National Review: It's Too Late to Dump on Trump
Matt Walsh tweeted his delight at a feverish chain of twenty-two essays denouncing Donald Trump in National Review. Coming only a few days after Sarah Palin's less than stellar speech announcing her support for Trump's candidacy, the Dump-on-Trump-a-thon bordered on hysteria.
Organized alphabetically by the last names of the essayists, beginning with Glenn Beck, the prose feels somewhat like a roller coaster. The authors include many people I know personally and admire. There are lots of money quotes like "He's effectively vowing to be an American Mussolini" (Boaz), "We can talk about whether he's a boor ... a creep ... or a louse" (Charen), and "forget the hair like tinsel on discarded Christmas trees" (Helprin). Ouch!
The tightly knit Brahmin caste feels the need to intervene. They must rush in and correct the thought processes of the conservative masses, because they see many things in the pro-Trump movement that discomfort them. Yet the elite brain trust of conservatives, with their editorial positions and contributor contracts at FOX News, are doubling down too late on a platform whose time came and went. The deeper issue isn't Donald Trump at all; it's the Brahmins and their increasing tendency to misread what's going on in the lives of their readers.
Trump is far from an ideal man to be the president. I get it. But why do so many people prefer him to two dozen alternatives, including my fave, Cruz? It's not simple insanity, bigotry, or dumb people taking over the GOP. On the contrary, all the NRO writers seem to acknowledge a few truths about the hordes of people across America whom they've classified, correctly or incorrectly, as the "conservative base." The authors acknowledge that these constituencies are angry, feel let down, view recent years as times of betrayal, aren't all that impressed by dogma right now, and are now open to someone – specifically Trump, though it might have been anyone who came along with new media savvy – who doesn't even agree with their ideology at all but who represents a cathartic rebellion against the experts who've continually misled them.
Just before the 2012 primary season, there were two groundswell movements: the lefty Occupy movement and the rightist Tea Party. Back then, the lefties were screaming a lot but didn't have specifics, while the Tea Party came fully armed with statistics and wonky minutiae. This primary season is a different game. Now the Sandersites speak in percentages and name the banks and super-PACs they plan to dismantle, while the Trumpers won't give specifics because they don't want specifics; they want, like the Occupy movement of 2011, a whole new order. Both parties have seen the rise of grassroots movements rejecting the common language of Washington wonkery. So maybe this is a sign: everyone wants the wonks out.
Yes, you – Mr. Editor of This, Mr. Contributor to That, Mr. President of Think-Tank X or Institute Y. When Trump scoffs at "politically correct" people, he means you! He probably means me, too; though I am a small player, I should accept some blame.
The putsch against the commentators is shocking because for a long time, this seemed unthinkable. The conservative literati have dominated Facebook walls and Twitter feeds, chattered in the background for hours each day on talk radio, and plastered their mugs all over cable TV as talking, talking, talking heads. For a long time, readers trusted them because they trusted each other (and quoted each other), so it all looked very respectable. Pundits assumed that the followers' trust and patronage would last indefinitely.
The years went by: the Clinton impeachment, hanging chads, 9-11, Iraq, Katrina, the Pelosi apocalypse, Obama, the stimulus, Obamacare, Benghazi, etc., etc. The mandarin talking heads were a stable fixture – perhaps too stable, like a lamp drilled into the floor of a house that was taken apart and reconstructed several times. Notwithstanding some lip service to religion and social values, they had two things to say, and they said them over and over again: free markets and Constitution.
Sometime circa 2005, I was listening to one of the usual suspects trading inside jokes with Sean Hannity. Something dawned on me, which I have kept secret until now: yes, I am conservative, but I don't actually think free markets or the Constitution matters to most conservatives, because most people live in gritty reality rather than abstractions. Most conservatives have a general sense that individuals should be decent, self-reliant, and God-fearing, traits intrinsic to America's earliest roots. But they don't own businesses. They want a functioning government that helps people who need help. They decide tough issues based on right and wrong, not on clauses in the nation's founding document. And they don't want to live in a world where everything is for sale to the highest bidder. Trump might not be the best purveyor of these principles, but he's the common man's weapon against the thought leaders who've been betraying the principles for over twenty years. And payback is a you-know-what.
The conservative world has a relationship between opinion-makers and readership that's the converse of the liberal world. Because the vast majority of "intellectuals" are left of center, there are many liberal writers fighting over a small number of liberal readers.
Conservatives live in the opposite situation: there are very few right-wing writers and enormous numbers of conservative readers. Such conservative readers tend to be busy people who spend their days working, raising a family, etc. They catch up on the news when they can, usually with writers whose names they recognize. They have long gravitated to old, reliable voices like Bill O'Reilly, David Horowitz, and Rush Limbaugh, because they like to build a trusting relationship with their sources of commentary, even if they don't actually meet them.
