tv QA John Burtka What is American Conservatism CSPAN July 19, 2020 11:00pm-12:01am EDT
after that, prime minister's questions from the british house of commons. and from today's washington journal, abc news chief white house correspondent jonathan carl talks about his new book, "front row at the trump show." ♪ susan: john burtka, executive director and acting editor of the american conservative. the summer, you have got a special issue of the organization's magazine asking the question, what is american conservatism. tell me about this project? mr. burtka: thank you so much for having me on, susan.
i conceived of the project because there is a lot going on in our country right now and it is unsettling times for a number of americans. everything having to do with the covid crisis, to the lockdowns, to the killing of george floyd and subsequent protests and riots, and the presidential election. so a lot of people are taking the opportunity to really re-examine first principles, and trying to figure out where we stand as a nation. and people on the right at the end of the president's term comes into focus are asking themselves what is conservatism? has the president made an impact on the overall trajectory of the conservative movement and the republican party? so i want to take this opportunity to re-examine those fundamental questions. back in 1964, there was a seminal book called the federalist papers which examined the definition of conservatism. that was put together by frank
meyer, bill f. buckley, a lot of conservative luminaries. and it came out in 1964, about six months before the presidential election when barry goldwater was a republican candidate. and it designed to really be a book to pull together disparate strands on the right and hopefully bring them into one camp that would eventually coalesce into a vibrant political movement. it did not succeed in 1964, but they did succeed at least at the ballot box with the election of ronald reagan. so i feel like we are in a time of transition on the right right now and we are figuring out where we are going to go. and it might not translate into an electoral victory in november, but really what we are doing is looking at the bigger picture in sort of examining the roots of where america should go as a country and what conservatism has to say about that. susan: if one searches top conservative magazines on the internet, there is a group
called thought company, which ranks your public agent number three and wrote this description. it is the magazine for the disenfranchised conservative, the one who was uncomfortable with the rash of false conservatives who have come to dominate the movement. does that definition square with how you think of yourself? mr. burtka: i think that is pretty accurate. we were founded i n2002 as a group of conservatives opposed to the war in iraq he wanted to advocate for realism and restraint in american foreign policy. and at the time that went against the grain of republican's in d.c., specifically those connected to the bush and ministration. the focus is even broader than foreign policy. it was to re-examine the questions that we believe have been ignored by elites in both parties since the end of the cold war. there's a confidence, a hubris after the end of the cold war, so we wanted to examine questions not only relating to
foreign policy, but also relating to the economic structures in our country. we wanted to essentially advocate for conservatism in an america that promotes a healthy middle-class and strong and vibrant local communities and families. so we continue to do that. i would say that with the election of donald trump in 2016, we have then been able to shift from being off on the side, sort of critical of where things are, to being more of a major player in terms of participating in the national conversation. because with the election of donald trump, interestingly enough, at least in the
conservative intellectual world, reopened a host of new questions. it has allowed us a real opportunity to shape the future of the right. susan: how are you organized and funded? mr. burtka: we are funded by donor-supported predominantly. 92% of revenue comes from donors. we have a $2.5 million budget. we produced a print magazine six times a year. we have about 30 stories a week on the website. then we also do a number of educational programs. we have about 10 conferences and panel events a year across the country on different issues that we focus on in the magazine. and we also have a constitutional follows program that we host for young, midcareer professionals on the hill. susan: and who are some of the people that our viewers would recognize that are associated with the american conservative? mr. burtka: that is a great question. in terms of our advisory board, we have fox news host tucker carlsen on the advisory board. we have a scholar at the american enterprise institute. we have someone from hills oak
college. we have a nice mix. we have our founders, pat buchanan, and a number of other voices that we have pulled on along the way. susan: in your essay and contribute into this seminar, you go through a brief history of the modern conservative, american conservative movement. and i want to do some of that with you during our hour together. you wrote, and it caught my attention, before we can understand the nature of american conservatism and its relevance for today, we must first define what we mean by america and what we mean by conservatism. ok, so i will bite. let's start with conservatism. what is it? mr. burtka: to me, conservatism is an active thing, it is a practice more than it is an
idea. from my perspective, conservatism is the practice of conservation and cultivation. so then the question is what course are we conserving? as americans, i think it is conserving the great traditions throughout our country's history. that goes back to the founders. even before that to the first settlers that came to this country. it also goes back to the great statesman. there has been a tendency within conservatism to say that conservatism or america is only an idea, and it is an idea it we can replicate and export all over the world. unfortunately we have attempted to do that through our foreign policy quite often and it has gone awry. so i think conservatism is more than just an idea. it is really the stories and the people that have taken part in the wonderful history that we have here in america.
