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The Non-Education of Ross Douthat

The New York Times columnist insists on defending a version of the Republican party that doesn't exist.
September 7, 2021
The Non-Education of Ross Douthat
(Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

It’s a tricky situation: How is one to be a loyal and energetic advocate of electing Republicans without joining the corrupt, authoritarian cult of Trumpism that has subsumed the party? How can a Harvard-educated advocate of populism defend the ur-populist former president without actually defending him? These are the dilemmas faced by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. His top priority is religious conservatism, which means he prefers Republicans in power. But his background, principles, and sense of ethics disincline him from going Trumpist.

Douthat isn’t a carnival barker. Fitting his intellect and esteemed employer, he operates on a higher intellectual plane, eschewing much of conservative media’s near-nihilistic indifference to truth in pursuit of power, attention, and “owning the libs.” He rejects the Big Lie that Trump somehow won the 2020 election. He argues, rather than trolls, conceding some points instead of adopting the “no quarter” stance of today’s most aggressive partisans.

But Douthat believes — evidently quite deeply — that the biggest danger to the United States is the cultural left, which means he’s stuck. He cannot or will not face the full extent of the Republican party’s turn against democracy, and focuses his energy on downplaying it, perhaps in part to convince himself.

Republicans vs. Democracy

Throughout the Trump presidency, political watchers from the left to the center-right raised concerns about his abuse of power and the Republican party’s willingness to go along with it. Some of these concerns took the form of hysterical conspiracy theories, but more sober warnings—including that Trump would try to steal the 2020 election if he didn’t win—proved prescient.

Douthat went the other way. On October 10, less than a month before the 2020 election, he wrote “There Will Be No Trump Coup,” dismissing concerns about the post-election period, in particular an Atlantic article by Barton Gellman that asks “What if Trump refuses to concede?”

Douthat was dubious:

Scenarios that have been spun out in reputable publications — where Trump induces Republican state legislatures to overrule the clear outcome in their states or militia violence intimidates the Supreme Court into vacating a Biden victory — bear no relationship to the Trump presidency we’ve actually experienced. Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like “plotting” implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks.

If only that had been true.

In the same essay, Douthat anticipates a criticism, asking himself, “since you concede that the Orange Man is, in fact, bad, what’s the harm of a little paranoia, a little extra vigilance?”

His answer: It would encourage liberal hubris. “Liberalism under Trump,” Douthat writes, “has become a more dominant force in our society, with a zealous progressive vanguard and a monopoly in the commanding heights of culture,” and if they see Trump as “an autocratic menace” rather than just “a feckless tribune for the discontented,” the Biden presidency will “seed another backlash.”

This encapsulates Douthat’s assessment of our historical moment: Yes, Trump is bad, but vigilance against anti-democracy forces on the American right is misguided because they’re so incredibly weak. The real threat is the left. Though he shares this general belief with some Trumpists, Douthat is not a MAGA tribalist, a fire-breathing culture warrior, or a tell-the-rubes-what-they-want-to-hear grifter. He wrestles with ideas, and responds to real-world events.

On December 5, he admitted surprise at “the sheer scale of the belief among conservatives that the election was really stolen.” He theorized three subgroups that believe it, proposed counterarguments to each, and implored those with more credibility among Republicans than a New York Times writer to make them. After the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Douthat wrote, “when I predicted three months ago that there would be no Trump coup, I should have showed more imagination,” because Trump wasn’t just spinning B.S. for his audience, he “wanted a way to actually stay in office.”

That admission was welcome, but superficial. Douthat continued (and continues) to underestimate the threat from the Trumpist-authoritarian right. He criticizes the Big Lie and January 6 less as threats to American democracy and more as hindrances to his vision of a “Trumpism without Trump.” In the December 5 column, he worried that “stop the steal” was crowding out “the more compelling narrative” that “Trump’s presidency demonstrated that populism can provide a foundation for conservatism.” After the Capitol attack, he lamented that, “By allowing his presidency to be possessed by the occult online, [Trump] sealed his legacy to the populist causes he sometimes pretended to serve.”

