Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. Ponnuru has published articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He also authored the book “The Mystery of Japanese Growth.”
Between your work at the National Review, Bloomberg View, and other media outlets, you have been a political journalist through Trump’s rise and the beginning of his presidency. Do you think political journalism has changed over the course of the 2016 campaign and the early days of the Trump administration?
I would say that political journalism has become less confident than it was at the beginning of the 2016 campaign. The horse-race journalism paradigm has to be called into question when it leads everybody to spend an enormous amount of their time predicting things that turn out not to happen, and that obviously and spectacularly happened in this election. I think it is fair to say that this was the biggest upset in American political history – bigger even than the famous Truman defeat of Dewey with him holding the newspaper that claimed the reverse. There is an ongoing challenge for political journalists to be able to tell what is important, what is unimportant, and to be able to convey that to their readers and viewers, to tell what is normal and abnormal and convey that. I’m not sure that any of us has really figured that out yet. Republican media strategist Brad Todd and then others said that journalists take Trump literally but not seriously and voters take him seriously but not literally. To the extent that’s true, what does that mean about how we should cover what he says? We’re used to presidents’ words meaning something. To what extent are we supposed to relax that assumption because he does not necessarily mean us to take things that he says seriously?
The National Review is a key example of modern advocacy journalism, specifically for conservatism. How do you think the polarization of the press will continue to impact American democracy?
I think that the ideological splintering of the media has been both symptomatic of and a contributor to the polarization of American politics. Just how important a contributor is a little bit trickier to ascertain, but it is certainly the case that we have large numbers of people who have their own information streams and are not aware of what people who don’t think exactly like them are thinking. I think that is a big problem in governing a country that is split as roughly evenly as ours has been for a good long time. To the extent that our republic has been more and more dysfunctional, I think that is a big element of the problem. One of the things that people in the press need to reckon with is their own complicity in squandering the credibility of the media. There are a lot of Trump supporters who will refuse to believe media stories – even completely accurate ones – that are unflattering to the President and his team. One of the reasons that’s the case is that people got used to the idea that the press would be slanted and that the press wasn’t necessarily diligent about getting the facts nailed down. Maybe they’ve become less so in recent years because of the economic imperatives and technological imperatives of filing quickly. I don’t see enough self-reflection on the part of the press about how to overcome this problem.
You co-authored an article arguing that the general understanding of nationalism acting as a negative force on countries is unfounded and that nationalism is a necessary precursor to democracy. Why do you think the negatives of globalization outweigh the positives?
Globalization is one of those terms, and I suppose nationalism is another, where it means so many different things to different people and sometimes when we talk about it, it is the enemy of precision. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s advisor, calls himself an economic nationalist, and if what economic nationalism means is that we are going to pursue policies that are in the interest of Americans and that privileges those interests over the interests of non-Americans, I think that is a perfectly reasonable policy for the American government to pursue. I just think we have to be careful and empirical and thoughtful about what policies actually do advance American interests and the problem I have with protectionism isn’t that it’s nationalistic, it’s that it doesn’t actually help. I have seen very little grappling among people who are advocating these policies of restricting free trade with that kind of empirical evidence. They never grapple with the fact, for example, that if you protect the steel industry you’re hurting the industries that use steel that employ vastly more Americans. You need to reckon with the fact that we have these global supply chains. So, the problem isn’t the premise that we need to help Americans, the problem is you’ve got to operationalize that in a useful way.
What do you think is the ideal path forward for the Republican Party in the next four years?
I think it is going to be a bumpy ride. I think the key thing is to concentrate on actually governing the country well and if you do that other things fall into place. In terms of where I think the Republican Party should go philosophically, I think they need to sift what is good and what is bad in Trumpism. I was a critic of Donald Trump, am still a critic of Donald Trump. His philosophy is not mine, but the preexisting power structure in the Republican Party and the set of ideas that pre-Trump Republicans had had grown stale and ossified, and it needed to be broken up. So I don’t think the answer is to revert back to a pre-Trump era kind of Republicanism.