September 21, 2018

Reihan Salam

Reihan Salam, author and Executive Editor of National Review, joins this week to discuss conservative populism and the future of the movement.

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William F. Buckley Jr. led America’s conservative movement in the 20th century, but where is it today?
The executive editor of Buckley’s Reihan Salam, this week on ‘Firing Line.’

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Corporate funding is provided by…
My guest this week, Reihan Salam, has been called Brooklyn’s favorite conservative, which is surprising only because he is neither a hipster nor a craft beer.
Raised in New York, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, Mr. Salam is a contributing editor at magazine and the executive editor of the publication that this program’s original host, William F. Buckley Jr., founded and that served as a clearing house for the ideas that fueled the modern American conservative movement throughout the second half of the 20th century.
Indeed, Mr. Salam has worked with or for some of the greatest conservative minds of his generation.
As executive editor of Mr. Salam is keen to reflect on conservative populism, a party dominated by Donald Trump, and influenced by ideas diverging from the pedigree and intellectual tradition that Buckley bequeathed to his publication.
Reihan, welcome to ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you for having me, Margaret.

It’s a delight to have you here, and I must start with the fact that you’re a bit of a prophet.
Because in 2008, you and Ross Douthat published a book, and the book was entitled ‘Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.’
Do you see echoes of your argument in this moment of conservative populism and the coalition that Donald Trump has assembled politically?

I do.
The argument we made in the book is that, over a very long period of time, the base of the Republican party had changed, and what we saw happening is that the Republican party became a more working-class party.
It became a party rooted in different regions of the country than it had been in earlier eras, and as that changed, the ideology of the party’s elite didn’t really change with those changes in the base.

Were you arguing that the ideology of the party had changed or that the party was politically most successful when it was able to harness the enthusiasm and mobilize those voters?
‘Those voters’ being white, working-class voters, who you identified that, I think, if I understood your argument, the conservative movement had forgotten?

It was a little bit of both.
So, on the one hand, the Republican party went from being a party that was very ideologically diverse — it was a big-tent party that had movement conservatives, certainly, but also moderates, even some liberals — to being a party that was much more unified around a certain version of conservatism.
At the same time, when you look at the most successful conservatives in the Republican party, these were people who were, as you say, able to draw on those populist energies that were really transforming the party and helping the party achieve victories.
So, there is this tricky balance between a very narrowly ideological understanding of conservatism and one that is open to some of these populist currents.

All right.
So, how does that resonate today, in terms of the conservative coalition or the populist coalition?

Well, one way to think about it is to look at the George W. Bush administration.
The second Bush administration was strikingly different from its predecessors among Republican administrations because this was actually, in a funny way, a very ideologically unified administration.
If you’re looking at the Reagan administration, this was an administration that certainly did have movement conservatives, but it also had other, more moderate ideological currents in the party.
If you look at George H.W. Bush, that’s one reason why a lot of conservative activists were so furious about the George H.W. Bush presidency.
They felt as though the party wasn’t sufficiently unified around conservative principles.
Now, when you looked at George W. Bush, by that time, the Republican party had really changed — certainly at its elite level — and there was a very strong consensus around free trade, around low taxes, around this vision of a smaller government, and the tricky thing is that that didn’t always actually line up with the voting base of the Republican party.
If you think about 2004, George W. Bush won that election — you know, he won it narrowly, but he won a majority, and he won it because of working-class moms in Ohio, you know, in communities that felt left behind.

Donald Trump was able to solidify the exact voters that you identified a decade earlier.

Yes, that’s right.
So, here’s the challenge.
So, if you’re looking at Trump’s victory, it was not an overwhelming victory.

78,000 votes in three states.

Yep, that’s very well said.

Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
That’s exactly the right number.

Exactly.

So it wasn’t large, but they were exactly the voters that you identified.