and it also stretches back to the judeo-christian foundations of western thought, and greco-roman traditions going all the way back to aristotle to thomas aquinas, all the way throughout the medieval tradition and culminating in america. susan: and how do you define america? mr. burtka: how do i define america? well, i think it is important to understand that america, as i said, it is not only an idea, it is a place. it is a place that we call home in a place that we love. and there are -- basically, it's a place and it's an experiment in ordered liberty and virtue. and we have had successes and failures throughout our history. we have seen the scope of government grow, and contractor small periods of time. the important thing when we are looking at america from a conservative perspective is the goal is to really take the best of our traditions and apply them to the future. so it's not only a
backwards-looking exercise, it is a forward-looking exercise trying to cultivate ideas from the past and implement them now in order to have a more just, equitable, virtuous, and free society. susan: on that note, you wrote the first task of conservatives is to take stock as it is, not as they imagine it to be. what are you saying there? mr. burtka: what i am getting at there is much of the conservative movement had the goal of dismantling the new deal programs that were started under fdr, because they inevitably led to what conservatives like to call the administrative state, or the fourth branch of government that is unelected and unaccountable to the people in a direct sense. and i think there are very much legitimate criticisms to make of the new deal and of the administrative state. but i think the challenge is
that our country, that our system of government as it is today has really been in place and evolved over the last 100 years. so i really do not think that the administrative state is going anywhere. the task of pushing power back to the state is a daunting one, and i think it is something that we should continue working on, but i do not think that's the full task of conservatism. i think conservatives also need to look at where it is appropriate to use the structures as it exists today to serve conservative ends. so a couple areas that i would like to focus on are strengthening the american family, finding ways to support working mothers and fathers, whether that is through things like paid family leave policies
or other policies to promote family formation. i think trade policy and economic policy are two other areas. i think the cost of globalization over the last 30 years, certainly it has come with some benefits, but i think the cost has been stagnant middle-class wages, and downward mobility for a lot of americans, which leads to civil unrest and populist discontent on the right and left. i think that is especially important to re-examine vis-a-vis china and their growing influence in the world today. i also think we have to take a look at the tech monopolies and the concentrated power that we have on wall street today. and traditionally speaking, conservatives have liked to cut taxes, which again i understand. there's probably a lot of red tape that should not be there. but generally speaking,
traditional conservatives do not really get a lot in return. one of the signature achievements of the trump presidency was the corporate tax cut, but it is really the corporations that are leading the charge in terms of a social agenda that is very much at odds with the traditional conservative perspective. so i would say the bargain that conservatives have struck with wall street and with the libertarian influence on the right has not always translated into protecting and preserving faith, family, and local communities. so i think it is time that there is re-examination done on the right. and i think the limited government and just pushing back against all things government is -- there's something to it, but i think it is an incomplete picture, so i think we need to take stock of all the influences currently exerting themselves on our country and really formulate
a strategy that can strengthen the things we hold dear. and again, i think that is a strong middle class, vibrant families, and a path to upward mobility for all americans. susan: as you listen to your list of important topics, it sounds like there is some real common ground with progresses. is that true? do you differ on the prescription? mr. burtka: yeah. i think when we are looking at the overlap between progressives and conservatives, particularly on sort of the populist right today, there's a bit of an overlap. and i think the progressives are very good at identifying problems that are really hurting the country. i think bernie sanders is really great at identifying very real problems that are holding america back and keeping americans down. i think it is more a difference in terms of the solution to those problems.
