Interviewing Matt Lewis About His New Book, “Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots)”
I interviewed my friend Matt Lewis about his new book Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots). Matt and I don’t agree about everything, but I did enjoy discussing some of the ideas he had about how the conservative movement could improve. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.
First question: you spend a lot of time pointing out that conservatism isn’t as intellectual as it was in the early days of the movement. But isn’t that almost entirely a function of how mass movements work? They start out with a few intellectual leaders and activists and then it dumbs down a bit as it spreads out to the masses of people who aren’t as interested in wonky talk.
Yeah, I actually agree with that. A lot of the people who’ve written books like this are actually liberals and their advice is for the Republican Party to get more liberal in order to win. So a lot of them… they have to actually harken back to… like the 1950s or something to find a Republican that they admire. I actually see the high point as Ronald Reagan. That’s where I think we’ve sort of had the perfect tension between the two things, where you had, obviously a mass movement big enough to elect a President, not just to elect him, but really to landslide elections. But I also think you had the culmination of a lot of political activists and intellectuals who were still around.
So I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive. I don’t think you have to choose to be smart or to be popular. But I do think that there is a tendency when you try to win elections, when you focus on elections that the dumbing down is probably a natural tendency that we have to be careful of.
Well, also, do you think social media plays a context in this? For example, I’ve got a huge Facebook page. We’ve got three million followers. We get out to twenty two million people a month. We’re competing with cat pictures. We’re competing with like… Lady Gaga’s new video. We’re up against that; so people are going to be clicking on one or the other. So doing that kind of stuff, I mean I am not going to be able to write an explanation of the Federalist Papers and do that. It just doesn’t work that way. So do you think social media actually plays a big role in that these days?
Yeah, I think that’s actually…. it’s just sort of the latest trend. I actually go back and document how this is a problem – technology has been dumbing us down for a long time. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology, but I think it’s a double edge sword. One of the downsides is that it can have a dumbing down effect. You can go all the way back to the preachers who were going around the country during these big revivals. So the preachers who were great writers, who have written great sermons, were much more intellectual than the preachers who started giving speeches and giving and having these tent meetings.
So this isn’t like a modern thing. This is hundreds of years ago. Even then you had to worry about the dumbing down. I think television sort of did that as well. That was just another level and, yeah, I think that technology makes it harder to be intellectual. I mean, John, we’re in the same boat here. I try to balance writing things that are smart and thoughtful with getting clicks. Do I sometimes put a headline on a story that I know is going to get clicks? Of course, I do. It’s like don’t hate the player, hate the game.
So this is a natural sort of challenge I think that we have, that political parties have, that activists have. Again I do think that there’s a balance and I think that some people go too far with the balance. I mean I’m a little worried about the Donald Trump phenomenon, for example, that it’s a little bit too far. I’m all for conservative politicians learning how to engage in salesmanship. We’ll have examples of like, Ted Cruz for example, doing a fun video with IJ Review or something. That’s great, I’m okay with that. I’m not saying that George Washington would have done it, but this is the 21st Century. But I do think we can go too far with it.
Now related to that, you throw a lot of shade in the book on the conservative entertainment complex, but a lot of people would say that, “Hey, you write for the Daily Caller, you regularly do TV; if there is such a thing, aren’t you just as much a part of it as any talk radio host?”
That’s a good point. I think that anybody who wants to be successful (I’ll use this term very loosely), like a public intellectual and opinion leader, has to incorporate some amount of showmanship into what they do. As you said, if I’m just sitting around writing about the Federalist Papers, it ain’t going to get a lot of clicks. It’s not going to get a lot of Drudge links. It’s not going to get me invited on television and so the commentary business, the political punditry business, even if you have the most noble of motives, advancing your ideas requires a certain amount of showmanship and salesmanship. I do have a problem, however, with people that I think exploit this and do and say things merely to get attention knowing full well that they don’t actually believe it and knowing full well that it will have negative consequences and hurt the conservative movement.
I think Ann Coulter is a prime example of someone who maybe started out with the right motives, but has done this. When she says things like, you know, “Donald Trump’s immigration plan is so great. I don’t care if he performs abortions in the White House.”It’s purely done to be provocative. It doesn’t accomplish anything. When she talks about, you know, ragheads, that’s another example. Even when Rush Limbaugh, whom I admire in many ways and grew up listening to, when he called Sandra Fluke a slut, that hurt the conservative cause. It sort of advanced the war on women narrative which I think you and I would agree is a completely bogus narrative.
But that actually plays into the title of this book. It’s called Too Dumb To Fail and it’s reminiscent of the Too Big to Fail story about the financial institutions who took on risks. They had perverse incentives and it was a moral hazard. I think we have the same problem today with pundits and politicians. They have these perverse incentives. They have an incentive to say or do incendiary or fringy things to get attention, to get mentioned on Mediaite, to get tweeted about. It individually helps them. They get more attention, they get more famous, but I think the conservative cause suffers.
