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tv   Firing Line With Margaret Hoover  PBS  November 16, 2018 11:30pm-12:01am PST

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>> midway through his s first term, has president donald trump successfully hijacked the conservative movement? never-trumper max boot, this week on "firing line." >> "firing line with margaret hoover" is made possible by... corporate funding is provided by... >> max boot is a national-security analyst, historian, and writer who's advised military commanders and republican presidential candidates alike. he was first drawn to public policy and politics by the sunny, optimistic conservatism
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of ronald reagan. but donald trump's behavior shocked him so much that he abandoned the movement in which he has spent his entire adult life. and now a man without a party, he is a leading and vocal never-trumper. last week, he called on voters to repudiate the republican party up and down the ballot during the 2018 midterm elections. max boot, welcome to "firing line." >> delighted to be here, margaret. >> your opinion editorial in the washington post last week was entitled "vote against all republicans, every single one." why'd you make that argument? >> because i don't see much difference now between donald trump and the republican party. and what i've seen happen the last couple of years is that he has transformed the republican party into his image. this is not the republican party that i grew up with in the 1980s, which was sunny, optimistic, inclusive, pro-immigration. this is something much darker and much more threatening. it's really a nationalist party. donald trump has said he's a
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nationalist. and he has essentially rebranded the entire republican party as nationalist, and you've seen, in the midterm campaign, the way they ran a campaign of vilifying immigrants, of fomenting bigotry against minorities. this is not a republican party that i could possibly support, and the entire republican party is complicit with what donald trump has done. and so i think it was imperative for the entire republican party to pay a price for what he is doing to our country and our politics. >> there are some members of congress who don't support the president, who don't support his agenda, who go to great ends to, on a pretty consistent basis, disassociate themself from his rhetoric and from his policies. now, there aren't many, i grant you that. but there are a couple, and some of them survived, but some of them didn't. >> right. >> so, why punish them? >> well, i'm not looking to punish them. if there was some way to leave the moderate republicans and then take out the more objectionable members, like steve king and devin nunes, that would be great, but,
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unfortunately, political reality doesn't work that way. so i think if you're gonna send a message to donald trump, you simply had to vote against republicans. and the reality is -- even though there are more moderate republican members who are uneasy with what donald trump is doing, almost none of them -- in fact, pretty much close to zero -- have stood up consistently to donald trump. >> do you think that message got through? >> the midterm elections did not achieve what i hoped to achieve. i mean, they achieved part of what i wanted to achieve, which was to create a check and balance on donald trump, which you get from the democrats taking control of the house. but the elections are not going to separate donald trump from the republican party. in fact, the linkage is tighter than ever, because he has a narrative that he can sell to republicans, that he helped them to pick up senate seats, he helped them to pick up gubernatorial races, and that his kind of demagogic politics actually works. and so a lot of republicans will believe that. they're already imitating his style of campaigning. i think you're gonna see more of that in the next two years. >> my view is -- we would have a chance for building a robust party that sponsors the kind of
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ideas that i think you and i are more apt to agree on if some of those moderates survived. >> well, maybe so, but what i've see happening in the last couple of years is that the moderates have become very quiet. they have not become vocal in the republican party. even those who have objected to trump have not really tried to stop him in congress. and so you can say that maybe, you know, the moderates are not gonna come to the fore out of a defeat, but they're certainly not gonna come out to the fore out of a victory for the trumpified republican party. >> what's the takeaway for you from 2018, from these elections? do you think the party is more trumpified than ever? and what does that mean for the next two years? or do you think now there is a democratic house of representatives, this creates maybe a check on the president, but it also creates a villain for him to point to. >> absolutely. i think all of that is true. i think the republican party is more trumpified. i think that there is a check on president trump, which i think is a good thing for the health of our republic. but in the battles to come over the next couple of years between trump and the congress, you're
