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Populism, Conservatism and Skepticism: A Q&A with Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg, bestselling author and senior editor at National Review, will talk about the current political atmosphere and his upcoming book, Suicide of the West, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 7, in the Duke Family Performance Hall. The event is free and open to the public. Reserve tickets online through the Alvarez College Union Ticket Office (a small convenience fee is charged at time of reservation) or pick up for free at the Alvarez College Union Ticket Box Office.
Jonah Goldberg
Prominent conservative author Jonah Goldberg cautions students against “groupthink” and political tribalism.

Jonah Goldberg, one of the nation's leading conservative voices, visits Davidson College this week, arriving in the midst of what he describes as an existential battle between the Republican party and President Trump's populist movement.

Goldberg, bestselling author and senior editor at National Review, will talk about the current political atmosphere and his upcoming book, Suicide of the West, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 7, in the Duke Family Performance Hall.

In a phone interview last week, he gave a preview of his talk and touched on the challenges facing civil discourse on and off campus. As one of Political Twitter's premier dog people, Goldberg also talked about his pups, Zoe and Pippa—and, finally, revealed his favorite scene from "Caddyshack."

What are you hoping to talk about when you visit Davidson?

We live in this very screwed-up moment where politics has become essentially a surrogate religion or a lifestyle. A certain tribal mentality has developed that says, "People who disagree with me aren't merely my political opponents, they're my enemies," and "What is good for my enemy is bad for me" and vice versa. This is a complete corruption of what an open society is supposed to be. I say this as someone who likes arguments and thinks democracy is supposed to be about disagreement. But we've hit a tipping point.

How should students navigate and learn from a political atmosphere in which, as you recently wrote, the abnormal has become normal?

Students really need to appreciate the danger of "groupthink." There is a remarkable cultural consensus on campus about how people are supposed to behave and think.

One of the points of a liberal arts education is to inculcate a certain amount of skepticism towards that kind of stuff. Liberal arts students are developing the skills and knowledge base necessary to be responsible stewards of freedom—that's what the "liberal" in "liberal arts" refers to. That requires a certain amount of tolerance for opposing points of view.

The best learning is Socratic—disagreeing with your professors helps you understand what you actually believe. You get a sharper blade by grinding it against the whetting stone. So, particularly in moments like this when politics is so nuts, one thing that is responsible to do as a citizen is to try and understand the points of view of the other side. We're all Americans. We all require some modicum of decency and civility. And we need to understand that not everyone who disagrees with you is a racist or a white nationalist or a Marxist. We shouldn't be terrified of finding out we're wrong about stuff.

A Davidson student recently commented that college students talk in political clichés. How do students move beyond clichés into genuine conversation?

As the author of a book called, The Tyranny of Clichés, I think your student may be the greatest genius ever born.

There are certain ideas that when you hear them, they skip right past the rational part of your brain like they have some sort of coating on them, like a pill that lets them get into your metabolism. And when you ask people who speak in clichés, "What do you mean by that?" or "Is that really true?" You can find out pretty quickly that a lot of people are using these clichés as a substitute for thinking rather than actually thinking. That's the danger of cliché: You're taking positions you don't really understand. Simply having a "that-sounds-too-good-to-be-true" attitude about pithy statements that you've heard a thousand times before is a really good start.

Davidson's mission is to assist students in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service. Everywhere they look, however, students see examples of how not to lead. Where should students find leaders worthy of their attention?

You can identify leaders in politics by their willingness to say things that their biggest fans don't necessarily want to hear.

If you see politicians who are only saying stuff that feeds the resentments of their base, then they are not really leaders. They might as well be props. All they're doing is playing a role.

Polarization has pushed both parties to cater to the resentment and anger of their bases. Most politicians are afraid of being primaried, not getting beaten in the general election. When they feel that way, the incentives lead them in the wrong direction. Leaders become caricatures that no one can get to the right or left of instead of leading.

Your next book, Suicide of the West is scheduled for release in April 2018. But you've been working on it for years. Have the events of the past six to seven months changed your book significantly?

I didn't expect the Republican party to have this massive identity crisis and for there to be an existential war on the right for the last two years. So, I have had to incorporate much more Trump stuff than I ever imagined, but at the same time, a lot of the problems we have were long in the making before Trump showed up. He's kind of a great "Exhibit A" of the problems we're facing. For me, he represents the conservative surrender to identity politics and populism. I always thought that conservatism, rightly understood, stood against and fought those things. It's a depressing development, but it also proves and extends the thesis of the book.

If you could go back to college, what is the one thing you would—or would not—do again?

I guess one of the things I wish I had paid more attention to is math. I basically have an English major's grasp of math; I tend to think of it all as witchcraft. I've had to re-educate myself so that I'm sufficiently numerate to do the job.

Your Twitter presence is not simply political; you share a lot about your dogs and dogs in general. Does that defuse critics?

One of the reasons I love dogs is they are entirely upstream from politics. I don't care if you're a crazed Marxist or a wild-eyed Randian, people like dogs. (And if they don't—they're dead to me anyway!) And in this crazy political moment, I think it's a nice thing to do.

The stuff about my own dogs started by accident. The dog in my Twitter profile picture is the late, great Cosmo the Wonder Dog. He was the 'it' dog of the American right (a title, alas, currently held by Dana Perino's Jasper). Cosmo was the mascot of National Review Online when I founded it. I used to write about him a lot.

I started tweeting about my current dogs Zoe (and, later, Pippa) when we adopted Zoe. We thought she was a German Shepherd mix but she is a Carolina Dog, a breed people refer to as "the American dingo." When we got Zoe, she was really sick so I started giving canine updates (gravely ill puppies arouse concern from lots of quarters) and now, so many people follow my Twitter account for the dog stuff that if I ever stop, I'll lose them.

Do you have a favorite line from "Caddyshack"?

There's an underappreciated, hilarious moment at the end when Rodney Dangerfield is attempting to bribe the ref, played by Brian Doyle Murray. Dangerfield starts peeling out 50-dollar bills saying "Keep it fair. Keep it honest." and Murray says, "Oh no, I couldn't," while he pockets the money.

Jay Pfeifer
japfeifer@davidson.edu
704-894-2920