Above all, every day should be treated as a blank slate, an opportunity for the truly independently minded to bestow a tip of the hat or wag of a finger. As Cooke wrote in December 2016:
Now that the election is over, I am going to treat Donald Trump as I would any other political figure: skeptically, fairly, and with the presumption that men are not angels. To the bottom of my boots, I hope that Trump will overcome his many flaws and do a competent and honorable job. If he doesn’t, I shall say so. If he does, I shall admit it.
Rubin’s crime is that rather than waking up every morning fresh for each day’s calling of balls and strikes, she carries into her work the memory of the day before. She sees patterns where Cooke sees only incidents. She speaks out even when Cooke deems it prudent to hold his tongue.
In this course, Cooke is following the Republican leadership in the House and Senate and the more presentable of the conservative commentariat: Hope for the best. Make excuses where you can. When you can’t make an excuse, keep as quiet as you can. Attack Trump’s critics in the media and Hollywood when all else fails. That has also become the working position of many conservatives who in 2015 and 2016 called themselves “Never Trump.”
In the spring of 2016, National Review published its “Against Trump” issue. Twenty-one prominent conservatives signed individual statements of opposition to Trump’s candidacy. Of those 21, only six continue to speak publicly against his actions. Almost as many have become passionate defenders of the Trump presidency, most visibly the Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell and the National Rifle Association’s Dana Loesch.
As a survival strategy, this is viable enough in the short term. But let’s understand what is driving it.
The conservative intellectual world is whipsawed between distaste for President Trump and fear of its own audience. The conservative base has become ever more committed to Trump—and ever less tolerant of any deviation. Those conservative talkers most susceptible to market pressure—radio and TV hosts—have made the most-spectacular conversions and submissions: Mark Levin, Tucker Carlson. With reason. The same day that Cooke launched himself into Jennifer Rubin, another contributor to the National Review special issue, Erick W. Erickson, announced that he had lost his Fox News contract. Erickson had precisely followed Cooke’s advice, conscientiously seeking opportunities to praise Trump where he could. That halfway support did not suffice for his producers.
It is half of my family's income and is needed. But I also, if I am being honest, was largely being paid without working. I am a firm believer that if one is to be paid there should be work, but it has been harder and harder to put me in the appropriate contributor box. I am neither anti-Trump nor pro-Trump, but a conservative who does not think he is, but thinks he is advancing some things commendably. All news shows on all networks tend to favor a straight R v. D panel and I'm not in those boxes anymore.
But it’s not merely cable news that insists on those boxes. So does the conservative think-tank world. So does the conservative public-speaking circuit. So do the passengers on National Review’s lucrative cruises. After one such cruise, back in the spring of 2016, one National Review editor, Jonah Goldberg, wrote about the pressure exerted even then by conservative audiences upon conservative writers.
NR Cruises are special things. They are filled with friends of National Review, often lifelong friends. No one who hates the magazine plunks down that much hard-earned money to spend a week drinking, eating, and touring with its writers and editors (and other passengers who are fans of the magazine). As a result, nearly all disagreements are like family disagreements. And so it was an interesting focus group, a kind of microcosm of what is happening across the conservative movement. There were some true Trumpers and anti-Trumpers, but there were many more people who simply think supporting Trump is making the best of a bad situation. I understand that position and I have sympathy for it.
So much so, in fact, that:
During a panel Q&A, a passenger on the cruise made a strong case for voting Trump. He ably argued that we know Hillary will be terrible, while we can only suspect Trump will be. Trump will probably do some things conservatives will like—Supreme Court appointments, etc.—while we know for a fact Hillary will not. And here’s what I said: I agree. If the election were a perfect tie, and the vote fell to me and me alone, I’d probably vote for none other than Donald Trump for precisely these reasons.
Researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center have quantified how dramatically far-right media sources such as Breitbart News have overtaken and displaced traditional conservative outlets such as National Review. By tallying links, citations, and other indicators of influence, they found:
The center-left and the far right are the principal poles of the media landscape. The center of gravity of the overall landscape is the center-left. Partisan media sources on the left are integrated into this landscape and are of lesser importance than the major media outlets of the center-left. The center of attention and influence for conservative media is on the far right. The center-right is of minor importance and is the least represented portion of the media spectrum.
Rubin stands on that embattled center-right. She is not quite alone. Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations stands there, as does the true-hearted remainder of the National Review 21: Mona Charen, Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz. You’ll find others at the Niskanen Center (Jerry Taylor, Brink Lindsey), and holding the faith from the Evan McMullin–Mindy Finn independent presidential ticket. A few brave the adverse comments on social media: Tom Nichols from the academic world; Seth Mandel at the New York Post’s editorial page; veteran broadcaster Charles Sykes. Joe Scarborough keeps the faith on morning TV. There are more, and I do not mean to slight anyone by omission. Others would wish to stand there if they economically could.