ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The politics of Donald Trump are not easily categorized. Unlike conservative congressional Republicans, he shows little interest in reforming Social Security and Medicare. His inaugural address today sounded populist themes, but his Cabinet and inner circle are dominated by movement conservatives, billionaires and generals. So what does his ascendancy mean for the conservative movement and for the Republican Party? We’re going to put those questions to Sam Tanenhaus – journalist, historian and author of the book “The Death Of Conservatism.” Welcome to the program once again.
SAM TANENHAUS: Great to be with you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Sam, what did you hear in Donald Trump’s inaugural address today that struck you?
TANENHAUS: This is I think the resurgence of Pat Buchanan-ism (ph). Pat Buchanan has emerged as the prophet and forerunner of a real economic nationalism on the right, and Donald Trump is now its tribune. This is not movement ideology which is all about limited government, the power of free markets and also internationally – globalism. And Donald Trump very clearly said America first. That is a traditional right wing, but also very isolationist. That takes us back to the era of the 1920s, when there were immigration restrictions, and also to the isolationism before World War II. Donald Trump descends in a very powerful way from longstanding tenets of American conservatism, they’re just not the movement conservatism we associate with Reagan.
SIEGEL: Well, there are movement conservatives in the House of Representatives for sure, and many in the Senate as well. And Republicans have majorities in both houses. In the contest between movement conservatism and what you hear from Donald Trump, what does history tell us? Who wins?
TANENHAUS: It comes down to polls. I’ve just been writing about another interesting conflict within the party between Dwight Eisenhower and Joseph McCarthy. And McCarthy was the tribune of the hard movement right, and Eisenhower was a more centrist figure. McCarthy was winning that battle until his poll numbers plunged. Donald Trump enters office with historically low approval ratings, that’s where the battle could get fought. If the country turns against him, his Republican adversaries could feel emboldened.
SIEGEL: So you think, in effect, he’s the underdog in this battle with, say, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan?
TANENHAUS: In many ways he is. In his great book the “Master Of The Senate” about Lyndon Johnson’s years as Senate majority leader, Robert Caro reminded us what the Constitution says – Congress shall make the laws. Paul Ryan and his allies, who include Mike Pence, are congressional conservative Republicans, they have a very clear conservative agenda. The question will be who has to bend more to accommodate the other – Mr. Trump accommodate their ideology, or will they have to accommodate his? And if he can rally audiences behind him, we could see a very interesting intra-party war of a kind we haven’t seen in a really long time.
SIEGEL: Last year when Donald Trump was doing very well, getting – winning the Republican nomination often with populist arguments, you wrote that he might be the man to save the Republican Party. Does the Republican Party see itself in need of saving?
TANENHAUS: That’s a great question – they don’t. The Republican – conservative Republican answer has always been when we lose it’s because we’re not ideological enough. If they lose midterm elections, that’s why. If Obama defeats McCain and then Mitt Romney, it’s because those two Republican candidates were not ideological enough.
Donald Trump actually broke that stranglehold of ideology not only by obliterating 16 other candidates, but defeating in particular their most articulate and attractive movement conservatives. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, maestros of Republican ideological talking points, Donald Trump took them apart in their own backyards. What that means is his brand of Republican politics, which isn’t ideologically conservative, might actually have a bigger broader constituency, and the party now seems to be aware of that, maybe even frightened of it.
SIEGEL: Does the rise of Donald Trump confirm the end or the beginning of the end for the conservative movement?
TANENHAUS: It signals the transformation of the American conservative movement into a subset of nationalism on the American right. Those strands have always been there. Donald Trump is drawing on those strands, and he might be able to reshape the Republican Party in that way. Paul Ryan is already now talking about a responsible nationalism, that’s his effort to sound more like Mr. Trump.
SIEGEL: Sam Tanenhaus, thanks for talking with us once again.
TANENHAUS: Always a pleasure.
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