American Greatness Managing Editor Ben Boychuk joined PowerLine’s Steven Hayward for a lively chat “celebrating a year of American Greatness”—not just President Trump’s accomplishments, but the efforts of the trio of editors who work to bring this website to you every day. We’re big fans of PowerLine. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or at Ricochet.
Steven Hayward: Welcome, everybody, to another episodic edition of the Power Line Show. Steven Hayward sitting in on behalf of the four of us, since we can never get the four Beatles back together again on a rooftop for anything anymore, and here at the end of the year, I thought it a suitable thing to celebrate a year of American Greatness.
No, I don’t just mean what Trump has been up to in making America great again, but in particular, I want to celebrate the great success of a new website that emerged in the last year that’s our friends over at American Greatness, or Amgreatness.com, if you’ve neglected to actually read it on your own. They started from nothing to being one of the top websites in the country, I think, for conservatives, with an impressive array of contributors, including people like Conrad Black, Roger Kimball, lots of other people, including some new writers that they have discovered, that perhaps we’ll mention.
I’m pleased that joining us toady for a few minutes to talk about American Greatness and also what’s up with Trump is the managing director of the site, an old friend of mine, Ben Boychuk, who you may also know out here in California as a biweekly columnist for the Sacramento Bee newspaper, which is kind of interesting since they’re reflexively liberal. Anyway, Ben, welcome to the Power Line Show, and first of all, congratulations. I have to say that I was on an early phone call with Chris Buskirk, your publisher, and was somewhat skeptical that a new web venture could succeed, and I’m happy that I was completely wrong.
What’s your secret sauce? What accounts for the great success of American Greatness since its launch?
Ben Boychuk: Well, I think we realized that there was an audience for this, and we don’t have contempt for our audience. I think, really, American Greatness emerged in the middle of 2016 in the midst of a vacuum. There was a site, our intellectual forbearer. It was called the Journal of American Greatness. Some Power Line readers may know about it. It was a pseudonymous blog site, that we now know, it was run by Michael Anton, who’s with the National Security Council, and a couple of other guys, Julius Krein and Gladden Pappin, who went and started their own thing called American Affairs.
American Greatness really emerged because the Journal of American Greatness went away suddenly. There was a vacuum. There was obviously an audience for it, and although we didn’t want to replicate the Journal of American Greatness, we saw that there was clearly a need for something like it, and so we started on my birthday, July 14, 2016, and yeah, no traffic. Then, little by little, we managed to build up quite a substantial audience and quite a substantial roster of contributors, and so I got to tell you, we’re having …
There’s really just three of us. There’s Chris Buskirk, the publisher you mentioned, Julie Ponzi, who’s our senior editor, and I’m the managing editor, and we kind of run the day-to-day, and we are having the time of our lives.
Hayward: It sure looks like it. Like I say, you always have sparklingly good, long-form essays just about on a daily basis, sometimes several a day. I noticed a great one up today. It’s a recording, and it’s Michael Walsh comparing … Actually, the editorial that I concluded my “Age of Reagan” book. It’s the New York Times from 1983, saying, “A stench of failure hangs over the Reagan Administration,” just when things were starting to go great for Reagan, and as he makes the simple point: you could republish that editorial today, swap out Reagan for Trump, and you’d get the elite media a view on things,” which kind of gives a nice piece of [inaudible 00:04:09]. Wish I thought of that myself.
Here’s a particular question for you. I recall you being maybe not a never-Trumper, but certainly like I was for a long time, an anti-Trumper, and then, I don’t remember exactly when, but I remember seeing you online say somewhere, viewing the way the media and the Democrats were freaking out about Trump, before the election, I think you said something like, “Screw it. I’m voting for the guy. I’m tired of this sort of demagogic attacks on him.” Is that roughly right, and sanitized, also?
Boychuk: That’s right. That’s the sanitized version of it. Throughout much of 2016, I wasn’t a great fan of the candidate, but I liked a lot of what he had to say on the issues. In American Greatness, we have this thing called the Greatness Agenda that we like to talk about as often as we can. There are certain issues that Trump ran on that really resonated with me, and with us, the site … that’s why we’re doing it … and I think with voters and with readers, and basically, it boils down to three things: much tougher immigration enforcement, build the wall; rethinking this reflexive fealty to free trade agreements that aren’t really free trade agreements; and an American-first foreign policy.
All that seemed pretty good. Really good. So, I liked that. Some of the antics of the candidate I didn’t really love, but it got to the point where it was down to the wire, where I’m a California voter, you’re a California voter, my vote here wasn’t going to make any difference, really, anyway, but I just thought … With all of this, there was something … I think what really finally pushed me over the edge, there was some piece in the Huffington Post that was just so obnoxious, I just thought, “These people cannot be allowed to win,” and so that’s really what pushed me over.
