For decades, Mona Charen has been one of the most prominent authors and political commentators on the right. A speechwriter for such Republican luminaries as Nancy Reagan and Jack Kemp, she worked in the Reagan White House and has written a nationally syndicated column since 1987. But while she has held fast to the principles that made her a star in the conservative movement, she believes that Donald Trump has “utterly discredited” conservatism. She is now policy editor of The Bulwark (one of the leading lights on the Never-Trump right) and host of the Beg to Differ Podcast.
Mona Charen has long been critical of leftist dogma, especially what she views as modern feminism’s undermining of the family and other key supports of American society. But she was also one of the contributors to National Review’s January 2016 “Against Trump” symposium, noting that Trump “represents every stereotype the left has brought forth about what conservatism is really like.” Unlike nearly all other contributors to that issue, she has consistently criticized Trump — and the hypocrisy that her erstwhile comrades in the conservative movement have shown toward Trump and other bad actors on the far-right.
Today, Mona Charen is still critical of the left but believes that Trump and his movement represent a more significant existential threat to American democracy. She has moved toward moderation and demonstrated a commitment to civic dialogue and civil disagreement in her writings and podcasting. Join us as we discuss her career and efforts to articulate a realistic, reasonable, responsible conservatism.
Mona Charen: So as the Republicans get more radical, it’s almost never the case in history that then their opponents say, “Well, this radicalism is really not good for society, so we’re going to respond with moderation.” You know, it doesn’t work that way.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m pleased to be joined today by Mona Charen, who for many listeners will need no introduction as one of our leading national political commentators. She is a longtime syndicated columnist, policy editor of The Bulwark, and host of the Beg to Differ Podcast. Welcome, Mona!
Mona Charen: Thanks, Geoff, good to be with you.
Geoff Kabaservice: Great to be with you. I should add that you’re also the co-host with Charlie Sykes of The Bulwark’s other Secret Podcast, or maybe its Double Secret Podcast, which runs on Tuesdays as opposed to the regular Friday Secret Podcasts with Jon Last and Sarah Longwell.
Mona Charen: Exactly. It’s for subscribers (or members as we put it) to Bulwark Plus, so it’s a little bonus. We want to give our devoted listeners something extra that other people don’t get, so it’s a secret pod.
Geoff Kabaservice: Excellent. I’ve actually lost track of how many Bulwark podcasts there are now.
Mona Charen: Quite a few.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think it might be eight or nine, depending whether you count your Thursday night livestreams. But in any case, I listen to them all, and they have really been a critically important part of my political education across these past several years.
Mona Charen: I’m so glad.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, it’s great. I was actually listening just yesterday to the Secret Podcast you did with your son, Ben Parker, who’s a senior editor at The Bulwark.
Mona Charen: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: I thought it was quite charming. You mentioned a number of books you’ve both been reading which I also, coincidentally, have been reading. I don’t know why the Civil War is top of mind right now…
Mona Charen: Yeah right, why could that be?
Geoff Kabaservice: …but strangely it seems to be. And you know, I actually thought of The Bulwark while I was reading particularly Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, because one of the messages that Chernow hammers home in his biography is that so many of Grant’s greatest qualities stemmed from his experiences of loss. I mean, he was in effect cashiered from the Army for alcoholism in 1854, and for a time he was reduced to selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis. And that made him the kind of humble and empathetic leader, really, that allowed him to win the Civil War, in many respects. And I think one of the reasons that I so highly esteem so many of The Bulwark contributors, and you especially Mona, is that you’ve had to grapple with loss as well — in your case the loss of the conservative movement and, really, the Republican Party in which many of you once played leading roles.
Mona Charen: Oh, that’s Interesting. So when you were talking I was thinking… Yes, Grant did experience loss, as most people do in their lives in some way or another. But people react differently to it. In Grant’s case, it made him humble and it made him approachable. In other people’s cases, loss can make them bitter and intolerant. Or it can make them hard. It can make them think, “Well, I survived it, so why can’t you?” You know, people are funny. The same experience will have a different effect on different people.
Geoff Kabaservice: True. You know, one of the big questions of our own political era is why two people from seemingly similar backgrounds and experiences have chosen to go one way or another. But we’ll get to that.
Mona Charen: Yeah, that’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: So since we are going to talk biography here, can we talk something about your own origins and early years? You were born in New York City but you grew up in Livingston, New Jersey, which if I recall my Jersey geography is sort of northwest of Newark and maybe east of Morristown.
Mona Charen: Ah, it is… I think it’s… Honestly, my New Jersey geography isn’t that great. I think it’s, yeah, to the east of Morristown, or Morriston is sort of northwest of Livingston. Anyway, yeah, that’s where I grew up, mostly.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you were the daughter of two Ph.D.’s, which was unusual then and still.
Mona Charen: Yes. My grandparents were immigrants — well, three out of four of my grandparents were immigrants, one was born here. Anyway, in the case of my father’s family, one of those grandparents, my grandfather, didn’t even ever learn English. My grandmother did — she was a smart gal. But, you know, it’s your basic American immigrant story on both sides: people came here with nothing, they worked hard, they had upward mobility. So, for example, none of my grandparents had a college degree, but both my mother and father were able to get to a Ph.D. and then provide a really nice middle-class life for us.