In a June 5 article, Douthat explored “three paths to containing Trump,” acknowledging that no combination was likely to stop him from getting the 2024 nomination if he runs. But Douthat separated himself from the theory

held by many liberals and centrists and a few anti-Trump conservatives. . . that we’re in a continuing emergency that will end in one of two ways: Either a Democratic Congress will enact far-reaching electoral reforms that decisively weaken the current G.O.P., or else Trump and his supporters will make a more effective and destructive bid to steal the 2024 election.

Douthat dismissed the “emergency theory” as a waste of time, because Democrats’ proposed electoral reforms likely won’t pass the evenly divided Senate, as if the political inconvenience of the theory’s implications made the theory itself less true—a standard to which he never holds populism, the consequence of which wasn’t a Third Great Awakening, but an insurrection. And while he notes “the unheroic inactivity of most Republicans hoping to defang Trumpism,” he defends it as “not actually crazy,” because if the Republican party tries to break from Trump, it “might just magnify his power,” but “if responsible Republican officeholders ignore him they can hope to outlast him.”

It’s naïve appeasement logic, recalling the infamous post-election quote from a senior Republican official: “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” Douthat could get behind the third path, which he calls the “moderate theory” — Biden governs well, avoids overreach, and a strong economy helps his centrist coalition win enough of an electoral margin to overcome any shenanigans — but Douthat dismisses it as both “cautious and unheroic” and deficient in “strategic thinking.” Besides, it would leave Democrats in power instead of Republicans, so it’s a non-starter..

Always Republican

Douthat’s worldview — Trump bad, right-wing populism good, liberals/progressives the worst — keeps him trapped in a cycle in which he dismisses critics of the Republican party’s turn against democracy, gets forced by events to acknowledge that it was worse than he thought, and then, from that new baseline, downplays the Republican party’s turn against democracy again.

On June 8, Douthat wrote that the violence of January 6 and the degree to which ordinary Republicans believe Trump’s “narrative of fraud” make him “see why the alarmists felt vindicated” and that “it’s worth taking alarmist scenarios seriously, in case next time turns out worse.” He then proceeded immediately not to do so, and to argue on the assumption, contrary to all available evidence, that some invisible force in the Republican party would prevent things from getting worse:

The Republican leadership is still doing what it did throughout Trump’s presidency, trying to talk about anything other than his sins, excesses and potential crimes. . . But in 2020, the Republican desire to change the subject did not translate into a willingness to foment a constitutional crisis to steal an election from Joe Biden. So why assume that this willingness will suddenly materialize in 2024?

The obvious answer is that a lot of Republican officials were willing to steal the 2020 election, and since then, the party’s behavior has gotten worse. Douthat pooh-poohs concerns about “provisions tucked into the voting regulations being passed in states like Georgia and Texas that [some] fear set up postelection power grabs” by assuming the state legislatures won’t use them. If he were really interested, as he claimed, in taking the Republican threat against democracy seriously, he would see a serious risk that they’d use such provisions in 2024, and that the legislators who introduced and championed them are auditioning for leading roles in the next coup attempt.

He could do this as a matter of prudence or as an induction from the pattern of corruption in the Republican party over the past five years—or he could merely observe what elected Republicans are doing and saying. This July, Georgia’s overwhelmingly Republican legislature began using the new powers it gave itself to regulate elections directly, starting down the path to taking over election administration in Atlanta-area Fulton County. A spokesperson for Republican Governor Brian Kemp says it’s due to “poor management and incompetence.” But Trumpists have made Fulton a focus of their baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud, and Republican state legislators who sponsored the bill said they would have intervened in Fulton if they’d had these powers in 2020.

Just as it took the Capitol attack for Douthat to admit he lacked “imagination,” it may very well take an actual state legislature negating the express will of the voters for him to “imagine” the thing lawmakers have already promised. If he hasn’t heard these promises, or doesn’t believe anyone will try to carry them out, perhaps it’s because he just doesn’t want to.

