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Interviews

An Interview with Jennifer Rubin, Journalist and Political Commentator

Jennifer Rubin is a journalist who covers politics and policy from a right-of-center perspective for The Washington Post, where she writes the “Right Turn” blog. Famous for her criticisms of Donald Trump and the Republican Party in recent years, Rubin stands out as a prominent conservative voice guided by her principles. Now without a home in either major American political party, in her commentary Rubin frequently explores the importance of American values and traditions as well as what it means to be conservative in America today.

The Politic: So before you were a journalist and wrote the “Right Turn” blog, you practiced law for a number of years. What made you decide to become a journalist, and how does your background as a lawyer inform your politics?

Jennifer Rubin: I’ll answer the second part of that first. I think it informs my writing in a variety of ways. One is that a lot of politics is law: it’s constitutional law, and it’s looking at statutes, and it’s the making of and enforcing of law, and that certainly indicates that a law background is helpful. But I think in another way, the law also prepared me in terms of my skill set: the ability to make an argument, gather facts, interview people, shape an argument. So I think in many many ways it was the perfect background for what I’m doing, and quite frankly, I got to it sort of by happenstance. I was a practicing lawyer in Los Angeles, we moved cross-country for family reasons, I took it up on a lark, and I found out that I really really liked it, so I began freelancing. Then I was at the magazine Commentary for a few years, and later at The Washington Post where I am now.

You’re most famous, I think, for your position as a conservative “Never Trumper” and as a general critic of today’s GOP when you feel like the party makes the wrong choices. While many find your consistency refreshing, I’m sure you have faced criticisms for this from both the left and the right. I’d love to hear more about why you think more conservatives would ultimately rather toe the Republican Party line than stay true to conservative principles.

I think many people would turn on a dime. There are people who want access, there are people who want to be in office, there are people who want power, who want to be elected, who want jobs in the government, and Washington is not necessarily a place where the independent of heart go. The reason why the late John McCain was a maverick was because he stood out for his intellectual and personal independence: that’s a rare quality, and it’s much easier in Washington and among political operatives to simply go along. Your livelihood depends on it, your circle of friends is often tied to one particular party, so it’s disappointing, but perhaps not all that surprising.

I think there’s also been a little bit of a Faustian bargain that’s been made. Conservatives who wanted conservative judges got those judges. Republicans wanted a tax cut plan, they got a tax cut plan. And as a result, they have overlooked, or even made excuses for, a whole raft of behavior, rhetorical comments, as well as actions, that are simply not in the conservative tradition. They’re not in the American tradition, and I find that very unfortunate.

In your opinion, do you think it’s worth it that these politicians have strayed from what you call the “American tradition” and the “conservative tradition” in order to implement a new tax plan and get the judges they want on the court?

No, I feel very strongly that it’s a very poor choice. I think tax plans come and go, and even judges come and go, as there will be other judges. The most fundamental thing that we have as Americans is a commitment to the rule of law, to our constitution, to our democracy, to the notion of an inclusive, multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial democracy. When you give up that, you really have given up everything.

And it really doesn’t matter, quite frankly, what the top marginal tax rate is if you have a president who is behaving in a lawless way, or a president that acts in such an impetuous way that he begins trade wars with other countries. The rule of law doesn’t matter much, no matter whom you appoint to the Supreme Court, if the president himself doesn’t understand that the president is subject to the same laws that the rest of us are. When the president attacks the courts, when the president tries to undercut the sanctity of elections, I think it’s a very bad choice in the long run, and it will not inure to [these politicians’] benefit. Part of what we saw in the Midterms was a repudiation of, if not necessarily that aspect of Trumpism, then at least sartorial behavior that has gone along with it.

And we also saw it before the election that those sorts of behaviors and that sort of rhetoric can have calamitous implications. We had the murder of 11 innocent people in Pittsburgh, we have seen that hate crimes are up 17%, anti-Semitic crimes are up 37%, and that does flow from a tone that’s set at the top. I think it’s been a very disastrous choice for them and for the Republican Party, but more importantly for the country.

So, to talk more about the Midterm Elections, here at Yale, like at most other colleges, campus is overwhelmingly liberal. I think a lot of my classmates were expecting to see a “Big Blue Wave” as a protest to President Trump, but I don’t think that the only kind of protest we could see to Donald Trump would be a response of just toeing the Democratic Party line. What is a conservative to do in the Age of Donald Trump when they cannot find a home in the GOP but don’t want to vote for Democrats either?