We didn’t have a lot of money by any stretch; I mean, they were both educators. Well, my mother was a psychologist, but she worked in a school system. And so we were by no means wealthy. In fact, I was telling I was telling one of my sons recently about how when I was a little kid I remember going with them — this was normal — going with my parents on weekends to the laundromat because we didn’t have a washer and a dryer in our house. And there was also a do-it-yourself dry cleaner that they would patronize, you know. And that was just the way life was for sort of middle-middle-class people. You didn’t have a lot of the luxuries that we take for granted now.
Anyway, that’s my story — a very familiar American story. It always made me… Being Jewish, it always made me incredibly grateful that there was an America that took in my grandparents. Because they were from a part of the world where pretty much all the Jews were wiped out in the Second World War. And if my grandparents hadn’t made the journey, then there would be no me, there would be no us. And so I’ve always had, and when I was growing up in particular I had, a great sense of gratitude to America for being open and democratic. Of course we now know that there were a lot of closed doors too; that was also part of the story. But anyway, that’s my family story — a very common story, I guess.
Geoff Kabaservice: I remember you telling me at one point that where most of your teenage cohort in the ‘70s was into the usual teenage pastimes, you were reading about the Holocaust.
Mona Charen: Yes. I don’t recommend this as a recipe for a happy adolescence. But I don’t know, there was… I mean, I’m a pretty happy person, but there’s part of me that feels like I have to confront the dark side of life and humanity. Yeah, I went through a whole phase of reading up on the Holocaust and trying to wrap my brain around that level of depravity and cruelty in human beings. Later I steeped myself in the Soviets’ crimes too. And, I don’t know, it was just something that I felt like I had to understand. And honestly, when you think about it… I was born in 1957, so it was really just a little more than a decade after the end of World War II. And so my whole world was like I was living in the shadow of that cataclysm, I felt, and trying to understand it and make sense of it… That was, I guess, part of my reason at that age of diving into all that stuff. Or maybe I’m just morbid, I don’t know.
Geoff Kabaservice: You went to school, I believe, with Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post…
Mona Charen: Yes, that’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I would guess that she was probably more typical of the people you grew up with in inclining toward the political left.
Mona Charen: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: What inclined you toward the political right?
Mona Charen: It’s hard to say. I used to have a really glib answer to that question. Now I’m not so sure that’s right. It might have been something in my character. But I started listening to… I was an insomniac in high school and I started listening to the radio, and there was a talk show — this was actually before the era of talk radio really took off — but there was a radio host in New York City… Where did you grow up, Geoff?
Geoff Kabaservice: I grew up all over the place. But I mostly spent time in the Northeast (in Massachusetts) and also in California.
Mona Charen: Okay. Well, in New York city there was a talk show host named Barry Farber, and he was an interesting guy. He used to talk all about the Captive Nations — you know, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. He was very anti-communist. He was a southerner from North Carolina but he had this New York radio talk show. It was pretty high-level and interesting and he taught me a lot. So that opened my eyes a little bit to the dangers of communism. And then… This is sort of a newer thing for me to analyze in this way, but I think I didn’t like the disorder that I saw in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I was frightened by the violence, by the nihilism that I saw on the left, and I recoiled from their radicalism. The New Left was all the rage when I was a kid and then a teenager. It had calmed down a bit by the ‘70s, but still it was something that I just I had no time for then.
Geoff Kabaservice: I actually had a somewhat similar experience. It didn’t come later until college and grad school. But looking at the more prominent people active on the left [I remember] thinking, “I wouldn’t trust these people with power.” I found out that actually was also Peggy Noonan’s insight that drove her away from the left as well.
Mona Charen: Yeah. Now, admittedly there was… Well, not admittedly. There’s another aspect to this. Because in the ‘60s/’70s — let’s call the Sixties the period from, say, 1967 to 1975-ish. Let’s call that the Sixties, because that was the period of real turmoil and violence and so on. It was very notable to me not just that the left was radical and violent and off-putting but that the liberals did not have the strength to stand up to them. And the liberals were constantly capitulating to the left, and I found that really cowardly and uninspiring. I remember at the time one of my heroes was John Silber at Boston University, and S. I. Hayakawa. And these were guys who were willing to tell the radicals where to get off.
I remember that — I learned it later, but it appealed to me, and this will give you sort of the same sense of the flavor of it. Reagan, when he was governor of California, which he was during this period of turmoil… Somebody said, “Well, Governor, what did you make of the protesters who were camped out on the lawn in Sacramento with posters saying ‘Make Love not War’?” “Well, I got a look at them and I don’t think they could do either.” I loved that.
Geoff Kabaservice: Without attempting to put you too much on the psychologist’s couch, I would guess that your immersion in the history of the Holocaust would also have given you a sense of civilization’s fragility.
Mona Charen: Very much so, very much so. That’s the chief takeaway. And it’s true across the board. You remember the Rwanda genocide? You know, it didn’t take long. It took just a couple of years of incitement and radio broadcasts, depicting the other ethnic group as being subhuman and so on, for them to commit horrible atrocities. The veneer of civilization is very thin. And there’s been a million things written about how Germany was the most advanced country in Europe in many respects — highly educated, art, literature, music — and yet… And so that was my takeaway, absolutely. They had the concentration camp victims playing in string quartets as people were being murdered. It’s that paradox of human beings. But anyway, yes, civilization is very fragile and needs to be defended at all costs. And that’s why when the New Left came along and it was “Up against the wall [bleep]” and so on, I was like — you know, that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous. And burning professors’ notes… Well, anyway, I don’t want to go on and on about it. You get the point.
Geoff Kabaservice: I get the point. There’s considerable irony in that this show’s first “E” rating might well come from Mona Charen…
Mona Charen: Sorry about that! We can bleep that out.
