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George Will on American conservatism and Trump's 'lasting damage'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Longtime columnist George Will recently left the Republican Party, in protest of what he sees as shifting values.

Judy Woodruff sat down with him recently at the Aspen Ideas Festival to discuss this shift and his new book, "The Conservative Sensibility."

She started by asking Will to explain his view of American conservatism.

George Will: People think conservatives only want to conserve, and they want to conserve the past.

American conservatism is precisely the reverse. It is to preserve a society open to perpetual dynamic change. To do that, you have to go back to the past. You have to conserve the founders' vision, which was natural rights, limited government and separation of powers.

Judy Woodruff: So many people say, why do you want the take us back to the original idea of America? I think many, many, if not most Americans don't understand this being open to perpetual change.

George Will: I don't want the take the country back to a time before. I want to take us back to premises before.

One of the reasons Jefferson leapt at the Louisiana Purchase was so that he could have an ample land for a rural humans republic, so that people would more or less be like Thomas Jefferson.

A rival founder, Hamilton, star of a recent musical...

George Will: ... said, no, he wanted an urban, churning, entrepreneurial, industrial, investing, restless society full of people rather like Alexander Hamilton.

So there was a viable vision of what kind of people we would be.

Judy Woodruff: What should the role of government be? I mean, you argue throughout -- and you have argued this for a long time -- minimal role, government should have a small profile as possible.

And yet everybody knows there are some things that have happened since the founders that have made a huge difference in...

George Will: Conservatives are not against ameliorative government.

Conservatives do think we need to have a constant argument about the proper scope and actual competence of government. In 1964, 77 percent of the American people said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing all the time or almost all the time. Today, the figure is 17 percent, 60-point collapse in the prestige of government, as government's activism has risen.

I would think my progressive friends would be intensely interested in this, because everything they want to do depends on strong government. And strong government at the end of the day depends upon confidence in government.

Conservatives have no problem with Social Security. Government identifies an eligible cohort, the elderly, and writes them checks and mails them. It's good at that.

What government is not so good at is what it began to undertake in the 1960s, model cities. We don't know how to build model cities. There's a sense in which that is as futile an enterprise as nation-building, which is as futile an enterprise as orchid-building.

Cities, like nations, like orchids, are organic things. And they are not built by governments.

Judy Woodruff: Medicare? You started with Social Security. How has the government done running Medicare?

George Will: Well, it's been constantly surprised, because everything had predicted -- all of its predictions for costs and eligibility were much too conservative.

What we did in 1965 was attach the most rapidly growing portion of our population, the elderly, to our most dynamic science, which is medicine, as an entitlement. So longevity is a great social achievement. It's also ruinously expensive.

Look at how we're actually governed today. For all the talk about discord in the United States, what's most frightening to me is consensus. It's as broad as the republic. It extends from Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz. And it's as deep as a grand canyon.

And it is this. We should have a large, well-armed, generous entitlement state, and not pay for it. Everyone's agreed on that.

George Will: I'm serious. The political class is more united by class interest than it is divided by ideology.

And the class interest is to give the American people a dollar's worth of government and charge them 80 cents for it. We used to borrow money for the future. We fought wars for the future, built roads, dams, highways, and we borrowed. And because the future was going to benefit from it, it was ethical to have them pay part of the burden.

Today, we're borrowing to finance our own consumption of government goods and services, which is decadent.

Judy Woodruff: What's happened to conservatism? What happened to all the arguments that George Will and other conservatives have made over all these years? I mean, how did it get shoved aside, in your view, and taken over, that space taken over by Donald Trump and what most Republicans say they support?

George Will: The very reverse, the obverse of everything conservatism stands for is populism.

Populism means the direct translation of majority passion into governance. The ultimate direct translation of passion into politics is Trump at the Cleveland convention, "Only I can fix it."

Now, conservatism says majorities are going to rule, majorities ought to rule, but, said Madison -- and what a wonderful phrase -- he says, we want mitigated democracy. We want public opinion slowed and filtered and refined through representative institutions.

What he brings is the manner, the lying, the name-calling, all of this, which I think will do more lasting damage to the country -- you can't unring these bells -- than Nixon's surreptitious burglaries did. It's going to be extremely difficult to restore the tone of American life that prevailed from Washington through Barack Obama.

Judy Woodruff: Leave us with something powerful to take away from this -- from this session.

George Will: Well, here's the bright side.

No one ever got rich betting against the United States or against the American people. They are more sensible and less passionate and inflamed than some of their representatives would have us believe they are.

People, rather cavalierly, say we're in a constitutional crisis. We have had one constitutional crisis, that is, one crisis that Madisonian institutions could not handle. And that was the Civil War. Watergate, all the rest, the institutions took care of them just fine.

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