September 17, 2021

George Will

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will discusses the conservative movement from William F. Buckley Jr. to the present, why he says many modern Republican politicians are not true conservatives, and what’s next for Trumpism.

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What does it mean to be a conservative today, this week on ‘Firing Line.’

A political doctrine without a political party is an orphan in a chilly world.
And the fact is, there’s no place right now for conservatives in the Republican Party.

He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and leading voice for conservatism over the last half century.
George Will was a friend and colleague of the late William F. Buckley Jr., the original ‘Firing Line’ host and founder of the At 80 years old, and after 6,000 columns, Will is no longer a Republican…
I joined it because I was a conservative.
I leave for the same reason, that I’m a conservative,
…rejecting the party that embraced Donald Trump.

George Will, with the little glasses.
Take away the glasses, he looks like a dumb guy.
I’m telling you.

He endorsed his first ever Democrat in 2020, but takes issue now with some of President Biden’s policies.

We are piling up debt as never before.
There’s an explosive growth of government.

With a nation deeply divided and questions about whether conservatism is once again a persuasion without a party, what does George Will say now?

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible in part by… And by… Corporate funding is provided by…
George Will, welcome back to ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you.
Glad to be with you.

Earlier this year, you celebrated your 80th birthday.
You’ve been alive for roughly one-third of the life of this republic.
And this week you released your 16th book, an anthology of your columns from 2008 to 2020, entitled ‘American Happiness and Discontents: The Unruly Torrent.’
Relevant to the history of this program is that you write that your journey as a columnist began in 1973, when William F. Buckley Jr.
hired you to be the Washington editor for Tell me more.

Well, I was leaving the Senate staff, partly because the Republican senator for whom I worked managed to lose even while Nixon was carrying 49 states, which gives you some sense of my political prowess.
And I called Bill Buckley and said, ‘I think you need a Washington editor of I’d written a few things for him, and he essentially said, ‘You’re right, I do, and you’re it.’

I want to get into the history of the modern American conservative movement with you, but first, you know, you wrote shortly after William F. Buckley Jr.’s passing in February of 2008 in a column entitled ‘The 20th Century’s Most Consequential Journalist.’
You wrote, quote… What would William F. Buckley Jr. make of the state of today’s discourse?

He would — I think the word he’d use is ‘vulgar.’
It’s the vulgarians are in the saddle, riding the rest of us, at this point.
That column to which you refer is in the book.
And what I meant by ‘the most consequential journalist’ is this — Ronald Reagan — without Ronald Reagan, the Cold War is not won as it was, without a shot being fired and when it was.
No Reagan without Goldwater.
Goldwater’s nomination took over the Republican Party and reordered it, reoriented it in a conservative direction.
No Goldwater without the which took it upon itself shortly after being founded in 1955, to lure Goldwater — in fact, trap him — into running for president.
And no without a spark in the mind of a young Yale graduate named Bill Buckley.
Therefore, Buckley has won the Cold War, and, therefore, is the most consequential journalist of the 20th century.
QED.

You’re one of the remaining columnists that has both a direct personal and intellectual lineage to Buckley.
But the conservatism that you espouse is very different than the conservatism that is broadly understood, either by the public or, frankly, the political class today.
And you write in your previous book, quote… How is the current iteration of the conservative movement departed from the conservation of the founding principles?

Well, if you want to know what conservatism isn’t, start with populism.
Populism is the belief that the masses of people have clear passions, that those passions should be translated as directly and immediately as possible into policy.
And the logic of that is, they should be translated into policy by an unfettered president.
All of those things are wrong, which calls to mind H.L. Mencken’s famous definition of democracy as the belief that the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.
It seems to me that conservatism wants public opinion adhered to, but it wants it refined and tempered and filtered through representative institutions.
Representation, which is the essential doctrine of Republican form of government, means that the people do not decide issues, they decide will decide.
People will say, ‘Well, that sounds inherently elitist,’ to which the answer is guilty as charged.
The question is never, ‘Will elites rule?’ it’s, ‘Which elites will rule?’
And The challenge of democracy is to get broad consent to worthy elites.
And that is what conservatism should be set in its mind to, not pandering to the public by telling them that every gust of public opinion should blow the country hither and yon.

So, in your current book, you have several columns where you disparage anti-capitalist conservatives, like Senator Marco Rubio with his common-good capitalism and market — market-skeptic Republicans like Josh Hawley.
And you also write that Tucker Carlson’s ‘nationalistic conservatism’ is paternalistic populism.
How do you understand the modern American conservative movement’s economic agenda fusing with populism?

