As Matt Welch pointed out in his must-read summary of National Review's full-throated excoriation of Donald Trump's candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, the most important takeaway might be the revelation that the American electorate doesn't really care overly much what journalists and policy wonks think about things, especially when it comes to ideological purity and major-party strategizing. Alas, gatekeepers in all areas of life keep taking in on the chin.
Which isn't to say the editors of National Review, in the house editorial anchoring the mag's "Against Trump" package, don't shy away from condemning Trump on every level. Indeed, they even knock him for inheriting a "fortune" from his father, marking perhaps the first time the magazine has engaged in class warfare or implicitly questioned the wisdom of reducing the estate tax to zero. "Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself," write the editors.
Yeah, not so much. Donald Trump's appeal among Republicans is directly related to issues and attitudes that mainstream conservatives and Republicans have been harping on for virtually all of the 21st century, if not longer. Anyone with even passing familiarity with National Review, which rarely misses an opportunity to tout its central role in the post-war conservative movement, knows that the magazine has long been extremely hostile to immigration, extremely bellicose when it comes to foreign policy and projecting American "strength" abroad, and extremely quick to attack any real and perceived slights to "American exceptionalism" (a term more often invoked than defined with any precision) while excoriating any real and perceived concessions to "political correctness."
These are exactly the grounds upon which Trump has seized the day in the Republican primary season, so if he is in fact "a philosophically unmoored political opportunist"—and I think that's a pretty fair description—National Review's editors might at least acknowledge that they helped to create the opportunity in the first place. After all (and whatever his past affiliation), Trump isn't running in the Democratic primaries, is he? And despite the editors' claim that since Jesse Jackson entered the 1984 Democratic race "both parties have been infested by candidates who have treated the presidency as an entry-level position," the plain fact is that it's the GOP and conservatives who regularly trot out and swoon for the likes of Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, and Herman Cain.
According to National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, "a hard line" on immigration is not simply one issue among many but is now a "defining" issue for contemporary conservatism. At least going back to the 1990s, the magazine, despite being edited by an immigrant (the Brit John O'Sullivan) inveighed against immigration in article after article. Many of these were penned by another immigrant, Peter Brimelow, who would go on to start the odious racialist site VDare.com (I had trouble finding Brimelow's articles at National Review's site, but to get a sense of the arguments he published for the mag, read this Reason review of his book Alien Nation). In "Against Trump," the editors actually chide Trump—who has said he would even deport fully legal children of illegals!—for being wishy-washy on immigration:
Trump says he will put a big door in his beautiful wall, an implicit endorsement of the dismayingly conventional view that current levels of legal immigration are fine….
Trump piles on the absurdity by saying he would re-import many of the illegal immigrants once they had been deported, which makes his policy a poorly disguised amnesty
Conservatives typically claim that only limousine liberals and Chamber-of-Commerce elitists are in favor of the sort of immigration that has long defined America. In fact, polls show persistent majorities of Americans favor either "current" or "increased levels" of immigration. Last year, for instance, Gallup found the 40 percent of respondents wanted immigration kept at current levels and 25 percent wanted it to be increased, while just 34 percent wanted to see it reduced. Perhaps more telling, fully 73 percent of respondents said they agreed that "on the whole" they thought immigration was "a good thing" while just 24 percent considered it a "bad thing."
Let's be clear: To the extent that Trump is widely and accurately understood to be openly hostile to immigration and immigrants, especially from Mexico, he is not at odds with National Review, conservatives, or all the other Republican presidential candidates. He is completely in accord with all of them—and they are all at odds with most of the country.
When it comes to overseas interventions and growing the military, National Review again has been extremely supportive for its entire run. Over at The American Conservative, former National Review staffer Rod Dreher reminds readers of "David Frum's infamous 'Unpatriotic Conservatives' cover story for the magazine, published on the brink of the Iraq War in 2003." Frum's article was one of the ideological high-colonics the publication administers on a semi-regular basis, clearing out fellow travelers whose apostasies are deemed no longer worth entertaining (Frum himself would eventually be swept away later in the Aughts). Frum's article concludes:
War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen [to criticize the Iraq invasion] — and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.
Dreher writes that after reading the new attack on Trump, he re-read the piece by Frum.
I agree with a lot of Frum's criticism of the paleocons. But the paleos got one big thing right: the catastrophic foolishness of the Iraq War. It would be have been nice in the ensuing fallout to have observed some humility among the conservative elites, a sense that they may actually have no idea at all what's going on, or what to do about it.
Does anyone seriously dispute that National Review is properly characterized as hawkish and, at least as long as a Republican is running the show, more often in favor of military action than not? And when it comes to increasing defense spending, it doesn't matter who occupies the White House; the answer is always more spending. The editors call Trump "a nationalist at sea" and stress that he obviously doesn't really have any idea of what he's talking about when it comes to international relations. That's true, but their real beef seems to be less with Trump's willingness to take the fight directly to ISIS and his suggestion that he'd happily let Russia do much of the dirty work in the Middle East. Certainly, it's rich for a magazine that has spilled a lot of ink defending any and all of George W. Bush's actions during the War on Terror to fret that Trump "casually suggested a few weeks ago a war crime — killing terrorists' families — as a tactic in the war on terror."