And they were in the right place.
You can say that they happened to be in the places where you were able to scramble the map, and they pointed in a different direction.
If you have a party that really consolidated the support of those voters, it could have continued to have a great deal of success.
The problem is that the Trump presidency thus far hasn’t, in my view, done a very good job of consolidating the support of those voters.
And more to the point, you mentioned the white working-class before.
We have a big problem if you’re looking at the right, if you’re looking at the Republican party more broadly, which is that while there is support and even, I would say, openness to the Republican brand among white working-class voters, if you’re looking at a lot of non-white working-class voters, there’s a lot less openness to the Republican party for all sorts of reasons.

Maybe you can outline some of those pocketbook issues, some of those policies that would make up a competitive, working-class, conservative agenda.

Well, a good place to start is to just go back to brass tacks.
What are our first principles?
What are the things we care most about?
If you look at the way a lot of our social programs work right now, they have this perverse effect of actually not really helping the poorest, most distressed people in the poorest, most distressed regions.
If you’re looking at a policy like Medicaid, for example, something that’s actually a real life-and-death issue for millions of Americans, this is a program — The way it works is that you actually get more money if you spend more money as a state.
Now, the states that are able to spend more money are typically states that have a lot of fiscal capacity, states that already have large numbers of well-off taxpayers.
New York state is a great example of that.
But then, if you’re looking to poorer states, they don’t always have that ability.
Conservatives always talk about federalism.
They don’t talk about the missing piece of federalism, which is, ‘Wait a second.
Some regions are just poorer than others,’ and they can’t actually take on that burden.
So that’s one little idea — thinking about the first principles of conservatism and whether they actually fit the facts of the way the modern American economy works.

So, what are the first principles of conservatism?

You know, you’re gonna get a lot of debate about that, but to my mind, a central principle is just this idea that we want to have a government that is limited but effective, a government that does not believe we are going to be able to administer everyone’s life in picayune detail, not a government that presumes that we’re gonna know what’s best for every American family, but rather a government that gives a lot of room for private initiative, for families, for other voluntary organizations to do their work well.
But in order to do that, you need to have a state that’s effective and strong enough to provide a kind of stable foundation for families to make that kind of progress they need to make before they can pursue their highest ambitions.

So, in terms of direct policies, wage subsidies?

I certainly think that wage subsidies make sense if they are pursued in a kind of thoughtful, responsible way.
One good example of a wage subsidy that’s pretty popular is the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the way it works is that, when you file your taxes, you can actually get a refund that is over and above the income taxes that you pay in order to encourage people to nudge them towards working and, ideally, towards working longer hours.
Now, one challenge with the Earned Income Tax Credit is that it’s more generous to families with kids.
That makes sense.
You know, we want to be sure that families with kids are able to provide for their children.
But on the other hand, it means that childless adults don’t get much in the way of a wage subsidy, so there are lots of little ways we can tweak these programs to make them a bit more forward-looking and things that are doing a better job of making the case for conservatism, writ large.
You know, for conservatives in particular, you have to be very mindful of whether or not these institutions, these systems that we value, are really seen as truly legitimate in the eyes of huge swaths of the country.

Or if they’re working for most people, right?

Oh, sure.

They’re seen as doing it ’cause they’re working, ’cause they’re able to provide a living wage and a dignified life for ordinary people, especially in the backdrop of a globalized economy where a manufacturing base was hollowed out.
I mean, the other sort of idea that we grapple with here — right? — is the history of the modern American conservative movement has been a stool with three legs, right?
And one of those important legs of the stool is the fiscal conservatism.
And fiscal conservatives would ask against the backdrop of some of the ideas you propose, how do you pay for it?

First, it’s very clear that the fiscal challenges we are likely to face in the coming decades are real, they’re pressing.
It’s also the case, however, that if you don’t think hard about these legitimacy questions, about whether people are buying into the system, what you get are populist revolts.
What you get are challenges to our political system from outside the ambit of our existing political categories, and those can send us off veering in a very different direction and not always in a great and positive direction.

Should you raise taxes, then, to pay for it?

Of course, there are many different opinions about this at I personally believe that we will likely have to raise taxes somewhat in the coming years.
Between now and the 2030s, you’re gonna need to raise some revenue to accommodate not just the rising baby boomer generation but the fact that we, as a society, in my opinion, aren’t making the investments we need to make in children.
And for conservatives in particular, having families with kids who don’t feel like they had a sense of buy-in to a dynamic market economy, that’s a really dangerous outcome, and it gives rise to democratic-socialism and a variety of other challenges to our existing order.

