'He Was the Nationalist Candidate'

The editor of First Things on Donald Trump and the limits of multi-cultural democracy

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

As Donald Trump prepares to take office, R.R. Reno of First Things is feeling “guardedly optimistic.” The editor of the conservative, religious magazine cautiously supported the Republican’s candidacy. Reno does not believe Trump will fix what he sees as America’s frayed social contract. But he does think the incoming president will disrupt the current political system, which he considers deeply flawed.

I spoke with Reno about his outlook for the coming administration. We discussed Reno’s reasons for supporting Trump (“I was as much voting against the fantasy of open borders as I was voting for [Trump’s] policies,” he said); the alt-right (a kind of performance art, he argues); and how Christian principles should influence policy (“Americans are uniquely tempted to imagine that we are a church … This is one of the reasons why we’re such a dangerous country,” he said). At its center, though, our conversation was about the possibilities and limits of multi-cultural democracy—what makes a nation, and what’s happening to visions of a global, open-borders world.

Reno has sketched an intellectual framework for supporting Trump. As the new U.S. president translates his campaign-trail rhetoric into actual policies, this framework will be tested. It may also provide a useful way of tracking how firmly Trump comes to oppose the forces of globalization, as Reno is hoping he will.

The discussion below has been edited for clarity and length.

Emma Green: Why do you support Trump?

R. R. Reno: I wrote against him in February for an issue of National Reviewthe “Never Trump” issue. My argument was that the Republican Party deserved Trump because its elites were so out of touch with the voters. I didn’t take Trump seriously—I thought he was a vanity candidate out to burnish his brand.

But he was the nationalist candidate. America’s social contract is frayed, and people are no longer confident that the people who are leading them have the same interests as they do. You see this in reactions to the election from liberals. They feel disenfranchised, just like people on the right would have felt disenfranchised by Hillary Clinton’s election. That’s a bad sign for society, when people feel like losing an election is akin to being cast out in the cold.

Green: You wrote about this anxiety for the upcoming issue of First Things—this feeling people have of being homeless in their own country.

What do you make of this anxiety? What’s your sense of where it comes from?

Reno: The post-war era is ending. The Cold War posed an existential threat that kept people in a state of unity. After 1989, a lot of those unifying forces weakened.

And globalization has had a powerful effect. We’re at the center of the globalizing project in the United States. We’re the prime beneficiaries, but at the same time, we’re experiencing it in a particularly acute way. It’s not clear what our politics and society are for.

Green: I think a Muslim who is unhappy with the election outcome might say, “No, I’m anxious right now because I believe Donald Trump might put me on a registry,” or “I have family members who are immigrants and they might be deported.”

Reno: Those are legitimate fears.

“[I am] optimistic that we won’t have mass deportations or internment camps. That’s not a rational fear.”

Green: And they’re based on specific things Trump has said, or that people tapped for his administration have said. Have these fears shaped your public and private support for Trump?

Reno: It’s difficult to be a Muslim in the West, because you look like the people who are trying to kill people. But you can’t have mass terrorism without people being fearful of Muslims. Responsible leadership tries to minimize that, because it’s irrational.

We’re fortunate in the United States: We have a small Muslim population, and we also have a strong tradition of civil liberties. That combination makes me optimistic that we won’t have mass deportations or internment camps. That’s not a rational fear.

Green: But Trump and his surrogates have suggested these things are very possible. Like when a Trump surrogate went on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News show and pointed to Japanese internment as the legal precedent for a Muslim registry—a policy Trump has appeared to support. Or Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who may be considered for an administration position, carrying a memo into a meeting with Trump detailing how immigrants and refugees will be tested for their belief in Sharia law.

Reno: I can never get my hands around what the concrete worry is. Mass deportations? That seems so far from anything that’s possible; it strikes me as an irrational worry. But special screenings of refugees from Middle Eastern countries? That’s quite realistic. We don’t know how severe terrorism will become. Maybe it’s already crested, in which case, these are pointless worries. But maybe it will get worse.

I have talked to friends—moderate friends—who basically can’t defend any limitations on immigration. Limiting Muslim immigration may seem unnecessary now, but what about a terrorist incident where 1,000 people died—would that justify it? My friends would say, “No.” What about 10,000 people? They’d say, “No, it’s never justified.” Well, what about if 100,000 people get killed with a dirty bomb?

Voters “were beginning to suspect that the people who run the country are not, ultimately, serious.”