Geoff Kabaservice: We might, we might. So were you politically active when you were a student at Barnard College?
Mona Charen: Not really, no. I wasn’t politically active. I was the editor of one of the journals and I did a lot of writing. I worked for a while at the college radio station. But no, I wasn’t politically active. There of course really wasn’t a way for a conservative-leaning kid to be politically active in the 1970s. When did I graduate? ‘79. So yeah, in the late ‘70s, there were no conservative organizations. There was nothing. I don’t even think there was a Young Republicans club or College Republicans. Maybe there was. But I didn’t, no.
Geoff Kabaservice: And yet on your first tax return, at age twenty-two I believe, you listed your occupation (or your future occupation) as “pundit.”
Mona Charen: I did. I thought that was kind of funny. Well, I was working at National Review then, and I was writing…
Geoff Kabaservice: How did that come about?
Mona Charen: Oh, you don’t want to hear this whole story. It’s boring. Let’s go on to something else.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, it’s interesting you know, we’re talking just a few days after the passing of Joan Didion. People tend to forget that she got her start both in fashion magazines and also for National Review.
Mona Charen: She did.
Geoff Kabaservice: National Review really was an incubator of a lot of great writers, by no means all of whom ended up on the right.
Mona Charen: That is very true. In fact, Paul Gigot, who was my predecessor at National Review and who is now the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, he used to call it “Bill Buckley’s School for Young Apostates.” Well anyway, to make a long story short, I basically figured… Bill Buckley was my hero when I was in college and I thought, “Well, he’s in New York City and I’m in college in New York City. I’m going to see if I can get to get to meet him.” So I asked him to be interviewed for the Columbian, which was our undergrad yearbook. And one thing led to another and I met him in person, and then I didn’t tell him when I did the interview that I was actually a fan. I pretended to be a typical college liberal, and only later when I sent him the final version did I enclose a note in which I revealed that I was actually a huge fan. And so he was surprised and contacted me and said, “You know, you should get in touch with my sister because there might be a place for you at National Review.” So that’s how that happened.
Geoff Kabaservice: And that is interesting and revealing, in a way, because I think there is hardly a publication on the right today that wouldn’t do a lot of ideological vetting of a potential applicant.
Mona Charen: Oh no, Bill did nothing like that. It was all, you know — it was just his impression. And he just attracted people like filings to a magnet. People were so attracted to him because he was so charismatic.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, I’ve been through some of the correspondence of National Review from the late ‘70s and you would think that everyone could kind of see the Good Ship Ronald Reagan coming on the horizon. But in fact that doesn’t seem to have been the case. Bill Rusher, who was the publisher of National Review in those years, thought the whole conservative project was over, that there was no hope for the GOP. He had already tried and failed to have an independent third-party movement. And then there were also people who thought Ronald Reagan was a California sellout squish…
Mona Charen: Of course.
Geoff Kabaservice: And they wanted Phil Crane or some other much harder-edged ideological conservative to be the Republican nominee.
Mona Charen: Exactly. I know we always look back and think things were inevitable, or think that that everybody got behind him. I also remember while he was president he got a lot of pushback from people on the right who thought he was selling out to the Soviets and on and on, right?
Geoff Kabaservice: At some point I guess you left National Review and enrolled at the George Washington University Law School in Washington?
Mona Charen: I did, but in between I took a year off and I went to live in Israel because I thought, “This is the stage of my life when I’m free and footloose and I can travel and live in another country, which I probably won’t be able to do later very easily.” And so I did that. I went and lived in Israel for a year and then I came back and enrolled in law school, which I hated.
Geoff Kabaservice: And what was the impact of that year in Israel?
Mona Charen: First of all, I think young people… They always say that when you travel, the country you discover is your own. That certainly was part of it. It was also a very maturing experience, because I was in a foreign country. I had some support systems but, you know, I was on my own and I made decisions that I had to live with the consequences of. I started out on this kibbutz, and I didn’t like kibbutz life — confirming that I was definitely hostile to the left; I didn’t like all that collectivism. And so I decided… The idea was that I was going to be there for a year, and after about three weeks I said, “I’m actually going to go back to Jerusalem, I’m going to leave.” And they said, “You can’t leave.” And I said, “Well, yeah I can. I’m going to.” And I got on the bus and I went back to Jerusalem. I was able to stay in the in the apartment of somebody who I knew, but then I found an apartment — I went up to Hebrew University and I looked on the bulletin board and I found apartments. And I moved in with some English-speaking students and I got a job. And, you know, it was it was a lesson in self-reliance that I think was good. It was good for my self-confidence.
Geoff Kabaservice: Did you intend to be a practicing lawyer?
Mona Charen: I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure. There had been a little bit of a bait-and-switch… When I was in college, Columbia had this course that the Columbia Law School star professors would offer for undergrads, that was three different sections on the most sexy and interesting legal topics. And so I took that course and I thought, “This is fantastic! Law school is just a three-year seminar on legal and constitutional and moral and ethical matters. This is right up my alley. I’m going to do this. And if I practice, great.” And my family, having always gotten ahead by education in America, was very insistent that I should get an advanced degree, because it was something you could always fall back on if nothing else worked out. You know, it was a kind of safety to have a professional credential.
