Matt Lewis is an author, CNN political commentator, and conservative columnist at The Daily Beast. Originally a campaign operative, he began blogging in 2003 to shift the conversation over the development of the Republican Party away from liberalization. His succinct and oftentimes unique message was picked up by Townhall.com, AOL’s PoliticsDaily.com, and later by The Daily Caller. In the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, he wrote “Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots),” a diagnosis of a party in peril that advises the GOP to modernize not moderate. The Gate’s Brett Barbin sat down with Lewis to discuss Sarah Palin, extremism, and the Republican Party’s prospects as America undergoes a seismic demographic shift.
The Gate: What makes a Republican?
Matt Lewis: This is a tough question because Republican is different from conservative and what the Republican Party means today is different from what it meant one or two years ago. A very simplistic way of thinking about it would be the Republican Party believes in lower taxes, letting people keep more of what they've earned, protecting the right to life, a strong national defense (peace through strength), and judges that interpret the Constitution based on the Founders’ intent.
Gate: Based on your definition, Trump would ace the Republican test.
Lewis: He’d fit into some of them, yeah. When Trump was running, I was worried that he wouldn't even be very conservative. There was a legitimate fear that he would want to please the public and the media and that he would sell out conservative values. To be honest, that really hasn't happened. That’s no longer a very viable argument. We could argue about things like he's not a free trader, but that's quibbling compared to the fact that he's been pretty solid on most of conservative orthodoxy.
A lot of my concerns with Trump have more to do with what he's doing to the social fabric of America and liberal democracy, the breaking of norms, the threats against the media and the First Amendment, his authoritarian tendencies, and the fact that his rhetoric and demeanor have the potential to tarnish the Republican brand long term and discredit the cause of conservatism by virtue of his association.
Gate: In your book, you praise William F. Buckley’s early work to rid the conservative movement of its extremists. Where should conservatives draw that line today?
Lewis: Part of it is already water under the bridge. Donald Trump has won the Republican nomination and got elected saying things that Republicans should have drawn the line at. Today, the line should be the alt-right and Richard Spencer. That's truly toxic and if you even flirt with that there's a real danger of tarnishing what it means to be a conservative.
When Buckley did that, you could have started your own newsletter in the fever swamps, but if you wanted to be a conservative journalist you could either go to Human Events or National Review. So, Buckley controlled the means of production and he could essentially say "You're done. You're not going to be a part of this movement because nobody's going to publish you." And you couldn't do that today because of the internet. It's impossible for gatekeepers and leaders to exercise this role of providing leadership and policing the right.
There was one person that I thought potentially could have stopped Trump and that was Rush Limbaugh. If Rush Limbaugh early on had said "Donald Trump isn't a conservative. He's a Hillary Clinton donor. The stuff that he says is beyond the pale." That would have been a very gutsy move for Rush, but he would have had a shot at pulling it off. But he abdicated that responsibility and nobody really stood up. Nobody who had the conservative base stood up. They all were co-opted by him.
Gate: Has identitarianism then been playing a larger role?
Lewis: Oh, absolutely. It's something that I've always hated. We should be judged as individuals and politics should be about debates over ideology and the merits of a policy rather than "I am black therefore I will vote this way. I am a woman therefore I'll vote this way. I am white therefore I will vote this way." What that means is ideas don't even matter. What matters is who you are, what your identity is, and what benefits your tribe. For a long time, the left did that which is why I didn't like the left. And now, much to my chagrin, Donald Trump and Republicans are doing their own version of identity politics.
Gate: You’ve spent a lot of ink lamenting the priorities of the Republican primary. In a column titled “Dear Trump Voters: You’re a Bunch of Idiots,” you mocked flocks of Trump supporters as “masses,” who, “it turns out, sometimes are asses.” How do you get a primary voter to reject appeals to identity and the bluster of personality?
