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How Conservatives Elected A Non-Traditionalist For President

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's that time of year when we take stock of who we are and who we want to be. Republicans started doing this kind of soul-searching well before the presidential election. With the victory of Donald Trump - by no means a traditional conservative - that soul-searching is likely to continue well into 2017. To talk more about the state of the modern day conservative movement, we are joined in studio by Matt Lewis. He's the author of a book called "Too Dumb To Fail." Now, the GOP went from the party of Reagan to the party of Trump. Matt, thanks for coming in.

MATT LEWIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Your party now controls both houses of Congress and the White House. In any other year, this should be hailed as a massive victory for conservatism. Is it?

LEWIS: Well, that remains to be seen. You know, Donald Trump is not a great conservative. I don't even think he is a conservative, but he could end up doing a lot of conservative things. And the Supreme Court picks, I think, are part of the reason that a lot, especially evangelical Christian conservatives, supported him. And it very well could end up that he nominates multiple conservative Supreme Court justices that will outlast, you know, him as president and that would be an enduring legacy.

MARTIN: There were a lot of fissures within the GOP that were exposed over the course of the election. At a tactical level, when we think about Congress coming back next week and the picks that Donald Trump has made for some of his top Cabinet posts, how much pushback are we likely to see from more mainstream conservatives to those picks?

LEWIS: Well, I don't think much. I think that if you're a mainstream conservative, these are really good picks. And they're picks that suggest that Trump wants to do stuff. Betsy DeVos said education - who is a school choice advocate - that's a pick that Bobby Jindal or Marco Rubio could have made. You've got someone like Mike Flynn as national security adviser - not in the Cabinet per se. He might, you know, I don't - I don't know that he would have been at the top of somebody else's list but clearly experienced, clearly somebody who has a lot of knowledge about, you know, national security issues.

MARTIN: Although, I should point out, John Bolton has been floated as a name. It was for secretary of state - now floated as a deputy secretary. Senator Rand Paul on this program told us he'd pushback on that nomination.

LEWIS: I think he would. As a more libertarian conservative, he would have concerns about his foreign policy. I think that the - speaking of secretary of state, I think that the Rex Tillerson pick is the one that could get the most pushback, and that's because if his close connection with Vladimir Putin and Russia.

And you could have sort of Reagan conservative hawks like John McCain and Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham pushing back and possibly helping Democrats block that nomination. I think we'll have to see how it goes. But that would be the one red flag. Also I think the Jeff Sessions pick...

MARTIN: For attorney general, yeah.

LEWIS: I think Republicans are going to coalesce around Jeff Sessions for attorney general. But I do think Democrats will try to make an issue of it and probably try to cast him as a racist.

MARTIN: In your book, you write - and I'm quoting here - "this is the dirty little secret of the conservative movement in America today - everyone knows that it has lost its intellectual bearings." How did that happen?

LEWIS: Well, it happened over the course of many, many years, and there are numerous reasons for why this happened and the dumbing down that took place on the right and in the Republican Party and in the conservative movement. I'll just tell you one of the more interesting reasons I think is that it worked. And so you had politicians like Dwight Eisenhower, you know, who essentially planned the D-Day invasion who was incredibly intelligent, who cast himself as sort of this affable, grandfatherly figure who was very confused and avuncular. He did that to get the press all - you know, when he wanted to sort of change the subject, he did that intentionally.

Ronald Reagan - incredibly well-read, incredibly intelligent, played the aw shucks - was described as, quote, "an affable dunce." He did that on purpose. He did what George W. Bush called being misunderestimated. It was a strategy, and it worked. Being underestimated did work for these Republican presidents. I think that there was an unintended consequence, which was that the Republican Party became the stupid party.

MARTIN: And how have you seen that manifest in the past year?

LEWIS: Well, I think that clearly if you look at the rise of Donald Trump, this is a guy who won partly because he was a celebrity and partly because that he was seen as a straight talker and that, you know, authenticity isn't necessarily the opposite of intellectualism or substance. But sometimes I think we confuse the two. And sometimes if you just say I - quote, "I'm not being politically incorrect," that is an excuse to say really kind of stupid things.

MARTIN: Matt Lewis - he's a senior contributor to The Daily Caller and a CNN political analyst. His book is called "Too Dumb To Fail." Matt, thanks. We'll have you back again.

LEWIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.