National Review, in its issue dedicated to taking down GOP front-runner Donald Trump, has made a big mistake. With so much on the line for America, how is it smart to close the door to Trump’s voters and to populism in general?
The folks at NR launched a similar effort to excommunicate conservatives in 2003, with a much-hyped cover story titled “Unpatriotic Conservatives.” Back then it was Pat Buchanan and the now-deceased Bob Novak who were the targets. Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, a dear friend, made the case that these men and others who stood against our invasion of Iraq, had “made common cause with the left-wing and Islamist antiwar movements.” In other words, these “disgruntled paleos,” weren’t truly conservative because they opposed the war in Iraq.
As it turned out, of course, that small band of thinkers knew more about what was in the national interest than anyone at National Review or myself, who was also a strong advocate for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I never received an apology note,” Buchanan told me on my radio show. “They’re Davos conservatives,” he added, referencing the annual meeting of the world’s elites in Switzerland.
Whatever you think of Trump personally, his supporters are pushing for three big things:
- A return to traditional GOP law and order practices when it comes to illegal immigration.
- A return to a more traditional GOP foreign policy that would put the national interest ahead of globalism.
- A return to a more traditional GOP trade policy that would analyze trade deals from the perspective of the country as a whole and not blindly support any deal — even one negotiated by President Obama.
On each of these issues, Trump’s voters are calling for a return to policies that were GOP orthodoxy as recently as the late 1990s.
The matriarch of the conservative movement, Phyllis Schlafly, who likes but isn’t endorsing Trump, put it this way: “I’m not going to tell you that Donald Trump is perfect, or right on everything … but immigration is the top issue today, and he’s the one who made it a front-burner issue.”
By refusing to make room for these ideas within conservatism, NR risks creating the impression that the revolution brought about by George W. Bush — in particular, his belief in open borders, his effort to create a permanent U.S. military mission in the Middle East, and his notion that trade can never be regulated, no matter how unfair — is now a permanent part of conservatism that can never be questioned. They are also inviting those who disagree with Bush on those points to leave conservatism and start seeking their allies elsewhere.
This is an absolute disaster for conservatism. It is obvious by now that Bushism — however well-intentioned it may appear on paper — does not work for the average American. It is also clear that Bushism has almost no support within the rank and file of the GOP, much less within the country as a whole. Making the tenets of Bushism into an orthodoxy that conservatives cannot question will cripple conservatism for years to come.
National Review’s Manhattan-based editors brand Trump as a “menace to conservatism” and even ding him for his “outer-borough” accent. But who really is the menace — the rough-edged Queens native or the smooth-talking GOP Establishment that has brought us open borders; massive giveaway trade deals; monstrous debt; bank bailouts; and a sprawling government that never stops expanding? The failure to ruthlessly oppose and defeat such existential threats to the country — and the passivity in the face of such peril — is the real menace to the credibility of conservatism.
National Review Editor Rich Lowry and his people will be left preaching their narrow doctrine to a smaller and smaller audience.
If blue-collar Americans are told that their concerns on immigration, trade, and foreign policy cannot be addressed within the conservative movement, they will look elsewhere — just as they looked elsewhere in the late 1960s after they learned that their problems couldn’t be addressed within liberalism. National Review Editor Rich Lowry and his people will be left preaching their narrow doctrine to a smaller and smaller audience.
There is room for all voices in the GOP “big tent” — including relative newcomers like Trump, who has garnered such a following. That’s why I have an open door on my radio show to everyone from Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz. (We look forward to having Lowry on radio soon.)
Back in 2008, another populist was running for president, and ended up winning the Iowa caucuses. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who’s running again in 2016, sympathized with Trump in the NR dust-up. Recalling that the publication also took after him during his primary fight with Arizona Sen. John McCain, he said, “This is a fool-hearty effort … [by] the elitists who live in their own little bubble.”
NR is “completely out of touch … [and] represents big business, not the American people,” he added, noting NR’s support for the 5,500-page Trans-Pacific Partnership. “Out here in Iowa, they are not representative and their views are not representative.”
Of course there is ample room to criticize Trump’s approach and his lapse into sloganeering where substance is needed — as I have done on many occasions. But if NR rejects the Trump voters, it will be reversing the decision by Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, and others to welcome blue-collar voters, Democrats, and independents into the conservative fold. Whatever that means for the country, it will do major damage to conservatism. If the conservative movement devotes itself to defending the legacy of George W. Bush at all costs, it will become irrelevant to the debate over how to make things better for most Americans.
In the end, NR’s attempted hit-job on Trump won’t won’t matter much. Folks who like Trump will continue to like him. Those who don’t will feel reconfirmed in their views. One of the many reasons I loved Reagan is that he understood how important it was to grow the conservative movement.
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“Conservatism,” Reagan biographer Craig Shirley said, “transcends any individual or organization, because it’s ultimately about the God-inspired belief that we are destined to be free.”