Three years ago this month, National Review published its controversial and now infamous entreaty, “Against Trump.” The issue was singularly devoted to making a case against Donald Trump’s then surging primary candidacy; it featured a roster of notable conservative influencers explaining why the brash Manhattan billionaire posed a dire threat to conservatism.
Exactly three years later, the magazine’s online version issued an apology for its early condemnation of Covington Catholic High School students, who, while attending the March for Life in Washington D.C., became the innocent victims of a social media ambush orchestrated and executed by the Left. Some conservative commentators who had contributed to the “Against Trump” issue quietly deleted their tweets criticizing the teens, without apology.
The irony surrounding the coincidence of the dates of those two circumstances might be considered either karma, comeuppance, or both. And it once again highlighted why Donald Trump is in the White House and Jeb Bush isn’t, and why Trump—and none of the self-proclaimed conservatives who opined in the pages of National Review three years ago—now is considered the standard bearer of American conservatism. When the Left attacks, the Right caves.
When Christian teenagers attending an event to support a cause that represents the heart of the conservative movement needed immediate and unflinching protection from a leftist mob, the self-appointed guardians of conservatism failed. Their mockery of “He Fights!” only exposes how they will not—or when they do fight they often pick the wrong battles, and how they find the whole business of political warfare beneath them—unless, of course, they can punch down at a target on their own side.
Don’t take my word for it. Here is a direct quote from that “Against Trump” issue: “[Trump’s] obsession is with ‘winning,’ regardless of the means—a spirit that is anathema to the ordered liberty that conservatives hold dear and that depends for its preservation on limits on government power.”
Still Clueless After All These Years
If anti-Trump conservatives have proven anything over the past three years, it is that they still have no clue how to prevail over the Left. With few exceptions, most notably the Brett Kavanaugh debacle (but with caveats even there), NeverTrumpers have sided with the Left. Many have fully abandoned their alleged fidelity to principles—limited government in particular—in order to cripple a president who conservatives voters elected in spite of their lofty commands to drop him.
Further, they still have no alternative to what they derisively call Trumpism.
“Trump nevertheless offers a valuable warning for the Republican Party. If responsible men irresponsibly ignore an issue as important as immigration, it will be taken up by the reckless,” the NR editors wrote in January 2016. “If they cannot advance a compelling working-class agenda, the legitimate anxieties and discontents of blue-collar voters will be exploited by demagogues. We sympathize with many of the complaints of Trump supporters about the GOP, but that doesn’t make the mogul any less flawed a vessel for them.”
So, three years later, what is the status of American conservatism, to the extent that it exists at all? Where is the working-class agenda they promised back in 2016? What’s their plan to mitigate pervasive anxieties about illegal immigration, permanent job losses, lousy trade pacts, and foreign intervention? And one year away from the Iowa caucuses, who will the Trump foes on the Right support for president?
Neoconservatism on the Ropes
To be fair, there was legitimate criticism of Trump in the “Against Trump” issue. Trump had given few reasons to believe he actually would govern as a conservative considering that many of his past positions were liberal and that he had been a reliable Democratic donor for years. Concerns about his ego and style were justified; his lack of expertise in foreign affairs and domestic policy warranted alarm. Since Trump’s election, some of the original critics have become fair-minded observers, even outright supporters, of the president. This includes NR’s editor Rich Lowry, who has challenged the “delusion” of the remaining, anti-Trump outliers.
But their initial warnings that Trump would defile conservatism and destroy the Republican Party were deeply amiss. To the contrary, it is NeverTrump that has suffered the most casualties over the past three years. The biggest fatality in the Trump era is neoconservatism, an ideology that stood in stark contrast to Trump’s far more broadly popular patriotism.
Several leading neocons contributed to the “Against Trump” issue, including Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz, whose fathers essentially founded neoconservatism. Far from adhering to conservative, or even neoconservative, principles, Kristol claimed to have found his “inner socialist” and “inner feminist” during Trump’s presidency, and has backed an authoritarian abuse of federal power in the form of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into fictional Trump-Russia election collusion. Kristol’s anti-Trump endeavors are not funded by the kind of conservatives who funded his previous work, but by a billionaire leftist and sworn enemy of the president.
In December, The Weekly Standard, the magazine Kristol co-founded that served as the organ for neoconservatism for more than two decades, was shuttered by its owner. Its writers and editors took refuge in a new outlet that makes no mention of neoconservatism. Commentary editor John Podhoretz—who compared Trump to vulgarians such as Andrew Dice Clay and Howard Stern in his “Against Trump” appeal—just deactivated his Twitter account after posting an anti-gay slur that mocked prison rape. (For what its worth, Podhoretz’s father, Norman Podhoretz, is a Trump supporter.)
Forward! Into the Past!
The NeverTrump crusade sparked by the “Against Trump” issue is adrift and angry. In the past three years, self-proclaimed conservatives of this variety have embraced the climate change agenda, opposed tax reform, and saved Obamacare. Some encouraged Republicans to vote for Democrats in the 2018 midterm election. Any suggestion that the ruling class has failed large swaths of the American electorate and willfully ignored the plight of millions of our countrymen in order to advance their own interests, as Tucker Carlson proposed a few weeks ago, is met with scorn.
NeverTrumpers have been silent about, or worse, helped to justify, the unconstitutional and alarming weaponization of the world’s most powerful law enforcement and intelligence apparatus to undermine a rival presidential campaign, then sabotage a duly elected president.
They now are poised to back a challenger to Trump in the 2020 Republican primary. Two possible candidates are former Ohio Governor John Kasich and current Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. There is nothing identifiably conservative about either candidate; in fact, their conservative credentials looks worse than Trump’s did in 2016.
In an op-ed published this month, Kasich offered plenty of blather about how the GOP needs to address “income inequality, urban violence, drugs, climate and environment, free trade, prescription costs, infrastructure decay, cybersecurity, education and workforce readiness, [and] student debt.” True as far as it goes, but Kasich offered no specifics about how to handle any of them. In one of his last acts as governor, however, he vetoed a fetal heartbeat bill.
In his column in the New York Times last week, NeverTrumper Bret Stephens called Governor Hogan “a serious and meaningful alternative to the corroded conservatism we have in Washington today.” Apparently non-corroded conservatism means being an “institutionalist” who is pro-gun control, anti-fracking, pro-Paris Climate Accord, and pro-abortion because these are all policies that Hogan supports. “Even if Trump didn’t run, he would get more votes than Hogan,” scoffed our publisher, Chris Buskirk, at the idea of a Hogan candidacy.
So, three years after the nation’s leading conservative outlet published a lengthy appeal to purge Donald Trump from its ranks, the president has an 80 percent approval rating among American conservatives. Trump has cut taxes; restrained the regulatory behemoth; appointed a legacy bench of conservatives federal judges; challenged lazy, ungrateful allies; rewritten outdated trade pacts; confronted a chronic border crisis; and reinvigorated the country’s manufacturing base. He’s defended the unborn, the working class, the patriotic, and the faithful while rejecting the stultifying chokehold of identity politics.
Meanwhile, his so-called conservative detractors are scrounging for primary challengers that sound more like Barack Obama than William F. Buckley, Jr. The damage they’ve done to the modern-day conservative movement will long outlast Trump’s presidency.
And three years later, they have largely proven—once again—that they are still very good at failure.