Donald Trump, the National Review tells us, is a huckster, a dangerous demagogue, and an irresponsible fool. The first voice that the National Review brings out to tell us so, in the anti-Trump blurb collection that the magazine promoted to the New York Times yesterday and released to the bedtime internet last night, is the voice of Glenn Beck.
Trump, Beck warns us, is the latest avatar of “ever-expanding government,” a proven sympathizer with the Obama Administration’s tyrannical goals. “While conservatives fought against the bank bailouts,” Beck writes, “Donald Trump called them ‘something that has to get done.’” This is an interesting reconstruction of the politics around the question of whether to let the finance industry collapse; “it needed to be done,” was also how the Republican presidential nominee at the time described the bailout of AIG. (The bailout “was, unfortunately, necessary,” Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina said.)
The more notable historical oddity, though, is that the National Review should give that space to Glenn Beck at all. The magazine originally defined its place in the conservative intellectual world through William F. Buckley’s bold attacks on the John Birch Society and the paranoid conspiratorialist wing of the Republican Party. Beck is a neo-Bircher who built his career by weeping on television about the wicked machinations of America’s hidden enemies. Yet there he is, leading off Buckley’s magazine’s effort to explain why Donald Trump doesn’t belong in the conservative movement.
The further one reads through the National Review’s anti-Trump pleadings, the more sense Beck’s participation makes. If Buckley declared that his magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop,” the Trump package stands alongside history muttering “History? History, history... Hmm, nope, doesn’t ring a bell.”
There are, at this point, two fairly straightforward thoughtful arguments that a conservative publication could make against the rise of Donald Trump. One would be a pragmatic or tactical one: Despite his theatrical contempt for liberal elites, Trump is unpredictable and insufficiently committed to the conservative movement’s plans and goals. Where a President Ted Cruz would fill the federal bench with names from a Federalist Society spreadsheet (or a spreadsheet Cruz himself had prepared for the Federalist Society), for all anyone knows, a President Trump might appoint Nancy Grace to the Supreme Court. That would surely make liberals mad, but it wouldn’t get the big job done.
The other argument that a conservative publication could make against the rise of Donald Trump would be an unsparing self-examination and self-criticism, reckoning with the currents of brutish populism that have run from Nixon through Reagan through George W. Bush to the present-day circus, and humbly apologizing for its role in creating them. Any real attempt to write Donald Trump out of the Republican Party needs to engage, head on, with the fact that Donald Trump is currently polling far ahead of the field with people who identify as Republican voters. What is the conservative movement if it is not the way that voters who identify as conservative are moving?
Instead, the National Review’s anti-Trump contributors offer a wishful litany of things that they would like to hold that conservatism means, and they refer to the established practice of conservative politics as merely a regrettable series of failures to live up to its principles. “Republicans promise free-market alternatives but end up caving in to pressure or carrying water for the GOP’s own big-government special interests,” writes David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth.
“The Trump voter is moderate, disaffected, with patriotic instincts,” writes plagiarist Ben Domenech, now publisher of the Federalist. “He feels disconnected from the GOP and other broken public institutions, left behind by a national political elite that no longer believes he matters.”
“At the beginning of the current campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, it appeared that the party had one of the strongest arrays of candidates in many years—successful governors, senators, business and professional leaders, etc.,” Reagan Administration attorney general Edwin Meese III writes. “Today, however, the political atmosphere is polluted by the vicious personal attacks that the Republican contenders have unleashed against one another.” The candidates are wonderful; it’s the candidacies that are unspeakable.
The most elaborate expression of this worldview comes from the radio host Michael Medved:
Trump’s brawling, blustery, mean-spirited public persona serves to associate conservatives with all the negative stereotypes that liberals have for decades attached to their opponents on the right. According to conventional caricature, conservatives are selfish, greedy, materialistic, bullying, misogynistic, angry, and intolerant. They are, we’re told, privileged and pampered elitists who revel in the advantages of inherited wealth while displaying only cruel contempt for the less fortunate and the less powerful. The Left tried to smear Ronald Reagan in such terms but failed miserably because he displayed none of the stereotypical traits. In contrast, Trump is the living, breathing, bellowing personification of all the nasty characteristics Democrats routinely ascribe to Republicans.
The candidate who most embodies the terrible things that Democrats say about Republicans, then, is also the candidate who is most attractive to Republicans. This is truly an awkward state of affairs for the party. How could this have come to pass?
Mark Helprin ventures the belief that Trump was sent to weaken the Republican Party “at the suggestion of Bill Clinton,” which is a self-pitying crackpot theory but at least engages with ideas of cause and effect. The others mostly evade the question altogether, returning to the simple argument that conservatism is good and Donald Trump is bad, so Donald Trump has no place in conservative politics.
In a guest appearance in the anti-Trump package, William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, finds that line of reasoning to be conclusive:
In a letter to National Review, Leo Strauss wrote that “a conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort, is vulgar.” Isn’t Donald Trump the very epitome of vulgarity?
Speaking of vulgarity, as Jamelle Bouie noted on Twitter, another project that brought together William Kristol’s Weekly Standard and the National Review was a pair of luxury cruises to Alaska in the summer of 2007, one for each magazine, in which editors and writers met with, and began actively promoting, a then-obscure governor named Sarah Palin. “Go for the gold here with Sarah Palin,” Kristol said on Fox News Sunday the next summer, when John McCain was looking for a running mate.
But the National Review’s writers are interested only in a history that begins today, or tomorrow. Two different entries accuse Trump of being soft on Vladimir Putin, a charge amplified by the magazine’s editors in their accompanying anti-Trump manifesto:
He is fixated on stealing Iraq’s oil and casually suggested a few weeks ago a war crime—killing terrorists’ families—as a tactic in the war on terror. For someone who wants to project strength, he has an astonishing weakness for flattery, falling for Vladimir Putin after a few coquettish bats of the eyelashes from the Russian thug.
The last turn of phrase, about the eyelashes, comes fairly close to a famous firsthand account of encountering Putin, one that the editors of the National Review must be familiar with: “I looked the man in the eye.... I was able to get a good sense of his soul.” The speaker then was George W. Bush—whose shadow, or Dick Cheney’s, can be spotted at one or two other places in that passage about what a president must not do. The notion that a mean, blunt neophyte can do a better job of policy than a canny expert seems contemptible to the National Review today, but it was a notion that helped get Bush into the White House and Palin onto the ballot.
The National Review may be upset enough by Trump to challenge him, but it’s not upset enough to challenge the National Review. The editors write:
If Trump were to become the president, the Republican nominee, or even a failed candidate with strong conservative support, what would that say about conservatives? The movement that ground down the Soviet Union and took the shine, at least temporarily, off socialism would have fallen in behind a huckster. The movement concerned with such “permanent things” as constitutional government, marriage, and the right to life would have become a claque for a Twitter feed.
What is the word “if” doing in that first sentence? Trump is already a candidate with strong conservative support. The real question for the National Review is why, for all this great show of intellectual effort on the Trump question, it still treats that as a hypothetical.