One could almost feel sorry for the position in which the editors of National Review find themselves. During primary season they put together a rather notable collection of writers emphasizing (or overemphasizing) the flaws of presidential candidate Donald Trump. As it became increasingly clear that Mr. Trump would be the Republican nominee, they followed the lead of neoconservative icon William Kristol, urging “#nevertrump.” Ever since, they have found themselves increasingly marginalized in a critical election season.
As a former supporter of conservative Senator Ted Cruz, I was pleased with his decision to support Trump as America’s best hope in the face of Hillary Clinton. I hoped that the Cruz endorsement might finally put an end to #nevertrumpism. Alas, this seems not to be the case. As for National Review, the editors and writers seem to have quite literally lost their way.
One almost might think that NR’s editors are playing some kind of game with readers, in which they pursue political relevance by feinting right while running left. For some time now NR editors and writers have charged that Trump is “no real conservative” because he is insufficiently pro–free market and that he is dangerously “nationalistic.” The first charge is of somewhat doubtful validity given Mr. Trump’s stated policy positions and chosen advisors on taxation and regulation; his stated views on entitlements, on the other hand, are troubling to any conservative. As to the second charge, it comes down to caricaturing economic self-defense at home and humility abroad—positions well defended by traditional conservatives like Russell Kirk and Robert Taft—as somehow intrinsically racist or fascistic. The charge is neither conservative nor accurate.
Aside from these policy-based charges, NR’s opposition to Mr. Trump seems rooted in the rather hysterical view propagated by the mainstream media, that his sometimes unfortunate tone and bluster render him unfit for the office. Yet it seems clear that the real problem with Mr. Trump’s public statements is that he makes them in public. Massive digging and hacking have left no rhetorical stone unturned and the results hardly exceed the rank bullying of either Clinton or of Lyndon Johnson, to name but three recent candidates for the nation’s highest office. By any rational measure, then, (with apologies to Gary Johnson and his pot farm) Mr. Trump, though clearly an imperfect candidate, is the best, most conservative candidate running.
Thus, the criticisms of Mr. Trump appear more than anything to be a feint to the right—or rather an unconvincing show of conservative decorum, which George Will and David Brooks can wear like a fine old English tweed, worsted wool but which does not fit well with actual conservatism. NR’s #nevertrumpism may lessen our chances of preventing a disastrous Hillary Clinton administration; it might help put into office yet another radical Social Justice Warrior with the temperament and lust for power of an intolerant ideologue. Almost as worrisome, however, is what NR’s recent movements indicate might be in store for William F. Buckley’s once great magazine.
An indication of this future can be found in a recent NR article titled “Get Ready for the Neo-neoconservatives.” The theme of the article, by contributor Rachel Lu: as we await the inevitable failure of Mr. Trump and the reality of another leftist administration, conservatives should seek to recruit “rational” liberals who reject the extremism of Hillary Clinton. According to Ms. Lu there remains some significant number of rational liberals who will make common cause with conservatives, even becoming “neo-neocons” so long as conservatives present them with an “open door.” The open door would consist of arguments touting fiscal responsibility, “reasonable” criminal justice reform (which must include de-incarceration, otherwise known as letting criminals out of jail early), and kinder and gentler talking points on free trade and limited government.
It is interesting that Ms. Lu’s chief example of those “won over” to conservatism in the past is Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Senator Moynihan said many important and brave things about race and family policy over his long career. Unfortunately, he never ceased being a committed social democrat. His political agenda horrified William F. Buckley and every other conservative who knew about it.
It seems that NR is seeking to repeat the “success” of the Republican Party during the 1960s and 1970s, bringing disaffected liberals into the fold with the idea of forming a winning electoral coalition. The obvious parallel we are supposed to draw is that of Ronald Reagan. This itself is a bit odd because Moynihan was happy to work with Richard Nixon, but with Reagan, not so much. Just how successful the strategy of repeating the ’70s might be in electoral terms remains to be seen. One thing seems clear: it rests on the assumption that conservatism as understood by traditional conservatives in general and by William F. Buckley and his magazine well into the 1990s is to be discarded as worn out and illegitimate.
Such a result would not be shocking to observers of NR’s “growth” over the last several decades. Around the time of William F. Buckley’s retirement, NR’s editors set themselves loose from the principles and goals of their magazine’s founder. They explicitly abandoned Buckley’s policy of publishing the work of deep conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, and William Rusher. They also cast themselves adrift from Buckley’s principled fusionism, which had maintained a philosophical “tent” big enough that traditional conservatives and libertarians might coexist within it more or less peacefully, though with many spirited and interesting arguments, along with the cold warriors whose support seemed essential for the nation’s survival in dangerous times.
