Grover Norquist, the Happiest Man in Washington
The veteran conservative activist ought to be disturbed by the Trump administration. Why is he so optimistic—and what’s vaping got to do with it?
s Grover Norquist dug into his egg-white frittata, he could barely contain his glee.
“If you try and explain American politics by looking at one election, even a presidential election, you miss the forest for the tree,” the founder of Americans for Tax Reform and longtime liberal bogeyman told me over an early-morning breakfast, spearing halves of grape tomato with his fork. “It’s the most interesting tree in the forest—it’s got orange hair!—but it’s still just one tree.”
The Trump administration has many traditional conservatives in despair, convinced the president is trampling the Constitution and turning the Republican Party into something they don’t recognize. Not Norquist. He was the picture of a man who believes his time has come.
The ginger-haired 60-year-old’s eyes sparkled behind his wire-rimmed glasses as he described the rosy future he foresaw under Trump. It isn’t just that tax reform, Norquist’s signature issue, has risen to the top of the agenda for both the president and Congress. The 2016 election, as Norquist saw it, was not a mandate for Trump at all—it was a mandate for old-school Republicans, virtually all of whom got more votes than Trump in their states. (There’s an exotic corollary to this theory involving a new voting bloc of vaping enthusiasts—more about that later.) According to Norquist, whatever might be distracting Trump at any given moment, nothing less than a revolution of conservative governance was happening under his nose.
“Trump’s regulatory regime is Reaganite,” Norquist told me. “His tax cut is Reaganite. He’s more aggressive than Reagan on labor issues.” All that other stuff—the crazy tweets, the chaotic White House, the Russia investigation, the travel ban—is just noise. What Trump was really elected to do, Norquist maintained, were the things Republicans had been coveting for years. And Trump is already doing just those things.
Norquist is certainly not alone among Republicans rooting for Trump. Yet I was shocked to find him, of all people, so sanguine. Norquist has a Muslim wife, has spent years battling his party’s anti-Muslim fringe, and is a strong proponent of comprehensive immigration reform. (His neatly trimmed beard has even been cited as proof that he is a secret Muslim.) Trump has welcomed into the White House Islamophobic conspiracy theorists and proponents of immigration restriction. His campaign was powered by a populist-nationalist vision that had more to do with shutting out Mexicans than hemming in the regulatory state.
So what, Norquist as much as told me. What mattered was that he believes he is closer than he has ever been, after decades of struggle, to getting his famous wish—a government small enough to drown in a bathtub. And he may be right.
Norquist had just been at the White House, he noted, with a group of conservative activists the administration had brought in to consult.
“We’re working with the administration on the major economic stuff, so I feel very comfortable with the way they’re going,” he said. “Some conservatives who aren’t helping to row the boat don’t feel as comfortable,” because they don’t get the same assurances from the inside.
This was a veiled shot at the White House’s unhelpful conservative critics, but also a statement of Norquist’s strategy. By refraining from criticizing Trump, Norquist was positioning himself to continue to be in the rooms where policy is being made—unlike his unhelpful NeverTrump friends, who have reportedly been blacklisted.
He might be the cleverest man in the conservative movement. Or he might have sold his soul.
orquist has never minded being liberals’ antichrist; being irrelevant is another thing entirely. Yet this was where he found himself for most of last year’s presidential campaign. While the political world was consumed with Trump, he rarely commented on the race, preferring to tweet about his daughters, state-level politics, vaping, or Burning Man, the annual countercultural festival in the Nevada desert he has attended for the past three years.
Before 2016, Norquist had long had a starring role in national politics as a villain to liberals, who blamed his group’s tax pledge for Republicans’ refusal to compromise. Many a GOP incumbent, stretching back to the first President Bush, has lost reelection after breaking the promise never to raise taxes. Many more, Democrats contend, refuse to consider initiatives that are in the public interest because they fear Norquist’s disapproval. Arianna Huffington has called Norquist “the dark wizard of the anti-tax cult”; Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader, said Republicans in Congress were being “led like puppets” by him.