Of course, what I found out when I reached law school is that it’s not a three-year seminar on interesting moral and ethical matters. There’s a tiny bit of that, but mostly it’s a trade school. And by the way, I don’t think it needs to be three years, but that’s another matter — I think that’s economics at work. And I just couldn’t make myself care whether Company A, having contracted with Company B to deliver X number of widgets by a certain date, is in constructive compliance or not. I just found it deadly dull, most of it. There were a few bright lights. But I did finish it, I don’t know why — I guess because I felt that I had started it and it would be ignominious to drop out. And so I finished, I got the degree, but I never did practice law at all.
Geoff Kabaservice: But once you had got the degree, you went directly to work for First Lady Nancy Reagan as a speechwriter.
Mona Charen: That is true.
Geoff Kabaservice: How did that come about?
Mona Charen: While I was in law school, because I was so bored I continued to write. I wrote for Commentary, I wrote for National Review, I wrote for the Wall Street Journal. I kept my hand in. And so by the time I was finished with law school, I still had my connections at National Review, and Priscilla and Bill Buckley both made phone calls for me to the Reagan White House. And so the next thing I knew, I was being interviewed for a job as Nancy Reagan’s speechwriter. And I went from sitting in a library carrel on Twentieth Street, studying for finals in law school, to sitting in the East Wing of the White House just a few weeks later at my office. Amazing.
Geoff Kabaservice: What did your experience teach you about Nancy Reagan that you wouldn’t have known otherwise?
Mona Charen: I didn’t get to know her that well. She was really insulated with staff, and she worked mostly through her chief. And so I met with her one-on-one just a handful of times and didn’t get a really good feel for what she was like. But I did my best, because as a speechwriter I had to try to get inside her head. I did my best. That was 1984. There was a campaign on, and she was doing a lot more speaking than usual because of the campaign schedule. And then when the campaign was over in November she didn’t need a full-time speechwriter anymore, so I switched over to the President’s staff.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I believe that on the Ronald Reagan side you were in the White House Office of Public Liaison and then later in the Office of Communications.
Mona Charen: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: Do you consider yourself a Reaganite still?
Mona Charen: I guess so. It was a response to a particular moment in history. Although I’ve come to see lately that Jimmy Carter did a lot of things that conservatives liked, or would have liked if they hadn’t been partisan. The fact is he started the deregulation move (like with trucking), he started the heavy sanctions on the Soviets after they invaded Afghanistan. He also started the big military buildup that we all believed in. He appointed Paul Volcker to the Fed with the idea that he was going to tackle inflation. And so in that sense, Carter did a lot of things that I approve of. But Reagan was a response to a particular moment. The tax system then was very different and the call for reducing taxes made sense in that time — it doesn’t anymore. And we were faced with a worldwide adversary, and so his sort of muscular response was something that was necessary for that time but which cannot really be translated very well to our own. So I was a Reaganite then. I wouldn’t say I am now because those things just don’t apply.
Geoff Kabaservice: Did you go directly from the White House to work for Jack Kemp?
Mona Charen: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since some listeners may not be familiar with who Jack Kemp was, can you say something about him?
Mona Charen: So I heard… This was 1986, everybody was starting to gear up for the 1988 presidential contest, the primaries. I heard through the grapevine that George H. W. Bush was looking for speechwriters. People invited me to apply. I said no because he was too squishy for me; I thought he was too moderate. I wanted to work for Jack Kemp, who was a sort of Kennedyesque congressman from upstate New York: a former football star who had educated himself and become a passionate supply-side advocate, and a great Cold Warrior, and a great ally, friend, and supporter of Israel, and also somebody who had a big-tent approach to conservatism. He wanted everybody to know about the benefits of free markets and free people and free trade. And he was constantly going into black neighborhoods and churches and projects and so on to bring the gospel of markets. As such, he was somebody that appealed to me very strongly. And so I decided to see if he needed a speechwriter, because I knew he was gearing up for a presidential run. And so I went to work for Jack.
Geoff Kabaservice: I always find it hard to describe Kemp politically. The best I usually manage is that he was an “idiosyncratic conservative.” But his own label for himself was actually also pretty good: he called himself a “bleeding-heart conservative.”
Mona Charen: A “bleeding-heart conservative,” yeah. Part of what was so great about Jack was that — and the party of course has gone in completely a different direction — but he saw back then the possibility of reaching out to African-American voters in a serious way. And he was very conscientious about it and sincere. He apparently once said that, as a former football player, he had showered with more black people than most Republicans had ever met. He was a fabulous, fabulous person to work for. I loved Jack. He didn’t have a lot of self-discipline, and that’s in the end what I think made it impossible for him to go further. But he had a great heart, and a great mind too. So I am very proud of my service for him.
Geoff Kabaservice: Jack Kemp did in fact put a lot of his focus on civil rights for the African-American community as well as their economic and social advancement. And that kind of seemed to point to a Republican Party that was on the right side of the racial issues, or that would be on the right side of racial issues.
Mona Charen: Exactly. And I thought all Republicans agreed with that!
Geoff Kabaservice: And it seems to me, leaping ahead here, that part of your response against Trumpism was a sense that aspects of that movement were validating the old left critique that the Republican Party was wrong on race.
Mona Charen: Yeah. I kept saying this in 2015. I kept saying, “Look, he represents every stereotype that the left has ever brought forth about what conservatives are really like: you know, that we’re actually xenophobic and racist and misogynistic and so on.” And people said, “Yeah. What’s the problem?”
Geoff Kabaservice: So you actually managed to get a nationally syndicated column on or about your thirtieth birthday. How did that happen?
