We’ve been here before, of course. In 1962, Bill Buckley was called to a meeting in (note the locale) Palm Beach, Fla., with Russell Kirk, the great conservative philosopher, William Baroody, head of the American Enterprise Institute, and Senator Barry Goldwater, whom conservatives very much wanted to run for president. The subject was the John Birch Society, Robert Welch’s influential group of conservative businessmen that had, among other things, denounced Dwight Eisenhower as a Soviet agent.
The John Birch Society had a great deal going for it: numbers, energy, money — lots of money. Senator Goldwater worried that “every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society. I’m not talking about Commie-haunted apple pickers or cactus drunks, I’m talking about the highest caste of men of affairs,” as Bill Buckley quoted him saying. (Let us here lament that this nation denied itself the presidential services of a man who not only was a great conservative but who also was capable of uttering the words “Commie-haunted apple pickers or cactus drunks.”) Senator Goldwater asked if any of the men present were familiar with Frank Cullen Brophy, a prominent Arizona banker and John Birch Society member. Buckley knew him well: He’d been an early supporter of National Review, who had spoken with Buckley at some length about providing a portion of the capital that launched the magazine.
The problem with the John Birch Society was fairly straightforward: It was dedicated to premises that were insane, and served as the vanity project of a very successful businessman who also happened to be a megalomaniac and a kook.
Robert Welch did not run for the Republican presidential nomination. Donald Trump is.
WFB’s eventual excommunication of the John Birch Society is very much applicable in the Trump era, needing only a change in proper nouns: “How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points, so far removed from common sense? That dilemma weighs on conservatives across America. The underlying problem is whether conservatives can continue to acquiesce quietly in a rendition of the causes of the decline of the Republic and the entire Western world which is false, and, besides that, crucially different in practical emphasis from their own.”
Sometime between the founding of this magazine in 1955 and now, conservatism-as-movement was joined by conservatism-as-market, and that is, in the main, a fact in which we should rejoice, and it is satisfying to watch liberal New York City publishing executives consider how large a portion of their current revenues are accounted for by such authors as Mark Levin and Michelle Malkin. But as the Trump phenomenon has made painfully clear, this also has attracted a great many unprincipled, unthinking, and unserious voices — call them the con-trepreneurs — who in their desperation for profit and influence will, like the worst sort of politician, get out in front of any parade that looks sufficiently large, loud, and exploitable. It is in no small part thanks to them that the Republican party and, to a lesser extent, the conservative movement must now contend with a demagogue who rejects conservatism root and branch, from private property to the sanctity of marriage. Robert Welch spoke a great deal about “the Establishment,” too, when he wasn’t accusing the man who organized the Normandy invasion of being “a conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist conspiracy.”
In the end Frank Cullen Brophy, the Bircher-banker, decided not to put his money behind National Review. And that is no surprise: While this magazine enjoys the support of a great many generous patrons, there is no Frank Cullen Brophy behind the scenes, never has been, and, very likely, never will be: A magazine that insists on principled, thinking conservatism, and on its independence, is never going to be of much use or much interest to a billionaire dilettante. And, while there are a great many ways to make a load of money in publishing, thoughtful, principled, sober conservatism, necessarily skeptical about emotive popular enthusiasms, isn’t one of them.
National Review is thousands of people: writers and editors and staffers, to be sure, but also readers, subscribers, supporters, and friends.
I was a National Review reader and supporter for 20 years before I came to work for the magazine, but I have been part of National Review since before I was old enough to vote. That is because National Review wasn’t Bill Buckley, great and beloved as he was, and it isn’t Rich Lowry (peace be upon him!) or Jack Fowler or Rick or Jonah or Ramesh or any of the rest of us who have the great honor of having our names in the NR masthead. Rather, National Review is thousands of people: writers and editors and staffers, to be sure, but also readers, subscribers, supporters, and friends. We are as much a movement as we are a magazine. And the thing about friends of National Review is, they really are friends.
I have written in the past about the amazing and admirable thrift with which this enterprise is run, thanks to the flinty Jack Fowler, and the priceless freedom that I and other writers here enjoy to do our very best to write about what really matters and why. We aren’t just in New York and Washington: We are in California’s water-starved interior and Alabama’s heroin rehabs, Afghanistan, les banlieues. And this kind of journalism costs a great deal of money, even on the cheap. We do not have a great many billionaire buddies, but we do have thousands and thousands of friends and supporters, many of whom have been good and faithful allies and co-workers for decades. They often visit us in New York, and they usually say the same thing: “What a dump.” But we aren’t using the money for mahogany paneling and Aeron chairs. We are using it to defend what matters most.
As it always has, National Review needs your support. And, as always, we are grateful for it.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.