The pledge not to raise taxes, Norquist contends, is a promise Republicans make to their voters, not to him. Republicans who won’t sign the pledge, Norquist likes to say, are like “rat heads in Coke bottles”: They ruin the brand’s reputation. As for the idea that he’s Republicans’ leader, he has joked, “I reject all conspiracy theories that have me sharing world domination with the Koch brothers. Sharing? Never.”
In 2016, however, Norquist was relegated to the sidelines, and early. His preferred presidential candidate, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, dropped out in September 2015. Norquist continued to pine for him nonetheless.
“Tonight I dine w/ 2016 GOP nominee, Gov. Scott Walker,” he tweeted. “He beat the union bosses, cut taxes, elected 3 times. Who would not nominate that.” This tweet was issued seven months after Walker left the race, shortly before Trump became the presumptive nominee.
Meanwhile, Norquist was fighting a personal, highly charged battle with his party’s Islamophobic fringe—a fight that continues to echo in the GOP’s post-election conflicts. Frank Gaffney, the head of an anti-Islam think tank, has spent nearly two decades attacking and harassing Norquist, claiming that Americans for Tax Reform is an Islamist front group tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. He also contends that Norquist is gay. There is no apparent truth to Gaffney’s claims, but they have circulated widely on the right, championed by the likes of Breitbart and Glenn Beck.
In the past, Norquist has mostly won this intra-movement battle: He kicked Gaffney out of his influential Wednesday meetings of conservative activists, and had Gaffney barred from the Conservative Political Action Conference. In early 2016, Gaffney tried to get Norquist removed from the board of the National Rifle Association. Norquist’s allies waged an intense campaign on his behalf, and in May, he narrowly avoided removal from the board on a 53-47 percent vote of more than 130,000 NRA members.
This was the reason I was so shocked to find Norquist cheering on Trump. Beyond the exhausting and annoying personal ordeal, his feud with Gaffney seemed to represent the ongoing battle for the soul of the Republican Party, with Norquist’s abstract, libertarian, economically focused agenda on one side and Gaffney’s paranoid, racially tinged vision on the other.
There is no denying that Trump’s rise has empowered Gaffney and his allies. Gaffney’s views have been embraced by officials now serving in the White House, such as presidential adviser Sebastian Gorka. Gaffney himself was an informal adviser to the Trump transition team. A man who represents everything Norquist doesn’t think the GOP should or does stand for—tribalism, xenophobia, identity politics—now has the ear of the Republican president.
To many, including some of his own strategists, Trump won both the primary and general elections by ignoring conservative dogma and instead tapping into people’s resentment of minorities and foreigners. Many analysts, myself included, saw Trump's success as evidence that perhaps the true mainstream of the GOP was always more Gaffney than Norquist, more Breitbart than National Review. Influential Trump advisers like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller have declared that they want to reshape America’s political debate into one about American culture and nationalism, not the size of government.
Norquist dismissed my theory that the Gaffney-ites have gained the upper hand in Trump’s GOP. “The guys who make that case are a fringe,” he said. “I don’t think Trump will respond to that.” The travel ban, he claimed, was “temporary and limited.” Hostility to immigrants, Muslims, and foreign trade he chalked up to “a level of grumpiness in the electorate” that would subside once economic conditions improved—which they would, thanks to Trump’s Reaganite regulatory and tax initiatives.
“You get tax cuts and growth, and a lot of the challenges that people have on both immigration and trade become much less of a challenge, in terms of voters’ levels of grumpiness,” he said.
Norquist professes to have zero interest in any kind of racial politics. When, at one point, I made a joke about his “Scandinavian heritage,” based on his name, he responded flatly, “I am completely detribalized.” (Norquist’s grandparents came to the U.S. from Sweden.) Americans for Tax Reform advocated strongly on behalf of the 2013 “Gang of Eight” immigration-reform bill that passed the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives.
