Robert George’s Conservative Thinking in the Age of Trump

Published Date: February 24, 2017 | Topics: Politics and Current Affairs

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The Princeton legal scholar on America’s refugee policy, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and his ‘I told you so’ moment with liberal friends over the recent flood of executive orders

Photo: Axel Dupeux for The Wall Street Journal

By Alexandra Wolfe

Feb. 24, 2017 1:50 pm ET

Princeton University professor Robert George hasn’t been surprised by the flood of executive orders signed by President Donald Trump in his first month in office. For more than 30 years, the conservative legal scholar and political theorist has worried about what he sees as the dangerous expansion of executive power.

He recalls having conversations on the subject with colleagues during the previous administration. When President Barack Obama “made good on his threat to act unilaterally…if Congress did not give him what he wanted legislatively,” Dr. George warned his liberal friends that those powers would “someday end up in the hands of another president,” he says. “I frankly didn’t expect it to come to pass quite this quickly or quite this dramatically.” Lately, he has been saying “I told you so” a lot.

Dr. George, 61, is the director of Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions; has served on commissions that advised presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama on such issues as bioethics and civil rights; and was chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for two years.

Earlier this month, he and his colleague Angela Wu Howard published an article in the religious magazine First Things criticizing Mr. Trump’s executive order banning refugees from Syria and suspending entry by citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries into the U.S. (A revised order is expected soon.)

Dr. George became familiar with the country’s system for admitting refugees when he advised the State Department on religious freedoms from 2012 to 2016. The procedures for vetting refugees were “much more rigorous and extensive than I would otherwise have known,” he says. “Most Americans are not aware…of the rigor of the procedures, and most Americans have had their perceptions shaped by the [terrorist] events in Europe.”

We shouldn’t be trying to fight terrorism by closing our doors to the victims of terrorism.

He doesn’t believe that the U.S. should prohibit the entry of people from particular countries. “We shouldn’t be trying to fight terrorism by closing our doors to the victims of terrorism,” he says. At the same time, he thinks that the U.S. should use its military, diplomatic and economic clout to help create safe places for refugees within the Middle East, closer to their homes.

Dr. George himself is the grandson of immigrants from Syria (on his father’s side) and Italy (on his mother’s). Born in Morgantown, W.Va., where he was raised Catholic, he has degrees from Swarthmore College, Harvard Law School, Harvard Divinity School and Oxford University.

He was involved in politics at an early age—at first, as a Democrat. As a teenager, he was governor of the West Virginia Democratic Youth Conference. But he was always antiabortion, and his strong views on the issue played a role in convincing him eventually to become a Republican. He is also opposed to same-sex marriage and euthanasia.

He got to know Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch through his Oxford adviser, the Australian philosopher of law John Finnis. (Both studied with Dr. Finnis, though 10 years apart.) “I’m hoping the Senate will confirm him,” Dr. George says. “I guess this is too much to hope for…to confirm him without controversy,” he adds with a laugh.

Both he and Mr. Gorsuch embrace the idea of natural law—the view, most fully developed in Catholic thought, that there are clear moral standards governing human behavior and that these can be discovered by the use of reason. Dr. George argues that the American founders had natural law in mind when they created the Constitution, but he doesn’t think that judges should invoke natural-law principles that are not set forth or clearly implied in the Constitution to strike down legislation, especially in ruling on such controversial issues as abortion and gay marriage. As with presidential power, he thinks that judicial power should be exercised within strict constitutional limits.

Dr. George acknowledges that his conservative views are at odds with those held by most professors, as well as students, at elite universities. “There is a hugely disproportionate number of professors on the left,” he says. But at Princeton, “there’s a critical mass of conservatives as well, which I think is wonderful for the education of our students.”

What’s most important, he says, is for students to hear different perspectives. He has participated in forums with the religion professor and self-described progressive socialist Cornel West and with the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who is on the opposite side of many of the social issues that Dr. George cares most about.

His views have drawn hate mail over the years. In 2012, one man was convicted and sentenced to 31/2 years in prison for posting threats against Dr. George online.

In his downtime, Dr. George plays the guitar and bluegrass banjo. When he was a teenager, he used to perform with bands in clubs, coffee houses and state fairs. Now he performs near campus on his own and with local bands.

Off campus, he values spending time with friends of various political stripes. He says that Prof. West once said to him, “Brother Robby, you and I have got to be the two most misunderstood brothers in the country.” What he has in common with these colleagues, whatever their political disagreements, is “the idea of intellectual fallibility,” he says. “It’s the idea that I have something to learn from people who disagree with me.”

Write to Alexandra Wolfe at

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