What is Nationalism?
A Conversation with Christopher DeMuth, Distinguished Fellow at Hudson Institute
‘Nationalism.’ It’s a word getting thrown around a lot these days. Some say it is code for racism and xenophobia. Others contend it is the natural expression of any nation’s people. What does nationalism mean, and how does the concept apply to American politics today? These are the questions at the heart of an essay in the Winter 2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books titled “Trumpism, Nationalism, and Conservatism.” It’s author is Chris DeMuth, who joins host Ben Judge in this episode of The American Mind Podcast.
In this interview, you’ll hear about DeMuth’s move towards appreciating President Trump, as well as a word of warning to conservative organizations dealing with Republican presidents. But at the heart of the conversation is this question: Are Trumpism, Nationalism, and Conservatism synonymous?
Christopher DeMuth is a distinguished Fellow at the Hudson Institute. From 1986 to 2008, he was the President of the American Enterprise Institute. His experience in government spans from working for Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon administration to serving in the Reagan administration as the Administrator for Information and Regulatory Affairs, colloquially known as the “Deregulation Czar.”
Judge: All right, Chris, well, thanks for joining us.
DeMuth: Good to be here, Ben. Thanks for having me.
Judge: First sentence of your C.R.B. essay, the 8,000-word—
Judge: [Laughs] —treatise.
DeMuth: Endless essay.
Judge: But the first sentence, it’s a strong start. Quote: “Trumpism has an essence, and that essence is nationalism.” So there’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s start with this: What is “Trumpism”?
DeMuth: I was trying to take the political phenomenon of Trump, and his personality, and his policies, and this very unusual President, who got there by surprise, and all of the strong emotions, support, ideas—one way and the other—that surround him, and I wanted to step back and gain a little perspective on the whole thing. And I thought that the most important aspect of it was that this is the American version of this new spirit of nationalism that we see all around the North Atlantic nations, from Brexit to the new leadership in Poland and Hungary, and the nationalist movements in France, Germany, Italy.
I think it’s a larger phenomenon and that the most important aspects of Trump—“Make America great again,” “Put America first”—are expressions of a renewed spirit of nationalism as against other ideas that have come to the fore in American politics in recent years—most dramatically under President Obama, who was quite pointed in not even wanting to say that America was exceptional. I mean we’re exceptional, but Luxembourg is exceptional, and Antarctica’s exceptional. That sort of thing. And the increasing attachment to international institutions—if you have a treaty, if you think you can get it through the Senate, you take it to the Senate; but if you don’t, you take it to the United Nations, and that’s just as good and maybe better.
There’s a lot going on with the Trump phenomenon, but a big part of it—and I maintain its core and the most important part for us to think about what it means for the American near-term future—is this revived spirit of nationalism. We’re going to stand for America. We’re going to make America a better place.
Judge: We’ll talk about nationalism a bit more later. Sticking with Trump for a second. I don’t remember people talking about Bush-ism or Clinton-ism or Obama-ism, maybe period, certainly in the same way.
DeMuth: Yes. Reaganism though. I worked in the Reagan administration, and we were “Reaganots.” Right?
Judge: [Laughs] Right.
DeMuth: And then when Vice President Bush became president, we called them “Bushies.” So there’s a little bit of that, but “Obamanans,” you know, there hasn’t been much of that recently.
Judge: But that’s different. Those are people who follow Bush or went to work for him. Same with Reagan. Reaganism’s a bit different, and we can talk about why. This is an idea though. When we talk about Trumpism you, even by your own admission, say Trumpism is bigger than Trump. So what is different in how we’re thinking about him in relation to an idea? How is that different than other presidents in relation to the political philosophy that they bring to office or they promote?
DeMuth: I think that when people think of Trump and go beyond the things that we talk about every day—like what was his Twitter feed at 5:00am this morning, those sorts of things—his very strong opposition to the Washington establishment, the deep state, that sort of thing, and a lot of things, such as his rashness, his political incorrectness—a part of it is just he’s a defiant character, he defies the establishment. He defies the establishment much more bluntly than Ronald Reagan did, for example.