I had predicted that Trump would win in a column I wrote for the Sacramento Bee back in June of 2016, so even before American Greatness got started, I had predicted it, and I had given them roughly five reasons why I thought he was going to win, and the day of the election … The day after the election, I had just a ton of email from Sac Bee readers who said … One guy, in particular, said, “I had your column taped up above my computer, and I was waiting to email you to gloat just how wrong you were.” He said, “But, you were right on every point.”
It seemed like it was pretty clear that the elite opinion, the people who should’ve known better but didn’t, they just didn’t want to see. That was the beautiful thing about that election, I think, Steve. It was a clarifying event in more ways than one, and so I think it was a useful thing to have happen. It’s been unfortunate in the sense that people have lost friendships over this thing, but at the same time, I think the clarity has been useful.
Hayward: Yes, I think that’s right. Let’s digress for just a moment, before pursuing a few more questions about Trump, and talk about you and the Sacramento Bee. I lived in Sacramento for quite a while, and I got to know some of the editors at the paper, and it’s a reflexively liberal, and not terribly deeply thoughtful, a liberal page. How did you end up there, and how is that going?
Boychuk: It’s going great. It’s a funny story. I was approached … Gosh, it’s 2017 now. I was approached in 2010 or 2009. They had an opening on their page for the opinion editor, and the editor-in-chief at the time, Melanie Sill, sent me a note on Facebook saying, “Somebody had mentioned your name. We have this little opening. Would you be interested in it?”
At the time, I wasn’t really doing … I was freelancing. I had a pretty nice gig at EW Scripps that had gone away in 2008, and so I thought, “All right. They’re asking me. Why not?” So, I went for it, and I was basically first- or second-runner up for the job, because I just kept … She would send me these queries, like, “What do you think about this on the opinion page? How would you do this differently?” They brought me up there for an interview, I was up there for two days. I knew the first day, I wasn’t going to get it, but they seemed to like me and I liked them, and they offered me a column, and so I’ve been writing a column in one form or another ever since for those guys.
They just recently promoted me to Sundays, and the editor there now, Dan Morain, who used to write for the Los Angeles Times—
Hayward: I know him some.
Boychuk: Yeah, nice guy. Good guy. Dan called me up a few weeks back and said, “Listen, we’re trying to jazz up the Sunday section a bit. You seem to get a lot of readers. Would you mind if we moved you from Fridays to Sundays?”
Well, of course, Sunday is the largest circulation day, so, what am I going to say, no? It was funny. He asked me, “You seem to get a lot of traffic for us.” Traffic is key for everybody now on the web. It’s not so much print circulation anymore, it’s about how many eyeballs they get through the internet, and he said, “How do you think you’re doing that?” I said, “I don’t think I’m doing anything particularly special. I just think I’m offering a perspective that might be a little bit unusual on your page.”
He said, “Yeah, that makes sense.” That’s it. We talk and we can complain, rightfully complain, sometimes, about the heavy, silly liberalism on a lot of newspaper opinion pages, and we can also look at places like the New York Times where they hire conservatives who eventually become house pets. Nobody has ever told me what to write. I’ve written pretty much what I’ve wanted, when I’ve wanted, and they love it. They like it because it’s a refreshingly different take for them. I wish more newspapers would pick up on that, and they might find that they get a few of their readers back.
Hayward: We could talk a long time about the cloistered nature of newspaper editorial offices, but let’s stick to Trump for a minute.
My view is that … Not just my view … is that it was not foreordained that Trump would govern as the most conservative president since Ronald Reagan. He could’ve shot out the box with a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan to lure Democrats. He could’ve been completely chaotic in certain other ideological ways. Instead, as we’ve seen, my goodness.
Just take the embassy in Jerusalem business. We know that George W. Bush hated Yasser Arafat, had no illusions about the bankruptcy of the so-called peace process, and yet even he, the supposed reckless cowboy, wouldn’t take the step of moving the embassy to Jerusalem, but Trump has done it, and I think it’s going to pay nothing but good dividends. Maybe he just needs to be ornery, but my question is … Sorry to ramble … is, what is your theory, or what accounts for the fact that he’s decided to, as I put it cynically, he’s decided to sell out to us?
Boychuk: He’s hired good people, for one thing. He’s surrounded himself with really solid folks, for the most part. We might quibble a bit with a few of his picks, but-
Hayward: Even Reagan had some real turkeys in his cabinet, so—
Boychuk: That’s right, including, I believe, his first secretary of state, I think? I’m not sure.
Hayward: That’s a long story for another time.
I think, first of all, he’s had some pretty solid people around him, and I think expectations were so low, in some ways, at least among the reporters who’ve been trying to cover him. I think that’s the big thing. What I have loved about this year, and it’s one of these things that … When we talk about his accomplishments this year, the Jerusalem decision is one, obviousl, Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court is a big one …
My favorite thing of all was the story in, I think, the first week he was in office, of people weeping openly in the halls of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hayward: My old mentor, M. Stanton Evans used to say … Of course, the other news is that hundreds of people have quit-
Boychuk: In disgust!
