Last week, the venerable conservative magazine National Review attempted to make good on the mission its founder William F. Buckley once assigned it. "A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling stop," Buckley wrote at the launch of National Review, "at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." Perhaps at no time did Buckley's words come to life more presciently in the 60 years since than in the aftermath of its "Against Trump" issue.
The magazine assembled nearly two dozen writers who oppose the candidacy of Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination to explain their objections on the basis of conservative ideology. Most of the writers are well-known conservative activists, both from inside and outside the ranks of the magazine. Some are friends of mine; symposium contributor Katie Pavlich is both a good friend and a colleague at the Salem Media Group. They put forward coherent and ideologically sound arguments about Trump's lack of conservative temperament and approach to public policy. The magazine's editors offered an institutional denunciation of Trump to match their cover.
They stood athwart the passions of recent history, in other words, and attempted to yell "Stop." And it had about as much impact as one yell might have at an oncoming train.
That's not to say that it didn't produce any amusing moments, such as Fox News' Jeanine Pirro castigating a magazine dedicated to conservative policy for opposing the Republican Party frontrunner before a single vote has been cast. "The National Review needs to get in line with the rest of the Republicans," Pirro tweeted. "How dare they trash the front-runner Donald Trump!" National Review, and other conservative media, do not exist to rubber-stamp a candidate supported by 35 percent of Republican primary voters before the primaries have been held. In fact, some might say that such outlets have more credibility and not less when they buck the popular trends in favor of principle, especially when there is still time for readers and voters to choose the latter over the former.
Other responses turned out to be more substantive. The RNC excluded National Review as a debate partner for the event in Houston next month for its explicit institutional opposition to a specific candidate on the stage. In this, RNC chair Reince Priebus had little choice; earlier last week, they had given NBC the boot from the same debate after CNBC allegedly showed hostility to Republican candidates on stage in the October debate. Its official denunciation of Trump made its role as an impartial moderator difficult to support, even if — as I believe — National Review would have played it above board during the debate. After the CNBC debate, Priebus wants to take no chances.
National Review won't suffer for the decision; publisher Jack Fowler announced that the magazine's website had its best traffic day in the aftermath of the RNC announcement. The magazine also laid down a marker on what may come from a Trump victory in the primaries, setting up several possible "I told you so" lines of argument. But their efforts are unlikely to slow the oncoming train down, let alone stop it.
In three ways, the "Against Trump" issue misses the underlying passions in the electorates of both parties. First, it is no longer enough to stand athwart history and yell, "Stop!" The Republican Party and conservatism has done a good job of that since retaking control of the House, and it has been a necessary brake on the excesses of the Barack Obama agenda. But President Obama will retire in a year, and voters want to know what Republicans and conservatives are for.
That is especially true of voters in swing states, as I discovered in my research and travel for my upcoming book Going Red. They do not want a continuation of the ideological battles that have wracked American politics for the last 25 years or more. Voters want more competent governance, which to them means less intrusion in their lives, but also solutions to the issues that matter most to them — a lack of jobs and economic opportunity, failing education systems, and the sense that America's place in the world has slipped. Conservatism offers insight into how we got here and what to do about it, but voters want a sense from their candidates that they share their dissatisfaction, and have the power to do something to resolve it.
Most importantly, though, is the sense that America's institutions have failed them, including political parties and the so-called elites who populate the political system. Institutional endorsements usually mean little anyway — just ask all of the also-rans who got newspaper endorsements before primaries in the past few decades. Institutional denunciations probably mean even less in a normal cycle, but in an anti-establishment environment such as this cycle's, it might wind up being a perverse kind of endorsement. It feeds into the very passions that have made Trump into a polling frontrunner in a Republican field where the extent of political experience provides an inverse correlation to popular standing. It's not a coincidence that the plethora of governors in the race have either withdrawn or all but dropped off the radar screen.
National Review's "Against Trump" offers excellent questions about the ideological bent of Donald Trump. The problem for National Review and conservatism is that few are actually asking those questions or care about the answers. That is the challenge for conservatism: how to remain relevant in an anti-establishment era. Yelling "Stop!" will not be enough to answer it.