As moderate Republicans quietly moved to shift themselves away from Donald Trump, the current Republican frontrunner for the presidential nomination, one of the most respected publications in the conservative sphere just came out with a blistering condemnation of the infamous businessman. In a special ‘Against Trump’ issue, the National Review laid out a clear and compelling case in opposition to the candidate, backed by leading conservative thinkers of today.
To go against the National Review, one would think, would be a disastrous and unthinkable move for a Republican. However, in the polarised US political climate, that’s exactly what happened, with Fox news and extremist conservatives railing against the publication in response to the special issue. John Daly wrote that people ‘involved in the project dealt with anti-Semitic and homophobic insults. The furor was similar to the one directed against Megyn Kelly months ago, after she dared to ask Trump a question he didn’t like during the first GOP debate.’
In other words, the Republican party is embroiled in a partisan split so deep that it may never recover, and the US could be on the precipice of a radical reshaping among Republicans the like of which hasn’t been seen since the Industrial Revolution. While the party has always been diverse, it may be on the cusp of a formalised split between moderate and conservative, with one side remaining Republican while the other withdraws into a new partisan identity. The question of whether moderates or extremists will get to retain the title is, startlingly, a bit up for debate.
The National Review is known for its thoughtful, intelligent commentary on conservative issues, ranging from relatively moderate to more right wing depending on author and subject matter. As a general rule, the 60-year-old magazine, founded by noted conservative thinker William F. Buckley, draws some of the brightest political minds in conservatism and it was once considered to be at the heart of the Republican establishment.
In a firm editorial on Trump’s flaws, pleading with Republicans to select a more suitable nominee, the editorial board observed that as a businessman, he’s ill equipped to deal with the world of politics, despite what he may think. The workings of Washington are quite different from those of Manhattan, and the expertise that has netted Trump his billions — and his four bankruptcies — is not well-suited to working with Congress, managing government agencies, and leading the US military, among the many responsibilities of the President of the United States.
Aside from concerns about his fitness for the job, the National Review also expressed worries about his political record, which is, the editors pointed out, all over the map. At varying times, Trump has expressed support for the very issues he radically opposes today, including sinking considerable funds into liberal causes. This inconsistency is troubling, as it reflects not just minor political shifts gained over years of experience — a not uncommon event, as seen for example with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the subject of marriage equality — but rather dramatic swings that make any and all of his stated political positions unreliable. Trump’s word is largely meaningless if he cannot be trusted to keep it.
The editors spoke to a “free floating populism,” accurately identifying why Trump has become a front-runner in the race, and also noted that he comes with “strong-man overtones.” Matthew MacWilliams at Politico found the same thing among Trump supporters, observing that they demonstrate almost no unified traits across the political spectrum except for an adulation for authoritarianism. For those who enjoy the idea of a dictator overseeing US politics at a whim, Trump is the very manifestation of the ideal candidate. Those who imagine that such a campaign could never succeed might want to look to the successful rise of other authoritarian leaders throughout history, as many exploited fear of social change among the populace with bombastic rhetoric, appeals to the lowest common denominator, and promises of cracking down to create a unified and autocratic government.
Tellingly, noted Republican minds from across the conservative spectrum joined the National Review in identifying Trump as a ‘menace’ to the party and US politics. These included Glenn Beck, Erick Erickson, Russell Moore, David Boaz, Mona Charen, Ben Domenech, William Kristol, Dana Loesch, Edwin Meese III, and many others, representing a variety of views and perspectives. All of them were in agreement on one thing, however: The Trump campaign is a disaster, and a Trump presidency would be catastrophic for conservatives in the United States.
The vicious attacks from Fox News came as a surprise — but are illustrative of the famously conservative’s network swing to the far right. ‘Journalists’ on the network have long spun things from a deeply partisan perspective, but attacks on their own flank demonstrated that the network has abandoned all notions of fair and balanced, choosing instead to drive a wedge deeper into the Republican Party, supporting extremist conservative views. Worse yet, the Republican National Committee — which had until recently taken a hands-off approach to Trump — dropped the National Review as a debate sponsor in response to the issue, a stark indicator that the party now views Trump as a serious contender, and has taken a proactive approach to protecting his interests.
Trump responded to the issue with predictably childish and outsized rhetoric, following a trend with unfavourable media. As a businessman, he’s skilled at using bad press to his advantage, setting up a no-win situation for opponents, including conservatives. If they fail to comment on Trump, they’re letting his campaign proceed without opposition, presenting no meaningful alternative to the controversial candidate. If they do, Trump will take advantage of their engagement to rally his followers, broadening his base of support by depicting himself as a radical outsider too controversial for Republicans to support — a force for change in a tepid, moderate environment, which is exactly the tactic Tea Party Republicans used in the Obama election (something the National Review commented on as well).
The views that Trump presents to the world are in line with many conservative values, albeit stripped of window dressing and attempts at cloaking them as moderate — on his face, Trump simply represents a hard-line Republican committed to an aggressive position on states’ rights, immigration, tax cuts, and other subjects. But he represents a unique form of right-wing extremism on all fronts that doesn’t address changing social and cultural attitudes, even among members of the right. The nation is changing and conservatism along with it, but not for Trump. Instead, he’s finding the combination of elements he needs to appeal to everyone — the Republican fixated on abortion adores Trump as much as the single-issue gun rights supporter as much as the rapid immigration opponent as much as the tax activist because he makes direct appeals to each. That populist approach reflects cynicism and a desire to be elected at all costs, in addition to a hope that his followers won’t pay attention to his prior record, but it’s also unrealistic. Trump cannot make good on his promises, many conservatives note — even if people agree with his positions, they cannot, and should not, count on the belief that Trump will actually be able to enact them if he takes office, short of a coup declaring himself dictator of the United States. Such a coup would, of course, go against the stated Republican values of liberty and freedom from government interference, it is worth noting.
Vicious opposition to moderates, and even some more conservative members of the right who have legitimate concerns about Trump, is a grave indicator of the state of US politics and one the left should take seriously — if it can spare a moment from the circular firing squad of Clinton versus Sanders supporters, that is.