After 80 years of life and roughly 6,000 newspaper columns, you might think George Will would be tired of arguing. But "arguing about the nature of the country is as American as frozen apple pie with a slice of processed cheese," the Washington Post columnist says. "So let's argue."
Facts, of course, are important for arguing, and Will prides himself on the number of facts that fill his opinion writing. He frequently visits the deep well of history to make a point. Problems arise, though, in cases where at least one side gets the facts wrong, as with The New York Times' 1619 Project, or has no facts at all to support its position, as with Donald Trump's claims about the 2020 election.
Will's newest book is American Happiness and Discontents: The Unruly Torrent, 2008–2020 (Hachette Books), a collection of columns that covers everything from the Great Recession through what he calls the crybaby presidency of Donald Trump. Of special interest are his columns drawing complicated lessons from the World War II era, when the country triumphed over authoritarianism and genocide abroad even as it practiced racial apartheid at home.
Will's love of America is unabashedly patriotic, but it's never jingoistic or untroubled by tough historical truths. For almost everything happening today, he thinks, there is a historical parallel to learn from, whether it's election conspiracy theories or President Joe Biden's legislative efforts to dramatically expand the role of the government in American life.
In September, Will spoke with Reason's Nick Gillespie via Zoom about happiness, totalitarianism, conspiracy theories, and the importance of learning from history.
Reason: Let's talk about this concept of the "unruly torrent." What do you mean by that, and why is that a kind of controlling image for this passel of interesting columns that you've collected?
Will: Well, it's unruly in the sense that it is a torrent. That is, most of reality is not governed. Most of the time that's a very good thing. It's been well said that the essence of the Bible reduced to one sentence is, "God created man and woman and promptly lost control of events."
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. We want a spontaneous order: up-from-the-bottom creativity rather than down-from-the-top command structures. However, events can be unruly and turbulent and dangerous as well as constructive. And I think we're seeing the dangerous side in the last period that my book covers.
Do you think there is something inherent in the American DNA where we cannot stay happy? There's that great scene in Key Largo, the Humphrey Bogart movie, where Rocco, the bad guy played by Edward G. Robinson, is basically asked, "What do you want?" And he says, "I want more. I want more." It seems as if, among our insatiable appetites, we're never very happy for very long.
Yeah. That's what someone called the joyless pursuit of joy. I'll match your pop culture reference with one of my own. Long ago there was a radio show called Fibber McGee and Molly. And Molly would say to her husband Fibber, "If it makes you happy to be unhappy, then be unhappy."
There's a certain kind of American who's not happy unless he or she is furious these days. Indignant, set upon, aggrieved. It's worse than usual.
It's totally bipartisan, too. Or not bipartisan, but across the political and ideological space.
Absolutely. Donald Trump sort of perfected and became the avatar of crybaby conservatism. "Everyone's picking on me: the media, Hollywood, academia, etc."
Pity the 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. So whining is the national anthem these days.
One of the themes of your columns is that politics obviously is important, but it cannot be most of what we're doing or how we address most of our problems. It's just not up to the task.
Yes. And that is totalizing politics. If the personal is political, everything is politics. And that's the definition of totalitarianism.
A mistake people commonly make about totalitarian societies is they say, "In a totalitarian society, you're not allowed to participate in politics." No, no. In a totalitarian society, you can't not participate in politics.
I remember when I first entered East Berlin, my first sight of a totalitarian society, what struck me was (a) the absence of advertising, which I missed instantly; and (b) the presence of the big red banner saying "Victory for Sozialismus." That is, we were conscripted into political vocabularies everywhere, and that's the problem. And that's of course why we're fighting so much about the teaching of American history.
George Orwell said in 1984: He who controls the past controls the future. And who controls the present controls the past. Hence 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.
By the same token, isn't it a good thing for us to be arguing over what America stands for and what America means? We should update and reinterrogate the past and come to a new consensus. Is the problem with something like the 1619 Project that it is not a good-faith argument about what America stands for? Or is it that it is flatly wrong in its particulars? Or some mix of both?
Arguing about the nature of the country is as American as frozen apple pie with a slice of processed cheese. It just is. If you don't like arguing, you picked the wrong country. So let's argue.
What's wrong with the 1619 Project is that it is factually preposterous. The essence of the story is that Americans fought the American Revolution because Lord Dunmore said that slaves fighting on the British side would be emancipated. Well, he said that in November 1775—after Lexington and Concord, after the Boston Tea Party, after the Boston Massacre, after the Stamp Act. The war was up and running, and this is after George Washington had been put in charge of the troops.
So it is factually illiterate to say this. And that is why, to use your term, it's not a good-faith kind of argument. It's tendentious, meretricious, and propagandistic.