That’s one thing about him, and the other is his maintaining that both parties had to have been ignoring a very substantial segment of the American population that had been doing terribly in recent decades. He had his diagnosis of the reasons—trade, manufacturing jobs moving abroad—but he, from the very beginning, maintained that there was a substantial portion of the population that had been left out of establishment policy under both parties.
Judge: Is that neglect the biggest single thing we’ve learned from Trump?
DeMuth: Well, it is a very important thing that we have learned. There were warnings of this. It was not altogether unexpected. If you read, say, the writings of my former colleague, Henry Olsen, in 2014, -15, -16, he was pounding the table saying, “You Republicans have forgotten the Reagan Republicans, and they’re hurting, and if you want to hold on to majority status in Washington, you’re going to have to get back to them and a lot of their interests are pretty squarely opposed to what you think Republican Party interests and policies ought to be.” So there was some of it.
Another former colleague of mine from A.E.I., Michael Novak, who was this very high-concept theologian, Catholic, political analyst and philosopher, but he was a tough working-class kid from western Pennsylvania. He was from Johnstown, and he never forgot it. He saw it. I spoke with him shortly before the election, and I hadn’t talked with him in a long time, and it was a point when a lot of my friends on the Right—they were kind of going in all different directions on Trump—and I hadn’t talked with Novak for a couple of months. So I was kind of on edge. I said, “Well, Michael, what do you think about the election?” And he said, “Chris, if this country is going to divide into people who went to college and people who didn’t go to college, I’m going to be with the people who didn’t go to college.”—
DeMuth: —So there were some inklings of this, but Trump saw it at a level nobody else did and made it his campaign; and a lot of people didn’t think he was actually going to win. There was a lot of speculation about that. But he saw a set of issues that would propel his campaign, and I think it just may have turned out to be that his discovery was even more powerful than he expected it would be.
Judge: When was that conversation with Michael Novak?
DeMuth: It was shortly before the election.
DeMuth: The general election.
Judge: When did you start to see that there was a divide between what was actually going on in the country and basically what Trump identified?
DeMuth: No, I came late to the party myself. I began to see that there was something big and important going on in June of 2016, and it was clear he was going to get the nomination. He then spent two weeks attacking this judge in a personal case, and I thought, “This man is not up to it.” I just thought he was frittering things away, and I was wrong.
Judge: Yes, because there’s a trajectory from that to this C.R.B. piece. So there are things you’ve learned in that time. When did this concept of nationalism and what Trump was articulating start to really crystallize in your mind. Was it events? Was it just thinking through the thought a little bit more—the thought behind what he was saying or what other people were saying?
DeMuth: Well, I would say that I was struck by the similarities between the Trump phenomenon in America and what was going on from London to Budapest in Europe. I started reading up on this thing called “nationalism” because suddenly it was extremely controversial. If one was a nationalist, this was a bad thing, and I’d never thought about it enough to have strong feelings. Although, at A.E.I. we did have a group of people who were concerned about the sacrifice of American sovereignty. We’d commissioned work by people such as John Fonte, John O’Sullivan, and especially Jeremy Rabkin at G.M.U. now, Scalia Law School, and I had been an enthusiastic promoter of their work. I thought that a nation’s voluntarily giving up true sovereignty—that seemed to me a dramatic change and something that needed to be opposed.
So I knew a little bit about it in the past, but I started reading up and I read lots of things that important people wrote about this back in the—you know I went back to John Stuart Mill and others. But then I came across this new book by Yoram Hazony, the Israeli philosopher, and I was just really gripped by the book. I thought it was really—it encapsulated a lot of things that I felt were sort of up in the air. It summarized a lot of arguments. It was very controversial. So I found that quite interesting, and that helped me understand what I thought was, as I said, the essence of Trumpism better. So I wrote this essay to try to explore if we took this idea of nationalism seriously and it’s more than just we’re going to renegotiate trade agreements and we’re going to tell the Germans that they better pay up more for N.A.T.O.—I’m for all those things—but there has to be more to the idea of resuscitating a sense of national spirit and pride, and at a point when, in part as a result of the Trump phenomenon, Americans seem to be very divided, which is obviously a problem for a nationalist—if everybody’s at each other’s throats, you don’t have much of a nation—and it was thinking about that that led me to this Claremont essay.