Mona Charen: Well, see, because I had spent my adolescence reading Bill Buckley and other columnists, I just thought that being a columnist was the be-all and end-all. I just really thought that was the greatest possible career one could have. But my trajectory was not typical for that goal, right? Usually you start at your home newspaper. You get a column in your local paper and then it gets syndicated, gets picked up. But I didn’t have a home paper. All I had was a bunch of clippings of different kinds of writing that I had done while I was working for Jack Kemp. I also started writing a newsletter that went to the Republican Conference. It was a fortnightly and I would write a thousand-word or a 1300-word column that went to the Republican members. And it got tremendous feedback; people loved it.
So I thought, “All right, maybe I can use this as my portfolio.” And I went to a syndicate that was just starting at that time. That just worked out — that was lucky, that was just luck. They were just starting and they needed talent; they needed writers and cartoonists and whatnot. And so we met up. That was Creator Syndicate, and they took a chance and decided to market me. And for the first few months I basically had no newspapers — my first newspaper was in Moscow, Idaho. I thought that was kind of funny since I was such a Cold Warrior. But yeah, that was how that happened. It was really lucky. And then, you know, it started to do pretty well. At the height of my syndication career, I guess I had maybe three hundred newspapers, which was a lot for a political column.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you were also one of the relatively few women conservative columnists, I believe.
Mona Charen: That’s right. Yes, at the time my big competition was Jeanne Kirkpatrick.
Geoff Kabaservice: Interesting. You published two books in the early aughts that I think come out of some of the columns you had written over the previous decades. But the titles of those books are suggestive of some of your approach in those days: Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First — that came out in 2003. Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help (and the Rest of Us) in 2005. And I remember seeing you in about those years on CNN’s “Capitol Gang.” I would say that in those days you engaged in partisan politics in a manner that Bill Buckley once described as “debating with a Catherine wheel in each hand.”
Mona Charen: That’s fair. Yeah, I was a firebrand. I cringe a little bit at those titles. I chose the title “Useful Idiots” because it was a term of art, right? It was supposedly… I found out when I actually wrote the book that Lenin may not have ever said it. As you find out when you research quotes, nobody ever said anything; you know, it’s like everything’s fake.
Geoff Kabaservice: True.
Mona Charen: But it was attributed to Lenin that the capitalists would be “useful idiots” for the eventual success of the communists. And he even said at one point, “When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope,” and that sort of thing. Anyway, “useful idiots” was a term that they used that was supposed to be a reflection of the naivete of liberals in the West. And I firmly believed that it was a good description of people who I thought were extremely naive about the true intentions of the Soviets, and so I used that title. And it became a bestseller — probably because of that title, I don’t know.
And then, you know, other people on the right were using even more inflamed language: “traitors,” “treason,” and all of that. And I thought I really didn’t want to be a part of that. You know, I never accused anybody of treason; I accused them of naivete. That was my message, that these people are naïve. I didn’t say they were evil, I didn’t say that they were enemies, and I didn’t say they were treasonous. But, you know, maybe I did move things in that direction. And that I have recoiled from in my old age.
Geoff Kabaservice: You and Charlie and Bill Kristol talk a lot on your podcasts about the television you’re watching. I can’t remember if you watched the series that came out on Hulu last year called Mrs. America…
Mona Charen: I did, I did watch it.
Geoff Kabaservice: …about Phyllis Schlafly and the feminist movement. What did you think of that?
Mona Charen: I thought it was really interesting. I knew Phyllis a little. She once gave me an award. Even then she gave me the creeps a little bit, because she was such a zealot. There was no nuance in her, no understanding that somebody could have a different point of view legitimately. Anyway, she did have that effect on me. I thought the Hulu series was very good. What did you think?
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, it certainly helps if you’re going to have Cate Blanchett play your lead character. Something that struck me is that what that series got right is how radical the left-feminists were at that time, and how that kind of pushed Phyllis and her right-wing anti-feminists further to the extremes than they might otherwise have been.
Mona Charen: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: There is a real sense in which political radicalization on both sides empowers and dynamizes the other.
Mona Charen: That’s very true. And that’s one of the things that worries me about our current era. As the Republicans get more and more radical, it’s almost never the case in history that then their opponents say, “Well, this radicalism is really not good for society, so we’re going to respond with moderation.” You know, it doesn’t work that way. It’s magnets popping off each other.
Geoff Kabaservice: I don’t want to say that there are any similarities between you and Phyllis Schlafly. Of course you were never a zealot, never a Bircher. But she did start her career more as a Cold Warrior…
Mona Charen: True.
Geoff Kabaservice: …writing about missile defense and things like that, and then moved to what became for her the much more successful area of domestic relations and writing about feminism. And there is maybe some similar arc, perhaps, to what you became known for in your own political writings.
Mona Charen: Yeah, that’s certainly fair. You know, in your email to me you asked me whether I still think of myself as a social conservative. And I would say yes, with modifications. But yes, I do. I really stand by what I wrote in my third book, which was published in 2018, called Sex Matters, where I sort of analyze where I think the feminist movement went wrong. So I think that the focus on women’s rights — great. The focus on expanding opportunities — terrific. Legal equality — great. You know, women should be equal under the law and so on. But the feminist movement went very radical and they decided that they were against the family; the family was like a conspiracy to imprison women. And I firmly disagree with this. I think that while there are certainly aspects of patriarchal societies that are oppressive, ours is not one of them. Marriage is actually to women’s advantage, and therefore the retreat from it has actually damaged women and children very much — and men. It’s damaged everybody. Family is the heart of everything. It’s the heart of a successful, happy culture.
