A Firing Line Conversation with CFTR Board Member Neil B Freeman
What Trump and Trumpism really mean
Q. Congratulations! You have now covered more presidential elections than anybody else in NR history, even more than the sainted WFB himself. To what do you attribute your longevity?
A. To my resolve never to get mad about politics.
Q. Well, yes, but have you ever managed to get even?
A. Not yet.
Q. What else did you learn from the Trump voters?
A. I learned that conservative intellectuals have failed them, redundantly, on the issue of immigration. The first-level effects of incumbent policy, both cultural and economic, fall on rural America, border America, and deindustrializing America. The Acela corridor, by contrast, has felt only third-level effects, none of them material. My view has long been that the core mission of the conservative movement is to protect the inherited culture and bolster the opportunity economy. We blew it.
Q. What should our immigration policy be now?
A. We should adopt a pro-American policy. Border security first, and then if an applicant can help us — if he’s clean legally and medically and brings needed skills or capital investment — we want him. If he wants to spend more time with his relatives, that’s an argument for a guest permit, not citizenship.
Q. Have conservative intellectuals failed in the same way on the trade issue?
A. No, we’ve failed in a different way. The case for free trade is intellectually unassailable but politically indefensible. We offer no comfort to the two guys who’ve just been fired when we report that three other guys have just been hired. It’s the classic squeeze — concentrated pain in tension with dispersed benefit.
Q. What should conservatives do now?
A. We should make the case for the free economy aggressively, but consider it a legitimate activity of state government to help those whacked by the swinging door of free trade. In other words, we should palliate individual pain while spreading the general prosperity.
Q. Was that Trump’s position?
A. For a time. He sensed the power of the idea early on, but then bent it out of shape. By the end of the campaign, he seemed to be supporting the proposition that companies exist not to make salable products but to preserve high-paying jobs.
Q. What’s ahead for the conservative movement?
A. With nuances aplenty, there are two basic options. The first is to withdraw to the castle, pull up the drawbridge, and labor to defend market share in what has become a tax-privileged and well-upholstered Conservatism, Inc. I was at one D.C.-based shop this week that took all of 45 minutes to adopt this “strategic plan.” That was a very Beltway thing to do.
Q. And the other option?
A. The other option is to recognize that the game has changed, thanks in large part to the inadvertent contribution of Donald J. Trump. He has identified and at least semi-organized a large constituency previously unreachable by Conservatism, Inc. — soft Democrats, fallen Republicans, distracted moms, disheartened vets, category-averse minorities, regulation-strangled business people, country-class patriots, and more, many more. The only common denominator among these disparate groups is their values. They’re pro-family, pro-enterprise, and pro-America — pretty much the kinds of people our movement has claimed to represent these many years.
Q. And you’re suggesting that conservative intellectuals should make common cause with the Trump voters?
A. It’s the kind of coalition-building opportunity that comes around once in a generation. Think of the religious conservatives. Think of the neoconservatives. This opportunity is knocking loudly enough for even the hearing-impaired.
Q. What are your personal hopes for the movement?
A. My hope is that I’ll wake up tomorrow and be 48 years old and the editor of National Review magazine. It’s the best job in the country right now.
— Neal B. Freeman is a former editor and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.