That’s an excellent question, and it’s a dilemma that a lot of people are wrestling with right now. One thing they can do is stand up for those principles that they hold dear. We’ve just seen that George Conway, who’s a very respected conservative lawyer who was and is still a member of the Federalist Society, has formed a new group which he calls Checks and Balances. The group’s aim is to defend those conservative legal principles that he thinks the administration is trampling on. And that’s a very principled way of showing that the way forward is not with Donald Trump. George, I believe, likes the Supreme Court appointments, but that’s not enough, and it’s incumbent upon the party from which this president came to be the ones defending its principles and calling for some checks and balances, as George’s group puts it, on the court.

Everyone is going to have to make their own choices. Some people will choose on a selective basis to vote for Democratic candidates. There’s a lot of talk about a third-party run by someone like John Kasich, there are groups of people who are working very strenuously within the Republican Party to turn the tide. There’s a group called Republicans for the Rule of Law which has run ads and has done advocacy in support of the special counsel and in opposition to the appointment of Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. So I think there are a lot of different ways that conservatives can go about this, and I think it’s up to each one to figure out what is the most effective way, and what is the most principled way.

But I do think this is an unusual time in America’s history. I think people will look back on this time and ask “What did you do to help bolster democracy? What did you do to protect the rule of law and to make sure that we are a tolerant, inclusive American society?” There’s no shortage of ways by which people can do that, whether it’s marketing or whether it’s volunteering for certain type of organization that you think is doing good work, or whether it’s running for office yourself at whatever level of government. If there’s one thing that we can learn from the Trump presidency, it’s that democracy demands the active citizenry. Given the number of people who turned out for the Midterms, we can see that that aspect has increased, and that’s perhaps a silver lining.

When Richard Nixon was president, Watergate was a huge scandal, and many Americans were concerned that it would taint our democracy, and more specifically forever ruin the office of the presidency. But the Republican Party was able to recover from Watergate, and in the next decade we saw the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a president many consider to have brought about a “golden age” of conservative leadership and thinking. How likely do you think it is that the Republican Party can bounce back again in a similar fashion following President Trump’s legacy?

That’s a very good point. We tend to think that whatever time period we’re in is going to last forever, and it lasts forever until it doesn’t. Who would have thought the Republicans would be the party of big deficits, trade protectionism, and the like? So I do suppose that with time, parties do change, but I think in this case it’s really been such a fundamental betrayal of principle and ethical responsibility. There would have to be a sea change, and perhaps there will be over time, in order for the Republican Party to reconstitute itself and regain the trust of the American people.

People do change, and people do retire from politics at a rather brisk pace these days because being a politician has its drawbacks certainly. So I could conceive that in less than a generation new people and viewpoints come into being, which is a really important reason why Trump and the people who support him should lose. It is not only until this president, but this philosophy, fails that I think Republicans will feel like they have to change and atone for their bad choices and behaviors. And that’s a very good reason why a lot of Republicans this time around have said “listen, vote for the Democrats! It’s the only way to save the Republican Party.” George Will, for example, took that position.

So like the horrible, horrible forest fires in California, new life grows from the destruction of the old. My hope would be that the era of Trump passes as quickly and as painlessly as possible, and that the people who participated in it either leave politics or rethink their views. After all, the millennial generation, your generation, is the largest of any generation to reach voting age, and they’re going to have choices to make themselves. Whether the old Republican Party is the one to survive, whether the Trump Republican Party is to survive, whether it’s something else that defines itself as the Republican Party comes about, we’ll have to see and that will be the choice of voters.

The important thing, and I’ve heard more Democrats say this than I could have imagined, is that we have a vibrant two-party system. We need one party to keep a check on the other, we need competition for the voters’ support, so I think if the Republican Party doesn’t come back, something else will have to, because we cannot operate in this country in a one-party system.

Going off of your point about millennials, how do you think that millennials, many of whom disagree with many GOP stances when it comes to issues that seem to matter most to them, will shape the future of the GOP?

It’s very interesting: there’s a lot of polling that’s done that I look at on this. Pew recently did a very substantial look at millennials, and [the polls] tell us a few things. First of all, it’s the most diverse generation ever in America, so the notion that we are defined because we are a “white, Christian country,” as some Trump people believe, is not going to fly. It doesn’t fly now, and it’s certainly not going to fly with time. So [millennials] are certainly more diverse, and I think more inclusive, than any generation. I also think, and this is from polling, that they are very driven by values. What we’ve seen that has turned the tide is a return to the use and reliance on values in public policy, and I don’t mean a list of issues, but things like integrity, family unity, respect, and these other sort of fundamental views.

