George Will Loves To Argue About America

George Will has lived for 80 years and published approximately 6,000 newspapers columns. You might assume that George Will is tired of all the arguments. The truth is that “arguing about our country’s nature is American like frozen apple pie and a piece of processed cheese.” Washington Post columnist says. “So let’s argue.”

Arguments are built on facts, which Will is proud of. To prove his point, he often visits historical archives. But, there are problems when one side is wrong about the facts, such as in The New York Times’ 1619 Project has not been supported by any evidence, nor is it consistent with Donald Trump’s assertions about the 2020 election.

Will’s new book is American Happiness and Discontents: The Unruly Torrent, 2008–2020 (Hachette Books), which is a series of columns that cover everything from the Great Recession up to the Trump presidency. He draws complicated lessons from World War II when America triumphed over authoritarianism, genocide overseas and practiced racism apartheid in the USA.

Will loves America unabashedly and is patriotic. However, he doesn’t feel jingoistic about it or blind to the hard historical facts. He believes there’s a history parallel for almost every current event, regardless of whether they’re election conspirators or President Joe Biden’s efforts to significantly expand the role and influence of the government in American lives.

Will spoke to us in September. ReasonNick Gillespie, a Zoom contributor, talks about happiness, totalitarianism and conspiracy theories. He also discusses the value of history learning.

Reason: Now let’s discuss the concept of an “unruly stream”. Is that what you are referring to? And, is it a controlling image of the passel of columns you have collected?

Will: In the sense of a torrent, it is unruly. This is because reality can’t be governed. That’s usually a good thing. Well-known fact: The Bible’s essence can be summarized in one sentence. “God made man and woman but quickly lost control.”

Those of us with a libertarian streak—some streaks broader than others, but mine is broad enough—believe that things being out of control is exactly what we want. Our ideal order is spontaneous. We prefer creativity from the bottom to command structures. Events can also be chaotic, unpredictable and potentially dangerous. My book’s last section covers the dangers.

Is there something about American DNA that prevents us from being happy? It’s a great scene. Key LargoRocco is the villain in the Humphrey Bogart film. He’s basically asked: “What do your desires?” He replies, “I desire more. “I want more.” I want more.” It’s almost as though we are never content with our endless appetites.

Yeah. It’s also known as the joyless pursuit and joy. Let me match one of your references to pop culture with mine. A radio station called “Radio Show” used to air long ago. Fibber McGee and Molly. Molly said to Fibber that if it makes her happy to be unhappy then she would be unhappy.

One American type isn’t happy unless it’s furious. Indignant, set on, and aggrieved. It is more severe than usual.

The bill is completely bipartisan. Not bipartisan. But it’s across all political and ideologic boundaries.

Absolutely. Donald Trump was able to perfect this and became the symbol of conservative crybabyism. “Everyone picks on me: Hollywood, academia and the media.”

It is a shame that he has become a billionaire. Right?

Exactly. And the left today feels set upon by big corporations and money—other than George Soros’ money and politics and all that stuff. These days, whining has become the national anthem.

Your columns have as a theme that while politics is obviously important it can’t be all of what is being done or the way we solve most of our problems. The task is too difficult for it.

Yes. This is called totalizing politics. Everything is politics if the individual is political. That’s what totalitarianism is all about.

One common error people make when discussing totalitarian countries is to say that they don’t allow citizens to vote. No, no. In a totalitarian society, you can’t It is not participate in politics.

When I was first allowed to enter East Berlin and saw a totalitarian society for the first time, I recall being struck by (a) the lack of advertising which I didn’t notice immediately; (b) the large red banner that said “Victory for” Sozialismus.” This means that we were all conscripted to political vocabularies around the world, which is the problem. That’s why we are so passionate about teaching American history.

George Orwell stated in 1984The past is controlled by the present. The past is controlled by the person who controls it. This is how it works. The New York Times‘ 1619 farce, saying that if we can just reframe American history, we can control the future by saying, stipulating—I won’t say they argue it, even, but by stipulating—that America was conceived not in liberty, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, but in slavery and sin in 1619.

However, it is a great thing that we are arguing about what America represents and how America should be perceived. The past should be updated and reexamined in order to reach new conclusions. Does the 1619 Project have a problem? It isn’t a well-informed argument about America’s values. Oder is it just that its specifics are flawed? Or a mixture of both.

The argument about the natural country’s character is just as American as freezing apple pie with some processed cheese. It’s just that simple. You have chosen the wrong country if you do not like to argue. Let’s get to arguing.

It is absurd. This story essentially states that Americans supported the American Revolution after Lord Dunmore stated that British-soldiers would be expelled. Well, he said that in November 1775—after Lexington and Concord, after the Boston Tea Party, after the Boston Massacre, after the Stamp Act. After George Washington was appointed to command the troops, war was over.

It is therefore factually unliterate to speak such things. To use your terminology, this argument is not good-faith. It is tendentious, meretricious and propagandistic.

Morris Fiorina, a political scientist, talks about the past 20 years and possible the future 20 years as an era without a decision. This is similar to the 19th and 20th century. A dogmatic libertarian’s point of view would be to affirm that this is great because neither party has the power to put forward their agenda.