Geoff Kabaservice: And of course one has to point out that at the time you were getting syndicated and coming out with all of these columns and then the books, you were also raising three boys.
Mona Charen: Yep, I was, with my husband — got to mention him. I always worked part-time and made sure that the family came first. I had kids with various kinds of disabilities. Our first son was on the autistic spectrum and our second son has Type 1 diabetes. Our third son, thank goodness, didn’t have those issues. But as often happens when you become a parent, you know, everything isn’t like cookie-cutter perfect. And it requires a lot of time and attention, and it draws out from you things that you didn’t necessarily know were going to be required to raise them.
Geoff Kabaservice: So to give your 2018 book its full title: Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense.
Mona Charen: Right. I didn’t write the title, by the way.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay. The term “moderate” is one that I wrestle with a lot. And I actually think I mentioned to you that when we first met in 2012, it was at a Committee for Economic Development meeting that was talking about my book on the moderate wing of the Republican Party. And you listened, somewhat with arms crossed, and then went out and wrote a column about the unwisdom of the moderates and how excellent it was that they had been crushed by the Reaganites — which is fine…
Mona Charen: Gosh. Yeah, that was me then, yep.
Geoff Kabaservice: It does seem to me that, particularly in the universe of The Bulwark, you do still uphold something like a social conservatism. But you do it in a less slashing — one might even say moderate — way than your polemics of old.
Mona Charen: Yeah. Part of that is that I have become allergic to the slashing style, let’s say, or vitriol. We have all too much of that right now and it’s killing us. So one of the things that I strive for in my writing now is to try to find common ground, and to try to present arguments in a way that won’t unnecessarily wound people who have a different perspective. But I wasn’t always that way. And sometimes when I read people on the right now, I hear echoes of the way I was when I was young and it distresses me.
Geoff Kabaservice: What I was struck by, in reading that book again… It wasn’t moderation, exactly, that you brought. But, for example, you were willing to concede an awful lot to the other side about the positive aspects of feminism: what had it accomplished, what was worth celebrating in this movement toward equality.
Mona Charen: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: But you also say at one point that while too much historically had been made of sexual distinctions, now the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. And this rhetoric of balance is part of what moderation is about. So too when you’re talking about the difference between what feminist ideology dictates versus what women actually want.
Mona Charen: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: And, again, realism is one of the hallmarks of moderation. It used to be perhaps one of the [hallmarks] of conservatism, but it doesn’t seem to have been that way for a while.
Mona Charen: I agree with that. One of the things I talk about in the book is that if you look at mothers of kids under school age, what is their ideal work-life balance? Most of them would like to either not be working at all or to be working part-time. These numbers bounce around a lot. You’ll get different responses depending on how the economy is doing and other things. But at the time that I wrote the book, you could see consistent responses. There’s a tendency on the left and among feminists to think that everybody wants to be working full-time and that that’s their ideal, and it’s not. Most people want flexibility. And I was trying to say, “Let’s listen to what women are really telling us.” And it’s not just what they tell pollsters, but it’s how they organize their lives. And it’s not because they’re oppressed, it’s because they prefer it.
Geoff Kabaservice: There was a recent column you wrote for The Bulwark where you were talking about politicians on the right like Josh Hawley taking up this theme that feminism has disadvantaged men. And, you know, they’re actually preaching from the gospel you wrote in that book…
Mona Charen: I know, it’s so annoying.
Geoff Kabaservice: …but they’re doing it in a way that’s different from how you do it. This is interesting, because they can take something which actually is true — about men falling behind and how this actually is making women unhappy — and yet kind of spin it ideologically in a way that makes it unpalatable to people who might otherwise listen.
Mona Charen: Exactly. This is something that is new to me, but I have to say that having somebody take your insight and then use it in the crudest, most unattractive fashion is just deeply upsetting. Right, it is true that men are falling behind. So, for example, I wrote a piece maybe a year ago where I talked about the numbers of undergraduates right now who are women — it’s up to sixty percent — and I talked about how this actually is not good, not good for anybody. It’s not good for men and it’s not good for the women undergraduates who will eventually want to marry men who have the same level of education that they do, because that’s the pattern. And if there aren’t enough marriageable men for these women, that’s not going to make them happy either.
Anyway, I talked about this in the piece. But the headline was something about “female power,” and it was very interesting because on Twitter I got a lot of attagirls — you know, “Yay woman power!” And I felt the need to respond, “Hey, actually that wasn’t my point. I actually think this is not good for anybody, and if you’d read the piece” — which of course people don’t on Twitter — “you’d know that this is not one of those ‘Rah rah, you go girl’ things.” Anyway, I stress the interconnectedness of men and women and families and how you can’t have one sex succeed at the expense of the other — either way. It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t make people happy unless it’s a cooperative venture.
Josh Hawley picked up on the parts about how men are being emasculated and they don’t get respect. Well, there is some truth to that. I mean, masculinity is denigrated as toxic, and that’s not good. But his response is one of hostility and truculence. Whereas the proper answer is, in my judgment, that yes, we need to appreciate the aspects of male nature that are generous, self-sacrificing, active — all those qualities that testosterone seems to give that half of our sex, although obviously not exclusively. But I’m just saying these are the good aspects of masculinity, and that has to be appreciated and not denigrated. On the other hand, aggression, philandering, other things — those should be criticized. But it doesn’t lend itself to political exploitation, let’s put it that way.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, there was also what I thought was a pretty critical passage where you said that your major criticism of the feminist movement is that its success has come at the cost of what you describe as “many of the crucial supports for a happy and balanced life.” And, see, that’s putting the case for social conservatism (or a kind of social conservatism) in positive terms, whereas what gets news and headlines and people’s adrenaline spiking is making the case in negative terms.