but yeah, i'm certainly open to dialogue with progressives on what the problems are, and that is something that we have done quite a bit, particularly on foreign policy, throughout our magazine's history. susan: when you were describing what conservatism means to you, you talked about the need to, or desire to conserve the ideals of the founders. i wonder what you think about the energy within the black lives matter movement to re-examine our founding fathers and their role in the system they set up in government. mr. burtka: yeah, that is a great question. certainly a timely one with everything going on in the country. where i am coming from is i think that it's important that we take an honest look at american history. and there seems to be two tendencies right now. there's the tendency on the left to say that american history needs to be erased. looking at the 1619 project, the animating idea, or at least one
of them, is that the american revolution was fought to preserve slavery, essentially. so the tendency on the left is to cancel america or erase and break from the past and start over again. and there's a tendency on the right to basically say america is perfect, the founding was ordained by god, divinely inspired. our country has never done anything wrong, it is a great place, i do not know what you're talking about. so i think the answer, it lies somewhere in between. i think we have a history and tradition that we can be proud of. i think if you go back and examine the principles that animated the american founding principles in the declaration of independence, the idea of equal justice and liberty under the law, the inherent dignity of each and every person, i think there is a lot in our american tradition that people who care about justice would be well to
study and learn from, and sort of bring that to bear in creating a more just society today. so i think the conservative disposition, as i mentioned, it is about conservation and cultivation. so i think there is a quote that says, the individual is foolish, but the species is wise. and i think that is a very important lesson that even from our vantage point today, it's easy to look back and see everything that the founders did wrong, but it is harder to see where our own blinders might be today. so i think the general posture that we ought to have towards history is one of deference. however, it's the cultivation aspect of conservatism where we take those positions from the past and cultivate them and steward them for today. that does not preclude a re-examination of the historic legacy of slavery and its impact
on america today, but i think it is about an approach to history, and i think there's a stark difference there between conservatives and progressives right now. susan: when you look at a list of contributors to your symposium on the state of american conservatism, there are only two women's names. i'm wondering as a jumping off point for the question, about people of various demographics who participate in the conservative movement. is it inclusive enough for your satisfaction? mr. burtka: i think it could certainly be more inclusive. when i was reaching out to people to write for the symposium, i initially gravitated towards those who were the editors of magazines and publications on the right today, or those who lead think tanks or institutions. and in most of them on the right, they tend to be males, and they tend to be older.
so i think in terms of a successful long-term project, i think conservatism would do well to cultivate more voices from more diverse backgrounds. that is definitely something to work on. susan: how does that happen? mr. burtka: how does that happen? that is a really good question. i think it comes down to -- ultimately it comes down to relationships. i think it is less a result of an intentional effort to exclude women, or blacks, hispanics in the conservative movement. i think it really comes down to relationships, and people tend to congregate with people that think like they do, act like they do, and travel in similar social circles as they do. so i think it really probably sprung up more organically in that respect.
