Interview with Charles C. W. Cooke, Editor of National Review Online

By: Emily Reinwald

This interview with Charles C. W. Cooke was conducted before his discussion at the Buckley Program’s dinner seminar on Thursday, February 16th. This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited from a longer interview.

Mr. Cooke is the editor of National Review Online. His work has focused especially on Anglo-American history, British liberty, free speech, the Second Amendment, and American exceptionalism. He is the co-host of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen podcast, and is a regular guest on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. He has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times.


Emily: What made you want to write on the topic of the blend of libertarianism and conservatism?

Charles: Largely the number of people who said to me I’m a conservatarian or said when I’m around conservatives I feel libertarian, but when I’m around libertarians I feel conservative. Also partially because it’s basically what I think, and it’s easier to write a book on what you believe than anything else. I also think it’s an underserved group, especially this year. It sort of got ignored, but it won’t be forever. There is a tension on the right and in the Republican Party between younger Republicans and older Republicans. Younger Republicans tend to be in favor of gay marriage and marijuana legalization; not all of them are, but the majority of them. Older Republicans aren’t. Criminal justice reform as well, that’s probably a big difference.

I didn’t really see that book out there. You get a 100 books put out every year about “here’s why the Republican Party is right and Democrats are awful”, and then there’s libertarian books and conservative books, but there wasn’t this kind of book.

Emily: Through the process of writing this book did you learn anything new or interesting about conservatarianism?

Charles: Well I think the most interesting thing was the discovery or clarification that there really is no such thing as a social issue. I went through a lot of articles and TV clips in which people said, “You know if Republicans want to win younger people, they need to be more socially liberal.” The thing is, it’s not quite true, or if it is, it doesn’t really mean anything because young people, especially on the center right, tend to be pro-life and pro-gay marriage. They don’t see a connection between those two things. As I was driving into [this event] there was a protest outside City Hall, an immigration protest. I can almost guarantee if you ask every single person attending that what they think on drugs, gay marriage, and abortion, they would come up with the standard, left-wing positions. Which is fine, but most people don’t. Most people have different views on different questions, and the people I was writing about don’t see them as related questions. There’s no reason why you can’t think abortion is wrong while being fine with gay marriage. I think the extent to which that was true surprised me because in politics, things get packaged, and you don’t really see that nuisance.

Emily: How do you think the 2016 election went for conservatarians and how have they reacted to Trump’s nomination and then subsequent general election win?

Charles: I’ll put it this way: The Republican Party didn’t follow the advice I laid out in the book. In one area, and one area alone, I caught onto something that most people missed. I wouldn’t call it isolationist, but the less hawkish, less adventurous strand within the GOP, I said that it would come to the forefront in 2016, and it did. Now, I thought it would be Rand Paul, and I didn’t think the person who did it would stand in South Carolina and say George W. Bush caused 9/11 and his brother is responsible.

Broadly other than that, it hasn’t been exactly as I thought it would be. I think a lot of people who are younger and conservatarian in nature are disappointed. To some extent, they are going to be nullified by Trump’s surprising Supreme Court nomination, and to some extent, their passion will be slightly diminished by the way the Left has gone crazy–also if he gets a tax reform bill and an Obamacare repeal. But in my instinct, my experience is [conservatarians] are slightly out of love with the Republican Party.

The one counsel I would give is that the President is not the whole country. Republicans won at all levels. There’s a Republican governor in Vermont, the Minnesota State House is now Republican run, Connecticut has a 50-50 senate, and most of those people aren’t Donald Trump. I know an awful lot of people who are involved in what is now a fight within the Republican Party: they’re on the Paul Ryan team or the Cory Gardner team rather than the Trump team. But yes, it is disappointing when everyday the news is driven by [Trump].

Emily: Do you think Trump will run for re-election, and if he does, do you think he will win re-election?

Charles: I’ve given up making predictions because I didn’t think he’d win a single primary, I didn’t think he’d be the nominee, and I didn’t think he would win the general. So I just don’t know. He’s impossible to judge. Maybe he’ll get bored. Maybe he’ll find something that he can say “I did that” and then hand it over to Pence or the primary. Maybe he’s Donald Trump, and he’ll just keep going until he dies.

Emily: As a lot of the young members of the GOP prescribe to conservatariansim, how do you think they will affect the GOP? Will the younger voters shift the GOP’s focus or will the GOP stick to being like Trump?

Charles: No, I don’t think it’ll stick to being like Donald Trump. I do think that as people get older they become more conservative and more socially conservative, so I think there will always be a role for the more traditional conservatism in the GOP.

