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Ramesh Ponnuru Visits Fels to Discuss "Conservatism in the Age of Trump"

Aaron Kelley, MPA '19
November 8, 2017

Above: Ramesh Ponnuru (right) during his discussion with Dr. Rogers Smith.

 

On Tuesday, November 7th, Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor for National Review, columnist for Bloomberg View, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and senior fellow at the National Review Institute visited Fels for an intellectual discussion on “Conservatism in the Age of Trump.” The discussion was moderated by Dr. Rogers Smith, Associate Dean for the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

The evening began with a discussion on the place of “Trumpism” and nationalism in modern conservatism. As a coherent political philosophy, Ponnuru stated, “Trumpism” itself does not truly exist, as the President himself does not seem to be consistent in his ideological stances. In regards to the nationalistic sentiments of President Trump and many of his most vocal supporters, however, Ponnuru went on to say that a form of such nationalism does indeed have a place in conservatism, but perhaps not exactly in the form that Donald Trump continues to promote. More explicitly, Ponnuru criticized the President’s nationalistic policies by saying that they simply do not seem to be in the best interest of every United States national (as real nationalism should), but rather only a subset of the population.

 

Dr. Rogers Smith then went on to ask Ponnuru how he, as a Constitutional Conservative, views the actions of the President so far in his term. In response, Ponnuru started by saying that it is necessary to distinguish between what Trump says and what his administration’s actual actions have been. As an administration, Ponnuru explained, the executive branch has generally acted in the interest of Constitutional Conservatives, stating as an example his sentiment that President Trump has not yet exceeded the constitutional power of the presidency as President Obama had done. As a singular entity, however, Ponnuru stated that it seems that Donald Trump himself does not like or understand constitutional governance and that he has no interest in fitting himself into the established, institutional form of the presidency. Because of this, he said, there is now a void where the traditional presidency formerly was.

 

Next, how Ponnuru thinks of his role as a political figure and journalist in light of intense political polarization and the perceived abundance of “fake news” was discussed. Polarization itself, he posited, has become free of its original causes, with the glue that now holds each of the two major political parties together simply being animosity towards the ideals and members of the other major party. He also mentioned how partisan media has gained a foothold because of many citizens’ intense desires to simply have their existing opinions confirmed. This is, in his words, “a profoundly unhealthy situation” that we should all attempt to counter despite the great difficulty in doing so. There is no great solution, Ponnuru said, but he feels that the one thing that we all can do is try our hardest to model the behavior that we wish to see in others (such as by conducting ourselves politely and intellectually in political discourse).

 

Ponnuru was then asked what all of this means for our prospects of effective governance by the Republican-led government going forward. In response, he stated that he cannot foresee any sort of comprehensive healthcare legislation being passed by this government, and that he also cannot foresee the passage of a successful tax bill (that is agreeable to any large portion of Americans) or a substantial infrastructure upgrade bill (as supported by President Trump). The reason for this ineffectiveness, he says, will be in part because of two things: the extreme internal division within the party and lack of unified political vision, and the fact that the Republican Congress is (for the first time in decades) not simply taking orders from the sitting Republican President--meaning that it is trying to “relearn the habits of setting the agenda, itself.”

 

Finally, the conversation moved towards the topic of the future of the two major parties in light of the Trump presidency. While it is very hard to predict how the parties are going to evolve, Ponnuru said, he does have a few ideas of how this process may happen. On the Democratic Side, he stated, the direction of the party may depend on the character of whoever the next Democratic nominee for the presidency is. In order for the Democrats to win in the future, however, Ponnuru said that the there must either be sufficiently favorable conditions (such as a foreign or economic crisis) or that the Democrats must want to win badly enough that they actually try to appeal to some of the people who voted for Donald Trump in the last election (rather than just scolding them).

 

On the Republican side, he said that the party itself is very divided and in a very strange place, specifically because they will need to work out this internal conflict while simultaneously having the responsibility to run the government. Trump-opposed elements within the party, Ponnuru stated, seem to believe that the pre-Trump party will reassert itself at some point after the President's tenure. In his opinion, however, the Republican coalition has become something completely different from what pre-Trump Republicans thought it would eventually be. Nowadays, he says, there is a much larger working class and nationalistic part of the Republican voter base than ever before and that in order to be successful, party leaders must sift through their ideas to see what can actually reasonably be given to members of this new voter base while still finding common ground with the rest of the party and country.

 

Before discussing a few other items and taking questions from students, Ponnuru finished this portion of the discussion by saying that, although Trump is not currently doing the aforementioned work of reconciliation and compromise, neither is his opposition in either party. “Trump is a transitional figure,” Ponnuru stated boldly, “but no one is really trying to figure out the future.” Therein, perhaps, lies the job of some of the many budding public servants and future political figures that were seated before him.

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Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu