America is divided. There has never really been a point at which it was not divided, but our nation today is increasingly, acceleratingly polarized. These divisions manifest not just in where we live, work, and play, but also in what we think about — and how. Our new president, neither liberal nor conservative, and his government and governing style have further divided both major parties. In this series, I'm going to talk to as many people as I can about how this administration — and this wild time — is shaping their thinking.
Charles C.W. Cooke is online editor for National Review, a conservative magazine. A native of Great Britain, Cooke is a "conservatarian," and was part of the #NeverTrump movement of conservatives who vocally opposed Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election. He has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, and authored The Conservatarian Manifesto in 2015.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]
Just to get us started, what does #NeverTrump mean now that Trump is actually president? Do you feel pressure from other conservatives to stay within an ideological lane — either to keep criticizing Trump or to stop criticizing Trump?
Charles C.W. Cooke: Let me answer those one by one. I don't use the term #NeverTrump anymore because after he was elected, it made no sense. That's not to say that my view of Trump changed after he was elected. It didn't. My view was that he shouldn't be the nominee, and my view was that I didn't want him to become president (although I didn't want Hillary Clinton to become president, either). He is president now, so there's really no choice for me to make. So my view, subsequent to the election, is that I'm going to treat him as I treated President Obama — on a case-by-case basis.
I think [Trump is] unfit for office, I think he has some hideous tendencies — the way he lashes out at anyone who disagrees with him, his ignorance and recklessness. But if he does something good, as with President Obama, I'm going to praise it. And if he does something bad, I'm going to criticize it. #NeverTrump for me was over the day he was elected.
On the second question: I feel pressure from everywhere! I am accused from left and right of being either a Trump stooge or a Trump hater. If you praise him people say you're normalizing him, and if you criticize him people say you're trying to wreck him. Actually, my job is to write about what I see in front of me and nothing else. I don't like this health care bill, [so] I've criticized it. I didn't like the executive order on travel, and I criticized it. But I think Neil Gorsuch is arguably the best judge in the country. I'm not going to come out against Trump because he nominated him for the Supreme Court.
It seems to me that for some people, #NeverTrump really represented a split between conservatives who thought that Trump might do non-conservative things and conservatives who thought that Trump is inherently non-conservative, and thus a risk.
Cooke: Well, I think there's another group, and those were the people that thought that Donald Trump was simply unfit for office. My view is that Trump is an embarrassment, that he's ignorant, that he behaves in a way that I don't want a president to behave, that he's disorganized, that he's petty, that he can be vindictive — and that these things matter in a free country. [People like] David Frum believe that Trump is a proto-autocrat who may well turn America into an authoritarian state. So, yes, there are some people who thought that Donald Trump shouldn't be president because he wasn't conservative, there are some people who thought that Donald Trump shouldn't be president because he's unfit for office. I've been pleasantly surprised [by Trump] in some regards on the first score, but it's early.
There was an idea among conservatives that 2016 was the “Flight 93 election” — a "last election," so to speak. Their thinking was that Trump represented the last chance to stop progressivism, liberalism, whatever. Can you talk a little about that concept and how it plays into how Trump is perceived by conservatives now?
Cooke: Well, I never subscribed to that theory, although I did understand it. If you believe, as I do, that conservatives are right, that they have a better understanding of human nature and the human condition, that they are more likely to embrace and sell sometimes unpleasant truths, then, in the long run, conservatism is always going to prevail. The idea that we were one election away from never having those truths vindicated by the electorate always struck me as fanciful. That's not, to me, the story of western democratic history.
Where I have a little more time for it is in the undemocratic or antidemocratic components of American life. In America, there are all sorts of small-r republican institutions — the courts, the Constitution, the Senate, and so on and so forth. It is plausible that if you were to stack the courts for a long enough period of time you could change the meaning of the Constitution in a way that is never going to be reversed. That said, I don't think people put up forever with permanent ideology from one or the other side. I think our politics works on a pendulum, and I think that conservatives believe in economic gravity, and I think economic gravity prevails.
