Web Video: The Washington Week Bookshelf: “We Should Have Seen It Coming” by Gerald Seib

Oct. 09, 2020 AT 9:18 p.m. EDT

Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal discusses his new book “ We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump — A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution ,” which chronicles the evolution of the conservative movement over forty years, from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.

Tonight we go back to our Washington Week Bookshelf series with a discussion with one of Washington’s veteran journalists on his new book. Joining us is Jerry Seib, our friend and executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal and author of We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump, A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution. Jerry, welcome.

GERALD SEIB: Thanks, Bob.

MR. COSTA: Jerry, I love this book. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation as a longtime reporter on the Republican Party myself. It gives a detailed look at the conservative movement in America, the GOP from the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 to its current state under President Trump. Now, for many Americans then-candidate Trump winning the Republican nomination and the White House was a shock, but in your book you show the whole country that the seeds of what would become this modern Republican Party were sown way before Donald Trump entered the picture. As you write, quote, “Whether Trump had changed the Republican Party or a changed Republican Party had produced Trump seemed suddenly immaterial. The fact is that Trump had sensed something in the country others hadn’t…Trump had arrived with the message at precisely the right time, with precisely the tone to fit the angry times.” Jerry, what exactly did Trump see that others missed?

MR. SEIB: Well, look, I think he realized, first of all, the Republican Party had changed – not just that the country had, but particularly the Republican Party had changed. You know, the Republican Party morphed a lot in the four decades since Ronald Reagan took over and launched the Reagan revolution to today and the Trump era. It changed in particular because there was a demographic change in the Republican Party. A lot of working-class Americans moved into the Republican Party for cultural reasons – they didn’t – don’t like abortion rights, don’t like gay rights, don’t like transgender rights, like the Republican message on cultural issues, don’t like immigration in particular. But they arrived in the Republican Party and saw an economic formula that both parties had kind of embraced that said globalization is good, free trade is good, immigration is an economic plus for the country, and these people did not see that that helped them at all. That was not their economy. That was not the message they wanted to hear, and Donald Trump realized that in a way that other politicians didn’t. And so I think what he sensed was there was a populist nationalist mood in the country and in the Republican Party. But the message of the book was that we shouldn’t have been as surprised as we all were, and I certainly include myself in that category, to see this arrive because, you know, if you go back to Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996 when he was running for president trying to get the Republican nomination, what did he say? He said free trade is bad for working people, immigration is bad for working people, the business elites in the Chamber of Commerce parts of the Republican Party like it, I don’t, and the people who are now the foot soldiers of the Republican Party don’t like it and shouldn’t. What changed between Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump? Well, the Republican Party changed, but the message was the same. You know, Bill McInturff, our pollster with – the Republican pollster who works in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, told me at one point that basically Donald Trump is just Pat Buchanan except he has his own airplane.

MR. COSTA: Let’s pause there, Jerry, because one of the things that comes through in your book is that Pat Buchanan is this figure in the discussion – the evolution of the Republican Party post-Reagan, but so is Ross Perot running as an independent in that same year, 1992; so is Newt Gingrich in 1994 leading an anti-establishment Republican revolution to take back the House majority. Does Trump, in terms of his politics today, draw from all of those strands of Republican politics and independent politics as well?

MR. SEIB: No, absolutely, and you know, Donald Trump ran in 2016 almost as an independent. You know, you and I were both there, Bob. I mean, he barely ran as a Republican. He didn’t run as a conservative, that’s for sure. When I was working on the book, Newt Gingrich said to me Donald Trump’s not a conservative; he’s an anti-liberal and he thinks a lot of PC liberal kind of gospel is just garbage, but he’s not a conservative. He’s against free trade. He’s against open immigration, which is kind of a traditional conservative idea. He’s certainly not in favor of a limited central power and limited executive authority; that’s a central conservative idea as well. But he is basically somebody who, like Ross Perot, came – arrived as a singular force and broke the mold, and Ross Perot almost did it as an independent candidate and a third-party candidate in 1992 and 1996. Donald Trump took those same stylistic and message lessons from Ross Perot and brought them into the Republican Party, but you know, you should have seen it coming means Pat Buchanan told us it was coming, Ross Perot told us it was coming, Mike Huckabee told us it was coming, Sarah Palin told us it was coming. There were plenty of markers along the road that said something is afoot here, and in a way I think Donald Trump walked through an open door in 2016.

