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Snobs Versus Slobs: National Review's War With Its Audience

Associated Press

The American conservative movement, which first coalesced in its modern form after World War II, has long been an uneasy coalition of snobs and slobs, of wannabe aristocrats and intellectuals like the late William F. Buckley and Norman Podhoretz joining forces with such avatars of plebeian rage as Joseph McCarthy and Sarah Palin, respectively. Yet this fusion of pretend-gentry with pseudo-populism has always been a shaky one, with the more respectable faces of the right occasionally having to distance themselves from their uncouth cousins. Buckley’s magazine, National Review, has constantly tried to define a respectable conservatism that excludes lurid conspiracy theorists as well as the more overt manifestations of anti-Semitism and racism. It has assumed the role of gatekeeper—the gate of an exclusive country club, that is—deciding who counts as worthy of entry and who has to be locked out.

But National Review’s undeniable influence on conservatism has been waning, and its latest attempt to act as the right wing’s bouncer has backfired. The controversy, as it always seems to be on the right today, concerns Donald Trump’s role in the GOP. On the magazine’s website, Jonah Goldberg published an epistolary article whose title says it all: "No Movement That Embraces Trump Can Call Itself Conservative.” “Dear Reader (if there are any of you left),” Goldberg begins, rather forlornly, “Well, if this is the conservative movement now, I guess you’re going to have to count me out.”

In response to Goldberg’s attack, Trump’s right-wing fans, some of whom are avowed white nationalists, pushed the hashtag #NRORevolt, which became a hub for those rejecting National Review’s status as the arbiter of who counts as respectable right-winger. Just a few tweets are sufficient to see the level of intellectual argument involved: 

Those pushing the #NRORevolt hashtag are clearly a gruesome lot, and if National Review has helped keep a lid on such unwholesome cretins, we can be grateful to the magazine. Yet the Review’s role in serving as a rightwing gatekeeper too frequently gets celebrated in uncritical terms. The oft-told story about how National Review expelled anti-Semites and Birchers from the right is much more complicated than the way it is usually rendered. If National Review has purged extremists, it is often after a period of working with them. The magazine has long played a delicate balancing act of gathering together as many on the right as possible and then trying to shake off those who go too far.

Writing in The Atlantic a few years back, historian Garry Wills, a liberal who had a long period of personal estrangement from Buckley, told a familiar story. “By the time of his death, even [Buckley’s] earlier critics admitted that he had done much to make conservatism respectable by purging it of racist and fanatical traits earlier embedded in it. He distanced his followers from the southern prejudices of George Wallace, the anti-Semitism of the Liberty Lobby, the fanaticism of the John Birch Society, the glorification of selfishness by Ayn Rand … [and] the paranoia and conspiratorialism of the neocons.” 

Wills, like so many others, paints Buckley and National Review in far too rosy a hue. Contra Wills, there’s no evidence National Review ever purged the neo-cons, who continue to thrive in the magazine. Buckley’s break with Wallace had as much to do with Wallace’s support of an expansive welfare state as the Alabama governor’s racism. Meanwhile, National Review has purged many people from the right not for being kooky (although they might have had kooky ideas that Buckley agreed with) but instead for reasonable objections to conservative orthodoxy—Old Rightist John T. Flynn, who opposed Cold War militarism, for one. It is true that the magazine did eventually come out for purging anti-Semites and the John Birch Society. But it did so only slowly, playing a dizzying dance of trying not to offend its right-wing base even as it gingerly criticized demented ideas.

To his credit, Buckley had moved away from his early tolerance of anti-Semitic organizations by 1959, when he circulated a memo stating that National Review wouldn’t have anyone on the masthead who was also on the masthead of the American Mercury, which had become a haven for anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. But National Review’s relationship with the John Birch Society was much more complicated than the frequently rehashed myth of the respectable conservatives kicking out the kooks.

The Birch Society, formed in 1958 by candy manufacturer Robert Welch, had a strong overlap in personnel and resources with the early National Review. Welch had given $1,000 to Buckley to help found the magazine in 1955. The textile manufacturer Roger Milliken was both a Bircher and the magazine’s single biggest financial backer. His donations covered roughly 40 percent of National Review’s annual deficit in its early years. Birch Society writers like Revilo Oliver (who would later become a leading advocate of white supremacy) often contributed to the early National Review. As John Judis points out in his biography of Buckley, other Birchers close to the magazine included Spruille Braden, Adolphe Menjou, and Clarence Manion. These men provided financial support while Bircher writers like Willi Schlamm and Medford Evans wrote for both American Opinion (the Birch journal) and National Review.

Buckley knew he had a dilemma in 1958 when he read a privately circulated book in which Welch argued that President Dwight Eisenhower was an active and conscious member of the international communist conspiracy. The question was clear: How could National Review distance itself from Welch’s deranged rants without alienating the grassroots supporters and financial backers who were essential to the magazine?