Mona Charen: That’s right, that’s absolutely right. I interviewed a lot of students and young people for this book, and there were a few people… There was one gal, I remember in particular, who said she did not want to get married and did not want to have children. And I remember saying to her, “Well, it’s great that you know what you want, and it was bad in the past when women felt pressured to get married and have kids if that’s not what they desired.” And she said, “I know. My mother was one of them.” And I thought, “Oh, ouch.” But with the exception of her and one or two others, basically the men the women all imagined a life for themselves that includes a successful marriage and children. And that is something that, if you say it in certain left-wing circles, is considered backward, that people should want that: “That’s not what we’re about. We’re always about the marketplace, we’re always about advancement, we’re always about prestige and” — of course the word that they always use — “power.” They’re always about power.
And that’s a pretty harsh image of life, right? It neglects the whole softer side of life that makes life worth living, which is your intimate, loving, mutually supportive relationships that are found within families. Now obviously there are a lot of dysfunctional families, I know that, of course. But that’s not true of most of them. And in general, family life if it’s successful — and mostly it is — makes people happy. And I have all kinds of data in the book which you know, if you read it, that the data are pretty unequivocal that married people are happier than single people. And most of all, children who grow up in a stable, two-parent family are just way, way, way happier than kids who grow up in more chaotic situations. And I think a lot of the problems that we are having as a society is because we have messed up our family lives. And people are growing up without those connections and without that security, and it is making them unhappy and a little crazy and a little unmoored. And that’s a worrying thing.
Geoff Kabaservice: Speaking of dysfunction and craziness… You were one of the contributors to National Review’s January 2016 “Against Trump” symposium. Why did you respond so negatively to Trump at that early stage and why have you stayed that way whereas so many of the other contributors to that issue have got in line?
Mona Charen: I don’t know how many contributors there were initially, but I know that there is just barely a handful…
Geoff Kabaservice: Out of close to two dozen…
Mona Charen: …that have stayed anti-Trump. Well, that’s the whole history of our time, the whole collapse of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. But I don’t understand how anybody could not have a negative reaction to Trump. That’s the thing… He’s one of the worst human beings in American public life and it just baffles me that that this was hard. I had been aware of him as a tabloid figure in New York, and his vile, misogynistic, selfish, vain behavior had come to my attention. And the idea that that he would be taken seriously as a presidential candidate was appalling. So I had no problem saying that. But I knew even then that the national editors of National Review — even then — had trouble getting conservatives to contribute to that issue. A lot of people said, “No thanks, I’ll pass.”
Geoff Kabaservice: If there’s an underlying theme to those contributions, I would say it’s the fear that Trump would discredit conservatism. Do you think he has?
Mona Charen: Yes, utterly. Utterly. These days I don’t really want to even call myself a conservative because of what it has come to signify. Yeah. I say, “Oh, I’m a moderate” now — just like you.
Geoff Kabaservice: Oh my goodness. Are there costs, though, to our politics to this discrediting of conservatism?
Mona Charen: Very much so, very much so. Because conservatism did have some key insights — does have key insights — about life. Well, I’ve just been talking about some of them: the importance of family life and stressing that, which alas now is getting corrupted and made into just a battering ram but in the right hands is a really important thing. I mean, I would love to see more… One of the things I called for in my book, my fantasy, is that there would be a widespread sort of civil-society movement to encourage marriage the way we once discouraged teen pregnancy — which was highly successful, actually. And I imagined that it would be led by Barack Obama, who’s been great on these issues. And instead it’s being used as a partisan cudgel, which is unfortunate.
Mona Charen: So okay, so there’s the family side of it. There’s also the economics. I really think the right has the better of the argument on how economies work, the importance of incentives, the damaging effects of excessive regulation and excessive taxation — although, again, it’s a little bit different from the way it was in the Reagan years. I was not even actually for the Trump tax cut, but that’s another matter. But on the basics of supply and demand and all that… Now, of course, I would have said free trade, but that’s no longer a thing that that the right party in this country, the Republican Party, believes. But it is a conservative insight that is important that free trade has made the entire world so much wealthier.
So there are a lot of these issues where I think conservatives have the better of the argument. And without a respectable conservative party, we’re left with just arguments between the radicals in the Democratic Party and the moderates in the Democratic Party, with no input from reasonable conservatives — with the exception of the occasional Romney proposal on child care which, maybe in the Manchin moment, might actually go somewhere. We’ll see. But that is the sort of thing… Romney’s child tax credit proposal I thought was far preferable to the one that the Democrats were proposing, for a whole series of reasons. I would love to see more input from a reasonable and rational and compassionate conservative party, but we don’t have that right now.
Geoff Kabaservice: It seems to me that you were still more or less in good standing in the conservative movement in 2017, up to CPAC in 2018 when you denounced Republican hypocrisy for criticizing sexual abusers on the left but not on the right — and you singled out Roy Moore and Donald Trump. And then you also criticized CPAC itself for inviting the French far-right politician Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who of course comes from a grandfather who is a racist and a Nazi. And I’m told that you had to be escorted out by guards; not only were you booed viciously for this but it seemed like a violent moment could happen.