Well, the reason capitalism is inherent in the American understanding of conservatism is this.
European conservatism was born in reaction against the French Revolution, in reaction against the defense, as European conservatives saw it, of hierarchy, of aristocracy, the throne and altar somehow merged.
When conservatism across the Atlantic, it became very different.
It welcomed the churning of a free society.
It welcomed the creativity of the ‘spontaneous order,’ to use the phrase Friedrich Hayek used constantly.
When these so-called conservatives come along and say, ‘Well, we now are going to have hyphenated conservatism — common-good conservatism, et cetera, et cetera,’ inevitably, they are saying, ‘The market is inadequate.
Therefore, the allocation of wealth and opportunity should be more heavily influenced by government.’
That is an invitation to rent-seeking, and my book is full of examples of rent-seeking.
By which I mean — That’s an economist term, but it simply means bending public power to private advantage.
A number of my columns talk about the public choice theory, which simply demystifies government.
Public choice theory says that when people in the private sector pursue their self-interest, that’s considered normal.
But, presumably, when people in government acquire a kind of saintly altruism that they don’t pursue their private interests.
Public choice theory says they’re exactly the same.
People in the private sector try to maximize profits.
People in the public sector try to maximize power.
And we should have this unsentimental view of government and act accordingly so as to not do as the Hawleys and the Rubios do, which is set the stage for justifying increased government allocation of wealth and opportunity.

And yet, in doing so, many carry the mantle of conservatism.
They call themselves conservative.
Take a look at this.

Our victory… [ Cheers and applause ] …was a victory and a win for conservative values.

President Trump’s the leader of the conservative movement.
He’s the leader of the America First movement.
He’s the leader of the Republican Party.

When we combine the conservative principles of the Republican Party with the boldness of Donald Trump, we will win.

We’re not the past.
We’re the future.
We represent what’s coming next, and there is no way that we’re going to back down.

Let me tell you this right now — Donald J. Trump ain’t going anywhere.
[ Cheers and applause ]
Are these individuals conservative?

Not then.
Not in what they were advocating then.
And calling something conservatism doesn’t make it conservatism.

Is it possible that the thing that Republicans are calling conservatism now simply means whatever it is that Donald Trump supports?

Yes. I think if Donald Trump came out tomorrow and said that the square root of 9 is 17, he’d get a fair number of people saying, ‘That’s right.
Square root of 9 is 17.’
This is because the Republican Party is in a very peculiar position.
A large number of its elected officials are terrified of their voters, terrified that the voters will be inflamed against them by the next sulfuric belch of a tweet from Mar-A-Lago.
And if you’re afraid of your voters, you don’t really respect your voters.
And if you don’t respect them, you don’t really like them, which puts the Republican Party today in a very strange position, a very brittle position.
And that’s why, when a political party becomes something other than a party as normally understood, a cult of personality, it’s in for heavy weather.

You have said that conservatism is a persuasion without a party, but American conservatism became a persuasion with a party in the Reagan era, I would suggest.
And you appeared on the original ‘Firing Line’ with William F. Buckley Jr.
several times, including with Ronald Reagan in 1978, in the debate over whether the United States should ratify the Panama Canal Treaty.
You argued in favor of the treaty’s ratification.
Ronald Reagan argued against it.
Take a look at this.

Conservatives, particularly, are supposed to be realistic about the the real way the world works, and we know that treaties generally ratify acts of force and generally yield to acts of force and situations of force.

All the force in the world couldn’t put our ships through there if they just let the water out of the locks.

Yes, but if they let the water out of the locks, they can do that, of course, with a treaty.
There’s no treaty in the world, no bottle of ink, and no amount of paper, can prevent acts of force.

One of the reasons I like that clip is because you offered this real-world argument, this kind of pragmatism that you argue is the hallmark of conservative thinking.
Do you think that is still true?

Not really.
It seems to me that the conservatism today is sort of wishful thinking, the wish being father to many, many thoughts.

The party today, of course, is a long way from the party of Reagan, and one of your columns in this new anthology, called ‘Worse Can Be Better,’ you write, quote… Where, in your view, did the Republican Party depart from conservative thinking and the conservative sensibility?

I think it departed with the nomination of Donald Trump, who had no prior record of interest in any of those things that you just mentioned.
The Republican Party takes its coloration, as both parties do, from their presidential nominees.
And until the Republican Party decides that it’s going to take a different kind of nominee, it will not have a different coloration.
I don’t think that Mr. Trump is forever.
Mr. Trump is an entertainer, and, in my judgment, he’s worked one pedal on the organ quite enough, and I’m not sure there’s another pedal there for him.
And what I think the Republican Party needs to do is get back to the idea that if you’re going to have freedom and a creative society, you need limited government.
And if you’re going to have limited government, you need to have an engaged judiciary.