Douthat exhibits the same wishful thinking by latching on to any news that the Republican Partyis less Trumpist than it seems. On July 31, he published a column titled “How Strong Is Trump’s Grip on the G.O.P.?,” claiming it’s less than many think. As evidence, he cites two recent setbacks for the former president: A candidate Trump endorsed lost a special election in Texas to a Republican rival, and 19 Republican senators voted for a bipartisan infrastructure bill he opposed.

For Douthat, this confirms that Trump’s “power over the G.O.P. has always been limited: As president he often found himself balked on policy by congressional Republicans, and his impressive endorsement record reflects a lot of cautious winner-picking, not aggressive movement-building.”

But Trump and Team MAGA never cared much about policy in the way Douthat means. Trump’s top priority, by far, was (and is) very obviously more attention, money, and power for Donald Trump. For the MAGA movement, it’s grievance, culture war, and owning the libs, which sometimes involves government policy — e.g. reducing immigration, especially of Latinos and Muslims — but often sought and celebrated symbolic victories; “wins” that made the base feel America belongs to “us” rather than “them.”

Nevertheless, Douthat moves directly from Trump’s lack of success on policy to downplaying his effort to overthrow constitutional democracy: “Trump could encourage a widespread belief that he was the victim of massive voter fraud, inspiring his most ardent fans to storm the Capitol — but he couldn’t get Republican state legislatures or Republican-appointed judges or his own Justice Department to begin to go along with his election-overturning efforts.”

Less than a week later, former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue testified under oath that Jeffrey Clark, another senior Justice Department official, in coordination with the White House, worked to get his department on board with Trump’s election-overturning plot. At the time Douthat wrote of Trump’s inability to make or execute a plan, it was already widely reported that Trump pressured Georgia election officials to “find”  enough votes to flip the state from Biden; that Michigan Republicans planned to submit an alternative, pro-Trump slate to the Electoral College; that Chair of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley was worried enough that Trump might attempt a coup that he and other national security leaders planned how to oppose it.

While it’s true that Clark and the White House didn’t succeed in overturning the election, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger refused to submit to Trump’s bullying, the proper slates were (eventually) counted on January 6, and Gen. Milley et al. never had to act on their plans, it should be alarming—not reassuring—how close the coup that Ross Douthat said would never be attempted actually came to success. Narrowly avoiding being shot doesn’t make one impervious to bullets. Most people in such a situation dive for cover.

Douthat’s interpretation of these is blasé: It worked out in 2020, so don’t worry about 2024. Trump couldn’t repeal Obamacare, he couldn’t get Republican legislatures in states Biden won to overrule their voters, and his preferred candidate in Texas just lost a special election, so American democracy is fine.

There are two big problems with this interpretation. One, it omits a lot of inconvenient evidence about today’s Republican party. An incomplete list:

  • A majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives (139 of 221), along with eight Republican senators, voted on January 6 to reject Electoral College results (after their safety was threatened earlier that day by a Trumpist mob, no less).
  • The House Republican conference has made a litmus test out of 2020 election lies, ostracizing Rep. Liz Cheney for her refusal to let the Capitol attack slide.
  • Republicans have sidelined state election officials who wouldn’t help Trump’s coup attempt, including Raffensperger, who now faces a primary challenge from Rep. Jody Hice, who went along with basically every aspect of the coup attempt he could.
  • Right-wing think tankers are openly calling for an “American Caesar,” while Tucker Carlson, the most-watched pundit in conservative media, travels to Hungary and touts its authoritarian government as a model.
  • 2/3 of Republican voters say they believe the false conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen, and various candidates for office profess it. A July 2021 CBS-YouGov poll found that more than half of Republicans say that January 6 rioters were “defending freedom.”

Seeing the world as Douthat does requires ignoring all of this, and more.