Judge: You in the essay at least implied that nationalism, and you’re saying it now, is not enough on its own. In the essay you talk about a more capacious nationalism. So what does that more capacious nationalism look like?
DeMuth: It could mean different things. I would say in all successful nations there has to be a degree of cohesion. It doesn’t have to be strong cohesion. You know it’s not like we’re all Red Sox fans and hate the Yankees. It’s fairly weak, but it has to be strong enough so that people are willing to make sacrifices if you’re challenged, if the nation is challenged. If it comes under serious hardship, people have to be willing to make sacrifices. Sometimes they have to sacrifice their lives willingly. If you don’t have at least reservoirs of loyalty across small communities, races, creeds, your side of the river, my side of the river—if you don’t have that extent, you don’t really have a nation. If you have that extent of self-conscious loyalty, you have the makings of doing great things.
It was that amount of cohesion that made possible things such as the common law, the idea of due process, the idea that king was not above the law. These are huge advances in civilization, and they were all done in the context of pretty successful nations. So being a successful nation requires a degree of loyalty and a sense of common purpose. So my idea of a more capacious nationalism for America in the circumstances we are in in 2019 is to look for ways to make, not just people that wear mega-hats, but everybody feel that they’re really part of an important enterprise here that is greater than our divisions over immediate matters. That’s not an easy thing to do, but that’s where I wanted to start.
Judge: Would your article lose anything if the title was [sic] “Patriotism and Conservatism”?
DeMuth: I think it would—
DeMuth: —I’m not speaking of patriotism simply love of country, but patriotism as a means to achieve something.
Judge: And what is that?
DeMuth: Patriotism for me is a little bit too—it’s sort of weak tea. I think that we can get most people in the House of Representatives to say that they’re—probably not all—but we can probably get most people, including wide divergences in ideology, to say that they are patriots. But if you pressed a little bit harder, you would get a Emmanuel Macron version of patriotism, which is true patriotism means that we should not do anything in foreign affairs unless the United Nations agrees because that is the repository of our moral values. You would find people saying that, and I would say to that, “Absolutely not. That’s the opposite of what I mean by ‘patriotism.’” I mean being loyal to a set of ideas that are American ideas, that are distinctively American, that may be quite different than ideas that people in China or Hungary or Brazil are attached to.
Judge: And you think nationalism covers that but patriotism does not?
Judge: So in order to get to a more capacious nationalism, you say we need a spirit of common destiny. Charles Kesler, in a previous interview on The American Mind, talked about the Founding as the key to the meaning of America and what it means to be an American. Seems like a spirit of common destiny requires an appreciation for Founding principles. Does it?
DeMuth: I think Charles is saying more than that, but I think that it certainly does require an appreciation of our history and our Founding. Absolutely, yes.
Judge: But how central is that? How central is it to make an appeal to American principles when you are making a case for American nationalism?
DeMuth: I’m not great at these questions about degree. I’m not going to say it’s the most. It is very important because having a history that we’re proud of is one of the exceptional things about America. There are some countries that I love—Mexicans cannot be proud of their history because there’s a lot of just one terrible thing after the other. Mexicans will tell you they search. They’re proud of certain things about Mexico today, but there aren’t these moments of great achievement and pride that are special about America. So this is something that we’ve got, and if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
So it’s one of the advantages that we have. Other nations have a better climate—
DeMuth: —But this is something we’ve got, so let’s go with it, and it is a great story. The principles are true today, and one of the interesting things about American history is the nation changes, the challenges change; and every time we’re faced with what seem like new and different and strange problems, you go back to Madison—you know if you just start with Madison, he gives you a lot of solutions. One of the reasons the nation has lasted so long is that the Founding was so very deep.
Now it’s worrisome—more than worrisome, somewhere between worrisome and sickening—that high schools do not teach the important parts of the American history and the American Founding, but I’ll tell you, in my family I know some pretty good high school teachers in just kind of good schools around the country, and they take the history of the American Founding very seriously.
The most successful Broadway musical in the past 20 years is about the American Founding, and it’s playing in every big city in the country, and it’s sold out for 20 years. You can write a book about Benjamin Rush. It’ll be a bestseller. People are really interested in the subject. I think that the appreciation of the Founding, which is sort of a central idea of The Claremont Institute, there are a lot of big challenges, but we have a lot to work with in the sheer quality, the sheer greatness, and all of these interesting characters. And it seems to hold a lot of—I think the mystic chords are still there.