Trump's appeal to Republican primary voters stems in large part from his campaign promise to "make America great again" and his willingness to denounce political correctness, which he led with in the first GOP debate (if memory serves, he identified that as the biggest problem facing America). These gestures too are part and parcel of contemporary conservativism and National Review's identity. When Obama isn't destroying the Constitution via an imperial presidency that calls to mind…George W. Bush, he is a "weak" president and the acceptance of Republican Caitlyn Jenner's transgendered self is not only a sign of "social decay" but an occasion for contributor David A. French to fret that "the response of so many social conservatives has been so timid and uncertain."
Again and again in its pages, National Review writers ascribe an unwillingness to attack "social decay" where you find it to political correctness and fear of media ostracism rather than to an honest disagreement about social issues. There remains, too, an unwillingness among National Review conservatives, who have effectively lost all the culture-war arguments they have entered, to concede that libertarians are truly distinct from conservatives. From government-enforced racial segregation (a big issue for National Review in the 1960s) to embracing pop culture (Buckley famously hated the Beatles) to gay marriage to pot legalization to abortion rights, things have consistently gone libertarian rather than conservative. Jonah Goldberg can joke that libertarians are "a bit like the Canadians you meet abroad who go to almost obsessive lengths to show everyone that they aren't American," but he can't fully let go of the conviction that, deep down, libertarians are a sub-species of conservative.
I understand and appreciate National Review's interest in dissociating itself and conservatism from Donald Trump, who just might become the nominee of the Republican Party, for which NR is an unofficial cheerleader and powerful agent of influence (before the Trump contretemps, it was going to co-host a party debate). Certainly from a libertarian perspective (a perspective which has been mostly attacked and dismissed in the pages of National Review for virtually all of its run), Trump is bad news on virtually all fronts, and especially those elements that are part and parcel of the modern conservative and National Review catechism.
But let's not pretend also that National Review won't actually support Trump should he actually become the Republican candidate. In his 2006 Reason review of a memoir about National Review by longtime contributor Jeffrey Hart, Brian Doherty noted that the magazine's philosophical pragmatism "led the magazine to a bizarre combination of success and impotence" that shines a light on its current pose. In particular, Doherty stresses that the magazine's early lights, especially Bill Buckley's mentor James Burnham, disdained pie-in-the-sky plans in favor of specific here-and-now political commitments to specific politicians. Burnham famously pushed the idea of voting for the "most conservative electable candidate" in any given race, a compromise position that still echoes throughout Republican Party coalitions.
Standing ultimately not for any firm ideological viewpoint but for some version of the "most conservative electable candidate" led the magazine to a bizarre combination of success and impotence….The Bushism that the magazine too often bows down to these days—defending his administration's peccadillos and power grabs, mostly standing by him through some of the biggest expansions of domestic spending in the magazine's history—stands for little recognizable in the magazine's ideological tradition. As Hart acknowledges, that's true even in matters of religion. Bush's modern evangelical Christianity is distinct from the creedal and traditional Christianity-with-authority of NR's Catholic roots.
Back in 1965, James Burnham wrote in NR that it was absurd for the right to try to fight Medicare. Forty budget-busting years later, NR's man Bush has expanded the program to impossible proportions. While NR's editors complain about that on occasion, it won't lead them to abandon their "most conservative electable candidate." What seems more realistic not in short-term political terms but in recognition of mathematical and economic facts: Burnham's respectable centrism or the radical libertarianism that says such programs were illegitimate and disastrous?
So, just as it would be sporting if National Review's editors could at least acknowledge in passing the role the magazine has played in setting the stage for a character like Trump to rise to the top of Republican primary polls, it would also be sporting if they would also acknowledge that they will surely vote for him if he ends up being the GOP nominee for president.
There was a time when National Review eschewed endorsing presidential candidates (in fact, the magazine didn't officially endorse anyone in '56 or '60). But how dedicated is National Review to seeing a Republican, any Republican, in the White House these days? Recall that just four years ago, it endorsed Mitt Romney, who once supported abortion rights and gay rights and, as governor of Massachusetts took credit for the program that served as the prototype for Obamacare. Conservatives pride themselves that they do not have a systematic and dogmatic vision of governance or politics that demands complete agreement on all issues (though that never stops them from insisting on pro-life candidates). No, leave that sort of crazy thinking to the progressives and the libertarians, still trapped in the constructivist, utopian thinking of the French Revolution. Rather, conservatives compliment themselves on living in the real world, which is but a crude approximation of Eden before the Fall. If he's on the ballot in November, there's a good chance that the "most conservative electable candidate" will be Donald J. Trump. And that means the very magazine that is telling him to take a hike now will be asking you to vote for him over Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.