On Thursday evening, National Review released a primal ragescream of conservative intellectualism: an entire issue devoted to bashing Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. Now, I have my own biases on this issue – this week alone, I’ve characterized Trump as the establishment pick over Ted Cruz, slammed Trump for his establishment-style attacks on Cruz, and stated that he has “no central guiding values other than his own glorification.” And I agree with virtually everything written about Trump in this National Review special edition.
But I still think the National Review issue does Trump more good than harm.
Here’s the reason: instead of allowing the building groundswell of anti-Trump commentary to consolidate organically, National Review forced the issue to “get on the record.” They made the resistance to Trump look astroturfed by an intellectual elite. They gave Trump cannon fodder for his disenchanted base, which rightly feels disrespected by conservative thinkers. Kevin Williamson of National Review has spilled gallons of ink on bashing Trump’s supporters, not just Trump. And now those supporters feel like their candidate is the victim of a gang-hit – all of which propels Trump. The conservative gang-hit on Trump may be morally and politically justified. But it isn’t well calibrated and it isn’t going to be successful.
Imagine if, instead of conservative icons like Brent Bozell, Bill Kristol, Thomas Sowell, Glenn Beck, Ed Meese, and Erick Erickson among many others lumping themselves together under one anti-Trump banner, these various actors had instead launched simultaneous attacks from their various outlets. Many of them have done that, of course – and there’s no question that the build-up of momentum against a Trump candidacy from the intellectual right was gaining steam.
But the National Review issue strategically undercuts that groundswell. Now the hit looks coordinated. And what’s more, it looks coordinated by the same organization that labeled John McCain and Mitt Romney sufficiently conservative to support over more conservative candidates. As I pointed out back in September when Jonah Goldberg said that Trump supporters could not be counted among conservatives:
Over at National Review, even as Goldberg condemns Trump for his non-conservatism, another columnist simultaneously urges a ticket with Governor “God Told Me To Use Obamacare Money To Expand Medicaid” John Kasich (R-OH) and Sen. Marco “Immigration Gang of Eight” Rubio (R-FL). Goldberg himself championed Romney’s candidacy because he wasn’t a conservative.
Much of Trump’s appeal has come from his manipulation of the base’s righteous anger against “establishment” conservatives who pledged them the world and delivered nothing. Trump isn’t actually a conservative, and the establishment prefers him to Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), but he’s a good salesman – and he has channeled the anger against the establishment. That’s why Trump securing the Sarah Palin endorsement this week mattered – it helped him shore up that angle. Unfortunately, this concerted attack from National Review – a publication of which many members of the base are already skeptical – serves only to reinforce Trump’s pitch.
And the symposium mushes establishment favorites in with non-establishment conservative figures. Michael Medved has spent this large segments of this election cycle bashing Ted Cruz, the most conservative man in the field, and the only real challenger to Trump in Iowa by every poll; Michael went so far as to imply that Cruz’s “New York values” slam on Trump could have been covertly anti-Semitic. Placing him alongside Thomas Sowell devalues Sowell’s critique from the perspective of conservative ideological purity.
What’s more, Trump will seize on the National Review slam to play victim. That’s his entire campaign strategy. As he said way back in August, “I do whine because I want to win and I’m not happy about not winning and I am a whiner and I keep whining and whining until I win.” In the past week, it’s been difficult for him to whine as the establishment mobilizes behind him to stop Cruz, and as he opens his arms to them.
But now he’ll say that National Review is establishment, and that they’re attacking him to stop him from implementing his brand of change.
So, what was the goal here? Was it to stop Trump? Or was it just to make conservative intellectuals feel good as they pat each other on the back about their opposition to a demagogue?
We should all oppose Trump’s demagogic idiocy. But you can do that without building the man up to epic levels, and giving him fodder for his “Me Against The World” campaign. And if you spend your time solely trashing Trump rather than making an affirmative case for someone else – or worse, if you trash Trump and also trash his chief rival in Iowa who is the most conservative man in the race – you’re helping Trump. National Review should have heeded Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice: “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” Instead, they proclaimed their own martyrdom instead of doing something effective.