Lewis: It's very difficult. One of my major concerns is that the American public gets the politicians we deserve and politics is downstream from culture. We've created a culture that is coarsened and, in some ways, dumbed down, and we're surprised when politicians who represent those things win. It's really hard because in some ways Trump gave the primary voters what they wanted. They didn't want a debate about the VAT tax. They wanted a fighter—someone who was going to promise them that he could bring back manufacturing jobs and make America great again.
This is a long game of teaching civics and trying to get the American public to care more—and that's a really heavy lift—about issues and take them seriously. But it's possible that you could have a figure who is both substantive and knowledgeable about policy and charismatic enough to capture their attention.
Also, different things work in different times. If Jeb Bush had run in 1998 and was talking about the opportunity to rise, that would have really resonated because people in 1998 felt pretty good. It was before 9/11. It was before the economic housing downturn. People were feeling more generous and they believed that you could grow the pie. But now, in the current era, the Republican electorate has a hoarding mentality instead of an abundance mentality. They have a belief that politics is a zero-sum game. If you get a bigger slice of the pie, it means I get a smaller slice. In that environment, people like Donald Trump flourish. If the economy were to get even better and things were to calm down, then different types of politicians might have more resonance.
Gate: In an oft-cited 2015 appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, Ann Coulter predicted that Trump would win the presidency not in spite of but by virtue of ignoring the Hispanic vote and doubling down on white voters. You sat across from her on that panel and made the case for growing the tent. As we later learned, most of her early predictions ended up coming true. How likely do you think her strategy will succeed in the future?
Lewis: First of all, it's absurd to write off large swaths of America because conservatism is actually good for everybody and conservative ideas could provide more prosperity and opportunity for all different types of people. But apparently, she doesn't think that it's a persuasive enough idea to appeal to everybody.
In the short term, she was definitely right and it could even work again. But it's just mathematically impossible that it will work in perpetuity. Again, they lost the popular vote and it could've gone the other way if a few thousand votes in Wisconsin or Michigan had been different. I would rather invest in the long term than the short term and I think the Republican Party has really doubled down on "let's get ours today." It's part of an apocalyptic nature. If you don't believe that there is a future or that there won't be one if you don't win today then you're willing to trade tomorrow for today, which is usually a bad idea.
I still believe that in the long run you have to appeal not just to Hispanics but also to women, millennials, and urbanites—all sorts of groups that Trump tends to turn off. If people think that you don't like them and that you don't want them to be a part of your country, it really doesn't matter what else happens. And that's the message Trump sends to certain parts of the American electorate.
Gate: How is what you say about the GOP changing its position on immigration, gay marriage, and science modernizing different from just selectively moderating?
Lewis: That's a fair critique; somebody could argue that it is moderating. What I'm saying is that I think conservatives should stay pro-life. I think conservatives should always be for lower taxes. I think conservatives should always be for a strong national defense. And I think conservatives should defend the Second Amendment. I don't think conservatives should say that all Mexicans are rapists. I don't think that they should defend the Confederate flag. And I do think that we could embrace things like Uber as a model for why millennials and urbanites should find the Republican Party as the party of innovation and ideas and the Democratic Party as the party of onerous regulations and antiquated economic structures.
Gate: As examples of brands that have modernized without abandoning their values, you cite Pope Francis and McDonalds. Yet, since your book’s publication, both the Pope and McDonalds have ended up moderating on certain positions in order to modernize. Do you think that moderation is a necessary end of modernization?
Lewis: To me, the two things are not mutually exclusive but they're distinct. The reason that I said ‘modernize don't moderate’ is because a lot of people who were writing similar books to me in the past (i.e. David Frum and E.J. Dionne), their solution was to become more liberal. And that was never my solution. I don't think we should abandon the second amendment. I don't think we should abandon the right to life. But there's a way to talk about it differently.
It's certainly true that the issue matrix has changed. Technology changes and so every party and every movement will moderate. It's a pendulum. They will sometimes become more moderate or become more hardcore. Rubio was at least open minded to banning bump stocks and raising the age of how old you have to be to buy a rifle to twenty-one so you could definitely argue that that's an example of moderation. But there were some extenuating circumstances too with what happened at Parkland.