so i think the best place to start is by being intentional about cultivating relationships with people that might not be in the current sort of group of conservative intellectual thinkers, and sort of bringing them on board that way. susan: as you did in the magazine, i wanted to go through a brief history of some of the stages of american conservatism in the united states during the 20th century. it had its roots in the mid-20th century. tell me how it got started. mr. burtka: conservatism really, as an intellectual and political movement, really began as a pushback against collectivism and against the new deal. seeing it as violating constitutional principles, and sort of an overgrowth of government. and then it began to morph with the challenge that we had against communism overseas, and seeing the influence of
communist thought, particularly on american intellectuals and american publications. so it really started off as sort of a quirky intellectual movement, with a few political figures pushing back against collectivism at home and abroad. and really some of the seminal moments were the publication of russell kirk's the conservative mind, which famously tried to not pigeonhole an ideological definition of conservatism, but took examples of servant of statesmen throughout history and basically painted more of a conservative disposition than an ideology. and then you of course have the founding of national review magazine back in 1955 by william f. buckley junior, which really
began to sort of bring these diverse camps into play. and it wasn't only those pushing back against big government or the soviet union. you also had traditional and religious conservatives that tended to have not only social conservatism, but also many of them were catholic, so they had a sense of piety for the great saints and teachers throughout church history. so you have the economic conservatives in one camp, you have the social and traditional conservatives in another camp, and then you had the foreign policy hawks that were concerned about the soviet union and another camp. and then you also had a disaffected people from the left who were concerned particularly about the soviet union and the cold war, who were called neoconservatives, a commentary
magazine when that was founded, fusing into the conservative movement that really coalesced around the reagan presidency. susan: you mentioned some of the sounding lights of american conservatism. i want to show people two of them you just mentioned so we can see and hear some of these people and hear their thinking. let's begin with a clip from russell kirk later on in his life, june 4, 1980. this is from the c-span archives. >> american intellectual renewal of conservative ideas beginning around 1950 was typically unorganized and undirected, with individual scholars and letters only slightly acquainted with one another's work, let alone enjoying personal acquaintance. books who obtained some attention shortly before 1950. when i published my book, the conservative mind, in 1953, i did not know any of these
gentlemen except weaver. no one had met one another, but with two exceptions. we did not agree about anything, not even the word conservative. susan: talking about how this movement got its start. how important was his book, the conservative mind, to the genesis of the movement? mr. burtka: incredibly important. most people in tribute it to being the founding of the conservative intellectual movement in america. as you mentioned, at the time, there really were quite disparate voices. many of the people did not even know each other. i think this was the first systematic attempt to bring together a diverse array of thinkers, historic figures, and talking about sort of what, as a body of work, conservatism is. and hopefully trying to apply it to what it might mean or what it might become in america.
susan: what was the relationship between the conservative intellectuals and the presidency of dwight eisenhower, both eisenhower and richard nixon? mr. burtka: the relationship between eisenhower and the conservatives was tenuous. i believe there's an eisenhower quotation that i can paraphrase, where he essentially thought that people on the right who were trying to dismantle or do away with things like social security or other government programs, he thought that they were utopian in their outlook, mostly because he said these are programs that your ordinary americans, middle-class americans, they like them. they provide an extra degree of security and support. they have been embraced in the american consciousness, and it
would be political suicide for any politician, no matter what the party, to try to remove or dismantle those programs. so i think while eisenhower would certainly probably agree with certain conservative dispositions, i think the political attempt to undo various welfare programs, he was highly skeptical of. in terms of richard nixon, there's a -- pat buchanan, who had worked in the nixon administration, was asked i believe by bill f. buckley, but someone at national review, are you the conservative movement's representative to the nixon and ministration, or the nixon representative to the conservative movement? and he said he was the latter. so i think the relationship between those two presidents and
the formalized conservative movement was a bit tenuous. at best. susan: how important was senator robert taft to the conservative movement in the 1950's? mr. burtka: he was very important. he was held up as a model, an ideal statesmen, pushing back against a more aggressive approach to american foreign policy. he was a staunch defender of individual liberties, constitutional government. so i think to many people in the conservative movement, and certainly to many people at the american conservative, he's a model that we have held in high esteem. susan: you mentioned william f. buckley, and we have a clip from him from 2002. let's listen and we will talk about his legacy in the conservative movement. >> fundamentally, a liberal is less anchored than the
conservative. in what we like to think of as central and fixed ideas. with order, with transcendence. the liberal fancies himself a more empirical, less tied down to any orthodoxy. and very hospitable of the idea of the state being used as an instrument by which to make human progress. susan: first of all on his point, liberals are less anchored than conservatives, do you agree? mr. burtka: i do not agree with that sentiment. in one sense. i don't agree because at least liberals today -- maybe at the time, i think this statement would be true, but today -- [indiscernible]
-- a neutral public square where diverse voices can engage in free speech and debate. i think the very positive ideological component driving liberalism today in america. and i think whether it comes to sexual ethics, or a view of america's history and founding, i do not think it is liberal in the classical sense anymore. i think there actually is an anchor of positive ideology. it is one i disagree with, and i think it is one that is counter to a conservatism that really anchors itself in history and tradition, but i certainly think that there is an anchor behind how the left sees the world today. susan: and what is william f. buckley's legacy to the movement?