MR. COSTA: You mentioned trade. The Republican Party goes from being a free-trade party to a protectionist party in step with President Trump on tariffs. It’s a party that used to have a different message on immigration; now it’s a party of building the wall. A lot of your book, it focuses on drawing a distinction between two presidents, in effect, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, and their differences and their overlaps, and how that reflects how the GOP has evolved. And let’s really think about immigration, because here are two clips that reflect the change in rhetoric on this issue.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: (From video.) They brought with them courage, ambition, and the values of family, neighborhood, work, peace, and freedom. (Cheers, applause.) We all came from different lands, but we share the same values, the same dream.

DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

MR. COSTA: Jerry, when you look at the difference between President Reagan and then-candidate Trump, you see something that’s jarring in terms of tone, in terms of message, but was President Trump also enabled by people like Steve King in the House of Representatives, members who railed against George W. Bush on immigration and comprehensive immigration reform? Did those fights, in essence, lay the foundation for then-candidate Trump to say what he said in 2015?

MR. SEIB: Well, I don’t – I don’t know if the fights laid the foundation, but they showed you the foundation was being laid. As I went through this period, this 40-year period, I kept coming back to immigration as the issue that told you the Republican Party was changing and that the establishment couldn’t get its arms around the changes. You had a whole succession of Republican presidents and presidential candidates – George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, John McCain – they all tried to get a grip on the immigration problem. They tried to be in favor of immigration reform and they got blown back by the foot soldiers, the grassroots of their own Republican Party. And Donald Trump saw this and he started showing up with this anti-immigration message for several years before he finally ran in 2016, so I think in many ways immigration was the inflection point, the inflection issue that told you the Republican Party had gone from Ronald Reagan’s version of Republicanism and conservatism to Donald Trump’s version, which is really not conservativism but populism and nationalism.

MR. COSTA: But Jerry, not only as a reporter but as a historian now of the Republican Party, how do you think history will remember President Trump on immigration? Because this is also someone who in 1999 was thinking about running for president, thought Pat Buchanan represented the worst of the Republican Party on the issue of immigration, and then nearly 20 years later takes a totally opposite view. Is he someone who just became an unusual champion at the end of the day?

MR. SEIB: Well, this is the classic question about Donald Trump, right: Does he actually believe in things? Does he believe in the positions he takes, or are they simply expedient? You know, I don’t know, but I do think that he has basically articulated a different view of what it means to be a Republican. Whether that lasts or not is really one of the great questions that we don’t know the answer to, and a lot of it will depend on what happens on November 3rd on this election. A one-term Trump presidency that ends in political failure, that will be one message to the Republican Party; a two-term Trump presidency that basically cements Trumpism in place within the Republican Party, that portends a totally different kind of Republican future. And we really don’t know, obviously, which one we’re going to have. I don’t think it’s going to be possible, though, to just put Trumpism back into a bottle when President Trump leaves, whether that’s this November or four years from now in 2024. As I said, it was – there’s an element of the Republican Party that has now moved into this position, you have other people who have fallen in line behind the message, and there’s going to be a big fight about whether that is the future of the Republican Party or not whenever Donald Trump leaves the scene.

MR. COSTA: Jerry, you think back to 1964, Barry Goldwater loses in a landslide to Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson. A lot of critics, a lot of pundits in ’64-’65, they said, oh, conservatism, it’s dead, it’s gone, it’s never coming back. You saw the Republicans come back in ’66, a moderate, in a sense, Nixon wins in ’68 and ’72, and there he is, Ronald Reagan, ’76 and ’80 comes roaring back. Could we see the same for Trumpism, a humbling and then maybe it still has its place in the GOP, it just needs perhaps someone else to carry the banner?

MR. SEIB: I think that’s possible. You know, my view of this question became that if Donald Trump hadn’t arrived and seized this message and this moment, somebody else would have, because it was there for the taking within the Republican Party. And for that reason, you know that it’s pretty deeply embedded in the Republican Party right now. You could have a message that has resonance in a flawed messenger. And maybe Donald Trump turns out to be a flawed messenger. Maybe he was the only one who could sort of jam it through the process in 2016, but maybe somebody who’s a better version of a Donald Trump carrying that message forward might emerge.

I think an interesting thing that’s going on right now in Washington in intellectual circles, and in the Senate to some extent, is you have some conservatives who are trying to figure out whether there’s a way to meld the Trump nationalist populist message with a more traditional and more smooth conservative message. And you have people like Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley in the Senate trying to do that. You also have some conservative intellectuals who are trying to figure out, can you marry these two messages and have a more palatable, a more broadly appealing version of Trumpism that emerges when Donald Trump is not the messenger and the only messenger who can carry it forward. That’s going to be a fascinating conversation and debate in the years to come.