At some point, the person is not a serious person if they don’t allow that there are situations where you would have to use dire measures to protect the citizens of our country. That’s why some voters voted for Trump. They were beginning to suspect that the people who run the country are not, ultimately, serious.

Green: Some of Trump’s immigration policy was premised on fear of terrorism. But much of it was putatively based on creating jobs and strengthening the economy—or, you could argue, it was based on stereotypes about people from Mexico and Latin America.

Reno: That they’re criminals, bad people, that sort of thing.

Green: Right, exactly. That strikes me as a different attraction for voters. In what way did Trump’s rhetoric and promise to build a border wall and limit immigration seem to you to be the right path for the country?

Reno: I never took the wall thing seriously. I took it as a dramatic symbol for taking control of our immigration.

If we have open borders, who wins and who loses? It seems obvious to me that a well-to-do person like myself gets cheaper labor to clean my house and cut my lawn, and my neighbor down the street with a high-school education is the one who loses.

Green: So your support for limiting immigration, particularly from Latin America, is an economic argument?

Reno: No, it’s not. It’s a political argument. You can’t have a country if you don’t have borders. When I voted for Trump, I was as much voting against the fantasy of open borders as I was voting for his policies, which were never very clear, anyways. Hillary Clinton could have laid out a plan about how to limit illegal immigration, and what to do about the 11 million people who are here illegally. But she didn’t, because on the left, you cannot publicly have a policy that limits immigration.

I mean, can you think of any Democrats who have a public position that limits immigration?

Green: Well, the Obama administration has deported more people than the George W. Bush administration did, or any other president.

Reno: But do they have a public policy on it? When you’re voting, public positions make a difference. If you’re concerned that we’re moving toward a post-national, globalist future where there are no borders—which is my concern—you’re going to vote for the candidate who is opposed to that future.

I hope Trump implements immigration policies in a humane way, and I’ll certainly be a spokesman against him if he doesn’t.

“It’s a mistake to expect the laws of the country to reflect the imperatives of the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount.”

Green: Does being a Christian affect your views on immigration? When there was a surge on the border in 2014, and particularly children fleeing violence in Central America, Christian organizations, including Catholic dioceses on the border, were often the first groups to offer them places to stay. How do you merge your viewpoints as a citizen of the United States and a Christian public thinker?

Reno: It’s a mistake to expect the laws of the country to reflect the imperatives of the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount. I applaud the efforts of the Church to provide for people in need, regardless of where they’re from or how they got here. But I think it’s a mistake to turn around and expect a nation to act that way. Americans are uniquely tempted to imagine that we are a church, and that we are a universal nation. This is one of the reasons why we’re such a dangerous country.

In a globalist vision of the future, somebody coming from Nicaragua wins, and a person who is born in Sacramento loses. And a person who runs a company in Silicon Valley really wins, big time.

Green: How does the person in Silicon Valley win?

Reno: People at the top of a meritocracy benefit most from having a global stage on which to act. It’s not an accident that we have growing income inequality in an era of globalization.

Green: But what’s the argument against people from Nicaragua being able to come here, escape poverty and violence, and make a better life?

Reno: Well, how many?

Green: I guess that’s up to you. What’s your ideal level of legal immigration?

Reno: That’s a policy argument. I’m not sure I have any dog in that fight. We are a nation that has always had immigration—no one is arguing that we should not have immigrants.

Green: But you think a low number of new immigrants is probably better?

Reno: Moderate. We have to have a welcoming, pro-immigration society that is capable of maintaining social unity. I would argue that you can’t have multi-cultural democracy—there are no multi-cultural democracies. They’re all in states of civil war or parts of empires.

Green: Well, but the United States is a multi-cultural democracy.

Reno: No, it’s not. It’s very homogeneous. When foreigners come to the United States, they’re always shocked by how homogeneous we are. We just do a very good job of assimilating people and making them into Americans.

Green: So if by “multi-cultural” you don’t mean a diversity of religions, a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, a diversity of national origins, and a diversity of individual political ideologies—all of which the U.S. has—what do you mean?

Reno: Shared heritage, common identity. When you’re traveling abroad and you meet another American, it doesn’t matter if they’re Asian, African American, or whatever—you hang out with them, because you have shared habits of mind and sensibilities.

Green: So you’re pointing to a cohesive sense of national identity.

Reno: I think that’s pretty strong in the United States.

The alt-right “is perverse and sincere in some ways, I suppose, but I see a lot of it as performance art.”

