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What do self-described conservatives stand for in 2023?


Here in the United States, two major political gatherings ended over the weekend. The differences between them showed the Republican Party's competing identities. On the one side, former President Trump headlined the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. On the other, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis attended the Club for Growth's private donor retreat. We're joined now by a longtime friend of the show, Jonah Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Dispatch. Jonah, welcome back.

JONAH GOLDBERG: Always great to be here.

INSKEEP: Is there a substantive difference - not style, but substance - between the Trump approach to government and the DeSantis approach?

GOLDBERG: I think there's an enormous difference between the two guys. And it could be probably boiled down to DeSantis does his homework, and Donald Trump improvs everything. We saw the glandular style of Trump's presidency where he just sort of governed by tweet to the extent he governed at all. Ron DeSantis actually is a bit of a wonk. And I think that the real Ron DeSantis is more the guy who got that bridge open after the hurricane in three days than a lot of the sort of very online populist stuff that you see from him, which he does because that's what the base of the party wants. And he does his homework how to give it to them. But I think it's - you can call it cynical or you can call it smart politics. DeSantis is a much more deliberate, traditional conservative trying to deal with the times he's in. And Trump just does everything by touch and feel.

INSKEEP: You just used the word traditional. Let's talk about that. My impression from a distance is that DeSantis could be described as a traditionalist who is willing to use the government - use government power - to enforce his ideas about traditionalism.

GOLDBERG: I think that's certainly true, you know, given some of the controversies that are coming out of Florida. And I think it's sort of what the Republican Party wants. I think there's a general sentiment among sort of smart people in the Republican Party and also a lot of sort of boobs in the Republican Party that it's a fool's game to sort of just have a government that's neutral because they believe the left is never neutral. So you have to sort of fight fire with fire. The state's going to impose its values one way or the other. So the right says, let's at least impose ours. That's the crux of a major argument on the right these days.

INSKEEP: And that, we should just underline, there was this other - I guess there still is in some quarters, this other idea of government among conservatives that there should be small government that shouldn't do very much except the most essential things, that taxes should be low, that regulations should be limited, that corporations should not be told what to do. We now have Republicans thinking that corporations, in fact, should be told what to do if their politics differ from the person in power.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, look, I mean, industrial policy by America - these kinds of ideas are essentially bipartisan now. Everybody wants to pick winners and losers. It's just who - one party has one set of winners, and the other party has another set of winners and vice versa on the losers. And I'm like one of those Japanese soldiers still fighting World War II in '48 or '49...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

GOLDBERG: ...Because I'm part of this remnant that actually wants Reaganite limited government and whatnot. We might have a comeback at some point. But right now, it's still a uphill slog.

INSKEEP: What do you think about when you hear Republicans also taking up the idea of being the working-class party? I understand they have a lot of working-class voters. But can they be the working-class party and pick up the old working-class rhetoric of the left?

GOLDBERG: They're certainly trying, you know? Marco Rubio and a bunch of people have been trying to do this. Josh Hawley has been trying to do this. The part of the problem is we're just seeing a giant transition. The FDR coalition that sustained the Democratic Party for a very long time is, in some ways, up for grabs. And Republicans are picking different pieces off that carcass. The problem is is that what that constituency wants doesn't really jive with traditional conservative notions in a lot of ways. And it's - there's a lot of ferment right now. And we saw, coming out of CPAC, that, you know, the populist wing and the sort of traditional Reaganite wing, they basically cannot - they cannot long endure in the same party is what I would argue.

INSKEEP: Well, we'll continue listening for your commentary as that debate evolves. Jonah, thanks very much for dropping by.

GOLDBERG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Jonah Goldberg, among other things, is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.