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‘It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
So charged National Review founder, conservative icon, William F. Buckley Jr., on November 19, 1955, in describing the start-up magazine’s mission. NR came on the scene at a time when liberal orthodoxies were swallowing up conservative truisms in the larger culture. I suspect this famous quote has been pulled out of the backpack of despair more than once over the last five decades. We conservatives have been fighting an unrelenting enemy for a long time, and sadly “the inroads that relativism has made on the American soul” have indeed become readily apparent, requiring not just a full-throttled defense of our principles, but often an over-use of Buckley’s unimprovable literary flair. We fight with the weapons we’re given.
I use the quote to set up my piece because it would be impossible to set the magnitude of what National Review has done in 2016 without a blanket appeal to its history, its charter, its mission. The conservation of the principles of America’s founding is a cause so great, and the burden of winning it so severe, that I doubt one could ever overdo the remembrance. And while many feel that our battle is only with an exterior foe (or foes), the reality is that Buckley and the cause of modern conservatism never gained more ground than when it purged from its midst those lonely souls who were eating away at the cause from within. The John Birchers, the anarcho-Rothbardians, the anti-Semites, the conspiratorialists — conservatism has seen its share of “internal enemies,” and the great work of National Review has continued because it had both the principle and the courage to purge. The cause is truth, and it isn’t going to win if it marries a lie. National Review didn’t separate from the aforementioned cranks because they were bad for PR; they separated because the cranks were full of it. There is, no doubt, room for disagreement within our camp, and National Review has promoted vigorous debate over the application of our shared principles for decades, including nearly two decades’ worth of real-time debate online. The writers are not monolithic. No honest reader could claim they have touted too narrow a party line. National Review is not an echo chamber on issues of controversy.
When conservatism celebrates its continued existence ten, 20, and 30 years from now, I am convinced it will be celebrating a survival made possible by the men and women of National Review.
It does, however, speak with one voice on issues of first things — those foundational principles that serve as the reservoir of conservative thought. When conservatism celebrates its continued existence ten, 20, and 30 years from now, I am convinced it will be celebrating a survival made possible by the men and women of National Review, who in 2015–16, saw fit to represent the cause of sanity, common sense, decency, civility, and substance. And this effort from the likes of patriots Goldberg, Williamson, Lowry, Cooke, French, and so many more was not a response (this time) to our cause’s external enemies, but rather to a movement that stands squarely against everything William Buckley devoted his life to. Melodrama? I don’t think so.
I have never been as proud of being a National Review supporter, enthusiast, and devotee as I am right now. For its editorial board to have come out against Trump when they did (early in the primary), how they did (with a multiplicity of authors arguing from reasoned principle), and where they did (on the cover of the magazine), was effectively standing up to yell stop, at a time when a group of spineless hacks were capitulating to a media-spawned embarrassment barely worthy of the reality-TV world from which he came.
Donald J. Trump is not going to help the cause of a conservative position on immigration. He will likely ruin it permanently. Apart from the inconsistency and incoherence of his past and present positions, he has managed to turn an issue all conservatives agreed on (protection of our borders) into a toxic hot potato.
Donald J. Trump is not going to limit the size of government, — he doesn’t even pretend that he wants to. What I have been amazed to observe for nearly a year is how many limited-government conservatives have been unperturbed by this. Trump has no problem with the size of government; he merely thinks he’ll command it better.
Trump was not a deeply flawed candidate filled with personal skeletons who just became necessary through the sheer inadequacy of the rest of the field. This GOP field featured no less than a half-dozen stellar, highly qualified people of competence and character. Trump found a sociological divide and ran a semi-truck through it, and conservatives who knew better than to equate populism with truth nevertheless bought it hook, line, and sinker. Sorry, but they cannot use the conservative label any longer, at least not without an asterisk. Our job is to reject the bravado of foolish men who lack a guiding light, who promise great things outside of the constraints of reality or this thing called the Constitution. No thoughtful person should have ever rejected the Barack Obama phenomenon merely for its ideology; the messianic character of his rise was itself anathema to conservatives. We do not flock to messianic movements just because one disingenuously attaches an “R” to the end of it. This messianic movement features one whose Messiah will soon be slaughtered by Hillary Clinton in a way we cannot even imagine, and will leave behind the memory of a Republican campaign led without a semblance of adherence to conservative principle.
I am saddened and frankly grieved to read those who ought to know better mistreat NR for its act of courage. I do not merely refer to those who have been unpersuaded, or who hold to what I view is the misguided view that “at this point it’s likely to be Trump, so I’d rather just accept it than give support to Hillary.” There was nothing anyone in our movement could have done to more emphatically oppose a Hillary Clinton presidency than to take down this Donald Trump insurgency. Opposing Hillary means opposing Trump, and supporting the principles of our movement means opposing Trump, too.
No one I have read at National Review is unaware of why Trump has developed such a crazed movement of support. No one is unsympathetic to the fact that the Republican party has lost its way with many white working-class voters. But NR’s writers have not tried to tell people how they have to vote. (This is, by far, the weirdest criticism to flow out of National Review critics this year — since when is editorializing and stating one’s opinion not the very essence of what it means to run a conservative political magazine?). What they have done is what they have always done, and what only a few outside of the National Review orbit can claim this year (Erick Erickson, Ben Shapiro, George Will, Dana Loesch, Bill Kristol, etc.): Stand athwart history, and yell stop!
Will some of the bruised friendships in this whole ordeal be repaired? I suspect so. Will there be mass remorse in November from many who not only helped to elect Hillary Clinton through their support of Trump, but in the meantime sacrificed the key principles of this very movement they claim to love and respect? Yes, there will be. Will the good folks at National Review be there to embrace and forgive, and bring those who simply got off their skis for a bit back into the fold, re-engaging the great challenges of our day? I suspect they will.
But it won’t be so easy for everyone. Civil wars do not always end in six months or even a year; and reconciliations can often take a generation or longer. The Right is in a civil war at the moment, and the recipe for peace is not abandoning the basics of free trade, civility, and maturity by embracing a clinical narcissist who has “tapped into something.”
William Buckley “tapped into something” a long time ago, too. “The resistance to a corrupting demagogy should take first priority.” This charge has not been forgotten by the current legion of happy warriors at National Review. Over the next few months we will see a separation of the wheat from the chaff in terms of those who’ve cozied up to this embarrassment of a candidate. Some merely lack the convictions or the confidence in their own convictions to deserve a present position of leadership. Others have sold their souls for a night at the Mar-a-Lago. But on this side of conservative courage, conviction, principle, and intellect, I thank God for National Review. It appears its next 60 years are picking up where the first 60 began: with NR as a lone voice in the wilderness of ideas, determined to fight the good fight whether or not its friends choose to join.