National Review intellectuals may have known what to think of Welch—just as they now agree on Trump’s unsuitability—but they were deeply divided about how they saw ordinary John Birch Society members. In 1961 letter to Buckley, editor Frank Meyer argued that “a very large number of [Birch Society] members are outstanding and sane conservatives.” James Burnham, a fellow editor, wanted to take a hard line against the Birch Society; he thought the organization was unsalvageable and its membership frightening—“the embryo, or an embryo, of the genuine American form of fascism.” (Both quotes are taken from Kevin J. Smart’s 2002 biography, Principles and Heresies: Frank S. Meyer and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement.) 

But National Review publisher William Rusher and Meyer both argued that the magazine had to be extremely careful in how it attacked the Birch Society. The criticism needed to be aimed at Welch, not ordinary Birchers. Rusher saw a danger, as biographer David B. Frisk notes in his 2012 book If Not Us, Who? that the formerly insurgent magazine could become what he called “a ’respected’—which is to say, harmless—spokesman for a benign brand of conservative Republicanism.”  Meyer warned that any overly harsh criticism of the Birch Society would damage National Review’s “remaining ability to speak over Welch’s head to the vital hard-right forces.” 

In effect, National Review still wanted Birch readers and Birch financial support, even as it distanced itself from Bircher ideology. Meyer laid out the formula for how the Review would use to try and tiptoe this fine line: “Criticism of a demagogic leader (or of an opportunistic politician) should to be conducted in such a way that their followers will still listen to us.” 

In editorials published in 1961 and 1962, Buckley followed that advice; he was careful to distinguish between Welch’s ideas, which Buckley rebuked, from the anti-communist activism of the Birch Society as a whole, which Buckley praised. Buckley’s extremely modulated critique was so carefully wrought with qualifications that even Welch greeted it with only a mild grumble. In the 1962 editorial, Buckley went out of his way to note that the John Birch Society had “some of the most morally energetic, self-sacrificing, and dedicated anti-communists in America.” (But Buckley added, “Mr. Welch, for all his good intentions, threatens to divert militant conservative action to irrelevance and ineffectuality.”) Rusher called the first editorial “a masterpiece, winning the approval of everyone from Life magazine to Welch himself.” 

National Review kept open its lines of communication with the Birch Society until 1965, when it broke with the group—not for conspiracy-mongering, but for being insufficiently hawkish. That year, the Birch Society called for America to withdraw from Vietnam (on the logic that the real fight against communism was with domestic foes in Washington). Seeing the Birch position as a threat to the Cold War consensus, the magazine finally read the Birchers out of conservatism.

To this day, Buckley’s actions are upheld as a model for firmness in dealing with extremists in your own camp. As Peter Wehner wrote in Commentary magazine last month, “Just as Buckley excommunicated the John Birch Society from the conservative movement in the 1960s, so should conservatives today stand up to Trump and Trumpism.” Yet this praise has to be tempered: If National Review eventually rejected the John Birch Society, it did so only after years of cultivating the organization and trying to keep its critique to a minimum. Moreover, in retrospect, the frothing conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society were right about the Vietnam War, while the respectable conservatives were wrong.

Some of those spreading the #NROrevolt hashtag have objected to the fact that the magazine has purged itself of bigots like Joseph Sobran (fired in 1993) and John Derbyshire (shown the door in 2012):

For those who aren’t white supremacist, the question isn’t why Sobran and Derbyshire were fired. The real question is, why did National Review publish racists like these in the first place? The magazine’s tortured relationship with the John Birch Society offers a clue. National Review, then and now, walks a difficult tight rope: It needs rabid writers who engage in borderline bigotry in order to attract grassroots right-wing readers. But in order to maintain its position as a respectable publication, it has to occasionally purge those very writers if their hate speech becomes too overt or loses a patina of plausible deniability.

In the 1960s, National Review struggled with how to keep John Birch Society readers while criticizing the more unhinged Bircher ideas. Fifty years later, the magazine has to figure out how to keep Trump-loving readers even as it tries to show that Trump doesn’t belong in the conservative movement. Yet even as it tries to expel Trump, National Review is confronted with a new dilemma: its increasing irrelevance. In the age of the Internet, it is easy enough for the purged to find new outlets to express themselves. The nose-thumbing of #NRORevolt is in part a way for the white nationalists on twitter to heckle National Review over the magazine’s lost ability to function as the border guard of respectability.

But #NRORevolt also serves a microcosm for the broader problem of how conservative media has to handle the large mass of Trump lovers in their audience—and indeed, how the right writ large has to react to Trumpism as a phenomenon. Are Trump’s followers, as Jonah Goldberg suggests, the irredeemable unwashed masses, the “trumpen proletariat?” Do they form the embryo of American fascism, as editor Burnham warned? Or do they have legitimate grievances that smart conservative politicians should pay attention to, as David Frum argues?

In 1966, Frank Meyer, the editor who defended the Birchers, described National Review’s goal as uniting “under responsible leadership the right-wing populist and know-nothing elements with the new conservative movement of the past dozen years.” The problem with this project is that “responsible leadership” will constantly find itself at odds with the “know-nothing elements.” This was certainly true in the 1960s battles over the John Birch Society. It remains the problem for National Review and for the Republican Party in the age of Trump.