When you say Trump is not forever, I certainly would like that to be true.
There are many reform Republicans who would like that to be true.
But there’s no evidence that that’s true.
In fact, there’s increasing evidence that his hold on the party is as strong as ever and that he continues to intend to be as influential as ever within the context of Republican primary politics and Republican congressional politics and perhaps presidential politics.
Is your view wishful thinking?

I certainly wish it’s true, but it’s more than a wish behind it.
Now, first of all, nothing lasts forever.
Certainly, men in their 70s don’t last forever, which Mr. Trump is.
Mr. Trump has to decide, first of all, if he’s going to run.
If he’s not going to run, he can be on the sidelines, bombarding those in the arena with tweets.
But those in the arena will find their own voices and their own room for maneuvering.
I do not think there is a precedent in American history, and I don’t think there’s about to be one, where a former and defeated president exercises ongoing control over the party.
History will pass him by.

History may pass him by, but there is every indication that he is going to run again in 2024, which would suggest that his influence is far from over.
What will happen to the Republican Party if he runs again?

I really doubt your assumption that Donald Trump is going to run again.
I don’t think his ego could stand a second defeat.
And I think a second defeat —
Well, how could his ego stand a first defeat?
Remember, he didn’t — he doesn’t actually believe that he was defeated.

Oh, I forgot that part.
Yes, I forgot that Biden’s not really president.
But I think, even to Donald Trump, there is a limit to the resistance to reality.
Reality has a way of imposing itself.
And I say, wait and see.
There’s a long way to go between now and when Donald Trump plunges in again.

My hesitancy is that Republicans have kidded themselves for a long time about the willingness of Donald Trump to do things that they just think aren’t possible.
And it’s only gotten us all the things that you write about so aptly in your columns — an undermining of conservatism and constitutional democracy.

Well, you think he might run, I think he won’t run.
And as they say in sports, that’s why they play the games.
We’re going to find out.

Mr. Will, you were a leading light in the ’70s and the ’80s, arguing for a greater philosophical sorting between the parties.
You wanted the Republican Party to really become the Conservative Party and that liberals in the Republican Party ought to become Democrats.
Right?
That happened over time, and we, today, have much more homogeneity and purity within the parties, particularly in Congress and at the federal level.
Where there’s very little room for dissenting opinion, particularly in the Republican Party right now, how do you think that vision of yours has borne out?
And has it worked?

A, my wish has come to pass, and some people will say, ‘This is a lesson, and be careful what you wish for.’
But I don’t think so.
It is the case that the parties are unrecognizable from what they were when I came to Washington in 1970 to work on the Senate staff.
Let me tell you what the — who ran the Senate.
Democratically controlled Senate.
It was all Southern, mostly segregationist conservative Democrats, of whom there are none left.
Never mind the segregation.
No conservative Democrats left.
So, to that extent, we’ve had the sorting.
I do think that that does not explain today’s bitterness.

Yes, yes.

You can still have a perfectly civil argument across clear ideological lines.
And, in fact, as I — as I argue in my book, I am more alarmed by the consensus within the political class than I am by the discord within the political class, by which I mean this.
I think the political class today is more united by class interests than it is divided by ideology, and the class interests that they share, from Elizabeth Warren on the left to the far right is a permanent, powerful incentive for deficit spending.
That is, everyone left, right, and center wants to give the American people a dollar’s worth of government and charge them 75 cents for it and just fob 25% of the cost of today’s government off on the unborn and, hence, unconsenting future generations.
This is clearly decadent democracy.
It’s clearly immoral, and it’s clearly universally practiced.

So there’s still space for someone to stand athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop.’

Exactly.

On the point of this ideological sorting and purity, I just — I want to go back to just one point that you made.
Because there are conservatives in your ilk, in your mold, like Yuval Levin, who reflect upon the way to reform Congress in order for it to become a more functional institution along the lines that the founders intended.
And he laments that there has been such an ideological sorting in Congress that it has undermined the ability for regular bargaining and accommodation to happen within the parties and with each other.
And I wonder if that impulse to purge liberals from the Republican Party and conservatives from the Democratic Party doesn’t contribute to that sclerosis and paralyzation that we’ve seen in Congress.