Hayward: Right. Exactly. But, M. Stanton Evans used to say, “Sometimes, you just have to take the sweet with the sweet.” That’s one of my feel-good stories, too, when I hear that sort of thing.
Boychuk: He’s managed to undo by the pen what President Obama accomplished with the pen. A lot of these executive orders that did not have the backing of Congress, he’s been able to undo. Using Congress, he’s been able to roll back a whole slew of terrible regulations. That’s all to the good, and of course, the tax reform has to be counted as a win.
But, yeah, you mentioned some of the other things, the infrastructure bill, which there was, if you recall, I think there was talk in February, March, and he was floating some ideas about how to finance it, and there was talk of an infrastructure bank, and things like that, and that just went away, I think over taken by events. It sounds like Gary Cohn, the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, is rolling something out or getting ready to roll something out at the beginning of the year, which we’ll see how that goes.
That’s one of those things. Infrastructure is one of those things, when the transportation omnibus funding bills come around every so often, everybody loves to jump on that. Every congressman has his particular project. Earmark or no, there’s always lots of money to go around there, and so it’ll be interesting to see how that works out. He’s got to get something going. We’ve got a prototype wall being worked on, but he needs to be able to show that he’s making more progress on immigration. This DACA situation is a delight to see, because Congress is trying to punt, and if they won’t do something, he said he will.
Then, back to foreign policy. He’s managed to make some interesting advances with China, for example, so it’s all sort of surprising and good, and as the media keeps screeching idiotically about his tweets, real stuff is getting done.
Hayward: Right. We could talk about infrastructure for a long time, but that gets wonky and off into the weeds in a hurry. However, it might be a part of some thoughts on the next question, which is, what could go wrong? I don’t care much about the poll ratings and the election cycle. Republicans are likely to do poorly for all the usual political reasons of the political cycles that we have.
Beyond the ordinary politics of it, and we’re beyond ordinary politics, but what could go wrong with Trump? What are the hazards that his sympathizers and supporters and citizens should be on guard for?
Boychuk: There’s always the opportunity … There’s always the chance that a cabinet member … You’ll have another one of these stupid private helicopter scandals, one of those distractions where you get the stench of corruption that almost invariably plagues an administration. Certainly right out of the gate, this was something that’s dogged this administration. He’s got a special prosecutor on him, and so something like that could certainly happen.
There’s always some possibility of a foreign policy crisis that nobody anticipates. They’re supposedly having drills in Hawaii for incoming missile attacks from North Korea, but why does it have to be North Korea? It could be something else. Venezuela is going into the toilet. Something could happen in South America that nobody is anticipating.
I’m not sure it’s quite fair to say that President Trump has had a real foreign policy test yet. I’m not sure that with a real crisis like, say, George W. Bush had with China in the first few weeks that he was in office where that spy plane was taken down and getting that back, there hasn’t been anything quite like that yet, so we’ll see. There could be something like that that goes wrong.
Or, somebody could die. It’s hard to say, but for whatever reason, this presidency has not imploded in the ways that everybody predicted, and so stop predicting these implosions and start realizing that it’s maybe a new normal. It’s something different and a necessary corrective.
Hayward: An unanticipated foreign crisis is the biggest question mark for me. I like to think that everybody around the world right now is scared to death of the guy. There’s some value in that, right?
Hayward: You have Secretary Mattis saying, “I don’t stay awake at night. I keep other people awake at night.” I suspect that’s literally true, and [inaudible 00:19:40], but you never know. The Ukrainians could get an airplane and try and bomb Moscow or something, and then all kinds of weird things could happen.
It does strike me that Trump has flipped the script. You say a new normal. I think we’re likely to see this as an inflection point in American politics in a number of ways, but one of them is, Trump, it seems to me, is flipping the script which usually goes like this … Almost all recent presidents have a collapse in their public approval ratings, but it’s usually linked to the economy or … It doesn’t happen right away. Trump had no honeymoon. He went into negative territory almost right away.
It’s unusual to have your popularity slump right away in your first year, and then also, your political scandal … Just about everybody’s had one. It’s usually in the second term. Trump is having his the fist year. He has his special council appointed within weeks of taking office. Maybe he gets this out of the way early. I don’t know. I don’t think this Russia business is going to come to anything, and I think Mueller is going to indict some people, but I doubt it reaches Trump or even his … I don’t know. We’ll see.
It could be that he’s going to flip the script in all kinds of ways that we haven’t anticipated, and one of them might be that he handles a crisis extremely well. Sure, everyone’s skeptical of that idea, but why should we be surprised if the opposite happens? We’ll just see. I still think we don’t have an entire sense of all the layers of this man.