In terms of the conservatarian idea, as it’s expressed through federalism, we’ll probably see more. And I also think with technology too. Someone once said to me the difference between young people now and young people in 1970s isn’t big and small. Big or small government. Big or small business. It’s open and closed. So maybe in 1970 your conservative would’ve said “I don’t want big government, I want small government,” and the left was against big business. Well, a lot of lefties now don’t have a problem with big business: they don’t have a problem with Apple, Google, Uber, AirBnB, or any of those. They like them because they’re open. I think that’s something conservatarian people on the right will bring to the party. A more libertarian conservatism.

The problem with conservatism is that it can often defend the status quo because it’s the status quo. A lot of the people Trump won, they don’t mind unions or closed business practices. They’re not bothered by Social Security or Medicare or any of that, but I think younger people are. That could be the change I could see. But this idea that we’re all gonna be libertarian over the age of 50, I just don’t think that is true.

Emily: What do you take away from the Left’s reaction to Trump’s win and in the demonstrations and riots like the one at Berkeley when Milo Yiannopolous came. Do you see the young Left’s reaction to things like that hurt their cause?

Charles: I do think it hurts their cause for two reasons. First, when Richard Nixon won in ‘68 he did so with 32 states, and when he won in ‘72 he did it with 49. The difference was people went crazy between ‘68 and ‘72; it turned voters off [the Left]. The second reason I think it hurts is that the Left everyday betrays how historically illiterate it is. It’s extraordinary to me. Everything that Trump is doing, and remember I’m a critic of his, has been cast as new, not as a continuum or following precedents set by Barack Obama and his predecessors, but it’s all new and all started on January 20th.

Likewise, the comparisons to Hitler are dumb. Again, I don’t like Trump. He has worrying views on many things. I don’t think he’s well read, I don’t think he has a good temperament, and I think he’s broadly unfit for office. But there’s a difference between unfit for office or being ill-read and being Adolf Hitler. After a while, when you immediately dial up your criticism to there, people switch off.

I for one think that’s part of the reason he got elected, ironically enough, because everything according to the Left is racism. So if David Duke comes out and says “You know what? We should get rid of the Jews,” that is racism. But then Marco Rubio stands up and says, “I think we need to reform Medicare,” and he’s labeled a racist, too. How can you distinguish between those two positions when both are being called racist? After a while you just tune out the critique, and I think that will hurt them because there are ways Trump really needs to be criticized, but is anyone listening to them anymore?

Emily: What do you see as the role of media and journalists in the Trump administration over the next few years?

Charles: I think it should be the same as it should’ve been throughout the Obama administration, which is to check your stories and tell the truth. The problem isn’t that there’s a pervasive media bias, although there is, it’s that the Internet–and this gets more true every year–rewards the person who is first. So there’s not much of an incentive to delay the piece through fact checking. I’ve been astonished since the election by the extent to which media outlets have pushed out a story and then corrected it. And the correction isn’t minor, it’s a complete reversal of the headline. That is not what they’re there for. I don’t mind a partisan press, or open biases–I write for an opinion journal, of course I don’t. I do mind the pretense and the shoddiness. We quite rightly critize Trump because everyday he stands up and says something that isn’t true or he hasn’t thought through his position or he has people say contradictory things. But The New York Times is behaving in the same way. To get back to the basic form of communication would be a good start.

Emily: What did you think of Buzzfeed releasing the dossier about Trump?

Charles: I thought it was appalling, and the justification made no sense. Buzzfeed said, “We couldn’t verify this, so we released it to the public so it could make up its own mind.” Well how? If you have a company of Buzzfeed‘s size and reach unable to verify the contents of this document, how is an average news consumer supposed to do what Buzzfeed couldn’t? They don’t have an investigative service in their apartment. It was a transparent attempt to sell rumor as fact and to muddy the waters.

Emily: As the editor of the National Review Online, how do you think your job and the NRO will grow and change over the next couple of years under Trump?

Charles: Well, we have a slightly different role since we’re an opinion journal and rarely break news. We have quick reaction, but there’s a big difference between–and this is no slight on many of The Times reporters who are excellent–but there’s no comparison between say learning that a story is breaking, sending a general political reporter to cover it and putting it up straight away and us having a world expert lawyer look at a court decision and have a reaction. Firstly, we don’t tend to put news up as fast as The Times or The Post. Secondly, it’s intrinsically reactive. So although that culture is a problem for our business model–I think we’ve lost money for what? 61 years. So we’ve been dying for a long time–and although there is still a great virtue in being first in what we do, we’re less likely to fall into that trap because the whole purpose of National Review is to absorb information and analysis it. I see our role under Trump as permitting our writers to say precisely as they think, almost as if they had tenure, and not be CNN.

Emily Reinwald is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.