The other big problem is that a concerted effort to overturn a future election would be terrible for American democracy, even if it doesn’t work. A state legislature acting to overrule voters would be uncharted territory, risking chaos, even violence. Douthat’s claim that Trump’s “manifold weaknesses as an inside-game player” means no state will try this is unconvincing, but even if he’s right and their attempts are likely to fail, isn’t it better that they never try at all?

Look at What You Made Me Do

The key to understanding the Ross Douthat Trap can be found in his August 7 column, which defends American conservatives who pine for Hungary’s leader Viktor Orbán. The article doesn’t say much about the Hungarian strongman, and largely ignores the arguments against him. Instead, it’s mostly about woke “cancel culture.”

Douthat uses different terminology — “careers derailed for offenses against progressive norms,” “left-McCarthyism,” etc. — but his argument slots neatly into that discourse. He responds to an anecdotal report from Atlantic writer David Frum: “I visited Hungary in 2016. Again & again, I witnessed a gesture I thought had vanished from Europe forever: people turning their heads to check who was listening before they lent forward to whisper what they had to say. They feared for their jobs, not their lives – but still. . .”  Douthat claims “there’s the fear that progressivism already exerts this power in the United States” and that the same watch-what-you-say environment “is an important part of American life right now.” As an example, he says he’s gotten more emails in recent years that warn “don’t share this.”

And that, you see, is why American conservatives admire Orbán: “It’s not just his anti-immigration stance or his moral traditionalism. It’s that his interventions in Hungarian cultural life, the attacks on liberal academic centers and the spending on conservative ideological projects, are seen as examples of how political power might curb progressivism’s influence.”

That’s right, using the power of the state for cultural engineering is now something opposed to progressivism. According to Douthat, “some version of this impulse is actually correct.” The one problem he sees is that the “impulse has swiftly led conservatives to tolerate corruption.” Orbán has turned himself and his inner circle into multi-millionaires, similar to how Trump used his position to funnel money to his and his family’s private bank accounts. Douthat tut-tuts the graft. But the rest he doesn’t seem to mind.

One thing that goes unmentioned in Douthat’s column is that Orbán’s government took control of almost all Hungarian media and uses it to support the ruling party. The effect is dramatic enough that international election monitors assessed that the 2018 parliamentary election wasn’t a fair democratic contest.

The claim that religious conservatives are persecuted in America is, at best, self-serving hyperbole. They’re not under existential threat. They just went from the overwhelmingly dominant faction in American society to a large and powerful one within it.

This supposedly repressed minority has control of many state governments, members of Congress, and a sympathetic majority on the Supreme Court. (Orbán’s party changed Hungary’s constitution to expand the courts, fire a bunch of judges, and appoint party loyalists; a move that makes American court-packing discussions look quaint). Outside of government, these supposedly silenced American voices have the most watched TV news network, a slew of popular websites, the biggest presence on social media — Facebook’s top-performing links include Ben Shapiro more than any centrist or left-wing figure—and influential religious institutions that can make money without paying taxes. Douthat’s claim that America’s “ruling ideology” controls “its consolidated media and tech powers” conveniently leaves all that out.

I’m sympathetic to some “culture of free speech” arguments that criticize private efforts to shout down unwanted speech, or organize campaigns to get someone fired because of what they said outside of work, but it’s paranoid delusion to compare it to an illiberal state like Hungary. If the United States under Joe Biden were like that, Fox News would not be allowed to exist. And Ross Douthat wouldn’t have a column in the paper of record.

But Douthat can’t acknowledge that. Like other cultural conservatives who cast themselves as victims, he’s stuck. He’d rather the Republican party reject Trump’s personal corruption and boorishness. He doesn’t call for an American Caesar or defend the violence of January 6. But he’s unable or unwilling to see the rot and illiberalism of his “own side” clearly, so he downplays the flaws and dangers of the current Republican party while magnifying those of the left.

It’s neat, tidy, and comforting, even if it does require the kind of embarrassing rhetorical contortions that result from being repeatedly proven wrong.

Nicholas Grossman

Nicholas Grossman is a political science professor at the University of Illinois and senior editor of Arc Digital. Follow him on Twitter @ngrossman81.