I also think that millennials are globalists: they’ve never known anything differently. They’ve never known a world in which they couldn’t buy anything from any corner of the globe, or visit any place on the globe, or have the globe at their fingertips on their phones. So I think that they will be looking for an America that’s competent in the world, that’s open to the world. And I also think however that they see that their opportunities if not more limited, are more difficult in many ways than their parents’ or their grandparents’. So they’re going to have to figure out the right combination of viewpoints, but I think they’re not going to put up with politicians who don’t believe in basic scientific principles, I think they’re going to be more inclusive in their politics, be more idealistic in some ways, and I think in a lot of ways millennials, quite frankly, have gotten a bad wrap. All kinds of statistics show that they read more, they’re more involved, they’re more passionate about many issues then earlier generations, so the most basic fact is that it’s going to be up to them, and they will have to be able to see that political activism, however you define that, is important. A very positive sign that I saw from this Midterm Election was an increase in millennial participation, in voting. I would hope that because of that, and also because of the record number of young representatives elected to the House, that young people will find that politics has meaning, has purpose, and is something that they should pay attention to.

A defining characteristic of conservatism is tradition. If millennials don’t see legitimate conservatism represented in our country’s leaders and politicians, how can millennials be conservative and carry on the conservative tradition properly?

That’s a really good question; I think you do need role models, and I do think you need to have a passing of the torch so there’s a continuity of thought and ideas. And even if one generation falls, I think that certain principles and ideals are timeless. We have books, we have the Internet, people can rediscover truths that we thought were lost for a long time. There’s always the capacity to go back, to sift through what has worked and what hasn’t worked, and to reconstitute what’s good. Although conservatism, exactly as you said, is conserving and it’s about tradition. It’s also about discarding what doesn’t work and keeping what is valuable. The same is true of conservatism itself: free-markets are a wonderful thing; they brought a couple billion people out of poverty around the world. But by the same token, we see in the 21st century it begets really painful and problematic wealth inequality, and that’s something that conservatives now have to address. Every generation is going to have new problems, and I think the important thing is to retain from conservatism its essential qualities: a health skepticism of power, humility in governance, a willingness to understand the limits of the constitution, a preference for government that is closer to the people, and a fundamental attachment to the rule of law, a set of principles that applies to everyone.

And finally, I think this is always the case, and we are learning more by its absence, that America has to be the leader in the world, and it has to lead in a values-based tradition. It wasn’t until we didn’t have this that we missed it, and we realized the downside of not having an American president who is respected, who carries our values overseas, who is able to bring allies together. So those sorts of principles are enduring, and if one generation falters, my hope would be that another generation would pick those up, modify if necessary, apply them in different ways, and find their relevance for themselves in their own generation.

What would your advice be to conservative college students today?

I think it would be to maintain one’s principles, to not mistake what is a Republican position with what it means to be conservative. To read as much as you can, to think about these ideas, to study history, and to figure out what your own definition and your own comfort level is with conservatism. What values do you think it holds, what relevance does it hold, where has it failed, where has it succeeded. And once you determine that, go out and find politicians who seem to abide them, and support those people, or get involved yourself, or become an activist and join organizations, or work for institutions—think tanks or universities—who are dedicated to those principles. I think the most essential thing is to figure out what you think and how that aligns with conservative thought, and then look for ways in which you think that could be applied.

Conservatism today is fundamentally different from how it was in the 1950s, and certainly than how it was before then. Neither party at this point is a practitioner of small government, so in many ways, the question is about what kind of government we want. What principles of conservatism should guide our policy decisions? There is plenty for people to make their own, and I do resist the notion that conservatism is whatever William F. Buckley Jr. said in 1950, or what Ronald Reagan said in 1980. Conservatism, as we were talking about earlier, does evolve. You discard what doesn’t work and keep what does, and I think in future generations, people will have to make that discovery on their own. I would hope that [the next generation] is not turned off by politics, and I would hope that they don’t confuse the current Republican leadership to be the embodiment of conservatism: it clearly is not. It’s always worthwhile to go back and read the thinkers and accomplishments that conservatives can be proud of.