Mona Charen: Yeah, people say that. I didn’t feel endangered, but they did they did escort me out, that is a true fact. I think it was just kind of an accident that I even got invited to CPAC. I hadn’t been there in years. But I thought it would be a good moment to make that point and that somebody from within the conservative camp needed to call out this kind of hypocrisy. I would love to see more of this on the left, frankly — you know, when you can criticize your own side and have much more credibility than criticizing the other side. Anyway, yeah, that that did make me… I suppose it outed me as an enemy of Trumpism, if I wasn’t already because of the National Reviewthing. So yeah, happy with that.
Geoff Kabaservice: In fact, was that the crossing of a Rubicon that it seemed to be from the outside — a real dividing line within what became of the conservative movement?
Mona Charen: That moment, for me? No, I think I had already become pretty disillusioned with them by the time that happened. That was 2018, and it just happened to come up that it was an opportunity to say it to a larger audience and make a big splash doing so. But no, I had already… the disillusionment had already set in pretty hard.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay. The last year or so has seen you move much more into the orbit of The Bulwark. I think you left the Ethics and Public Policy Center, in fact, to move over to The Bulwark full-time.
Mona Charen: Right, I did.
Geoff Kabaservice: What has that experience been like?
Mona Charen: I love The Bulwark. It’s the best professional experience of my life. Ah, well, I mean my early years at National Review were great, my years at the White House were great… I take that back. I’ve had other great experiences. But in the last couple decades, I would say, this has just been fantastic. It’s a group of people that I don’t always agree with. For example, Jonathan V. Last is well to my left politically, but I adore him. I value his contributions and I just think he’s a mensch — that means a stand-up person. And, you know, it’s just got the most amazing collection of talent. Bill Kristol… I’ve known Bill Kristol for decades at this point, but we never really worked together before and now we do, and that’s just been tremendously rewarding. I think the world of him. Sarah Longwell is a dynamo, Tim Miller’s there — just so much talent. I love them all, I really do. And Sonny Bunch… Just a great crew. And I’m very, very happy to be at a place where I’m surrounded by people that I respect. I don’t have to say to myself, “Are they going to fold? Are they going to do the convenient thing? Are they going to do the expedient thing now?” They’re not, they’re rock-ribbed. They’re great.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’ve talked with a number of my friends who listen to your Beg to Differ Podcast, and what they like about it is this sense that people who once disagreed with each other pretty intensely can come together and talk civilly. Because after all, Damon Linker and Bill Galston and Linda Chavez — these are not people who all came from the same points on the political compass.
Mona Charen: Absolutely. That’s true, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to start the show. I felt that particularly in this moment, where we are daggers-drawn and we have the most bitter partisanship we’ve ever seen since the Civil War, that we desperately need examples of civil discourse and civil disagreement. And so that was why I started the podcast.
Geoff Kabaservice: And, again, a theme that I at least read into this is that a lot of the issues that once divided the left and the right don’t seem as important compared to the threat to democracy which is coming from the populist right at the moment.
Mona Charen: Absolutely, absolutely. And this is one of the things that separates people like me from people like Dennis Prager and others who are so monomaniacally focused on the sins of the left. I don’t deny the sins of the left — I’ve written about them endlessly. And the threats to free speech, those are real. These are serious problems that the left has to be held accountable for. But the threat from the right is existential. It is. It’s not that they’re going to disinvite somebody from a university campus and shout them down. It’s that they’re going to shut down the democratic system upon which we all depend for our way of life. And sometimes I wake up in the morning and I think, “Am I going to live out the rest of my life in a free country or not?” And I don’t know.
Geoff Kabaservice: It remains to be seen whether we’ll be living out the rest of our lives in this country depending on what happens. But one of the things I’ve also noticed about The Bulwark is that it really has, I guess I would say, augmented and burnished the talents of its members in a way that in some cases I hadn’t seen before. Like I remember Tim Miller from years back when he was contributing the occasional piece to Crooked Media and I knew he was smart and funny, but I had no idea he would become the pundit that he is now.
Mona Charen: Yeah, he’s really blossomed.
Geoff Kabaservice:Sarah Longwell meeting up with Bill Kristol and creating Defending Democracy Together and all the things that she’s gone on to do… And although he’s not quite in The Bulwark world, I think David Frum has become a much more sophisticated thinker than he was at least back in his George W. Bush speechwriting days.
Mona Charen: That’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: So this is a bit of a silver lining in a dark time. But I do think that to the extent that there is good thinking going on in our current political moment, it seems to be happening on the center-right and the center-left. And The Bulwark is very much at the heart of a lot of that.
Mona Charen: Thank you. I agree. And by the way, I have to give a shout-out to Charlie Sykes, who is one of the most productive humans that I know. I mean, he puts out a daily newsletter and a daily podcast and then weekend newsletters and contributes other pieces and is a contributor to MSNBC. I don’t know how he does it, but his output is just phenomenal. And he does a Secret Podcast with me once a week.
Geoff Kabaservice: And he is at the moment enjoying a well-deserved vacation from all of this. But there too, you know, I read Charlie’s books back in the day — Profscam and so on — and I thought they were more polemical than deep. Whereas I think now Charlie’s actually become a pretty deep thinker.
Mona Charen: Yeah, I think that what’s happened to the best people is that this has made… It has deepened them and made them more sophisticated and subtle in their approaches. It’s sort of graduating from sharp polemics to wisdom, if you will.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since this podcast so rarely concludes on optimistic note, I think we’ll leave it there. Thank you so much for joining me, Mona. It’s been great to talk to you.
Mona Charen: All right. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.