If there’s anything that unites the vast majority of Americans in a politically divided country, it’s that they’re “exhausted” and “embarrassed” by the quality of today’s political discourse.
That was one of several assessments veteran political commentator George Will made about the current state of American political life on Thursday during a lecture at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, organized by the North Carolina Museum of History.
Over roughly 90 minutes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, longtime Washington Post columnist placed present-day problems that plague American life in historical context and offered thoughts on what has made society better (vaccines developed in the face of a deadly pandemic in just months) and what has made it worse (social media allowing for instant and anonymous online conversation).
Before he took the stage, Will sat down with The News & Observer to talk about a number of topics, including takeaways from the North Carolina’s primary election losses of U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn and former Gov. Pat McCrory; the influence of former President Donald Trump over the Republican Party; and what to expect in the midterm elections this November.
These are excerpts. Some of the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: People had entertained the possibility that Madison Cawthorn could lose his reelection, but still, to see him lose outright was a bit of a surprise. What did you make of it?
Will: Well, it’s encouraging. We live in an era when the (Trump) “Access Hollywood” tape came out shortly before the 2016 presidential election, and made no difference. So just when you think it’s absolutely impossible for anyone to be too disgraceful, to be disgraced, it’s good to see that the people of Western North Carolina proved otherwise, that there are some falsifications and fabrications, and reckless rhetoric that eventually, is cumulative enough to defeat someone.
Q: There’s been a lot of analysis about what led to his downfall.
Will: He gets full credit. I mean, he’s a kind of kamikaze candidate. ... I don’t know what possessed him to say the things he did. But he’s a young man, and suddenly he’s thrust in the spotlight, and some people find that intoxicating. And I would say that he was inebriated by celebrity and crashed and burned.
Q: Do you think he still has a political future after this loss?
Will: I think it’s a little hard to bounce back from this. I mean, people will say, you know, there are 330 million people in this country. And there are a fair number of people in Western North Carolina. Why do we have to choose someone who has gone out of his way to embarrass the region? And to make us all look a little bit weird for voting for him.
Q: Turning to the GOP Senate primary, Pat McCrory initially appeared to have a sizable advantage, but Ted Budd took over in the final month or two and kept growing his lead. And even though the writing was sort of on the wall, it was still shocking for some to see the results.
Will: Particularly because Pat McCrory, when he was governor, was considered one of the most conservative governors in North Carolina history.
Q: Is that a trend, and can you see it happening on the left as well, of the parties moving away from people who were previously their standard-bearers?
Will: It’s an affliction of both parties. You have “The Squad” in the House, who seem to devote a lot of their energy to trying to defeat their colleagues. We need the equivalent for Democrats of “RINO” (Republicans in Name Only). “Democrats In Name Only.” I suppose they’d say they’re the “Democratic wing” of the Democratic Party.
But unquestionably, both parties have an instinct for internecine fighting right now. Republicans don’t like Democrats, but they really dislike other Republicans. And the same is true with Democrats. And it’s hard to know why.
... To be angry all the time, the default position for a great many Americans, not most of them, but for a large number of Americans, anger is the default position. Now I do not think most Americans are angry. I think they’re exhausted. And I think they’re embarrassed by the tone of our public life.
But for a small but significant, let’s call them the people who are addicted to cable television, “Cassandras,” all the time saying that America’s democracy is hanging by a thread. It’s not true. I mean, most Americans are raising children, doing their jobs, cleaning the gutter, washing the car, fixing the screen door, getting on with life. But this tiny, relatively small group of Americans who are angry all the time, have a tone-setting capacity to give people the impression that America itself is furious.
Q: What do you make of Donald Trump’s influence over the party, as he holds rallies across the country?
Will: Well, he can fill an arena, he can fill a field. But that’s a small portion of the country that comes out for rallies like this. And I think he often makes the political rookie’s mistake. He looks at that and says, “Wow, this is the country.” No, it’s an arena. It’s a high school gym full of people. And no one’s ever doubted that he could fill a high school gymnasium.
And if he runs again in 2024, there may be 18 people up there. And Trump, the most lurid figure on the stage, will benefit from this, because he’s got 30% rock solid. Well if you get 30% in a field of 18, you win. But then Republicans will wake up, having nominated him, and say, “Well, that might not have been good arithmetic.”
Q: You mentioned concerns about democracy hanging by a thread. What do you think a second Trump term would mean in light of the Jan. 6 attack?
