BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. On Wednesday evening, a new character in Washington's endless dramedy entered center stage.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The Justice Department tonight naming the former FBI Director Robert Mueller special counsel to take over the investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The reaction from Breitbart, why no investigation of Obama, from the Daily Caller, Mueller made the FBI soft on radical Islam, from Rush Limbaugh, that whole Russia scandal was invented by Hillary Clinton. But the reaction from the conservative standard bearer, National Review, is Trump brought the special counsel investigation on himself. Indeed, as the popular right-wing media deflect reality’s grubby developments, the media of the intellectual right, such as the National Review, The Weekly Standard and Commentary grapple with the question of how, if at all, Trump's presidency can move the conservative agenda forward and what their role can be.
In a blog post last week, Commentary Associate Editor Noah Rothman lamented that the window in which real legislative achievements could be secured is closing rapidly. Noah, welcome to On the Media.
NOAH ROTHMAN: Thank you very much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, in the midst of this past week, rather than focus on Comey or Trump’s shared intelligence with Russia, much of the right-wing press seized on murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. Big news?
NOAH ROTHMAN: No. [LAUGHS]
This is not big news, unfortunately, and that is an outgrowth of an impulse on - I wouldn't call them the extreme right but I would them the pro-Trump right - to shift attention away from the presidency, which is just a defeating prospect. You cannot shift attention away from the presidency; it is all consuming. The thing about people who are like me and my colleagues who were Trump skeptical during the primaries and Trump skeptics, still, is that, you know, we’ve kind of come to terms with the fact that this is the presidency and, to the extent that he can be a vehicle to achieve conservative legislative achievements, he’s valuable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
NOAH ROTHMAN: To the extent that he becomes an obstacle to that, he is less valuable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So your evolution in the past 18 months, as you move from Trump skeptic to Trump – resigned –
- or perhaps Trump, the opportunity, I mean, where have you traveled?
NOAH ROTHMAN: Well, I consider myself still a Trump skeptic, I believe, in more ways than not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Mm-hmm.
NOAH ROTHMAN: But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn't approve of the things he's done which are conservative or valuable, I think, to American national interests, for example, the appointment of certain members to cabinet-level positions. I am not skeptical of Betsy DeVos, I am not skeptical of Mr. Pruitt, the EPA director. And the attack, for example, on the Assad regime targets, while that was short lived and I would prefer a longer campaign, was long overdue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that the door to consolidate conservatism is closing, that immigration reform, an infrastructure bill, an IRS reform bill, the border wall, passing a budget, this ambitious legislative agenda is already behind schedule. You tweeted on Thursday, “Conservatism is in crisis. Few now speak its assumptions, fearing their unpopularity in practice.”
NOAH ROTHMAN: Donald Trump ran for the presidency against conservatism, in a large way. He ran on a platform contending that it was heedless, that it was cruel, in fact, that people would be, quote, “dying in the streets” if we were to enact health care reform along the lines of what conservatives have promised that they’d do for quite some time. So we knew we had somebody who was skeptical towards conservatism but who, nevertheless, didn't have an ideology. So there was something of an opportunity there. There’s nothing that achieves something faster than not heeding ideology. Ideology stays your hand. Pragmatism demands means that justify ends. It doesn't matter –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
NOAH ROTHMAN: - really what those ends are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Republican Party believed that he could achieve things because he was a pragmatist but, in terms of ideology, he was tabula rasa and they could write that in?
NOAH ROTHMAN: Well, he could be gently guided in a direction that was a more conservative direction, because Donald Trump was elected as a sort of an anti-ideologue, with the whole apparatus of the Republican institution intact. All these Republicans who had been elected in 2010, 2014 ran on very conservative platforms, so they understood that perhaps they could put a lot of legislation in front of him that was conservative and he would put his signature to it because he needed wins. Wins were the objective and the Republican Congress would provide him with wins. It turns out that he’s rather addicted to drama and has a tendency to step on his own message, and he has tied the hands of Congress because he has thrown curveballs at them left and right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So make your case for the door being virtually closed.
NOAH ROTHMAN: Well, if they’re pursuing a budget reconciliation process, which is a maneuver whereby they don't need 60 votes to pass something, they got to do that before mid-June ‘cause the window closes. Then it reopens again in the autumn, where things are gonna be a lot more politically difficult because we’re closer to an election year. They need tax code reform in order to move on to all those other reforms that I talked about. And all that was supposed to happen by April. It just seems like we’re too far behind schedule now to really catch up, especially if we have a new FBI director who is going to have to get confirmed. When Jim Comey was fired, they were in the middle of a health care markup and that had to be stopped dead in the water because they had to respond to media inquiries. And yet, all we hear from this White House are things that reopen that investigation and make more news that absorb senators’ time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the Republican moment is already lost?