Judge: So let’s shift and talk about how people divide themselves in today’s world. You talk about “Anywheres” and “Somewheres.” You say that you like the terms because they aren’t as politically loaded as “elites” and “establishment” on the one hand and “Trumpians” and “nationalists” on the other. So what is an “Anywhere”?
DeMuth: I like them because they’re apolitical, but they describe circumstances of people’s lives, and the—Anywheres are people whose primary attachments in their lives are not geographic and local, and many of them are abstract. Imagine people whose lives are spent online, but also think of people who are professionals, who live in the world of ideas and knowledge, and their attachments are to groups that may or may not be in the vicinity of where they live.
Somewheres are people whose lives—their jobs, their work, their avocations—are in a place. They belong to a place. Most of their lives are spent with individuals who are actually physical people that they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis. That’s the essential division, and it is easy to see in it a distinction between people who are pro- and anti-Trump; but it is a different breakdown. And I should say, these are supposed to helpful metaphors. As they say, they’re heuristics. They’re supposed to help explain something, and I found them useful for explanatory purposes. But once it was published, and especially when a knockoff came out in The Wall Street Journal—
DeMuth: —I thought everybody wanted to talk about whether they were an Anywhere, Somewhere, and I was being snobbish because of what I said about Somewheres, and didn’t I know that there were actually educated people that lived in small-town America? Well, yes, I actually did know that. People got all caught—it was sort of fun, but whenever you try to generalize for purposes of explaining something, people will think that you’re saying that everybody in the world in is one or the other and they’re completely in one or the other, so—
Judge: Ride that to more publicity.
DeMuth: [Laughs] Yes, that’s right. Go with it. Of course.
Judge: Well, here’s [sic] some other terms that people have used: “elite,” “establishment,” “ruling class.” Tony Dolan, who you worked with in the Reagan administration, used to say “the capital class.” Irving Kristol said “the new class.” Yours seems broader. Is that accurate?
Judge: Were those terms missing something that yours picked up on?
DeMuth: That’s a very good question, and I’m not—let me give it a try. I was trying to get a little bit beyond those, including Tony Dolan. I was trying to get beyond those other generalizations because of my view, which is somewhat idiosyncratic, that the most important things affecting our politics are affluence and technology. And most people will describe things more in cultural and ideological terms, and there’ve been these big eruptions of one ideology or another.
I think, by far, the most important changes are that we’ve become very very affluent, and affluent people have a different set of interests and values; and they’ve got lots and lots of leisure time to pursue those interests and values, and it has produced a new and, sort of, extravagant set of demands on government than we ever had in the past. Technology makes it possible for people to press their demands on government to an extent that could not have happened before, and it has atomized government itself so that every member of Congress can be a solo practitioner, and you’re not just a cog in a committee or a party wheel.
I see all of the changes—some good, some bad—in our politics as resulting from these things, and when I came upon from these notions of Somewheres versus Anywheres—which are not my own ideas, they’re in a book by this British political analyst, David Goodhart—was that this division seemed very very close to those who were more affluent, had more leisure time, and were more connected, networked, living their lives in some larger world.
And I don’t just mean social media. It could be part of a not-for-profit organization that has its own software and we all communicate with each other, and you and I used to work together, but you married a gal from Claremont, so you’re now working in Claremont. But you and I still work together every day even though I’m across the continent. People that live their lives in that—that’s a different kind of division, and I think that people like that are much more comfortable with the kind of government we have that Donald Trump ran against than others.
Judge: To stick with Anywheres for a little bit more—you said when we first started talking about Anywheres that they’re people who live in the world of ideas, that’s part of where they live. So were the American Founders Anywheres?
DeMuth: The American Founders were so Somewhere—
DeMuth: —They were so Somewhere. Jefferson could not wait to get back to Monticello. When things got rough for John Adams, he went up to Quincy for what? Six months? He’s President of the United States? None of these guys could wait to get home. George Washington. Probably the most Anywhere of them all was Hamilton. Of course, he was an immigrant, and he moved around.
