Last Thursday night, National Review, the quintessential publication of the American conservative movement, published a symposium called “Conservatives against Trump.” Twenty-two writers contributed brief, principled pieces on why the right-of-center movement should not embrace Trump, even if he’s currently popular among a large and frankly embarrassing part of the Republican Party’s base.
Radio host Glenn Beck calls the Trump phenomenon a “crisis for conservatism.” He and other writers make a good case that Trumpism is not a legitimate outgrowth of the conservative movement that began with the founding of National Review.
“He consistently advocated that your money be spent, that your government grow, and that your Constitution be ignored,” writes Beck. Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, calls Trump’s promises of unilateral leadership incompatible with conservatism. “He poses a direct challenge to conservatism,” Levin writes, “because he embodies the empty promise of managerial leadership outside of politics.”
Only a few writers—too few, in fact—directly attack Trump on his politics of bigotry. “Not since George Wallace has there been a presidential candidate who made racial and religious scapegoating so central to his campaign,” writes David Boaz of the Cato Institute. One contributor counts the various groups Trump has publicly attacked—“immigrants, women, the disabled”—and the list could go far beyond that.
Others focus on Trump’s flamboyant and un-conservative temperament. “The man has demonstrated an emotional immaturity bordering on personality disorder,” says Mona Charen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. No one, economist Thomas Sowell writes, should trust a “shoot-from-the-hip, bombastic showoff” to handle the intricacies of foreign policy.
Several contributors reflect on the causes of Trump’s popularity and its portents for American political culture. “Should his election results match his polls,” writes John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, “he would be, unquestionably, the worst thing to happen to the American common culture in my lifetime.”
Trump has always been a blowhard, but what’s happening to this “common culture” that Podhoretz talks about? Many commentators have argued that Trump isn’t a cause but a symptom of the wild, anti-intellectual, and bigoted populist politics that are dominating this election. “The middle-class consensus in America has collapsed,” writes R. R. Reno, editor of First Things. “This is the most important political and social earthquake since World War II. The conservative movement’s leadership isn’t up to the challenge, and a good number of voters are willing to gamble on Trump’s bluster. Bad bet.”
The idea that Trump is merely exploiting voters’ anger at the current state of political affairs has some merit, but I think there are deeper causes for Trumpism. The truth is that latent (and often manifest) racism and anti-elitism have always existed in this group of voters, yet few leaders have been so irresponsible as to blow the lid off it.
Trump has blown the lid off, and others are now finding it expedient to follow his lead. Breitbart, which never came close to the intellectual caliber of National Review in the first place, has thrown all its weight behind Trump, and is likely making a lot of money by feeding anger and paranoia to his fanatical followers.
Many Republican politicians have shown remarkable cowardice in their refusal to attack Trump. Few big names in the Republican establishment and conservative media have had the courage to criticize not just Trump’s boorishness, but the anger, bigotry, and totalitarian impulse that lie at the center of his ideology. These are not, in the traditional left-right spectrum, political positions, but they’re the only things on which Trump is consistent.
If the Trump phenomenon is, as Glenn Beck writes, a crisis for conservatism, then it is in particular a crisis of conservative leadership, which has been sorely lacking in its ability to say “no” to the dark forces that drive populist politics. Trump is an unprincipled leader who plays to those forces because it’s easy and it gratifies his ego. National Review is providing the much-needed intellectual leadership to try to keep those forces at bay.