Part of the DNA of the modern American conservative movement of the sort of inheritors of Buckley’s tradition have been individuals who are really concerned about the long-term sustainability of these safety-net programs but also the affordability of it.
And the debt continues to rise, the deficits continue to be high.
And I wonder if you can lend insight on who the intellectual inheritors of those concerns are going to be.

Well, when you’re in different moments, it demands different political responses.
If you look at William F. Buckley Jr.’s career, it is striking to see how much his opinion changed on a variety of different issues, not because the kind of core kernel of his conservatism changed but rather because, really, conservatism, by many thinkers of the time, the idea was that it was an anti-ideology rather than some rigid set of prescriptions that are unchanging.
The values are timeless, but the prescriptions may well change because the goal is to preserve a free society, a dynamic market economy.
And when I think about these fiscal challenges, here is my basic insight.
There are many different changes we can make where, to get the buy-in we need, you make it — the program more generous to the most vulnerable people, and you make it somewhat less generous to people who have the wherewithal to provide their own savings and to find other ways in order to meet their needs.
Now, the problem that many conservatives have had is that they have not done that.
Rather, what they’ve said is, ‘Let’s go after the programs for people who are vulnerable, partly because, hey, those are people who don’t necessarily vote for us, and let’s focus all of the future cuts there,’ rather than say, ‘Hey, if we were approaching this from the 2018 perspective, from a truly modern perspective, how would we want the safety net to work?’
And I think that, basically, people are reasoning backwards.
They were saying, ‘Okay.
How do I get to a balanced budget on some arbitrary timeline, in 5 years or 10 years?
I know this bill isn’t going to pass.
I just want to be able to tell people that, ‘Aha!
See? This theoretical, totally politically unrealistic plan is going to balance in 10 years.’ And then, guess what happens — those plans never are passed into law.
They never actually are implemented in practice, versus saying, ‘Hey, how do we make this work in a way that’s more fiscally sustainable but that protects the interests of vulnerable people?’

I mean, the issue is, is there actually and has there ever been a political constituency for fiscal conservatism?
And I think what you’re saying is that you find where your political constituency is, and then you get to a place of fiscal responsibility somehow.

I think that that’s really the nature of our constitutional system.
One of the really interesting backdrops of our politics right now is that I see people on the left and also some on the right who have this fantasy of total victory.
That’s how I see it.
It’s this fantasy that, ‘Hey, somehow, I’m gonna get 100% of the political system to agree with exactly what I think.’
And if you look at if you look at the magazine in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, they often emphasized, ‘Wait a second.
The executive branch is not meant to be the central part of our government.
It’s supposed to be Congress.’
And Congress is all about overlapping majorities.
You only pass legislation when you have some kind of broad consensus.
So that’s why it’s really striking to see these somewhat extreme tendencies on the left where we have this belief among a lot of very bright, well-intentioned young people saying, ‘Aha!
We’re gonna persuade 100% of the public of our grand designs,’ rather than, ‘Hey, wait a second.
You need buy-in.’
So, I might be a conservative, but I realize that, as a conservative, I need the buy-in of moderates, I need the buy-in of people who might otherwise be suspicious of my ideals and my values, and that means speaking not just to the people in my narrow tribe but trying to get toward some kind of workable overlapping consensus.’

Which is a fabulous idea, that our political reality has forbade that from happening, and that’s a whole different set of policy solutions that need to be addressed.
The other leg of the stool — one of the other legs of the stool of the three-part stool of the conservative movement — this national-security element.
National-security conservatives really in the ’50s and the latter part of the 20th century, were anti-communists.
And it seems to me there are echoes of a desire amongst intellectual conservatives and the, I think, conservative populists to rally around a unifying national foreign-policy goal that can unite all of the factions.
We see an authoritarian China, we see an authoritarian Russia, but there’s also this increased and really outsized focus on Islam amongst conservative populists.
How do you react to that?