MR. COSTA: Let’s finish there, Jerry. You begin your book talking about Senator Ted Cruz and that moment at the Republican convention in Cleveland in 2016 where he doesn’t endorse President Trump. He says, vote your conscience. And you talked with Senator Cruz for the book. I spoke with Senator Cruz this week, coincidentally, for the Washington Post. And he is someone, just like you said Senator Rubio and Senator Hawley, are trying to figure out where they could be in 25 days, win or lose for President Trump. What’s their future? How do they position? What do you make of Cruz? I mean, he really banked on being a conservative who could win the nomination in ’16. It went haywire. But he’s bought in with the Trump agenda in many respects – not totally, but he’s there. What do you make of it?

MR. SEIB: Well, look, I view Ted Cruz as one of those people who could take the Republican Party and move it back toward more traditional Reagan conservatism. And I think Nikki Haley might do the same thing. That would be one version of the future, and that would be the Ted Cruz version of the future. I think you have other people – Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, for example, comes to mind – who have kind of more bought into the more pure Trump message. So those people will be battling it out for the heart and soul of the Republican Party between now and 2024, and beyond, as you suggest. And I think Ted Cruz will be right in the middle of that.

MR. COSTA: What about Senator Mitt Romney?

MR. SEIB: (Laughs.) I think – I think Mitt Romney is – looks like a bit of a throwback, I have to say, to a kind of Republican Party that’s gone by. I think he’s very useful, and the role he serves in the Senate is to be a kind of a conscience for the Republican Party. That’s enormously valuable. But I think we are at a moment where the torch is going to be passed when Donald Trump is not on the scene anymore to a new generation of conservative thinkers. And they’re going to try to take this moment that we’re in and mold it into something that will have broader appeal – because right now one of the problems the Republican Party has is that they’re in kind of a demographic time warp. They don’t have much appeal to minority voters or to young voters. And they need to take this Trump message and the conservative message of old, meld them into a package that has a better shelf life, if you will. And I think that’s going to be a new generation, the Josh Hawleys and Marco Rubios of the world, who are going to try to do that.

MR. COSTA: Jerry, just one final thought, and I’d love to hear your take on this. When I finished your book the first thing that came to mind is: I can’t wait to read Jerry on the Democrats here, because it’s a great idea to go from Reagan to Trump. And I wonder the next book for the Democrats could be from Bernie to to-be-determined. And what I mean by that is, you show how Reagan laid the foundation ideologically, kind of sparked a fire on the right that led to where we are today, and many other people joined in. And you look at Democratic politics, the ideas of Democratic Socialism five years ago on the fringe, now at the center of the Democratic Party in many ways. That party too is undergoing its own revolution.

MR. SEIB: That is a really good point, because if you look at the Reagan precedent, 1976, Reagan runs for president against Gerry Ford, and he’s seen as way too conservative, dangerously conservative, out of the mainstream. He has a credible race, but he doesn’t get over the top. Four years later, he is in the mainstream. His ideas have basically taken hold. Bernie Sanders has done the same thing. You know, eight years ago he would have been considered way too radical to even be a plausible candidate. Four years ago running against Hillary Clinton he was a little too far out there. And in 2020 he can say, with some credibility, my ideas have now become the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

So maybe Bernie Sanders the messenger isn’t going to get over – get to the promised land, as they say. But he has moved the party. And it’s not going to be Bernie Sanders, but somebody with a Bernie Sanders-like message could become the mainstream of the Democratic Party after Joe Biden. That’s going to be a really important debate to watch on the other side of the aisle.

MR. COSTA: I one time pulled aside Senator Sanders and said: Senator, you might be the Barry Goldwater of the left. He kind of winked at me and didn’t say anything. But we’ll see what happens in the coming years and decades.

Jerry Seib, congratulations: We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump, A Front-Row Seat to the Political Revolution. Jerry, thanks, again.

MR. SEIB: Thanks for giving me the time.

MR. COSTA: And that’s it for this edition of our Washington Week Bookshelf. Thanks to Jerry. And you can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, sign up for our newsletter. It comes out every Friday. Get an advance look at our show and a note from me. We got a long way to go before this election, 25 days. So stay steady, get on that newsletter, and join us every Friday.

But for now I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.


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