Conservative political commentator Rich Lowry addressed an audience of students and faculty in a talk about the changing political climate in America on March 8. The event, free and open to the public, was held in Stirn Auditorium and sponsored by the Croxton Lecture Fund.
Lowry is the current editor of the National Review, a leading conservative magazine. He is the author of several books, a contributor to The New York Times and POLITICO and a frequent guest on shows such as “Meet the Press” and “This Week.”
After beginning with a light-hearted joke about being denied admission to Amherst nearly 30 years ago, Lowry thanked the college for the invitation to speak.
“There is a crisis of free speech on campus in this country and a lot of conservatives get disinvited or shouted down, and I really appreciate Amherst’s commitment to free speech and the free exchange of ideas,” Lowry said. “None of us, no matter how committed we are to our ideas, actually have a monopoly on the truth.”
Lowry launched into an analysis of the Donald Trump presidency, commenting on Trump’s unprecedented and unexpected road to the White House. According to Lowry, even Trump did not expect to win — his campaign projected a mere 17 percent chance of winning the presidency on Election Day.
“We have just experienced the most amazing Black Swan event in American electoral history,” Lowry said.
Specific factors that contributed to Trump’s success, according to Lowry, included media dominance during the primary election season, working class frustrations and discontentment with the Republican establishment. Lowry highlighted the shortcomings of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her party.
“She went out and lost an election to the single most unpopular candidate who has ever run for the presidency in the United States of America, and this is in large part because she has the ethics of a grifter and the charm of an overzealous hall monitor,” Lowry said. “The Democrats should have gotten the message that something was awry when she had trouble in the Democratic primaries dispatching a 74-year-old socialist.”
Lowry noted a paradox in Trump’s views.
“In some ways, it’s something radically new, right?” Lowry said. “This is a celebrity candidate, the sort … of [which] we’ve never encountered before. But I think on a deeper level, he represents something very old, which is the Jacksonian tradition in American life.”
According to Lowry, Jackson and Trump both ran campaigns based on the mistrust of political elites, simple solutions to complex problems, suspicion of the financial sector and reactive foreign policy.
“Jacksonians tend to be populist, they tend to be nationalist — and these are elements of conservatism because conservatism has always had a populist part of its appeal, because we believe, as conservatives, that the elite institutions of these countries are arrayed against us,” Lowry said. “And there’s also always been a nationalist element to conservatism because we are overwhelmingly concerned with protecting the country and its sovereignty. But this Jacksonian populism can be in tension with conservatism.”
Lowry noted that aspects of the Trump administration may create a positive shift for the Republican party. Trump brought a new wave of working-class voters into the active constituency and moved the focus of congressional Republicans from an abstract obsession with federal debt to more concrete issues like jobs and immigration, Lowry said.
Lowry still expressed concerns about the Trump administration. Having published an entire issue of the National Review in February 2016 dedicated to criticisms of Trump, Lowry prefaced his talk by stating that he had not supported Trump in the election. A main issue in Trump’s administration, he said, will be how he works with three chiefs of staff: “nominal” advisor and “establishment” Republican Reince Priebus, “populist, nationalist ideologue” Steve Bannon and senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Lowry predicted that the trio would soon collapse and only Kushner would remain standing, as he is a member of the president’s family.
Lowry also said that Trump broke with precedent by immediately advocating for two large bills, rather than passing several smaller bills initially to build success and momentum. Trump has chosen to focus on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, and reforming the tax code.
“If [the Trump administration does] both of those, it’s a near-historic accomplishment,” Lowry said. “But doing just one of them would be a big deal, and just doing one of them is going to be hard.”
Lowry concluded by addressing concerns over Trump’s character and temperament and said that he hopes Trump will control his impulsiveness on meaningful issues.
“[It] seems odd to say [about] someone who is president of the United States, but I think a lot depends, ultimately, on how much he wants to succeed as president,” he said. “I think it’s an open question.”
“I agreed with almost everything he said, as someone who’s not quite as principally conservative as he is,” Morgan Yurosek ’20 said. “I fall more moderately. But as someone who appreciates that he stood his ground when Trump got the nomination and didn’t give up his principles for the act of someone becoming popular … that is admirable.”
As a member of Amherst College Republicans, Yurosek echoed Lowry’s advocacy for free speech on college campuses.
“I am just so happy that the college has really been trying to bring in a lot of conservative speakers, with Jeb Bush coming and now Rich Lowry,” Yurosek said, adding that Amherst was “bringing more politically diverse people regardless of if the campus leans left.”