I’m not a completely anti-Anywhere person. I’ve lived most of my life in the Anywhere sphere. There is this view of the American Founding that Hamilton—they don’t put it this way—but that Hamilton was so important because he was something of an Anywhere dealing with complete Somewheres. For example, he had some idea of the importance of finance, but it didn’t have anything to do with terroir. It wasn’t the land so it couldn’t be real; it must be corrupt. That was a pretty good tension.
I would say the attachment to place was important for essentially all of them, and while I don’t say so explicitly in my essay, if you look at it, I think you’d see that I think we need to have a discovery of the importance of place, human interaction, loyalty to particular communities, and a little bit less of this footloose disconnected spirit.
Judge: But all of the examples that you just mentioned—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, who spent a tremendous amount of time of his early life outside the United States—were removed from particular localities for long periods of time, but they never lost that attachment to America—
DeMuth: Where they came from.
Judge: —Right. So that was an attachment to ideas as much as it was a place. Correct?
DeMuth: I would not agree with that. No. They were informed by a strong sense of ideas. There’s no question about that. Let me just tell you that my notion of nationalism that I think we need to recover is maybe a little bit different than the Claremont version. I think that this business that America is based on ideas, that we have this set of ideas, that we’re a doctrinal nation—equality, the Declaration of Independence, and all that—those ideas are very important. But we’re also based on several centuries of living together on this continent and the institutions that we have developed incrementally year over year over year.
So I think that we should not think of America as an abstraction. America’s actually a real place, and a lot of people—I have a very strong sense of your town of Claremont, and it’s very distinctive, and I can really imagine living my life in Claremont and that would be different than living my life in Washington. So I would say that when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were spending all of this time in Europe in the early days, and when John Quincy Adams was traveling abroad, it was not just that they were standing up for a bunch of ideas; but they were standing up for a people, a locality, a home that they were a part of.
George Shultz, the Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, used to meet with every new ambassador before he or she left to go off to the nation where they’d be representing America, and he’d always concluded the interview by walking over to a big globe and spinning it, and he said, “Would you point to your country?” If they were going down to Latin America, they’d point to Bolivia or something like that. He’d say, “No. No. That’s not your country. Turn it around. America. That’s your country.” He was talking about a place.
Judge: A place that represents certain ideas—
DeMuth: Oh, absolutely.
Judge: —And brought together by certain things, right?
DeMuth: We are held together by our amazing success at furthering a set of ideas and ideals about politics and society. Absolutely.
Judge: The late Peter Schramm used to say that he was “born American, but in the wrong place”—
Judge: —So he was talking about?
DeMuth: America as an idea. That’s true.
Judge: Let’s talk about Somewheres a little bit. We spent a lot of time on Anywheres, but ideally we have more Somewheres. We need more Somewheres to see this revival of American nationalism. That’s where I think your argument goes in this. I want to look at an example of place, say Austin, where a bunch of Anywheres from my home state are moving in part because they like it more. It’s a better government. It’s a better-run city—
DeMuth: Wait. They banned Uber.
DeMuth: This is supposed to be a well-run city?
Judge: A bunch of Anywheres move to a place with a bunch of Somewheres, but the Anywheres don’t turn into Somewheres. They bring that set of ideas and that approach to government with them, and it has an effect on the place, whether it’s Austin, Nashville, Atlanta—different places where you have seen people who very much qualify in the Anywhere category move, but there hasn’t been an assimilation. Why? Why is it so hard to turn one kind of person in that setup in to another? Or is it possible? Are these just separate divides, and you can’t bridge them, and you’re in those categories?
DeMuth: I think that there is a spectrum. I myself am familiar with several towns that are all Somewheres towns, but also some—Durango, Colorado is a town that I know that is half Anywheres—half Hollywood stars and half Marlboro cowboys. I think it is important not to think that these are two categories of people who are irredeemably in one spot or the other. So I could give you examples, and I’m a little bit older than you, and in your seventies you get to know a lot of people who’ve been jetsetters. They’ve lived in Germany representing a law firm or a corporation, or they’ve been teaching around. Now they live in a little town someplace, and they’re a reporter for the local newspaper, and I’ve heard from a lot of people my age. So there are people that change.