mr. burtka: well, his legacy is that he ran and founded the most influential conservative publication of the 20th century that exerted a great deal of influence on republican politics. so in that sense, i think it is a positive legacy. but at the same time, i think there are some pitfalls. i think he over emphasized the importance of politics and electoral victories at the expense of other cultural concerns. i think the magazine, national review, towards the end of its life, i know that buckley came to regret supporting the war in iraq. but he and his magazine in some sense led the charge of leading the united states, or encouraging the united states to pursue a regime change in iraq. they may not have been as unified in their support of the
iraq war as bill kristol and the weekly standard, but i think they were certainly complicit in that, and also complicit in sidelining dissenting conservative voices throughout the history of the conservative movement. and i think if they were slightly less ideological and had been open both more intellectually and also in terms of dissenting voices, buckley's legacy would be more positive today. i think you can see in some sense the election of donald trump as a repudiation of the defusionist synthesis that buckley championed at national review. you see today on the right, a shift away from -- especially vis-a-vis china, supporting more of an economic nationalism or economic patriotism. you see a greater skepticism of foreign interventional is.
and you seem more concerned not only about big government but also about big business. and those, in many respects, run counter to buckley's legacy at national review. at the same time, i think he was also a brilliant intellectual and a scholar and a writer. so if you were around today, i also think he would adapt to the times and the new challenges. and i hope you would be less perhaps ideologically rigid than some people would like to think. susan: you mentioned his emphasis on the ballot box. the conservative movement got his first run at the white house in 1964 with the campaign of senator barry goldwater of arizona. we have a much well-known clip from his acceptance speech in 1964. let's listen and we will come back to you. >> let our republicanism so focused and dedicated not be made fuzzy and frugal by unthinking and stupid labels.
[applause] i would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no right. [cheers and applause] thank you. and let me remind you also, that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. susan: people followed richard nixon as he gave that speech. what does that mean to you today? mr. burtka: yeah. that certainly is a powerful quote. i think there are some flaws with it, though.
i think the mindset -- first, i think the flaw from a conservative perspective is that prudence is really the pinnacle of virtues when it comes to conservatism. and so, extremism, you know, in pursuit of liberty, is a bit of an oxymoron. i think it is important to have strong convictions, to have a clear sense of where you want to go as a culture and as a society. but i think ultimately, extremism, as he describes it, needs to be tempered with prudence, and also what is actually politically possible. and obviously in terms of winning the election, that message did not quite work for him. at the same time, it did spur an intellectual and political movement that was later taken up by ronald reagan, who i think
was a far more effective messenger in terms of packaging the ideas of liberty. but he made them not sound extreme, but he made them sound palatable and even attractive to ordinary middle-class americans. so i think that was reagan's virtue. and yeah, so that's where i would take that quote. susan: let's listen to ronald reagan in his press inauguration address in 1981. and hear how he described his goals. >> our government has no power except what is granted by the people. it is time to check the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed. it is my intention to curb the size and influence of the federal government and recognize the distinction of powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to
the states or to the people. [applause] susan: john burtka, how did ronnie reagan governed versus his ideals when he got into office? mr. burtka: well, i think that he found out it is a lot harder to scale back the federal bureaucracy in washington than he may have thought. i do not think he was naive against the monumental challenge he was up against. he certainly cut taxes and used deregulation and other things to free and unleash the economy in a way that i think was quite successful. but i think in terms of taking a look at the federal government, the bureaucratic apparatus, and really making meaningful reform, i think he came up a bit thin. and i think that is because the administrative state has a life
of its own, and it has entrenched bureaucratic interests, and congress is not as -- they are content passing off a lot of the legislative possibilities to the administrative state. and even someone as great as ronald reagan ultimately -- he was successful in terms of -- well, certainly in foreign policy with communism and the end of the cold war he was successful. but in terms of really reigning in the power of the federal government, he helped to delay expanding growth but he was not able to stop it, let alone retreating. susan: you write in the decades after the reagan administration, american conservatism became unmoored from its intellectual forebears. mr. burtka: it lost the glue
