The Weekly Standard is a victim of its own success
How the neoconservative periodical helped build the movement and ideas that appear poised to kill it
How do you mourn a magazine like The Weekly Standard?
Even among liberals, the neoconservative periodical best known for its early-aughts influence on the administration of George W. Bush has both defenders and harsh critics. The critics remember how the magazine led the way in cheerleading the Iraq War — an invasion it encouraged even before 9/11 — and how it continued its support for the conflict long past the point most Americans had recognized the endeavor as a disaster for the United States. Defenders, on the other hand, point to the magazine as a bastion of intellectually honest "NeverTrumpism," an oasis for those few conservatives who still haven't signed on to ride with the current Republican occupant of the White House.
"The journal promoted many dubious ideas," Jeet Heer wrote at The New Republic, but on the other hand, "The Weekly Standard has also been a magazine that appreciates well-turned phrases and crafted journalism." That seems an unworthy tradeoff, though: The "dubious idea" of invading Iraq was the worst foreign policy blunder of the last generation, one that killed more than 100,000 Iraqis and at least 4,000 Americans. The moral impact of a clever bon mot or well-executed Roger Stone profile seems rather slight by comparison.
But there's another way to think about the possible demise of The Weekly Standard.
Conventional wisdom has it that the magazine's death, if indeed it comes, will be the result of its NeverTrump iconoclasm in an era of Trumpist conservatism. There's something to that, but it's also true that the magazine is a victim of its own success, that the seeds it spent decades sowing came to fruition with the political ascendancy of President Trump.
For example, even before 9/11, the magazine was skeptical of treaties and alliances and other global institutions that might restrain the United States from exercising its power around the world. "At the dawn of the 21st century," Charles Krauthammer wrote in June 2001, "the task of the new administration is to develop a military and foreign policy appropriate to our position of overwhelming dominance." That "might makes right" attitude helped the Bush administration shrug off widespread worldwide opposition to the invasion of Iraq, choosing instead to lead a "coalition of the willing" that notably didn't include major allies like France and much of Europe.
It's not really a long jump from such chest-beating unilateralism to the skepticism Trump now seems to bring to all of America's relations with democratic countries. His willingness to insult allies like Canada and Australia while undermining institutions like NATO have their roots in a "you're for us or against us" attitude that produced "freedom fries" not so long ago. Heck, John Bolton, a longtime contributor to TWS, is now Trump's national security adviser.
Trumpism is less about its policy agenda and more about attitude, though, and The Weekly Standard gets some credit for that. Even if you ignore all the dirty hippie portrayals of liberals that have appeared on the magazine's cover over the years, one singular fact remains: The Weekly Standard played a key role in the rise of Sarah Palin and her know-nothing brand of culture warrior conservatism.
TWS editor Bill Kristol "discovered" her — Palin was already the governor of Alaska — on a cruise sponsored by the magazine, and set about promoting her as a natural second-in-command for John McCain's 2008 presidential run. Matthew Continetti, then a TWS writer, became her chief advocate in the media. She was manifestly ill-equipped to be vice president, better at barking out charges that Barack Obama was "pallin' around with terrorists" than at mastering policy. Kristol at least had the good sense to seem kind of embarrassed about his Palin advocacy later, but the damage had been done: Palin horrified the establishment, but she played well with the Republican Party's base — offering Trump, whose candidacy was initially seen as a joke, a clear roadmap to the presidency.
The Weekly Standard, in other words, helped build the movement and ideas that appear poised to kill it.
If you make your living in the media, it's difficult to root for the demise of a publication and the loss of employment for talented writers and editors who make it live and breathe. It's still appropriate, though, to examine a magazine's legacy; The Weekly Standard's moral and political legacy is questionable at best.
Sure, TWS has published good, thoughtful, even entertaining journalism, but the Iraq War is its original sin. It's not the only publication that bears guilt for the sin of Iraq: The New York Times and The New Republic both contributed to the rush to war — but neither publication is defined by that mistake to the same extent. How do you mourn a magazine like The Weekly Standard? Maybe with fear, trembling, and some hope that we've learned from its mistakes.