Trump’s Missing Intellectuals

by Jonah Goldberg

Fred Barnes has a piece in the latest Weekly Standard that has sparked some conversation in some of my circles. It’s titled “Trump’s Intellectuals,” and I read Barnes as trying to make room for the eggheads to get on board the Trump Train. But his stated thesis is narrower than that. He argues that “Inside the Beltway and along the Washington-to-Boston corridor, #NeverTrump has won the hearts and minds of conservative intellectuals and the high-toned media. The dissenters—yes, there are some—make a lot less noise.”

“But,” he continues, “move away from the East Coast and it’s a different story. Out there, the conservative intelligentsia isn’t aligned against Donald Trump—quite the contrary.”

I don’t think Barnes delivers the goods. His first example is Roger L. Simon, former CEO of PJ Media. Simon predicted Trump’s rise last year and says that he likes Trump’s anti-PCness, humor, etc. Simon, according to Barnes, is the “most enthusiastic” Trump supporter among Trump’s intellectuals. But the piece closes with this caveat from Barnes:

Judgments on Trump are often tentative. Even Roger L. Simon says, “I could change my mind on a dime .  .  . if other information comes to light or if Donald starts to act loony or, more precisely, excessively loony.”

Call me crazy, but if this is a testimonial from your “most enthusiastic” intellectual supporter, I don’t think you’ve made the case that the non–East Coast intelligentsia is in Trump’s corner.

The other intellectuals Barnes cites are instructive as well. There’s Charles Kesler, a man I admire a great deal and whom I consider a friend. Kesler is far more comfortable with Trump than I think is warranted. But he is not exactly a Trump booster either. Barnes writes,

 Kesler puts Trump in the context of earlier presidents. “Do obscenities fall from his lips more readily than they did from Lyndon Johnson’s or Richard Nixon’s?” he writes. “Are the circumstances of his three marriages more shameful than the circumstances of John F. Kennedy’s pathologically unfaithful one—or that matter, Bill Clinton’s humiliatingly unfaithful one? Have any of his egotistical excesses rivaled Andrew Jackson’s killing a man in a duel over a racing bet and an insult to Jackson’s wife?”

And there’s a parallel, Kesler believes, between Trump and Woodrow Wilson’s insistence that “the personal force of the President is perfectly constitutional to any extent he chooses to exercise it,” Kesler writes. This is “not far from Trump’s praise of high energy, toughness, and strength in the ideal chief executive.”

The first paragraph is not quite high praise, is it? Kesler cites a few-cherry picked examples of the most glaring personal shortcomings of past presidents and then says Trump has cleared those bars (I think this is a terrible argument on the merits, but I’ll leave my disagreements with Kesler for another time).  

Meanwhile, that second paragraph is just wrong. When I read that passage I could not believe that Charles Kesler – one of the few people out there who outranks me as a critic of Woodrow Wilson – would be invoking Wilson’s view of presidential powers favorably. I was right. In his Claremont Review of Books essay on Trump, it is clear that Kesler thinks this is a somewhat worrying similarity, not an encouraging one.  

Wilfred McClay, another very serious and respected conservative intellectual, tells Barnes he hasn’t decided if he can vote for Trump. But McClay adds: “Although defeating the Clintons, and the toxic combination of ideology and criminality that they represent, seems to me to something pretty close to an imperative.” That’s a perfectly fair point of view. But does it really amount to McClay being one of “Trump’s intellectuals”?  

Dennis Prager, Victor Davis Hanson, and Larry Arnn — I admire them all and consider them friends as well — all make related arguments. They are not so much pro-Trump on the merits, but decidedly anti-Hillary.  

Fair enough, but think of it this way: If one wrote a similar piece about “Reagan’s intellectuals,” or “Nixon’s intellectuals,” at similar moments in their quests for the presidency, you’d be able to find dozens of serious thinkers and journalists willing to give full-throated endorsements of their candidate and his philosophy. Moreover, Reagan and Nixon (and the Bushes) could talk intelligently about what their intellectuals believed and have written. Does anyone think Trump has any clue who Charles Kesler or McClay even are?

Instead the only intellectual source that comes really close to doing this (other than Simon) is from the blog “Journal of American Greatness” — which is written entirely pseudonymously. I have been reliably informed who at least some of the authors are, but I will respect their desire for anonymity. Nonetheless that desire surely undercuts the thrust of Barnes’s piece. If anti-Trumpism is a feature of Beltway and Acela-corridor conservatism, how is it that Trump’s biggest boosters want to keep their names out of it?  Moreover, the JAG folks are quite cheeky and roundabout when it comes to what they think about Trump the man. It’s clear that their argument for Trump is instrumental. He’s a useful battering ram against what they consider to be a citadel of false conservatism.

So Barnes’s stated thesis strikes me as just plain wrong; with the possible exception of Simon, none of these figures approaches the kind of Pro-Trumpism one finds regularly on many Fox shows or even on CNN and MSNBC. Using the term intellectual broadly, the hotbed of intellectual Trump support remains inside the Beltway and in New York City (and, contrary to Barnes’s claim, these “dissenters” are plenty noisy).

Now, I may be wrong about Barnes’s unstated motivation — to make intellectual support for Trump more acceptable on the right. But if I’m correct, I don’t think this piece does the job on that front either. No conservative intellectual needs much convincing that Hillary Clinton is a bad choice. What Trump really needs is someone to make an unequivocally affirmative case why Trump is a good choice on the merits. That Fred Barnes — a legendarily talented and seasoned reporter — couldn’t find any (non–East Coast) intellectuals to offer such a case should have been the lede. Instead it’s the piece’s most significant silence. 

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