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In Conversation: Ben Domenech Thinks The GOP Got Its Voters Wrong

The Publisher of the Federalist on going Libertarian, unpopular opinions, and ‘how we got Trump’

America is divided. There has never really been a point at which it wasn’t, but our nation today is increasingly, acceleratingly polarized. These divisions manifest not just physically, in where we live, work, and play, but also mentally, in terms of what we think about — and how. Our major political parties have been further divided by our neither liberal nor conservative new president, his byzantine administration, and a governing style guided more by whim than by principle. 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.

Ben Domenech is the founder and publisher of the conservative online magazine The Federalist. He was previously a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute; editor in chief of The City, an academic journal on faith and culture; and a speechwriter for Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas. He cofounded RedState and cohosted "Coffee & Markets," an award-winning economic podcast. His writing has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, Politico, Commentary, Reason, and GQ. He is a contributor to CBS's Face the Nation.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

How do you think that being a visible conservative when you were pretty young impacted you, and how do you think that impacted what you thought of as being a conservative? How does your conservatism look now in comparison to how it looked in, I don't know, 2002?

Ben Domenech: One of the big things that changed my perspective — and I think changed a lot of people's perspectives — if you were born in the '80s, then you grew up during the Iraq War. I think that was an eye-opener to a lot of people who had accepted essentially conventional views of foreign policy. You know, we forget how bipartisan the support for that war was at the time, but I think the skepticism that came from that experience changed [a lot of people’s] policy.

I would say when I started [my career], in the wake of 9/11 and everything that came with that, I described myself as a fairly conventional, a little bit more populist conservative. I came from a religious, homeschooled background, I had conventional views across the board. In the time since then, I've become a lot more libertarian, and even more populist. I stopped being a Republican because of the Iraq War. I think [the war] was a mistake. I think not just was it a mistake, but that it was a mistake made worse by people who continued to defend it after it became clear that it was not the right approach, tactically.

I think that, actually, the failure to learn from the mistake of the Iraq War and some of the other domestic policy mistakes that George Bush made is really the reason that we got Donald Trump. The Republican Party assumed that its electorate was different than it actually was. They thought it was more religious; they thought it was more dedicated to free-market ideas, to free trade; they thought it was more moderate on immigration; they thought it was very Christian and dedicated to all these litmus tests that would've made Donald Trump's rise impossible. I think what his rise revealed is that many Republican voters are very pragmatic, and don't particularly have these litmus tests on these issues, or, if they [do], they're different than what people think.

One of the questions that I think libertarians ask that conservatives almost never do is, "Is this something government should even do?" The assumption on the part of a lot of conservatives today is, "Well, we need to do this in a way that is cheaper or more efficient or doesn't have this or that defect that liberal policy does," but they never really question that prior assumption of, "Is this something that even should be done in this context?" I think that's something that, if you believe in limited government, is kind of a dangerous question to leave out.

What do you think is the purpose of conservative media?

Domenech: Essentially, the obligation of [conservative] media is to question what's going on, and say, "Is this something that is the right thing to do? Is it something that's constitutional? Is it something that is even wise to do?" I think that's true regardless of who's in power.

Whether that's questioning the dominant opinion of the day, the conventional wisdom of the day, or whether it's questioning the policies that come out of Washington, or out of our government, generally, I think [media’s] job is to look at it and say, "What's really going on here? What's the story behind what you see?"

What we try to do at The Federalist is to provide opinion and analysis that brings in a lot of different perspectives from across the right. You'll see a lot of times us running an article that argues one side of something and then an article that argues the opposite. We want to foster that feeling of debate and discourse that I think has largely been lost too much in our media, where it's been reduced too often to just people from each side throwing talking points at each other on cable news.

Do you think the goal of The Federalist is to convert liberals, progressives, and Democrats, or to reassure the already converted? And why is it the way that it is?

Domenech: I don't really view it as either. What we're trying to do is to provide analysis for a world that is increasingly chaotic and tribal, and do so in a way that cuts across a lot of the traditional boundaries that people have when they read cultural commentary. I don't view us, really, as trying to preach to the converted, or preach to the unconverted. It's an item of pride for us that we get emails almost every day saying "I'm a Democrat. I'm a liberal, but I really like listening to you guys, because it's a quality program and I learn things, and it gives me a different perspective on the world." And I appreciate that: I like the fact that we get that kind of feedback. But, most of all, I think what we're trying to do is just to develop good content that's very smart and that takes on, as I said, the sacred cows of the day.

Do you ever feel pressured to publish something that's more purposely contrarian? Kind of like, "Well actually, this terrible thing is probably good," or something like that.