This also means it appears that the pendulum swings more extreme with each passing election. It’s not settling down in the middle. Instead, it keeps expanding. It’s a wrecking ball and not a pendulum. 

Do you think the inability of us as a nation to find a political consensus—which we did, more or less, for the Cold War period, and even briefly in the 1990s, when the era of big government was over—is it destructive to not be able to fashion a governing consensus?

You can, it’s because it convinces Americans that elections don’t really matter. Executive government is what results. With narrow majority support from both parties, Congress can pass legislation back-and-forth. Executive orders by the president are what truly changes and infuses energy with action.

Take a look at what Joe Biden did his first week in office. A flurry and a flood of executive orders. This isn’t healthy. The modern presidency is my concern, as it is not bound by any constitutional restrictions. Some people claim that presidents are able to take over the powers of Congress. It would be nice if they had to usurp their powers! The Congress gives away its powers in exchange for a silver salver. It is so determined to rid them. They can’t pass any laws. They…say, “We really ought to have good education. Please fill out the information, you people, in the Education Department.

What you get? The Centers for Disease Control to expedite this process [and Prevention]Says, “OK, we are going to seize the property of landlords and make them tenants for free to combat disease, while they continue to pay their mortgage, interest taxes, and so on.”

Oder, to make it even quicker: President says that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was directed by him to order vaccines to 80 million workers in the private sector. This has two flaws. Either Congress intended that, in which case the Supreme Court should step in and say that violates the nondelegation doctrine—that is, you have delegated to the executive branch, essentially, legislative powers. Oder Congress didn’t intend it, and in that case the statute is being applied incorrectly.

My constant reminder of the truth, which I wrote a substantial portion about in my book, is that the only thing that can stop us from having a worse government than the one we have now is the judiciary. He will not restrict himself. Congress cannot limit itself. Only the judiciary has the authority to police areas of limited government.

Because many essays in the collection focus on Holocaust stories, there are many that tell the story that is both important and haunting. Is there a main message we should keep in mind as we go about our daily lives, looking back on this historic event?

Primo Levi, an Italian Holocaust survivor, stated, “It happened once, it can happen again.” This didn’t happen only once. In Rwanda as well, it happened repeatedly. It also happened in Balkans.

The Holocaust took place in Germany, Europe’s highest educated and most well-educated country. It happened quickly. It was a book I had just read, called Hitler’s First Hundred DaysIt is a must-read. Hitler’s 100-day first year saw a dramatic and rapid change in public opinion. On the 30th January 1933, just weeks after Hitler became chancellor, mobs were thronging the streets, beating up Jews. People were passing them. This was the new normal. Amazing how quickly a new norm can be insinuated into your life. This is one of the many lessons learned from the Holocaust.

Are there any analogs to contemporary America? Are there any mobs we are passing that should we be paying attention to?

The fact that Donald Trump successfully indoctrinated scores of million of Americans into believing that voter fraud stole the 2020 elections is frightening evidence of just how simple it can be to alter the minds of large sections of Americans is alarming. There is no evidence to support what he claims. He isn’t going to bother to give evidence, point to evidence, and suggest the location of evidence.

This is a bit like those crazy people obsessed with Kennedy’s assassination. Their argument was that the only way to prove how extensive and complex this conspiracy was was by destroying all evidence.

From time to time, the Kennedy assassination is brought up. You mentioned briefly in one column, that conspiracy theorists all have to be gotten. [the shooter]Lee Harvey Oswald has been taken off the stage by their conspiracy theories. This is not just for conspiracy nuts, but also for mainstream media. A column is available where you can discuss the responses to Kennedy being shot. The New York Times and from the establishment media was, “No, it wasn’t Lee Harvey Oswald who killed JFK. The climate was one of hatred, right-wingers, etc.

He was killed at 12 noon. The morning following, he died. New York Times—which means this story had to be written eight hours after he died—Scotty Reston, the revered bureau chief of The New York TimesA front-page article claimed that Goldwater was murdered by hateful Dallas. So they already had the words “Goldwater did it” essentially.

Yeah. No. Climates that are dominated by hate do not kill. People are killed by the Soviet Union’s ex-Marines who defected from the Marine Corps and earned a couple marksman badges.

Jackie Kennedy once said that “a little communist”

There are a few columns on the Japanese internment camps. Or more precisely, people who had their families interned. These individuals then fight in Europe.

How can we learn lessons from those who were legally and systematically excluded from American society, before they are placed in internment camps? And then fight for America’s survival. How does this tell us something about the American story? What does this say about the American story?

But, it seems to me that it is false. The 1944 Korematsu decision, the Supreme Court, to its—I was going to say everlasting, but that’s not true, because it corrected itself—to its shame, ratified the internment of these people, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, half of whom were women and children.

