Magazine | December 5, 2016, Issue

Conservatism in Dissent

NR and heterodox Republican administrations: a brief history

An odd criticism was leveled at National Review during the 2016 presidential election: How could the magazine in good conscience refuse to support the duly elected nominee of the Republican party? One wonders what magazine they thought they were reading.

National Review was founded in 1955 for the purpose of giving hell to a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower. As William F. Buckley Jr. put it at the time: “Our principles are round, and Eisenhower is square.” From the point of view of anno Domini 2016, Eisenhower looks quite conservative indeed, but his conservatism was temperamental rather than ideological. He gave serious thought to running as a Democrat and until about ten minutes before he announced his candidacy was not quite sure which party he preferred. He had no intention of rolling back the New Deal and believed that social insurance was not only necessary but obviously necessary. He declared that the Republican party would be progressive or it would disappear and insisted that no one save a “few Texas oil millionaires” took seriously the prospect of eliminating Social Security or farm subsidies. “Their numbers are negligible, and they are stupid,” he wrote in a letter to his brother.

One of history’s little ironies is that the eventual standard-bearer for the opposing view was a self-identified New Deal Democrat and former union official, Ronald Reagan, whose objection to the Democratic consensus of his time concerned not its New Deal progressivism but its 1960s radicalism and subsequent abandonment of the anti-Communist project. “I didn’t leave the Democratic party,” Reagan famously declared. “The Democratic party left me.”

The interplay between the realities of party politics and the interaction of intellectual conservatism with right-wing populism has been a constant presence in conservative activism and hence in the pages of National Review. In a tirade that will sound entirely familiar to any talk-radio listener or Fox News viewer in 2016, Buckley was denounced by Kevin Phillips, who coined the term “new Right,” as a sellout, “abandoning Middle America to load up his yacht with vintage wines” by failing to support the right-wing populist of the moment — George Wallace — while Eric Voegelin mocked the anti-Wallace conservatives as being out of touch with “Kansas City and Scranton.”

(Why is it always Scranton?)

Needless to say, that was a strange period, but certain figures on the right have a real weakness for certain strains of the most vulgar kind of populism. Not long after conservative activists on the Kevin Phillips model (he is now a different kind of thinker, one who is very much bothered about the purported “American theocracy” lurking on the horizon) were pushing George Wallace as the political messiah, fringe libertarians, Murray Rothbard notable among them, were pushing a far-left/far-right alliance in the daft hope that the anti-war Left could become somehow linked to David Duke and similar lunatics in a grand coalition of the edges against the center. National Review took a dim view of this, and Buckley later wrote in an acid obituary of Rothbard: “Yes, Murray Rothbard believed in freedom, and yes, David Koresh believed in God.”

While National Review was critical of Eisenhower, many of its editors had high hopes for his vice president, Richard Nixon — until Nixon actually found his way into the White House and was such a disappointment to conservatives that NR backed Representative John Ashbrook in his quixotic 1972 primary challenge. Buckley convened a meeting of conservative leaders who became known as the “Manhattan Twelve,” who announced that conservatives were suspending their support of the Nixon administration in response to its weakness in the face of Communist threats from the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

Nixon’s people, perhaps thinking that Buckley could be bought off by putting him “in the room where it happens,” to borrow from Hamilton via David French, brought him along on that famous trip to China, a decision that they must have come to regret. Buckley was merciless in his assessment. As Nixon wined and dined with Chairman Mao, Buckley wrote that it was as if the prosecutor at Nuremberg had “descended to embrace Goering and Goebbels and Doenitz and Hess, begging them to join him in the making of a better world.” As Rick Brookhiser has noted, Buckley wrote that Nixon “lurched” into a toast of the Communist dictator, a verb suggesting that the American president might have been in his cups at that moment.

Nixon kept trying and made Buckley a delegate to the United Nations, where he spent his time reading aloud selections from Solzhenitsyn and reports from the Chinese gulags. Lee Edwards, who gives a detailed account of this period in William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement, reports that Nixon and Henry Kissinger eventually shut this arrangement down as incompatible with détente.

Republicans are never more partisan than when one of their own is under attack from the other side, and this can lead to poor decision-making (many examples of that were evident in the eight years following January 20, 2001). Liberation from narrow partisanship is helpful in avoiding such errors: In the Nixon years, National Review and conservatives were presented with the case of Spiro Agnew, brought up on tax-evasion charges (Buckley was not much tempted to defend Agnew, because he knew him to be guilty), and then the hunting of the president himself during the Watergate affair. Senator Buckley, WFB’s brother, called for Nixon’s resignation before the so-called smoking-gun tape, on WFB’s advice. Buckley also wrote to Ronald Reagan advising him not to expend too much political capital on the defense of Richard Nixon. Reagan did not heed that advice as he should have.

Even Reagan got the back of National Review’s hand from time to time. Buckley and Reagan had their famous debate about the Panama Canal, which was conducted with warmth and mutual respect but also represented a real and deep disagreement — and it was not the only one. After Reagan’s meeting in Reykjavik with Gorbachev, National Review pounded the administration with pieces from the likes of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. NR published an entire special issue in opposition to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which it lambasted as “Reagan’s suicide pact.” Buckley sent Reagan a copy of the issue with a personal hectoring letter attached.

George H. W. Bush was bound to disappoint conservatives with his implicit rebuke of Reaganism in calling for a “kinder, gentler” approach. There is some fair criticism that the conservative movement and its principal journalistic organ grew too closely affiliated with the Republican party and the White House during the George W. Bush administration, but National Review also kept its eyes open. Ramesh Ponnuru made the case against Bush in his usual spare way (“Swallowed by Leviathan,” September 29, 2003):

Bush has increased the federal role in education, imposed tariffs on steel and lumber, increased farm subsidies, okayed federal regulations on campaign finance and corporate accounting, and expanded the national-service program President Clinton began. Since September 11, he has also raised defense spending, given new powers to law enforcement, federalized airport security, and created a new cabinet department for homeland security. No federal programs have been eliminated, nor has Bush sought any such thing. More people are working for the federal government than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

Buckley pronounced the Iraq War a failure and Republican attempts to justify it an embarrassment. He argued that if Bush had been a European prime minister, he would have been expected to resign or face a no-confidence vote.

Eisenhower executed the masterstroke that secured the Allied victory in Europe. Nixon, for all his personal and political defects, carried the center-right standard during a time of nearly revolutionary radicalism on the left; Reagan spent years studying the best of conservative thought, turned around a nation mired in Carterian “malaise,” and won the Cold War; George H. W. Bush husbanded the fruits of that victory during the transition to the post–Cold War world; George W. Bush, a successful Texas governor who had thought he’d spend his presidency being a school reformer, did his best to take the fight to our enemies after 9/11.

If Donald Trump is expecting deference, he is going to be disappointed.

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