E.J. Dionne on Why the Right Went Wrong

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
E.J. Dionne’s new book, on the path toward Trump.

The personal-insult war underway last night between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz brings the campaign down to a level hard to imagine even in the days of “Little Marco” and “small hands.” If the concept of being “qualified” for the presidency still had any salience, Trump’s astonishing meeting with the Washington Post editorial board this week (transcript here) would have instantly and conclusively removed him from the race. It was not his inability and/or refusal to engage any point of substance that was so remarkable—and so much worse than with, say, Sarah Palin or Rick Perry. Rather it was his seventh-grade-locker-room obsession with “size” issues, as Conor Friedersdorf very convincingly demonstrates.

How did we get here? One of the most useful explanations I’ve seen is from E.J. Dionne in his new book Why the Right Went Wrong. I’d urge you to read it yourself — but if you’d like an overview, here is a discussion I did with him last month, at the Kentucky Author Forum in Louisville. A video version has just gone up on the Kentucky Educational Television site, with a good description of E.J.’s argument by Patrick Reed.

Dionne starts this book by saying, “The history of contemporary American conservatism is a story of disappointment and betrayal,” and he goes on to connect that 50-year pattern (since the Barry Goldwater days) to the fury of today’s GOP.  Wave after wave of conservative leaders, Dionne says, have promised their base that they finally can produce sweeping rightwing changes to undo the Democrats’ handiwork. Wave after wave of conservative leaders is unable to do so. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner can’t undo Obamacare; John Roberts turns into Earl Warren (from the right’s point of view); and a one-time Tea Party darling like Marco Rubio sells out on an immigration deal. Everyone’s a RINO! So it’s time to double down. This road leads to Cruz and Trump.

Again, for the full version consult this very illuminating book. Also consider the video below. [CB note: Watch here if the video doesn’t appear.] Thanks to our friends in Kentucky for putting on this forum.