I don’t want to just kind of give examples. “No, no, no, Ben, there are these people that change. Anybody can—” No, no, no. I want to put it in terms of a proposition, which is that I think that an important technique—excuse me—an important means of our becoming more of a nation, and a more effective nation, and a people who are able to live with others of radically different views is for all of us to try to live more like Somewheres in the sense of—I’m sorry, it’s going to be very—get off of social media. Look around. Live your life, you know, with people. This sounds very bland, but I believe that where people live their lives with other real people that they confront and deal with every day, there is much less tendency to hate and vilify people that you disagree with.
A lot of this amazing fascination with identity strikes me as an Anywheres problem, that people are so obsessed with sex and race and things like this, but when you actually go in to a real community, people are not obsessed by these things. People live with these differences, and they actually tend not even to be that important, and they became terribly important when they’re created as abstractions by people that deal with others that they don’t even know.
Judge: I want to approach this from a different way. Let’s take someone who Airbnb’s [sic] around the world going from city to city, stays in touch with most of their [sic] friend through social media, and still believes that that home, America—best place in the world. What is that person missing in terms of—
DeMuth: No, that’s the person that I want. This is a person who has expanded her/his community, people traveling around and has met many people in many different circumstances, that actually regards them as friends, and uses all of these technologies to stay in touch with actual people, as opposed to obsessing over abstractions the way so many people in American politics do.
Judge: Because that person’s rooted in a certain set of principles? What would you say that grounds that person compared with someone who Airbnb’s [sic] around the world, goes from city to city, stays in touch with people via social media, and considers themselves [sic] an international citizen?
DeMuth: That this person is not completely narcissistically obsessed with himself and how wonderful it is to be traveling around the world. He’s actually interested in the people and cultures that he sees, and he likes them; but all of this fortifies his love for America.
Judge: Got it.
So shifting gears a little bit. We’ve talked about issues of American identity and purpose needing to be revived. You said in the C.R.B. piece that those ideas needed to be brought to the forefront of political debate, but that it wasn’t Congress’s job to do so. Did you mean that it’s not Congress’s job as an institution or members of Congress?
DeMuth: Both. That is there are large issues of national purpose and national identity that Congress as an institution, because of its design—you know there were some people that wanted to have—imagine we had a Congress where it’s bicameral, but every member of both chambers is elected nationally. Then you would have a system of competition for people that wanted to express some vision for the country as a whole.
That’s the not the legislature we have, and I don’t think it’s the legislature we want. It’s largely a reactive institution, and it is primarily our presidents—there are times that even a judicial restraint guy like myself would say that the courts have come in and spoken authoritatively on issues. Brown vs. Board of Education, I would say, would be one of those; many in the 19th century. But it is largely presidents and civic leaders, I think governors over the years have been extremely important.
But Congress is not that institution. Congress is where we make peace. It is where people with different ideas come together and compromise. There’s a separate political function, which is articulating some larger ideals that everybody, despite their differences, ought to rally around. I wanted to give some sense of those, and I gave three that I offered because they were ideas that used to be consensus issues in America that suddenly have become extremely controversial and actually somewhat in doubt.
I know that there are people in the Congress, I know some of them, who believe in all of those things, but they’re not in a position—they can give speeches on the subject—but they’re not going to be leading a movement back to those large issues.
Judge: But presidents can talk about those large issues?
DeMuth: Presidents can.
DeMuth: And I should say there have been legislators over the years that have articulated national views, not always views that I share, but basically the legislators, they vote on things, and they never get everything that they want. So it’s just a difficult situation.
Judge: So you were President of A.E.I.—
DeMuth: You remember when Ev Dirksen was being attacked by Republican backbenchers for being insufficiently principled—
DeMuth: —in his negotiations with the L.B.J. White House? And Ev said, “I’ve always been a man of principle, and my first principle has always been flexibility.” [Laughs]
DeMuth: That’s the ethos of the legislature. It’s a powerful one and it’s difficult to escape.
Judge: So you were President of A.E.I. during three Republican presidencies: Reagan, Bush, and Bush. How should conservative organizations, think tanks, publications position themselves in relation to a republican president?
DeMuth: A conservative right-of-center policy organization needs to beware of a Republican administration. It is a threat. It’s a threat, first of all, because if the President is smart, he’ll hire a lot of your best people. But it’s a longer-term threat because you and your people are coast to the corridors of power. You actually have lunch at the White House. You meet in one of those small little buildings in the Capitol that are impossible to find and get to.