With the end of the Cold War and the supposed ascendency of conservatism under George W. Bush, NR’s post-Buckley editors chose to abandon, not Cold War ideology, but rather their libertarian and (much more) their conservative roots. They chose a new, activist role as Republican partisans and advocates of a renewed, aggressive internationalism. The result was a kind of “compassionate” conservatism that embraced activist government both at home and abroad, though with Republican corporate interests favored over their Democratic new class counterparts. The future, NR bet, would be owned by corporate internationalism of a variety marginally more favorable to manufacturers than financiers. Like the Republican Party leaders most of them supported, NR maintained a rhetorical connection with social conservatism. But they saw social and religious issues as “losers” in the wider political world. In any event, such issues would not be allowed to interfere with “progress” defined as marginal reductions in rates of taxation and regulation, the free flow of capital and labor, and the spread of regimes at least superficially like that of the United States.
For a few years this strategy seemed to work. Indeed, there was some talk of a permanent (neo) conservative intellectual governing coalition of the center-right. But the failures of the Bush II administration on spending, regulation, economic performance, and the worsening quagmire in the Middle East brought electoral disaster. Compromised conservatives allowed the liberal Republican John McCain to win the party’s nomination, helping elect the most radical president in American history. Barak Obama, a committed Social Justice Warrior, has shown open contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law, along with common sense and American interests. As president, he has issued decrees and mobilized ideological shock troops among activists and bureaucrats to rout and marginalize, not just conservatives but even (or perhaps especially) “rational” liberal Republicans in the mold of Mitt Romney. And NR has been left to alternately prod and apologize for a Republican leadership concerned with its own power to the exclusion of seriously opposing the radical transformation of American society and the American people itself.
Seen in this light, the rise of Trump was inevitable. At a time of revolutionary attacks on the very nature of our republic, political conservatism has been delegitimized by persistent betrayal on the part of its supposed leaders. Thus, an increasing number of sensible, tradition-minded people have sought a leader willing to at least speak for their interests and against those who so clearly hold them in contempt. Elites and near-elites have reacted in horror, both because these people, who lack official “victim” status, nonetheless use the fighting words reserved for attacking Republicans, and because Trump represents a spirited rejection of current partisan leadership.
Amidst this chaos, NR appears to be floundering, seeking a new base and a new relevancy. The task is not an easy one, given our changed political landscape. Both conservatism and liberalism seem lost as we enter an era in which intolerant radicals have fundamentally transformed culture, politics, and society, and nationalists seek to rebuild their communities free of the interference of global elites.
The conservative choice is not an easy one. It involves both opposing Hillary Clinton and supporting Trump. In particular, it involves supporting what is good in the Trump program, while fighting to reintroduce themes and policies of localism, limited government, and restraints on power. But NR’s post-Buckley editors have never been comfortable with either the overall Trump program or the themes traditional conservatives would reintroduce. The alternative, it seems, is to double down on “compassionate” government in the mold of Henry “Scoop” Jackson as a kind of triangulation aimed at salvaging a more market-driven form of globalism best termed neoliberalism.
Ironically, this policy has involved NR in a kind of (not always entirely friendly) dialog with certain of Mr. Trump’s supporters. I take as a prime case in point NR’s recent publication of a piece by George Mason University law professor F. H. Buckley titled “An Appeal from the New to the Old Liberals.” Taken with Rachel Lu’s article, Frank Buckley’s indicates, I think, an attempt by NR’s editors to feel their way toward a reconstituted “center-right” position that rejects principled conservatism in favor of political triangulation.
Frank Buckley is no relation to William F. Buckley. Nor would he desire to be. Still, this Buckley has been a voice of rational liberalism in the academy for some years. He has sought to encourage sanity in politics through his consistent, reasoned support of a candidate he believes represents his values, namely Donald Trump. Indeed, this Buckley recently put together a statement of support for Trump signed by many academics and public intellectuals from a wide swath of the political spectrum, from liberals like himself to traditionalists like yours truly. (The list is available here: http://amgreatness.com/2016/09/28/writes-scholars-for-trump/.) And it was a task worth undertaking; it might in some small way give cover for those cowed by the outrageous charges of fascism and simple stupidity being levelled against Trump supporters by journalists and, especially, academics and public intellectuals. It also might help in the attempt to win over such #nevertrumpers as are susceptible to reasoned consideration of the country’s interests as we face the prospect of an administration determined to make permanent the Obama revolution against our traditions, Constitution, and attachment to the rule of law.