That’s a very defensible argument and particularly applicable to the House, where almost all the seats today are safe seats, and, therefore, the only thing a Democrat fears is a challenge in the primary from the left and conservatives fear a primary challenge from the right.
And this leads to an increasing polarization.
That’s arguable.
But the parties didn’t sort themselves out by them– by themselves.
They had a lot of help from the voters.
And we’ve undergone in this country what’s called ‘the big sort.’
It’s the title of a very good book.
That is, Americans have sorted themselves out.
They now get their own news from congenial sources.
They live in politically homogenous suburbs or inner-city neighborhoods.
This, unquestionably, does lead to a kind of barricades mentality where you’re looking across the barricades at an adversary.
But it’s happened.
And it doesn’t seem to me that it is incompatible with a more civil kind of politics.

In one column, called ‘How Not to Select Presidential Candidates,’ you describe, quote… I want to ask you about executive power, because you even said last summer that one of the greatest consequences of a Trump win would have been ‘unhinged assertion of executive prerogatives.’
Now, President Biden has been in office for eight months and is testing the limits of presidential power.
Is the American presidency, no matter the party, creeping towards that inevitable expansion and perhaps even, dare I say it, totalitarianism?

Not totalitarianism.
And I’m confident that, well short of that, the courts will step in.
But you’re quite right in that it’s a bipartisan problem.
Donald Trump said ‘I’ve got Article II,’ meaning that section of the Constitution, ‘and I can do whatever I want.’
That’s a rather expansive understanding of Article II, the heart of which is simply the injunction that the president shall take care that the laws are faithfully executed.
Joe Biden, in December, when he was president-elect, said, ‘I cannot mandate vaccines.’
Now, as president, he says, ‘Oh, yeah, come to think about it, I can.’
Barack Obama said more than 20 times, ‘I do not have the power to unilaterally do’ what he then unilaterally did regarding immigration laws.
So it’s a bipartisan failing, a bipartisan temptation.
And this is why I write in my new book so much about judicial engagement.
A bipartisan failing that only courts can temper and ultimately thwart.

I think the audience will be interested to know, if they haven’t followed your columns as closely as I have, that you voted for President Biden because you said he would be an improvement over Donald Trump.
Now, given the trillions in spending, the proposed tax increases, the federal mandates, and the failure in Afghanistan, would you still say that he’s an improvement?

Yes. Unquestionably, because I believe in the axiom — the truism, really — that politics is downstream from culture, and our civic culture has been radically changed by the coarseness of the previous president.
You can’t unring a bell, and you can’t unsay what he said, and you can’t undo the manners that he’s made acceptable in American public life.
Furthermore, remember, the great driver of our fiscal imbalance in this country are the entitlement programs, and Mr. Trump ran for president promising not to reform the entitlement programs.
In that regard, he’s precisely like Mr. Biden.
When Donald Trump was the Republican nominee, Paul Ryan sat down with him and tried to explain to him the unsustainable trajectory of our entitlement programs.
And Trump said, ‘Yeah, but I won’t be here when the bad things happen.’
Now, that’s a bad behavior.
It’s not unique to Mr. Trump.
They all feel that way, that someone else will have to pick up the pieces.
It’s conservatism’s job to call the country to realism, to face facts, and to make sure that they’re not — these pieces are not smashed into little pieces.

One could read through nearly five decades of your columns and find reason to be pessimistic about the American experiment.
You even called yourself a ‘intelligent pessimist.’
But you also recognize that history’s essential promise is ‘possibility’ and that today’s fights are ‘worth winning.’
Isn’t that optimism?

Yes. What history teaches is contingency, that things are not necessarily going to be one thing or the other, that individual initiative can make a difference.
Bill Buckley demonstrated that.
We began by talking about how Bill made an enormous difference.
Ideas have consequences, to take a title of one of the books that was part of the canonical conservatism library at the beginning of the postwar period when conservatism began to grow.

Of all the columns that you assembled, I’ve heard you say that the one you feel strong — most strongly about is the one you wrote about your son in the baseball park.

Yeah, it’s about my son, Jonathan turning 40.
He’ll turn 50 next year.
John has Down syndrome.
When he was born in 1972, the life expectancy of Down syndrome children was 20 years.
Because they were neglected.
They weren’t stimulated.
They weren’t nourished.
Well, times have changed for the better.
John, as I say, will be 50 next year.
He works in the Washington Nationals clubhouse, which means he gets up every morning and goes to a Major League ballpark, which means he does a better job than I’ve got.
He’s a happy, productive citizen.
Some things have improved for the better.

And with that, Mr. Will, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to welcome you back to ‘Firing Line.’
Thank you for your time.
Congratulations on this last, greatest and latest edited anthology of your work and on your contributions to the conservative movement over many, many years.

Well, thank you.
I’ve enjoyed this very much.
Thank you very much.

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