Domenech: Yes and no. Occasionally we will pick something to publish because we want to stir the pot. We published a defense of polyamory a couple of years ago, which upset a lot of our socially conservative readers. I would say that the pressure we get is actually different depending on which area of content you're talking about in the sense that, on the site, I think that the different responses are based on the entry point. If you're talking about a celebrity that people already generally dislike if they're on the right, then vitriol is going to [increase]. So we published some pieces that were more sensitive or positive about various aspects of pop culture, and people weighed in and basically said, "Why are you promoting or liking something that is being produced by a bunch of liberals," and that type of thing.

We may get a little pressure from some of our readers to be more vitriolic, to be more red meat, but I think that's not really what we do. Even if we're criticizing the New York Times or the Washington Post, we still invite those people to come on our radio show, we'll still link to them [in] our newsletters. Yes, we're going to be critical, but we're not going to be critical in a way that comes across as unfair, and I think that's one of the things that was key from when we started.

We always wanted to be much more careful and critical in the way that we do it, in a way that does respect the business of this, and understands that it's a challenging job, and sometimes people make mistakes. We time and again get praise from our readers [like] "I appreciate how much you're different than these other places. I like the fact that that I can forward this item to my liberal daughter or son and I know that they'll actually read it. I appreciate the fact that your people aren't just on Fox, but that you're on CBS, NPR, [in] the New York Times, and elsewhere." I think that that's something that is indicative of just the desire that existed for a long time on the right, for publications that weren't just talk radio on the internet.

I think that some people are bothered by a sense of hypocrisy on the part of some conservatives. Like the defense of religious freedom, until someone wants to build a mosque. How would you respond to those concerns?

Domenech: I think the real problem is that a lot of the religiously minded [wanted and still want] to use the power of government to try to create the society that they wished [existed] within the United States. This is not something that's new, of course. Now, there's a good side to that, which is, of course, the civil rights movement, and the kind of effort that you saw America's Christians play in that role. You saw it, of course, in the antislavery movement, well before that.

But you also saw it in [those who were] basically being busybodies about the way people live their lives. The question I would [ask] to social conservatives is: Are you confident that the way you view a life well-lived is a compelling enough model that it will win on its own merits?

I think one of the things we have in this modern, individualistic age is a recognition that happiness can look very different for very different people. Happiness is not necessarily about how much money you make, happiness isn't necessarily about these aspects of your life. I think that one of the errors that social conservatives made — particularly Christian social conservatives — was a belief that they needed to use the power of government to try to shore up the various things that they believe make up a life well-lived. The whole design of our government policies were sort of engineered toward this 1950s/1960s perspective on what living looks like, and I think the social conservatives basically [tried] to make that something that was very much enshrined and entrenched in our policy. As opposed to recognizing that, hey, if that type of lifestyle is something that is ultimately rewarding to people, and something that makes them happy, then they're going to follow that path more often than not, and that you don't need to use the engine of government to push them in that direction.

A couple of your writers have talked about and have written about this phenomenon of just saying, "X is how we got Trump." Usually whatever that something is already confirms the ideological priors of those making these claims. "Beyoncé's Super Bowl performance is how we got Trump." Or, "A Twitter hashtag is how we got Trump." But African-Americans in Milwaukee did not go to the polls because they were super-upset about a New Republic article. So then that leads to the question: How did we get Trump?

Domenech: First of all, I think you're completely right: The "that's how we got Trump" thing is overblown; however, it's also very fun [laughs]. The item that I do think is true more than anything else when you have a "that's how you got Trump" thing is the targeting of individuals for some kind of social-justice-warrior hate. Because I think that is actually an element of how you got Trump. I would just go back to my point about evangelicals: That's why they felt under siege. They thought private people — small-business [owners] and people who they thought of as being "like them" — were under siege for their views.

My explanation for how we got Trump is pretty simple. The Republican Party failed to learn from the mistakes of the Bush era. That [era] damaged the Republican Party's brand to the point where a populist could come along, without really any ideological views, and capture enough of the primary electorate in order to win the nomination. The perspective of the media and the perspective of many in Washington was that there was an ongoing war between ideological conservatives — Tea Party types — and establishment Republicans — Mitch McConnell types. And it turns out there was another, third faction that really wasn't a part of either, that didn't really have ideological objections so much as tribal ones, that were more concerned about white identity politics. They weren't passionate about entitlement reform. They weren't dedicated to the Constitution. They weren't wearing tricornered hats. They weren't talking about Article I powers and the importance of the 10th Amendment. These were people who basically looked to Trump as an avatar for success, who promised to deliver for them politically on an explicitly identity-politics basis: "I'm going to look out for you." The Republicans failed to recognize until it was too late what Trump represented, and I think there were a lot of liberal media types who were perfectly happy to give Trump the soft-glove treatment until the point where he started to seem like a real candidate.