I had promised myself I would keep an open mind about any arguments made in National Review’s “Against Trump” issue. Sure, it would be the first time I’ve ever done that when reading this magazine of “conservative thought,” which really started off as a repository for whatever racist swill William F. Buckley pulled out of the dark corners of his mind, where leering black men in berets and leather gloves endlessly lurked. It was an inauspicious beginning that has not gotten better with age. And sure, National Review’s laughably bad writing has inspired so many other pretenders to the right-wing media’s scholarly throne that the very words “conservative intellectual” long ago graduated to a “jumbo shrimp” level of oxymoron.
But still. Conservatism is a political philosophy with its own tenets. Donald Trump clearly doesn’t care about any of them, which must appall anyone who still deludes themselves that they are rational believers in the project, free of the emotion and paranoia and self-pitying victimhood that fuel the modern conservative movement -- a description that covers nearly every NR writer. If conservatism is to have any future as a governing principle, if it is to be anything other than irrelevant in America, surely someone somewhere on the right would take seriously the project of reclaiming it from the Breitbarts and Federalists of the world, of polishing this blackened diamond until it gleams again.
My open-mindedness lasted just long enough to read the list of contributors.
It would be bad enough if NR had used its own staff for this exercise. Lord knows what hilariously bad arguments Jonah Goldberg of "Liberal Fascism" fame would have brought to bear. But good Lord ‘n’ butter, Glenn Beck? Katie Pavlich? Dana Loesch, a woman famous for suggesting it was okay for American soldiers to drop their pants and piss on their dead enemies? Erick Erickson, whose most lasting contribution to political culture was to introduce the phrase “goat-fucking child molester” to the lexicon?
William F. Buckley was a terrible human being in a million ways, but seeing these names among NR’s contributors would have him spinning so fast in his grave he might actually tunnel out of it.
Still, a promise is a promise. Let’s look at Erickson running down a list of Trump’s apostasies against conservatism:
He supported the prosecution of hate crimes… On all these things, Donald Trump now says he has changed his mind.
Trump once thought hate crimes should be prosecuted, and to Erick Erickson, this is a negative. Let’s move along. How about Mark Helprin. Here’s his opening sentence:
A diet, caffeine-free Marxist (really, the only thing wrong with being a Marxist is being a Marxist); a driven, leftist crook; and an explosive, know-nothing demagogue — all are competing to see who can be even more like Mussolini than is Obama.
How many jars of paste do you have to have eaten for lunch to suggest Bernie Sanders is both a Marxist and a fascist within the same sentence? Forget Helprin. Though I should note that elsewhere, Thomas Sowell makes an implicit comparison of Obama to Hitler. Unfortunately no one thought to compare our current president to Emperor Hirohito, thus missing out on hitting the rare trifecta of Axis-leader references.
To be fair, there are a couple of decent arguments in the collection. Yuval Levin, for example, makes the smart point that Trump’s appeal as someone who will bring “great management” to the government is a contradiction of conservatism, “an inherently skeptical political outlook… [that] assumes that no one can be trusted with public power.” As a statement of principle and an analysis of why Trump’s brand of Republican politics cannot be considered conservative, this is correct.
This observation, though, highlights a big absence from any of NR’s statements, which is any self-awareness for all the ways in which the magazine and these writers and media personalities have contributed to the rise of Trumpism. Such denial has been a theme among conservatives this election season. They are happy to blame just about any other force for Trump’s rise to the top of their party’s primary: Democrats, Obama, Trump’s impeccable charlatanism somehow pulling the wool over the base’s usually brilliant eyes.
But the reason Trump’s promise of “great management” resonates with the base is due partly to the wholesale demonization of the left that conservatives have engaged in for decades. Specifically, in the right’s overhyping of every non-scandal within the perpetual anger machine of its media organs – and yes, this includes National Review – it has fed the notion that what is missing from our government whenever Democrats have a majority in any branch of it is not some strong sense of restraint by the holders of power, but mature and competent leaders.
This tendency was on display long before Trumpism. The right has spent seven years denigrating President Obama as a callow and inexperienced leader whose every utterance is evidence of his narcissism, incompetence and autocratic tendencies. Benghazi never would have happened if Obama hadn’t been fucking off in the White House while the consulate was still under attack! (What was he doing? We don’t know but it must have been bad!) Immigrants wouldn’t be flooding across the border in droves if President Nine Iron wasn’t busy playing golf all the time! Jihadists wouldn’t be threatening the existence of America if the president would just say the magical words “radical Islam” instead of taking Christmas vacation in the exotic foreign land of Hawaii!
National Review and the “Against Trump” writers, all of whom have been complicit in and active agents of this ridiculous dumbing down of their audience, might have more reason to complain if they ever offered substantive policy critiques instead of constantly spitting out strings of buzzwords (Benghazi! Soros! Alinsky!) like a computer bot in a feedback loop. Or if they would ever acknowledge the successes of some Obama initiatives like the Affordable Care Act instead of, as Jonathan Chait has chronicled, constantly denying it has had any positive effects in the face of any evidence to the contrary.
In short, the right wing has paved the way for the simplistic thinking of its voters that has led to Trump. It’s a little disingenuous for National Review, the self-styled gatekeeper of conservative thought, to complain about it now, considering its own role in it.