There’s a common Twitter meme of "and that's how you got Trump," which seems to be more about ideological priors than anything else. So how do you think we got Trump?
Cooke: I think that's a very complicated question. Firstly, the Democratic Party ran an extraordinarily weak candidate whose flaws were underestimated, who had managed to take over much of the internal structure of the Democratic Party despite Barack Obama's two victories, and [who] was therefore unopposed by better candidates like Joe Biden. I think that there's a realignment going on in American politics and Donald Trump understood this better than many Republicans who have their maps stuck in the 1980s. And I think the pendulum swings. People get tired. They want a different party in power, and it really shouldn't be a surprise that Republicans are doing so well, because Democrats did so well in 2008 and they slowly lost their power, hastened by Obamacare, and this is probably the height of the Republican comeback.
This is probably the height of the Republican comeback.
What has surprised you most about the mainstream media's response to Trump?
Cooke: I think it's been incompetent. There seems to be an aversion to basic research, and a tendency to push the dial up to 11 at every single juncture, which just shuts [the American public] off. There's a divide between a few journalists who are quite rightly chronicling Trump's lies, his mistakes, his flaws, his corruption, and the majority who have turned covering Trump into a sport. There's always a certain bias in journalism politically because most journalists are on the left, but I've never seen it quite like this. For every mistake or lie Trump makes or tells, there seems to be an equivalent in the press. And I think that's a huge mistake. I think that's a source of delegitimization. There's a desire on the part of many journalists to become sort of heroes. They almost believe it's the American Revolution or the Civil Rights Movement, and I don't think it is. I think we have a president who is deeply flawed.
How would you respond to some mainstream publications' claims that the solution to Trump's election is to “go to West Virginia and start talking to people"?
Cooke: Rather than saying "We need to go to West Virginia and start talking to people" or "We need to find out what makes Trump voters tick," I would prefer if the press said more generally, "We understand that we are a small and homogenous cross-section of the American public and we need to do a better job of understanding how other Americans think." The problem in my view is that the press is concentrated and incestuous, and it excludes everyone, not just Trump voters.
Where I think the urgency to understand Trump voters and, indeed, Republicans is warranted is [the] divergence of [Democratic] opinions that's often underestimated. That said, if you are Democratic, your view is likely to be explained and held by at least someone within the media bubble. But that's simply not true for many Republicans. [If I go on liberal media] I am "the conservative voice" or "the libertarian voice." There are very few people at the Washington Post or the New York Times or CNN who just hold my views and express them as a matter of course. I think that's even more true for populist working-class Republicans. And so I think [journalists] could do a much better job of understanding the country around them. I think that it's especially acute when it comes to conservatives, particularly working-class conservatives in the middle of the country who have every reason to be frustrated at how their views are described.
It's been argued that conservatism isn't actually all that popular of an ideology. Do you think conservatives need to "sell" conservatism?
Cooke: Conservatism is different from Republican Party–ism. I think that many of those in West Virginia have become Republicans but haven't necessarily become conservatives, and we need to draw that distinction. The truth is that it is less obvious why conservatism is appealing. [It’s] emotionally unsatisfying, and I think that goes for most conservative policy. It takes a little bit longer, and in that regard, it's never going to be too appealing to large groups of people who want change now.
[This] conservatism is focused on individual liberty, on an original understanding of the Constitution, on limited government, on free markets and civil society. But a lot of Americans who consider themselves conservative, they may agree with some of that, but what they really mean is that they are conservative of the status quo. They don't, for example, want to get rid of Social Security. Likewise, they think that the current size of the government is fine, but they don't want it to get any bigger. That's not intellectual conservatism, but it is conservatism. It is a belief that the status quo is fine and that it doesn't need tinkering with, and, most crucially, that you shouldn't try to remake Man. There's how I think you resolve the disparity you describe between the ostensible popularity of conservatism as seen in opinion polls, and your West Virginian miner who stands up at the town hall and says, "I don't want to lose what I have now."