Interview with Ross Douthat

November 16, 2016

During his visit to Amherst College, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat sat down with Amherst magazine editor Emily Gold Boutilier to discuss American conservatism.

Not even a journalist and pundit as versed in conservatism as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat could have predicted the outcome of the recent election.

“Most people who cover politics were wrong, as I was wrong in expecting him to lose,” Douthat admitted to a large crowd in Stirn Auditorium on Wednesday night. (Watch video of the talk, below.)

Having planned to speak at Amherst about a crisis in conservative politics following a Donald Trump defeat, Douthat, author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012), said Trump’s victory does not change the fact that there are problems within the conservative movement.

Before addressing those problems, though, Douthat outlined what he described as “American conservatism at its very best,” giving a short political history of the movement.

Fundamentally, he said, conservatives want to conserve. They want to preserve a country that maintains civil liberties and is highly capitalist. They’re suspicious of federal power and champions of civic engagement at the local level, he said. They want to retain traditions and social norms that appear to them to be either discarded or dismissed by their liberal counterparts.

Conservatism can also seem self-contradictory, Douthat said, because the movement encompasses religious conservatives, foreign-policy hawks and libertarians, all united under the banner of opposition to left-wing forces.

Historically, he noted, the general public has often opposed leaders with conservative views, including when voters rejected Barry Goldwater during the Presidential election of 1964. After a series of social, economic and foreign-policy crises, though, conservative ideals gained ground with politicians such as Ronald Reagan.

“The conservative vision suddenly connected,” Douthat said. “Instead of having an abstract defense of what America should be, it found a political program.” 

As the Cold War ended and crime rates fell in the 1990s, conservatism again fell out of favor.

“Conservatism became a victim of its own success,” Douthat said. “You voted for a Republican because you wanted to win the Cold War, but once the Cold War was over, that was less important.”

By 2012, the Republican Party seemed in crisis, stuck with an apparent perpetual conflict between an establishment that leaned toward compromise and a base that apparently wanted to “double down on conservative purity.” 

“The reality is, politics has a lot more going on than just these big-picture ideas of what America has been or should be,” Douthat said. “What the paradigm missed was that a large swath of Republican-leaning voters felt the party didn’t have anything to say to them.” 

Then came Donald Trump, whose primary campaign ran counter to every element of what conservative intellectuals had been defending. 

Douthat paused. When he’d first outlined his talk a few weeks before, he’d included lessons on what to learn from a Trump defeat. There are still lessons that the conservative movement should heed, he argued, such as how the future of conservatism depends on its ability to reconnect with economic realities while also rechanneling “more toxic forces.”

“You want a conservatism that can be more populist without being a vehicle for white identity,” Douthat said.

Douthat outlined several possibilities for a Trump presidency. Its ideology might be centrist Republican, he said, or right-wing nationalist, or something in between, and its administration might be anything from authoritarian to incompetent.

In the Q&A session after the talk, when students asked about the future of affirmative action, Supreme Court rulings and foreign policy, Douthat noted that everyone is “groping in the dark” for answers.

“‛I don’t know’ is going to be the answer to all the questions about the future,” Douthat said. “American conservatism has darker elements than I wanted to believe.”


Ross Douthat on “American Conservatism and Donald Trump”

November 16, 2016

Amherst College welcomed author, blogger and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat for a talk titled “American Conservatism and Donald Trump.”