Ascending (And Descending) Conservative Voices

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Patrick Maines President, The Media Institute
Font Size:

As everyone knows, the election of Donald Trump has created schisms among many conservative elites– think tanks, public intellectuals, publications, and commentators among them. Some have been winners and others losers.

High on everyone’s list of the biggest losers are neoconservatives and the #NeverTrumpers, many of whom are one and the same.

Neocons are notable for their skill at that kind of rhetoric and argument to which the left is especially vulnerable. But in this new environment,  journals like the Weekly Standard and Commentary, and pundits like David Frum, William Kristol, and Jonah Goldberg have largely been reduced to the role of outsiders looking in

One other mainstay of conservative thought, National Review magazine, is also damaged goods.  NR’s flirtation with political isolation began in early 2016, with publication of an entire issue titled ‘Against Trump,” and it continued in that vein throughout the primary season.

Whether this can be explained by the influence at the magazine of neocons, or for some less obvious reason, National Review today seems much diminished.

At a certain level, rank and file conservative unhappiness with certain individuals and publications traces to the fact that many of them, like George Will and Kristol, refused to back Trump even in the general election and are critics still.

But there is also the deeper and more corrosive feeling that contemporary conservatism, with its assorted think tanks, grant-giving foundations, academics, and media figures, has morphed into Conservatism, Inc., and that as such there is less interest among them in fulfilling the goals of conservatism than in protecting the ideological dicta and professional standing of their stars.

As a recent issue of the new conservative website American Greatness put it in a piece titled “Who Cares About Conservatism? “What has modern conservatism done lately that has risen past words to anything fundamental? …Nothing. Conservatives have been content to sit by with satisfied smiles on their faces as the administrative state rolls on, flattening everything in its path.”

Proving once again, however, that nature abhors a vacuum, other conservatives, new faces and old, are rising to fill the void.

Take, for instance, the very interesting case of Matthew Continetti, editor of the Washington Free Beacon and son-in-law of Wm. Kristol. Right from the beginning it’s been clear that Continetti writes better, and thinks better, than his father-in-law.

But in recent months he has been writing things that suggest he too is looking to define a new kind of conservatism, one that, while not explicitly “Trumpian,” nevertheless acknowledges the practical changes in the political landscape that Trump has wrought.

Another promising entry in the prospective construction of a new conservative narrative is the just-launched quarterly journal called American Affairs. Reviewed favorably by the Weekly Standard and The New Yorker(!), American Affairs gets right to it in its mission statement.

Noting the many challenges facing American institutions, from inequality to insufficient economic growth, and from crime to social discord, the editors say this:

(Begin block quote) Yet many of our so-called elites ignore these problems. Instead they bemoan the rise of a populism—from both the Right and the Left—that is said to endanger the very foundations of our political system…This conventional narrative is as false as it is self-serving, revealing only the insularity of our politicians and the status anxieties of our intellectuals…

On the contrary, what if public discontent is a reasonable response to a misguided and complacent elite consensus? What if the people aren’t too populist, but rather our elite is not truly elite? (End block quote)

Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books, and screenwriter and novelist Roger Simon, have emerged since Trump’s election as fierce and eloquent critics of Trump’s detractors, and rising voices in the nascent development of a new conservatism.

Both men write for numerous publications, online and off, including PJ Media which was founded by Simon, and has in recent times become a must-read journal for anyone interested in the cutting edge of conservative thought.

Though his arrival and elevation at FOX News has come at what appears to be a time of great turmoil at the network, Tucker Carlson has quickly become a leading figure among conservative media personalities. He brings a cooler, if no less pointed, kind of cerebration to his encounters with guests on his show, which is perhaps why “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has quickly become the highest-rated prime time program on the FOX network.

One other person has leaped to the head of the conservative class. Like Tucker Carlson he is not a newcomer to the ideological wars but he is arguably the most important. I refer to Victor Davis Hanson.

A syndicated columnist and contributor to National Review (for which the magazine should be profoundly grateful), Hanson is a classicist, military historian, and a Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

While Hanson’s scholarship is impressive, the thing that has catapulted him to new heights among conservatives is his recent commentary in defense of Trump, and his opposition to neoconservatives.

Writing in August of last year, in a piece titled “Hillary’s Neoliberals,” the appellation he gave to neoconservatives who were supporting Clinton, Hanson made this bold and trenchant prediction: “If Trump squeaks by, then the neoliberals certainly will be orphaned for good. As apostates, they will not be welcomed back as neoconservatives by the Republican winners, nor will they be seen by Democrats as converts having any further political value.”

If, as seems likely, George Will never quite emerges from the eclipse he’s in, Victor Davis Hanson has the scholarship, character, and eloquence to take Will’s spot as perhaps the most consequential conservative intellectual in the land.

Patrick Maines is president of The Media Institute, a nonprofit think tank promoting a strong First Amendment, sound communications policies, and journalistic excellence. While in college in Washington, he was a junior staffer in the office of Sen. Barry Goldwater, and later became assistant publisher of National Review.