that held it together. as i mentioned before, you have the different coalitions. the foreign policy hawks, the social conservatives, and the economic libertarians. and i think political coalitions form primarily on account of external threats. so you have people banding together who find themselves more like each other than the people that are opposing them. so they come together, they work on a joint project, and they succeeded. but after that success happened, i think they lost the villain that really kept them all in the same camp together. so i think you saw after that a search, essentially, for a new bogeyman to hold the conservative coalition together, which i think was a mistake. because i think it is perfectly fine for disparate groups to come together to achieve a specific purpose and then go separate ways and form new coalitions with new groups. what you saw after 9/11 and the
war on terror and the war in iraq. i think there was an attempt to make islamic terrorism the new soviet union, the new glue that could hold together the disparate conservative coalitions. and i think that ended up being a failure. not because -- something needed to be done about 9/11, but i think the response was to look for a new monster that could really unite people together, and it turned out to be -- not working out so well. that did not work so well for the over 500,000 iraqis that ended up losing their lives, and it did not end up working for the population of christians in iraq. there were 1.5 million christians in iraq prior to the war, and now there are about
300,000 less. many of them were displaced or moved, and some of them were certainly killed. so i think this is a case where there is a zeal to find something to hold the coalition together, a zeal to find an entity that is threatening america, but it really lacks humility, and also the prudence, the exercise of prudence. when you take a look at the world, this is what i mentioned before about seeing the world as it is. often times, you may have a situation where you have a dictator like saddam hussein and people really suffering beneath that dictator. but overthrowing the dictator leads to anarchy, which is -- far worse for the
people then they were originally. so i think that is where the principles of humility and prudence really come into play. so i think looking forward now, it's interesting seeing, can there be anything that holds this conservative coalition together? is that really the right way to be thinking about things on the right? susan: before we bring this conversation into today, i wanted to learn more about yourself. you talked earlier about the need to bring more young people into the movement. how did you get involved? when did you first decide you were a conservative? mr. burtka: for me, it really began with my family upbringing. my parents. my father worked in the auto industry in detroit. and when the auto industry ended up going south, he took our life savings and poured it into a small business. he had the courage to start a small winery in michigan, which is a thing. so i sort of began to learn the conservative principles really instilled through my family, through entrepreneurship and
localism, engagement with the local community and our local church. and worked there for pretty much every weekend from when i was 12 years old behind the counter all the way through college. and when i went to college, ended up going to hillsboro college, which is pretty well known as one of the more conservative universities in the country. funny enough, when i first arrived there, i knew very little about the conservative intellectual tradition, or really about the western heritage. and it was at hillsdale that i had the opportunity, really for the first time, to do a deep study of the great books, going all the way back to aristotle, and all the way up to the founders and contemporary american history. so hillsdale was really the transformational experience in terms of intellectual conservatism. from there, i ended up studying theology in france for a year,
was able to practice my french skills for a bit, then came back to the united states on the east coast and decided that i wanted to get back into the conservative intellectual movement. and the president of hillsdale helped me to get my first job at isi, which, interestingly enough, isi was an organization also founded by william f. buckley junior, dedicated to promoting the conservative and tradition on college campuses throughout the country. and it was when i was at isi doing fundraising, helping to find donors that would support conservative journalists, that is where i discovered the american conservative, because i was reading nearly every conservative publication and raising funds for student journalists and recent graduates at those publications that the american conservative really jumped out to me as one