Will: In his policies, as he was president, he was a very orthodox Republican. Now, in his comportment, he was a clown show. But tax cuts, corporate tax cuts — Barack Obama wanted to cut corporate taxes. Donald Trump had lots of opportunities to fill judicial positions on the Article Three courts. And he did and he took a list of potential judges from the Federalist Society. Any Republican would have done that. So in that sense, he was very orthodox.
What makes Trump interesting, to put it in a neutral way, is not his policies. It’s his comportment. It’s his smash-mouth approach to politics. It’s his blithe indifference to facts. It’s his adolescent, schoolyard name-calling. That’s what distinguishes him. People say, “Well, he did a good job cutting taxes.” Yes, I’m all for that stuff. But again, any Republican would have done that. He is the only Republican who would make the coarsening of our public life his principal, unique contribution to American history.
Q: While he was running, Pat McCrory repeatedly brought up his admiration of Ronald Reagan. In today’s Republican Party, is it possible to hold together support for Donald Trump and nostalgia for the Reagan era?
Will: No, for two reasons. First, Ronald Reagan put the smile on conservatism, said this is a friendly, expansive, welcoming persuasion. Donald Trump put a snarl into conservatism. But beyond that, in terms of policy, Donald Trump’s a protectionist. Protectionism is industrial policy. Protectionism is socialism-lite. Protectionism is America blockading its own ports. Ronald Reagan wasn’t like that.
But Mr. Trump doesn’t think the way Reagan did. And people say, “Oh well, Reagan was just an amiable actor and fooled people,” and “Great Communicator” and all that. It wasn’t until after Reagan had left office, and his longtime aide Martin Anderson and his wife published a book of Reagan’s letters, that people began to see that Ronald Reagan had spent an awful lot of time reading and thinking deeply about American politics and American policy. No one has ever accused Donald Trump of reading, as far as I can tell. I’d be surprised if he’s read the books he’s written.
Q: Some say Donald Trump’s grip on the GOP is almost ironclad. Where do you see the GOP headed over the next 10 or 15 years, in terms of his influence and staying power?
Will: I think it’s very exaggerated. And I’m not sure when he leaves the stage — when Trump leaves the stage, will Trump-ism be around?
... He’s oblivious of the first rule of politics, which is elections are about the future. He’s run for president twice, lost the popular vote twice. Now he wants to re-litigate 2020. Now there is a certain sliver of the Republican Party that loves doing that. But Americans know that they’re picking someone who’s going to shape the future. And the idea that we’re going to elect someone whose obsession is the 2020 election, which means whose obsession is himself, and his wounded vanity, strikes me as implausible.
Q: He’s just not been challenged seriously yet.
Will: Right, and I’m not afraid of him. I don’t care if he calls me a name. Running in 2016, Donald Trump made fun of my glasses.
Q: It’s a very specific insult.
Will: Who cares? Laughs. I think it’s brittle.
Q: Turning to the Democrats, there’s sort of a growing consensus that their majority in Congress is in jeopardy in November. Do you think that’s almost a certainty at this point?
Will: You know the old axiom that overnight’s a long time and a week is forever in American politics? But this looks structural. First of all, there’s a long history of the mid-term election of a president’s first term that doesn’t go well. And what has gone well for this president? I mean, baby formula, for Pete’s sake. Yeah, I mean, what else can go wrong?
If you start in a way, it did start with the botched withdrawal from Kabul Airport (in Afghanistan). And they said, “We’re going to (have) trillion dollar tranches of spending, but there won’t be inflation.” So there’s inflation, so they say the inflation is transitory. Then they say, “Well it’s not transitory, but it’s Putin’s fault.” And inflation that started before the Ukraine war is Putin’s fault. It’s just bizarre.
Q: It looks like the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade. Do you think that could have a meaningful impact on the midterms?
Will: I don’t think it will be an election-turning development. Americans say they would like Roe v. Wade, but they don’t know what’s in Roe v. Wade. Actually, the American people are extremely temperate about abortion, and what they’re going to learn in the debate that we’re now going to have because of the Supreme Court calendar, they’re gonna learn that the American abortion regime is an outlier. It’s much more extreme than Europe.
The American people, if you ask them, they say no abortion after 20 weeks. A lot of them say no abortion after 15 weeks. This is what the Mississippi law says. So I think the American people are sensible about this. They said, “Look, we’re uneasy about saying that a fertilized egg is a person. We’re not uneasy about saying that what we see in these wonderful sonograms nowadays, pre-born child sucking its thumb, beating heart, fingernails — that’s a person.” And the American people say, “Look, somewhere in there, there’s a line.”