Green: How are you feeling about the administration as it’s shaping up? Are you feeling optimistic, pessimistic?

Reno: I’m guardedly optimistic. My biggest worry is that the administration will become a conventional Republican administration. That would be a disappointment.

Green: Is there evidence to suggest that will happen?

Reno: Well, some of his appointments are pretty straightforward Republican types: You have Mike Pence, [the vice president,] and Reince Priebus, [the chief of staff]. But then there’s Stephen Bannon, [Trump’s senior counselor and West Wing strategist,] Rex Tillerson, [the secretary of state,] and the generals [who have been appointed to various positions]. Those are not standard-issue Republicans.

Green: Do you like Bannon?

Reno: I’ve never met him. He seems like a firebrand. He gave a speech at the Vatican about capitalism that struck me as very sensible—that without a spiritual basis, it’s quite destructive.

Green: Are you familiar with Breitbart and some of the things that ran on that website while Bannon oversaw it?

Reno: I don’t follow Breitbart. Every once in a while, they link to something we post, and we get a huge amount of traffic.

But I’ve looked at it. Who’s that guy—Milo…

Green: Yiannopoulos.

Reno: Yeah. He strikes me as a performance artist on the right, much like that woman who smeared chocolate on herself. He’s the equivalent of her, in a way. I’m not sure I quite grasp the furor against people like him. I never felt that way against Andres Serrano, who had the “Piss Christ,” where he put the crucifix in the jar of urine, which created a big furor among the Christian right. I kind of rolled my eyes—it was such a tired trope.

People who transgress on the right do it for the same reason why people transgress on the left: It’s a way of gaining some kind of existential freedom from a system that’s extremely constraining. There’s not much room on the left anymore for bad boys. I think the right is actually attractive to people who want to be transgressive at this point. That’s why you get this alt-right stuff. Some of it is perverse and sincere in some ways, I suppose, but I see a lot of it as performance art.

Green: Do you think it’s constructive and useful?

Reno: I’m not that interested in it. I think it’s fake, just like I think a lot of performance art on the left is fake. Fake is not the right word—it’s sincere at some dimension. We just live in a very complicated world where there are no alternatives. We feel like we’re trapped, and for those of us who don’t like aspects of our societies, it’s very difficult.

Political extremism in the 1930s really had traction. I just don’t see 2016 as being like that, or 2017. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m being naively optimistic.

Green: Here’s another area where people have predicted potential shifts under Trump: his relationship with the press. He made many negative comments about the media during his campaign, whether he was insulting The New York Times or calling out individual journalists on Twitter.

Reno: Oh yes, he’s clearly hostile to the media. But if you play with fire, you’re going to get burned. The politicization of the newspaper over the last nine months has been astounding to me. The relentless anti-Trump stuff in the news section [of The New York Times], not just in the editorial page—that was pretty, wow.

The media is in the business of making money, and that has become more and more transparent. These people on TV, they get paid millions of dollars, and they’re manipulators. One of the things I resent on the right is Fox News, which sells conservatism. When Trump attacks these newscasters and pundit types, more power to him.

“We’ve got to keep people focused on the fact that politics is not the most important thing.”

Green: But the free press is the main organ of accountability for any government administration. Do you think attacks on the institution of the press are good for democracy?

Reno: These are hard questions. I look at The New York Times and network TV—these are great institutions of American society. I don’t want to see them [dismantled]. But Donald Trump is a symptom. You’ve got Stephen Colbert, you’ve got Bill Maher, you’ve got the guy on 30 Rock—Alec Baldwin. There’s this seamless web of entertainment, news, and the endless quest for political power and wealth. They’re all fused together now.

He knows it better than anyone, Trump. He’s been at the center of it for his whole adult life.

Green: And you think he’s the one to fix this—a person who has spent his life profiting off of this complex you’re describing?

Reno: Is he going to fix it? No, he’s not going to fix it. Is he going to disrupt it? Well, he already has. Will the disruption make things worse or better? I don’t know. I’m guardedly optimistic. But only guardedly.

Green: What is the role of a magazine of Christian thought, like First Things, in the era of Trump?

Reno: We’ve got to keep people focused on the fact that politics is not the most important thing. I think that’s very helpful—a transcendent orientation. Three covenants animate us: The covenant with God, the covenant with family, and the civic covenant—our collective project that we believe in together, even though we fight bitterly about aspects of it.

At First Things, our hope is to try to restore all three of those covenants. That’s what really provides people with a sense of home, and a place to stand in the world.