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The Lively Irrelevance of Conservative Magazines

The rise of Trumpism has enlivened legacy publications like National Review, but Republicans are flocking to more partisan outlets.

National Review editor Rich Lowry. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

In normal times, political magazines are counter-cyclical: They tend to flourish when their ideological foes are in power. Left-wing magazines like The Nation and Mother Jones typically thrive during Republican administrations, just as conservative counterparts like National Review and The Weekly Standard do during Democratic ones. As Victor Navasky, former publisher of The Nation, often quipped, “What’s bad for the country is good for The Nation.

Donald Trump’s presidency has upended this pattern. Left-wing magazines are indeed thriving, but conservative magazines are, too.

Before Trump was elected, magazines like National Review (which published a famous “Against Trump” issue) and The Weekly Standard opposed the insurgent candidate, while smaller oddball publications like The American Conservative and the Claremont Review of Books published articles arguing that the reality show star was usefully breaking up ossified conservative dogma. Trump’s shambolic presidency has only further complicated these divisions. Some former detractors, like National Review editor Rich Lowry, have become appreciative of the president’s court appointments and tax cuts, which are perfectly compatible with standard Republicanism. And some former Trump fans, like American Affairs founder Julius Krein, are disappointed that his promised populist revolution turned out to be largely rhetorical.

As conservative writers try to thrash out the meaning of Trumpism, trying to separate the good from the bad, the magazines they write for have gained a new urgency. As reporter T. A. Frank argued in an in-depth Washington Post story last Thursday, “conservative magazines have become oddly vital once more. While Sean Hannity and Breitbart News carry water for Trump, and many liberal publications dodge introspection in favor of anti-Trump primal screams, right-of-center magazines have been debating and reassessing the soul of their political philosophy. Trumpism has torn down the conservative house and broken it up for parts. Conservative magazines are working to bring a plausible intellectual order to this new reality—and figure out what comes next.”

There’s much truth to Frank’s claim that we’re living in “the golden age of conservative magazines.” National Review, in particular, has a freshness that it hasn’t seen in decades, thanks to fine writers like Michael Brendan Dougherty and Kevin D. Williamson. The magazine often feels like a freewheeling barroom brawl between Trumpists, Never Trumpers, and anti-anti-Trumpers, among other shades of opinion.

But has the exuberance of the conservative press come at the price of relevance? While magazines like National Review and The Weekly Standard have never enjoyed large circulations, they have consistently punched above their weight because Republican politicians have taken guidance from them. Barry Goldwater’s bestselling Conscience of a Conservative, which was pivotal to the conservative takeover of the Republican Party, was ghost written by National Review alumnus L. Brent Bozell (brother-in-law to the magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley). Ronald Reagan often spoke of National Review as his favorite magazine. Both Goldwater and Reagan were shaped by National Review’s brand of conservative fusionism, which united free market economics, anti-communism, and traditional moral values.

Republican administrations often looked to conservative magazines for hiring purposes, too. Jeanne Kirkpatrick became Reagan’s United Nations ambassador on the strength of a famous Commentary article. During the golden age of American conservatism from the early 1960s until Trump’s rise, right-wing policy wonks and intellectuals floated between think tanks, political magazines, and government jobs. Hence a figure like David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, has worked at the American Enterprise Institute, National Review, and the White House.

With the rise of Trump, that entire ecosystem is endangered. To the extent he reads at all, Trump clearly prefers Time to National Review or Commentary.

The Trump administration is notably free of the policy wonks and intellectuals who adorned previous Republican administrations, aside from national security advisor Michael Anton (who perhaps won his position thanks to his ardently pro-Trump essay “The Flight 93 Election,” which ran in the Claremont Review in 2016).

“The conservative intellectual infrastructure is like a city after the neutron bomb goes off,” First Things editor R.R. Reno told the Washington Post. “There’s a whole network of ideas, and it turns out there are no voters for those ideas.” But that “neutron bomb” has been both devastating and liberating. It wiped out the career path that allowed writers from National Review to become White House speechwriters and policy advisers, but it also gave conservative writers license to question, rather than reflexively defend, Republican dogma.

There has been a sharp bifurcation of the right-of-center media. Right-wing populist outlets like Fox News are hyper-partisan, being both pro-Trump and pro-GOP (since the two positions are merged). A cohort of elite, legacy magazines are much more anguished, welcoming aspects of Trump’s policy but wary of his character and fearful of what Trumpism portends about the American right. The former group enjoys a much wider audience:

The internal critique of conservatism is imperative, but when pushed to its logical end, it can lead to an abandonment of political identity.

Frum broke ranks with his fellow conservatives back in 2010 over their uncompromising opposition to the Affordable Care Act. “I think conservatism, it’s really obsolete,” Frum, now a senior editor at The Atlantic, recently told Vice’s Eve Peyser. “Conservatism stopped describing the world we live in. It stopped having answers to the problems of the world that we live in. It’s devolved into anti-leftism, tribal antipathy.” But Frum’s path has made him, in Peyser’s words, “a political party of one.”

For other conservatives, the tug of partisan loyalty has proven too strong. This is especially true as the Trump administration becomes engulfed in scandal, which is activating a tribalist reflex even among Trump critics. “Congress shouldn’t ‘protect’ Mueller,” National Review’s editors recently declared. This sentiment was in keeping with other essays published by the magazine that questioned Mueller’s investigation and the FBI.

As a flawed and scandal-ridden president, Trump is dividing conservative intellectuals in the same ways Richard Nixon did during Watergate. During that period, figures like George F. Will, then a columnist for National Review, became slashing critics of the Republican president, arguing that he needed to resign. Will was opposed by other National Review stalwarts like publisher William Rusher and columnist M. Stanton Evans, who took the curious position that they didn’t like Nixon’s policies (the opening to China, wage and price control, environmental protection) but hated the president’s liberal enemies even more. “I never really cared for Nixon until Watergate,” Evans famously said, in a near-perfect expression of tribalist politics.

Conservative intellectuals are currently enjoying a creative alienation from the Republican Party. But if the Russia investigation becomes a full-fledged constitutional crisis, many of them are likely to return home to the GOP. Updating Evans, they might proclaim, “I never really cared for Trump until Russiagate.”