Gate: Can Republicans exit the opposition mentality that hardened over the eight years of the Obama presidency?
Lewis: They're having a very difficult time being the governing party. We saw with healthcare reform where they obviously hadn't done the intellectual work to figure out how to repeal and replace Obamacare. We really need to be putting more time into coming up with policy solutions. With Paul Ryan being something of a policy wonk and Tom Price who was Secretary of Health & Human Services at the time (he's a doctor, of course), I thought that they would have done the legwork to have a viable alternative and they clearly didn't. They’ve been deficient.
Gate: During your discussion in the book on the development of the modern GOP, you write that “the South helped transform the GOP into the dominant national party for decades,” and, in turn, the party abandoned “urban areas, the northeast, and then the Pacific Coast.” Yet, in recent years, Republican governors in the Northeast like Charlie Baker, Phil Scott, and Chris Sununu have seen a resurgence by running on messages of moderation. How does that square with your belief that modernization and not moderation should be the Republican path forward?
Lewis: Different regions have different political cultures and conservatives should be accepting of those differences. If someone is a conservative in Maine, they are probably not going to be the same as a conservative in Alabama. It's stupid of conservatives to expect them to be or to campaign against them if they're not. Conservatives should give a longer leash to a Republican in a blue state like Massachusetts or Maine than you would somebody from Texas.
Gate: You once called Sarah Palin a “much more interesting, compelling, and competent person than the media gave her credit for” and compiled The Quotable Rogue: The Ideals of Sarah Palin in Her Own Words. However, McCain recently admitted that he regrets picking her as his running mate. What effect did Palin have on the growth of anti-intellectualism on the right?
Lewis: A lot. First of all, when I edited that book, it was 2009. She's said a lot of dumb things since 2009. Palin actually regressed. But at the time, they needed the game change. This is a woman who had an 86 percent approval rating as Governor of Alaska. She gave a great speech at the Republican National Convention. She held her own against Joe Biden in a debate. And I did find that she was much more eloquent than she got credit for early on.
Since then, she actually has gotten worse. She got more populist and her rhetoric became even more dumbed down, populist, and nationalist. She became radicalized. Her experience with the media, with what Tina Fey did to her; instead of Palin saying "I need to bone up on the issues, go back to Alaska, and be a good governor," she decided to become a reality star and doubled down on the folksy shtick. That was a choice. I do think that she ultimately helped pave the way for Trumpism and the party’s anti-intellectual strain.
She also introduced the politics of victimhood, complaining about the media like “Little ol' me, I'm a victim,” which I don't like and find to be un-conservative. Her record of endorsing candidates is very mixed. Some people like Rubio and Kelly Ayotte turned out to be very good. And then people like Ted Cruz I'm not as big a fan of. Ironically, she helped create a generation of competitors who surpassed her. There was a time when she was the young, interesting, controversial conservative and now she's utterly irrelevant.
Gate: In 2013, you wrote that “For Christians, political involvement has a way of breaking bad. The real danger is that over time, it has a coarsening effect, and that our political ranks and church pews alike will be filled full of Walter Whites who will do anything to achieve their goals. They are wise as serpents, but no longer innocent as doves. For what shall it profit a man if he should win the election, but lose his soul?" What do you think about that paragraph now knowing how the evangelical vote went in 2016?
Lewis: I think I was totally right. While I’ve been here at the IOP, we’ve talked a lot about this tension around whether people of faith should be involved in politics. On one hand, if they're not then who will be. A lot of good has come from people of faith being involved in politics, but by the same token, politics is corrupting. It's very hard to maintain your principles and your values. John McCain always used to say it's hard “trying to do the Lord's work in the city of Satan.” Of the people who joined the Christian right in the 80s and 90s, I don't know that they got that much out of it. DC probably changed them more than they changed DC.
Gate: In this column, you write that younger Christians aren’t getting involved in politics because they see how their parents' generation has become corrupted by it.
