Conservative intellectuals hate Donald Trump. But they only have themselves to blame for his rise.
Conservative intellectuals used to stand shoulder to shoulder with the rank and file. No more.
As a former conservative, I've found an awful lot to be amused by in the unexpected rise of Donald Trump. But nothing has inspired quite as much delight as reading the sputtering denunciations of the candidate and his campaign by leading conservative intellectuals. We've already heard from George F. Will, Kevin D. Williamson, John Podhoretz, Peter Wehner, and many others.
But my selection for the most amusing anti-Trump diatribe so far is a recent rollicking rant by Jonah Goldberg in a column for National Review. The piece's entertainment value derives not just from its humor — Goldberg is often quite a funny writer — but also from his decision to break down the fourth wall and spew bile right in the face of the Republican electorate. Sure, he repeatedly insults Trump himself, but the real object of his ire is the voters who seem poised to sell out conservative principle by throwing their support behind a billionaire with a taste for big government and a complete disregard for affirming the ideology that has held the conservative movement together for close to six decades now.
The column culminates in what sounds like a taunt or a threat: Either the "Trumpen Proletariat" comes to its collective senses and dumps the unconservative object of its infatuation, or Goldberg and other principled conservatives will bolt the movement in search of higher, purer ground.
As I said, it's amusing. But it's also important — not so much for the power of its arguments as for where it was published. For 60 years, National Review has been the leading journal of the conservative movement. Goldberg's column is the clearest sign yet that, faced with the Trump juggernaut, the magazine and the movement it helped to forge and lead may be ready to rethink one of conservatism's oldest and most fundamental assumptions.
National Review's founding editor William F. Buckley memorably expressed this key assumption in his famous joke from 1963 about how he'd prefer to be ruled by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. For Buckley, America's problem was its liberal elites, not the American people, whose moral and political instincts he held to be fundamentally sound. If conservatives hoped to gain power, they would do so by siding with the people against the establishment.
This presumption — let's call it cultural populism — was first tested in Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, and it failed. There simply weren't enough anti-liberals out there in the heartland to turn back the elite consensus in favor of New Deal/postwar liberalism.
But that was just the beginning. Aided by reaction to the Civil Rights Movement and the counterculture, the number of conservative dissenters from the liberal status quo swelled as the '60s wore on. Soon Richard Nixon would dub them the "silent majority," Jerry Falwell would christen them the "moral majority," and then Ronald Reagan would ride their discontent all the way to the White House, where he sought to enact an anti-liberal counter-revolution in the name of the American people.
By 1985, even the skeptics had been convinced of the wisdom of the strategy. Back in 1965, neoconservative "godfather" Irving Kristol had co-founded the quarterly policy journal The Public Interest in a spirit of explicit elitism, hoping to provide Great Society liberals with arguments and information to help them rule more wisely and soberly, less foolishly and ideologically.
But 20 years later, in the afterglow of Reagan's landslide re-election, Kristol placed himself firmly on the side of The People in an important essay titled, "The New Populism: Not to Worry." Sure, from the constitutional framers on down through the recent past, populism had gotten a bad rap for being "democracy at its least rational, its least sensible." But things were different now. The electoral triumph of the conservative movement had demonstrated the abundant "common sense of the American people," who have been rightly "outraged, over the past 20 years, by the persistent un-wisdom of their elected and appointed officials." Judging the voters "basically commonsensical, not at all extreme," Kristol concluded on a note of good cheer about the new populist order of things:
The important point to emphasize…is that this new populism is no kind of blind rebellion against good constitutional government. It is rather an effort to bring our governing elites to their senses. That is why so many people — and I include myself among them — who would ordinarily worry about a populist upsurge find themselves so sympathetic to this new populism.
The rest, as they say, is history.
From the rise of the talk-radio rabble rousers to Karl Rove's effort to build a permanent governing majority by mobilizing the religious right, from the founding of Fox News to starbursts for Sarah Palin and flattery for Tea Party furies, conservative intellectuals have been quite sure that they and the voters stand shoulder to shoulder on the same side of a chasm separating them from the liberal establishment. Hence the intellectuals' enthusiasm for building a conservative counter-establishment of think tanks, magazines, and other media outlets to do battle with liberal elites. Hence also the presumed wisdom of using these ostensibly conservative institutions to keep the grassroots whipped up into a state of perpetual indignation and agitation. After all, an angry electorate is an electorate that shows up to the polls on Election Day. What could possibly go wrong?
Now these same intellectuals feel like they've suddenly awoken from a blissful dream of direct democracy to find themselves in a Madisonian nightmare in which the American people have been transformed overnight into a fickle, easily manipulated mob. It's unclear just what these voters want, beyond someone who'll relentlessly, fearlessly skewer every establishment, very much including the conservative counter-establishment — and of course threaten to kick out the thieving, raping, murdering Mexicans.
Goldberg and the other anti-Trump commentators are right: Trump isn't any kind of conservative. He doesn't have a Burkean bone in his body. He shows little fealty toward the "fusionist" vision that has held the conservative movement together for the past two generations — uniting moral traditionalists with free-market libertarians. He's the purest demagogue we've seen in a long time — and the first to take advantage of the hyper-populist potential of the social media age. He's mad as hell, he's not going to take it anymore, and he believes that somehow seething about it will make America great again.
That's Trump's message, expressed in every hectoring, self-aggrandizing speech, and the Republican rank and file are lapping it up.
The conservative intellectuals threw in their lot with cultural populism a long time ago. Now they've finally gotten what they asked for and encouraged — a right-wing, anti-establishment, populist crusade — and they don't like it one bit.
They will have to learn to live with it. As will we all.