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gonna see trump and the gop interwound even more closely together, because they're gonna be allies in the battle against the democrats in the house. and so i think the big trend here is that donald trump owns the republican party lock, stock, and barrel. there is no independent republican party. there is no powerful conservative movement in america. there is only trump and trumpism. >> okay. so, that gets us to your book... >> yes. >> ..."the corrosion of conservatism." >> yes. >> and i think, for the benefit of our viewers, i think it's important to ground you and locate you in the conservative movement, because you were introduced to conservatism through national review and your father introducing you to that magazine when you were in your teens. >> right. >> i didn't know that you were the son of russian jewish immigrants to this country. >> and, in fact, i was born in russia, in 1969. we came here in 1976, when i was 6 years old. and i grew up in l.a., in southern california, in reagan country back then. and, naturally, being an émigré from a communist country, i was
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drawn to the most anti-communist political movement in america, which was the republican party. and i really thrilled to ronald reagan and his moral clarity when he talked about the evil empire and said, "mr. gorbachev, tear down this wall." that was a lot of what made me a republican, but also the fact that my father did, as you mentioned, give me a subscription to national review when i was age 13 and the fact that, you know, i read george will. i read bill buckley. i watched "firing line." i mean, this was part of how i became a conservative was watching the original incarnation of "firing line." i feel like, in tribute to bill buckley, i should be really, you know, slouching in my chair, like this, because i have that image in my head so vividly of how he would slouch in that chair and uncork these devastating witticisms. and, to me, you know, it's tragic what's happened to the conservative movement, because it's been a pretty straight descent from bill buckley to sean hannity. >> first of all, you were at the wall street journal editorial page, which was really the central sort of think-space and intellectual publication of
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the conservative movement when you were there. and a tribalism developed around the conservative movement whereby you would toe the party line from time to time. and i wonder if you can explain what you mean by that. >> well, there is a very powerful pressure to conform when you're part of a political movement, and i certainly never said or did anything that i disagreed with in the days when i was a "movement conservative," but, certainly, when i had doubts about elements of the movement, about, you know, whether it made sense to oppose all gun controls, even though ronald reagan himself, for example, had supported a ban on assault weapons, or whether it made sense to deny the climate science, i didn't speak out about that because i didn't see that as being my job. it wasn't my lane. i kind of had my head down. i did the national-security stuff. i don't have to agree with everybody. i mean, i've always been a social liberal, for example, and, obviously, there are a lot of social conservatives in the republican party i didn't agree with, but i thought that was fine. it was kind of a big tent. but now, in hindsight, i realize that i was blind to a lot of
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very troubling developments that i wish i had spoken about earlier. >> the reason i ask you about it is because i really identified with that statement. i ran into it myself in my own early, budding conservative career, because i'll remind you, you know, there was this term rino, republican in name only. >> i'm not even a rino anymore, 'cause i'm not even a republican in name. >> but a rino is a republican in name only. and i was outcast as a rino very early in my career because i supported an unorthodox social position. i was an advocate for lgbtq equality. and so that's where i began to see a corrosiveness and i began to identify that there was a corrosiveness in the movement that didn't have the ability to apply a set of principles, individual freedom evenly or at least tangle with it internally and figure out how it's going to meet the needs of a rising generation and maybe adopt its principles in a way that's gonna make a political movement more viable. >> right. and part of what drew me, margaret, to the republican party in the 1980s was, at that time, it was seen as the party of ideas. it had intellectuals, people like charles krauthammer and
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george will and irving kristol and bill buckley and people who were willing to engage with ideas and to debate. i mean, i really enjoyed that. and i feel like, in the decades since, we've really lost that. the republican party became a place that valued conformity, rather than debate, and they essentially chased out all the dissenters so that there would be no disagreement within their ranks. and i think that's the road that led to donald trump. >> well, so, let me ask you a question. you were advising marco rubio in his presidential campaign. would you have left the party were it not for donald trump or did you think that there were problems with the conservative movement prior to donald trump? >> i thought there were problems, certainly, before donald trump. i mean, i was troubled by the behavior of people like newt gingrich, sarah palin, the tea party. i thought there was a kind of absolutist ethos, take no prisoners, and an unwillingness to compromise or to achieve results. but i'll be honest with you -- i would not have left if it had not been for donald trump. that was the shock i needed to make a major change in my life and to walk out of the republican party.