Norquist had polished off his frittata and was chewing on a toasted English muffin, pondering whether vitamin enthusiasts might be the next frontier in anti-FDA activism. He simply refused to accept that the libertarian goals he sought might come, under Trump, at the price of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim policies. It was impossible to tell whether his insistence on seeing only the parts of Trumpism he agreed with was willfully disingenuous or an act of extreme denial.
r maybe Norquist is right. He makes a strong case that Trump is a mere anomaly—the orange-haired tree—while what’s actually having an effect is a Republican Party that, Trump aside, is more right-wing, and more powerful, than ever.
Americans for Tax Reform’s agenda of limiting the federal government is well under way as virtually every Cabinet agency rolls back regulations—one of the few actual accomplishments of the bumbling new administration. The EPA is being gutted, the Federal Communications Commission is in the hands of a hard-core telecom libertarian, financial rules are being loosened. To be sure, Congress’s disastrous attempt to repeal Obamacare was a setback. But in the wake of that fiasco, Trump declared that he would move on to focus on tax reform.
Just imagine what it must be like to spend 30 years as the founder and president of an organization called Americans for Tax Reform and to finally have a president and Congress committed to tax reform as a top priority. It is the Washington policy-dork equivalent of winning the lottery—and changing the American fiscal landscape in the bargain.
It’s not just what’s happening in Washington that gladdens Norquist. Republicans also have unprecedented power at the state level. Americans for Tax Reform produces a map after every election showing which party controls each state, and Norquist handed me the latest version. It was redder than a blood-soaked towel. Twenty-five states are now totally in Republican hands, with a GOP governor and Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature. Democrats can claim similar ownership of just six states.
Republican candidates down the ballot, Norquist argues, stood for the party’s traditional platform of supply-side economics, not Trumpist populism—and most of them did better than Trump. “Half the country lives in a completely red state, OK?” Norquist said. “This is a wave that Trump caught—it’s not a tsunami he created.”
If Republicans listen to Norquist—and they generally do, or face the consequences—all those red states will push his agenda forward: lowering taxes, eliminating regulations, expanding gun rights. The withering of the labor movement will further kneecap Democrats, keeping them out of power for a generation. Wisconsin and Michigan have both seen union membership plummet after the enactment of “right-to-work” laws that made joining a union optional for government workers. Other Republican states are considering similar moves, and a Supreme Court case is pending that could impose right-to-work nationally, crippling unions for good.
“Seven million public-sector employees who pay between 4 and 8 billion dollars a year in dues—a third of them will quit,” Norquist said. “Now try funding the modern Democratic Party without union dues—good luck.”
Oh, and one other thing: The government will get its sticky hands off everyone’s electronic cigarettes.
orquist does not smoke, e-cigarettes or the regular kind. But he views vaping regulation as a new libertarian cause and vapers as a new potential constituency. In fact, Norquist’s theory about why Republicans won in 2016 is not Hillary’s emails or Russia or James Comey or the forgotten white working class. He believes it was crossover votes from vapers.
Aside from his take on Trump, this was the topic I wanted to discuss at my breakfast with Norquist. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, I noticed, Norquist’s very active Twitter account, which has more than 65,000 followers, popped up regularly in my feed with out-of-the-blue statements like, “VAPING is a political movement.” In March 2016, as Trump and Ted Cruz were locked in the final stretch of their battle for the Republican nomination, Norquist tweeted: “Vape...then Vote....Vape...then Vote....Then Vape again.”
There are 10 million e-cigarette users in America, and they are passionately anti-vaping-regulation, even if they’re liberal on everything else. Norquist is working to move them into the Republican tent.
Norquist’s square-jawed press aide, John Kartch, who was seated next to him at our booth in a downtown D.C. hotel restaurant, reminded him about a vape-shop owner they’d met during the campaign. “He told us he was a lifelong Democrat, very left-wing—he personally hated you forever.”