But, 1983 was the year I think it was. The Supreme Court stated, “We reject that decision.” Congress voted to pay the reparations, refuting the notion that Americans don’t want to see the unpleasant parts of the past. This episode is a reminder of the dangers that executive power can pose again. The ability of presidents wielding wartime power to pick up these powers is—to use the attorney general, then later justice, Robert Jackson’s phrase—like a loaded gun sitting there on the table to be picked up.

The Gen. [John]DeWitt was actually the main villain. DeWitt says it’s “very suspicious” because there is no evidence. You can see how sinister this deep-seated plot is.

This makes QAnon appear like a legitimate investigative conspiracy because it is producing fake evidence.

It is the will to believe. They will believe things if people believe. Again, this problem is common in all societies. However, I believe that it is more prominent in mass society with mass communications to cater for delusions.

In a 2016 interview, you said this: Reason that if Trump succeeds, makes it into office, the Republican Party will be reduced to a husk. Are you ready to take that step? The 2020 Presidential Election saw the Republican Party take a beating. It lost control of Congress, which it appears poised to retake in 2020, or at the very least, the House. Is the Republican Party now a mere shell? What damage do you believe Donald Trump is causing to the Grand Old Party’s reputation? It is terrible.

It’s bad. This isn’t a hollow shell. This is not, as the name implies, a political party. It is a cult. It’s a cult because many Republican officeholders, especially at the national level, are afraid of their voters. This means that they dislike their voters. It also means that they aren’t respectful of their voters because one tweet from Mar-a-Lago could sic 25%, 30%, or 40% depending on which constituency they come from. Their lives are a constant struggle. Because they do not feel dignity in their current position, or the work that they are doing right now, they’re extremely unhappy.

Again, Trump’s agenda. Might Trump run again in 2024? Yes, no, maybe. But, what does he really want? He wants to build a wall. This is the same path that we’ve taken. The one thing that makes Donald Trump look like a one trick pony is his entertainer act. He may even say something for an encore.

How about the Democratic Party? Joe Biden won, and won decisively. They won control of both the Senate and the House, evidently thanks to Trump’s extended hissy fit between November and January. But they’re also quite temperamental at the moment. Bernie Sanders is the Senate’s insurgent leader, with other House Members who are much more progressive. They are also ravaged by populism, and a lack of coherence.

Although they’re fragile, history can be made from the smallest, most compact of -minorities.

Are you calling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) Is this a small minority?

She and her team, her cohort have the energy to support the Democratic Party. People are saying that Biden is so far to the left. He hasn’t gone. He’s not a Progressive. He’s a Democrat. His party follows him, so he is being pulled. Just, to be fair—if I will cite the man for whom I cast my first presidential vote—just as Barry Goldwater and his intense compact minority in the Republican Party pulled the party permanently to the right.

The difference is obvious. The year 1933 was the beginning of this story. [President]Franklin Roosevelt set out changing the relation of citizens to central government. He succeeded, despite having lopsided legislative majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Lyndon Johnson had won an overwhelming victory over my opponent Goldwater in 1965 and was now determined to finish the New Deal Agenda with Medicare and Medicaid.

Biden does something very different. Jefferson’s principle of “Do not make great decisions with small majority” is being violated by Biden. This wasn’t voted for by the country. It doesn’t want this. The country finds Modern Monetary Theory implausible—which is [the idea]You can borrow as long as your interest rate is less than that of growth. This is why economists believe interest rates will stay low for the near future. Hayekian epistemic folly has been committed.

It is important to remember that, in May 2008 the foreseeable past didn’t reach September 2008 when Lehman Brothers was formed and the rest of the unpleasantness occurred.

Sarah Walton (your assistant) is the final column. Sarah Walton’s husband, who graduated from an academy of service in 1989, was killed in Afghanistan 2008. Talk about their sacrifices.

Your criticisms of American foreign policies, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not new. How do we grow up as a country so that we can honor people and their sacrifice—immense sacrifice—without incurring more of those sacrifices?

You must first say they are valorous. You don’t want valor to be wasted. We’ve seen far too many valors thrown away.

My opinion is that 2003’s invasion of Iraq was America’s worst foreign policy error. It hasn’t cost us anything in the way of future difficulties. Your valor should be used for those causes which are worthy. And nation building—again, epistemic humility from Mr. Hayek—know what you know, and know what you can’t know. Nation building is something you don’t know, as it sounds absurdly like orchid building. They are just like orchids. They are natural growths.

If we send to Afghanistan, a general (I won’t name him), but one who states, “We are going to bring in government in a container for Afghanistan,” then we all know you will squander your valor.

Age 80 Your children range from Gen X members to millennials. What can you do to reach the younger generation? America reveres its youth. The young have always scared America. However, how can you reach the younger generation to show them that history has meaning and scope?

Keep it engaging. Write well. Nothing is more fun than reading a column. It won’t be enjoyable if the column is just rhetoric. One of the nicest compliments I have ever received was from a Washington Post fact-checker Writers Group syndicates my column. She said that she didn’t know how many facts were contained in my columns until she was made a fact-checker. This is what I want. It says opinion page. But I would like my column to contain 95 percent information.

This interview has been edited to be more concise and clear. For a podcast version, subscribe to Nick Gillespie talks about The Reason.