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and once i did that, i realized, "oh, wait a second. there was all this other really disturbing stuff that i kind of turned a blind eye to in the name of movement solidarity." >> because one of the lines you use in your book is that donald trump stormed the castle. and it's my view that parts of the movement were corroded enough already that he walked in the front door. >> oh, absolutely. i mean, he did not come out of nowhere. there were a lot of trends that allowed him to do what he did. and in my book, i trace it back all the way to the birth of the modern conservative movement, in the 1950s, and looking back on it with a more skeptical eye than i had in the past, i realized there was a lot of racism. there was a lot of xenophobia. there were a lot of conspiracy mongerings, a lot of irrationalism that was there at the heart of the movement all along. the difference is that i think there was an attempt by people like bill buckley and george will and ronald reagan and many others to consign those trends to the fringe of the movement and to try to govern in a more responsible fashion.
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and, essentially, what donald trump has done is -- he's taken the fringe and made it mainstream. >> i think you're right that people like william f. buckley, while early in the movement, had, certainly, strange bedfellows, to say the least. >> and buckley himself took some stances that he was not proud of in later life, i think. >> and that he was not proud of in later life, but that he corrected pretty early. in fact, i want to show you a clip from an original "firing line," in 1968, where william f. buckley is doing exactly what you just said. he is taking on george wallace, the segregationist governor of alabama, and pushing that pro-segregationist viewpoint to the side of the conservative movement. here in this clip, he's talking about populism and conservatism. let's take a look. >> great.
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>> buckley goes on to call wallace an imposter. he calls out his racism. and later in his life, buckley looked back and he said, "expelling the cooks, conspiracy theorists, racists, bigots, and anti-semites from the movement was one of his proudest achievements. >> that's exactly right. and, unfortunately, that expulsion was not permanent. they have come crawling back. and if you think about historical antecedents for donald trump, it's hard to find any in terms of u.s. presidents, but there are some figures in american history, and the one that i would point to is george wallace. i mean, donald trump has just run, i would say, the most openly racist political campaign in america since the days of george wallace. and both trump and wallace said that they were populists, that they were channeling the will of the people, but they also tried to take over a conservative movement, something that bill buckley and others prevented from happening in the 1960s. and, unfortunately, right now, the conservative movement is defenseless before donald trump.
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>> there are places in the conservative movement, pockets of it, it seems to me, that at least have carved out a safe space for themselves to still stand for the ideas that the modern american conservative movement stood for. i mean, do you buy that argument? >> oh, of course. i mean, there are some holdouts and there are some pockets of principled conservatism left, and then there are, you know, the never-trump conservatives, all dozen or so of us. >> that's all it was, though, when buckley started the movement, too. i mean, the movement started small. >> right. but it then influenced the entire republican party. >> over the course of 30 years. >> right. and that message became the dominant message with ronald reagan, with george w. bush. that became the republican establishment. and now the republican party, essentially, has become a nationalist, populist movement which has very little in common with the kd of conservative ideas that folks like bill buckley championed in the past. >> are there any ideas that are sort of inherently conservative and consistent with those buckley ideas that are worth defending now? >> well, of course. i mean, i still believe in a lot of the basic principles of conservatism, of preserving
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individual liberty, fighting for the american role in the world, standing up for free trade, smaller government at home. >> why not stay in the movement and sort of fight from it from within? >> well, i'm fighting for those principles. i don't necessarily need to be part of a broad movement, because i don't think there's much of a movement to be part of. i mean, you're talking -- you know, you're really talking never-trump conservatives, and, you know, as i like to say, there's enough of us for a dinner party, not a political party. >> is it your view -- and i ask you this because you have a very personal tie to soviet russia. is it possible that it was the unraveling and the fall of the soviet union that actually was the beginning of the end of the modern american conservative movement? >> i think you can certainly make that case. there's no question that anti-communism was the glue that bound disparate factions of the american right together. and then once you took that glue away, they went off in various different directions. and i think it was after the fall of communism that you saw the emergence of this noxious populism. for example, the rise of fox news, which i think is one of the most destructive
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developments in modern political history. the rise of newt gingrich, with his scorched-earth style of politics. then the rise of sarah palin. the rise of the tea party. these are all way stations on the road that has given us donald trump. and, yes, it all happened since the end of the cold war. >> to the extent that there is a direct line -- at least your argument is that there's a direct line between donald trump and george wallace, and you have an emergent and ascendent populism, both in this country but also abroad. how do you fight populism here in the united states if the republican party is squarely behind donald trump? >> well, that's why i'm urging everybody to vote against republicans, because i think it has become the nationalist, populist party. >> but it didn't work. >> well, you know, it worked in part. the republicans lost control of the house, and donald trump is gonna be in a world of pain as house democrats start issuing subpoenas. republican politicians have shown they do not have principles. all they have is poll numbers. and until the poll numbers start to change, until they see that hitching their wagon to donald trump is not a good idea, from the standpoint of political