Boychuk: Right, and I think, too, that there’s good and bad growth in office, and he’s had to … He was on-record three-four months ago saying, “This is a lot more difficult than I thought.” Yeah. Sure. He’s still got a whole mess of jobs to fill, and that’s partly a problem with the Senate, but I think there’s just a lot of names that the White House hasn’t even sent over, so they’ve still got some real challenges they need to overcome, but boy. It’s just been so fun to watch, and not just fun, it’s just been good.
It’s been nice to see some folks kind of saying, “We were wrong about some of these things,” and I don’t know. It’s going to be an interesting … It’s just going to be endlessly interesting for the next three and a half years or however … Seven more years. I don’t know.
Hayward: Right. That’s certainly the case. Let’s conclude with this. I neglected to mention at the beginning that there’s not only the American Greatness website, but you guys had a book out, and I have a copy and I can’t find it in my messy office this morning. Tell us a little bit about the book, and its title and editors and what’s in it and will encourage listeners and readers to go get a copy.
Boychuk: It’s called American Greatness, and Chris Buskirk wrote it with his friend, Seth Leibsohn. Those guys, if people don’t know, they host an afternoon drive time radio show in Phoenix, which is a great show. I don’t know if you’ve been on it…. I’m on it quite a lot. We have just the best time. They have the best bumper music in America.
Hayward: I have been on a few times. Yeah.
Boychuk: It’s basically about how the media got it wrong, got it wrong with Trump, got it wrong with the election in 2016, and also how the mainstream conservative movement really missed the boat. This is a recurring theme on our website, what we have come to call “conservatism incorporated,” which we’ve all worked in at one point or another, but mainstream conservatism has really been mired in its own … It’s been too self-referential, too enamored with its own ideas to maybe realize that Americans aren’t really buying them.
One of the things that Trump managed to do, indirectly … It’s not like he was really going out of his way to, and of course, he’s also relied on some folks from the Heritage Foundation and places like that, but he did expose a certain intellectual bankruptcy, and one of the liberating things that I feel like we’ve experienced over the past year, year and a half at American Greatness, and I think other writers would say the same, we’ve been able to feel our oats. I think we’ve been able to be a little more heterodox. We’ve been able to peddle in intellectual and ideological heresy, which is fun. I think it’s a lot of fun, and we’ve been able to do this, and it isn’t …
There’s often the rejoinder, “That’s not conservative,” and to which we’ve started to say, “So what?” We need to be able to rethink some of these things. Sometimes, when you get stuck in an idea that you try to elevate a question of policy to a matter of high principle, that’s a mistake. So, one of the things that we’ve tried to do at American Greatness, anyway, and I think that Seth and Chris try to do in the book, is to really show that, no, there are principles and policies, sometimes, they flow from those principles, but sometimes, if the policy doesn’t work, you don’t have to stick with it as a matter of principle. You just try something else.
That’s really been one of the great lessons of Trump. Try something else, because a lot of what we’ve been doing over the past 25 years hasn’t really worked. Let’s try something else, and that’s what we’re doing.
Hayward: I thought that one of the most interesting and revealing things Trump said in the campaign, and most perceptive in that odd, supposedly [inaudible 00:26:12] way, is when he remarked, “This is the Republican party, not the conservative party.” Remember that?
Boychuk: That’s right.
Hayward: Of course, that raised great alarm in a lot of conservatives, but I got to thinking about the fact that the last person who thought that way, in a certain sense, was Ronald Reagan, who never used the word or very seldom used the word “conservative” in his speeches, except before explicitly conservative audiences like CPAC.
On the other hand, if you watch the Republican debates, going back the last two, three cycles, you’ll have people like Ted Cruz or Newt Gingrich or whoever talking about the conservative party. We’re about conservative ideas, not common sense ideas or broad ideas, and so in an odd way, that is where I think there is a parallel between Trump’s instincts … Maybe not his … His rhetoric isn’t as [inaudible 00:27:01] as Reagan’s, obviously, but he seems to have a similar instinct that we all missed.
Boychuk: Right. I think it was useful, sometimes, to think of Trump more as a conservative democrat than as a republican, or as even an Eisenhower type of Republican, you know? He was able to … He really forced us to broaden our perspective on some of this stuff, and that’s good. You know how it is. You get locked into certain habits of mind, and so he got us out of a particular rut, or he got some of us out of a particular rut, and maybe into a somewhat better rut.
Hayward: Hope we don’t end up in a ditch. [crosstalk 00:27:52] I know we’ve run a little long. Why don’t we end it there, on this exciting year and we’ll look ahead to next year. Ben Boychuck, thanks very much for joining the Power Line Show.
Boychuk: Thank you, Steve. I really, really had a good time.