NOAH ROTHMAN: Yes. The Republican moment to achieve radical sweeping legislation to the tune of what Democrats achieved in the 111th Congress in 2009 and 2010 - financial reform, health care reform, the stimulus project - all those things that were passed by the 111th Congress, that's done. We’re not going to see anything like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, we've heard the word “impeachment” bandied about. Some people are even invoking the 25th Amendment. But you believe that essentially support for the GOP will crater if their party's leader is subject to that kind of censure, and you wrote that for Republicans the path of least resistance is to march sheepishly towards November, 2018, standing behind their party’s titular head, come what may, right?
NOAH ROTHMAN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what happens to conservatism then?
NOAH ROTHMAN: There was a very well-received New York Times opinion piece by a former radio host by the name of Charlie Sykes that addressed this issue. He said that conservatism has become sort of amorphous. There’s very little policy on the table. There’s very even little philosophy on the table. What we’re talking about now is a man, a very mercurial man, and whatever he does and whatever he happens to do, we feel the need to defend, if only because the people who are attacking him are people we don’t like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It sounds like you guys have a big problem.
NOAH ROTHMAN: Kind of corrupting. It is a problem. I wrote a piece for the June issue of Commentary, the print magazine, which tries to address what Charlie Sykes wrote in his column, that we’re not talking any issues, we’re just talking about a man, by talking about some issues – healthcare, national defense, the morality of a preemptive defense, the efficacy of incrementalism. Big comprehensive legislation is almost never comprehensive and it’s usually rife with unintended consequences – the variety of things that conservatives used to believe but have sort of forgotten.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pushing against the tide, to write about issues, rather than Trump, and you hoped that perhaps that would cross over to audiences beyond your customary one.
NOAH ROTHMAN: Pro-Trump conservative audiences. The idea is to re-acclimate people to a conservative worldview that they've otherwise forgotten in the rush to defend Trump against a media onslaught that, by the way, is excessive. I do try to tailor a message to make sure that people hear it who need to hear it, for example, an –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, yeah –
NOAH ROTHMAN: And this frustrated some of my friends on the left when they read a recent column by Erick Erickson, of The Resurgent, who had requested, against all odds, that Donald Trump consider resignation in order to get the ship on track. And he opened with a broadside against the liberal movement, the left, said, ohh, why can't we hear a column from the right that is just, without reservation or qualification, attacking Republicans? Why do they have to go after Democrats - so counterproductive? It’s not. You’re talking to a particular audience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that shows that you're one of the brethren; you're one of them.
NOAH ROTHMAN: Right, right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You look at conservatism now, you've got a, a fractious group of potential voters out there. You have a message that is being obscured by the - spectacle of this presidency, flashing lights all over the place. So, you know, what do you do to clarify your ideas, to build some unity among the constituency you’ll have to rely on to turn your priorities into policy?
NOAH ROTHMAN: No one is happy right now who’s honest, on the right. There’s a lot of people who are not being honest about how thrilled they are with this administration, but people who are, say, on my side are very frustrated. The alt-right is miserable. They are beside themselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why?
NOAH ROTHMAN: Because Donald Trump has not done anything he promised he would do. [LAUGHS] He has given up on border funding for the wall. There is no deportation force. The fact that he exercised his authority to execute strikes on Syria suggested to them the return of neoconservative foreign policy. The Atlantic asked for a quote from Ann Coulter during those strikes and she responded that she just couldn't, ‘cause she was just too depressed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
NOAH ROTHMAN: For now, the narrative framing in order to reach voters for whom no message gets through is as I'm trying to do it, which is to say, this is what you want, which is really conservative policy, and you need to express that [LAUGHS] to this presidency. The style and the false bravado that is Donald Trump is very attractive to the conservative movement that believes their representatives haven’t fought for their priorities, whatever those happen to be. And I –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it’s style, not the content.
NOAH ROTHMAN: I don't think there’s very much content there, when you get down to actual policy prescriptions. Again, look at the alt-right. The alt-right really was paying attention to policy. They weren’t just paying attention to affect. They wanted their views represented in Washington, and they didn't get it. They’re really frustrated by that. Anybody who's being honest, on the right, would express frustration with this presidency.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Noah, thank you very much.
NOAH ROTHMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Noah Rothman is the associate editor of Commentary, a conservative monthly.