If you are one of the lucky cons with a megaphone, it's easy to overestimate the loyalty of your massive following. This conservative punditocracy abused its followers for many years. At some point, large swaths of their audience were tuning in largely because they had so few conservative choices, not because they viewed public intellectuals as sages.
The first flaw of the intelligentsia, and perhaps its most fatal, was the tendency to become a closed discussion club. Two movements – the free-speech and traditional-marriage movements – gave me glimpses into the internal problems of the echo chamber.
They Complained about Liberal Bias but Let It Metastasize
As a graduate student (1998-2003), I kept many of my right-wing views secret from my colleagues in the program, and especially from professors. I tuned in to talk radio and watched FOX News. I read the gamut, from Ann Coulter to Russell Kirk. I imagined that the people constantly complaining about the liberal bias among college professors were sincere in their complaints.
Certain phrases repeated: "We need to take back the culture." "Dearth of conservative professors." "We need more people in the humanities." "We need the classics."
After finishing a full monograph with 752 footnotes about classic American literature and the roots of conservative thought, I couldn't get conservatives to review the book. Many of them wouldn't return emails and ran the other away when I met them at conferences. They seemed to get endless gigs at colleges to deliver speeches about the need for young conservative scholars. The audience was full of young conservative scholars who would, realistically, have close to zero chance of getting into the circuit. At some point, the whole conservative mafia struck me as simply sleazy.
I wondered, are there legions and legions of lettered literary critics shopping books about conservative arts and humanities, who don't need to waste their time on lil' ol' me?
It became clear that no, there were not tons of conservative faculty coming up through the ranks modeling right-wing scholarship in the humanities. You could count on one hand the number of monographs from the same year that addressed the early American literary scene from a conservative vantage point. The two reviewers who did gloss my book gave it good reviews, so it wasn't weak scholarship; it just couldn't get traction.
And it suddenly dawned on me: this is all a huge racket.
Nothing changes because Mr. Big Conservative doesn't want it to change. Conservative faculty have gone from about a quarter of academia to a handful of scared scholars living in bunkers. The latter cower and can't be counted on to speak up, because they're mortified of controversy and secretly need secular liberals to approve of them.
Carol Swain, John McAdams, Paul Church, and I – all well-established conservative scholars – are being driven out or have been driven out of academic positions. And we aren't the only ones. It's happening right now. Blasting liberal professors for being morons doesn't, in the end, help to increase the number of conservative professors or even slow the bloodletting that's decimating our ranks.
They Said They Would Defend the Family and...
Then came gay marriage. On this issue there was a lot to defend – indeed, with adoption tied to marriage, the very notion of birthright, heritage, and legacy was at stake – and the pressure was enormous on people to capitulate.
The conservative intelligentsia responded to the explosive debate about gay marriage in three ways. One group suddenly changed their minds and supported gay marriage, to the delight of the mainstream press and to the considerable advantage of their own pocketbooks. One group simply pretended the topic didn't exist, so they would neither lose the liberal media's approval nor risk being branded (rightly) as sellouts by the conservative base. And then another group claimed they were going to defend traditional marriage; they garnered support from good-hearted Christians and then lost gracefully.
There were countless young Christians who belonged to the vigorous "chastity movement." They could rise up quickly in the pro-life movement, but the doors were closed to them on the marriage movement. Then, as the persecution of gay-marriage opponents reached a feverish pitch in the two years between Windsor and Obergefell, the advocates who'd monopolized the marriage microphone crumbled, surrendered, and got tongue-tied. Having lost humanity's most important institution, the family, they rushed to rally troops around a model of religious liberty that would protect only a handful of Christian business owners (always protect the business owners first!) from the blowback of society collapsing all around them.
Trump's Ideas Aren't the Issue
Liberal bias and gay marriage were just two issues of many. On immigration, gun control, health care, and national defense, conservatives with bright ideas were shut out while an old guard foundered and lost the battles they had insisted they could win. For a while, we could blame specific politicians for betraying the base's ideas. But eventually a large part of the base concluded that the brain trust telling them what to think was as much a part of the problem as people in public office.
All this is all a long way of saying that a clarion call from National Review has little chance of reversing the Trump revolution.
I support Ted Cruz and have many anxieties about Donald Trump. I hope Cruz gets nominated, but if Trump wins, I'll accept that like the rest of the right-wing writers, I got what I deserved. I will carry on and take away crucial life lessons. And here's to hoping that Trump's lasting legacy will be the rebirth of a new conservative intellectual class down the road.
Robert Oscar Lopez is an English professor and president of the International Children's Rights Institute. The views expressed here are not those of his employer. He can be followed at English Manif or on Twitter (@baptist4freedom).