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Conservative Intellectuals Lost Control Of Conservatism

What we talk about when we talk about Jennifer Rubin

The Trump-skeptic conservative intelligentsia is arguing over whether some NeverTrumpers are too NeverTrump. At its core, their argument is over the future of conservatism, and how much it’s been shaped by the Trump presidency.

National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke fired the first shot, criticizing Washington Post writer Jennifer Rubin of abandoning her principles. Cooke offers numerous examples of Rubin opposing a position in 2017 — such as moving America’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem — that she supported until Trump did. Essentially, Cooke denounces Rubin for taking “NeverTrump” literally, while he understands it as opposition to blind loyalty: NotTrump (ExceptWhenWeAgree).

Much of the subsequent debate centered on Rubin, but I’m going to sidestep that — except to say I value principled policy positions much more than partisanship — to focus on a different part of Cooke’s essay:

Conservatism in this country long predated Trump; for now, it is tied up with Trump; soon, it will have survived Trump.

Cooke’s assumption that conservatism will survive Trump intact is too cavalier, and undermined by evidence.

Conservatives and Conservatism

The Atlantic’s David Frum rose to Rubin’s defense, arguing that much of the conservative world has thrown their lot in with Trump, and:

Conservatism is what conservatives think, say, and do. As conservatives change — as much through the harsh fact of death and birth as by the fluctuations of opinion — so does what it means to be a conservative.

This prompted a pile-on. For example, here’s the Free Beacon’s Alex Griswold:

It would be easy to go down a No True Scotsman rabbit hole, debating which conservatives are Real Conservatives. But the unfortunate reality is most Americans in 2017 understand the word “conservative” to mean Trump supporter. Most self-identified conservatives — and their liberal critics — use “conservative” more like Sean Hannity than William F. Buckley. Hence the rise of the term “principled conservative” in reference to the latter.

Frum overstates his point, treating conservatism as a fickle political identification without grounding principles. But his critics go too far as well, denying that conservatism, or at least the conservative movement, evolves based on the evolving beliefs of its adherents. The intellectual gatekeepers, at National Review and elsewhere, have lost control of the movement, and the language associated with it.

Prompted by conservative Senator Jeff Flake announcing his retirement in October, I argued “The Republican Civil War Is Over — The Populists Won”:

The word “conservative” will probably stick around. But it’s lost much of the connection to conservatism.

The main pillars of conservative political philosophy are:

1) Edmund Burke’s wariness of abandoning traditional values and societal structures, perhaps best expressed in William F. Buckley’s quip about “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’”

2) Advocacy of individual freedom, as illustrated in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

3) Support for markets and decentralized control — most notably in contrast to the central planning of socialism — primarily associated with economists such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman.

Right-wing populists reject most of that, except for a selective reading of individual rights — 2nd amendment absolute, 1st and 4th not — and a version of “traditional values” that makes modern Burkeans cringe. They support entitlements, as long as those entitlements go to “us” and not “them.” They’re comfortable with attacks on individual freedom, such as Trump’s threats against the press and peaceful protesters. And they like government intervention into the economy, so long as it’s in favor of industries they consider “theirs,” such as coal mining or certain types of manufacturing.

Additionally, for many who call themselves conservative on the internet, the most consistent principle seems to be whatever upsets liberals, rather than any coherent policy position.

This change has been building for a while — at least since the 1980s with the rise of more populist, less intellectual, sometimes conspiracy-minded conservative media outlets. Rush Limbaugh’s radio show went national in 1988. Fox News started broadcasting in 1996. Breitbart went online in 2007, though it’s current incarnation arrived in 2012 after Andrew Breitbart died and Steve Bannon became executive chairman. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has been around since the 1990s, but his website InfoWars took off in the 2010s, especially when candidate Donald Trump endorsed it in 2015.

As demonstrated by the recently-passed tax bill, conservatives retain control of the Republican Congressional caucus. But the energy in the party resides with the right-wing populists.

A comprehensive study of media coverage from the 2016 election by the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard found that the center of gravity in left-wing media is the center-left, while in right-wing media it’s the far-right.

There’s more media on the left, but the most widely linked left-wing items come from closer to the center (blue-gray), while the most widely linked on the right come from the extreme (red). This means left-leaning stories tend to originate with professional outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times, and then move to MSNBC and far-left pages like Occupy Democrats; while right-wing stories tend to originate on Breitbart and InfoWars, before moving to the “opinion” programs on Fox, and then center-right publications such as National Review and the Wall Street Journal.

Social media amplifies the extremes. Here’s Twitter:

And here’s Facebook:

On the two largest social media platforms, the farthest-right column is the largest and the center appears hollowed out. And all three graphs show the smallest influence coming from the center-right.

Wither Conservative Intellectuals?

Arguing about Jennifer Rubin, conservative principles, and the NeverTrump movement, Cooke claims “David Frum Proves My Point,” while his National Review colleague David French implores everyone to “Stop Exaggerating the Importance of Donald Trump.” Both object to Frum’s claim that:

The conservative intellectual world is whipsawed between distaste for President Trump and fear of its own audience.

Frum offers some examples of conservative intellectuals abandoning long-held principles to defend Trump — some out of financial necessity — while Cooke demonstrates that he didn’t. French has an especially strong case, having endured abuse throughout the election for staking out an anti-Trump position.

Nevertheless, though the National Review writers can credibly claim they haven’t bent over backwards to accommodate a pro-Trump audience — nor gone fully anti-Trump like Frum or Rubin — the result is limited influence.

Looking at the crude metric of Twitter followers, Trump superfan Bill Mitchell has a lot more (309K) than Cooke (109K) and French (93.8K) combined. So do alt-right hacks Mike Cernovich (387K) and Jack Posobiec (240K).

And here’s a less crude measurement: in the last month (Nov. 20 — Dec. 19), got 3.7 million unique visitors. Despite producing more content by more writers, got 2.9 million.

Politically, the populists’ influence on the Republican party is most apparent in the primaries, likely costing Republicans Senate seats by nominating Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell (Delaware 2010), Todd “legitimate rape” Akin (Missouri 2012), and now Roy “so many problems I don’t know which to pick” Moore (Alabama 2017).

Similar primary outcomes could cost Republicans the Senate in 2018. Bannon-backed candidates vying for nominations in competitive states include Kelli Ward in Arizona and Danny Tarkanian in Nevada.

Though December’s special Senate election in Alabama was a Moore-driven fluke, signs suggest there might be an anti-Trump Democratic wave in 2018. In 2017, they beat expectations in special elections, won at the state level on Election Day, and the RealClearPolitics generic Congressional ballot currently shows Democrats +12.5. If Democrats capture Congress in 2018, Republicans won’t be able to reclaim seats without support from voters who prefer Breitbart and InfoWars to National Review.

Perhaps Cooke and French are right, and all this will pass after Trump leaves office. I certainly hope so. But the media numbers — and the sharp partisan split by education level in the 2016 election — suggest the possibility of a lasting realignment, with intellectuals of any stripe unwelcome in a movement that embraces “alternative facts.”

In his Twitter bio, Cooke refers to himself as a “classical liberal.” That term demonstrates how political labels evolve over time. The common American understanding of “liberal” has moved so far from its original meaning that we need the modifier “classical” to indicate a belief in free speech, free markets, and other hallmarks of individual liberty.

What Cooke and others don’t realize is we might soon be calling their position “classical conservative.”




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Nicholas Grossman

Nicholas Grossman

Senior Editor at Arc Digital. Poli Sci prof (IR) at U. Illinois. Author of “Drones and Terrorism.” Politics, national security, and occasional nerdery.

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