“The paradox is you’ve got a billionaire leading a class war in the Republican party.”
E.J. Dionne ’73, a Washington Post columnist, MSNBC contributor, and NPR commentator, recently stopped by The Brattle Theater to talk about his new book, “Why The Right Went Wrong,” in an event hosted by The Harvard Bookstore. But before taking the stage and engaging with the crowd on topics ranging from Winston Churchill to angry internet commenters, Dionne took some time to answer our questions.
Fifteen Minutes: One of the most fascinating ideas in your book is the idea that GOP leaders since 1964 have consistently let their followers down by making promises they couldn’t keep. I’m wondering how you think that trend has been reshaped recently, when, ironically, that radical wing is promising things that are less and less plausible, and yet is garnering even more votes than they have in the past. Why do you think Republican voters are aligning with more radical candidates?
E. J. Dionne: In the case of Trump and immigration, even though some in the party claim to be for immigration reform, they’ve used a rhetoric about the dangers of immigration and the notion that people were pouring across the borders even when immigration from Mexico had fallen below zero. The voters heard that... but they also sensed a lot of their leaders didn’t believe it. So, they decided to vote for the guy who actually seems to believe it, and the very radicalism of what he says—even if it is utterly unrealistic to deport 11 million people and build a wall that [we don’t pay for]—he has a peculiar credibility, because somebody who’s willing to say something that radical must actually believe it. I think that’s sort of what happens with broken promises.
One of my favorite lines about politics is [by] John F. Kennedy. In his inaugural address, he said: “He who foolishly seeks power by riding the back of the tiger ends up inside.” I think that’s what’s happened to a lot of the traditional leaders of the party. I think they were willing to exploit the feelings of rather militant constituencies, like the Tea Party, and thought they could keep them under control. Now, it seems like those militant constituencies are firing back.
FM: You praise Eisenhower in the book for not pretending that he could “roll back the New Deal.” What’s interesting is that Trump is kind of the only Republican in the field who feels the same way about entitlements and other government programs. Do you think that preserving those things, or not trying to have a radical fight with the third rail, is helping Trump out as well, or do you think it’s mostly this radical, on-the-nose rhetoric that is garnering him support?
EJD: Trump is confounding because half of Trump is really reactionary on race and Muslims and immigration, [while] part of Trump is almost “moderate,” which is why he gets votes from “moderates,” because he is willing to acknowledge the importance of social security. He even talks about negotiating the price of prescription drugs under Medicare, which is a democratic idea. I think that speaks straight to his constituency because the Republican Party has relied on white working class votes for decades and has done nothing for them. And that’s a constituency that likes Trump’s social conservatism and hard line on certain questions, but actually is not opposed to social security or medicare or other aspects of government assistance. What struck me about the Trump vote is that his support is pretty constant across ideological categories, but his support is class split. The paradox is you’ve got a billionaire leading a class war in the Republican Party.
FM: A paradox you hit on in the book is that the Republican Party is really working locally—it’s taken over the House and the Senate—but on the national level, they haven’t done as well. Some say this is because they haven’t gone far enough to the right, some say it is because they’ve come to far to the middle, which raises the question: How do you get the Republican Party on a local level to become more moderate and change their beliefs when it’s working so well on the local and statewide level?
EJD: The problem Republicans face is that what helps them in midterm elections is the very thing that is their long-term problem. The Republican constituency is aging, and the conservative constituency is aging. In 1987, Pew found that only 39 percent of conservatives were over 50; In 2014, 53 percent were. That’s probably higher now. So, they can hang on to power in midterm elections—and Democrats do have to figure out how to turn out voters in midterms—but that very fact says in the long run they’re in big trouble, because the older voters eventually go on to their eternal reward and younger voters are the future. And so, sure Republicans know that yes, this might work in a midterm election or two more, but it doesn’t hold up for the long term.
FM: Going off of that, there’s also the demographic shift—there are a lot more Latino American Voters, African American voters, Asian American voters. Texas might turn blue in the next 10 years. How does the Republican Party account for that and shift its policies towards a more accepting future, when its core base of voters is holding on to this xenophobia in a desperate way? What will incentivize the shift? Losing?
EJD: I think there’s a rule of three in politics. If you look at the '80s, the Democrats lost three presidential elections and made some adjustments under Clinton so they could win. The Tories in Britain lost three elections in a row to Tony Blair, and along comes David Cameron with a project that involves moderation and modernizations. And I think losing a third Presidential election will open more space in the Republican Party. Or, alternatively, if they win, I just don’t think a right wing project is going to win them reelection, because the country is not a right wing country.
FM: You talk about how Charles Krauthammer said: “You can choose your Reagan.” And I think that idea is especially pertinent when you look at this election and see how everybody’s claiming they’re the heir to Ronald Reagan. I know that the whole point of that quote is that there’s no way to pigeonhole Reagan. But who do you think, in spirit or as a politician, most embodies that legacy?
EJD: I think the first thing to say is that I don’t think Ronald Reagan himself, political realist that he was, would think that the way to win an election in 2016 is to be a guy who was last elected in 1984. In fairness to conservatives, we progressives still hang on to and revere Franklin Roosevelt, and I do too, so I get the reverence. But being exactly Franklin Roosevelt in 2016 wouldn’t work either. Secondly, the whole problem with using Reagan as a model is this ambiguity that Charles and others have talked about. There was a movement Reagan, who was the Reagan who gave the great speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964, who right wingers can say [is] the real Reagan. Then there was actually the governing Reagan, who was blessed to have to govern with Democrats and was prepared to govern in a moderate way—who was willing to raise taxes after cutting them when it didn’t work…
In the end, I don’t think any of them is exactly who Reagan was. And maybe because I always thought one of the most important aspects of Reagan was that he was an FDR democrat, and therefore had an instinctive understanding—even though he abandoned liberalism—of FDR kinds of constituencies. And in the party now, there is very little optimism of the Reagan sort, and I think one of the big problems with the modern right is that it is so pessimistic about America as it is now—pessimistic about the values of the country, pessimistic, in some cases, about the ethnic makeup of the country—and Reagan’s optimism was a very important part of his appeal. I like to say that Reagan stole optimism from FDR and Clinton stole it back from Reagan. And Obama has continued that.
FM: Yeah, “Change We Can Believe In.”
EJD: I think the Republicans could use a lot more of what Sarah Palin called, “The Hopey Changey stuff.”