conservative publication that was unafraid and willing to buck the trends of the republican party, and see things through fresh eyes. so that is what drew me to the american conservative. i started out overseeing the development side of things, and then my role has grown and expanded, so that now i am overseeing the whole thing. susan: we have in our video library the president of hillsdale from september of 2016 talking about its course of study. i would like to show that to our audience so they can learn more. >> the subject matter of the college is the ultimate things. the ins of life, the things for which we live our lives. and those are things that are identified in the classical and medieval and renaissance literature, and some modern literature, as being the things that are good simply for their
own sake, and there is nothing that you could add to them to make them better. love to teach ethics as much as anything i teach. and the kids love it. all the kids read the first book, ethics, before they come here for their freshman year. we send them a book, and say read this. and then the rest of the four years is to come to understand what that and things like that mean, including any natural sciences, which are very strong here. susan: american higher education has tended in the last couple decades towards practical skill building rather than foundational learning. when you left college, how did you feel that this kind of education supported you for the life you wanted to lead? mr. burtka: thanks, that is a great question. i felt like my education at hillsdale really gave me a comprehensive, but not exhaustive, a comprehensive understanding of the human
person, the dignity of the human person, and also our place within the greater context of american history and western history. so i left college not with a particular skill set in terms of job skills, but with a greater perspective to understand what the human person is, what is the good, what is the purpose of human life and life together in society. and one lesson that i drew, especially from his class which he mentioned, is the idea that where there is justice, friendship is still needed. but where there is friendship, justice is not needed, because friendship -- people who are friends with each other and up treating each other justly. i think that is one of the great challenges that our country is
going through now. there's an understandable push for justice, but i think given the atomization and the isolation that has been part of american society for the last 10 or 20 years, thanks in large part to technology, but which is now exacerbated by the virus and the subsequent shutdown, i think it is important to remember that it's really friendship that holds cities together and holds countries together. and if we had a greater emphasis on that, we would do better as a people. so i really left feeling like i was equipped to do anything and learn anything and take on any challenge that might come my way thanks to mentors and people who have been willing to give me an opportunity to do that. i have been able to grow my career and my personal and professional life because of it. susan: let's spend our last 13 minute with thoughts about today.
what do you see the 2016 election of donald trump of being all about? mr. burtka: i think it is about four things really. first and foremost, it was about the failures of american foreign policy and american empire for the past 30 years. president trump on the stage in south carolina, probably the first republican candidate to publicly denounce the war in iraq, perhaps with the exception of ron paul, but that was not taken that seriously. he was written off by rudy giuliani. i think challenging the overreach of american foreign policy. i think trade policy, specifically globalization and china, and the impact of losing 100,000 approximate factories since china joined the wto in
2000, which ended up in many ways exacerbating things like the opioid epidemic, and stems of frustration and despair felt in many communities that once relied on those manufacturing jobs. i think it was about immigration, particularly the impact that mass immigration had on driving down working-class wages, and the frustration over that. and then i also think it was about political correctness, and a fatigue that ordinary americans felt being lectured at by corporate america and the hollywood. and i think donald trump, despite the fact that he was often quite crude in his denunciations of political correctness, he hit a nerve and challenging that. so i think it was those four issues that led to his victory in 2016. susan: let's listen to donald trump in his inaugural address.
>> we are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. from this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. from this day forward, it's going to be only america first. america first. susan: is america first consistent with conservative thinking? mr. burtka: i think it depends how you define it. but i certainly think it can be consistent. and i think it is a healthy alternative to george w. bush's second inaugural address, which had very much a utopian vision of american military might bringing democracy throughout the world, particularly in the middle east.
