest trilogy, where we’re just going to repeat the movies we made forty years ago. That’s what decadence is: You try and get out, it doesn’t work, and then you just go back to doing the same things again.

Sitman: Your approach lacks the apocalyptic element that you get from some anti-liberals or post-liberals, who think some breakthrough is possible, or are at least play-acting that things could break.

Douthat: I’m agnostic to skeptical about the idea. I think there is a sense in which we’re in a crisis of the liberal order, but we’re also sitting around writing about it from coffee shops, which is maybe not what the real crisis of the liberal order would look like.

Adler-Bell: In your column on the 2010s, “The Decade of Disillusionment,” you characterize the 1990s as an age of hubris where we thought the “end of history” was upon us and the liberal order was stable. The 2000s is a nemesis era with inevitable realities striking down hope. Then comes the 2010s, which is an age of disillusionment: “The sense of crisis, alienation and betrayal emerged more from backward glances than new disasters, reflecting newly awakened—or awokened, if you prefer—readings of our recent history, our entire post-Cold War arc.” The idea that we’re seeing a reckoning with the misdeeds of the past is compelling to me. I see this as a moment where Trump could win again or Bernie could win, and each outcome would be a different sort of reckoning with the 2010s.

Douthat: That’s roughly what I was arguing, except that because I believe in decadence, I’m skeptical that Bernie will win. I think Trump was a first reckoning. If you think of the big things that happened from the late 1990s through 2008, it’s deregulation, it’s the opening to China, it’s the Iraq War and the War on Terror, and then the financial crisis. Trump represents a partial reckoning with that on the right. If Bernie gets the nomination, or Warren to some extent, that would represent a partial reckoning on the left. Then you would have both more compelling right-wing and left-wing narratives about what went wrong than you had when Romney was running against Barack Obama. To me, in certain ways, that election was more decadent than Trump-Bernie would be. With Obama and Romney, we weren’t reckoning with anything, we put up a vain finance guy against the incumbent. Now we’re in a moment where history is creeping back in.

I wrote a column a few years ago where I said that in 2016 Trump and Bernie were both revolts against decadence, revolts against the idea that this is the best we can do. “Make America Great Again” is reactionary futurism, the idea that there is a past that could be linked to a better future. And Bernie is doing something similar on the left. I’m just skeptical, and we would find out in a Sanders presidency if I’m right, that that’s enough to get us through the structural forces that make us decadent and make it hard to change anything dramatically. I think Trump’s presidency has mostly vindicated the idea that you can elect a slightly insane-seeming demagogue and in fact not that much will change. Maybe Bernie will be different. But my basic view is that there might be a crisis of liberalism, a real one, this century—by 2050. This is the dress rehearsal. But I’ll be proven wrong, happily or unhappily, I’m sure.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.

Matthew Sitman is associate editor of Commonweal and a frequent contributor to Dissent. He is co-host of Know Your Enemy.

Sam Adler-Bell is a freelance writer in New York City and co-host of Know Your Enemy.