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survival, nothing is going to change until that happens. >> except that hitching their wagon to donald trump, from the standpoint of political survival, ensures their political survival. >> yeah. that's why they're doing it. >> i mean, with the economy at 3.7%, with wage growth at 3.1% in the last year, the highest in 49 years, i mean -- >> but despite all that, the republicans lost the house, because a lot of people in this country are disgusted with what donald trump is doing. >> not exactly, but if you look by historic proportions, president obama lost the house by much more two years into his presidency. it was far more of a repudiation of -- >> i wish there had been a greater repudiation of trump than actually occurred. i agree. and he clearly has a demagogic touch. he's clearly a master salesman. he knows how to sell fear and hate and division. he's very successful at it. >> is it possible that it wasn't all fear and hate and division? i mean, is it possible that there are some benefits of a bad man that had some decent policies or at least some policies that he could sell to the electorate? >> well, i often hear trump defenders making that argument in the republican party, and
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they will point to things like the judges and the strong economy and the tax cuts, and that's all true. but did donald trump campaign on those issues? no, he did not. he did not run a morning-in-america campaign. he ran a midnight-in-america campaign. he ran attacking this caravan of poor central american refugees, claiming it's full of thugs and possibly terrorists, claiming it's funded by george soros. >> so, what do you do about that? because it appears that it worked. >> i know. it's deeply disturbing what that says about america. but you can't give up. you have to keep fighting. and looking at the way people voted, a majority of the country is opposed to donald trump. a majority of the country is disgusted with donald trump. but he has very strong support among the republican base, and especially in red states, that's all he needs. >> how does the populism in the united states interface with the ascendent populism in europe? >> well, it's very similar, which is very disturbing. i mean, i am one of those people who's always believed in american exceptionalism.
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i always believed it can't happen here. this is the kind of thing that happens in countries like germany or italy. and, somehow, america is immune from this ideological plague. and it turns out that we're not, because there's very similar forces at play here. >> but the consequences of that ideological plague are really different in a continent that has millennia-old hatreds. is there a risk at inflaming and igniting the populism in europe without understanding actually how dangerous and how much of a tinderbox europe can be? >> well, it is a huge danger, but i don't think we should be complacent about the united states. i mean, let's remember that we had the civil war, in which over 600,000 americans died. we had the violence of the civil rights movement. we have our own checkered history to overcome, and we shouldn't be complacent and imagine that the horrors that have unfolded in europe can't possibly happen here. i mean, we're very lucky in that we have a much more stable liberal republic with a much longer constitutional tradition than is the case in almost any
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country in europe. but we're seeing a lot of the same kind of forces at play here as you see there. and i think what donald trump has done is -- he is redefining american conservatism in blood-and-soil terms, so making it much closer to the kind of chauvinistic conservatism you've always had in europe and very different from the kind of more classical liberal conservatism that you've had in the united states. >> you write about the guardrails in the american political tradition. and you say that trump has not imposed fascism, as many like you had feared. you really fear that trump would impose fascism? >> i think what we've seen in the almost two years of his presidency is that there are checks and balances within our system, whether it's now from congress, in the past, from the judiciary, from the press, from civil servants, preventing him from acting on his worst instincts. and i do believe that his worst instincts are very similar to those of dictators in other places. but we're very lucky in that we
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have a much more robust legal tradition to prevent the president from acting on those worst impulses. >> does that give you faith in our institutions? is it checks and balances? >> it does give me faith in our institutions, but i also realize that donald trump is corroding those institutions. i see him chipping away at the rule of law, for example, with his assaults on the justice department, now culminating in the forced resignation of attorney general jeff sessions. and that's all about the fact that donald trump does not want to be investigated for possible collusion between his campaign and russia. this is a shocking assault on the norms of american democracy, and republicans have been enablers for this. >> one thing you say in your book -- that you had an awakening to maybe a latent racism that was in the united states that maybe had embedded itself in the conservative movement and you hadn't been aware of before. do you think that the republican party was subtly racist or do you think that
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donald trump has embodied a new racism that he's allowed to sort of flourish within the context of the party? >> i think donald trump has exposed a racism that was there all along, because he expresses it in terms that are not remotely subtle. now, i used to be one of these people who was in denial. as a good republican, when liberals would say the republican party is dog-whistling to racists, i thought that was horrible libel. i thought that was untrue. i said, "i'm not a racist. my friends aren't racist. what are you talking about?" and then, in 2016, donald trump ran this nakedly racist, xenophobic campaign, and i couldn't deny it anymore. and because i could not deny what donald trump was doing, it made me realize, "wait a second. he didn't invent these sentiments. he didn't suddenly call into being this population of republican voters who thrill to that kind of of rhetoric. it must have been there all along." and i realized, looking back, yeah, i mean, there was plenty of evidence of it -- you know, for example, the southern strategy of richard nixon. i mean, there's a lot of antecedents to this.