And you are in the business of trying to come up with good ideas for people who are in government. And it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they’re actually different lines of work—that trying to think and build capital on political and policy subjects is very different from you get in, you’re burning capital, you’re engaged in tactical maneuvers all the time. A think tank is trying to build up people and ideas so that when the moment comes those people can get in and do the best they can to further the ideals that they had come to when they are in think tanks.
But if the think tank itself comes to think of itself as part of that enterprise, it starts making compromises. It starts acting as if it is part of the government or that it has more power than it does. One risk is that you pull your punches because you have friends that are in the inside. The other risk is that you get furious with your friends for being quislings, you know, for making ridiculous compromises and abandoning principles, and you excoriate them.
Neither is correct. A degree of detachment is essential for serious scholarship, and a think tank—especially one in Washington, especially one very close to the flame of active politics—has to really work to maintain the degree of disinterestedness that’s essential to make good on this special calling, this special form of work.
Judge: Has that dynamic changed with this administration?
DeMuth: Let me think. I don’t think so. I would say that in the years before Trump came, I thought that the major think tanks on the Right and on the Left were becoming a little bit too political. They were losing some of their independence. They were becoming part of a party or a movement to an excessive degree, and so it may be that Trump’s having come along and scrambled everything has been helpful in that regard.
One thing I do—I have a private consultancy for which I’m paid nothing, which is talking to think tank chieftains and dispensing the wisdom of the ages and so forth—which they usually ignore, but I do give them advice—and I have had heads of think tanks say, “You know, we’ve been asked to do this with the Trump administration, and we actually think there’s some potential here; but we’re afraid that then we’re going to get attacked, and maybe CODEPINK is going to come over, or The Washington Post will dis us. Should we collaborate with them?”
There’s been a certain amount of that, but I think that the institutions have found their way. In all of the leading institutions I think you can find people that pretty much the whole spectrum in their attitudes towards Trump the personality and so forth, who are doing—not always work that I agree with—but work that is serious analyses of what he’s doing about the infrastructure problem, or the executive order on this, that, or the other thing, or the census issue. Actually I think I see probably more truly independent work now than I did several years ago.
Judge: But you say he has changed the movement?
DeMuth: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I think—and I’m not somebody who feels he’s good at predicting the future—but I am impressed, and I see this in the think tanks, but I see it beyond the think tanks because the think tanks no longer have the monopoly that they used to—
DeMuth: —The Claremont Institute is 3,000 miles away, and it’s a big part of the conversation right here in Washington. Quillette is halfway around the world. It’s a big part, and it’s just this nice young lady at the kitchen table—
DeMuth: —But, you know, she’s really good at what she does. So there’s this amazing confluence of people, and institutions, and argumentation that is very very exciting.
I wish—I’m sorry to say this on the air here—I wish there were some of this on the Left. There are three or four people that are kind of the old-fashioned, progressive liberals that like to argue and do so at a very high level and aren’t just kind of down in the electoral pit from minute to minute.
So I just love the books and art, not all of them, but at their best—Claremont Review and many others, The New Criterion, First Things, not just the political ones. I’m a long-form essay guy, as you well know, so I like those things, but a lot of these new features on the web—some of them just by individuals or people that put up their own podcasts. Sam Harris. There’s just this enormous variety. I think that it augurs well for our movement.
It maybe will just splinter and fall apart. Sometimes, as happens, movements become parochial, and you and I agree on 99% of things. and then we just hate each other because of this 1%. Out of Claremont I’m sure you’re familiar with all of the debates between Harry Jaffe and Walter Berns and those sorts of things. I love both of them. Maybe I’m missing something, but I thought that that was, for the most part, a very helpful set of arguments that they had.
Judge: Well, we’ll have to address those another time. [Laughs]
Judge: Chris DeMuth, thank you.
DeMuth: Good to be here. Thank you very much.
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A Republican presidential field that was hailed as the most talented in a generation has been flummoxed, humbled, and finally beaten by Donald Trump. Whatever decision individual conservatives make come November, the time has come for the Right to reckon with what has happened.