Well, I guess I see it a little bit differently.
I certainly think that there are elements of the conservative coalition that see Islam writ large as a threat.
I also think it is unambiguously true that Islamic extremism is a very grave threat.
It’s a really present threat.
And I think that there is a danger of conflating the two, and I think that that’s certainly a mistake.
But, actually, when I look at the national-security landscape, I actually see the potential for national security to once again be a unifying thread for the right partly because of the rise of China.
We now have a state that really does have, in various deep and serious ways, clashing interests with our own, and I guess the way that I like to see it is not that China is our enemy, just as the Soviet people weren’t our enemy, but rather the Chinese government is an enemy.
The Chinese government is led by people who oftentimes have very different interests than those of ordinary rank-and-file Chinese workers.

So, it seems to me — I think you’d agree — that it was probably a grave mistake to have issued permanent favorable trading status to China in the early 2000s.

I think that we made a serious mistake, partly because we underestimated the durability of China’s authoritarian government.
We assumed, ‘Hey, they’re just gonna naturally evolve in our direction.
All will be well.’

And a liberalized — that a liberalized economy will equal a liberalized government and a liberalized set of values for their people.

Absolutely.
And one of the ironies, one of the things we didn’t anticipate is that all of these technologies we thought of as emancipatory, as driving all human societies toward freedom also turned out to be pretty effective tools of repression, and that’s a serious threat.

One of my favorite parts of this show is incorporating Buckley into it, and this is a clip from a ‘Firing Line’ debate ‘Resolved: U.S. Industry Does Not Need Protection.’

Bill, I’d like to ask if you support fully President Bush’s free-trade stance with China.

I do not.
Do you want me to elaborate?

Why not?

Because I think it’s primarily a political question rather than an economic question.
Adam Smith, in his great tract defending free trade, admitted certain exceptions.
He did say that, occasionally, retaliation was proper, but he said, the judgment whether to engage in such retaliation needed to be made by ‘that insidious and crafty animal vulgarly called a statesman or politician.’
And if the politician guesses wrong, he will merely have inflicted still another injury on the nation’s consumers.
That is the danger in engaging in an economic act under political auspices, which I have stressed.

Do you think a trade war with China is inevitable?

I do believe a trade war with China is inevitable, particularly if China retains its current political design, its current political institutions.
And the reason is straightforward.
If you’re thinking about the world from China’s perspective, they believe, ‘Hey, we are a late developer.
We need to develop our own supply chains so that we are not as vulnerable to American military power.’
You can envision a more liberal, more democratic, more inclusive Chinese government that took a different perspective, that didn’t necessarily see American power as such a grave threat to its interests.
But under the current dispensation, really, the Chinese recognize, ‘We need to develop our own autonomous capacity.
We can’t always be a kind of handmaid to leading U.S. multinationals.
So I think that it’s naive to think that we’re going to have some kind of totally amicable relationship with an authoritarian, oftentimes predatory Chinese government.

So, then, who wins the trade war?

That’s an open question of how shrewdly and strategically sound our approach to the trade war is.
There are all sorts of ways in which the Trump administration has not done a great job of cultivating the trust of other market democracies that could be really powerful allies for us in trying to move the Chinese government in a different direction.

How do you see the conservative movement and the conservative coalition and its relationship to trade in this iteration?

Well, a deeper issue is just this question of whether or not rank-and-file voters feel like a given politician and the party that politician represents is really on their side.
There are a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump, there are a lot of people who continue to support Donald Trump, who don’t necessarily agree with him on every detail of trade policy or immigration policy or much else, but they basically feel as though he is in the right direction.

I think what you’re saying is, there is a new conservative coalition that represents working-class people and people who have felt left out, and that is a — it is a political coalition that — that Donald Trump has spoken to, that the elites in the conservative movement have not been able to connect with, and that policy prescriptions haven’t resonated.
And I guess where that leaves some of us is wondering whether the conservative movement is any more an intellectual movement driven by ideas or a political movement motivated by political expediency.

