I think I've always had a kind of heterodox or contrarian streak. I think I've usually been willing to stand up to the powers that be, to some degree. But I don't like it, honestly, when people overdo how difficult and noble this is or something. I mean, God knows, in the big scheme of things, it's nothing compared to what millions of people have done across the world in standing up for their beliefs against leaders and governments. And, in a way, being free from that kind of orthodoxy has been somewhat liberating.
We hear a lot about the difference between Republicans’ private vs. public views of President Trump. As someone in a small minority of the party who has spent the past few years trying to rally fellow Republicans, fellow conservatives, to stand up to him, have you been surprised by that?
I have been surprised by the total capitulation to Trump. I never liked the, Well, in private, they say this. I mean, at some point, that is not an excuse; it’s almost meaningless. People’s behavior in public, if you’re a public official, is your behavior. It really came to a head on impeachment, where we fought hard trying to get Republicans to do the right thing and failed entirely, except for Romney. I think that brought home to me, and should have brought home to everyone, that Republican members of Congress should get zero credit for saying things in private that they’re not willing to say in public. At least the true believers believe it, right? I mean, is going along really a more admirable stance? Is being a cynical apparatchik better than being a true believer?
But, yeah, I guess I am a little depressed by the failure of civic and political courage in standing up to Trump. We're not back in Germany. We're not in the Soviet Union. We're not even in Hungary, in Venezuela. I mean, what are you really putting on the line?
It’s astounding for so many people to go along with something that they don’t believe.
That’s a good way of putting it: They don’t believe it. But I think they also don’t believe it’s that damaging. I guess if you had to give a reasonable argument, it wouldn’t be that they believe it or that they’re intimidated even, exactly, but — and I used to hear this when I talked to these people, which I don’t do much anymore: “Come on, Bill, it’s not that bad. He’s a jerk, and he says stupid things, but the system is the system. It’s working adequately.” They think they’re getting some good policies out of it. “We’ll get beyond this. I mean, he’s not destroying our institutions. The civility stuff is probably overrated. And anyway, we were losing when we believed in that.”
People in both parties and in every institution, whether businesses or the media or anything, you put up with certain things. You have a boss who's a jerk, or even a creep. And, you know, he'll move on. You're not going to leave your job, necessarily. You're going to wait him out, and the institution will produce someone better. You have a bad teacher for your kids one year. It doesn't mean you leave the school. It means you sort of accommodate and get beyond it. That's sort of life, right? It's not a crazy point of view.
I guess the fundamental dispute is how much damage [Trump] is doing to the country. And I do feel like now that’s kind of evident. Sticking with him even now, in the midst of this incredibly damaging bungling of the coronavirus, is pretty astounding. The tribalism. I mean, I had low hopes. I didn’t really expect people to jump ship even on this, but to see it play out day to day and week to week, it’s astonishing.
I've always slightly objected to the — "Well, Trump's just a symptom, you know. The problem is deeper." Of course, that's true in some ways. Hyperpolarization was already there, hyperpartisanship. And it was creating real, genuine dangers and challenges to our system. But he's a symptom who makes the problem much worse. He's the infection that makes the underlying medical issue inoperable. [Laughs.] Which is why you need to deal with the infection first, which is why politically you need to deal with Trump before you can solve other things.
Has this pandemic changed the way you think about the importance of leadership?
No, but I think it’s reinforced my conservative view that you don’t want to put all your eggs in the basket of the federal government or the presidency. For all the problems of federalism in terms of dealing with a national problem like the coronavirus, it’s been good that we have states and localities and the private sector and civic institutions and the media and universities and churches; there are some limits to the damage he can do. Now, when you have a national challenge like this, unfortunately, he can do a lot of damage, and he has. Even so, you could argue that [Anthony] Fauci and everyone else are sort of a testimony that the institutions can still ultimately do some good. So that part reassures one a little bit about America.
But having said that, we're really going to pay a price for this terrible failure in leadership. Probably three years ago, I was a little more, Look, the institutions are strong, and they will beat him back. But watching the way in which he has corroded the constraints on him within the government and gotten rid of various guardrails and corrupted certain institutions, it reminds you that four years — four years is a lot better than eight years, but it can still do quite a lot of damage.
You were critical in shaping the conservative movement up until now — even in sort of introducing populism into it in blessing the choice of Sarah Palin on the ticket. How do you feel about those contributions? Are there decisions you wish you could take back?
My column, the Sunday before [John] McCain made the choice, was to urge him to pick [Joe] Lieberman because I thought a national unity ticket was the way to go. It became clear to me he wasn't going to do that. And then I said, Okay, we'll take a gamble on Palin. I regret that. Because she turned out to be much more unsuited for the office than I expected. To be fair, if you look at what she said in 2008, apart from some of the silliness, she was not anti-immigration. She was not xenophobic. She was not isolationist. She was pro-free trade. You know, she echoed McCain. So, in a funny way, if we could have co-opted some of the populism and given them a place in a McCain-nominated Republican Party, maybe that would have been a good outcome. But it didn't work out that way.
But people like me fought [Pat] Buchanan. We fought Ron Paul. I feel like, on the whole, we were pretty alert to the challenges from the right. Pretty alert, but not totally alert. So yeah, there are things that I wish now we did more. Having said that, it's a huge country, and any majority party is going to have 60 million people voting for it. And just as people on the right want to attack Joe Biden because Ilhan Omar said something offensive, it would equally be pointless to go back and find what the equivalent of the right wing Ilhan Omar said 15 years ago, and why didn't you go more crazy about it?
At the end of the day, this is a party that nominated Bush and Dole and Bush and Bush and, you know, McCain and Romney. You don’t look at that and think, Oh my God, this is, like, anti-democratic or illiberal or horrible. But I think [the Republican Party] will be an unhealthy party until there’s an explicit repudiation of Trump. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Even if he loses.
Are you able to go back, then, or do you see yourself permanently outside the party?
I don’t think going back is really plausible. Three years ago I was using the rhetoric, or terminology, of “going back to,” or “saving,” or “restoring.” Those kinds of words. But Trump’s been renominated, and liberating the party from Trump or Trumpism seems awfully far-fetched. Obviously, if he loses in November, things are in more flux, and maybe there’s some opportunities. But I can’t honestly conceive of working with Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn and Kevin McCarthy. I’m just disgusted by what they’ve been doing, really, for the last three years, that I don’t much look forward to that.
We’re in a new moment. Both because of Trump and also because of what’s happening now [with the pandemic]. It’s interesting, intellectually, honestly, trying to think through where one should go on a lot of issues in the country. It’s a new set of circumstances. We need to really think in a fresh way.
This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen’s most recent book is “Activist: Portraits of Courage.”