Well, I can agree with what you’re saying to a degree on that. Everybody’s a brand now.
The only way to get your brand out is to say something that’s out of the ordinary and out of the ordinary a lot of times can be something really stupid and it doesn’t necessarily hurt you, it gets you more attention.
Absolutely, and if it’s harmless, go for it, you know, but once you become associated with the Republican Party or the conservative movement and if you saying something controversial is going to cause Republican politicians to have to answer for it and drive a couple of media news cycles, then it has real consequences. I think you have a responsibility to acknowledge…what is the Spiderman quote?….”With great power comes great responsibility.”
When you’re a big time talk radio host and you have to balance getting ratings and staying ahead of Mark Levin and Sean Hannity versus not saying things that are going to be bulletin board material……. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that term. In football you don’t want to trash talk your opponent.
All right, now related to what you were saying, there was something you said in there that I agree with a lot. Just because someone has the right enemies does not make them the right spokesman. I agree with you. I think conservatives, sometimes they see something they think is wrong or people are angry at a guy and they will adopt him and raise him up like he’s a hero. I mean, just to give you an example, George Zimmerman. I thought it was a tragic, horrible thing that happened, but it went from the point where people were saying, “Hey, we need to give this guy a fair shake. Let’s convict him in the court law if there’s anything wrong.” to “George Zimmerman is a hero.”
Right, I completely …
I think that’s taking things a little too far and I think we do that sometimes.
Oh, I completely agree. I think that it’s tribalism. Unfortunately, in that case I think it was on both sides. I think you had a lot of African-Americans and liberals and white liberals who were reflexively defending and turning Trayvon Martin into a martyr when it was probably undeserved and I think the other side said okay, well, we better circle the wagons on our team, our tribe. So you have a lot of conservatives reflexively defending George Zimmerman who is, I think, in no way heroic. I just think it was a horrible situation. You probably had two guys who were less than admirable and it was quite a gray area. I think legally speaking that the, you know, the decision probably was correct. Zimmerman was probably….. did not do anything illegal. That does not mean we should celebrate him.
Right, and I agree with you. We tend to do that a little too much, especially with celebrities, too. You made that point. Something else you did say in the book is that conservatives really loathe celebrities. They talk it all the time, but when there is a conservative celebrity, my God, we love that guy. It’s funny I think in a lot of ways and I think you’re right about that.
It is so true, like nobody trash talks more about the Left coast and all that Hollyweird, but then the first time you go to CPAC and some celebrity is being dragged through the halls, you know, we turn into…. like fan girls. It’s unbelievable.
Now there’s an elephant in the room that I didn’t feel like you addressed in your book very much and that’s how out of touch, unresponsive, and I would even say dismissive of the people who vote for them that many Republicans in Congress have become. …I mean why is that not something you really went into in your book?
Well, a couple of reasons. One, it, you know, when you write a book, you have to sort of set a running narrative and it didn’t fit into it. I don’t think this is as big of a problem as many, many, many of my friends do. I think that what happened is Barack Obama became President and he came in with this veto-proof majority and House. He had this really rare moment in time where he was able to force through Obamacare. Then, of course, he’s used I think un-Constitutional executive power since then to get some things done.
But I think basically it gave Republicans the idea that we could do more than really you can. So I think that that part was part of the issue that in the last eight years since Obama became President, there were unrealistic expectations as to what Republicans could do if they got the House or the Senate. I will say that I think that it’s great that Boehner is gone. I think that Paul Ryan is going to be a much better Speaker of the House. I think that a lot of these guys — whether it’s Republicans like McConnell or Democrats like Harry Reid – I think that part of it is they’re just a product of a bygone era and of a time when the way that you made it to the top climbing the slippery pole of politics was by definition being an insider, by definition being the establishment and sort of weaseling or working your way up. I think just by definition it’s really hard to get a leader of any party who’s not kind of an establishment hack by the time they get there.
Now you made what I thought was an interesting point about the Confederate flag which is that it was not a Republican symbol. It was put up by a bunch of Democrats in the first place. Why in the world are we going insane to defend something that really was never a conservative symbol in the first place?
Yeah, I think that’s true. I’m from Maryland which is a border state south of the Mason Dixon line, but certainly not part of what you would call the Deep South. I grew up in a really rural area listening to country music and whether it’s Charlie Daniels’ band or Alabama or Lynard Skynard or any sort of Southern rock, I have a deep affinity for that kind of music, that culture which I think is purely innocuous and good. There’s nothing racist about it and certainly even a band like Alabama had like rebel flags on their albums. I grew up seeing that and having really no problem with it. I think when you put it in context with the perception of it by African-Americans and when you consider the fact that, yeah, this is a flag that was the Democratic Party’s flag, in South Carolina specifically, it was a Democratic governor and legislature that put it up.