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and i was really in denial about what the republican party was doing. >> but they were never mainstreamed like they've been mainstreamed now. and so is it possible that they were fringe elements of the party, rather than this hidden mainstream part of the party? >> i think that they were always a significant constituency of the republican party, but people like me chose not to recognize that. and i think that republican politicians played a game. they appealed to that constituency at election time. even good, decent people, like george h.w. bush, without a racist bone in his body, nevertheless ran the willie horton ad, but then he governed in a completely different way. he did not govern in the way that you would expect from somebody who ran the willie horton ad. and i think that caused a cognitive dissonance for a lot of republican voters. they felt that they had been two-timed, because a lot of these republican campaigns had led them to expect one kind of leader, and, instead, they got another which was much more moderate. >> where does the never-trump movement go? >> probably to a bar for some heavy drinking. >> for some heavy drink? no, but for you, i mean, does being never-trump mean reflexively being against
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everything that trump stands for or is it possible to still separate and detach some of his policy achievements? for example, if he were to return to the tpp and renegotiate it and make it a better deal. how do you, as a never-trumper, navigate sort of the policy outcomes versus the need to reflexively stand against donald trump? >> well, i don't have any problem agreeing with donald trump on certain issues. no president is gonna get everything 100% wrong, and he certainly has not. he's done things that i've agreed with, like moving the u.s. embassy in israel to jerusalem, for example. he's done a few other things. pulling out of the intermediate nuclear forces treaty, which i think was an antiquated accord. and, you know, i've said so. i'm willing to support him on individual stances, but that doesn't mean that he is, therefore, a good president, because my opposition to him goes beyond individual issues. it's about his lack of fitness for the office, the kind of moral tone he sets for the country, the kind of tactics he employs, the way that he runs down people weaker than himself,
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the way he demonizes the opposition and minority groups. i think he has been a very destructive president for america in ways that go way beyond any individual policy decision. >> what's your worst-case scenario for the next two years? >> well, my worst-case scenario is that democrats botch their opportunity to stand up to trump and they essentially become his foils and that he manages to caricature them as a bunch of socialists who are bent on the destruction of america and then uses their attacks on him against them and uses that as a way to win re-election. >> don't you see that happening? i mean, he's incredible at branding. he has nancy pelosi, who is his perfect foil. what are the odds you put that that doesn't happen? >> i think there's a pretty good chance of that happening, but what are you supposed to do? i mean, democrats have to stand up against them, but i think they have to be careful about how they're doing it. and i think nancy pelosi said something smart when she said, "we're not gonna rush into impeachment. we have to wait and see what bob mueller comes up with. in the meantime, we're gonna do other stuff." and i think that's exactly right, because blundering into impeachment right now would be
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playing into donald trump's hands. >> what is your most hopeful scenario for the next two years? >> well, my most hopeful scenario is that democrats will be relatively restrained in what they do and will use their subpoena power to uncover trump's scandals, that robert mueller will issue a report that will show wrongdoing on the part of trump and his campaign and that all of that will set the stage for a repudiation of trump in 2020, perhaps beginning with a serious primary challenge in the republican primaries. >> well, that's the most optimistic scenario i've heard yet, but thank you for coming to "firing line." >> it's a pleasure to be on. this has been my favorite show since i was knee-high to a tadpole. >> you and me both. >> "firing line with margaret hoover" is made possible by...
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