There are, as in any movement, a lot of different components to it, and I’ve got to say, you raise a very important point.
When you’re talking about Republican party politics, you’ll recall that Donald Trump, at one point, said, ‘Hey, it’s the Republican party, not the conservative party.’
One thing that Trump recognized is that there are currents within the Republican electorate that are not necessarily ideologically conservative as that was understood in the George W. Bush era.
What I’ll also say, though, is that conservatism, as understood in the George W. Bush era, was not conservatism as it was understood in the Nixon era, as it was understood in the Eisenhower era.
That conservatism, that set of ideas, has always been dynamic and changing over time.
So when you talked about that three-legged stool earlier, I guess I see the three-legged stool having changed on every dimension.
You have the stool of fiscal conservatism.
To my mind, the new economic conservatism has to be about the productive potential of the country as a whole.
That certainly relates to some of those old fiscal considerations, but it’s really a long-term question about investment.
If you’re looking at the foreign-policy piece of it, you know, once, it was the Cold War, now I think it has to be dealing with a world in which great power conflict has come back in which the United States has real peer competitors.
And when you’re looking at cultural conservatism, a lot of that now relates to questions of national identity and also to the idea of protecting traditionalist minorities in our culture and allowing them to grow and thrive.

Obviously, the third leg of the stool that we have discussed the conservative movement, was social conservatives.
Do you really think social conservatives are thinking about the minorities in this culture and allowing them to thrive?

Well, I believe that when you’re looking at social conservatism, you’re actually seeing different kinds of social conservatism from different kinds of folks who identify as being on the right.
You see this among the Trump voters, for example.
You see those who are very religiously observant — that’s about a little over 30% of the people who voted for Donald Trump — and then you have about half who are not religiously observant at all, and they have very different concerns and considerations.
When you look at the religiously observant, they might be more conservative, for example, on issues surrounding rights for lesbians and gays, but they’re actually more moderate on many other questions if you’re looking to immigration and race and what have you.
If you’re looking at those secular voters on the right, then you actually see something of a reversal.
They might actually be far more relaxed about issues that we think of as traditionally social, like same-sex marriage, but then on the question of national identity, for some people, I believe they actually are obsessed with race, very narrowly understood.
There are other people, they don’t necessarily see it in terms of skin color but rather in terms of language and shared ideals, shared obligations, a shared way of life.

Sort of following on that point, President Trump, as we know, uses culture wars as wedge issues, really, to divide people, and these are going to be themes, I think, that are probably resonant and emerge within the next several weeks as we approach the 2018 elections in November.
Where do you see this coming up?

There’s a real danger with divide-and-conquer politics, because there’s always the possibility that when you divide the public, you actually wind up getting a majority against you rather than a minority against you.
And there are times when Donald Trump has taken approaches that have actually energized his opponents rather than his supporters.
So, from his perspective, as an individual, he might think, ‘Okay.
This is going to rally my supporters, and it’s going to get me through this political crisis of the moment.’
For Republicans, for conservatives more broadly, this can be a perilous game to play.
We’re in this very funny moment.
There are a lot of conservatives who are deeply uncomfortable with Donald Trump.
They do not believe that he reflects their values.
What I find frustrating about many of these conservative voices, however, is that many of them don’t seem to appreciate that the George W. Bush administration gave us the Trump presidency.
If you had a George W. Bush administration that had been more mindful of some of this dislocation caused by permanent, normal trade relations with China, if you had a Bush administration that, when it was approaching the immigration issue, didn’t say, ‘Hey, the answer is, we need a large guest worker program,’ if you had a George W. Bush administration that was a bit more mindful of the interests of blue-collar voters — not just Republican blue-collar voters, by the way, but writ large, then you would have had a very different politics in the subsequent decade.
So, I’ve got to say, I have a huge amount of respect for my friends and colleagues, people I’ve read and admired for a very long time, but until you acknowledge that, ‘Wait a second.’
It really was the kind of past of conservatism that contributed so much to the fact that a lot of conservatives found themselves turfed out and marginalized in this new era.

Reihan, thank you for coming on ‘Firing Line.’
I appreciate you being here.

Thanks for having me.