Republican Governor Beasley tried to take it down, you know, a decade ago and you had this horrific shooting at Mother Emanuel and if Republicans would have for cultural reasons having nothing to do with philosophy or ideology just sort of battened down the hatches and doubled – circled the wagons and sort of tried to save that flag, I think it would have been a huge mistake. I think that we have to have a conservatism that can thrive in the 21st Century. I’m talking about Ronald Reagan and Edmund Burke and even all the way back to Aristotle. The Confederate flag has nothing to do with any of those things that I hold dear, the things that I’m willing to fight for. If they start tearing down the Ronald Reagan statue at National Airport you’re going to have to pull me away, but until that happens they can have that flag.
Now I’m very much in agreement with you that conservatives have given up on influencing culture. As you mentioned in the book, Andrew Breitbart talked about politics downstream from culture. The thing is though I don’t really see anybody making any effort to change that. Do you think there is a way? My God, if they’d taken all the money they’ve used to bankroll Jeb Bush, who is a loser, and put that into let’s say, some gossip magazines, women’s magazines and that kind of thing, they could have actually done something significant. What do you think are the keys to making a change in culture because again as you mentioned in the book, for example, the film industry used to be relatively conservative. Even comic books used to be much more conservative than they used to be. So the culture has gotten much more liberal. And if the culture gets more liberal, it’s almost by default going to make politics more liberal. Any thoughts you have on changing that?
Well first, you’re exactly right. Our friend Andrew Breitbart really was at the forefront of identifying this. I think what happened was that Republicans got duped into thinking that they were just going to keep winning elections without dealing with the culture. I think finally when they started losing in 2008 and 2012 at the presidential, national level, then they realized, oh, my heavens, we were winning these stupid elections. But we forfeited the culture and once you lose the culture, it’s just a lag time, just a matter of a decade or so and then eventually you can’t win presidential elections.
I think when it comes to an issue like gay marriage, that’s a prime example where the culture shifted dramatically, especially among young people on an issue that had been diametrically the opposite with Republicans not that long ago. There’s no easy answer. I’m urging people who read this book who have money is to quit funding campaigns or tone that down, quit giving think tanks more money to buy another leather couch and flat screen TV and start funding the arts. We need to have young conservative people who are starting a gossip magazine. There are things like that out there — women’s magazines, movies, and it can’t be like the overt propaganda movies that you can see a mile away, like this is the token conservative. No, it has to be good art. You have to start with good art that then happens to have a conservative message.
I will say we conservatives have this horrible, horrible tendency to do ham-handed propaganda while liberals are doing Avatar.
Totally! Yeah, the problem is you can’t fix this overnight. I think what happens is if you finally do have a political donor who says, “Okay, I keep hearing that culture matters. I’m going to fund a movie,” they’re like, “I want to do the Ayn Rand novel. If I’m going to pay for this, it’s going to be a biopic that shows how awesome George Wallace was,” or you know. something stupid. No, you have to have a system in place to identify, train, support young artists and let them sort of flourish. It can’t be heavy-handed because the worst stuff is propaganda. It has to be real art that has a conservative perspective.
Now one more question before we finish up and I’ll give you a chance to do a quick promo for the book. Some of the things you talked about as being negative in the conservative movement, I can see where you’re coming from on them. For example, you talk about how there are no more gatekeepers and the good news is that has allowed us to get a lot more conservative voices in there, but it’s also allowed a lot of sleazy and irresponsible people to slip into the media because there are no longer gatekeepers. You’ve talked about how there are no more William F. Buckleys who have the power to kick somebody out of the movement like he did with the birchers. So everybody’s got their own little fiefdom. You know, if you don’t want this group, there’s somebody else that does want them, will encourage them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the North American Union or birthers or whatever it is. So here’s the thing: is that just something where the genie is out of the bottle?
I think it is and it may be that in the long run that this is the new normal and there may even be some good things that come out of it.
Well, there are definitely some, I mean we’ve actually got a lot more conservative voices out there because of that.
But I think the problem is that there is a lack of parity. So while Republicans and conservatives are going through this identity crisis and soul searching and are spending this time in the wilderness, they’re leaderless and have all these technological barriers to entry being lowered, the Left and Democrats are in a much more stable place. I think they’ve settled down and they’re a little more pragmatic and a little more disciplined. And it may be that they’ve had their time in the wilderness and that they’re going to go through some major growing pains in the future, too. Without Barack Obama on the ballot who knows how good they’re going to do. But I do think that right now the reason I wrote this book specifically is that a lot of these trends are actually bipartisan. But I think they’re disproportionately hitting Republicans and conservatives right now at the very moment when we find ourselves leaderless and at a moment of great soul searching.
If you look at the potential schism that’s happening right now, you could potentially have a Marco Rubio/Paul Ryan Republican Party. That’s completely different than the other, say, end of the spectrum where you have a Donald Trump kind of nationalist populist party. So we’re at a crossroads and we could go two dramatically different directions right now. So, if you like politics, if you cover it, it’s fun and exciting, but it’s also very, very, very important and a potentially dangerous time right now.
Matt, thank you for your time!
If you want to buy Matt’s book, you can get it here.