The National Review Takes on Trump

As the Iowa caucuses near, the conservative magazine mounts a last-ditch effort to halt his momentum.

David Becker / Reuters

As one of the country’s most prominent right-leaning publications, the National Review prides itself on its role in policing the bounds of American conservatism. In the 1950s and 1960s, the magazine figuratively “expelled” John Birchers and anti-Semites from the movement to bolster its legitimacy. Now its editors seek to do the same to the Republican presidential frontrunner.

The Review declared war on Donald Trump in its latest issue published on Thursday night, nine days before the Iowa caucuses and over seven months after Trump catapulted himself to the front of the GOP race last June. In the lead editorial, the magazine’s editors outlined their opposition to Trump’s seemingly unstoppable drive to the party’s nomination for the presidency.

Donald Trump leads the polls nationally and in most states in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. There are understandable reasons for his eminence, and he has shown impressive gut-level skill as a campaigner. But he is not deserving of conservative support in the caucuses and primaries. Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.

To buttress its stance, the magazine also published a “symposium” of 21 top conservative commentators who oppose Trump, ranging from Glenn Beck and Dana Loesch to Thomas Sowell and Cal Thomas. Their opposition generally fell into four broad categories. Most were purists like Erick Erickson, who view Trump’s embrace of right-wing politics after years of espousing liberal beliefs with deep skepticism:

In a 60 Minutes interview with Scott Pelly, Trump aggressively supported universal health-care, saying, “This is an un-Republican thing for me to say. . . . I’m going to take care of everybody. . . . The government’s gonna pay for it.” He supported the prosecution of hate crimes. He favored wealth-confiscation policies. He supported abortion rights. On all these things, Donald Trump now says he has changed his mind. Like the angels in heaven who rejoice for every new believer, we should rejoice for Donald Trump’s conversion to conservatism.

But we should not put a new conservative in charge of conservatism or the country, so that he does not become puffed up with conceit and fall into condemnation. Republicans have wandered in the wilderness already by letting leaders define conservatism in their own image. Donald Trump needs more time and more testing of his new conservative convictions.

Some, like Bill Kristol, critiqued Trump on aesthetic grounds:

In a letter to National Review, Leo Strauss wrote that “a conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort, is vulgar.” Isn’t Donald Trump the very epitome of vulgarity?

In sum: Isn’t Trumpism a two-bit Caesarism of a kind that American conservatives have always disdained? Isn’t the task of conservatives today to stand athwart Trumpism, yelling Stop?

Others, like Yuval Levin, took a more principled approach, focusing on Trumpism’s deeper philosophical friction with conservatism:

The appeal of Trump’s diagnoses should be instructive to conservatives. But the shallow narcissism of his prescriptions is a warning. American conservatism is an inherently skeptical political outlook. It assumes that no one can be fully trusted with public power and that self-government in a free society demands that we reject the siren song of politics-as-management.

A shortage of such skepticism is how we ended up with the problems Trump so bluntly laments. Repeating that mistake is no way to solve these problems. To address them, we need to begin by rejecting what Trump stands for, as much as what he stands against.

Finally, there were pragmatic critics like Michael Medved, who noted (alongside other flaws) that Trump would not only lose in November, but also drag conservatism down with him:

And then there’s the uncomfortable, unavoidable issue of racism. Even those who take Trump at his word—accepting his declaration that he qualifies as the least racist individual in the nation— can imagine the parade of negative ads the Democrats are already preparing for radio stations with mainly black audiences and for Spanish-language television. Even if Trump won a crushing majority of self-described white voters, he could hardly improve on Romney’s landslide victory—59 percent to 39 percent—in that demographic group.

If Trump becomes the nominee, the GOP is sure to lose the 2016 election. But the problem is much larger: Will the Republican party and the conservative movement survive? If Asians and Latinos come to reject Republican candidates as automatically and overwhelmingly as African Americans do, the party will lose all chance of capturing the presidency, and, inevitably, it will face the disappearance of its congressional and gubernatorial majorities as well.

The symposium is more than the sum of its parts. None of the brief, individual contributions land any haymakers against the likely Republican presidential nominee. Nor are they likely to sway his most enthusiastic supporters. But the breadth of the arguments is remarkable, as is the fact of their existence. It doesn’t bode well for Republican unity when the leading publication of American conservatism demands the fall of the GOP frontrunner.

Will all this be enough to alter Trump’s trajectory? Nothing is certain, but it seems unlikely. A viable alternative to him has yet to emerge among the Republican contenders after seven grueling months of Trumpmania. The GOP base is broadly tilting toward outsider candidates, not establishment ones, this election cycle, as shown by the collapse of Jeb Bush and non-rise of Marco Rubio. And as my colleague Molly Ball noted on Thursday, most of the Republican establishment even prefers Trump to his nearest current rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whom they passionately loathe.

Trump, for his part, fired back at the Review in his usual fashion.