Political scientist Morris Fiorina talks about the last 20 years, and possibly the next 20 years, as an era of no decision, similar to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From a dogmatic libertarian point of view, I want to say, "Yeah, this is good, because it means neither party can really put their agenda in place."
But it also means that with every election, each flip of the switch, it seems the pendulum gets more and more extreme. Instead of settling in the middle, it's going out wider and wider. And it's a wrecking ball, it's 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?
It can be, because what it does is it convinces the American people that elections don't matter. And what happens as a result of that is executive government. That is, Congress can go back and forth with narrow majorities on both sides. What really changes, what really infuses energy and action, is executive orders from the president.
Look what Joe Biden did in his first weeks in office: a flurry, a blizzard of executive orders. That is not healthy. I believe that the most alarming thing in American government is the modern presidency, which is essentially untethered from constitutional restraints. People say the presidents have usurped the powers of Congress. If only they'd had to usurp them! Congress hands away powers on a silver salver. It's so eager to get rid of them. They don't really pass laws anymore. They…say, "We really ought to have good education. You folks, over there in the Education Department, fill in the details."
So what you get is, to make this very timely, the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] says, "Well, OK, to control disease we're going to seize landlords' property and make them house tenants free, while they go on paying their mortgage, interest, taxes, etc."
Or to be even more timely: The president says, "Therefore, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is hereby directed to order 80 million private sector employees to be vaccinated." Two things wrong with that. 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. Or Congress did not intend that, in which case the statute's being misapplied.
I keep coming back to the fact, and a large chunk of my book is about this, that all that stands between us and even worse government than we normally have is the judicial branch. The president will not limit himself. Congress will not limit itself. Only the judiciary can police the outskirts of limited -government.
Let's talk about the Holocaust, because a number of the collected essays focus on a wide range of stories that continue to come out about the Holocaust that are haunting and important. What for you is the main message that we need to keep at the forefront, as we're going about all of our business, when looking back at this event?
Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor and Italian, said, "It happened once; it can happen again." It didn't just happen once. It happened over and over again, in Rwanda and elsewhere. It happened in the Balkans.
But the Holocaust happened in Europe's most cultivated, highest-educated nation, Germany. And it happened so swiftly. A book that I read not long ago, called Hitler's First Hundred Days, really should be read. Because Hitler's first 100 days saw such an enormous and swift transformation of public attitudes. Just weeks after Hitler becomes chancellor, on the 30th of January 1933, mobs were walking through the streets beating Jews up. And people were walking past them. This was the new normal. How fast a new normal can insinuate itself into our lives. That's one of the lessons of the Holocaust.
In contemporary America, what are the analogs that have you worried? What mobs are we walking past that we should be stopping?
I think the fact that Mr. Trump's successful indoctrination of scores of millions of Americans with the belief that widespread voter fraud stole the 2020 election is a frightening example of how easy it is to change the consciousness of large swaths of the American people. No evidence for what he says. He doesn't really bother to provide evidence, or point to evidence, or suggest where the evidence is.
It's a little bit like the crazy people who got obsessed with the Kennedy assassination. And their argument was: Proof of how vast and thorough the conspiracy was is that there's no evidence left of it at all.
The Kennedy assassination comes up from time to time. And you mentioned in passing in one column that all the conspiracy theorists, they have to get [the shooter] Lee Harvey Oswald off the stage, so to speak, because he kind of confounds their theories. Not just for the conspiracy freaks, but for mainstream media. There's a column where you talk about how the response to Kennedy being killed from The New York Times and from the establishment media was, "No, it wasn't Lee Harvey Oswald who killed JFK. It was a climate of hate, it was right-wing people, etc."
He died at noon. In the morning after's 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 Times, in a front-page story, said he was killed by a climate of hate in Dallas. And so they had already said, "Goldwater did it," essentially.
Yeah. Climates of hate don't kill people. Ex-Marines who defected to the Soviet Union and won a couple of marksman badges kill people.
Or, as Jackie Kennedy said, "A little communist."
You have a couple of columns that deal with the Japanese internment camps. Or, more specifically, with people who either were or had their families interned, who then went on to fight, typically in Europe, because Japanese-American citizens whose families were in this country longer than my family has been in this country, were not allowed to fight in the Pacific.
What is the lesson that we can learn from people who were systematically and legally cut off from full participation in American society before being put in internment camps, and then go fight to help America? What does that tell us about an American story? And is that, in a way, a validation of a 1619 Project model of America as a horrible country, or is it a refutation of it?
Well, I think it refutes it. In 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.
However, in 1983, I believe it was, the Supreme Court said, "We repudiate that decision." Reparations were paid, voted by Congress, which refutes the idea that Americans are too squeamish to look at the disagreeable parts of their past. But what the episode, to me, indicates is the dangers of executive power 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.
