Several weeks into the Trump presidency, one can divide the reaction among conservative commentators into three categories.
At one extreme sit those conservatives who championed Trump during the campaign, and still do: Breitbart, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, among others. Their base is talk radio. They pride themselves on speaking for those plainspoken, dirt-under-the-fingernails conservatives who loathe not only Hillary Clinton, but Paul Ryan. Their chief enemies are globalism and multiculturalism, which they believe infect both parties, and are destroying America from without and within. Their ideological forefathers are Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and Pat Buchanan, who claimed that America’s cosmopolitan, deracinated ruling elite had betrayed the white Christians to whom the country truly belonged.
At the other extreme sit conservatives like my Atlantic colleague David Frum, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies Professor Eliot Cohen, and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who warned against Trump during the campaign, and believe he is now vindicating their fears.
For them, conservatism is about prudence, inherited wisdom, and a government that first does no harm; they see none of those virtues in Trump. They see themselves as the inheritors of a rich conservative intellectual tradition; Trump’s ignorance embarrasses them. And they believe America should stand for ideals that transcend race, religion and geography; they fear white Christian identity politics in their bones. They are, to my mind, highly admirable. But they don’t have much of a base. They can denounce Trump because they work for institutions that don’t primarily cater to his supporters.
In between are the conservatives who will tip the balance. Unlike Breitbart and company, they generally opposed Trump during the campaign. Unlike Brooks and company, they serve a conservative audience that now overwhelmingly backs him. More than Sean Hannity, they care about the principles that Trump threatens: free trade, America’s alliances overseas, an independent judiciary, a free press and a basic respect for the truth. But they work for conservative publications and networks. Their business model is opposing the left. And that means opposing the people who oppose Trump.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page falls into this category, which is part of the reason it is now in such turmoil. So does Glenn Beck, who loathes Trump but works in talk radio. And so does National Review.
National Review is the most illustrative. During the campaign, it called Trump “a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.” But now Trump is a Republican president, popular with most conservatives, and under liberal attack. So National Review has developed a technique that could be called anti-anti-Trump. It goes like this.
Step number one: Accuse Trump’s opponents of hyperbole. Democrats, declared John Fund on February 5, are in a “rush to portray Donald Trump as some kind of ‘fascist in chief.’” Liberals, argued Jonathan Tobin on February 6, believe “Trump’s intemperate language about a judge is an unprecedented step down the slippery slope to dictatorship.” Liberal Jews, claimed Nachama Soloveichik that same day, “are falling over one another to label President Trump the latest incarnation of Jew-haters from Pharaoh to Haman to Hitler.” (Full disclosure: I’m one of the liberal Jews she cites, though I’m unaware of ever having made such an analogy).
Step number two: Briefly acknowledge Trump’s flaws while insisting they’re being massively exaggerated. On December 16, David Harsanyi declared that, “While I’m no fan of Trump, Democrats have been demanding that I panic over every Cabinet pick, every statement, and every event. It’s not normal.” On February 5, Fund acknowledged that, “Donald Trump has a knack for alienating many voters and saying stupid things. But his biggest asset may be that his over-the-top adversaries are even better at painting themselves in negative terms.” On February 6, Tobin insisted that, “whatever one may think of Trump’s [executive] orders — which were sloppily drawn and clumsily implemented but arguably well within the scope of presidential powers as authorized by relevant legislation — the claims that Trump’s intemperate language about a judge is an unprecedented step down the slippery slope to dictatorship don’t stand up to scrutiny.”
The problem with these formulations should be clear. Some liberal criticism of Trump may indeed be melodramatic. But liberals don’t wield much power in Washington right now. Conservatives do. The key question facing National Review, therefore, is not whether Trump’s actions are as bad as the most extreme lefties say they are. The key question is whether Trump’s actions warrant conservative opposition. Do they make America safer? Do they harm innocent people? Do they reflect an appreciation for the separation of powers? Are they influenced by Trump’s personal financial concerns? Are the statements Trump and his advisors make on their behalf truthful?
The articles cited above make these questions appear secondary. Sure, Trump may have botched something, they acknowledge hurriedly, before turning to what really matters: The left’s overwrought response. In this way, National Review minimizes Trump’s misdeeds without appearing to defend them.
To be fair, National Review has devoted entire columns to criticizing Trump, sometimes harshly, since he became president. But such criticisms only make the magazine’s attacks on liberals for their criticisms more incoherent. Among National Review’s favorite phrases these days is “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” It refers to Democrats who describe Trump as mentally unstable, a pathological liar or a would-be dictator. But National Review once described Trump in those terms itself. A year ago, in its issue entitled, “Against Trump,” the magazine called him a “huckster” whose populism contained “strong-man overtones.”
Its contributors declared him a “charlatan,” a “con man,” someone exhibiting “emotional immaturity bordering on personality disorder” and an “American Mussolini.”
Since taking office, Trump has attacked federal judges, insulted foreign leaders, berated the press, lied endlessly, drawn a moral equivalence between the United States and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, sown chaos at America’s airports, led European leaders to rethink the trans-Atlantic alliance, and used the presidency to enrich himself. Where exactly does National Review see the evidence of emotional, intellectual and moral growth?
It’s not deranged to worry that Trump may undermine liberal democracy. It’s deranged to think that leftist hyperbole constitutes the greater threat. Unfortunately, that form of Trump Derangement Syndrome is alive and well at National Review. And it helps explain why Republicans across Washington are enabling Trump’s assault on the institutions designed to restrain his power and uphold the rule of law.
It is inconvenient for National Review that the individual in government who now most threatens the principles it holds dear is not a liberal, but a president that most conservatives support. But evading that reality doesn’t make it any less true.