“He didn’t say hated,” Norquist said, sounding slightly wounded.
But the man’s political orientation completely changed when he opened a vaping business and encountered a bunch of burdensome regulations, Kartch said. “He came to D.C. and presented Grover with a T-shirt.”
“Which I wore at Burning Man!” Norquist recalled. “I have the picture!”
“So, we picked up a lot of people who were probably center-left, if they voted at all,” Kartch said, this being the moral of the story.
“They have more tattoos than I do,” Norquist said archly. How high a bar is that?
“I have no tattoos,” Norquist admitted.
I asked Norquist how he could be so sure that vaping ought not be regulated, given that experts disagree on its potential health effects and much research remains to be done. “It’s none of the government’s goddamned business if it makes your nose fall off!” he said. He later clarified that rather than banning dangerous substances, the government should warn people and let them make their own decisions, as it does with alcohol and tobacco.
The vapers, Norquist contends, were pivotal in at least two swing states in 2016—one that Trump won, and one that he lost.
An Obama-era Food and Drug Administration regulation, if it isn’t repealed, would retroactively ban the vast majority of e-cigarettes. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire’s Republican senator, refused to take a position on it. Although she led in most polls, Ayotte lost her bid for reelection in November by a minuscule margin—one-tenth of a point—and Trump lost the state.
Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, on the other hand, supports legislation to keep vaping legal. Johnson, who was behind in the polls, pulled off one of the election’s biggest upsets, winning reelection by 3.4 points. He arguably dragged Trump to victory in the state on his coattails: Trump won Wisconsin by just seven-tenths of a point.
Norquist believes the senators’ fates and their stances on vaping were not a coincidence. During the campaign, ATR sponsored a cross-country pro-vaping bus tour, and hammered the issue particularly hard in Wisconsin. “There’s a guy we worked with who went to every vaping shop in Wisconsin, reminding them that Senator Johnson was the No. 1 defender of vaping,” Norquist told me.
The idea that vapers were the key to the 2016 election struck me as exotic, to say the least. But this is Norquist’s theory of coalition politics, one he has pursued relentlessly for decades: There is always a new group to be brought into the tent of people who want to be left alone by the government. America’s 2 million homeschooling families. Fifteen million holders of concealed-carry gun permits, a number that’s triple the membership of the NRA. And now, 10 million vapers.
Later, I called Johnson’s campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, to ask if the vapers had been crucial to his win, expecting she would laugh me off the phone. But while she didn’t attribute victory to the vapers alone, she didn’t deny that they had helped. “It is something we got a huge swell of support around,” she said. The campaign targeted digital ads at vapers as a result.
orquist’s trust in Trump has put him at odds with many other conservative organizations. Americans for Tax Reform supported the failed House plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, on the grounds that it cut taxes; Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity all opposed the bill, despite a White House meeting at which the president personally asked for their support. Republicans in Congress didn’t take Norquist’s side. The other conservative groups’ opposition helped torpedo the legislation.
Yet Norquist is confident he will win the war. He told me he trusted Trump because of the time he had spent in his presence. He had met Trump four times: Once in 2012, when he viewed him as a potential donor. Once in July 2015, when Trump spoke at the libertarian FreedomFest in Las Vegas and met with Norquist privately. Once at a reception before Trump’s April 2016 foreign-policy speech at the Center for the National Interest. (This was apparently the same reception at which Trump notoriously met the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.) And finally, at the White House in January.
It was a conversation with Trump at their third meeting that stood out in Norquist’s mind. “He said, ‘Do you like my tax cut?’ and I said, ‘Yes, it’s a fine tax cut,’” Norquist recalled. “And then he pointed at me and he said: ‘I’m with you 100 percent. I’m with you 100 percent. I’m with you 100 percent.’”
Norquist smiled, an impish, purse-lipped, cat-that-ate-the-canary smile. “So, he’s with me 100 percent,” he said. “He said it three times. What could be clearer?”