Lewis: That's true at least on the right. The children of Christian conservatives are more likely to say “Look, I'm not going to be hyper partisan. I'm an independent. I'm gonna go help in Africa and fight AIDS.” Or, “I'm gonna go on a mission here. I'm going to go to Haiti. I'm going to do the Lord's work, but I'm not going to be co-opted by the Republican Party.”
Gate: But honing in on that last sentence: “For what shall it profit a man, if he should win the election but lose his soul?” Those profits: Neil Gorsuch, tax cuts, the embassy in Jerusalem, so it seems that they did make that wager.
Lewis: It may have profited the party, but I don't know about individually. If you lose your soul, that's it. That's an awfully big price to pay for a Supreme Court justice.
Gate: Let’s turn back the clock. Had Trump lost, what would you have written?
Lewis: I try not to let that cloud my judgment, but had he lost, it would have definitely been good for me personally because my thesis would have been confirmed. But, remember, the book's called “Too Dumb to Fail” and the Republican Party did not fail. So, technically, the title of my book is correct. For years I've been playing this Cassandra role, warning people that we need to modernize or else we're going to be a Republican Party in trouble. Nothing that happened changed that. It's a simplistic argument to say that because we won this election, the many broad trends and themes that I write about are debunked. But clearly that's what you would want to do if you were a Trump supporter.
Gate: Had Trump lost, Ted Cruz and his part of the party would likely have said that he wasn't conservative enough. At the same time, the more moderate wing would have said he was too extreme. Which side do you think would have won out?
Lewis: I reject the moderate versus conservative premise although I understand what you're saying. There was a big debate between let's say Rubio and Cruz about the party’s guiding principles. I might even argue that Marco Rubio is more conservative than Ted Cruz in some ways but I do think that we were deprived of this fight. And because we never got to have that fight, it's unsettled. If we had had that fight and somebody won and somebody lost, there might have been some kind of catharsis. We never got to have that and that's bad.
Gate: Jumping ahead, do you think there will be a primary challenge to Trump in 2020?
Lewis: Somebody will run, but I don't think you're going to get anybody legitimate. There's a possibility that someone like John Kasich will run, but he won't win anything if he tries. There's no constituency outside of Ohio for him. You're not going to get a Ben Sasse or a Marco Rubio. They're not going to do it. If Trump wants to be the Republican nominee, he'll be the Republican nominee.
Gate: What issues would a primary challenger need to focus on in order to win over primary voters?
Lewis: The problem is it's mission impossible. If I were advising a challenger, the plan would not be to win. The only reason you would run would be to make a name for yourself and run as a sacrificial lamb but do it in a way where you could gain a base of support for later when you actually could win.
Gate: In order for your vision of the Republican Party to prevail, is a sacrificial lamb needed to keep the flame alive?
Lewis: Parties do change. At one point, George W. Bush was wildly popular with the base and now the base likes Trump. Is it possible, ten or fifteen years from now, there will be a completely different brand or flavor? Absolutely. So, how can you preserve your integrity and not be tarnished by Trump but also not be in a position of calling his voters dumb and stupid because you're going to need some of those voters if and when they ever change their mind and reject Trumpism. It's really like threading the needle.
The danger of running against Trump is what if he loses the general. Then, Trump and his supporters could blame you and say that you sabotaged the election. In a way, if Trump is going to lose, it's better for him to not have any excuses. What you hope would happen is if Trump loses then Trumpism is discredited and people start looking for who still has credibility. If you play the spoiler, you'd hear Sean Hannity non-stop: “Trump would have won if it weren't for Ben Sasse costing us the election!”
The featured image is courtesy of the author.
Brett Barbin is a third-year Public Policy and Political Science double-major, interested in American history, geography, and political rhetoric. Last year, he served as the Deputy Political Director for Senator Mark Kirk’s reelection campaign and previously acted as a research intern for the Michael Smerconish Program. On campus, Brett is the secretary of College Republicans and a member of the Political Union. He enjoys exploring Chicago, collecting books, and reading way too much into public opinion polls.