A Stalwart Conservative Belatedly Recognizes the Movement's Problems

Jonah Goldberg attacks the flawed thinking of Donald Trump supporters, but not its earlier iterations on the populist right.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg, an early architect of National Review Online, declared in a Labor Day weekend attack on Donald Trump and his supporters, “if this is the conservative movement now, I guess you’re going to have to count me out.”

The billionaire’s defenders are participating in “catharsis masquerading as principle, venting and resentment pretending to be some kind of higher argument,” he charged. “Every principle used to defend Trump is subjective, graded on a curve.” Thus his dismay. “Conservatives have spent more than 60 years arguing that ideas and character matter,” Goldberg explained. “That is the conservative movement I joined and dedicated my professional life to. And now, in a moment of passion, many of my comrades-in-arms are throwing it all away in a fit of pique.” In his view, “what we are seeing is the corrupting of conservatives.”

The column is most noteworthy for the response it provoked.

As if to highlight the worst parts of the billionaire’s coalition, a faction of his supporters took to Twitter, where attacks on Goldberg and National Review merged with what Matt Yglesias aptly described as “a broader critique that the mainstream right is filled with ‘cuckservatives’ who refuse to stand up for white interests” as well as “an ugly critique of Jewish ‘kikeservatives’ and other anti-Semitic themes.”

The Tweets are organized under the hashtag #NRORevolt.

The Twitter eruption only underscores that the National Review and its writers are correct to warn their readers about the folly of elevating Trump and empowering his coalition (even if their critics are right that they’ve too often allied themselves with Republicans who’ve waged ruinous wars of choice and enabled crony capitalism).

In his article, Goldberg accurately describes the flawed thinking of Trump supporters. But he is wrong to portray those flaws as if they’re new to movement conservatism, sullying a 60-year tradition of excellence on a Trump-inspired whim.

I am not speaking of William F. Buckley’s famed purges.

For years, numerous right-leaning writers, myself among them, have repeatedly warned conservative intellectuals, including Goldberg, about prominent parts of their movement displaying the very flaws now manifesting themselves among Trump and his coalition. My critiques repeatedly returned to polemicist Ann Coulter, talk-radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin; Andrew Breitbart and the eponymous websites he created; and half-term governor turned reality-TV star Sarah Palin. It is no coincidence that all of those forces are presently working to elevate Trump and his coalition.

They share noteworthy attributes.

All presented themselves either as conservatives or champions of rank-and-file conservatives as they rose to prominence. To varying degrees, they would adopt conservative policy positions and parrot conservative talking points. That won over some of their fans. Yet their mass popularity wasn’t a function of their policy preferences––lots of entertainers shared those. Their audience cared less about political grievances than cultural grievances. And they emphasized those cultural grievances.

Their rhetoric includes countless examples of “catharsis masquerading as principle, venting and resentment pretending to be some kind of higher argument.” But movement conservative intellectuals like Goldberg graded them on a curve.

Trump is tapping the same ressentiment. But he has less need for the fig leaf of purportedly principled conservatism than did the populist entertainers who preceded him.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to see a conservatism-abandoning figure like this come along. The rise of Glenn Beck proved that a charismatic populist could build a huge following by stoking the cultural grievances, insecurities and wild paranoia of the disaffected right, all without any real connection to anything coherently labeled as conservatism. Even that didn’t stop Goldberg from writing “In Defense of Glenn Beck. “Why should conservatives support an unfair double standard?” he asked. “Liberals never see the antics of their more flamboyant celebrities as an indictment of liberalism itself. Perhaps it’s time conservatives adopted a more liberal standard.”

Here’s how that worked out:

Having trained rank-and-file conservatives to overlook that sort of behavior, Goldberg is now surprised that his readers aren’t discerning judges of huckster demagogues.

Trump is doing much of what Beck did—the surprise is that he’s doing it in electoral politics. For his supporters, populist cultural grievances and tribal identity politics matter a lot more than whether Trump is or isn’t a true conservative. And anyone shocked by the size of the faction in the Republican base that isn’t invested in principled conservatism hasn’t been seeing it clearly for years.

If the conservative movement and the Republican party allow themselves to be corrupted by this flim-flammery, then so be it,” Goldberg writes. “My job will be harder, my career will suffer, and I’ll be ideologically homeless. That’s not so scary. Conservatism began in the wilderness and maybe, like the Hebrews, it would return from it stronger and ready to rule. But I’m not leaving without a fight.”

It’s about damned time.