NYT Columnist Speaks on Modern Conservatism
Issue   |   Wed, 11/30/2016 - 00:10

The college welcomed conservative author, blogger and op-ed columnist Ross Douthat on Nov. 16 to give a talk titled “American Conservatism and Donald Trump.” The talk, which was open to the public and livestreamed, was held in Stirn Auditorium, where Douthat spoke for 45 minutes about the history and ideology of modern conservatism and how it relates to President-elect Trump’s success. After the talk, Douthat answered questions from the audience and signed copies of his book, “Bad Religion: How America Became a Nation of Heretics.”

Currently the youngest regular op-ed columnist in the history of The New York Times, Douthat is a former senior editor and blogger at The Atlantic and has authored three books. The auditorium was filled to capacity, with many students standing in the aisles.

Douthat began his talk by admitting that while writing the speech, he had not believed Trump would actually win the presidency.

“When I was invited to speak, I thought, like most people who cover politics for a living and allege to know something about it, that I would be speaking to you all tonight in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s crushing defeat,” Douthat said.

Modern American conservatism, he said, is based on the ideology of conserving all the distinctive qualities of American culture, politics and society worth conserving, defending them against what are considered ill-advised efforts of reform. The movement began as an alliance of different ideological groups in the 1950s and 1960s. Douthat describes the coalition as a “marriage of convenience” which, when considering the individual parties involved, seems self-contradictory.

“They unite in their opposition to forces defined as liberal, progressive or left wing that, in the name of some higher justice, would undo what makes America exceptional,” Douthat said.

The movement gained momentum during the 1960s and 1970s with the sexual revolution, failed Keynesian economic policies and controversial foreign policies, he said.

While the conservative vision did not appeal to people during prosperity, its promise to “make America great again” finally found an audience during crisis. “The conservatives campaigned in these years promising to restore American supremacy, to make America great again in the world, and they succeeded,“ said Douthat.

But, he continued, “[Conservatism] stopped having obvious reasons for people who weren’t ideologically committed to one of these specific causes to vote for its politicians” after the return of prosperity and order. Former President George W. Bush and 2012 Republican presidential nominee both tried to compromise with conservatism, and according to Douthat, this approach did not appeal to most Americans.

The main problem, he said, is that the party was battling internally over conservative ideologies when the constituency was only “looking for a champion that would come to them and say, ‘I understand what your problems are and I am going to do something about it and I don’t care if the things I do aren’t technically conservative.’”

In the aftermath of Trump’s election, “the future of conservatism depends on an ability to make contact with political and economic reality and address the grievances and anxieties of middle- and working-class voters.”

The conservative movement, Douthat said, needs to realize why Trump was able to take over its “high-minded movement while attacking every high-minded principle.” The party will need to “learn something from that, no matter what Trump does in the next for years because otherwise, even if we survive this Trumpening, there will be many more Trumpenings to come,” he warned.

Douthat continued with a warning to liberals as well. “A lot of developments over the last 10 years, from the impact of the great recession to the impact of Syrian civil war and migration crisis, have put an incredible amount of stress on Western societies … more and more people feel accurately that their society’s leaders essentially see themselves as thriving in a cosmopolitan, multicultural society and are happy to see older traditions and communities simply pass into history,” he said. “And liberalism, right now, doesn’t have an answer to that feeling, except to describe it as bigoted, racist [and] so on.”

Douthat ended his talk with questions to both political parties. “To what extent can anxiety over sweeping cultural, racial, religious and demographic change be addressed through politics in order to preempt the emergence of overt right wing national parties?” he asked. “It’s a dilemma that Hillary Clinton didn’t resolve, it’s a dilemma that Angela Merkel didn’t resolve, it’s certainly a dilemma that David Cameron failed to resolve, and soon it may be a dilemma that the leaders of France fail to resolve.”

“Douthat provided students with an opportunity to critically engage with the surprising results of the 2016 Presidential election,” said Karen Blake ’17. “Douthat articulated the evolution of the conservative movement toward a more populist tradition. Although, he admitted to being shocked by the results of the election as well, he was still able to articulate how the recent evolution of conservatism played a role in the election of Donald Trump. It was refreshing to listen to Douthat’s rationale as it provided possible answers to the questions many students were grappling with post-election.”

“To me, it seemed like Mr. Douthat’s main takeaway was that a Trump presidency will create a lot of uncertainty for the future direction of the Republican Party,” said Tyler Marovitz ’20. “I liked his historical perspective, but I had hoped to hear him speak more about his values as a Catholic conservative, given that he spoke at a campus that is pretty liberal as a whole.”