Hours after Paul Ryan announced his retirement last week, President Donald Trump tweeted a photo of the House speaker and the rest of the GOP congressional leadership at dinner together at the White House. All did the traditional Trump-style smiling thumbs-up—a big show of unity to rebut anxiety about the party collapsing.
What Jennifer Rubin saw while looking at that photo: a Republican Party that “has become the caricature the left always said it was—the party of old white men. And that has become more so in the age of Donald Trump, when he is actively courting and stoking white resentment.”
Trump’s use of identity politics, Rubin told me in an interview for the latest episode of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast, “is a dead end for the party. It’s a dead end because it’s immoral and anti-American to base an entire political movement on one racial group and it’s a dead end because that’s not America and [what America] is becoming.”
For Rubin, the author of the Washington Post’s “Right Turn” blog, it’s been a fast trip from conservative apostle to apostate.
Rubin was hired in late 2010 to be a forceful conservative presence, the counterpart on the right to the Post’s liberal blogger, Greg Sargent. But since Trump’s election, she’s been one of the president’s most strident critics, attacking him multiple times a day as an “arrogant fool” and “flat-out racist.” In the process, she’s becoming a leading voice for a group of conservative intellectuals who don’t fit comfortably in either political party.
Before Trump, she says, being a conservative meant embracing American exceptionalism, forceful moral leadership of the world, promotion of the free market and “fiscal conservatism, which now is a hoot,” she said. “Conservatism, as opposed to Republicanism—and I think that’s an important distinction—was really about a temperament as much as a substantive list of issues. There was a certain modesty in approaching government … a certain humility about governance and a reliance on the structures of the Constitution to keep central government from getting to be too powerful.”
Rubin, who published a break-up letter to the GOP in May 2016 after Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination, says it’s the party that left her: “I don’t think I have changed at all.”
She’s not happy with Ryan, either—she thinks he has betrayed his principles in backing Trump. In fact, when I ask her to point to any member of the Republican leadership she views as a conservative leader, she’s stumped.
And it’s not just about the leaders.
“Republicans have permanently eliminated themselves from credibility to govern,” Rubin said. “You can’t be willing to sacrifice core American values for the sake of a tax cut and be deemed to be worthy of trust going forward.”
Fresh to journalism just over a decade ago after ditching her career as a Hollywood studio labor lawyer to move to Virginia in search of a community whose politics better align with her own, Rubin pitched a story to The Weekly Standard in the run-up to the 2008 campaign about how Mitt Romney was running as a very different kind of conservative than he was as governor of Massachusetts, and the betrayal some longtime supporters of his felt. She knows that in the age of Trump, that kind of debating about conservative principles seems quaint, as does a mid-life switch to journalism that actually took off after that one article, leading her first to Commentary and then to the Post.
Detaching herself from her party and becoming a prominent critic has had its rough spots for Rubin. She’s had detractors for years, among both conservatives who said she was either a fake conservative or not smart enough, and among Democrats who saw her as a prime example of knee-jerk opposition to whatever President Barack Obama said.
But that ire is nothing like what she’s seen the last two years. Professional friendships have dried up. Hate and threats fill her inbox, spiking after a December 2015 tweet in which Trump called Rubin “highly untalented,” “a real dummy” and “low IQ.”
Not much about the state of politics today inspires Rubin, but she does seem taken by the young people who’ve seized on the moment to advocate changing America’s gun laws. In those student activists and the millennials who have mobilized against Trump—take Alabama’s special election for U.S. Senate, where voters 25-29 went with Doug Jones over Roy Moore by 27 points—Rubin sees a warning sign that Republicans ignore at their own peril.
“It matters greatly who is president and what the political environment is as you are coming of political age. When did I come of political age? As Ron Reagan was entering the White House,” Rubin said. “That was my conception of the Republican Party and I hung on probably beyond the point which that [was] true.” As the party of Trump, Republicans may lose an entire generation, Rubin warns. And policy wins like the tax bill aren’t going to sway millennials’ opinions of the GOP.
“It is a remarkably idealistic generation. What motivates these people is not tax policy, is not party economics or party foreign policy; it’s issues that have a moral and a value-laden core,” Rubin said. “They look upon environmentalism as a moral issue, as a moral cause. They look upon guns as an issue of [whether] we as a society value children.”
Rubin says she’s not going back to the Republican Party. She has dreams of a new party rising from the charred principles of conservatism, or of the Democratic Party rushing in to fill the void left in the center, but she knows they’re dreams.
For all the trouble and turmoil Rubin has faced from finding herself out of place in domestic politics, her heart is in foreign policy. She was one of the most reliable critics of Obama’s presidency, attacking him for what she saw as a lack of commitment to the value of American leadership, blundering into the nuclear negotiations with Iran and pursuing a foreign policy “disastrous for America and disastrous or freedom around the world.”
“Many of the criticisms that I had about Obama’s foreign policy are now being replayed within the prism of Donald Trump,” Rubin said. “There are an awful lot of Democrats now who are saying, ‘America has to lead in the world, and America has to have a strong human rights policy, and America has to stand up for NATO and America can’t lead from behind.’ Yeah, I agree with that.”
Rubin stands by that critique of the Trump administration, even though the president’s posture toward North Korea parallels one that she herself advocated all the way back in 2010: accept that the Bush-Obama approach of engaging North Korea didn’t stop the Kim regime from developing nuclear weapons, and replace that approach with a stepped-up military presence in the region and increased engagement with China.
So, I asked her, isn’t that exactly what Trump is doing?
“No. He’s threatening thermonuclear war,” Rubin said. “I have often observed that if you had the Trump administration without Trump, they would be doing a lot of sane things.”