so i think if america first means that we still engage and have allies and friendly relationships with other countries, but we reprioritize our foreign policy decisions, our economic and trade decisions, decisions about immigration, decisions about taking care of those who are suffering and those who are hurting in our own country over the interest of global capital, and over the interest of the military-industrial complex, then i think america first is very much consistent with conservative principles. susan: you mentioned how important it was for friendships which proceeded justice for all. donald trump's twitter feed and many of his speeches are very tough on his adversaries. how do you think that has worked to advance the principles of the conservative movement? mr. burtka: well, i think, to me, the lesson to draw from
donald trump is that the policy -- threefold, i guess. the policies, i think there is a debate going on whether donald trump won because he was brash and his style of pulverizing his enemies, is that what got him elected, or was it the substantial issues his campaign raised? i saw in the second camp that gave those four issues i mentioned, that is key for victory. but the lesson to draw from his style is there are a large group of americans who feel like they have been left behind. the president talked about american carnage in his inaugural address. and i think a lot of people just want to go on thinking everything is great in the country, and have not paid attention to that style and majority of people. and i think those people are
looking for someone who fights for them. so to the extent that trump is combative, i think there is something that resonates about his willingness to fight. but i will say that it is his style that is problematic where he relentlessly attacks people. and it oftentimes does not produce any political gain or any concrete victory for those people who supported him in 2016. so i think it is one of those things where i understand the importance of fighting for middle america. at the same time, i think you need to pick and choose your battles, and you also have to show charity, because that is a conservative principle and also a christian principal. so i think it would be foolish for conservatives to jest in that. susan: as we look back over the 70 years or so of the american conservative movement in this country, we see the growth of
government both by the size of federal expenditures, and also the growth of federal debt. now, the problem with this is it is just hard numbers, it does not say percentage of gdp, which i know is important. but you can see in both charts, that the numbers keep rising as the decades go along. so the question is, if the size of government has been an organizing principle of conservative movement, how effective has it been over the past 70 years? mr. burtka: not very effective. unfortunately, it's something that seems to have a life of its own and it continues to grow. and it seems like you can only slow the expansion of debt and the growth of the federal government. you cannot ever really reverse it. so i think this is something that conservatives really need to have a serious look at. i think slowing the debt and coming up with strategies to mitigate it is worthwhile, but i
think conservatism needs to be more than on one side growing the gdp, and on the other side, reducing the federal debt. conservatism has to do with the human person, it has to do with culture, friendship, and local tradition. and there are a great many local traditions throughout america that are worth conserving and protecting. and it is about family, too. so sure, those things can be part of the conservative project, but if they are the only reason for the project, then i think conservatism is a failure, and deserves to be one. susan: in this exercise you are going through to re-examine in american conservatism, you write that throughout american history, americans have turned to the federal government during times of crises. can american conservatism survive coronavirus, where people are looking for the federal and state governments for a solution?
they are looking for big pharma to supply vaccines and medication, and looking for international cooperation to share results of studies. mr. burtka: you cannot have american conservatism without america. so there are certain situations where there is a crisis that is so large, that the federal government or the state government needs to take action and in taking action, they are actually able to preserve the country and the people who live there. so i would not be dogmatic about the need to use political power in cases of emergency. however, i am also skeptical of whether or not that political power and the money that is expended actually goes to support working middle-class americans and families. i think there is a tendency for bailouts to go to the large corporations in the form of cronyism and people who have the power to lobby funds. i would say in theory, i support
using political power to address national crises. but in practice, i'm skeptical of how it plays out. so i think we need to be careful to rush to use political power if there are other options on the table. susan: the impetus for our conversation was the summer issue of the american conservative magazine, which you are now editing for your organization. and the seminar on what is american conservatism. you have kindly made a link available for c-span viewers who want to see more of what you have done in this magazine. what will they find on that link? who is there? mr. burtka: if they go to that link they will find 22,000 word essay responses to the question of what is american conservatism. the overall tone and consensus is really tapping into the new things i am talking about going on in conservatism. but we have a diverse array of voices from people who are conservative nationalists, to people who are conservative
local lists, to others who think that conservatism and the conservative process is a failure. to others who think that conservatism is really about a more christian, humanistic vision of learning to love thy neighbor and practice charity. so we have a great spectrum, and i think it will be really helpful for people looking to understand just what the heck is going on in conservatism since the election of donald trump, and what we can expect from the conservative movement in the post-trump years to come. susan: and what do you think will happen as a result of this exercise? mr. burtka: well, i hope that we can bring more conservative and more americans, generally, of both political parties, to support a political and cultural agenda that strengthens the american middle class, that strengthens the american family, that restrains our utopian foreign policy, and that
promotes trade and economic policy that really can support americans. so, that's my goal. susan: mr. burtka, thank you very much for spending one hour with c-span. mr. burtka: thank you very much, susan. ♪ [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2020] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] announcer: all "q&a" programs are available on our website or as a podcast at c-span.org. live ons a look at our c-span, the house is back for legislative business at 10:00 a.m. eastern, starting with fence programs. later, they will vote on whether to remove statues of confederate leaders from the capital, plus an additional spending package also on the agenda. the schedule is subject to change due to the death of congressman john lewis of
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