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Fumbling Toward Post-Trumpism With the Conservative Intelligentsia

The National Review has once again circled back to rejecting Trump, this time in favor of his disciples.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gesticulates while speaking as President Donald Trump looks on.
Doug Mills/Getty Images
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis with President Donald Trump

First the National Review was against Trump. Then it was against anti-Trumpism. Then it was kind of for Trump and kind of against him: It published pieces making the case for voting for him in 2020, against voting for him in 2020, and for maybe voting against him in 2020. Now, as he prepares to run again, the magazine is once again pushing its own peculiar, half-baked brand of anti-Trumpism. Or perhaps we should understand this as a brand new mission: “post-Trumpism”—an attempt to rebrand a flailing conservative movement by making the case that it’s enough like Donald Trump not to truly need him anymore.

On Monday, Rich Lowry made the case that it was time for conservatives to line up behind Ron DeSantis as a viable alternative to Trump. DeSantis, you see, has been touting a bill that bans students from learning about sexuality or gender identity in schools, and has jousted with various business leaders in the state who have criticized the bill. “If this new approach draws on Trump, it should vitiate one of the arguments long made for Trump: ‘At least he fights.’ Now, the party is full of people who want to fight in a broadly similar fashion,” Lowry writes.

DeSantis, to Lowry’s mind, is the new and improved post-Trump ideal, someone who uses the former president’s pugilistic approach but for important things, like ostracizing queer children. “He isn’t defending the indefensible; he’s defending the eminently defensible, in fact the unfairly maligned,” Lowry writes, arguing that the bill is merely a defense against a “a cutting-edge progressive cause.” (He doesn’t quite name what that cause is, but it appears to be teaching about gender identity in schools.) “He isn’t dragging anyone through a fight occasioned by his personal failings or dubious practices; he’s standing up for a well-considered conservative initiative,” Lowry argues. Tom Cotton, a charisma-less void whose personal pet project is launching a war with Iran, is also named as another figure who merges “Trumpian populist themes with traditional GOP thinking.” My, my, have we ever come a long way from Against Trump!

On Tuesday, the magazine published a piece by Charles C.W. Cooke, once again arguing that it was time to move on. “Donald Trump? In 2024? Why on earth would conservatives choose that guy?” Cooke continued in this vein, rehashing arguments that have long become readily apparent—though not to most Republicans. “Donald Trump is an extraordinarily selfish man, and he is only too happy to subordinate your interests to his own,” Cooke wrote. “Whatever justification there may have been for picking the ‘lesser of two evils’ in the 2016 or 2020 general election—a justification that was a great deal stronger before Trump refused to accept, and then tried to overturn, the results of the latter—it cannot obtain in 2022,” he continued. To Cooke’s mind, Trump lost the last election to Biden and Kamala Harris—why should conservatives expect things would go differently next year? It’s time to pick a winner, he concludes—and while no one is named, one can assume someone like DeSantis would very much be on the menu.

National Review hasn’t exactly been a bulwark of anti-Trumpism on the right over the last six years. It has repeatedly defended him from attacks from the left. It’s had a strong hand in legitimizing Trump to some on the right and undoubtedly had a hand in convincing conservatives that voting for him was, in fact, the lesser of two evils in 2020. The magazine hates the progressive left more than it does Trump’s authoritarianism, and the result was a muddle in which a president who clearly disdained the rule of law was consistently being presented as the victim of unhinged attacks from the left. (This was Trump’s own view of those attacks, for what it’s worth.)

At the same time, Trump’s efforts to overturn the election—and the resulting riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021—were hardly surprising. Trump had been saying that he would question the results of an election he lost for years; it is similarly unsurprising that his doing so would lead to violence. This was all eminently predictable long before it came to pass; any effort to denounce Trump from the right that doesn’t contend with the efforts made by magazines like National Review to defend the former president is inherently suspect.

More pressingly, it’s not entirely clear what conservative movement Cooke is speaking to. Cooke asks the question that National Review has never really been able to answer, albeit with a slightly different meaning: “Why on earth would conservatives choose that guy?” But Cooke, like National Review, has never sought a viable answer; instead the magazine has spent the last six years as a kind of glossy Flying Dutchman, wandering from port to port in search of a conservative movement that had long since ceased to exist.

Similarly, the post-Trump GOP luminaries on offer are decidedly Trumpian now, not conservative. DeSantis is arguably the most prominent of Trump’s imitators; he remade himself in the then-president’s image in 2017, even going as far as imitating the president’s bizarre gestures and vocal tics, and winning the governorship as a hard-core Trumpist. One could argue that the “Don’t say gay” bill being touted by DeSantis is an extension of the culture wars the right fought in the 1990s in its overt demonization of gay and trans children, but its unconstitutional overreach is also pure Trump. And DeSantis is hardly alone. Every viable candidate in 2024 has rebuilt themself in Trump’s image. That may make some of them a lesser evil—or perhaps, less skilled in the former president’s dark arts—but it should hardly be considered an alternative invention, let alone a conservative one. It’s been Trump’s party for years now. It will still be Trump’s party even if someone else wins the 2024 Republican primary. Whatever it is that National Review has convinced itself it stands for now is irrelevant.