But Frank Buckley is no conservative. He self-identifies as a progressive or “old liberal.” (Curiously, he seems not to know that America’s far left has been calling itself “progressive” since the time of Woodrow Wilson.) None of this should get in the way of reasoned cooperation during this election. Nor is it a reason not to publish his work to provide interesting “diversity” in the pages of NR. But other events and positions at the magazine lead me to believe that it is moving toward a rapprochement (or perhaps fusion?) between NR’s version of conservatism and old liberalism. NR’s partisans seem to be counting on a Trump loss so that they may reconstitute a Republican party in which they will be relevant.
Unfortunately, Buckley’s piece, while unremarkable in liberal terms, shows the real costs of such a program. The article is more than slightly contemptuous of conservatism, blithely ignorant of the abiding principles underlying that political philosophy, and rather strident in its espousal of a political plan of action counter to American constitutional norms. Should Mr. Trump subscribe to this Buckley’s political precepts, it would be unfortunate—though still less unfortunate than a Hillary Clinton administration. For reasons already stated, I am relatively confident this will not be the case. Again, this disagreement, in the face of Hillary Clinton, is no deal breaker. But, if this is the direction in which NR is headed, it will be purchasing triangulation of doubtful practical benefit at the cost of its soul.
Despite the obvious reference to Edmund Burke in his title, Frank Buckley’s article has little to do with conservatism. It deals with that body of thought only in the rather limited sense that it ascribes to conservatives bad motives, bad thinking, and vast inconsistencies. He asserts that yesterday’s liberalism was “in many ways preferable to yesterday’s conservatism”—that is, the conservatism of William F. Buckley. According to this Buckley, yesterday’s conservatives were worthy of blame for being “wrong” on civil rights, taxes, and “belief in the country’s greatness.” Eschewing any examination of the principles for which conservatives (or old liberals) stood, this Buckley’s article is a rather breezy, whiggish listing of policy positions prioritizing progressive values of material equality and an activist federal government above constitutionalism, associational freedom, and the rule of law.
As for most progressives, for this Buckley, opposition to any federal program claiming to help the poor is class bigotry and insensitivity toward poor people. Worse, opposition to any particular program identified with equality is racial bigotry. It would take too long to unravel the false assumptions and calumnies involved, here. It must suffice, for now, to point out that for conservatives (some of whom were tragically, morally mistaken on issues of race) the use of a textually baseless and philosophically bankrupt doctrine of “substantive due process” to further any cause—no matter how just—was bound to undermine (as it did undermine) ordered liberty and the rule of law. Up into the 1960s the civil rights of Americans of African descent were being wrongfully denied and violated. The manner in which the “good” old liberals sought to institutionalize them has wreaked havoc ever since.
No such claim should be made about Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society—though Frank Buckley asserts it: “Yesterday’s liberals were people who stood up for what was right, who did great things, whose errors (e.g., the Great Society) were mistakes of the mind and not the heart.” It might be nice to think that LBJ had a good heart, but the facts show otherwise. I will not repeat the infamous quotation in which LBJ crowed about the programs’ ability to chain African Americans to the Democratic Party. But chain them he did, to a vicious cycle of dependency, social disintegration, and violence. Conservatives are not “heartless.” We reject massive federal bureaucratic programs out of the conviction that they undermine (as they have undermined) the local institutions, beliefs, and practices in which real succor is found.
Again, it would take far too long to correct the mistaken assertions contained in this one brief article. It is in fact a masterful summation of the twaddle on which modern liberalism relies in painting itself as virtuous for imposing administrative structures on people instead of exercising the real virtue necessary to live with the families, churches, and local associations in which people actually lead their lives. Put simply, we can do without the virtue that destroyed our cities and undermined our communities and our families in the name of “fairness” as defined and imposed by faceless drones posing as saviors.
NR’s own Jonah Goldberg has written on progressivism’s longstanding hostility toward constitutionalism and the rule of law. One can only hope that he and his colleagues will pull back from fusion with “old” liberals. Any Trump administration must be an exercise in coalition politics; as any conservative knows, politics is the art of the possible. But such a coalition cannot, or at least should not, produce a “fusion” that casts aside conservative principles of faith, family, and freedom within a limited, constitutional government in favor of “greatness” attached, not to the character of America, but to the size and power of a “compassionate” but unrestrained American government.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.