When Gen. [John] DeWitt, who's really the villain of the piece, who was in charge of West Coast defense, said, "We have to do something about these potentially disloyal Japanese-Americans," people said, "Well, what evidence do you have?" He says, "It's very suspicious, because there's no evidence whatsoever. It shows you just how sinister that deep secret they're plotting is."
It makes QAnon seem like a responsible investigative conspiracy, because at least it's producing fake evidence.
It's the will to believe. If the people want to believe things, they will believe them. And again, this is a recurring problem in any society, but I think particularly in mass societies with mass communications that can cater to these delusions.
You said in a 2016 interview with Reason that if Trump succeeds, makes it into office, the Republican Party will be reduced to a husk. Where are you on that now? The Republican Party certainly took a shellacking in the 2020 presidential election. Along the way, it lost control of Congress (which it seems poised to retake, actually, or at least the House in 2022). But is the Republican Party reduced to a husk? And how long-lasting do you think the damage is that Donald Trump has inflicted on the Grand Old Party? How bad is it?
It's bad. It's not just a husk. It's not really, in the normal sense of the term, a political party, because it is entirely a cult of personality. And it's a cult of personality because most Republican office holders, at the national level at least, are frightened of their voters, which means they don't like their voters very much. And it means they don't respect their voters, because they think one tweet from Mar-a-Lago can sic 25 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent, depending on the constituency of these people, on the officeholder. So they're walking on eggshells at all times. They're desperately unhappy, because they don't feel that there's dignity to their position or their work right now.
And again, what is Trump's agenda? Might Trump run again in 2024? Yes, no, maybe. But what's he want? Build a wall? We've been down that road. It seems to me an entertainer really has to change his act, because the one thing Mr. Trump is beginning to look like is a one-trick pony. And I don't know what he says for an encore.
What about the Democratic Party? Joe Biden won, and won decisively. They took control of the House and then the Senate (clearly because of Trump's prolonged hissy fit from November through January). Yet they are also pretty fractious at this point. There is an insurgent group led by Bernie Sanders in the Senate and other people in the House who are even more progressive. And they, too, are riven by populism and by a kind of lack of coherence.
They're riven, but history is made by intense, compact -minorities.
Are you calling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) a compact minority?
I'm saying that she and her squad, her cohort, have the energy in the Democratic Party. A lot of people are saying, "Gee whiz, I did not know Biden was this far left." He's not left. He's not a progressive. He's a Democrat. And he goes where his party goes, and his party 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.
Here's the difference. In 1933, [President] Franklin Roosevelt set out to change the relationship of the citizen to the central government. And he did so, having won lopsided legislative majorities in the House and in the Senate. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson, having won a landslide victory against my man Goldwater, had lopsided majorities in the House and the Senate, and set out to complete, as he saw it, the New Deal agenda with Medicare and Medicaid and all the rest.
It's very different to do what Biden is doing. He's violating Jefferson's axiom, "Do not undertake great departures on slender majorities." The country didn't vote for this. The country doesn't want it. The country finds Modern Monetary Theory implausible—which is [the idea] that as long as the interest rate is lower than the rate of growth, you can borrow and spend forever, with an asterisk, because the economists say interest rates are going to remain low for the foreseeable future. And a Hayekian epistemic folly is being committed.
You remember that in May 2008, the foreseeable future didn't extend to September 2008, when Lehman Brothers and all the other unpleasantness happened.
The last column in the collection involves your assistant, Sarah Walton, whose husband graduated from a service academy in 1989 and was killed in Afghanistan in 2008. You talk about the sacrifice that both he and she gave.
You've been critical of American foreign policy, particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 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?
Well, first of all, you begin by saying that what they do is demonstrate valor. And once you value valor, you don't want it squandered. And we've had far too much squandered valor.
I think that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is the worst foreign policy blunder in American history. I don't think we've paid even half the price of it in terms of difficulties down the road. Save your valor for causes that deserve it. And nation building—again, epistemic humility from Mr. Hayek—know what you know, and know what you can't know. And what you cannot know is nation building, because it's a phrase as preposterous as orchid building. Nations are like orchids. They are organic growths.
When we send to Afghanistan a general, I won't use his name, but a general who says, "We're going to bring government in a box for Afghanistan," we know you're about to squander valor.
You are 80 years old. You have children who range in age from being members of Gen X to being millennials. How do you reach younger people? America has always revered its young. It's always been scared of its young. But how do you reach younger people, to give them a sense of the scope and depth and breadth and meaning of history?
Make it interesting. And write well. There's nothing in the world more optional than reading a column, therefore it had better be fun. And it's not going to be fun if it's just rhetoric. The nicest compliment I can recall receiving was a fact-checker at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates my column, saying until she became a fact-checker she had no idea how many facts there were in my columns. And that's what I want. I mean, it says the opinion page, but I want my column to be 95 percent stuffed with information.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.