The Corner

Bret Stephens, Wrong about the Right

A few weeks ago, when a list of “scholars and writers for Trump” was released, I described it as “short.” I meant no disrespect for the people on the list, some of whom are very distinguished and a few of whom are friends. (There is even some overlap between those categories.) What struck me most about the list was how much smaller it was than the equivalent list of “scholars and writers for Romney” in 2012 would have been—which may be why it was thought necessary to compile the list in the first place, in contrast to 2012.

Conservative scribblers have generally been anti-Trump. They have been more anti-Trump than any other segment of the Right: more than its politicians, its activists, its radio personalities, or its voters. That’s why CNN and even Fox have had to reach beyond conservative journalism to come up with pro-Trump commentators. I’m sure I’ll leave someone out, but Trump has received more opposition than support from National Review, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, RedState, The Federalist, and the Washington Free Beacon. You can approve of that opposition or be dismayed by it; but the fact of it is, I think, impossible to gainsay.

Bret Stephens has a rip-roaring denunciation of conservatives in today’s Wall Street Journal that nevertheless does gainsay it. Conservative “thought leaders,” he claims, have committed a kind of intellectual treason in supporting Trump: “They are busy devising ever-more elaborate excuses for the Republican nominee.” He adds that “most conservative intellectuals have proved incapable of self-examination or even simple observation. Donald Trump is a demagogue. Period. The fervor of his crowds recalls Nasser’s Egypt. His convictions are illiberal. His manners are disgusting. His temper is frightening. It ought to have been the job of thoughtful conservatives in this season to point this out, time and again. If they can’t do that, what good are they?”

If the test of being anti-Trump is being for Clinton, then Stephens has a point: most conservative writers won’t pass. If the test is being hostile to his supporters, as Stephens is, then again they won’t pass. Those would be foolish tests, and they’re not ones that Stephens defends here. But I can see how he could look at the same universe of conservative commentary that I do and conclude that, from his perspective, it isn’t nearly anti-Trump enough. But that’s different from saying that it is pro-Trump.

There may be another reason Stephens makes this mistake. The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, like other conservative publications, has had a division of opinion on Trump. Peggy Noonan has tried to sift the wheat from the chaff in the Trump phenomenon. Dorothy Rabinowitz, like Stephens, has been vehemently anti-Trump–and, also like him, hostile to his supporters. William McGurn has backed Trump, writing as though all conservative critics of Trump exhibited the same hostility to Trump’s supporters that some of his colleagues do. The paper’s house editorials have been conflicted but ultimately, if mildly, pro-Trump. Stephens may well think the Journal has been soft on Trump. But the generalization that he makes, that conservative writers have mostly been soft on Trump, seems to me to be simply false.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.