Jason Willick joined the Washington Post as a columnist in 2022, writing on legal issues, politics, and foreign affairs. He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the Supreme Court’s recent term and the Donald Trump investigations, among other topics.
In the Post, your columns frequently touch on the health of America’s democratic institutions. How did your interest in and thinking on this topic develop?
When I started thinking about a journalism career as a college student in the late Obama years, the leading domestic issues were marginal tax rates, the functionality of the federal government’s health-care exchanges, and eventually whether the Clinton dynasty or Bush dynasty would be re-coronated in 2016. Now we’re talking about court-packing, riots, the “deep state,” and whether the president who tried to overturn the result of the last election will be a viable candidate next time. So there’s a sense that the stakes of politics have grown dramatically in a way that has made me interested in those fundamental questions.
I got my start at The American Interest, where I wrote daily posts for Walter Russell Mead’s Via Meadia blog. In 2017, I joined the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, first on the op-ed staff and then as an editorial writer. I’ve been extremely lucky to have been trained by the most accomplished opinion journalists in the country. I started as a columnist for the Washington Post early this year.
The Manhattan Institute’s Ilya Shapiro suggests that the Supreme Court, by shoring up federalism and reining in the administrative state, could lower the temperature of our politics. But in a recent column on the Court’s latest rulings on abortion and guns, you suggested that the majority’s originalist efforts could provoke a populist backlash of their own. Can you expand on that idea? How would the Court’s recent rulings raise, rather than lower, the stakes of our politics?
I agree with Ilya. I was talking specifically about the Supreme Court’s role in closing off certain questions from the political process. For decades, it did this for abortion, and that generated a small-d democratic backlash that culminated in the Dobbs decision. But of course, conservative courts can face popular revolts as well—think of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pressure on the justices during the New Deal. In that case, the court was protecting a strict definition of property and contract against the wishes of majorities.
Originalism today doesn’t just want to devolve policy to the states—it also wants muscular judicial protection of rights rooted in the Constitution, like the right to gun ownership and nondiscrimination in college admissions, even if that means overriding the elected branches of government. No one thinks that majorities should rule everywhere and always. But the ebb and flow of politics will periodically put pressure on counter-majoritarian institutions—that’s a feature of our system.
What do you make of the FBI’s raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence? As you’ve written, Left and Right seem destined at this point to take opposing views of it, regardless of details. Have we reached a point of no return in terms of trust in democratic norms? Or does this incident merely point to a structural tension between our federal law enforcement apparatus and our constitutional system?
I can’t be sure that the raid wasn’t needed, but I’m skeptical. More broadly, I think we’re going to have a problem as we increasingly mix politics with the criminal-legal system. The federal criminal code is growing and growing—a recent Heritage study found that there are 36 percent more federal crimes than there were in the 1990s (and when Congress wants to solve a problem, it often creates new crimes or penalties, as in this year’s gun-control bill and proposed electoral-reform package). The temptation for prosecutors to go fishing for offenses by particular people is getting stronger on the left and right, and we could enter a cycle of partisan retribution. If Trump were going to be removed from American politics, conviction at an impeachment trial in 2021 would have been the mechanism for doing so because it would have required bipartisan buy-in.
You’ve lived in the Bay Area, inside the Capital Beltway, and in the Greater New York area. What differences have you noted in the urban character of these places?
I’m moving soon to outside-the-beltway Fairfax, Virginia—that will give me credibility to heap scorn on inside-the-Beltway elites, right? But seriously, the biggest thing you notice when you spend time on the East Coast as a West Coast native is how much longer the East Coast has been settled—many hundreds of years, versus the comparatively recent closure of the Western frontier in 1890. That means the surroundings of cities on the Eastern seaboard are denser, with more industrial infrastructure and rail lines. Washington and the Bay Area (or at least Silicon Valley) have in common that they are “company towns”—most people are connected to politics or technology, respectively. New York contains more variety, for better and worse.
What are you reading right now?
I recently read Claire Arcenas’s America’s Philosopher, which argues that John Locke was initially received in Colonial America as a kind of self-improvement guru because of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding—and that the Second Treatise of Government, his foundational work of political philosophy, rose to prominence only later. I’m reading Matthew Continetti’s book The Right, which is a primer not only on conservatism but also on the last 100 years of American history. And I recently started reading C. Wright Mills’s 1956 book The Power Elite to investigate how today’s “New Right” critique of military, corporate, and political leaders has replaced that of the twentieth-century “New Left” for whom Mills spoke. When it comes to trust in established authority, the Right and Left have switched places.