Tim Carney, author of Alienated America, talks about his latest Washington Examiner column, “Trump Corrupts.”
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The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:
Matt: Your essay talks about Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and the show they put on pretending Trump won the election. These are not stupid people, right? These are Ivy League educated, conservative intellectuals, who espouse very similar philosophical beliefs to those that you and I hold. What does it say that our best and brightest are so quickly willing to sell out everything we believe in?
Tim: I think it condemns us first as kind of political analysts, right? Like this is part of my job. I used to work for Bob Novak, we would read the electorate. I was saying since 2004, the Republican party needs to become—ought-to-become–will become—more populist, more working class, less geared towards the Country Club set… And Donald Trump kind of did that in a bizarre way, not in the way that I was advocating. So I think I saw the Republican base as being more ideologically conservative than it was. In other words, I knew it was on kind of our side in the cultural war, meaning when people were trying to take away their guns, and people were pushing, you know, the, the the sexual revolution, a lot of the stuff on the culture war left was irritating the grassroots of working class voters in Middle America. And in my mind, I conflated that with, you know, [the notion that] they're also pro life—people who are very dedicated to the Constitution. But that was me applying my own views to a huge part of the country. Most normal people don't have strong ideological and policy views… The main thing I think we misunderstood was, we thought that so many people out there really were like, agreed with my colleagues at AEI and our friends at Heritage, when really it was, they don't care about most of that stuff.
Matt: When you said that you were advocating a more populist version of conservatism was that because you truly believe that that was the best public policy for America, or because you believe it was a fait accompli, that the Republican base demands it, so you might as well figure out the best, most palatable way.
Tim: It was when Obama won that I finally started thinking about as a political strategy. But the stuff I was writing back in the ‘02, ‘04 cycles, was saying that the Republican elites didn't care about, and were not on our side, when it came to abortion, and immigration. I was saying their immigration policy of the Republican establishment was not geared towards the national good, but was geared towards lowering wages, and that the growth of government when Republicans were increasing government, for the most part, it was at the behest of big business and their lobbyists. So I was taking conservative principles and saying how what's really undermining them are elites and lobbyists, and big business. And I was hoping that sort of disempowering those elites, the people in charge in, you know, in the Bush era. And then, what would happen was a [blend of] conservatism and libertarianism. Instead, we got populism, and Trump did a lot of great stuff. But it wasn't for the most part oriented towards the things that I was hoping would take place. So yeah, I think that my populism was a belief that the elites are what stood in the way of conservatism.
Matt: In your latest piece, you point out that, because of the Constitution, Congress could basically throw an election, despite the will of the people. I don't think most people understand or appreciate that.
Tim: This is sort of like the political nerd thing you do is you read through the Constitution closely. And it's great, because you don't have to be a lawyer. I mean, it helps me that I have two brothers who are or have been lawyers, and my dad, and I sometimes think like a lawyer, but it's not a ton of text, you read the Constitution. And you see that, in effect, a party with a majority in both chambers, could install whoever they want as the president, you know, as long as they were 35 years old, etc. and that they could do it after any election, and they wouldn't need to make a case, it would be entirely a political question. If you have a majority of the house and a majority of the Senate, they could elect object to the electors from any state. So say the Republicans control the House and Senate right now. If they had both, they could, if they wanted to, block the electors from Georgia and Pennsylvania, they wouldn't need to justify it to anybody except for the majority of the house in the Senate. This would then knock Biden below 270. And then what they could do is they could say, “Okay, now that nobody has 270, the election of the President will be determined by the House of Representatives, where each state votes once.” Now, I think Republicans currently actually control a majority of state delegations. So they could go ahead, and the House could select either the top two finishers, which would include Donald Trump, obviously, see that house could elect Donald Trump as a president. Boom! And then the senate—if the Republicans control that—could then elect any of the top three finishers for Vice President—so they could elect Pence as Vice President. That could happen after any election, you wouldn't need to make a case to any courts, to any public. Simply put, if you could convince a majority of the House and majority of the Senate and the majority of House delegations, you get to pick either the top two as President, even if it's a person who clearly lost.
Matt: And Republicans were probably a handful of seats away from having like the hat-trick, right from being able to check all three boxes—
Tim: Now, that's always been the power of every congressional majority since the Constitution was written basically, but they haven't done it. And this is an important conservative insight, right? You can have power, but it still is wrong to use it except in extraordinary circumstances, and this is not that circumstance. And you know that Matt, I think even the people playing this game know that having power, but knowing that norms advise against using that power is really at the heart of philosophical conservatism. And that's going right out the window.
Matt: Yeah, you write that “a Republican Party based on the idea that power should be wielded whenever possible, and that Congress ought to override the states whenever Congress disagrees is not in any way a conservative party.” I think this speaks to a real question: does being conservative mean trying to conserve those good things about liberal democracy and our founders vision, or just being a conservative mean, fighting, and using whatever is at your disposal to elect Donald Trump?
Tim: And that's a question where people like you and me who, you know, our thoughts are a little infused with either Russell Kirk or Edmund Burke or maybe you know, maybe even a Frederich Hayek and The Fatal Conceit and all that stuff. That the Trump supporters, the people who are basically conservative, but support Trump, they'll say, “you know, new rules, guess what? The left won by not playing by the same rules of nicety that we play by; the left won by being Saul Alinsky and holding us to our rules, but not following them themselves, so now we only win by throwing the rules and the cute little quaint little norms out the window. And that's why Trump was able to beat Hillary Clinton” And then they'll argue that any other Republican would have lost in 2016, they'll say that any other Republican would have dropped Brett Kavanaugh, and that only Trump was willing to fight for him. They'll argue that no other Republican would have passed such a big tax cut... So the Trumpian argument is that you and I, by playing by rules and norms, lose, and then the left wins, and so you have to go all “Flight 93” and take down the plane if you ever want conservatism to win. That's their argument. And I don't have the best counter-argument except to say, like what Thomas Moore says, in A Man for All Seasons, if you clear cut the forest to get after the devil, then when there's no trees and nothing to hide behind, and the devil turns on you, where are you going to go? The left is better served by a world without norms and roadblocks than we are.