Conservative op-ed columnist champions American exceptionalism

By RACHEL LU

President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 disrupted the country’s understanding of politics, conservatism and national identity. As a conservative op-ed columnist at The New York Times, Ross Douthat grapples with this disruption every day.

On Thursday, Oct. 17, Douthat joined moderator and former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas on campus in a discussion titled “Conservatism After Trump: Reaganism Restored or Populism Forever?” as part of the Alexander Hamilton Forum. 

Douthat began his talk by describing the modern conservative movement, which he said is rooted in an understanding of American exceptionalism. Douthat defined American exceptionalism as a set of qualities and ideologies that sets this country apart from other nations. He included on this list competing religiosity, commercial culture, suspicion for a centralized government, communitarianism and a mission of liberty. In Douthat’s opinion, these are the elements that modern conservatism should seek to preserve.

“Those exceptional qualities have sustained our society and enabled our republic to flourish, and therefore, while allowing reforming change, they’re qualities worth defending and trying to preserve in changing times,” Douthat said at the talk.

In the last 20 years, however, Douthat said that American life has continued to defeat conservative belief by becoming less “exceptional.” In his mind, this stems from an increasing secularization of American life, a diminishing dependence on communalism, a recession from peak capitalism and a skepticism toward foreign missionaries. More importantly, according to Douthat, a decline in anti-government sentiments has led to a rise of socialism and populism.

According to Douthat, it was Trump’s understanding of this shift away from American exceptionalism that has allowed him to move the Republican Party away from both its politicians and intellectuals. Trump saw that everyday Republicans no longer cared about defending these exceptionalism, but simply finding a voice in a liberal trending community.

“If you look at the other Republican politicians running for president, there is always a sense that what worked for Ronald Reagan in 1980 will work again in 21st century America,” Douthat said. “Trump is none of that. There is the spectacle of him on the debate stage saying things that are not conservative. He didn’t care. Enough Republican voters didn’t care about these orthodoxies either.”

Douthat offered a distinction between conservatism and reactionism, two fields of thought on the right that he believes are often conflated. He defined conservative policy as one that is confident in its ability to endure despite dramatic changes, and a reactionary policy as one in defensive after defeat has already occurred. Douthat believes that globally, the conservative right has abandoned a conservative era for a reactionary one.

According to Douthat, Trump brought a different perspective to the party that spoke to the reactionary era.

However, Douthat believes that Trump’s style of populism has been politically unsuccessful in furthering traditionally populist goals. In other words, Trump’s spontaneous approach to politics does not allow him to fulfill his lofty promises, resulting in the Republican administration’s repeat of a typical conservative agenda.

“He has failed to build the larger support you need for populism, failed to transform the upper echelon of the Republican party that brings it in line with what a populist agenda would be,” Douthat said. “He’s likely to lose re-election, because there is no sustained agenda building of any sort.”

Looking into the future, Douthat hypothesized that some Republicans are expecting to return to a traditional Reagan-era conservative agenda post-Trump. However, in Douthat’s opinion, American conservatism can no longer re-live Reaganism, because the American exceptionalism that existed when Douthat came of age as a conservative no longer exist today.

Donovan Compton ’23, who attended the talk, thought it was interesting to hear from a conservative who does not support Trump. While Compton said his political beliefs do not align with Douthat’s, he felt he was able to learn about the future of conservatism from a different perspective.

“I have friends who didn’t go to the event simply because of the topic,” Compton said. “Politics is not about only hearing one side of the story, but finding a happy medium to have a policy we all agree on. It is important for everyone to be educated on both sides.”

Political Science Professor Keegan Callanan organized the event. Callanan said he was impressed by Douthat’s extensive reading of Alexis de Tocqueville in shaping his view of the current political atmosphere.

“Mr. Douthat writes a twice-weekly column for the New York Times. He often uses these columns to explain the conservative movement to readers and, of course, to criticize elements of the movement,” Callanan said. “He possesses a historical sense that is fairly uncommon in newspaper columnists.”